Week Five In The MLB: Chicago Cubs

It is now week five of the MLB season and The Chicago Cubs are still garnering serious interest across the league. In addition to their recent success, a few developments have recently come out of The North Side.

Recent Results

The Chicago Cubs still lead the overall standings at 25-8 and a .781 winning percentage. The team is still the number one team on ESPN’s weekly power rankings.

At their current pace, the Cubs can win 126 games to go 126-36. According to newsday.com, that record would beat by the next best all-time record, set by the 1906 Chicago Cubs who went 116-36, by ten games.

Despite being the best team in the game, the Chicago Cubs have shown signs of weakness recently. On March 11th, the Cubs lost a doubleheader to the San Diego Padres, a team that most of the baseball world would consider inferior to the star studded Cubs.

The Cubs lost 7-4 in the first game and 1-0 in the second game. Usually the Cubs have no problem putting up runs, but only scored five on Wednesday.

This doubleheader comes on the heels of a four game sweep of the Washington Nationals, one of the best teams in the league.  The Cubs actively avoided Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, walking him repeatedly throughout the four game series, but managed to limit his effectiveness on the bases with solid defense.

The Cubs will play division rival Pittsburg on Friday. As of May 12th, the Cubs lead the Pirates, who are second in the NL Central, by seven games, the largest gap in the MLB.

Extension for Arrieta?

The contract for Cubs ace Jake Arrieta is set to expire after next year. He will be a free agent after the 2017 season if an agreement between Arrieta and the Cubs front office is met.

Arrieta’s 1.13 ERA is the best in the league and he has entered the discussion for best pitcher in the MLB. If he does manage to become a free agent somehow, it will be difficult to replace his production.

How much it will cost to keep Arrieta at Wrigley field is unknown, but according to several sources, he is not willing to take a discount to stay with the Cubs. For reference, Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg recently received a 7-year, 175-million-dollar contract.  Arrieta believes that he is worth more than Strasburg, but how much more?

No Extension For Theo, Yet

The architect behind the Chicago Cubs ascension, Theo Epstein is in the final year his contract. Epstein would be a great pickup for any team’s front office, but he is not expected to leave Chicago anytime soon.

According to CSN Chicago, Epstein believes his contract situation is a nonissue and Patrick Mooney that the players deserve to get paid first. Epstein specifically mentioned Arrieta as someone who should be a new deal before he does.

Cross Town Classic World Series?

The Cubs have the best record in the MLB, but closely behind them is their cross town rival The White Sox. The Sox are currently sitting atop the AL Central at 23-12, the 2nd best overall record in the MLB. The Sox are somewhat of a surprise are finishing 76-86 in 2015.

Just like the Cubs, the Sox have relied on the solid top three pitchers in their rotation. Chris Sale is the team’s ace. He and Jose Quintana have and ERA under 2.00. Signed in the offseason, Mat Latos has been a solid addition to the team posting a 3.40.

While both teams are very good, it is highly improbable that both will make the World Series next fall. If they do both make it, however, it would be the first time that the two teams have played against each other in the World Series since 1906, the year the Cubs posted their 116-36 record. The Sox won the series that year.

Going Forward From Here

The Cubs have only played 32 games. They still have another 130 to go. They must keep winning consistently to have a shot at the postseason. It is far too early to guarantee anyone a playoff spot.

The Cubs biggest free agent addition, Jason Heyward, has .216 average this season. Heyward has started out slow and has done so they past few years. Each time he has been able to get out of the slump. He hasn’t needed to produce superstar numbers yet, but it probably hurt the Cubs if he did.

The Cubs don’t need improvement in any one area on the diamond. They’re the best team in baseball right now and just need to keep winning. More importantly, they need to win come October when the playoffs start.

2016 MLB Draft Predictions

As the season wears on more and more fans begin to look towards the MLB draft as a beacon of hope for the future of their favorite ball clubs. While it is still too early to know for sure where these players will land and who the teams will select, here’s how I feel the first three picks will go when the draft begins June 9th. Check in later for more draft predictions going further along in the first round.

First Overall

The first pick in the June draft is held by the Philadelphia Phillies, a team with obvious needs throughout the organization but, as a surprise to many, a competent team so far this season.

Many believe the Phillies will select arguably the top talent, high school left hander Jason Groome, with the first pick, however that may not actually be the case. High school players are hardly ever selected with the number one pick unless they are seen as a “can’t miss” prospect with superstar potential. Those players include the likes of Ken Griffey Jr, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Upton.

Selecting a high school arm at 1-1 is even more unlikely for the Phillies, as there have only been two selected first overall since 1990, and one of them (Brady Aiken, 2014) did not even sign with the team that drafted him.

Teams tend draft safer players when they have the first overall pick, so that is why I expect the Phillies to select Florida left hander AJ Puk. Puk will likely be the safest pick at 1-1 because he possesses the best combination of a high floor and the upside needed to be the first overall pick of any player in the draft, basically saying teams feel like they know what they are going to get from Puk, and that is a solid big league starter with the potential for more.

Second Overall

The team that played their way to the honor of the second overall pick of the MLB Draft is the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds are not in the same place as the Phillies, as they do not have a top farm system and they don’t appear to have the big league talent necessary to swap for promising young players.

