Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. A Fishy plot twist
In his final postgame in pinstripes, Alex Rodriguez sure sounded retired. Though it was quite clear earlier in the week that he felt pushed out by the Yankees, he spoke of being "at peace" with his unconditional release and admitted that his final night in the Bronx would be "tough to top."
But of course, A-Rod never used the word "retirement" through any of last week's saga, and baseball has a funny way of presenting new plot twists -- especially when the plot centers around this particular character.
Not 48 hours after A-Rod's final Bronx bow, the Marlins placed Giancarlo Stanton on the disabled list with a groin injury that likely ends his season.
So began the assumption that an A-Rod arrival might be in the offing even earlier than anticipated, and Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill did little to quell that assumption when he told reporters the club was "going through that process" of gauging A-Rod's interest.
A pairing of baseball's two prime pariahs -- A-Rod and hitting coach Barry Bonds -- is too good to be true.
But you know what's also too good to be true? Any thought that A-Rod alone can save the Marlins' season.
This is a club that had acknowledged depth issues going into the year, and now the Fish are being tested in a big way with the losses of Stanton (who, with a 112-game average over the last five seasons, has become one of the great "What ifs" of our time) and starter Adam Conley. We've got an awfully large sample -- a .196/.272/.363 slash over his last 408 at-bats -- to suggest A-Rod has very little offense left in the tank, and, last we checked, the Marlins do still play in the National League.
So this is a great fit only in narrative, not nuance. But in terms of pure entertainment value, narrative's enough.
2. The Baby Bombers
Give the Yankees credit for wasting absolutely no time shifting the storyline from the A-Rod extravaganza to the future -- or, as team broadcaster John Sterling put it, "the Baby Bombers." Outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Tyler Austin made history in going back-to-back in their shared debut Saturday, and Gary Sanchez has come as advertised as a keeper behind the plate.
But it was a voice from the past -- Bernie Williams, taking part in a celebration of the '96 World Series squad over the weekend -- who made a salient point about the future, when asked if the upcoming class of Yanks can one day compare to the famed "Core Four" and Co.
"The economics and financial state of the game is not the same as it was when we were playing," Williams told reporters. "Nowadays, any team can offer at least the money part to any player."
The core of what Williams is referring to is the ability of teams to lock up their young talent, which of course affects free agency. That's why it was so important for the Yanks to maximize the benefits of their 2016 misfortune and make the farm system strides they did this summer.
3. Catching on
Clayton Kershaw had what ESPN.com's Doug Padilla reported to be an "aggressive" game of catch Sunday morning, which conjures up images of Kershaw staring down his catch partner or firing the ball at his dome or kneecaps. At least it wasn't a passive-aggressive game of catch in which Kershaw gives the other guy the silent treatment.
Anyway, aggressive or not, Kershaw, who hasn't pitched since June 26 because of a herniated disk in his back, is touching, holding and throwing a baseball, and that's a hopeful sign for the Dodgers. Sunday marked three consecutive days of catch for Kershaw. The calendar is not totally on his side, what with precious few weeks remaining in the Minor League schedule. But he could begin throwing off a mound this week, which, you know, is a big deal in an ultra-tight NL West.
Remarkably, the Dodgers have gone 24-15 without their ace, but it's not like they're asking him to take his sweet time. The rotation continued to, um, rotate over the weekend, with Brett Anderson coming off the DL and Brandon McCarthy going on it (the ninth Dodgers starter this season to hit the DL). If and when trade acquisition Rich Hill actually starts a game, he'll become the 14th Dodgers starter utilized this season.
While non-Kershaw Dodgers starters have logged respectable strikeout and WHIP rates, the bottom line is that the Dodger bullpen has been counted on for more innings than any other relief unit in the Majors in the time since Kershaw made his last start.
4. Homer history?
Mookie Betts put himself in select company Sunday with his second three-homer game of the season, becoming just the 21st player in history to achieve the feat multiple times in a single season.
Not bad for a dude who is just 5-foot-9, 180 pounds.
But the 2016 season is now in select company, too. Betts' battering of the D-backs on Sunday marked the 16th time this year that a player has hit three homers in a game. According to Baseball Reference's Play Index, only twice in history -- both times in the height of the steroid era -- has that particular feat been achieved that many times. And with seven weeks remaining, we have a legit chance of 2016 providing the most three-homer games ever:
This is yet another extension of the overall return of the long ball. Entering the week, we were seeing a home run every 29.7 at-bats, per STATS LLC. Believe it or not, that's the second-best rate of all-time, trailing only 2000 (29.4) and a four-at-bat improvement over 2015 (33.7).
5. What's Pap-ening?
Jonathan Papelbon's brief tenure with the Washington Nationals, "highlighted" by his dugout dustup with Bryce Harper and capped with his stark second-half decline in effectiveness, ended abruptly over the weekend, with Papelbon asking for and receiving his release when the Nats tried to designate him for assignment.
Though not quite to the extreme of A-Rod, it is questionable how much Papelbon legitimately has to offer a contending club at this time. His swinging strike rate is three percent lower than his career average, his ground-ball rate is 14 percent lower than it was just a year ago, and he's walking more batters per nine than any point in the last six years.
But hey, sometimes relievers are one change of scenery and/or mechanical tweak from untapping something special. The Cubs' loss of Pedro Strop to a knee injury that will cost him four to six weeks (and the struggles of Joe Smith since his arrival from Anaheim) make a reunion with Theo Epstein a possibility, and the NL Central rival Cardinals also have a need in their 'pen. And of course, we can't rule out a return to the Red Sox, whose bullpen has been an on-again, off-again concern all year.
He's no longer trustworthy in the ninth. But if Papelbon can at least rediscover his early season form (he had a 2.83 ERA and 3.00 FIP at the All-Star break), he might still be a potential plus for a 'pen in need … as long as he doesn't try to choke any MVP candidates.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.