PHOENIX — We’ve finally arrived at Labor Day weekend, with the baseball calendar a month away from turning to the postseason.
But this moment is a time for reflection, and a look ahead to the future.
So, pull up a chair, grab a cold one and take a peek at the 20 burning questions as we head into the stretch run:
1. What is Shohei Ohtani’s future?
Get ready, the surgery decision could come sooner than anticipated.
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Ohtani has yet to publicly declare his intentions, but those familiar with Ohtani’s thinking believe that he could shut it down in the next 10 days and undergo Tommy John surgery to repair his torn UCL.
The Angels begin a seven-game homestand on Tuesday, so it would make sense to play through that and then announce that he’s done for the year. He’ll have Tommy John surgery, eliminating the possibility of pitching in 2024, but assuring that he will be healthy enough to be a DH.
2. Where will Ohtani be playing in 2024?
Ohtani, who hasn’t given up on the idea of staying with the Angels, plans to hit the free-agent market in November. He still wants the largest contract in baseball history, exceeding the $430 million that teammate Mike Trout received (although it was $360 million in new money), but his torn UCL certainly has tempered expectations.
Simply, teams now are viewing Ohtani as an elite power hitter and if he can return to pitching in 2025, it’ll be a bonus. The new contract will certainly have incentives and bonuses if becomes a pitcher again, and surely an opt-out.
If the contract bids stay under $500 million, the Angels like their chances.
If the bidding goes over $500 million, the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and perhaps the Seattle Mariners are the strongest contenders to swoop in.
While Ohtani was thrilled the Angels kept him at the trade deadline, and made moves to go for it, he couldn’t help but scratch his head wondering why they would turn around and conduct a garage sale.
The betting favorite continues to be the Dodgers, who are as intrigued by the brand as much as the player, while Ohtani will sit back and listen to the sales pitches.
This isn’t about who offers the most money, rather which provides the greatest opportunity to win a World Series and be a perennial contender.
Considering the Dodgers are on verge of winning their 10th NL West title in 11 years, they certainly have a glossy resume to entice him to move across town.
3. Do the Angels now regret holding onto Ohtani?
Well, not really. If owner Arte Moreno believed they had no shot of keeping Ohtani, or if Ohtani had conveyed he had no interest in returning, Ohtani would have been out the door. Considering the Yankees were not going to trade them Aaron Judge, they knew no team would be sending them more than two top-10 prospects for a two-month rental.
“At the time we made the decisions we made,” Angels GM Perry Minasian told reporters Friday, “we felt like they were the right decisions. And sometimes you do things that work. Sometimes you do things that don’t. …
“It’s baseball. Things happen.”
4. Who’s the most disappointing team in baseball this year?
Certainly, there are plenty of contenders between the New York Mets, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago White Sox, and San Diego Padres.
But, really, the choice is easy.
They are the most underachieving team in baseball history, embarrassing themselves with their riches of talent, only to have a record slightly better than the Washington Nationals.
If the Padres had the heart and drive of the Philadelphia Phillies, they would have won 110 games this year.
Instead, they played with all of the passion of a spring training game..
5. What happens to the Padres this winter?
Someone will pay the price, and with GM A.J. Preller still treasured by owner Peter Seidler, not to mention under contract through 2026, manager Bob Melvin could take the fall.
Bench coach Ryan Flaherty would be among the favorites to succeed him.
6. Will there be any other repercussions?
The Padres will have their hands full trying to explain this debacle to their fans and convince several players things will turn around when they quietly ask to be traded.
Then, they must decide whether to get something for outfielder Juan Soto before he’s eligible for free agency after the 2024 season.
7. Who else is on the hot seat this final month?
Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who’s in the first of his four-year contract, is safe, and wants to retain manager Aaon Boone. Yet, it’s owner Hal Steinbrenner’s call, and if the Yankees continue to plummet wit their recent call-ups of Baby Bombers, Boone could be gone.
The Mets are expected to let their new president of baseball operations make the call on manager Buck Showalter after already cleaning house in the front office this past week with the firings of pro scouting director Jeff Lebow, farm director Kevin Howard, performance director Jim Cavallini and baseball development director Bryan Hayes.
Former Milwaukee Brewers GM David Stearns still is the heavy favorite to become the new president of baseball operations , although rumors persist that the Boston Red Sox could be in the mix. In either scenario, GM Billy Eppler will stay aboard.
