Welcome back to The Rotation! Here's a look at five topics shaping the week ahead in Major League Baseball.
1. Gary nice
We can no longer refer to Gary Sanchez as the new Trevor Story, because that slacker Story took 27 games to get to his 11th Major League homer. Sanchez, incredibly, did it in a new outdoor record of 23.
While Story was understandably unable to sustain his early-season binge, it's hard to find much fault in the 16 homers and .273/.344/.531 slash he's provided since No. 11, which was hit back on May 5. Though aided by Coors Field, that's legitimate production from an everyday shortstop. Story -- who last played on July 30 -- is likely out for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb. But he's clearly an electric player and one to watch next year.
As a defensively polished catcher, Sanchez is even more enticing. The right-handed hitter's Minor League track record has always insisted on his ability to bash a baseball, albeit primarily to the pull side. And now, at the big league level, he's shown the ability to crush both fastballs and offspeed and breaking pitches. He's also shown really good plate coverage, with the only true area of vulnerability, to date, being pitches in the upper-outside third of the zone.
What this all points to is sustainable offense (again, not at this ridiculous pace) from a premier defensive position. And Sanchez, who entered the week having thrown out six of nine would-be basestealers, is a good defender.
"That will be what will allow him to stay in the lineup all the time," Orioles manager Buck Showalter noted over the weekend.
That doesn't mean the Yanks should go unloading Brian McCann for 70 cents on the dollar on the waiver wire or in the upcoming offseason. McCann, after all, is still a valuable and viable bat who can take his turns at first base and DH when Sanchez is catching.
What it does mean is the Yankees have what every organization, big payroll or small, needs to build a viable contender in this climate -- great value at a key defensive spot.
2. Getting wild
In the midst of his metamorphosis of a modern-day Babe Ruth, Sanchez tweeted this ...
And he's right. "Experts" did tend to insist the Yankees had no chance. Experts like Brian Cashman and New York ownership, who OK'd the deals involving Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller and Carlos Beltran. What the Yanks are doing lately is a shock to the standings, but, whether it holds up or not, it just goes to show what a club that suddenly leans more toward young, hungry and relaxed than old, overpaid and uptight can accomplish in this game.
It also goes to show just how wild the expanded Wild Card format can be. This is our fifth season with the additional spot in each league, and by now we ought to be accustomed to the idea that if merely hovering above .500 is the only prerequisite, weird things can happen in the home stretch.
There is, actually, still a good deal of baseball left before even looking at the Wild Card standings is good for your mental health. But it does seem safe to assert that these next few days loom large for the Blue Jays and Orioles (they bump heads at Camden Yards for a three-game set), for the Marlins and Mets (they square off four times in Citi Field) and, yes for the Yankees and Royals (their three-game set begins Monday at Kauffman Stadium).
We didn't expect that Yankees-Royals series to have any real importance, but Sanchez has helped the Yankees prove the "experts" wrong. And how dumb were we to write off a Royals team that was down four runs going into the eighth inning of the 2014 Wild Card Game vs. the A's and of the 2015 Division Series against the Astros?
3. Dodger dilemma
A considerable amount of hand-wringing arose out of the L.A.'s decision to dump A.J. Ellis in favor of Carlos Ruiz late last week. Ellis' .537 OPS was third-worst among all those in the Majors with at least 150 plate appearances, but his reputation in the clubhouse -- and, most notably, his working relationship with Clayton Kershaw -- was unimpeachable. And so it was understandable why many in the industry are monitoring the impact this late-season swap has on a Dodgers club that had made great (but, of course, unquantifiable) gains in the so-called "chemistry" department this year.
But look, the Dodgers did what they felt they had to do in the playoff chase, and that was improve the durability of a spot in which their injury-prone leading man, Yasmani Grandal, left them susceptible to an October catching crisis.
What was most fascinating about the trade, though, was the way it was broken to Kershaw -- by Ellis himself. It seems the Dodgers could have made a better effort to sit down with the best pitcher on the planet to explain their rationale before the deal involving his preferred catcher went down.
Kershaw does have an opt-out clause in his contract after 2018, remember. He already didn't seem especially jazzed about the piecemeal approach this club took toward building the 2016 rotation, and now he was just blindsided by the move of his buddy.
This is a classic (and high-profile) case of the game's human element awkwardly intersecting with the analytical element, because, in the big picture, the Andrew Friedman-led front office has made statistically or financially defensible moves just about every step of the way. But it would be nice to have an honest window into Kershaw's thoughts about this long-term fit right now.
And yes, getting away from the above narrative, it would be really nice to know if we can count on seeing Kershaw, who is expected to face live hitters this week, take the mound in the stretch run.
4. Guaranteed change?
We know the name of the ballpark the Chicago White Sox will be playing their home games in next season, but we know very little about the team that will be playing those games.
Attempts to build this team around some affordable core contracts (Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are absolute steals atop the rotation) have all been in vain. It took the Drake LaRoche saga to eke the Sox out of what was looking like a regrettable commitment to Adam LaRoche; the big swap for Jeff Samardzija prior to 2015 netted one of the worst statistical seasons by any starter in the big leagues; Todd Frazier and Melky Cabrera haven't moved the offensive needle; Jose Abreu was great but has gone backward; the farm system's light and David Robertson is an OK closer with precious few games to close.
And James Shields? Don't ask.
So this is already shaping up to be a fascinating fall on the South Side.
One guy who has to be particularly curious as to how this all plays out is Frazier, having just recently been shipped off from one rebuilding effort in Cincinnati only to be thrust into another potential one in Chicago. But Frazier, who is eligible for free agency after '17, wants to stay with the Sox, even if they're torn down.
"I want to be here," he said. "It's a situation where I feel comfortable telling [GM Rick Hahn] I want to be here and let's sit down and talk about something. I think it would be a great city to play in and stay in."
5. Time to shrink expansion?
Here comes the madness that is the September schedule. And that madness extends not just to the standings but to the way the game is fundamentally managed at the most pivotal point of year.
Rosters will expand Thursday, and once again you will hear the familiar outcry that it makes no sense for teams to be allowed to operate with bloated bullpens and abnormally deep benches when the games carry such magnitude.
The good news is that, in a collective bargaining year, there does appear to be earnest evaluation of this roster rule and how it could be tweaked for the betterment of the game. It's possible the most realistic tweak is one that would impact not just September but the entire season schedule. The players' association has made the grind of the 162-day schedule a focal point of early talks. And as you might imagine, the union is not opposed to the idea of expanding active rosters from 25, which would give managers greater flexibility throughout the season and, yes, create more jobs and provide more service time for players.
But if it is a tweak solely to September, then the public proposals to go with a system in which a team can have upward of 40 players on its roster -- but only deem a certain number of those players "active" for a given day or series -- make a ton of sense. Because as baseball pushes to pick up the pace, slowing games down with swap after swap on the mound in the midst of the pennant push has ceased to make sense, if it ever made sense at all.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.