The Reds should look to go with the player they feel is the best available here. The player who could potentially take more time than the Phillies’ AJ Puk to reach the majors, and thus will inherently have more risk attatched.

I would expect the Reds to select either Kyle Lewis or Riley Pint here. Both players offer tremendous upside but have equally concerning risk. Pint is a high school right hander who has touched 100 miles per hour and has been described as having the best arm in the draft. Lewis on the other hand is a college outfielder from Mercer that is crushing opposition pitching, batting .367 with 17 home runs and 56 RBIs so far this season.

I’ll predict for now that the Reds end up going with Riley Pint as his enticing arsenal of top of the line stuff will be too much for an organization desperate for elite talent to pass up.

Third Overall

The 2015 Atlanta Braves finished with just 67 wins, earning them the third pick in the MLB Draft.

Often highly touted here on the site, the Braves have one of the best and deepest farm systems in all of baseball. The only issue with the system is the lack of high upside bats, more specifically the lack of high upside bats closer to the major leagues.

This lack of bats has caused the Braves general manager John Coppolella to speak publicly about the organization’s desire to add a college bat in the upcoming draft, but Coppolella also stated that the team would take the best player available at 1-3.

So who is it for the Braves? Do they take the high upside college bat in Kyle Lewis? Would they rather take the best player available in Jason Groome? Or will they pick the safest player here in Louisville’s Corey Ray?

Lewis, as stated above, is crushing pitching but comes with a lot of risk due to some scouts’ concerns about his swing mechanics, lack of experience, and how he is striking out too much for the level of competition he is currently facing. He also plays centerfield and is viewed as a player who will stick there throughout his professional career.

Groome is considered the top talent in the 2016 draft class. A left handed started out of New Jersey who has already thrown a no hitter this year, across which he racked up 19(!!) strikeouts. He has the upside of a frontline starter at the big league level, but as high school pitchers go, he also presents a big risk. Also, with the Braves bevy of high risk/reward pitchers in the minors, the front office may want to go in a different direction.

Corey Ray leads off and plays centerfield for one of the best college teams in the nation in Louisville. He bats from the left side and provides an intriguing skill set of power and speed. The concerns with Ray stem from teams not feeling he has nearly as much upside as a Lewis and they also feel he will be forced to move over to a corner spot when he reaches the majors.

With the Braves’ history of selecting players in-state and the new front office not being afraid to go after high risk/reward players, I would expect them to select Mercer’s Kyle Lewis. Lewis may be risky, but his upside and athletic profile should be enough to convince the Atlanta brass to select him at third overall.

More MLB draft predictions are set to come your way in the following weeks so stay tuned, and as always, thanks for reading.

Strasburg Inks Lucrative Contract Extension With the Nationals

Stephen Strasburg will not be hitting the free agent market anytime soon.

On Tuesday, it was officially announced that Strasburg and the Nationals had agreed on a seven-year, $175 million dollar contract extension. The 27-year old right hander was set to be a free agent this coming offseason, but the Nationals decided to lock him longterm rather than have him test the waters in free agency  Considering the fact that many other teams would have been interested in him, this was definitely a good idea.

Strasburg has certainly earned his new contract. The Nationals selected him back in 2009 with the first overall pick in the MLB draft. A highly touted prospect, he made his MLB debut in June of 2010 and had immediate success, going 5-3 with a 2.91 ERA in 12 starts. However, he tore his ulnar collateral ligament in August, requiring Tommy John surgery. He did not return until the end of the 2011 season.

In his first full season following the surgery, Strasburg was very impressive. He won 15 games and posted an ERA of 3.16 while recording 197 strikeouts. He made 28 starts that season and was shutdown due to precautionary reasons in early September. The Nationals made the playoffs, but Strasburg did not pitch at all and the Nationals lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in five games in the NLDS. The decision by the Nationals’ front office to shut Strasburg down was certainly controversial among the team’s fans. However, they felt it was the necessary move to ensure that he would be healthy going forward.

In 2013, Strasburg was even more dominant. His record was only 8-9, but his ERA was 3.00. He finished ninth in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 2014 after a season in which he went 14-11 with a 3.14 ERA, while recording an NL-best 242 strikeouts. He also started 34 games that year, which also led the league. Last season, Strasburg had somewhat of an off year. He won 11 games, but his ERA 3.46. That was the highest ERA he’s ever finished with in a season. Additionally, he battled through injuries and only made 23 starts.

This season, Strasburg has gotten off to a very good start. He’s made seven starts, and is 5-0 with an ERA of 2.76. His strikeout numbers have been impressive as well, as he has 58 of them in 49 innings pitched. So far, he’s pitched better than Nationals ace Max Scherzer.

Judging by the numbers, Strasburg is definitely deserving of his new contract extension. Starting next year, he’ll be making an average of $25 million per season. This contract could be the one that sets the precedent for pitchers going forward. Chicago Cubs ace and 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta has one year left of arbitration. He is set to be a free agent following the 2017 season. Earlier this week, he hinted to reporters that he’ll be asking for more money than Strasburg. In terms of years, he’s probably going to want seven as well. New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey will be a free agent following the 2018 season. Like Strasburg, Harvey has had success after having Tommy John surgery. There’s no doubt that Harvey will cash in when he finally hits the market. It’ll be interesting to see if the Cubs and Mets lock up these two aces longterm before they reach free agency.