Angels owner Arte Moreno has not decided whether to retain GM Perry Minasian, who has one year left on his contract, or manager Phil Nevin, whose contract expires after the season. It’s a coin flip whether Minasian stays, but Nevin faces uphill odds considering he was given a reprieve last year only because the club was for sale.
If the Toronto Blue Jays miss the playoffs, someone is going to have to take the fall, and it could be manager John Schneider.
The Chicago White Sox already fired vice president Kenny Williams and GM Rick Hahn, replacing them with Chris Getz, who confirmed that manager Pedro Grifol is safe.
8. Any other expected front office or managerial changes?
Well, only if it’s on their own volition, but Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell is expected to step down as manager, take at least one year off, to spend time with his kids. The Brewers desperately want him back, but he has shown no interest in a new contract.
Cleveland Guardians manager Terry Francona says he likely will retire after the season because of health concerns, but has yet to make his decision final.
Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, on another one-year contract, has yet to formally decide whether he wants to return for 2024. He has won his 2,000 games, a World Series title, and his Hall of Fame plaque is ready to go up in 2027.
9. Who will make the playoffs in the National League?
Atlanta and the Dodgers could pop the bubbly now, play the rest of season intoxicated, and still win their divisions. The Milwaukee Brewers should be the other division winner in the NL Central.
The Philadelphia Phillies will be the top wild-card team, the Chicago Cubs will grab the fifth spot, and the Arizona Diamondbacks will edge out San Francisco and Miami for the final wild-card berth.
10. How about the American League?
The Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros will win their respective divisions.
The Tampa Bay Rays, Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners will be the wild-card teams.
The scariest team may be the red-hot Mariners with their star-studded rotation.
11. Speaking of the AL, what in the world was Cleveland doing last week?
They waved the white flag at the trade deadline, and then Thursday turned around and added $3 million in contracts for pitchers Lucas Giolito, Matt Moore and Reynaldo Lopez, who hit outright waivers.
The moves ripped the rug out from under the Miami Marlins, who had put in waiver claims on all three players, forcing the Cincinnati Reds to grab outfielders Harrison Bader and Hunter Renfroe when they wanted pitching help, too.
There was never an August 30 game that could have more repercussions in baseball history.
If the Guardians don’t come back and beat the Minnesota Twins, 5-2, in 10 innings, they drop to seven games back and probably don’t make a waiver move.
But with the victory, pulling them within five games of the Twins, they saw a unique opportunity to pounce.
It’s one of the strangest about-faces ever seen by an ownership and front office.
Who will be the NL MVP winner?
The race has come down to Atlanta right fielder Ronald Acuña Jr. and Dodgers outfielder/second baseman/shortstop Mookie Betts.
Acuña has gone where no player has ever gone before, becoming the inaugural member of the 30 home run/60 stolen base club with 31 homers and 63 stolen bases. No player in history had ever hit more than 28 homers in a 60-steal season, and no player ever stole more than 52 bases in a 30-homer season since Barry Bonds.
He has already scored 122 runs this season, and is on pace to score 147 runs, the most by a player in the leadoff spot since 1900.
Betts, meanwhile, had one of the greatest months in baseball history, hitting .455 with 11 homers in August with the most hits (51) and runs (35) by a Dodgers’ player since the franchise moved to Los Angeles. He also became just the third player to hit at least .450 with 50 hits and 10 homers in single month, joining a couple of dudes named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Betts has already hit a career-high 38 homers with 98 RBI, plays Gold Glove defense at three different positions, but has stolen 53 fewer bases.
13. Who’s the top free agent this winter after Ohtani?
Johnny DiPuglia, who just resigned as vice president and international scouting director of the Washington Nationals. It’s a huge blow to the Nats, who still have yet to re-sign GM Mike Rizzo, seeking a three-year contract.
DiPuglia, Rizzo’s top confidant, has been running the Nats’ international scouting operations since 2009 and was promoted to assistant GM after their World Series title.
DiPuglia was responsible for the signing of All-Star outfielder Juan Soto, and All-Stars Xander Bogaerts, Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez when he worked for the Boston Red Sox.
He’s a huge star in the international scouting world and will have teams frantically bidding for his services.
14. OK, how about the biggest free-agent player after Ohtani?
It figures to be Chicago Cubs center fielder/first baseman Cody Bellinger, the former MVP who has rebounded from two years of struggles with the Dodgers to being a savior with the Cubs. He entered Saturday hitting .320 with 22 homers, 81 RBI and a .915 OPS.
The price-tag will be heavy, exceeding $200 million, perhaps even seeking more than $300 million.
