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.
We’ll be ready to host spring training, delay or no delay
After sending a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred that suggested delaying spring training “to allow for the COVID-19 situation to improve here,” Cactus League executive director Bridget Binsbacher told ESPN on Monday that the 10 Phoenix-area facilities that host teams will be ready to open if games start as scheduled.
“If it is determined that spring training is going to start on Feb. 27, we’re prepared for that,” Binsbacher told ESPN in an interview. “Our focus is having a safe, secure experience for all involved. We believe we can do that on the 27th. We believe we can do that a month from the 27th.”
Binsbacher’s letter, which was co-signed by six mayors, two city managers and a president of a tribal community, cited the Phoenix area’s high COVID-19 infection rate and a model that “projects a sharp decline in infections in Arizona by mid-March.” Fifteen teams are scheduled to arrive in Arizona around mid-February, with games slated to begin Feb. 27. The Cactus League has no authority to change the schedule.
The letter comes as MLB and the MLB Players Association attempt to juggle a series of issues, including the viability of starting games on time, in a continuation of their strained relationship that manifested itself last season with Manfred’s implementation of a 60-game schedule. The union is insistent on playing a full 162-game season this year and continues to chafe at the notion of anything less.
In a statement, the MLBPA said: “While we, of course, share the goals of a safe spring training and regular season, MLB has repeatedly assured us that it has instructed its teams to be prepared for an on-time start to spring training and the regular season.”
The league, in a statement, said: “As we have previously said publicly, we will continue to consult with public health authorities, medical experts and the players association whether any schedule modifications to the announced start of spring training and the championship season should be made in light of the current COVID-19 environment to ensure the safety of the players, coaches, umpires, MLB employees and other gameday personnel in a sport that plays every day.”
Binsbacher said the Cactus League had worked with spring-training facilities, other local sports and MLB since September — and that MLB did not specifically request the letter. The concern from officials expressed in it goes against the actions taken by sports franchises and others in the Phoenix area. The Arizona Coyotes and San Jose Sharks are playing regular-season NHL games in Glendale, the Phoenix Suns are having regular-season NBA games downtown, and high schools across the area are participating in all sports.
One issue with baseball, Binsbacher said, is the influx of tourists — six in 10 who attend spring-training games are from out of state, she said — and the packed schedule teams play. “The big difference here,” she said, “is we’ve got 32 to 36 days straight of spring training.”
Further, Binsbacher said, the likelihood of the COVID spike in Arizona abating is greater with every day delayed. Arizona leads the United States in COVID case rate and death rate, a position it has held for most of January. The state is averaging nearly twice as many cases per 100,000 people than the average in the United States.
“We know that there’s a vaccine and that it’s going to have been administered,” Binsbacher said. “The projections say that the cases will plummet by mid-March. That makes it absolutely more manageable to do this with every additional day.”
A December executive order by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey limited the number of people at a public event to 50 “unless the city, town or county in unincorporated areas has determined that adequate safety precautions which are consistent with the guidance issued by both the CDC and ADHS for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 are documented as part of the request.” If the mayors or other leaders insist spring training will not come to Phoenix, it could scuttle the Cactus League — though sources doubt they have the political will to do so, particularly as other sports are held in the area.
Any spring training delay could theoretically have an effect on the regular season — something the MLBPA is treating as a nonstarter and MLB understands would cause regular-season games to move into October and postseason games to November. Already the discussions between the union and league about potential playoff expansion and the implementation of the universal designated hitter have gone nowhere. The MLBPA, sources said, rejected and didn’t counter an MLB proposal to expand the playoffs this year to 14 teams, fearful that a diluted playoff system would disincentivize teams from spending in free agency.
With the current collective-bargaining agreement set to expire in December, the relationship between the sides has remained frosty. Whether the letter is simply much ado about nothing or the first salvo in the latest fight between the two remains to be seen.
MLB to hold first pre-draft combine from June 20-28 in Cary, North Carolina
Major League Baseball will hold its first-ever pre-draft combine June 20-28 in Cary, North Carolina, at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
The group of invited players will be chosen in consultation with MLB scouts, and the event will include a tournament involving 88 of those players through the 26th, to give scouts in-game looks of the players in addition to combine testing. There will also be medical, educational and various performance assessments happening at the event.