Stephen Strasburg will not be leaving DC anytime soon. He now has am extensive lucrative contract to live up to. The Nationals and their fans are really hoping that he does.

Nationals’ Max Scherzer Joins the 20-Strikeout Club

Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer struck out 20 Detroit Tigers on Wednesday night, tying the MLB record for a nine-inning game and put him in an exclusive club with Randy Johnson, Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens.

Wood took notice and also took to Twitter to acknowledge Scherzer’s performance on the mound.

The accomplishment against his former team, Detroit, was extra special especially when you sprinkle in the fact that prior to last night’s game Scherzer had never beaten them. It also comes directly off Scherzer’s last performance, which was one of the worst of his career.

“To be able to punch out 20,” Scherzer said, “it’s sexy.”

Scherzer is the pitcher to accomplish this feat since Hall of Fame pitcher (Randy) Johnson, who did it in 2001. Scherzer also become the 4th pitcher to hit that strikeout mark in league history joining an exclusive club that includes Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson. Coincidently all of whom struck out exactly 20 hitters as well. Scherzer joined John Lackey as the only other active major league pitches to have beaten ever team in the majors.

“That’s some serious company,” said Scherzer

“Because 20 is just an unbelievable number” Scherzer stated. There’s something about 20 in this game. Twenty strikeouts, 20 wins — those are huge numbers. To be able to go out there tonight and be able to accomplish one of those, that’s a huge feat.”

Scherzer also spoke about the intensity of putting on a performance like he did.

“Tonight was an emotional game,” said Scherzer. “Facing a former team and all those guys I have so much respect for and how they play the game and how they compete. I really think the world [of] how they go out there and play the game, and so to have a game like this against that caliber of hitters on their side, that really puts a feather in my cap.”

Early Season Review: Ronald Acuna

Earlier this season we profiled three players that we expected to have breakout seasons within the Atlanta Braves organization. One of those players was centerfielder Ronald Acuna. Acuna is currently playing in Single-A Rome as an eighteen year old and has been making quite the impression on scouts and fans alike during his first few months of full season ball.

Excerpt from the aforementioned Acuna profile:

Ronald Acuna was a 2014 International Signing out of Venezuela. Standing at 6 foot tall and weighing in at 180 pounds, physically he matches up well with what many could describe as an ideal centerfielder. Throughout his first professional season, Acuna batted .269 with 4 long balls and and 16 stolen bags (per milb.com ), and he was playing his best at season’s end, batting a cool .325 over his final 10 games. In addition to the potential offensively, Acuna mans the valuable position of centerfield, and, by all accounts, scouts view him being able to stick there and as a plus defender. In his recent breakdown of all minor league systems , ESPN’s Keith Law describes his outfield tools as “plus range, with an above-average arm and above-average speed.”

Flashing future signs of all 5 tools so early is without a doubt a good sign for Acuna. Current Special Assistant to Baseball  Operations and Braves Hall of Famer, Chipper Jones spoke quite highly of Acuna at Braves’ Spring Training in an interview with Braves AJC beat writer David O’Brien , saying he’s heard Acuna compared to a “young Andruw Jones.” Certainly high praise and not a comparison loosely thrown around, especially amongst the Braves organization. Personally, I have tremendous faith in Acuna, you can take one look at his Instagram account and it’s clear that this man lives and breathes baseball, hopefully we see that passion translate into future success.

The play from Acuna has been as advertised this season. His defensive work is centerfield appears to be natural for the teenager as he looks increasingly comfortable in the field. His arm strength is without a doubt the described “above-average,” if it’s not stronger (I saw him almost throw out a quick runner from deep right center field in a game a week or so ago).

Acuna has been showing an advanced eye at the plate. He battles deep into counts and stays on most pitches deep into the zone, allowing him to work the ball to all fields. This is a good sign for a player so young as this will help him be able to make adjustments and quickly acclimate himself to new levels as he advances throughout the minor leagues. Also at the plate, Acuna is flashing power to all fields as well, his first home run this season was a blast to the opposite field, along with his triple yesterday which was off the wall in right. Acuna is slashing .299/.382/.402 with 2 homers, a triple, 2 doubles, and 11 walks  so far.

Acuna profiles his game after Pirates outfielder Starling Marte. The two speak through social media, and appear to have developed a friendship (a sign that Marte notices Acuna’s skill level). Watching their games, one can see shades of Marte in Acuna, both players have the same low leg kick load, similar builds, etc. I think you could use Starling Marte as an excellent comparison and potential projection for Ronald Acuna.

starling marte

(Charles LeClaire / USA TODAY Sports)

Marte is a Gold Glove Award winner in left field, an achievement that I feel Acuna could achieve as well if he ever needs to move over from centerfield to left (Marte only did so due to the superstar and MVP Andrew McCutchen’s firm hold on the position in Pittsburgh). Marte’s above-average power at the big league level could be Acuna’s ceiling as well. Along with both men’s plus speed in the field and on the base paths, all together I really like this comparison for Acuna, the resemblance continues to grow on you the more you watch the two play.

