Upstart Cy Young Contenders in the National League

                                                                                                                                                                                                    (Photo Courtesy of ESPN)

Strikeouts as the key to success

To start the MLB season, there will be the likely veteran candidates to win the National League Cy Young Award in Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Cole Hamels.  All of these pitchers have sustained success because of their abilities to strike out batters at a rate of at least one per inning they pitch in just about every season.  There is a group of lesser known pitchers in the National League this season, that are rising towards the top on their way to becoming elite pitchers because of this same ability to strike out batters at a high rate.  Jose Fernandez of the Marlins would usually be in this conversation, but with his return from injury scheduled to shorten his 2015 season, he probably will not be a factor this season.  Three big right handed pitchers in particular, stand out this season as having a chance to make a run at the National League Cy Young Award.  Twenty-six year old Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, 26 year old Matt Harvey of the New York Mets and 24 year old Gerrit Cole of the Pittsburgh Pirates.  These three pitchers have plenty in common as players who are approaching their prime years in Major League Baseball, and as pitchers with big frames, as each stands at 6’4″ while weighing 220 pounds or more.  With high velocity fastballs and significant strikeout rates, these pitchers have created a strong track record that when analyzed, can show why they are very strong candidates to take home the National League Cy Young Award in 2015.

Stephen Strasburg

This former first overall pick in 2009, announced his arrival in the big leagues with 14 strikeouts over seven strong innings in his MLB debut in 2010.  Strasburg had his spectacular rookie season interrupted with a torn UCL that required him to have Tommy John surgery in order to repair it.  His return from Tommy John surgery was highlighted in 24 innings of work at the end of the 2011 season, in which he was able to strike out 24 batters.  Since then, Strasburg has gone on to strike out more than a batter per inning in each of the past three seasons, with 242 strikeouts over a career high 215 innings of work in 2014 .  Even though Strasburg has yet to post a 20 win season, he has never struggled throughout his brilliant young career as his career high in earned runs average for a season currently stands at 3.16.  Stephen Strasburg will have his work cut out for him in 2015 if he hopes to outdo Clayton Kershaw, but if he is able to once again strike out 10 or more batters for every nine innings he pitches, he will be in great position to put up a career best season.  For Strasburg, he will be looking to post an earned runs average below three for the first time in any season where he pitched more than 100 innings, and a breakout season for him would be one where he passes his career high of 15 wins in a single season.  With a career walks plus hits per inning pitched rate of 1.09, the indications are strong that all this is possible for Strasburg in the coming season.

Matt Harvey

While Matt Harvey was not a first overall pick as a first round pick of the Mets in 2010, he did announce his arrival in the big leagues with a 11 strikeout performance over five and two-thirds innings pitched in 2012.  Harvey went on to strike out 70 batters in 59 and a third innings pitched throughout a brilliant rookie campaign with the Mets .  Like Strasburg, Harvey suffered a torn UCL in 2013 that ended his season early and kept him out for all of 2014.  Harvey has put all that talent on display again this spring in his return from surgery, proving that he is ready to pick up right where he left off after his brilliant 2012 and 2013 showings at the MLB level.  Matt Harvey’s upper 90s fastball complemented by his above average curveball, change up and slider, allow him to dominate hitters on a regular basis.  This spring he has put all of that on display once again as he makes his return from Tommy John surgery, with the intent to maintain the 2.39 earned runs average he has established over 237 and two-thirds innings in his career.  Harvey posted an impressive walks plus hits per inning pitched rate of 1.15 in his rookie season, but he improved on that in his second season with a 0.93 WHIP that was largely supported by his 9.6 strikeout per nine innings pitched rate that season.  This type of performance may have been good enough to earn Harvey the Cy Young Award in his second season, if not for Clayton Kershaw putting up numbers that there was very little precedent for.

Gerrit Cole

At age 24 he is the youngest of this trio of talented pitchers.  Cole like Strasburg was also a first overall pick, but he was selected in 2011 by the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Gerrit Cole did not announce his arrival with high strikeout totals as he only recorded two strikeouts in his debut, but he did announce his arrival by earning victories against two Cy Young Award winners in his first two big league starts.  Throughout his first two seasons in the big leagues, Gerrit Cole has leaned heavily enough on his fastball that its usage limited his strikeout rates at times.  To finish up each of the 2013 and 2014 seasons, he had a break through in his command of off-speed pitches that allowed him to increase his strikeout rate by the end of each season.  In 2013 Cole ended up with 100 strikeouts in 117 and a third innings of work, while in 2014 he backed off on his fastball velocity some to finish with exactly one strikeout per inning .  Gerrit Cole’s 60 strikeouts in his final 51 innings of work in 2014 show that this young pitcher with a very high velocity fastball, finally gets the art of pitching.  Cole’s 1.17 and 1.21 walks plus hits per inning pitched rate throughout his first two seasons, make him a strong candidate to contend for a Cy Young Award in the near future.  If he is able to carry over his latest breakthrough from his final 51 innings of 2014, even at just 24 years old, Gerrit Cole could make a significant run at the Cy Young Award in his third season.

