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Analytics, rebuilding are reason for high number of unsigned MLB free agents

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BRADENTON, Fla. — For veteran free-agent infielder Chris Johnson, the warning signs started months ago, when not only was he without a team, but the phone calls just weren’t coming in.

“After you get past New Year’s and haven’t heard anything — not even a little interest — obviously you start to worry in the offseason. You’re like, ‘Man, is this it? Am I done? Am I not gonna be able to play anymore?'” Johnson said. “[When] you don’t hear anything, and people start talking about ’20 days until pitchers and catchers [report]’ and things like that, then obviously you start to panic a little bit.”

Johnson, 33, isn’t alone. Nearly one week since Grapefruit and Cactus league play began, almost a third of the offseason’s free agents in November are still without teams, which is why many of them are taking part in the Major League Baseball Players Association camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

It’s the union’s first spring training camp since the players’ strike in 1995. Former Houston Astros manager Bo Porter is leading the workouts.

Former Astros manager Bo Porter on coaching at the MLBPA free agent camp: “The thought process was, if we’re gonna do it, let’s do it the way spring training is supposed to be run.”

Jenna Laine, ESPN Staff Writer

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“I’m just asking for an opportunity, really. I’m not asking for a million bucks,” said Johnson, who spent last season on a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. “I’m asking to play for the bare minimum and just have an opportunity to continue my career. And I’m hearing a lot of the same stuff here.”

A lot of theories have been tossed around as to why so many talented veteran free agents remain unsigned, including pitchers Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, first baseman Lucas Duda, third baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielders Jon Jay and Carlos Gonzalez. One theory many in Bradenton suggested is that there’s now too much of a reliance on metrics, versus intangibles like leadership.

“With the value of free agency and players that have major league experience — it’s something that you can’t quantify,” Porter said. “So when you look at bringing in veteran guys that have played the game at a high level and the guys that we have here — these guys’ careers aren’t over with. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit and getting them into camp and getting them an opportunity to continue to prove their value to the game.”

MLBPA union representative Tony Clark believes that to be true with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 32, who won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2013 and is at the camp. Clark also acknowledged that having up to one-third of teams in full-on “rebuild mode” has also transformed the way the league is doing business.

“We have teams openly suggesting that they’re not as interested in winning today’s ballgame and they’re not as interested in being the last team standing. I did not anticipate being in that world,” Clark said. “So if that is the world we are going to be in, then there are going to need to be some conversations moving forward.”

Players at the camp all wear black MLBPA jerseys. Their schedules are structured the same as a big league camp, starting with drills and fundamentals at 7:30 a.m.

The original intent wasn’t to play any games, but the numbers of unsigned players continued to be high and the talent has been competitive enough to play some exhibition games, which are open to scouts, agents and the media. They’re not sure how long the camp will run, but the hope is that all these players will be gone and signed with teams soon.

Dave Gallagher spent nine years in the big leagues, playing outfield for eight different teams. He is a coach at the MLBPA camp and has raved about the players’ professionalism and attitude despite unfavorable circumstances — but he worries about what will happen when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

“The one thing I see, and I can see it from talking to these guys, is that they start to lose hope,” Gallagher said. “And it’s a little bit humiliating. I’m sure some of them don’t understand it. To be honest with you, I don’t understand it.”

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Houston Astros pitcher Josh James out 6-8 months after hip surgery

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HOUSTON — Astros pitcher Josh James underwent hip surgery and will need six to eight months to recover.

Houston general manager James Click said Saturday that James had a labral tear of his left hip repaired Friday.

James initially injured his hip Aug. 20 in a game at Colorado and went on the injured list. When the right-hander returned, he had a 1.35 ERA over 6 2-3 innings in his final six appearances of the regular season. James also appeared in three postseason games, pitching four innings.

For the regular season, James was 1-0 with a 7.27 ERA in 13 appearances (two starts) with 21 strikeouts.

