OK, enough with Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani and J.D. Martinez. Those guys have received enough publicity early in spring training. Let’s look at some under-the-radar players, guys who don’t get much publicity but, though they might not be big stars, help their teams win baseball games.
Baltimore Orioles: Mychal Givens, RP. Hey, a relief pitcher! (It will be a theme.) The Orioles don’t really have another strong candidate, especially with Jonathan Schoop getting some love with his breakout, All-Star performance in 2017. Givens has thrown 153 1/3 innings the past two seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA, which is something. Do you ever get the feeling Buck Showalter could find eight guys at a tryout camp and turn them into a useful bullpen?
Boston Red Sox: Drew Pomeranz, SP. With all the attention given to Chris Sale’s Cy Young pursuit and David Price’s drama and Rick Porcello’s struggles, Pomeranz quietly went 17-6 with a 3.32 ERA while fanning 174 in 173 2/3 innings. He’s a free agent after 2018, and if he posts a third straight strong season, he’s going to become a very rich man.
Chicago White Sox: Nick Delmonico, LF. These are actual strikeout-to-walk ratios of some White Sox hitters in 2017: 162 to 13, 117 to 19, 111 to 33, 165 to 19. Delmonico, on the other hand, was 31 to 23 in his 166 plate appearances, which was almost Ted Williams-esque for this team. So, please, let’s hope he can actually hit.
Cleveland Indians: Dan Otero, RP. His ERAs the past five seasons: 1.38, 2.28, 6.75, 1.53, 2.85. He had 46 bad innings for the A’s in 2015, which is how the Indians were able to get him for nothing, but at some point, we have to believe he’s the real deal, even despite the middling fastball and low strikeout rate. With the departure of Bryan Shaw in free agency, Otero could see a more vital role in 2018.
Detroit Tigers: Warwick Saupold, RP. I just wanted to type “Warwick Saupold” at least once this year. It sounds like a name from some dystopian novel in which America is attacked by mutant lifeforms and only a baseball player and part-time scientist named Warwick Saupold can save the day. Except Saupold isn’t American. He’s Australian! (OK, sorry, Tigers fans. How about Shane Greene? He could be a good closer this year.)
Houston Astros: Josh Reddick, RF. He got more attention last season for celebrating the AL West title while wearing American Flag underwear than for anything he did on the field. The first year of his four-year, $52 million contract was a huge success, however, as he hit .314/.363/.484 while playing a solid right field. He has averaged 3.6 WAR per season since 2012.
Kansas City Royals: Whit Merrifield, 2B. I just realized this: Merrifield led the AL with 34 steals. OK, so it was the lowest league-leading figure in either league since Luis Aparacio led the AL with 31 in 1962. Even so, Merrifield has turned himself into a nice player, with 3.9 WAR in 2017 — not bad for a ninth-round pick who never got any attention as a prospect.
Los Angeles Angels: Martin Maldonado, C. You might be thinking, “a catcher who hit .221 and drove in 38 runs? What kind of list is this?” That’s kind of the point. Maldonado’s defense is that good. The bat is weak other than an occasional home run, but Maldonado was worthy of the Gold Glove he won, throwing out 39 percent of base stealers to go with strong framing metrics.
Minnesota Twins: Jorge Polanco, SS. Polanco’s first full season produced 2.1 WAR and more power than expected, with 46 extra-base hits. Polanco’s strikeout rate was well below the league average, and his defense graded out as average as well (minus-1 Defensive Runs Saved). He’s young enough to get better, especially if you look at his second-half numbers: .293/.359/.511, 10 home runs.
Oakland Athletics: Matt Chapman, 3B. He won’t be anonymous for long if he keeps playing defense like Nolan Arenado. His rookie season showed some promise in the power category to go with spectacular defense, and if he can clean up the offensive approach and improve the OBP (.313 last year), he’s going to make several All-Star teams in his career.
Toronto Blue Jays: J.A. Happ, SP. Over the past three seasons, he’s 41-23 with a 3.43 ERA. That’s 21st among pitchers with at least 400 innings, better than Gerrit Cole, Marcus Stroman and Chris Archer. If Happ has another solid season, he’ll pass Mark Loretta in career WAR among players from Northwestern.