What sets these three apart from other young pitchers with high strikeout rates?

There are plenty of pitchers in Major League Baseball who strike out batters at a high rate, but not all of them have the impressive walk rates of Stephen Strasburg, Matt Harvey and Gerrit Cole.  Matt Harvey walked 3.9 batters per nine innings in his rookie season, but he improved that number to 1.6 walks per nine in his second season.  Stephen Strasburg’s career high in walks per nine innings came in 2013, when he walked 2.8 batters for every nine innings he pitched.  Gerrit Cole also has posted impressive walk rates, with 2.1 walks per nine innings in his rookie season and 2.6 walks per nine innings in his second MLB season.  By controlling the things that pitchers have the most control over, these pitchers set themselves apart in that category that has them among the best in baseball.  MLB pitchers do not have the ability to control whether or not a ball put in play against them gets hit at a defender for an out, or if it finds a hole for a base hit.  These pitchers leave less up to chance by limiting the free passes, making the pitches to generate soft contact and executing their pitch in two strike counts to generate a swing and miss for the strikeout.  By continuing to put this ability on display, these three pitchers have put themselves in the conversation for the National League Cy Young Award as they head into a season where they have yet to play in the prime years of their career.

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Indians’ MVP Al Rosen. Baseball loses another.

Al Rosen could handle the bat. AL leader in HR (x2) and RBI (x2)

(Photo courtesy: unclemikesmusings.com)

It wasn’t my intent to recap the weekend by focusing on death to ballplayers, but the passing of Al Rosen this past Friday the 13th at the age of 91 got me in a morbid mood. I was thinking about a phrase you may have heard uttered when Hollywood loses a few stars from the sky in rapid succession. “It happens in threes.”

This season the baseball world has lost Cubs’ hall-of-famer Ernie Banks, White Sox icon Minnie Minoso and now former Indians’ MVP Al Rosen.

Depending how you look at the “it happens in threes” comment it could be interpreted as coincidence or be a form of religious symbolism. What’s worth noting is it’s rarely a true assumption as I’ll explain later.

Following three unproductive cups of coffee from 1947-1949, which netted 9 career hits, Rosen broke out in 1950 with a league leading 37-homer campaign.

200px-Al_Rosen_1953

Al Rosen circa 1953/Wikipedia

By 1953, Rosen was scary enough with the bat to be the unanimous choice as AL MVP and he almost won the Triple Crown – an achievement that requires leading the league in the holy trinity of baseball stats (AVG, HR, RBI). Rosen’s numbers were a .336 AVG, 43 HR, 145 RBI.

The only thing keeping Rosen from achieving the Triple Crown feat was his feet. He needed a hit in his final at-bat of the season to win the batting title. As the story goes, he appeared to beat out a ground ball to third, but missed stepping on first base. Rosen therefore lost the battling title by one point to Mickey Vernon’s .337 mark.

Al Rosen was obviously sabermetrically spectacular in 1953 by leading the league in both OPS+ with a 180 mark and 115 runs scored. It was arguably the best season by a third baseman in MLB history. 2007 Alex Rodriguez (176 OPS+) would argue, but nobody’s listening to him.

Rosen was a 4-time All Star from 1952-1955, so he was a key to the Indians 1954 pennant winner. Unfortunately, back and leg injuries contributed to his retirement after the 1956 season at age 32.

Rosen became a member of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2006. He’s not in baseball’s hall of fame despite a career .879 OPS. It’s a rate backed by only 192 home runs and 1063 hits., which is to say longevity was not on his side – at least as a player.

The former World War II Navy lieutenant went back to college after retiring, but eventually got back into baseball. It included dealing with Boss Steinbrenner and Billy Martin in 1978-79. The experience apparently didn’t convince him to go back to his 20+ year career as a stockbroker.

Rosen was the Astros’ GM after the 1980 season through 1985 where they had 3 winning seasons. He traded Danny Heep to the Mets in December 1982 to get Mike Scott – who did a thing or two on the mound.

Rosen moved on to be the Giants GM following the 1985 season through 1992. He’s the only former MVP to win the Executive of the Year award. The honor was a result of the 1987 Giants winning the division and returning to the playoffs for the first time since 1971. He was there when the Giants won the pennant in 1989 with MVP Kevin Mitchell leading the way. Rosen had traded with the Padres in July 1987 to get Mitchell and pitchers Dave Dravecky and Craig Def Lefferts . OK, Lefferts’ middle name is actually Lindsay. Sue me Chris Berman.

We can see Rosen was a busy baseball man both as a player and off the field despite a long gap between his playing career and front office work.