The earlier Andruw Jones comp makes one think of the 50 home run seasons and 10 time Gold Glove winner Andruw Jones and I don’t feel there is any way Acuna ever reaches that level of power and defensive prowess. Not to mention comparing any player to Andruw this early in their career development feels a bit like sacrilege for me, as Andruw is one of the greatest centerfielders of all time and should be considered for the Hall of Fame, a discussion perhaps for another time. That said, I do think Acuna will rocket up prospect lists after this season, much like Andruw did after his first season in full season ball. 

At his peak defensively, I see Ronald Acuna profiling as an everyday centerfielder who could see the occasional fielding award thrown in the mix. At the plate, I see him as batting around .280 with 15-25 home runs a season and swiping a decent number of bases. Braves fans should be very excited about the potential of Ronald Acuna, I would go as far as saying that outside of the obvious Dansby Swanson and Ozzie Albies, Acuna has the most upside and potential of any position player in the system. At seasons’ end I fully expect Acuna to be a top 5 prospect in the Atlanta Braves deep system. (I think I may be the high man on Acuna…)

The early results in Ronald Acuna’s debut in full season ball have been encouraging for the organization. He is flashing the maturity and baseball acumen that even players much older than him are still lacking, those intangibles along with his natural tools and talent will likely help us see Ronald Acuna land somewhere on the end of season Top 100 prospect list.

Chicago Cubs Early Season Recap

The Cubs are now 25 games into their regular season and with their most recent win, a 7-1 win over the Pittsburg Pirates, have improved their overall record to 19-6 which is still good enough for best in the Major League.

Once again showing his magic on the mound was Jake Arrieta. Pitching seven shutout innings and allowing only two hits against the Pirates, Arrieta once again dominated. This has become the norm for Arrieta even against superb competition like the Pirates who are the 5th best team in ESPN’s most recent power rankings.

It’s not just Arrieta that’s having a great season so far. Several Cubs players have contributed to the team’s success.

 

Pitching

The Cubs rotation is among the best in the league. Lead by Cy Young Winning Pitcher Jake Arrieta, Cubs starters have a combined 16-4 record. After their win against the Pirates on May 3rd, Arrieta now leads the league in wins for a starting pitcher along with Chicago White Sox’s Pitcher Chris Sale.

In addition to Arrieta, starters Jon Lester and Jason Hammel have an era below 2.00. Only John Lackey and Kyle Hendricks have ERAs above that mark, 4.32 and 3.52 respectively. Hendricks is the only Cubs’s starter with a losing record at 1-2.

The relievers are also performing at high level. Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop, Hector Rondon, Travis Wood, and Adam Warren have ERAs below 2.00. Trevor Cahill, who helped seal the victory against the Pirates has a 3.86 ERA.

The only Cubs pitcher with an ERA above 5.00 is Clayton Richard at 6.75.

 

Offense

The Cubs are loaded with offensive talent. Dexter Fowler is currently leading the regular starters with a .352 average, 31 hits, and a .473 on base percentage. Given a one-year deal in the offseason after searching for a long term deal in the open market, Fowler is proving his worth.

Anthony Rizzo normally has a higher average than his current .242, but he now has sole possession of 1st place in the RBI standings with 26. Rizzo also leads the team in home runs with 8.

Former Rookie of the year Kris Bryant is hitting above .300 again after Tuesday’s game. He also has 17 RBIs and I second on the team in hits at 29.

Free agent acquisitions Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist are hitting .211 and .253 respectively. While Heyward is not performing poorly, his number are down from last season’s career highs with the Cardinals.

 

Coaching

Not much needs to be said here. Joe Maddon is one of the best coaches in baseball and was the National League Coach of the year in 2015.

 

Fielding

Out of 27 qualifying players, 18 Cubs’ fielders have a 1.000 fielding percentage, and another 5 have at least a .900 average. Only Adam Warren hasa fielding average below .700.

 

Injuries

In the third game of the year, the Cubs lost outfielder and catcher Kyle Schwarber to a season ending leg injury. Since then the Cubs have not missed a beat and continue to be a powerhouse without the young phenom.

More recently, Jason Heyward is dealing with a wrist injury. According to Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune, the Cubs are hopeful that Heyward can be back in the lineup Wednesday May 4th in the series finale against the Pirates.

Matt Szczur is also injuried. Gonzles is reporting that Szczur has a right hamstring injury and has been put on the 15-day disabled list. His temporary replacement on the Cubs roster is Ryan Kalish.

 

Expectations

The Cubs are considered the best team in Major League Baseball. Going forward they have to keep winning in order to keep steady in the rankings. After finishing their series with the Pirates, the Cubs will travel back to Wrigley Field and face the Washington Nationals. The Nationals are currently 18-7 and are the number 2 team in the ESPN power rankings. The Nationals should be a good test for the Cubs and a means to test expectations going forward.

