Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. Exit for Alex
The singular, star-crossed, complicated, sometimes-comical, often-controversial and altogether fascinating playing career of Alex Rodriguez comes to an end Friday night in the Bronx.
A-Rod has looked himself in the mirror (this time, without giving himself a smooch), come to peace with the reality that his sagging bat and unplayable glove are no longer assets, even in the American League. He's taken Hal Steinbrenner's hint that maybe it's time to focus instead on the more durable asset that is his baseball brain and how it can be used to benefit a Yankees team in transition.
But first, for Rodriguez, whose love of the game itself was never in doubt even in his darkest moments, there are a few more games to play… maybe.
What we can say with reasonable certainty is that A-Rod will be involved in some way, shape or form in his Friday finale against the Rays. Joe Girardi hinted Sunday that he might even start A-Rod in the field, for old time's sake. And if the Yanks want to have a little fun with this, they ought to finally let him be their starting shortstop.
Come Saturday -- and really, more accurately, next Spring Training -- A-Rod begins his new role as the Yankees' most overpaid non-uniformed employee since Assistant to the Traveling Secretary George Costanza. Should anyone ever utter the phrase "advice is cheap" in your presence again, just remember that the 2017 Yankees are going to be paying the last $21 million of the A-Rod megadeal (the one that arose out of his famously timed opt-out during the 2007 World Series) while he provides his input.
It's good work if you can get it.
2. No more from '04
Never miss an opportunity to feel old. Here's a new one: A-Rod is retiring at the end of the week, David Ortiz at the end of the season. That will leave us with zero active big leaguers who participated in that epic 2004 American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox.
The only qualifier to this claim is that Bronson Arroyo is not technically retired yet. He did try to mount a post-Tommy John comeback with the Nats this spring, only to hit a shoulder snag that relegated him to more rehab. And following Pearl Jam's Fenway Park performances over the weekend, here's a stat for you:
• 2016 Bronson Arroyo appearances with the Nats' Rookie League team: 2
• 2016 Bronson Arroyo appearances singing "Black" with Ed Vedder: 1
So if anything can be gleaned from that trend (Arroyo hasn't pitched in a game since early July), it really is the end of an era, folks. The game's most revered rivalry is a shadow of what it once was, with the colorful characters of postseasons past having faded into the -- Pearl Jam reference alert -- rearview mirror.
If only you could shove away Father Time the way Jason Varitek once shoved A-Rod.
3. Vintage Verlander
Speaking of shoving away Father Time, let's talk about the Detroit Tigers, who have baseball's best record (46-30) since May 15. The changeup-guided emergence of Yoenis Cespedes trade acquisition Michael Fulmer and Justin Verlander's return to prominence have made it possible for the Tigers, who are just two games back in the division after winning 10 of their last 12, to steal the AL Central storyline from the Indians.
Fulmer is a great story all his own, but one tempered slightly by the possibility that his innings output from 2015 (124 2/3 between Double-A and Triple-A) to '16 (119 1/3 and rising, entering Monday's start in Seattle) will eventually affect him, either in outcome or sheer availability.
Verlander, meanwhile, comes with no such workload concerns and is, indeed, the total package he was in his MVP heyday because of his command and confidence with all four pitches. According to the data at Brooks Baseball, going back to the start of July, his changeup is the only pitch opponents are hitting as much as .200 against (it's a .222 average), and all four of his pitches -- the four-seamer, change, slider and curve - are getting whiffs on at least 21 percent of swings. That helped him outduel a younger version of himself -- Noah Syndergaard -- the other night.
There are many reasons behind the Tigers' recent surge, including but not limited to Miguel Cabrera's prime production, J.D. Martinez's torrid return from the DL (which included a pinch-hit homer on the first pitch he had seen in seven weeks) and even Anibal Sanchez is showing some signs of life of late. These positives have outweighed the negatives of losing Nick Castellanos and Zimmermann (again) to the DL in recent days.
But the prime reason the Tigers struggled head-on in previous meetings with the Indians this season is that their rotation could not keep pace with that of the Tribe. Verlander's flashes of brilliance in the second half last season encouraged the Tigers to go for it again, and his vintage performance of late proves Motown with hope that the Tigers can take down the Tribe in the home stretch.
Verlander opposes a fellow former Cy Young winner in Felix Hernandez in his next start Wednesday at Safeco.
4. Innings limit, schminnings limit
The rule of the pennant chase is that the rules are fungible. The patient, plodding process of player development can take a backseat to the big show. Teams are more prone to promote the hot hands in the Minors or, in the case of two prominent AL East clubs, get quite creative in their handling of prized pitching arms.
Maybe the Orioles and Blue Jays will find themselves in a Strasburgian September dilemma, but for now they're making the most of the assets they have in Dylan Bundy and Aaron Sanchez, respectively.
And that means rolling with them in their rotations.
Bundy pitched just 38 innings in the first half of the season for Baltimore, which means he was on pace for the organizationally prescribed 2016 workload of 70 innings. But because the non-Chris Tillman portion of the O's rotation stunk on ice, the O's broke course after the break and gave Bundy a start. Then another. Then another. He's kept rising to the challenge, pitching a masterpiece against a tough Texas lineup last week and then benefiting from the Baltimore beatdown of James Shields on Sunday. Bundy is now within spitting distance of that 70-inning mark but there's no sign that the O's are about to pull the plug.
The Blue Jays were widely expected to pull the plug on Cy Young contender Sanchez -- at least, as a starter -- in an effort to limit what is already a 41-percent jump in workload from 2015 to '16. Instead, the club announced last week that it will operate with a six-man rotation for the time being to both protect Sanchez and capitalize on him. It's an unusual play with long-term risks, but it's also an organization that, as a simple function of the looming free agency for two of its signature stars, has to maximize this 2016 moment to the best of its abilities.
Maybe the O's and Jays will see something in the performance of Bundy and/or Sanchez that causes them to issue a sudden shutdown in the season's waning weeks. But for now, these two young guns are unexpected X-factors in the East arms race.
5. The Puig plan
The Dodgers told Yasiel Puig that he would either be traded or demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City last Monday. The non-waiver Trade Deadline came and went, and Puig was officially optioned the following day.
Puig reported to Oklahoma City not Tuesday, not Wednesday, not Thursday, not Friday, not Saturday… but, finally, Sunday. To borrow a phrase used by Sandy Alderson and others in describing Cespedes' golfing while dealing with a quad injury, it was a case of "bad optics" for a player whose career is at a crossroads.
Look, the criticism of Cuban players in particular and Latin American players, in general, is all-too-often unfair, sometimes even bordering on veiled racism. The controversy over Cespedes golfing was silly, if for no other reason than it distracted from the very real continuing concern over the way the Mets diagnose and handle injuries. And Puig has been the subject of many a critique in his four years in the Majors, some of it more deserved than others and much of it inherently impacted by the language barrier.
But even those of us who have made every effort to plead patience with Puig must admit he deserves every bit of scrutiny associated with his slow arrival to the Minors. Clearly, there is a disconnect between Puig's talent and his performance, and the Dodgers, having proved unable to get what they deem to be adequate value in return for Puig in the trade market, believe this demotion is what's best for him and them. The results back them up. Puig went into this season looking to improve on his discipline at the plate, but his walk rate has tanked, from an already unsightly 8.4 percent in '15 to an awful 5.9 percent this year.
Perhaps Puig just isn't cut out to catch up to the speed of the sport or the quality of the competition. But delaying this seemingly necessary experiment sure didn't help.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.