Here’s a recap as our “it happens in threes”:

Ernie Banks – January 23rd, 2015

Minnie Minoso – March 1st, 2015

Al Rosen – March 13th, 2015

But wait, there’s more. I checked out the frivolity section of baseball-reference.com and learned that 14 other former MLB players have also passed away in 2015. Well that’s way more than three. The list includes the Angels’ 1970 AL batting champ Alex Johnson, who is forever immortalized during the Calling All Angels video montage at the Big A, and a couple oddities.

Little known catcher, at least according to the box scores, Nick Koback passed away on the same day this year as Ernie Banks. Koback’s major league career started at 17 and ended at 19 after only 36 plate appearances for the 1953-55 Pirates.

Utilityman Jeff McKnight also died on the same day this year as Minnie Minoso. McKnight spent time with Orioles and Mets from 1989-1994.

Cheer up. Let’s get back to life. Here’s some cool stuff that happened this past weekend.

FRIDAY

After scoring 9 in the 8th inning of their win against the Nats on Thursday, the Mets drop 5, 2, and 4 runs on the Braves during the first three frames of Friday’s game giving them 20 runs scored over a 4-inning span. It’s spring training. It happens.

SATURDAY

While we’re on the topic of power hitting third basemen, Kris Bryant’s pursuit of 43 home runs during spring training and becoming a 2rd round pick in DFS fantasy leagues, continues. 43 is the number of dingers the Cubs’ third base prospect hit combined in Double-A and Triple-A last season. Bryant didn’t get the start against the Athletics on Saturday as he was resting his shoulder – shoulders he will use to carry the Cubs for presumably the next decade. He entered the game in relief of Anthony Rizzo and popped another pair of home runs. He now has six, is hitting .450, and due to service time concerns and player control obsessions will probably still marinate in Triple-A Iowa for a few weeks to start the season.

SUNDAY

Teams continued re-assigning players to their minor league camps. Keeping with the Rosen connection, Indians’ shortstop Francisco Lindor was not one of them. The 21-year-old top 10 prospect, according to Baseball America, hit his first home run of the spring. Lindor should begin the season at Triple-A, but his ETA to Cleveland could be at some point in 2015. If you haven’t done so already please also file away the names of highly touted prospect shortstops like the Cubs’ Addison Russell, Astros’ Carlos Correa, Dodgers’ Corey Seager, and Phillies’ J.P. Crawford. They’re coming to the show…at some point.

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Cactus Memories, Reggie’s A Hit, Astros No Hit

Mr. October also hangs out in March.

(Photo: AP)

Dating back to 2003, I’ve attended the Cactus League for a total of six seasons with either my brother or wife alongside me. However, I haven’t been to Arizona for spring training since 2010. I highly recommend adding that trip to the bucket list. Almost all the parks are close to each other making for easy commutes. A good desert wind also makes for a high run scoring environment.

I don’t advise taking your 3-month old daughter if you have any fear of getting stuck in the middle of a foul ball fracas. I’m on hiatus from this adventure until at least next year, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the cool experience of spring training with its laid back attitude and pace. Bonus points are awarded if you also hang out in Scottsdale to watch some of the NCAA tournament games.

Players are at arms reach and friendly when walking from the practice fields to the stadium and it’s just fun to see the most random players get their shot in a game after seeing the regulars give it a whirl for a few innings. The scorecard becomes unreadable in the the later innings especially after a second #89 – who most likely wandered over from the team’s minor league camp that day – enters the game in the 8th.

The side note stories to spring training also remind me how much fun baseball can be in the month of March. It’s no doubt highly stressful for some, like the relief pitchers you’ve never heard of blowing games in the late innings as they get their work. Wins and losses don’t really matter at this point so they can be forgiven. Oh sure, not every roster spot is set, but from the eyes of the superstars it’s all about searching for your timing at the plate and in the tee box. Here are some oddities and observations from the weekend. MLB.com’s Cut 4 just made me aware of the bees.

Sunday afternoon Yankees spring training instructor, or better yet, Hall of Fame outfielder Reggie Jackson autographed and wrote a get well note on a baseball and hand delivered it into the stands to two veteran ladies, who just seconds earlier had been dodging an errant Jose Lobaton bat that was on the loose during the Nationals-Yankees game. Jackson sat next to the fans to make sure they were OK and followed up on their condition later in the game.

A swarm of bees  took some time to attend and delay the Royals-Angels game in Tempe on Sunday. They must of wanted to see reigning AL MVP Mike Trout blast his 1st home run of the spring.

Rewinding to Saturday we find Bob Melvin’s friend Jim Harbaugh spending some time coaching 1st base for the Athletics during their game against the Angels. They both have a history that dates back to American Legion baseball. The NFL is in the throes of free agency beginning and Harbs is cracking jokes with the media about being aggressive on the base paths. Go figure.

