This year’s Winter Warm-Up was a bit fiery, huh?
There’s no need to belabor the situation—if you’re here on VEB, you know the course of events at this point.
News of Kris Bryant and Ryan Dempster’s comments, and Yadier Molina’s response, has been plastered all over both cities’ media outlets and content hubs. Twitter and Instagram were packed with angry, feuding fans. Molina told MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch the friction will carry into the season.
And I really, really love it.
Before getting into the “why,” I have to preface by saying that I have no problem with the comments from either side. Bryant and Dempster were at Cubs Convention speaking to an audience of Cubs fans. Molina loves St. Louis—and St. Louis loves him—and I wouldn’t think we would expect anything else from the passionate team voice Molina has become.
There are also some fan responses that go way over the line. Anyone wishing or causing harm on another because of something like this needs to dial it back quite a bit.
Beyond that, though, a bit of trash talk between these two teams is good for the fanbases, the rivalry and the league.
Do it for the narrative
The story really couldn’t be written any better.
We’re in an era where both teams are trying to compete.
The Cardinals’ dominance, featuring three straight division titles, four consecutive NLCS appearances and a World Series win, was followed by the Cubs taking two straight division titles, three consecutive NLCS appearances and a World Series of their own.
The turning point, where the power seemed to change hands, came in the 2015 NLDS. After a nail-biting season where three teams in the division finished with 97 wins or more, the 2nd wildcard Chicago Cubs take down the division-winning Cardinals in four games and sign two of their players in the offseason.
The Brewers aren’t to be ignored by any means. But we’ll get to that later.
Ultimately, we’re looking at a hungry Cardinals team carrying a playoff drought of three years trying to regain the upper hand over a Cubs team that has seen October baseball the past four years.
The Redbirds have made quite a few big moves this offseason to try to close that gap. They have a new manager and several new coaches.
Sports fans love drama. The passion is the point, when it comes to team fandom.
The build-up to this season was made even better by the conflict.
The most competitive division in baseball
The NL Central featured a lot of scratching and clawing to gain ground in 2018. The final standings don’t tell the full story of the Cardinals’ late-season collapse after a torrid stretch.
The Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers are set to have another showdown this season. The Cards have made upgrades, but Milwaukee made their team quite a bit better by adding Yasmani Grandal behind the plate.
Looking further down the list, the Reds have made some significant moves that put their name in the mix.
They’ve added Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to an already-intriguing group of outfielders.
The big moves, though, are the starting pitching additions. That’s what Cincinnati has really needed in the power hitter’s paradise that is Great American Ball Park. Now they have Tanner Roark, Alex Wood and Sonny Gray to plug into their rotation.
The Pirates really aren’t to be overlooked, either. Young corner infielders Josh Bell and Colin Moran are going to be tough to deal with. Corey Dickerson had an excellent 2018. Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer aren’t slouches at the front of the rotation.
Refraining from using any major statistical projections until we get the rest of the ZiPS, we’ll just look at the sportsbooks projections, with these released by BetOnline earlier this week:
BetOnline 2019 Projected Standings
|HOU - 96.5||CLE - 90.5||BOS - 95.5||LAD - 94.5||CHC - 88.5||WSH - 87.5|
|LAA - 83.5||MIN - 84.5||NYY - 95.5||COL - 82.5||STL - 88.5||NYM - 84.5|
|OAK - 83.5||CHW - 75.5||TBR - 84.5||SDP - 78.5||MIL - 84.5||PHI - 84.5|
|SEA - 74.5||KCR - 69.5||TOR - 77.5||ARI - 77.5||CIN - 77.5||ATL - 83.5|
|TEX - 70.5||DET - 67.5||BAL - 60.5||SFG - 73.5||PIT - 77.5||MIA - 65.5|
These aren’t ideal, and I believe we have some deeper analysis coming on the division itself later this week. The specific win numbers aren’t the focus; the point illustrated here is that the tightest division from top to bottom is the NL Central.
The five teams in the NL Central are separated by just 11 games in these projections. All but one other division—the NL East—doesn’t have a third place team closer than 11 games out.
Sitting at the top, in a dead heat? The Cardinals and Cubs. This type of fire around what’s projected to be an extremely close pennant race only makes it that much better.
We saw the effect of the passion in that historic rivalry last season, when Red Sox fans were still chanting, “Yankees suck” in World Series games.
Bringing flare to baseball
In a sport where the validity of bat flips after big home runs and fist pumps following clutch Ks is still debated by fans, some off-the-field jawing can build intensity in a way everyone can appreciate.
I enjoy displays of emotion on the field. Baseball needs that visible passion to survive and thrive. Younger fans, in particular, seem overwhelmingly in favor of the showmanship making its way into the game.
A strikeout of Bryant at Busch, or the same of Molina at Wrigley, is going to get fans up from their seats. A walk-off win is going to ignite the team.
It makes these games that much more meaningful and brings some inherent emotion to the play on the field. It gives direction to discussions outside of the games and makes the buildup to the season series even bigger.
Players claiming ownership of the team
It’s fun to see the players get passionate too.
It makes it feel less like people just doing their jobs and instead like they’re playing for their specific team and fanbase. Like they really care about that one specific logo across their chests.
That’s not to say all players view baseball as a desk job, or that they dont’ care about the organization. When it comes down to it, though, the team is their employer. As a fan—or for me, personally—it’s nice to see half of the team liking Yadi’s post on Instagram. It’s cool to see Jack Flaherty post about it on his snapchat story.
Being a fan of a team can have a tribal feel to it at times—there’s an identity there. A camaraderie with other fans. An identification with these players we’ve never met.
To see them love the organization as much as we do is a good feeling.