It will be a unique information-collecting opportunity for teams, timed in the leadup to the 2021 MLB draft, which is July 11-13 in Atlanta around the All-Star Game festivities. The draft will be at least 20 rounds.
This year will also see the return of MLB’s PDP (prospect development pipeline) event for 2022-eligible draft prospects on July 22 through Aug. 1, also to be held in Cary. The event was skipped in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and will return to being one of the key early-summer events for 2022 prospects, taking place just after the 2021 draft has concluded.
Both the pre-draft combine and PDP events are voluntary and free of charge for participants.
Jameson Taillon excited to join Yankees, reunite with Gerrit Cole
“Every night you get a five-star cooked meal,” Taillon said. “Even if he’s cooking for himself, he’s going to marinate whatever he’s cooking properly. He’s going to do everything with the perfect execution. He’s going to have a perfect wine pairing for it.”
Taillon, recuperating from his second Tommy John surgery, was acquired Sunday for four prospects. He joins a revamped rotation headed by Cole and projected to include Deivi García, Jordan Montgomery and Corey Kluber, whose pending $11 million, one-year deal is expected to be finalized this week.
A 29-year-old right-hander, Taillon has not pitched since May 1, 2019. In addition to the elbow operations with New York Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek on April 9, 2014, and on Aug. 13, 2019, he also had operations for a sports hernia on July 8, 2015, and for testicular cancer on May 8, 2017. He was hit on the head by a 105 mph line drive off the bat of Milwaukee’s Hernán Pérez on July 19, 2016, and stayed in the game.
“When you’re going through it, it doesn’t seem like as much as it sounds. That sounds crazy. But each injury is separate. Each experience is separate,” he said.
Taillon felt he didn’t fulfill the confidence Pittsburgh showed when he was selected with the second overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft. He was disappointed the Pirates blew up a group that came through the minors together and admitted “seeing all my good friends get traded in Pittsburgh and to see the direction we were headed … didn’t necessarily light a fire” and he thought a trade “was necessary.”
“I’m jumping into a legendary franchise, a legendary organization,” he said. “I overnight went from a rebuilding organization to a team like the Yankees where I’m stepping in and the only thing they care about is to win. So that’s kind of lit a fire under me.”
When he awoke from his last operation, he decided he needed to relieve pressure on his elbow, putting more work on his legs and shortening his arm motion. He reworked his mechanics with Ben Fairchild, a sports performance manager in Houston who has assisted Andy Pettitte, Mark Melancon, and Anthony Rendon; Pirates director of sports performance A.J. Patrick; Pirates pitching coach Oscar Marin; Pirates bullpen coach Justin Meccage and the Florida Baseball Ranch in Lakeland.
He started throwing bullpen sessions last July and got up to about three innings of batting practice. Taillon thinks his fastball velocity is about 95 mph, where it was before the latest injury, and he gained deception. Taillon plans to leave heavily on his four-seam fastball, alternating curveballs and sliders along with occasional changeups.
“I hate seeing videos of the way I used to throw. It disgusts me,” he said. “I kind of had like a coming-to-grips moment where I said, you know what, my current set of mechanics and what I’m doing isn’t working. That’s just the cold, hard truth. I need to change something or else my career is going to be over. So I stripped it all the way down. With rehab, all you have this time. I had 12, 15, 16 months to strip it down and kind of revamp my mechanics and revamp my career.”
Taillon was inspired watching former Pirates teammate Daniel Hudson overcame two Tommy John operations and strike out Houston’s Michael Brantley for the final out of the 2019 World Series for Washington. Taillon looks forward to reaching the big league playoffs for the first time with the Yankees.
“New York’s one of those organizations where it’s all about winning. From what I’ve heard, nothing else matters in that clubhouse,” he said. “It’s a group of guys trying to make each other better, trying to push for October. And I mean, seriously, ever since I got the news that the Yankees are where I was headed, I can’t stop thinking about that. I’ve heard Yankee Stadium in October is just absolutely incredible.”
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