The Summer Of New York Baseball

An emotional Wilmer Flores fights tears last Thursday after thinking he was traded by the Mets. Instead, he stayed and hit a walkoff home run Friday to propel the Amazin's to a sweep of the Nationals and a first place tie. Getty Images

An emotional Wilmer Flores fights tears last Thursday after thinking he was traded by the Mets. Instead, he stayed and hit a walkoff home run Friday to propel the Amazin’s to a sweep of the Nationals and a first place tie.
Getty Images

In the dog days of summer, it’s been an exciting one for New York baseball fans. With the Mets sweeping the Nats with an emphatic 5-2 win at a raucous Citi Field tonight, both the Mets and Yankees are in first place after August 1. Could both be on the way to October baseball for the first time since 2006?

Yes. It’s fun to follow for any big New York sports fan. Given that I’m a Yankee fan and Hasan bleeds Mets, it has been a welcome change from the long hockey off season. One which still has another six weeks before we can start pumping up training camps for our respective teams. Rather than bore you with more projected lineups, let’s take time out to appreciate what our baseball teams are doing for the city.

The Big Apple loves its baseball. From the glory days when it had three teams with the Giants in the Polo Grounds and Dodgers of Brooklyn at Ebbets Field competing with the Yankees in the real Stadium that’s now gone, the city that never sleeps has always been smitten with the boys of summer. With hard times hitting NYC the past couple of years, it’s nice to see both teams back playing meaningful games this late. The hopeless romantics can even dare dream of a Subway Series in frigid November autumn temps. It’s not hard to envision with the Yanks six up in the AL East and the Mets in a virtual tie with the Nats.

The Amazin’s have been the talk of the town lately. Ever since suffering that bad loss to the Padres, they have had a wild past few days including the trade that wasn’t for Carlos Gomez. An emotional Wilmer Flores was brought to tears when he was told by a fan he was being traded to the Brewers with injured starter Zach Wheeler for Gomez. But in as wild a scene as possible, Flores wiped tears away from his jersey as he went back to the dugout to cheers from Met fans. Meanwhile, an emotional Terry Collins explained why Flores was still in the game because he wasn’t told anything. Afterwards, the scene shifted to GM Sandy Alderson who fielded reporters’ questions on the trade that broke down due to Gomez’ physical. A hip issue was enough for Alderson to kill the deal. Though there was talk that money might have had something to do with it due to Gomez’ contract which runs through 2016. The two teams disagreed on why it fell apart. Eventually, Gomez was sent to the Astros on July 31.

For Flores, it was a relief that he was still a Met. The only organization he knew since being signed as a 16-year old teenager. His honesty at his locker was enough to understand how much it meant to remain a Met. After almost being traded, Wheeler went to Mets management and told him he wanted to stay. The starter who underwent successful Tommy John surgery and won’t be back until next June or July. These guys want to be part of it. They want to be part of the first Mets team to make the postseason since ’06. For Flores, his big moment came when he homered off Felipe Rivero to lead off the home 12th touching off a wild celebration in Flushing. A fitting ending for the player who thought he was gone the day before. Flores’ big hit propelled the Mets to a home sweep over the Nats.

With many skeptics questioning whether management would go out and land a big bat, Alderson swung a trade with the Tigers at the deadline for Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes. He didn’t have to give up anyone off the roster sending pitching prospects Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa to Detroit for Cespedes, who has 18 dingers. A no brainer that energized the Mets fanbase. The 2013 Home Run Derby winner is now an integral part of a improved lineup that also includes key additions Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe.

One player who has been on fire is Lucas Duda. He drove in all three runs in Saturday’s come from behind 3-2 win. That included two bombs keeping the first base slugger red hot with eight homers in the last eight games. His clutch opposite field RBI double in the eighth was the game-winner. In the series finale, Noah Syndergaard outpitched Jordan Zimmerman striking out nine in eight innings. The Mets touched Zimmerman up for five runs in the third with all coming via the long ball. Curtis Granderson, Daniel Murphy and Duda all went yard. With closer Jeurys Familia unavailable, former Nat Tyler Clippard closed. The Amazin’s are now 55-50. Percentage points behind the Nats who are 54-49.

While most of the talk has centered around the Mets, the Yankees have gone about their business leading the AL East by six games. They improved to 59-45 with a 12-3 rout of the White Sox to take two of three in the Windy City. Jacoby Ellsbury started it off with a lead off homer to left center. He also had a sacrifice fly in a five-run third that included a two-run single from the sizzling Didi Gregorius, who has turned it on bringing his average up to .260 with two more hits and three runs scored. The Bronx Bombers touched up Chicago starter Jeff Samardzjia for nine earned in less than five innings. That included a Teix message from first baseman Mark Teixeira, who now has 29 dingers and 74 RBI’s.