Seattle Mariners: Mitch Haniger, RF. If you want a good breakout candidate for 2018, check out Haniger. He was hitting .342 in late April when he went down with a strained oblique. Later, he was hit in the face by a pitch and went on the DL. But he returned in September and hit .353 with seven home runs (though his strikeout-to-walk ratio, strong early in the season, deteriorated to 27/3). He is 27 years old and a plus defender in right and was worth 3.0 WAR last season in just 96 games.
Texas Rangers: Alex Claudio, RP. Claudio is an aberration in this day of flame-throwing relievers, a lefty sinker-baller who throws an 86 mph fastball. His ground ball rate, however, was over 60 percent the past two seasons, so he gets the job done — 2.61 ERA the past two seasons with just seven home runs allowed in 134 1/3 innings — with a strikeout rate that even a 1980s closer would blush over.
Tampa Bay Rays: Mallex Smith, CF. Think Ender Inciarte skill set. Hey, nobody thought much of Inciarte his first two seasons, either. If Smith does turn out to be that valuable — and he has 2.7 WAR in 497 career plate appearances — that will soothe the loss of Steven Souza.
New York Yankees: Jordan Montgomery, SP. A report the other day said the Yankees were still interested in Lance Lynn. I’m not sure why, as Lynn isn’t better than Montgomery, who had a completely under-the-radar rookie season, going 9-7 with a 3.88 ERA and solid peripherals. He is a big kid (6-foot-6), has a four-pitch arsenal, throws hard enough for a lefty (92-mph average fastball) and finished strong (2.49 ERA in September). There’s zero reason to displace him from the rotation.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Robbie Ray, SP. Yes, another reason to mention Robbie Ray. I feel like his agent owes me a little under-the-table payment. But he’s really good! He averaged 12.1 K’s per nine innings! If the humidor that is being installed in Arizona works to suppress offense, Ray could be a Cy Young contender.
Atlanta Braves: Ender Inciarte, CF. He has won back-to-back Gold Gloves and made the All-Star team last year, so it’s not like he’s being ignored, but this is the kind of player still underrated by the masses. J.D. Martinez is getting a $100 million-plus contract, but Inciarte has outperformed him in cumulative WAR the past four seasons, 15.7 to 15.2.
Cincinnati Reds: Tucker Barnhart, C. The new Gold Glove voting system is a big improvement over when managers and coaches just voted for the same guys every year. Barnhart was a deserving winner in 2017. In the past, the award no doubt would have gone to Buster Posey because of his bat or Yadier Molina as a legacy choice. Plus, Barnhart isn’t an automatic out at the plate, with a .270/.347/.403 line.
Colorado Rockies: Jon Gray, SP. Clayton Kershaw might have trouble keeping his ERA under 4.00 at Coors Field in this home-run-dominated era, but that’s exactly what Gray did in 2017. Caveat: He made just 20 starts (only eight of them at Coors) after a broken foot suffered in his third start. But if he pitches like he did last year over 30 starts, we’re looking at a potential 5-WAR pitcher — with maybe even more upside, given that he has just 58 major league starts.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Ross Stripling, RP. There’s nothing too fancy about Stripling, and though the Dodgers used him almost exclusively in relief in 2017, he could start for a lot of teams. You know, maybe the World Series turns out differently if Dave Roberts doesn’t bury him at the back of the pen.
Miami Marlins: Derek Dietrich, UT. He’s been a terrific bench player the past three seasons, hitting .261/.351/.432 while playing second, third and left field. He could be the regular in left field, and if he produces, he probably gets traded.
Milwaukee Brewers: Travis Shaw, 3B. His numbers were less than stellar with the Red Sox in 2016. The Brewers picked him up for reliever Tyler Thornburg, and Shaw broke out with .273/.349/.513 season that included 31 home runs, all while caring for his daughter, who was born in June with a heart abnormality that required three life-threatening surgeries (she was released from the hospital in December). Shaw plays a solid third base, especially impressive for a guy who spent more time in the minors at first base, and he hit better on the road, so he didn’t just take advantage of Miller Park.
New York Mets: Jerry Blevins, RP. Every team needs a 6-foot-6, 190-pound LOOGY (left-handed, one-out guy). Blevins has carved out a nice career in part because he isn’t completely useless against righties, though Terry Collins limited him to just 91 innings in 148 games the past two seasons.