 

D’Arnaud’s Injury Opens the Door for Kevin Plawecki

On Tuesday, the New York Mets placed starting catcher Travis d’Arnaud on the 15-day disabled list. D’Arnaud has a right rotator cuff strain, an injury he obtained on Monday night in a game against the Cincinnati Reds. Although the injury is unfortunate, it gives Kevin Plawecki a chance to show everyone what he can do.

Plawecki, 25, was considered the backup catcher going into this season. A former first-round draft pick, he made his Major League debut on April 21, 2015, just over a year ago. Ironically, the reason he was called up then was because d’Arnaud was placed on the disabled list after suffering a broken hand. The Mets were not planning on promoting Plawecki until later on in the year, but they needed an everyday catcher.

He did an adequate job serving as the Mets starting catcher until d’Arnaud returned on June 10. D’Arnaud’s return was short-lived however, as he suffered another injury ten days later. He was placed on the disabled list again, this time with a sprained left elbow. He did not return until July 30. Because of all of these injuries to d’Arnaud, Plawecki got a chance to start 66 games in 2015. In 233 at-bats, he collected 51 hits while batting .219 with three home runs and 21 RBIs. Defensively, he only committed one error and threw out 11 baserunners attempting to steal. He allowed 32 stolen bases while behind the plate.

From what we’ve seen so far, it seems as though Plawecki is a better defensive catcher than d’Arnaud. Last season, d’Arnaud started 64 games, two less than Plawecki. He allowed 29 stolen bases and committed three errors, while throwing out 14 baserunners trying to steal. Before landing on the disabled list this year, he had already allowed 14 stolen bases. Plawecki has only allowed four. Runners clearly do not hesitate to run on Travis d’Arnaud.

We’ve seen a lot more of d’Arnaud than Plawecki. That being said, the former has put up better offensive numbers than the latter. D’Arnaud batted .268 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs last season. He also did well in the postseason, starting every game the Mets played. Plawecki just hasn’t gotten the opportunity to really prove himself however. While it’s true that he got plenty of starts in 2015, he was basically just acting as the placeholder for d’Arnaud. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

If Plawecki can put up decent offensive numbers over the next couple of weeks, he has a chance to overtake d’Arnaud as the Mets starting catcher. Especially considering that he was struggling before being placed on the disabled list, d’Arnaud’s job could be in serious jeopardy. He was only batting .196 with no homers and just one RBI. There are certain players who are guaranteed their job back after spending time on the disabled list. However, d’Arnaud just hasn’t hit enough to earn that status. He hasn’t been consistent enough. Additionally, he isn’t the best defensive catcher in the world.

Kevin Plawecki has a real chance to prove himself. Opportunities like this don’t come around all the time. We’ll see if he can capitalize on this situation.

Maeda’s Early Dominance A Good Sign for the Dodgers

Some players have trouble adjusting to the MLB when they come over from Japan. So far, this hasn’t been the case for Kenta Maeda.

The 28-year old Japanese-born pitcher is having early success with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Maeda pitched for the Hiroshima Toy Carp of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball for eight seasons before being posted back in December. This made him available to Major League Baseball teams. The Dodgers signed him to a eight-year, $25 million contract in January. The team lost Zack Greinke to the Arizona Diamondbacks in December, so it was assumed that Maeda was basically going to replace Greinke in the Dodgers rotation. Obviously, no one expected him to come in right away and pitch as well as Greinke did. However, Maeda has been able to do just that.

It’s a very small sample size, but Maeda has been simply dominant thus far. Over the course of his three starts, he’s 2-0 with a 0.47 ERA. In 19 innings pitched, he’s only allowed one earned run. That run was given up in his most recent start vs the San Francisco Giants on Sunday night when Joe Panik took him deep in the top of third inning. Maeda went seven innings in that start and struck out seven while allowing only four hits. The Dodgers won the game 3-1.

His first start came back on April 6 on the road against the San Diego Padres. He didn’t allow a run, and only gave up five hits while striking out four. Maeda was take out after six innings, with his pitch count only at 84. Clearly, the Dodgers were being careful with him. They wanted to ease him into the MLB. Not only did Maeda pitch well in his first career start, he also impressed with the bat. In the top of the fourth inning, he hit a solo home run off Andrew Cashner extend the Dodgers lead to 5-0. It was only his second career at-bat. LA would go on to win 7-0. Dodger fans really couldn’t have asked for anything more out of Maeda.

His second start was equally as impressive, a game that was also the Dodgers home opener. Maeda looked very confident in his first Dodger Stadium start. He went six inning against the Diamondbacks, allowing no runs on five hits while recording four strikeouts. The Diamondbacks scored four runs off the Dodgers bullpen however, and Arizona won the game 4-2.

Maeda will have a tough test up next. On Saturday night, he’ll face the Colorado Rockies on the road. This is a team that has scored a lot of runs so far this season. Led by young shortstop Trevor Story, their offense has been very dangerous. Additionally, Coors Field is considered one of the best hitter-friendly parks in all of baseball. Maeda is going to need to have his best stuff on Saturday.

It’s still very early, but Kenta Maeda has shown us that he’s a very good pitcher. If he can keep it up, Zack Greinke might just become a distant memory in Los Angeles.

