Normal Service is Resumed…Kinda

Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes and the Pittsburgh Pirates had been threatening a baseball revolution for several months this year. Pujols was starting to look like he may be no more than a very good hitter, Reyes was doing a good impression of a focused and physically durable individual, and the Pirates looked from a distance like contenders for the postseason.

Just two weeks ago I felt the need to reassure you that the Pirates would assuredly come back down to earth in due course because they really aren’t that good. Confident as I was, I didn’t expect them to fall of a cliff more or less from the moment this column went to print. In fact they embarked on an epic spree of pitching futility, meatballing their way to an 8.05 ERA during a 10-game losing streak that placed them squarely where I said they’d end up – in a battle with the Reds for third palce in the division. Except that even third place is looking optimistic at this point.

You just have to wonder which delusional optimist in their front office thought trading for has-been Derek Lee and never-was Ryan Ludwick would be a good idea. Did someone in a darkened room whisper quietly, “They’ll put us over the top”? And if so, did General Manager Neal Huntington mistake a reference to the machine-gunning of First World War soldiers emerging from their trenches, for an optimistic call to make a serious push for the National League Central crown? Whatever, those guys are dead weight for any ballclub that thinks it’s going someplace good.

Then there’s the allegedly back-on-track Albert Pujols, the larger-than-life cog in the significant mechanism that is the St Louis offense, which leads the NL in runs scored. Except that Albert’s not really back. He had a July close to his career norms, with average over .300 and on-base percentage over .400, which meant that everyone turned off their Albert monitors, thinking everything was OK again following his disastrous April. However, since the All-Star break his OBP is only .324, which would punch most people’s tickets back to the minor leagues.

This is Albert’s tenth year and he’s not exactly a small guy, so it’s not beyond the realm of the possible that, at 31, he’s started a long decline. But that’s not likely – more plausible is that he is simply having what everyone else has from time to time but he’s never suffered – a down year; a year in which he won’t achieve his career norms but will likely be followed by a return to form in 2012. The wrinkle of course is that this is his free agent year, and no-one knows yet how much his (relatively) lower stats from this year will impact his value on the market. Particularly bearing in mind he turned down a massive offer from St. Louis during Spring Training, specifically so that he could get into that free agent market.

And Jose Reyes, notoriously flaky of attitude and flimsy of leg, who routinely excites scouts with his speed and infuriates teammates with his tendency to disappear at crunch time or pull up lame. This year started refreshingly different for Jose, who coincidentally (or not) becomes a free agent after the season. For a time there all his ailments seemed to disappear and his hustle seemed consistent, until a bad hamstring put him on the Disabled List…twice. This second injury, with Reyes doing nothing more than running out a grounder to first base, ensures a greater degree of predictability to his season. Yes, the first half had him posting MVP-worthy numbers, but ultimately he will as usual be nothing more than a footnote on the season. The Mets on the other hand may be secretly pleased about the injury – they’re out of contention anyway and this injury should hurt Reyes’ value on the free agent market, thereby possibly opening the way for the Mets to re-sign him at a lower value than seemed possible just one month ago.

And in case all that wasn’t enough to convince that normal service has (kinda) been resumed, remember the Alex Rodriguez has again been shown to do something really stupid (illegal poker games apparently). A-Rod hadn’t been caught doing something egregiously stupid for…well, for months.

I was starting to get worried.

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