FRIDAY

Back to reality where there was another fun story that occurred on Friday when the Mets’ Matt Harvey touched 99 on the gun in his first live game action in 17 months. 2 scoreless innings and 3 strikeouts vs the Tigers in his return from Tommy John surgery.

The White Sox top prospect, 22-year-old left-hander Carlos Rodon (2 IP, 1 H, 4 Ks) impressed vs the Padres. Performances like this will have him on the fast track to the South Side.

18-year-old Dodgers’ prospect Julio Urias is a left-hander who worked around 3 walks to record 2 strikeouts over 1.2 scoreless innings vs the Brewers. Urias dominated at High-A Rancho Cucamonga in 2014 and figures to develop further in the minors during 2015 before maybe stating his case for a roster spot with the big club in 2016.

SATURDAY

The pitcher Chris Young signed with the Royals for 1-year. Young was the AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2014 while pitching effectively for the Mariners. He starts as a swingman on the Kansas City depth chart.

The Rangers’ depth chart learned it would be getting a workout as what Ross Ohlendorf does on a mound might matter (2 IP, 0 ER, 5K on Sunday vs Cubs). Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reported Yu Darvish has been diagnosed with a sprained UCL. Darvish will now check with the Mets’ Dr. Altchek this week , but anybody who isn’t a doctor and has an opinion is guessing TJS is in Yu’s future.

Baseball America’s #1 prospect Kris Bryant hit his 1st spring HR for the Cubs. He figures to crush AAA pitching in Iowa until May and then it will be a race to see what happens first – Bryant arriving on campus or the centerfield bleachers at Wrigley being finished.

SUNDAY

Alex Rodriguez had a bloop ground rule double to shallow right field that kicked up the chalk and bounced into the stands. Rodriguez played third base and successfully defended a ground ball at The BOSS. Yes, Michael Kay referred to George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa as The BOSS. Joe Girardi confirmed during the YES network broadcast that Masahiro Tanaka will make his first spring start on Thursday against the Braves. No word on when the MRI on Tanaka’s right elbow will be scheduled after the game. He opted for the nonsurgical approach after suffering a partial tear of his UCL last July. Tanaka came back to make two appearances last September, the 2nd of which was in the UH-OH category. Tanaka has reportedly felt good this spring and threw one of those simulated games on Saturday.

The Houston Astros closed out the weekend with a reminder that whether it’s March or October anything can and will happen in baseball. A 20-hit attack defeated the Tigers 14-9, but then their split squad – consisting of Jose Altuve, Colby Rasmus, Chris Carter, and Jason Castro – got no-hit by nine Atlanta Braves pitchers in a 2-2 ten inning tie. Cody Martin went the first two-innings, followed by Jim Johnson, Josh Outman, Brandon Cunniff, Ian Thomas, Mauricio Cabrera, Lucas Sims, Justin Jackson, and Jario Heredia all pitching no hit innings. A couple walks turned into a couple runs for the Astros on a couple groundouts in the 7th inning in case you were curious.

2015 National League East Preview

(Photo from MLB)

 

You know what? I don’t care that it’s early March. I don’t care that we’re still looking down the barrel of another month of cold weather for most of the country. I don’t even care that all the free agents don’t have new teams yet. MLB Spring Training has started & it’s absolutely not too early to start to preview & predict the upcoming 2015 Major League Baseball season. We’ve finally made it to the NL East, the home of one really outstanding team & a grab bag of potential, hope, & despair.

 

Phillies Philadelphia Phillies (5th in National League East)

See up there where I mentioned the grab bag of despair? This is who I was talking about, the Philadelphia Despairs. The starting nine reads like an All Star lineup… from 2008. 2B Chase Utley remains useful & C Carlos Ruiz can still hit a bit. But 1B & Living Money Pit Ryan Howard has sunk to almost impossible levels of mediocrity. Unfortunately, the SIXTY MILLION DOLLARS the Phillies owe him for the next two years make him basically untradeable. The fact that they currently have Grady Sizemore listed as the starting LF is some incredible combination of hilarious & depressing. Sizemore managed 112 games last year, which are the most he’s played since 2008. Sweet Christmas! This team is going to be wretched.

Best Case Scenario – Embattled GM Ruben Amaro Jr. gets the haul he’s been demanding in exange for SP Cole Hamels . Howard shows enough in the first half that a team desperate for offense takes him off their hands. RP Jon Papelbon waives his no-trade clause. OF Dom Brown proves that he can be a useful everyday player. Franchise icon Utley agrees to a trade to a contender at the deadline. The roster in August bears absolutely no resemeblance to the roster in April.

Worst Case Scenario – Amaro continues to wildly misread the market & the Hamels situation lingers like foot odor. Howard stays healthy but never does enough to make another team want him. Utley & Papelbon refuse trades. The roster in August looks exactly the roster in April. Philadelphia fans continue to earn their reputation for being forgiving & understanding. Ha, not really. They’re going to throw batteries.