Even Stephen Drew got into the act with three hits and four RBI’s. He hasn’t hit much at .199 but has 13 homers and 32 RBI’s as a part-time second baseman. It’s a very different time for Yankee fans with GM Brian Cashman opting not to overpay for David Price, who went to Toronto while Cole Hamels was dealt to Texas. Even with Michael Pineda going on the disabled list, Cashman didn’t add any starting pitching opting to promote from within by recalling Bryan Mitchell and top prospect Luis Severino. Mitchell struggled Saturday taking the loss but the 21-year old Severino went 7-0 with a 1.91 ERA at Triple-A Wilkes Barre/Scranton. In 61 innings, he’s allowed 40 hits and 18 runs (13 ER) while walking 17 and fanning 50. He’s expected to make his major league debut Tuesday versus the Red Sox. A big time moment for a stud prospect Cashman deemed “untouchable” along with outfield slugger Aaron Judge. The Padres tried to get shortstop Jorge Mateo for closer Craig Kimbrel but the Yanks decided it was too expensive. It would’ve been overkill with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller a dominant eighth and ninth inning tandem.

Rather than part with any top prospects, Cashman and the Yankees organization have shown restraint holding onto their blue chips for the future which also includes catcher Gary Sanchez and first baseman Greg Bird. Maybe there’s even hope for third baseman Eric Jagielo who’s hit well at Trenton. With the Yanks standing pat outside of the addition of former Mariner second baseman Dustin Ackley, they’re basically rolling the dice with the current group that’s featured monster seasons from Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod at 40 with 24 home runs and 61 RBI’s has been amazing. Now just a DH, he’s taken players such as Gregorius under his wing and helped them grow.

It’s all clicking with Chase Headley productive in July hitting .370 with 15 knocked in. Brian McCann has also hit in the clutch going .322-5-45 with runners in scoring position while belting 17 dingers. Brett Gardner has turned in another good season pacing the club in hitting with a .288 batting average, 72 runs scored while hitting 11 homers and stealing 15 bases. Gardy deservedly made the All-Star team in Cincinnati. No small feat for the former Yankees ’05 third round pick who led the Staten Island Baby Bombers to a Penn-League championship that same year.

The only question with the Yanks is their starting pitching. Can Masahiro Tanaka hold up and what about Ivan Nova, who won his third straight decision allowing one earned in six innings fanning seven? If he stays healthy, it would be a big boost to their postseason chances. They’ll wait on Pineda who probably will miss a month before returning for the stretch run. Joe Girardi can find out if Severino is ready. He’s gotten 11 wins out of Nathan Eovaldi and probably will move Adam Warren back to the rotation.

With both New York ball clubs in good shape, it’s a great time for baseball fans in the big city. No matter what side you’re on, it’s great to see. For once, we can focus on positives instead of pointing at negatives with Tom Brady and Deflate Gate or Jason Pierre-Paul or Sheldon Richardson. We don’t have to think about the annoying NFL where stupidity exists.

With two months left in the season, let’s enjoy the ride and see where it takes us.

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Devils buy out Zubrus

Continuing their offseason of change, the Devils used their final buyout window of the offseason to terminate the contract of long-time Devil forward Danius Zubrus.  Zubrus had a 35+ contract and as such the Devils received no cap savings for the buyout, but also will not have a dead cap hit on their ledger after this year.  With the team barely above the salary floor, carrying Zubrus’s cap hit this year wasn’t an issue though.  According to GM Ray Shero, the issue was more one of roster flexibility – indicating FA signings and trade acquisitions are still a possibility.  Although the GM didn’t say it, Zubrus’s age and mileage was also a concern given the team’s new fast, attacking and supportive motto.  Zubrus wasn’t the speediest forward in his prime but would seem not to fit into coach John Hynes’ system at 37 years old coming off his worst season in the NHL.

Will this be the end of the line for a respected veteran of 1243 NHL games (plus another 92 in the playoffs)?  People might not realize Zubrus has been playing in the league since 1996, when he was a teenage rookie with the Flyers.  For context, Martin Brodeur was in his fourth full season with the Devils that year.  Looking at his career, I forgot he was some of the places he was – Montreal, Washington and briefly Buffalo before signing here as a free agent during the summer of 2007 at what was thought to be a long six-year deal.  Although Zubrus put up 38 and 40 points in his first two seasons with the team, he was miscast as a top-line center and wing, trying to replace the production of departing free agents like Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta.  After two more meh seasons, Zubrus had a career reinassance in 2011-12 with not only his best regular season as a Devil (17-27-44 with a +7) – but was a key factor in the team’s playoff run with ten points in 24 games and more importantly stellar board work and cycling, which became his true hallmark as a Devil.  Well that and the myriad of jokes that stemmed from Zubrus being the locker room deejay.