Early Season Observations: Atlanta Braves

The season is still young, but a lot has been going on within and around the Braves organization. This will be a quick rundown and update of what’s been going on at each level from Low-A Rome to the club in Atlanta, including personal observations and opinions on individual players and personnel. (Warning: a few small sample size hot takes incoming)

Atlanta Braves

The team is currently on a four game winning streak after painfully dropping their first nine. Fredi Gonzalez’s lineup appears to be taking shape and producing, while the defense is slowly making less mistakes as the players knock off some of the rust that may have still been there at the start of the season.

Nick Markakis has reached base in 26 straight games dating back to last season, and while he still has no home runs, the strength he lost (due to his neck surgery he underwent for a herniated disk in December of 2014) appears to have returned as he leads the majors with 9 doubles . I’d be shocked if Markakis was still a Brave come season’s end, and if he continues to produce as effectively as he has thus far, his stock will never be higher.

Freddie Freeman’s starting to heat up after a miserable start to the season (excluding the home run in his first at-bat). He is currently hitting .156, but is batting .250 over his last 7 games and looks to be feeling more and more comfortable at the plate.

Even though he has made some standard rookie errors and his batting average might not be pretty to look at, Mallex Smith has been putting some decent at-bats together since his call up, and I fully expect him to continue to learn and grow on the job. Hopefully when Ender Inciarte returns from his hamstring injury, Fredi Gonzalez will shift Mallex over to left field and let him play there. I am optimistic and excited about watching an outfield trio of Mallex Smith/Ender Inciarte/Nick Markakis for the majority of the season.

Gwinnett Braves

The Gwinnett Braves have, arguably, one of the weaker rosters across the organization. They lack top end offensive potential and do not have the wealth of exciting, young prospects on their roster that the other levels possess. The offense, in particular, took a big hit with the quick promotion of the speedy Mallex Smith , however that hasn’t stopped them from winning 10 of their first 13 games.

At third base, Gwinnett has Rio Ruiz, who arrived from Houston last offseason along with Mike Foltynewicz in exchange for Evan Gattis. Ruiz underwhelmed last season, but came into spring training in fantastic shape and with a re-tuned swing. The Braves rewarded his hard work by assigning Ruiz to Triple-A. So far, Ruiz has been crushing the ball, hitting .346 with 3 doubles, a triple, and a home run . If he continues his current run of form, I would not be surprised to see Rio get a late call up in September and potentially be on Atlanta’s Opening Day roster in 2017.

At the top of Gwinnett’s rotation are Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz, and Tyrell Jenkins, three exciting arms who could be seeing time in Atlanta very soon. Blair has started the season on fire, posting a 1.42 ERA, with 3 wins, 22 strikeouts and 5 walks . Blair’s entire arsenal was working last night as he dominated the Durham Bulls to the tune of 7 innings of no hit ball, including 10 strikeouts and only a single walk on 87 pitches.

Mike Foltynewicz has also flashed some good signs for Braves fans early on. Over the course of his three starts, his pitches have shown the great life and velocity that have long made Folty one of the more intriguing arms in the system. He still lacks the control necessary to match his stuff as a potential top of the line starter, and until that shows up, Foltynewicz will never reach his full potential. I would expect to see starts from both Aaron Blair and Mike Foltynewicz for Atlanta here in the coming months.

Next up is Tyrell Jenkins. I’m actually currently watching Tyrell pitch against the Durham Bulls and he’s not having his best night. While Jenkins has tremendous apparent athleticism and good, not great, stuff, his lack of control is also seems to be his biggest weakness right now. While I am certainly no expert, it looks like Jenkins does not repeat his motion as well as one would like (at least he wasn’t tonight), causing him to occasionally miss his spots (this could be partially due to the new, lower leg kick the Braves have him trying out). The good news here is that, as I mentioned, Tyrell is a fantastic athlete and can continue to mold himself into the potential mid rotation starter the Braves hope he can be.

Mississippi Braves

The Double-A Mississippi squad for the Braves has not been getting the results they had been hoping for early on, they currently stand at 4-10 and lost 6-2 earlier today against the Chattanooga Lookouts.

The catalyst of this Mississippi team is star shortstop and Braves top 5 prospect Ozzie Albies. Albies’ promotion to Double-A shocked many experts who thought that he would benefit from some time at High-A Carolina. Instead, the Braves decided to send Albies (the youngest player in Double-A ) straight to Mississippi, and he has done nothing but deliver. After going 0-4 in the first game of the season, Ozzie has reached base in all thirteen games since and currently has a six game hitting streak. For the season, he is batting .357 with 2 doubles and 2 triples out of the leadoff spot. Quickly proving that maybe even Mississippi wasn’t aggressive enough, Braves fans should look for Albies to move to Gwinnett at some point during this season, positioning himself well for a 2017 call up to Atlanta.

