Stars from Nationals, Rangers boost number of drawing cards
Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Josh Hamilton, Yu Darvish are intriguing
Brett Lawrie's intensity makes him popular but is no excuse for his recent actions
Several perennial All-Stars are either injured or slumping so far this year
While the NFL sells quarterbacks and NBA sells scorers, the appeal of baseball rests more on teams and regional allegiance. The individual player with national appeal -- the one who sells tickets on the road and who creates a bump in TV ratings outside his market -- has been a rarity in recent years. But the first two months of this season have created personalities that provide baseball with chances for just such appointment-viewing type players.
Here's a quick list of the most compelling players in baseball (not to be confused with the best): 1. Josh Hamilton, Rangers. 2. Justin Verlander, Tigers. 3. Bryce Harper, Nationals. 4. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals. 5. Yu Darvish, Rangers. (Matt Kemp was headed for the list until he cooled off and then went on the DL; Tim Lincecum is always a candidate.)
What's neat about the list is that Harper, Strasburg and Darvish have yet to play a full season in the big leagues. In fact, the very "newness" about them contributes to their appeal. All three have arrived with considerable hype and so far lived up the expectations. To a lesser degree, Brett Lawrie of the Blue Jays and Mike Trout of the Angels are also young, rising stars playing their first full season in the big leagues who play the game with a dynamic power/speed combination and could develop a national following.
Though we still are a long way from the All-Star Game, right now the most compelling pitching matchup on the midsummer stage would be the Rangers' Darvish, 25, against the Nationals' Strasburg, 23. Darvish is a treat to watch on the mound with his athleticism and creativity. And if you throw out his jittery first-inning when he made his big league debut, Darvish has a 1.94 ERA with 56 strikeouts and only 39 hits allowed in 51 innings. Rangers' TV ratings go up whenever he gets the ball.
Strasburg is another strikeout machine with electric stuff. People have envisioned a scenario in which Washington must suddenly shut down Strasburg in a September pennant race because he will meet his innings limit of about 165 pitches. It's not happening, folks. The Nationals will be smart enough to manage his starts and innings so that he finishes the year around that number. For precedent, check out how Detroit handled 20-year-old Rick Porcello in 2009. They found him extended rest into and out of the All-Star break and extra days of rest in between starts. He made 31 starts, 15 of them with extra rest. Porcello finished with 170 2/3 innings, capped by a strong start in the Game 163 tiebreaker at Minnesota.
Lawrie dropped his appeal of his four-game suspension for spiking his helmet in the direction of umpire Bill Miller on Tuesday night. The appeal was ridiculous in the first place. He should have been thankful he wasn't shut down for a week. Nobody believes that Lawrie was intentionally trying to hit Miller, but that's not the point.
The point is that Lawrie didn't just throw his helmet when he was called out on strikes -- he presumptively was already up the first-base line, as he was for strike two, when Miller made his call. Lawrie protested and was ejected. It was then that Lawrie spun and made an aggressive move toward Miller and only when he neared Miller did he then fire his helmet into the ground at full force.
Think of Harper smashing his bat against a wall and having a shard of it bounce off his face, opening a gash above his eye. Surely Harper had no intent to injure himself. What if Lawrie's helmet bounced up and hit Miller in the face rather than on the leg? Would Lawrie's suspension have been worse if Miller was gushing blood from his face? Of course -- which is why the aggressiveness of his actions and the threat of serious injury it posed demanded a more severe penalty. Lawrie charged the umpire and threw the helmet not to the side, not straight down but in the direction of the umpire.
What made matters worse was how Lawrie and the Blue Jays simply wrote off the incident the next day with a wave of the Lawrie-as-intense-player excuse. "I'm just playing the game the way I've always played it," Lawrie said. "That's the passion I have for the game and I don't feel like I need to change anything." GM Alex Anthopoulos said he would "never begrudge a player for being upset."
Save it. Playing the game hard is great. But it has absolutely nothing to do with showing respect for umpires. Lawrie should have delivered nothing but a full-blown apology. Any talk about Lawrie's "intensity" and "playing the game hard" had nothing to do with out-of-control aggressiveness toward Miller. That's not intensity. That's stupidity.
Baseball VP Joe Torre took into account Lawrie's postgame comments about regretting the incident as well as Lawrie's lack of intention to cause harm -- both valid points. But the aggressiveness of Lawrie's actions was shockingly wrong. It's baffling to think that Lawrie believed the suspension was too harsh. His appeal would have raised an interesting question: Is it possible to lengthen a suspension upon appeal?
At the rate stars are going down with injuries this year, the leagues may have a hard time filling out All-Star rosters. Remember, the All-Star Game has become so bloated that 84 players were named All-Stars last year -- 84! But this year, in addition to down years by frequent All-Stars such as Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Jose Reyes, Mark Teixeira, Jimmy Rollins, Justin Upton and Tim Lincecum, there are 19 players from the past two All-Star Games who are injured. Check out this all-injured All-Star team, all of whom except Stephen Drew were All-Stars last year or the year before:
C: Victor Martinez, Det.
1B: Ryan Howard, Phil.
2B: Chase Utley, Phil.
SS: Stephen Drew, Ariz.
3B: Evan Longoria, TB; Scott Rolen, Cin.; Pablo Sandoval, SF; Kevin Youkilis, Bos.
LF: Carl Crawford, Bos.
CF: Jacoby Ellsbury, Bos.; Matt Kemp, LA; Chris Young, Az.
RF: Carlos Quentin, SD
SP: Chris Carpenter, St. L.; Michael Pineda, NY
RP: Mariano Rivera, NY; Brian Wilson, SF; David Robertson, NY; Andrew Bailey, Bos.; Joakim Soria, KC.
And remember when we thought the AL All-Star first base position would be jam-packed with great candidates after Pujols and Prince Fielder joined the league and its many rising and established stars? Well, Eric Hosmer is hitting .174, Adam Lind was sent to the minors, Pujols is hitting .213, Justin Smoak is hitting .205, Teixeira is hitting .234 and Gonzalez has two home runs. Your top three AL first basemen by slugging percentage entering Thursday: Paul Konerko, Chris Davis and Mitch Moreland.