 

Braves  Atlanta Braves (4th in National League East)

The only thing keeping the Braves from being potentially the worst team in the National League is the tire fire I just described. After trading away OF’s Jason Heyward & Justin Upton , their lineup has 1B Freddie Freeman … aaaaaand, ummmm…. OF Zoilo Almonte ? They added OF Nick Markakis , but he’s not a power hitter & he’s coming off neck surgery. OF Melvin Upton Jr. is hoping a name change is enough to make us forget that he’s the biggest free agent bust in recent memory. Except he’s hurt. Of course he is. There’s a ton of talent in the pipeline & a new stadium coming, but for now, they are cutting costs & hoping that someone emerges.

Best Case Scenario – Freeman is an MVP candidate. SPs Julio Teheran & Shelby Miller take enough pressure off the rest of the rotation so that .500 is a possible goal. The front office realizes having an elite closer on a 65 win time is an incredible waste of resources and move RP Craig Kimbrel for a strong package of minor leaguers.

Worst Case Scenario – Freeman, much like Goldschmidt out in Arizona, sees the losses mounting without an obvious light at the end of the tunnel & demands a trade. Upton’s foot injury lingers all season. SP Mike Minor needs Tommy John surgery & misses the season. Chipper Jones severs ties with the embarassing club. New Hall of Famer John Smoltz goes into the Hall with a Boston cap. Bobby Cox gets kicked out of Turner Field after throwing his dentures at manager Fredi Gonzalez.

 

Mets  New York Mets (3rd in National League East)

At first glance, I’m not entirely sure why the Mets will be so much better than the Braves. I’m certain the Mets would kill for guys like Freeman or SS Andrelton Simmons . The Mets have veteran OF’s who aren’t worth their contracts in Michael Cuddyer & Curtis Granderson , just like the Braves. The big, BIG difference is when you get to the rotation. There is not a team in baseball who can compete with the collection of young arms the Mets have assembled. From returning SP Matt Harvey to the reigning Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom to emerging ace Zach Wheeler to waiting-in-the-wings phenom Noah Snydergaard to Human Creme Puff Bartolo Colon , the Mets have an embarassing amount of pitching depth. So much so, that if they are in the race come July, it’s almost impossible to not see them move an arm for an impact bat.

Best Case Scenario – Harvey goes right back to dominating the NL after Tommy John surgery. Wheeler, deGrom, & Snydergaard join him to form the best rotation the NL has seen since the Braves run through the 90s. Cuddyer, Granderson, & 1B Lucas Duda provide enough offense to win a lot of 3-2 games. Franchise cornerstone 3B David Wright gets back to MVP form. They contend for a wild card spot.

Worst Case Scenario – Do the names Bill Pulshipher, Jason Isringhausen, & Paul Wilson mean anything to you? Well, they do to Mets fans & I just gave them a bad case of the bubbly guts. This new Generation K similarly flames out early & without fulfilling their promise. Wright’s balky shoulder flares up. Cuddyer & Granderson are both on the wrong side of their careers. They contend with the Braves & Phillies for last place.

 

Marlins  Miami Marlins (2nd in National League East)

I wonder if we all aren’t taking a major snooze on the Marlins chances in 2015. Their lineup has been overhauled since last season, adding 1B Mike Morse , 2B Dee Gordon , 3B Martin Prado , & SP Mat Latos . While there are question marks, they are all legit major leaguers, and as complimentary pieces, they work. Add them to All-Galaxy slugging OF Giancarlo Stanton & future All Star Christian Yelich , and this lineup gets very interesting. The rotation is going to be anchored by Latos until June when SP Jose Fernandez gets back from Tommy John and resumes setting the planet on fire. I’m not picking them for the wild card because I don’t think Fernandez comes back at 100%, but if they’re playing ball in October, I won’t be at all surprised.

Best Case Scenario – Stanton shows no ill effects of that fastball off his mush. Fernandez shows the amazing healing powers of the young and is back in July in Cy Young form. Morse & OF Marcell Ozuna show enough pop to protect Stanton in the lineup. Teams like the Reds, Cubs, Dodgers, & Padres falter under the weight of expectations and the Marlins sneak up on everyone & take the Wild Card.

Worst Case Scenario – They just aren’t ready. Stanton & Yelich can’t carry a lineup that isn’t producing enough. Latos & SPs Henderson Alvarez & Jarred Cosart can’t hold down the fort until Fernandez gets back. The statue in CF comes to life and goes on a Godzilla-esqe rampage through downtown Miami.