Philadelphia Phillies: Cesar Hernandez, 2B. Everyone kind of expected the Phillies to trade Hernandez to clear room for prospect Scott Kingery, but they didn’t and with good reason: Hernandez is good. He averaged 3.2 WAR the past two seasons, and the Phillies might end up keeping him and turning Kingery into a Ben Zobrist-type utility guy.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Josh Bell, 1B. It seems like we waited forever for Bell to arrive, and when he finally played his first full season, we kind of ignored it. There were some positive signs, with 26 home runs and solid control of the strike zone without an excessive strikeout rate. To get to the next level, Bell will need to hit fewer ground balls (51 percent ground ball rate) and take advantage of his natural power.
St. Louis Cardinals: Jose Martinez, 1B/LF. Tommy Pham? You know about Tommy Pham by now. Martinez could always hit — he hit .384 in Triple-A in 2015 — but became one of those launch-angle guys last season and began clearing the fence with regularity. He hit 14 home runs in 272 at-bats as part of a .309/.379/.518 line and at the minimum should start against lefties and serve as a strong weapon off the bench.
San Diego Padres: Dinelson Lamet, SP. Hey, they won more games than the Giants, so somebody must be doing something. Lamet struck out 139 in 114 1/3 innings as a rookie while holding batters to a .210 average, so it isn’t surprising to see that he averaged 95 mph with his fastball. He’s a fastball/slider guy with below-average control, however, so lefties also slugged .502 off him. If he can develop an off-speed pitch, watch out.
San Francisco Giants: Hunter Strickland, RP. Bryce Harper‘s favorite relief pitcher. Strickland is known largely for giving up bombs to Harper in the postseason and then instigating a brawl after throwing at Harper last May. However, he has quietly been the one consistent Giants reliever, with a 2.75 ERA the past three seasons.
Washington Nationals: Ryan Madson, RP. Maybe you could go with Anthony Rendon, who led NL position players in FanGraphs WAR, but he has two top-six MVP finishes in his career (that’s one more than Bryce Harper), so you can’t say he flies under the radar. How about Madson, who has been good for three seasons after missing three seasons after Tommy John surgery and a long path to recovery? Between the A’s and Nationals, he was quietly one of the game’s best relievers in 2017: 59 IP, 38 H, 2 HRs, 9 BB, 67 K’s.
DJ LeMahieu thrilled to play in front of crowd, knows ‘how much it means to a lot of fans to watch the Yankees’
As in, fans in the stands when the Yankees host the Toronto Blue Jays at Steinbrenner Field.
Due to restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, it will be the first time fans will see the Yankees play in-person since a spring training game last March 12.
“To me it’s just Major League Baseball with fans,” LeMahieu said on Saturday. “Last year I’m glad we played. Glad we were able to get in as many games as we could and I thought the playoffs was cool but just missed that adrenaline and excitement.”
The limited crowd due to safety protocols for Sunday’s game is expected to be around 2,800 in the ballpark that has a capacity of over 10,000.
“You can definitely tell how excited people are to go to baseball games, especially to watch the Yankees and that’s what I’m excited about,” LeMahieu said. “I enjoy the game but I know how much it means to a lot of fans to watch the Yankees and baseball.”
Social distancing and mask wearing rules are in place and there will be no close interaction between players and fans like signing autographs.
“I definitely miss that,” said LeMahieu, who led the majors in batting last year. “It’s not always my favorite thing to do but I know how much it means. It’s something I look forward to. Hopefully that kind of interaction returns.”
The Blue Jays will also be playing before fans for the first time in almost a year.
“In just watching other events, whether it was college football, NFL games, different games where fans were there in limited capacities, it does change the look and the feel even watching it on TV I felt like,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “I’m sure it will be nice for the guys to have that environment and atmosphere that only the fans can create.”
Boone said the first time the lack of fans last year really hit him hard was the initial series with the Boston Red Sox.
“Where there’s just that normal extra buzz, angst and intensity in a regular-season setting,” Boone said.
Albert Pujols reiterates he’ll decide future after season with Los Angeles Angels
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Albert Pujols woke up from a nap last Monday in Arizona to find several hundred messages and missed calls on his phone.
While he was sleeping, the Los Angeles Angels slugger’s wife, Deidre, had put up a complimentary Instagram post about her husband that was widely interpreted to mean Pujols had decided to retire after this season, his 21st in the majors.
“Hey, that’s the life we’re living on social media,” Pujols said Saturday with a chuckle. “It’s sad that everybody just had to run with it.”
The 41-year-old slugger quickly reiterated what he has been saying for months: He hasn’t decided whether he will continue playing after the conclusion of his 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels this fall, and he won’t make or announce a decision until after the season.
“I think our organization, my friends, people that follow my career for 21 years deserve better than just me or her posting something on Instagram,” Pujols said in his first interviews of spring training. “This thing just got blown out of proportion. My mind is not even there. My mind is on staying focused, healthy, and hopefully trying to help this ballclub win this year, and that’s it. If I feel at the end of the year that that’s it, I’ll announce it [and] go home. But I’m not even there yet.”
The fifth-leading home run hitter in major league history says he has more pressing concerns on his mind, primarily the chase of his first playoff victory with the Angels. Not playing in October will never stop grating on Pujols, who begins the new season with 662 homers along with 2,100 RBIs, third-most in baseball history.
“I don’t even get to watch [the postseason], because I get so mad because we should have been there,” he said.
Pujols has at least one more chance to get the team success he craves alongside Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Shohei Ohtani. The 10-time All-Star is in the midst of five consecutive losing seasons and six straight non-playoff campaigns with the Angels, but there is cautious optimism around the big-budget franchise heading into manager Joe Maddon’s second season in charge.
Even if Pujols attempts to play in 2022, he knows he is close to the end of the underwhelming second act of his career after 11 stellar seasons in St. Louis. He batted .328 with 445 homers while winning three NL MVP awards for the Cardinals, but has been a .257 hitter with 217 homers over nine years in Anaheim.
Last season, Pujols batted .224 with a .665 OPS — both the worst marks of his two-decade career — while playing in just 39 of Los Angeles’ 60 games.
This season also brings the distinct prospect of even less action for Pujols, who has remained injury-free and fairly effective as a fielder at first base over the past two years.
He’s certain to split playing time at first with Jared Walsh, who batted .337 with nine homers and 26 RBIs in 22 games as a rookie last September, and with Ohtani as the Halos’ designated hitter.
Pujols says he’s fine with whatever role he gets in 2021 from Maddon, who praises the veteran slugger for his maturity and leadership.
“It’s going to be a meritocracy always, and he gets it,” Maddon said. “We’ve had the conversations. Of course he wants to play. Of course when he doesn’t play, he might not like it. He’s wired that way, and that’s how you want him to be. But he understands what’s going on. He accepts it well. Regardless of the role we put him in, I know he’s going to react to it well.”
Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera hopes to reach 500 home run, 3,000 hits in 2021 season
Specifically, Cabrera has an opportunity to reach two major milestones in 2021. He is 13 home runs shy of 500 and 134 hits short of 3,000. And yes, he’s aware of those numbers.
“I hope so. We can do both,” Cabrera said Friday with a laugh. “I hope I can get to 500, 3,000 this year. It’s one of my goals this year. Mentally, I feel good. I feel mentally strong. I’m trying to go day by day and trying to play hard.”
It’s been a while since Cabrera resembled the player who was the American League MVP in 2012 and 2013. The last time he was really impressive with the bat was in 2016, when he hit .316 with 38 home runs. From 2017-19, he played just 304 games as an assortment of injuries limited his availability.
In the meantime, the Tigers entered a major rebuild, trading away many of their top players. Cabrera, who turns 38 in April, is still on the team, which says a lot about his declining production and huge contract.
Only a half-dozen players have reached both 500 homers and 3,000 hits: Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Willie Mays, Rafael Palmeiro and Eddie Murray.
Cabrera certainly has a chance to reach both this year. He did manage to play in 57 of his team’s 58 games in the shortened 2020 season, and he hit 10 homers. In 2019, he had 139 hits in 136 games.
“I want to be healthy, and I want to do my best, and I want to do whatever I can to help the team to win games,” Cabrera said Friday.
Cabrera didn’t play in the field last year, but new manager A.J. Hinch said he’s open to him playing some at first base.
“He wants to play first. I didn’t know he voiced it near as much as I learned after I even said it,” Hinch said. “My plan for him is to make an opportunity for him to be a little more of a complete player, and not just fall in the DH category.”
Cabrera said he’s talked to Nelson Cruz about some of his work habits — the 40-year-old Cruz is still one of the game’s top home run hitters.
“I love playing baseball,” Cabrera said. “I love having fun in the field. I love going out there every night.”
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