Unfortunately, Zubrus was never the same after suffering a wrist injury early in the 2013 lockout season, and after signing a three-year deal during the summer of 2013.  After a 13-goal, 26 point season in 2013-14 (where he still played every game and at times early last season gave the top line with Jaromir Jagr and Travis Zajac a spark), Zubrus cratered to four goals, six assists and a -9 in 74 games last season, where you could argue he was the worst forward in the NHL – or at least the worst one consistently getting ten plus minutes.  At his age and with his miles it’s hard to envision him getting anything beyond a tryout contract this summer, but if this is it for him he would be able to leave the NHL with nothing to be ashamed of though unfortunately, our playoff run in 2012 that came up short was his best chance to win a Cup.  Zubrus was the prototypical Devil for a long time, unselfish, playing a physical game and willing to change positions and roles for the good of the team.  And heck, how can you not like a guy that has ‘interesting’ taste in music and will consistently play the straight man to the one-man comedy act that was Jagr in 2013-14?

While his best individual performance as a Devil was his random four-goal game against the Lightning several years ago, arguably his most important game was in Game 4 against the Flyers where he scored twice, including the tie-breaking goal in the YouTube above.  Best of luck with whatever you do next, Zubie.

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Rangers, Stepan agree to new deal for six years, $39 million

Derek Stepan takes the winning shot to beat a sprawling Braden Holtby scoring at 11:24 of overtime to send the Rangers to the Conference Finals where they'll meet the Lightning. Game 1 is Saturday. AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Derek Stepan and the Rangers finally agreed to a much anticipated new six-year contract worth $39 million avoiding arbitration.
AP Photo by Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

They waited till the last minute. Finally, the Rangers and Derek Stepan agreed to a new deal that’ll pay him $39 million over the next six years. Indeed, the predicted figure which was proposed in this space as well as others turned out to be true. Stepan’s average salary is $6.5 million per season. ‘

From the beginning, it made sense. With Stepan submitting $7.25 million for arbitration and the Rangers countering with $5.2 million, you had to figure they’d settle in the middle. It couldn’t have gone any better except for one odd question. Why did it take so long for the two sides to get it done? Everyone knew what Stepan would get. However, that’s how the Rangers do business. They like to wait and drive us crazy.

For some, that meant panic. Fans started questioning why Stepan came in with a figure above seven million while the Blueshirts came in two million dollars apart. That’s part of the process. If they’d paid attention to the Capitals and Braden Holtby who actually requested $8 million before settling on $6.1 per season over the next five, each side deliberately does it and then get down to negotiating.

Now that Stepan is done, new GM Jeff Gorton has gotten everyone re-signed. The Rangers should be right at around $70 million for training camp. The current roster could always change. Tanner Glass remains a candidate for waivers. If either Dylan McIlrath or Brady Skjei impress the coaching staff, Kevin Klein could still be dealt to clear room.

For now, we can breathe easy. A Happy Monday indeed for the Blueshirts.

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NHL Happenings: Holtby signs, Semin finds new home with Canadiens

Rick Nash and the Rangers offense has gone missing against Braden Holtby and the Caps. AP Photo by Alex Brandon/Getty Images

Braden Holtby has a new deal with the Caps and Alex Semin found a new home with the Canadiens.
AP Photo by Alex Brandon/Getty Images

While the Rangers try to meet Derek Stepan in the middle before his July 27 arbitration date, there have been a couple of noteworthy signings from other teams.

The biggest one being Braden Holtby and the Caps agreeing on a new five-year contract worth $30.5 million. Coming off a career season in which he won 41 games with a 2.22 goals-against-average, .923 save percentage and nine shutouts, the 25-year old netminder asked for eight million in arbitration with the Caps coming in at $5.1 million. A day after the hearing, the two sides hammered out a five-year deal that pays him $6.1 million per season. A solid investment for a player who proved himself in the playoffs posting a 1.71 GAA and .944 save percentage. If he can duplicate ’14-15, the Caps could be serious contenders.