 

Nats  Washington Nationals (1st in National League East)

Quite simply, the class of the National League, and likely all of baseball. You want speed & defense? Gotcha. Young talent? Yeah. Big power? Sure. Quality pitching depth? Double check. If there’s a weakness, it may just be that they’ve assembled too many great players, which means the window is very limited until the check comes due and players have to go. Already, staff aces Jordan Zimmermann & Stephen Strasburg are staring down free agency, along with SP Doug Fister & SS Ian Desmond . The Nationals already had the best pitching staff in baseball, so naturally, they added the best free agent SP on the market in Max Scherzer . If this team does not win the World Series, it will be classified as a massive disappointment. This is their best shot and they need to make it count.

Best Case Scenario – They meet expectations. President Obama is watching World Series games from his box a few blocks from the White House. A parade past the Capitol building, etc. Zimmerman & Desmond take world champions discounts and a dynasty begins in D.C.

Worst Case Scenario – Anything short of a world championship really, would be a disaster. Zimmerman, Fister & Desmond walk as free agents. President Obama is very disappointed in their effort. The Republic crumbles. Democracy ends. Thanks a lot Matt Williams.

 

So that’s the division by division breakdown! I’ll be back with a postseason preview & a look at the award winners in each league!

BASEBALL IS BACK!!!!!!

 

Analyzing the Mets in 2015

(Photo courtesy of cdn.fansided.com)

It’s hard to believe that a team that plays in New York City hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006.

However, that’s the case for the New York Mets. Every other professional team in the New York area has the playoffs since then. The other baseball team in New York, the Yankees, have made the playoffs five times since then and have won a World Series in 2009. It hasn’t been easy for the Mets. Met fans have watched as the team collapsed in 2007 and 2008, failing to make the playoffs after holding substantial leads in the standings in September. As if that wasn’t bad enough, fans learned in December of 2008 that team owner Fred Wilpon was one of the investors who invested a substantial amount of money with Bernie Madoff, which was lost when Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed that same month. Wilpon reportedly lost about 700 million dollars, but still did not sell the team. So fans suffered through the next six years, watching their New York baseball team spend like a small market team. Now as we enter the 2015 season however, things are finally looking up for the New York Mets.

First, the Mets look like they will have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Ace Matt Harvey is coming off Tommy John Surgery, and if he can return to form, he has the potential to be one of the top five pitchers in all of baseball. Zack Wheeler had a decent first full season last year, and the young fireballer is poised for another good year. One of the hardest throwing pitchers in baseball, Wheeler’s only problem is his control. One of the biggest surprises of baseball last year was Jacob deGrom, who was called up in May and surprised everyone by winning National League Rookie of the Year, winning nine games while posting a 2.69 ERA. The only lefty in this rotation is Jon Niese, who’s had health issues in the past but was able to pitch in 30 games last year. He’s won as many as 13 games in a season. Veteran Bartolo Colon rounds out this rotation. Colon is a great guy to have as a fifth starter given that he’s an innings eater and has won 33 games in the past two years. The Mets will most likely push Dillon Gee to the bullpen, unless they trade him before the season begins. Gee could act as long reliever who could fill in if one of the five starters were to get injured.

As far as the bullpen goes, hard-throwing Jenrry Mejia earned his place as the team’s closer last season and will reprise that role this year. Jeurys Familia will be the team’s setup man after a solid first full season last year. The man who went into last year as the closer, Bobby Parnell, will be returning after missing almost all of last season due to an injury. His role is yet to be determined, but I could see him serving as the seventh inning man. As far as the rest of the bullpen goes, the Mets have lefty Josh Edgin, young Vic Black, Carlos Torres, and then one or two more spots that will be determined during Spring Training. If Gee is not traded, he will most likely take one of those spots.

The question with this team isn’t the pitching staff however. Most people agree that the Mets will be more than fine in that department. The big question is the offense. The Mets especially need captain David Wright and outfielder Curtis Granderson to have bounce-back seasons. Both had disappointing seasons offensively last year, and Wright spent some time on the Disabled List. Both players are essential to the Mets’ offense. Catcher Travis d‘Arnaud had a decent first full season last year after getting off to a terrible start in the beginning of the year. First Baseman Lucas Duda was a nice surprise last year, finishing third in the National League in home runs with 30. Duda and d’Arnaud both have power, and especially with the fences being moved in again at Citi Field, both are poised for good offensive seasons. Second Baseman Daniel Murphy has always been a solid offensive player, not always hitting for power but being able to drive in runs. Shortstop Wilmer Flores is one of the bigger questions on this team, offensively and defensively. The Mets failed to sign or trade for a shortstop in the offseason. Flores has power, so it’ll be interesting to see him for a full season. As far as the other two outfielders go, Center Fielder Juan Lagares is a tremendous defensive outfielder, but is not the best offensive player. Offensive expectations are not that high for him, but his defense makes up for it. The last outfielder is Michael Cuddyer was signed as a free agent in the offseason. He was injured most of last year, but if healthy, can be a productive offensive player. He’s hit as many as 30 home runs in a season.

The Mets definitely have high expectations in 2015. There are some questions, but for the first time in a long time, they look like a team who’s built for October. My prediction is the team goes 90-72 and gets one of the two National League Wild Cards. Met fans have been waiting a long time to see October baseball again. This year, they may just get that chance.

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Spring Training Haiku Rundown

Image courtesy of fanbrandz.com

 

Most people who live in the northern part of the country are still struggling to poke their snow-buried heads up high enough to see the sunlight. So forgive us if we’re a bit skeptical about spring being ‘right around the corner’.

But if you wanted to try and make the argument that the budding leaves might be here sooner than we expect, here’s how you’d do it:

Tell me that spring training starts on Friday.

In just two days, pitchers and catchers from each of the league’s 30 teams will report to their respective team’s facilities in either Florida or Arizona, marking the beginning of the most optimistic month on the baseball calendar. As of now, every team is tied (at 0-0), and the excitement abounds. Guys haven’t gotten hurt yet. Everyone shows up “in great shape.” Manny Ramirez probably took up Yoga in the offseason (that joke’s getting a little dated, isn’t it?). Everyone’s excited about their young prospects.

As we inch closer to Opening Day, I thought I’d do something a little different. Instead of the usual Spring Training piece, I’ve put together a haiku for each team. In 17 syllables, I will attempt to encapsulate each squad’s outlook for the 2015 season.

After all, shouldn’t springtime inspire some poetry?

 

 

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

 

Will try to repeat

As division champs despite

A quiet winter

 

NEW YORK YANKEES

 

What?! No more Jeter?!

Without playoffs for two years

Somehow, life goes on

 

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

 

Jose and Edwin

Might bash homers to the moon

But where’s the pitching?

 

TAMPA BAY RAYS

 

Goodbye Joe, Andy…

Things kind of fell apart

We might stink again

 

BOSTON RED SOX

Hanley and Panda

Somehow, Papi keeps mashing

Still, not many arms

 

DETROIT TIGERS

 

Thanks to bad contracts

Cabrera and Verlander

Window might close soon

 

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

 

Can you believe it?

They made it to Game Seven!

But lost Shields, Butler

 

CLEVELAND INDIANS

 

Poised for a good year

With Francona at the helm

And Kluber pitching

 

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

 

Busy offseason

Will be more competitive

Is it enough, though?

 

MINNESOTA TWINS

 

Mauer’s real pricey

And Molitor’s now in charge

But prospects coming

 

LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM

 

Trout. Pujols. Awesome.

But so much will depend on

Staring pitching health

 

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

 

Beane was aggressive

Here’s four brand new infielders:

Another shakeup

 

SEATTLE MARINERS

 

Inked Nelson Cruz,

Extended Kyle Seager, but

Relying on rookie arms

 

HOUSTON ASTROS

 

Pint-sized batting champ

And a strikeout prone lineup

They’ll be fun to watch

 

TEXAS RANGERS

 

’14 is over.

Thank God. Let’s see if they can

Stay healthy and thrive

 

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

 

Stud pitching, top arms

Scherzer, Strasburg, Zimmermann

Plus a great lineup

 

ATLANTA BRAVES

 

Retooled for future

Kept Freeman, Simmons but dealt

Upton and Heyward

 

MIAMI MARLINS

 

Stanton’s face has healed

So: three hundred twenty-five

Million. Hmm. Worth it?

 

NEW YORK METS

 

Good: pitching prospects

Bad: current lineup and bullpen

Harvey’s back. Upside.

 

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

 

Sometimes, the hardest

Part when moving on is to

Say goodbye to friends

 

  1. LOUIS CARDINALS

 

Wainwright, Molina:

A Hall of Fame battery

Again, contenders

 

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

 

A likeable bunch

With a star centerfielder

And a great team, too

 

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

 

Showed some signs last year

But faltered in September

Lack pitching, but mash

 

CINCINNATI REDS

 

Can Votto bounce back?

What about Cueto’s contract?

Too many questions

 

CHICAGO CUBS

 

The new era’s here

Lester, Theo reunite

Plus young, stud hitters

 

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

 

Best pitcher alive

And the division’s top team

Don’t choke in playoffs!

 

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

 

Three rings in five years

Need to add to rotation

Pablo’s gone. Oh, well.

 

SAN DIEGO PADRES

 

A busy winter

And a much-improved ball club

October in sight?

 

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

 

Poor defense, poor arms

Bats with glaring contact woes

And a new skipper

 

COLORADO ROCKIES

 

If Coors Field has made

Morneau, Cuddyer batting champs

What’s not possible?