The rotation for Mississippi contains two of my very favorite arms in the Braves system, Sean Newcomb and Lucas Sims. I, unfortunately, have not had time to sit down and watch an entire Newcomb start from this season (I plan on doing so very soon) but from the stat lines and breakdowns online, Sean appears to have gotten off to a good start this season. He has had three starts and his ERA is sitting at 2.40 across 15 innings with 16 strikeouts . Like so many others in the Braves system, Newcomb’s control is the main thing that is holding him back, walking 10 batters thus far. He has a repeatable, easy motion that produces a great velocity, so the answer to his control woes is hard to decipher. Nevertheless, he currently is considered a top 3 prospect in the Braves system and all signs show him having a very bright future. Continuing to get his walks under control and missing bats will be the key for Newcomb to see some time in Gwinnett at some point in the season.

Lucas Sims, the former first round pick and Top 100 prospect, has really been ticking so far this season. Over his first three starts, Sims has produced an ERA of 1.84 over 14.2 innings with a whopping 26 strikeouts . I was able to watch Lucas Sims’ last start and in it, he looked incredibly promising, striking out 10, no earned runs, and walking only 3 over 5.2 innings. Sims curveball is the pitch that stood out the most to me, it has great movement and, more importantly, Sims can throw it for a strike. While Sims may not move as quickly as Newcomb through the system, a string of performances like this one should help move Sims back into the national spotlight.

Carolina Mudcats

The High-A Carolina Mudcats currently stand at 6-8, 3rd in the Southern Carolina League. The key players for Carolina are star shortstop Dansby Swanson, starting pitcher Max Povse, and former first round pick and outfielder Braxton Davidson.

The talents of the top prospect in the Braves system, Dansby Swanson, have been on full display so far for Carolina. Swanson is batting .333 with 8(!) doubles so far in the Carolina League , and the Kennesaw native is showing the the assignment may have been a little under aggressive for the 2015 first overall draft choice. I would predict that we will see Dansby move up to Mississippi at the same time Ozzie Albies moves up to Gwinnett. However, another possible scenario is for Dansby to skip over Mississippi completely and go straight to Gwinnett (an idea not so crazy given the Braves history of aggressive promotions). Either way, I would expect both Swanson and Albies to eventually team up with Ruiz in Gwinnett’s infield this season, or at the latest the start of the 2017 season. (Who will play shortstop and who will play second base is a different discussion).

Braxton Davidson has a very patient approach at the plate and has an advanced batting eye, however those skills have yet to translate to in-game success for Davidson this season, slashing a poor .185/.246/.241 . I do not expect to see Davidson move out of High-A Carolina this season, as he is still just 19 years old and it may take him a good chunk of the season to really catch up to the speed of the level.

Carolina’s standout performer, however, has been unheralded hurler Max Povse. After starting last season at Rome, Povse was promoted to Carolina where he struggled mightily, throwing 18 innings and allowing 19 earned runs . Understandably, the Braves felt he should repeat the level this season, and so far…wow. Povse has been dominate across his first two starts, throwing 13 innings and allowing no earned runs, earning him the honor of being on the season’s first MiLB.com Prospect of the Week Team . As I have yet to sit down and watch all of Povse starts (and some are not online due to playing in a stadium without MiLB cameras) I cannot add any personal notes on Max, besides the obvious “if he keeps this up, expect a call up to Mississippi in his not-so-distant future.”

Rome Braves

Last, but certainly not least, on our early season rundown is the Rome Braves. This team is my personal favorite amongst the Braves organization and I have been watching every game I can online, and plan to be in attendance this coming Saturday when Mike Soroka takes the mound. The Rome Braves are loaded on prospects. Loaded. From pitching to hitting, this team has no lack of representation on top prospect lists.

Ronald Acuna, profiled here , has been off to a decent start, hitting the ball well and showing off his strong wrists and lightning fast bat (.288 batting average so far through 13 games ). He has been playing a solid centerfield and batting leadoff for Rome, personally I would like to see him bat in the two hole, as I feel that’s his ideal lineup location, but I certainly won’t argue with the amount of at-bats the leadoff spot is getting him. Acuna, being one of the younger players in Low-A, will likely stick the entire year out in Rome, hopefully maturing and grooming his game for a potential promotion to Carolina next season.

Next up on Rome’s lineup is power-hitting third baseman Austin Riley. Riley has been off to an up and down start to his full season ball debut, hitting .231 with 7 doubles and a one homer (a deep blast pulled to left field). Riley appears to be manning the hot corner well defensively and definitely has a strong enough arm for the position. My concerns with Riley stem from his lack of contact, Riley already has struck out 21 times over his first 52 at-bats. In order to gain more faith in Austin and his obvious power potential, I will need to see him begin to make contact more regularly. Hopefully as the season wears on he will make the necessary adjustments.

A standout to me so far this season has been the play of catching prospect Lucas Herbert. Coming into the season, I didn’t know much about Herbert besides that which was written on him about his above-average defense and below-average bat. Lucas has surpassed my expectations, and then some. His bat has been better than I imagined, even though it is still a very, very long way away from being major league ready and I am not convinced it ever will be. I was watching the Rome game Lucas caught the other day, and his work behind the plate was impeccable. He was calm and poised behind the plate (something that particularly stood out in this game as he was catching the incredibly wild Touki Toussaint) with a great arm and pop time, a moment that stuck in my mind is, early in the game, when he made a great play: snapping a throw back to first and picking off the runner (he also, later, threw out another runner trying to steal second). I expect Herbert’s outstanding defending to move him throughout the minors (likely staying this entire season in Rome), hopefully the bat can improve enough to one day be playable at the major league level.