The most aggressive suitors are expected to be: The Cubs, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres and New York Yankees.
15. What was biggest the impact of the rule changes?
Sure, it’s nice for 25 minutes to be shaved off games, but the return of the stolen base has been wonderful for baseball.
Stolen base attempts are the highest since 2012, and the 80.2% success rate is the highest in baseball history.
It’s as if we’re seeing the glorious return of Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman.
16. What have shorter games done for baseball?
Players are more well-rested heading into the pennant stretch, and there are seven players who have appeared in every game this season compared to just two last year heading into September:
- Ronald Acuña Jr.
- Austin Riley
- Matt Olson
- Freddie Freeman
- Marcus Semien
- Juan Soto
- Eugenio Suarez
17. Will there be any more rule changes next year?
Nope, everything will be status quo in 2024, and MLB is still two years away from perfecting the automated ball-strike system.
18. Will we see Rays shortstop Wander Franco play baseball again anytime soon?
Well, it certainly won’t be this year.
Franco, who is under paid administrative leave, has two former complaints in the Dominican Republic against him for engaging in a relationship with a minor. MLB is also investigating whether he violated the league’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Family.
The Rays still have him under contract through 2032, owing him $174 million, but have already removed promotions and advertisements he’s featured on
His future in MLB is unclear.
19. Speaking of futures, how long will All-Star first baseman Pete Alonso be staying with the Mets?
The Mets engaged in trade talks involving Alonso with the Milwaukee Brewers and also the Chicago Cubs, before the deadline.
Certainly Mets owner Steve Cohen has plenty of money to keep him, but has owned the team for three years now, and still hasn’t signed him to an extension.
Alonso is an elite power hitter, extremely popular with his teammates and fans, but also would like to be paid like one of the game’s premier sluggers.
He’s a free agent after 2024, so unless they can reach an agreement this winter, the Mets’ new president of baseball operations could move him for prospects.
20. What will be the biggest takeaway from 2023?
The subtle and cruel reminder that winning the winter means absolutely nothing when the summer rolls around.
Time and time again, we fall in love with a team’s moves during the winter.
And time and time again it’s nothing more than a massive letdown.
Around the basepaths …
– San Diego Padres Cy Young candidate Blake Snell tells USA TODAY Sports he wants to stay in San Diego when he hits free agency, but has yet to engage with the front office on a potential contract extension.
He likely will be the No. 1 pitcher on the free-agent market.
– The Los Angeles Angels still find themselves short of staying below the luxury tax of $233 million. They needed someone to claim outfielder Randal Grichuk, who had $1.7 million remaining on his deal, but cleared waivers.
If Ohtani leaves as a free agent, they will get a draft pick after the fourth round instead of following the second round.
– Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner, knowing how much his front office relies on analytics, says he will take a good, hard look at their analytic department to determine if household changes need to be made.
“We’re going to take a very deep dive into everything we’re doing,” Steinbrenner told the Associated Press. “We’re looking to bring in possibly an outside company to really take a look at the analytics side of what we do. Baseball operations in general. We’re going to have some very frank conversions with each other.
“This year was obviously unacceptable.”
– Dallas Jenkins, the producer, director and creator of the award-winning series, “The Chosen,’’ says he has never been more nervous in his life.
Jenkins, who’s close friends with former World Series champion Ben Zobrist and Chicago Cubs bench coach Andy Greene, is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch on Sept. 9 against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
So, what are his best friends doing to help?
They are sending him clips of the world ceremonial first-pitches in recent baseball history, from 50 Cent to former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory to Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“This is on the bucket list for me,’’ Jenkins tells USA TODAY Sports, “being a lifetime Cubs’ fan. But every single person I’m hearing from is saying the same thing, “Don’t screw it up. Don’t throw it in the dirt.’ They’re sending me pictures and videos from bad pitches. It’s crazy.
“This is the one thing in my life that’s making me nervous, and now I’m more nervous than ever.’’
Jenkins, 48, grew up reading Bill James’ Baseball Abstract when he was 8 years old, rushed home in the afternoon to turn on WGN for the Cubs’ games, and attended every Cubs’ home game during the 2016 postseason.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, and positively pessimistic.’’
– Before anyone gets carried away with the hype of Yankees prospect Jasson Dominguez, who homered in his first at-bat against Justin Verlander in his major-league debut, remember that the Yankees were shopping him at last year’s trade deadline. He was in their trade proposal for Cincinnati Reds ace Luis Castillo.