The other signing came from the Canadiens who inked forward Alex Semin to a one-year $1.1 million deal. Considering how bad he was for the Hurricanes in Year 3 getting bought out after tallying only 19 points (6-13-19) in 57 contests, it’s a low risk move. Obviously, the 31-year old Russian enigma has talent but also has a bad reputation for being lazy. On a one-year deal and wanting to stay in the NHL as opposed to the KHL, he must prove himself. This is a player who’s scored 20-or-more goals seven times. His best days came with the Caps where he teamed with fellow Russian Alex Ovechkin to form a lethal combo. Three times he lit the lamp for over 30 including a career best 40 markers and 84 points in ’09-10. Since, his production has dipped which eventually led to him being waived by the Canes after they made a foolish five-year $35 million investment.

It’ll be intriguing to see how Semin performs under the microscope in hockey crazed Montreal. The Canadiens are banking on him to deliver secondary scoring. That requires consistency. For all his ability, he’s never been a great postseason performer going 15-19-34 in 51 games. His best output came in 2009 when he went 5-9-14 in 14 games. Ironically, he’s missed the playoffs the last three seasons with his last showing only three goals and a helper over 14 games in 2012.

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Devils re-sign Larsson to six-year, $25 million deal

Defenseman Adam Larsson came of age last season and was rewarded with a new contract today

With time running out before the Devils and Adam Larsson were scheduled for an arbitration hearing on Wednesday, the two sides came to terms on a long-term extension that will pay the former #4 overall pick just over $4 million per for the next six seasons, buying off his first three UFA seasons and giving the young Swedish defenseman some security after four up-and-down seasons as a Devil.  Perhaps the best thing about this deal is Larsson will only be 28 at the end of it.  There was talk about agreeing to a two-year bridge deal if the sides didn’t come to terms by the end of the weekend so there was a time concern, fortunately both sides were able to come to an agreement that serves everyone.

Amazing how much things have changed over the span of several months.  Last season, Larsson was kept down in Albany for the second half and played this season on a one-year show-me deal.  Early in 2014-15 he was still a frequent healthy scratch under former coach Pete DeBoer.  Although Larsson was able to carve out a niche on the PK in the fall after an injury to Jon Merrill, it wasn’t till after there was a coaching change where Larsson was finally allowed to establish himself without looking over his shoulder.  He responded with a good second half, paired with Andy Greene on the Devils’ top pairing – and even increasing his point production dramatically on an offensively challenged team.

Now that Larsson’s back in the fold, the Devils’ only matter of concern left from a player contract standpoint is inking first-rounder Pavel Zacha before next month’s August 15 deadline where if he doesn’t sign by then, he won’t be able to sign or play in the NHL this year.  It really shouldn’t be a problem although one deadline was already missed this month where now the Devils have to pay his Czech team 100k to let him out of his contract assuming he gets signed before next month’s deadline.  There’s some worry that neophyte agent Patrik Stefan (yes the former #1 overall pick) is being difficult, but really this negotiation shouldn’t be that tough given the rookie wage scale and the fact they’re only haggling over bonuses at this point – which is one area that’s already changed under new management since Lou Lamoriello was steadfast against giving draft picks bonus money, including Larsson himself, who was the only top ten pick in recent years to sign a contract without them.

Speaking of Lou, his departure this week also put things on hold with the Larsson and Zacha negotiations, and although GM Ray Shero hired an assistant (former NHL player and fellow Penguin exec Tom Fitzgerald), he still needs to appoint a new director of scouting to replace David Conte, and that director will quite possibly need to get their own staff in place as well.  There doesn’t seem to be as much of a hurry to find a new team president, according to co-owner Josh Harris, speaking at a press conference after Lou resigned to work in Toronto.  Which makes one wonder if they didn’t see a president as being that important, then just how ceremonial had Lou’s job become?  At least his successor can work without a shadow over him now – real or perceived.

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Devils sign Larsson for six years, $25 million

Adam Larsson is a rich man agreeing to a new six-year deal worth $25 million with the Devils. Getty Images

Adam Larsson is a rich man agreeing to a new six-year deal worth $25 million with the Devils.
Getty Images

A day after Lou Lamoriello was introduced by the Maple Leafs as their new general manager, current Devils GM Ray Shero signed Adam Larsson to a six-year $25 million contract. The former 2011 fourth overall pick will make an average of $4.167 million through 2021. Here’s the full breakdown.

2015-16 2.5

2016-17 3.0

2017-18 4.5

2018-19 4.85

2019-20 5.05

2020-21 5.1

The 22-year old Larsson rebounded from a poor start that had him a healthy scratch under former Devils coach Pete DeBoer. Eventually, with Lamoriello stepping behind the bench with former assistants Scott Stevens and Adam Oates, Larsson’s role increased. Finally gaining full trust of the coaching staff, the Swede developed into a top four shutdown defenseman. Not only did his confidence grow defensively but he also improved offensively setting career highs in goals (3), assists (21) and points (24). The 24 points paced all Devils defensemen edging ex-Devil Marek Zidlicky (23) and Andy Greene (22).