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World Series 2020 – The Tampa Bay Rays are down only 2-1. Here’s why it feels a whole lot worse

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ARLINGTON, Texas — For the moment, the Tampa Bay Rays have answered a question that lingered even after Wednesday’s six-run output in their World Series Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers. It went something like this: Was the Rays’ anemic postseason offense waking up, or did they just get a one-day reprieve because the Dodgers pitched a bullpen game that night?

Games 1 and 3 gave us the answers we need, as the Rays put up little fight in the batter’s box in either contest and now find themselves down 2-1 in the series with their own version of a bullpen game looming.

“We need to find a way to win, that’s for sure,” manager Kevin Cash simply stated after the latest loss.

It doesn’t help that the Dodgers have dynamic lefties Julio Urias and Clayton Kershaw lined up for the next two nights. The Rays are just 11-11 this season when a lefty starts against them. In other words, the path to a championship got a whole lot harder for the American League representative. Catcher Mike Zunino is taking the proverbial glass-half-full approach.

“Guys have been hitting the ball hard lately,” he said. “The luck hasn’t been there, but that’s all part of it. We have to stay consistent and put our work in. Eventually we’ll get some bounces.”

But are they running out of time?

If the Dodgers were planning several more bullpen games, it wouldn’t be fair to eliminate Game 2 from the Rays’ offensive statistics. But they’re not, so it’s appropriate to look at it this way. Minus that game, the Rays are 10-for-62 (.161) with 23 strikeouts in their two World Series losses. For the entire postseason, minus Game 2 of this series, they’re hitting just .203.

Again, unless the Dodgers are throwing more of their “B” relievers, these are the numbers that matter. And what about all that talk of a Brandon Lowe breakout after his two-homer performance on Wednesday? His three-strikeout night in Game 3 is a nice microcosm of the Rays right now: Their production has been spotty at best this postseason.

“We see it quite a bit when our pitching is on and we go against good offenses,” Cash stated. “That’s what we saw on the flip side [in Game 3]. Just dominant, dominant stuff.”

The scary part for the Rays is Game 3 winner Walker Buehler had a “lofty” ERA of 1.89 coming into the night when compared to Game 4 starter Urias, whose 0.56 mark leads all starting pitchers this postseason. As do his four wins.

The Rays’ best shot is to scratch a run or two across the board as early as possible. They’re a major-league-best 31-7 when scoring first this season.

“We seem to be a much better club when we get early leads,” Cash said. “Whatever we can do to get some runs early.”

Easier said than done for the Rays right now with their 2-1 series hole feeling a lot deeper than just a one-game deficit.

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World Series Daily — Will Julio Urias, Dodgers push Rays to brink in Game 4?

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After all the oddities of the MLB regular season and postseason, the 2020 World Series pits baseball’s top two teams against each other, which doesn’t happen every year. And while we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Dodgers playing for the championship, this is the first Fall Classic for the Rays since 2008 and only the second in franchise history.

Here’s what you need to know for Game 4 on Saturday night, including a look at the pitching matchup, predictions, odds, other key numbers and more.

Key links: Viewers guide | Schedule | Playoff Baseball Classic

What’s on tap

World Series Game 4: Tampa Bay Rays (Ryan Yarbrough) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias), 8:08 p.m. ET in Arlington, Texas

Heading into the series, I thought Game 4 looked like the game that might be the most important, the game most likely to be the tipping point on who ultimately wins. Before Game 1, it looked like a potential bullpen game for both teams, but since the Dodgers did not have to use Julio Urias in their bullpen effort in Game 2, he’s now ready and rested for a conventional start. The Rays, meanwhile, will hope Yarbrough can keep the first three batters (Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, Justin Turner) under control well enough to help him get through the first three or four innings.