The Reds passed, and showed no interest in acquiring him, trading Castillo instead to the Seattle Mariners.
– Former Chicago White Sox vice president Kenny Williams, who had talked about retiring after his contract expired in 2024, wants to continue in baseball and is privately expressing strong interest to join the Los Angeles Angels if an opening arises.
– Hall of Fame first baseman Frank Thomas, who wanted to be the White Sox new GM, now is openly conveying his interest in replacing Chris Getz as the farm director.
– The most popular tourist attraction in MLB this season is Japan, where virtually every team has sent its top scouts, and in some cases their GM, to see Japanese pitching sensation Yoshinobu Yamamoto.
– Maybe fans will take notice with what’s happening in Philadelphia and stop booing, too.
Ever since the Phillies’ fans gave struggling shortstop Trea Turner a standing ovation on Aug. 4 instead of viciously booing him, he is hitting .360 with nine doubles, 10 homers, and 29 RBI with a .770 slugging percentage and 1.168 OPS.
“When our fan base stood up for Trea, it not only changed Trea’s season,” Phillies manager Rob Thompson told reporters, “it changed everybody’s season. What that happened, and he broke out, I think everybody loosened up a little bit. Our fan base, they are more passionate than anybody.’’
– Detroit Tigers lefty Eduardo Rodriguez, who has three years and $49 remaining on his contract, told the Tigers he wants to stay. Yet, if they don’t negotiate an extension with him, he’s fully prepared to exercise his buyout.
– It should be a fascinating contemporary baseball era committee ballot this year with managers Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson, Charlie Manuel expected to be on it, along with perhaps executives George Steinbrenner, Stan Kasten, Walt Jocketty and Doug Melvin, and umpire Joe West.
– White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf reiterated to Chicago reporters this week that as painful as it was watching his team this season, he has no interest in selling the team.
“Friends of mine have said, ‘Why don’t you sell? Why don’t you get out?’” said Reinsdorf, who has owned the team since 1981. “My answer always has been, ‘I like what I’m doing, as bad as it is, and what else would I do?’
“I’m a boring guy. I don’t play golf. I don’t play bridge. And I want to make it better before I go.”
– Simply, starter Lucas Giolito and reliever Reynaldo Lopez can’t be broken up, no matter how many teams try.
Let’s see, they both joined the Washington Nationals in 2012.
They were traded together to the Chicago White Sox in 2016.
They were traded together to the Angels in July.
And now they were both claimed on waivers by the Guardians.
They are both free agents this winter, so could be a package deal be in the works?
– It’s mind-boggling that Atlanta already has four players who have hit 30 home runs this year, and at least one more who’ll soon join the list with Ozzie Albies at 29. They have seven players with at least 20 homers.
The 2019 Atlanta team had just four players with 20 homers: Acuna (41), Freddie Freeman (38), Josh Donaldson (37) and Albies (24).
“We’ve been a team that slugs,” manager Brian Snitker told reporters. “That’s how we’re constructed. And the guys do it.”
– Perhaps the only athlete of this generation who has lived up to the hype more than LeBron James as a teenage prodigy is Phillies star Bryce Harper.
“He was supposed to be this good at 16 years old or whatever it was,” Phillies shortstop Trea Turner told reporters after Harper hit his 300th homer. “He’s had the hype his whole life. That’s the most impressive part, not necessarily how good of a player he is, but dealing with all that pressure at such a young age and being able to do it year in and year out.”
– How brutal was the Rangers’ bullpen in August?
They coughed up 17 home runs.
– San Diego Padres starters Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove, who are on the injured list with an inflamed elbow and inflamed shoulder, respectively, are expected to shut it down and miss the rest of the season.
– The Cardinals’ current .430 winning percentage (58-77 entering Saturday would rank as third-worst winning percentage in a full season since 1922.
– Favorite moment of the year award: Baltimore Orioles rookie Gunnar Henderson’s decision to snub a personal accolade and play the game right.
Henderson was a single away from hitting for the cycle on Aug. 20 against the Oakland A’s when he lined a ball into the right-field corner. Instead of stopping at first, and receiving all of the attention for hitting for the cycle, he kept running, stretching it into a double.
It befuddled his teammates.
It delighted baseball purists.
“If you know Gunnar, I would have been shocked if he stopped at first,’’ Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said.
– How bad are the Padres in clutch? They are 6-26 in one-run games and 0-11 in extra-inning games, and on the verge of setting the record for close-game futility.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale