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Friday, April 25, 2014
The big stories a year ago

By Bill Baer

Four weeks into the 2014 season, we’ve already had plenty to talk about. The Diamondbacks have burst out of the gate as baseball’s worst team. The Braves have had no issue moving on after losing Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy to surgery, taking top billing in the NL East. Albert Pujols joined the 500 home run club and reports of his demise may have been greatly exaggerated. And who had the Brewers jumping out to a sizable lead in the NL Central?

Many of these developments, though, will change or be forgotten altogether as the season marches on. If you’re skeptical, come with me as we examine some of the newsworthy headlines from last April.

Carlos Quentin breaks Zack Greinke’s collarbone in brawl

On April 11, the Dodgers were in San Diego for a night game against the Padres with Zack Greinke on the hill. Padres outfielder Carlos Quentin led off the bottom of the sixth and was hit in the shoulder with a 3-2 fastball. He charged the mound and a bench-clearing brawl ensued. Quentin lowered his shoulder into Greinke, breaking the pitcher’s collarbone.

In the aftermath, Quentin was suspended eight games and received a $3,000 fine, and Greinke needed a one-month stint on the disabled list. There were debates about just how long Quentin should have been suspended, as many felt eight games was not enough despite the length being a record at the time. In fact, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said, “He shouldn't play a game until Greinke can pitch.” But ultimately, interest in the debates waned and the issue was forgotten shortly after Greinke’s return.

The obvious comparison this year is the bench-clearing incident between the Brewers and Pirates, when Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole barked at Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez for staring at a fly ball that eventually bounced off of the center-field wall for a triple. Gomez didn’t take kindly to it and went after Cole. The benches emptied and violence ensued. Gomez used his helmet as a weapon while Martin Maldonado punched Travis Snider in the face, leaving a hefty welt. Maldonado and Gomez got five- and three-game suspensions, respectively; the Pirates’ Snider was suspended for two games and Pittsburgh catcher Russell Martin for one. Cole was not suspended for his involvement.

As usual, there have been plenty of debates, particularly involving Cole’s lack of a suspension. Additionally, some have argued that Gomez’s emotion is part of the culture in which he was raised, and is ultimately good for the game. In a week, however, the incident will be forgotten and nothing will change, just like last April.

Justin Upton and the Braves-Diamondbacks trade

In January 2013, the Diamondbacks and Braves agreed to a headline trade. The Diamondbacks sent outfielder Justin Upton and infielder Chris Johnson to the Braves for three minor leaguers, pitcher Randall Delgado and jack-of-all-trades Martin Prado. The trade was initially hailed as a slight win for the Braves.

Upton started off his time with his new team on fire. In 112 plate appearances through the end of April, Upton hit 12 home runs with an 1.136 OPS. At the end of April, Johnson was also hitting .369 while Delgado was struggling in Triple-A for the D-backs and Prado had a meager .614 OPS. Some thought the trade could end up worse than it looked, even back in January.

But as players on hot streaks are wont to do, Upton cooled off. The 12 home runs he hit in April were followed by a grand total of four between the start of May and the end of July. He finished the season with 27 home runs, meaning that 44.4 percent of his home runs were hit in April, which encapsulated 17.4 percent of his plate appearances. Johnson wound up being the X factor in the trade, as he finished with a .321 average and matched Upton in WAR at 2.4, according to Baseball Reference. At the end of the season, the trade between the D-backs and Braves wasn’t nearly as much of a win for the Braves as it appeared at the end of April.

This past offseason’s biggest trade involved three teams. The Diamondbacks got Mark Trumbo, cash and two players to be named later; the Angels got Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago; and the White Sox got Adam Eaton. While the Diamondbacks may appear to have lost that trade in the early going -- Trumbo has minus-0.3 WAR despite an NL-leading seven home runs, and is currently on the DL -- a lot can happen in the next five months to change our evaluations.

Matt Harvey joins baseball’s elite, but leaves just as quickly

At the end of July in 2012, the Mets added Matt Harvey to their rotation and were immediately rewarded. He posted a 2.73 ERA over 10 starts, cementing his place in the Mets’ rotation. Harvey was even better over a larger sample size in 2013, and it all began in his first start. The right-hander shut out the Padres over seven innings with 10 strikeouts and held the opposition to two or fewer runs in eight out of his first nine starts.

The Mets shut Harvey down after his 26th start on August 24. He finished with a 2.27 ERA, 191 strikeouts and 31 walks in 178 1/3 innings. He led the league in FIP at 2.01 and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting.

In September, it was revealed that Harvey needed Tommy John surgery to repair a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Harvey had tried his best to avoid surgery, but ultimately went under the knife on October 22. The operation meant that he will miss most or all of the 2014 season, a serious blow to the Mets.

Pitchers, as a group, seemingly are needing Tommy John surgery now more than they ever have. Harvey was later joined by Medlen, Beachy, Matt Moore, Patrick Corbin, Jarrod Parker, Jameson Taillon and now Ivan Nova, among others who needed the surgery.

The Red Sox really were baseball’s best

At the end of April 2013, the Red Sox had baseball’s best record at 18-8. It was matched by baseball’s best run differential at plus-38. The Sox had finished 2012 at a disappointing 69-93, but made a lot of personnel changes, including at manager, during the offseason. Still, few had them winning the AL East going into the season. Only four of the ESPN experts polled in March picked the Red Sox to make the postseason, and all four of them pegged the Sox as wild-card winners, not division winners.

The additions of Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp, Jake Peavy and Koji Uehara proved to be just what the doctor ordered even though only Napoli and Carp came out of the gates hitting. Peavy wasn’t acquired until midseason in a trade with the White Sox, and Uehara didn’t become the closer until late June.

The Red Sox were fearsome enough with their core of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Shane Victorino and Jacoby Ellsbury. But the ebbs and flows of a season sometimes require tinkering, and GM Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell weren’t afraid to tinker when the situation called for it.

Right now, the Athletics (plus-36) and the Braves (plus-21) have the best run differentials in their respective leagues. Will they still be at the top when the end of the regular season rolls around? Will they make the appropriate adjustments to remain competitive through the dog days of summer? That is, after all, why they play the games.