The pitching advantage on paper in the first half of the game goes to the Dodgers. Urias has been outstanding in the postseason, allowing two runs (one earned) over 16 innings, culminating with his nine up, nine down effort to close out Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Long a heralded prospect, Urias debuted for the Dodgers in 2016 at 19 years old, battled some shoulder injuries and has been nursed along slowly the past couple of seasons. He is still just 24 but has already made 16 postseason appearances, so the moment shouldn’t be too big for him. He works off a 94 mph fastball, with an excellent curveball and a changeup he throws to right-handers. Both the fastball and curveball come with a high spin rate, helping Urias induce a lot of soft contact even though his swing-and-miss rate is below average (although it’s been higher in the postseason).

Yarbrough is a soft-tossing lefty who needs his cutter working to get in on the hands of righties. It was a great pitch for him in 2019 (.200/.230/.338 against RHB) but hasn’t been as effective in 2020 (.317/.376/.510). Given the state of the series, Rays skipper Kevin Cash will have to play all his cards in this game, which could mean a quick hook for Yarbrough if he gets into trouble. Cash can’t let it get out of hand early without getting his top relievers into the game. That shouldn’t be an issue since Friday’s blowout meant Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo didn’t pitch.

Two wild cards to watch for: First, the Dodgers are playing a little small ball, with Betts stealing bases and the Austin Barnes sacrifice squeeze bunt in Game 3; and we still don’t know who the Dodgers’ closer will be in a close game. — David Schoenfield


Running World Series odds

Dodgers 81.7%; Rays 18.3%


Game 4 predictions

Schoenfield: The Tampa Bay offense is still struggling, barely hitting over .200 in the postseason. The Dodgers, meanwhile, continue to do a lot of their damage with two strikes — all five of their runs off Charlie Morton in Game 3 came with two strikes (and two outs). I like the way Urias has been pitching, and the Rays’ lineup against lefties has featured Hunter Renfroe and his .156 average hitting cleanup. Maybe he runs into something. I’ll bet against it. We are due for a close game, however. Dodgers 3, Rays 2.

Alden Gonzalez: The Dodgers’ offense looks dialed in — almost as much as their Game 4 starter, Julio Urias, who has allowed one earned run over 16 innings this postseason. The Rays will counter with what amounts to a bullpen game, giving the Dodgers a premium opportunity to take control of this series. They know it, too. Dodgers 9, Rays 3.

Dan Mullen: I’m starting to have serious doubts that we’ll have baseball to watch after this weekend now that the Dodgers have a 2-1 series lead, as the pitching just does not set up well for the Rays the next two nights. Having Urias head to the mound in Game 4 isn’t quite like having Clayton Kershaw or Walker Buehler, but it is a clear advantage over the bullpen game the Rays are going to deploy. There’s a very good chance that means we see Kershaw on the mound with a chance to clinch in Game 5. Dodgers 6, Rays 3.


Stat of the day

With his ninth-inning home run in Game 3, Randy Arozarena of the Rays set an MLB record for total bases in the postseason (52) with his 23rd hit of the postseason — a single-season record for postseason hits by a rookie, and now he’s just three hits shy of Pablo Sandoval’s mark for any player in a single postseason at 26, set with the Giants in their 2014 title run.


Social media post of the day


Best moment of the MLB playoffs to date

Cody Bellinger managed to one-up … Cody Bellinger. The Dodgers outfielder had held this crown since he robbed Fernando Tatis Jr. of a home run in a thrilling Dodgers-San Diego Padres NL Division Series Game 2; but his NLCS-deciding Game 7 home run to put Los Angeles in the World Series was just enough to take over the top spot.


The running MLB playoffs MVP

Randy Arozarena has gone from an unknown outfielder to this October’s breakout star. Going into the playoffs, you might have been asking, “Who is this guy?” But the Rays’ trade for him has been a huge factor in their postseason run. His eight long balls have made a big impression — tying him with Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltran and Nelson Cruz for the record for most home runs in a postseason. Arozarena also has set a postseason record with 52 total bases, leads all players in hits (23) and is second in runs (15). And he has been flashing some leather in the outfield and some sweet celebration dance moves on the field.



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