It was a no-brainer for the organization to get Larsson locked up. The 2011 first round pick started to fulfill his potential. A integral part of a revamped blueline featuring elder statesman Greene, Larsson headlines a young core that includes Damon Severson, Jon Merrill, Eric Gelinas and former Ranger John Moore. Aside from Greene who’s 32, the rest of the projected starting lineup on the back end are all 24 and younger.

With the rebuilding club also featuring number one goalie Cory Schneider, new coach John Hynes will look towards a young nucleus on D to help turn the franchise around. Larsson should be a staple who will become a team leader.

Devils tab Fitzgerald Assistant GM: In other team news, the Devils announced the hiring of Tom Fitzgerald as assistant GM. Part of Shero’s staff in Pittsburgh, he’ll serve in the same role he had under the Penguins this past season.

“Tom Fitzgerald has extensive experience as both a player and now in hockey operations, having served in several significant roles over the past eight seasons,” said Shero. “He is well-respected throughout the league, and I feel that he is an ideal fit for our team. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Pittsburgh Penguins for their cooperation in allowing Tom to join our organization.”

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Rangers and Stepan down to wire

Derek Stepan celebrates his power play goal which cut the deficit to 3-2 in the second period. But a bad penalty at the start of the third proved costly. AP Photo by Kathy Willens/Getty Images

Derek Stepan and the Rangers are down to the wire for a new contract.
AP Photo by Kathy Willens/Getty Images

It’s come down to this for the Rangers and Derek Stepan. With his hearing July 27, the two sides have yet to negotiate a new deal that would keep the club’s top center past 2017 when he could become an unrestricted free agent. That’s only if they can’t work something out. It better not get to Monday. That would be the worst case scenario with an arbitrator awarding Stepan another potential bridge contract that could put him in position to leave.

Unfortunately, this is how it works with the Rangers who always seem to wait last minute to lock up their core players. As has been discussed throughout, Stepan’s market has been set at between $6 to 7 million. Assuming new Team GM Jeff Gorton is able to reach agreement with Stepan, it could be either a six-year or seven-year commitment. Let’s say the two sides meet in the middle. You’re probably looking at at least $6.5 million per season. A proposed six-year deal worth $39 million could make sense. However, if it’s seven years, then you’re talking about anywhere between $45 to 49 million for a center who’s never produced a 60-point season. Of course, he would have had he not missed 14 games in ’14-15. In 68, Stepan fell five points short with his 55 (16-39-55) still ranking third in team scoring behind Derick Brassard (19-41-60) and Rick Nash (42-27-69).

There’s no need to restate Stepan’s value. I’ve already hashed out what makes him so important to the team’s present and future. At 25, he’s established himself as a two-way playmaking pivot who can be trusted in any situation including serving as one half of a lethal penalty killing duo with Nash. As evidenced by last week’s post, he compares favorably to 30-year old Ryan Kesler, who the Ducks extended for six years and $41.5 million. Stepan has proven durable missing only 14 games so far. He also has improved his postseason performance going 10-17-29 over the last two. That leads all Blueshirts with Brassard (15-13-28) and Ryan McDonagh (7-19-26) right behind. Without his Game 5 theatrics setting up Chris Kreider for the tying goal and McDonagh for the overtime winner, they lose to the Capitals in the second round. Topping it off, Stepan scored in sudden death of Game 7 to send the Rangers to a second straight Eastern Conference Final.

Given how much money the Sabres tossed at Ryan O’Reilly (7 years $52.5 million), Stepan is going to be expensive. With Gorton able to get everyone else re-signed, he has just enough wiggle room to get it done. Counting Oscar Lindberg ($600,000), the Rangers have 21 players signed for $63.874 million based off War On Ice. I excluded Matt Lindblad ($600 K) and Jayson Megna (600 K) who both are ticketed for Hartford. If you subtract Lindberg, then it becomes 20 players signed for $63.274 million. There’s also Dylan McIlrath who also will make $600,000. But he could start with the Wolf Pack. Brady Skjei remains the wildcard. If he impresses enough during training camp, then Kevin Klein ($2.9 million) could become expendable. He’s signed through 2018.

One way or another, we’ll have a better idea of what’s happening with Stepan. Hopefully, it’s good news this weekend for the Garden Faithful.

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