The Rome pitching staff has some of the highest upside in the entire system. Pitchers Touki Toussaint, Max Fried, and Mike Soroka have each notched a couple starts this season.

Touki Toussaint, the electrifying right hander who was drafted in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamond backs. Touki has started 2 games for Rome this season, the first was an average start for Toussaint, giving up 3 earned runs over 4 innings pitched with 3 walks and 3 strikeouts . However, in his second start, the wheels fell off, Touki walked 4 over 1.2 innings and gave up 5 earned runs, including a home run. Touki is a top prospect for one reason: potential. Touki easily throws a mid-90s fastball with a devastating curveball and also brings a decent change to the mound. Unfortunately for Touki and Braves fans is that he has yet to be able to keep his pitches in the strike zone. Watching Touki’s last start, there are moments where the top of the rotation potential is inescapable, because at times he pounds the zone and dominates a hitter, but other times a fastball can sail past the catcher to the backstop. Touki will spend all of 2016 in Rome where hopefully he can begin to control his pitches with more consistency.

Max Fried is a 6’4″ left handed pitcher who was taken seventh overall by the San Diego Padres in 2012. He arrived to the Braves as a part of the package for Justin Upton last offseason, however, he was recovering from Tommy John surgery and is now in the beginning of his first season in a Braves uniform. Fried’s first two starts were lights out as he tossed 5 innings, giving up 2 earned runs and striking out 4 in the first game, and throwing 6 scoreless with 7 strikeouts in his second outing . He ran into some trouble in his third start, giving up 5 runs over 5 innings. I expect him to bounce back strong in his next start. These are all great signs for Braves fans as Fried is one of the higher upside arms in the system, and he has good control to match his stuff. I’m excited to watch Fried throughout his first full season in a Braves uniform and, if he stays healthy, I expect him to move quickly through the system.

Our last early season player evaluation is Mike Soroka, the 6’4″ right hander out of Alberta, Canada. Even though he was drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft by the Braves, Soroka is a player still flying under the radar in one of the deepest systems in baseball. I was able to catch Soroka’s start on April 12th where Soroka put together 6 frames with 5 strikeouts, no runs, and only 1 hit . He was baffling opposing hitters all night and probably could have continued on deeper into the game. Soroka’s stuff looked outstanding in this game and I expect him to continue his fine form as his season ERA sits at 2.40 across 3 starts. Soroka sits at #7 on my personal Braves top 25 prospects list, and I expect him to rise up experts’ lists and possibly find himself around, if not on, the Top 100 Prospects List come season’s end.

The future is bright for Atlanta.

 

Zack Greinke’s Early Struggles With the Diamondbacks

The transition from Los Angeles to Arizona hasn’t been so smooth for Zack Greinke.

The Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitcher has had two rough outings to start the year. Considered the team’s crown jewel of the offseason, Greinke was expected to do big things in Arizona this season. Last year while with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he had the best year of his career. In 32 starts, Greinke went 19-3 and posted an ERA of 1.66, the lowest in all of baseball. He finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting behind Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs. This past offseason, he left LA and signed a six-year, $206.5 million contract with the Diamondbacks. So far however, things haven’t worked out so well for Greinke.

Greinke started for the Diamondbacks last Monday on Opening Day against the Colorado Rockies. He looked good during the first two innings, but the Rockies were able to get to him in the top of the third. They scored six runs off of him in that inning, which included home runs by Trevor Story and Carlos Gonzalez. Story took Greinke deep again in the next inning, extending Colorado’s lead to 7-1. The fourth inning would be Greinke’s last, as manager Chip Hale decided it was time to go to the bullpen. In total, he allowed seven earned runs on nine hits, while recording only two strikeouts. The Rockies went on to win the game 10-5.  Needless to say, it was a start that Greinke would love to forget.

Unfortunately, he could not put that awful first start behind him. On Saturday night, he pitched against the Cubs. It was another home game, but that didn’t really help Greinke. He didn’t pitch nearly as badly as he did against the Rockies. However, he still allowed four earned runs on seven hits over six innings. On the bright side, he did have eight strikeouts in the game. The Cubs were able to rattle Greinke early, as they scored three of their four runs in the top of the first inning. They added one more in the fourth inning on a Ben Zobrist RBI double. Chicago won the game 4-2, dropping Greinke’s record to 0-2.

This past week, the Diamondbacks played a three-game series in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. Greinke did not pitch in any of the games against his former team. Tuesday afternoon was actually the Dodgers’ home opener. Dodger fans did not boo Greinke, as he was not introduced considering he wasn’t part of the starting lineup that day. Because the Diamondbacks and Dodgers are in the same division, he’ll definitely get plenty of chances to face his old team this season.

Greinke will try and earn his first win of the season tonight when he faces the Padres in San Diego. The Padres are 3-7 and have gotten off to a very rough start offensively. Even though it’s a road start, this might be just what Greinke needs. He’ll be facing a struggling offense. We’ll see if he can bounce back tonight. If not, there could be a cause for concern.