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Don’t Sleep on the Mets’ Bullpen

(NY Post)

It can be argued that for the first time in awhile the New York Mets are playoff contenders, however at the same time many pundits say the team is not quite there and is missing a few pieces. For those who believe the Mets can compete in 2015 there are several main questions. Can Matt Harvey return and have the same success he did in 2013? Is David Wright going to be healthy and be David Wright again? Can Wilmer Flores play solid enough defense at short and will his bat live up to the hype? All of these questions are definitely important to the Mets’ season but there is one aspect of the team that does not get very much love: the bullpen.

Fangraphs has a section devoted to ranking the positional depth charts for each team by projected WAR for next season and this ranking system has the Mets’ pen ranked 30th out of 31, worse than the remaining free agents and only better than the Angel’s mess of a bullpen. In my opinion, those rankings are severely underrating a very talented bullpen. The Mets have three legitimate late inning arms along with two proven left handers and a few other players who have upside potential.

The closer situation will be one to monitor for New York as Bobby Parnell who was the closer going into last season is returning from Tommy John surgery and will be a big question mark. Parnell is a hard throwing righty who has had a lot of previous success out of the pen. He has averaged over 8 K/9 throughout his career, which is a modest number for a reliever but his ability to limit HRs, .53 HR/9, makes his a solid closer option. He has also walked less than 2.5 hitters per nine innings in 3 of the past 4 seasons before missing last year due to injury. If he returns to his pre-injury form the hard throwing right-hander should have no problem regaining his closer job from Jenrry Mejia.

Mejia debuted in 2010 and has had an up and down career to this point in the MLB. The former top prospect struggled mightily in his first two seasons in the majors (2010 and 2012) but has experienced success the past two seasons. However, the former starter truly found a home in the bullpen last season. As a reliever last season Mejia’s wOBA allowed was 38 points better, coming in at .304. He raised his strikeout% while lowering the frequency of his walks and significantly lowering his HR totals. These positive trends should continue yet again allowing Mejia to be a solid bullpen option whether he takes over as the full time closer or finds himself in a set up role.

The game of baseball has been changing and in a trend made famous by the Royals teams are searching for three talented bullpen arms to shorten the game. For the Mets this third option would be Jeurys Familia. Familia was extremely successful in 2014, 2.21 ERA, which was driven by his potentially unsustainable ability to limit HRs, .35 HR/9. Familia in 2014 showed an ability to get groundballs at an elite clip, 57%, while also allowing a small amount of line drives, 15%. This makes Familia an interesting type of reliever as he is does not dominate with strikeouts, a modest 8.5 K/9 in 2014. However, he features a high velocity fastball/sinker, 96.2 MPH, and an above average slider, which could lead to an increase in his K/9 numbers in 2015.

The final part of a modern day bullpen is a LOOGY netter known as a left-handed specialist. The 2015 Mets will have two different left-handers who have a track record of success against lefties. Scott Rice was extremely successful in the role in 2013 limiting lefties to a wOBA of only .214 and striking out a quarter of the lefties he faced. He struggled in 2014 across the board but he missed a lot of last season due to a bone spur in his elbow. Josh Edgin has not quite been as successful versus lefties in his career although he has still limited them to a below average wOBA, .277. However, what is so interestingabout Edgin is that he has been excellent striking out 27% of the lefties he has faced but he has been victimized by the long ball against those same lefties allowing more allowed 1.3 HR/9. If these two can both continue their success the Mets have a solid combo of left-handed relievers to help neutralize lefties in key situations.

The Mets’ bullpen could be a surprising area of strength and if they can help maintain leads for the talented starting rotation this Mets team could be a serious contender in 2015. The current crop of players is better than the projections give them credit for. There could be help for a potential playoff push in the person of Steven Matz a talented left-handed pitching prospect that could find himself with impact innings down the stretch. All in all don’t sleep on the Mets bullpen.

Joe Maddon and the NL Skippers

(photo courtesy DailyHerald.com)

My previous article noted the deck chairs on the American League ship have been slightly rearranged to make room for 4 new managers in 2015. Only a couple teams in the National League will be under new guidance this season, but one of those – Chicago Cubs with Joe Maddon – will be asked to steer a ship that’s been taking on water fast over 5 straight losing seasons.

Joe Maddon – Chicago Cubs

Team President Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer have seen the Cubs finish 5th in the NL Central during all three seasons of their reign, but they now have a brand name manager in Joe Maddon who inherits a much hyped farm system loaded with talent. 2B Javier Baez and OF Jorge Soler are already in the bigs with 3B Kris Bryant and SS Addison Russell waiting in the wings. The list doesn’t stop there, but I will.

Maddon, who comes over from the Tampa Bay Rays, replaces one 73-win year from Rick Renteria. Doesn’t Maddon’s quirkiness and success at making the Rays contenders over the last 9 years have to be what the Cubs need? The alleged plan is to forge an identity centered on still young talent (Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro), the promising prospects, and a Jon Lester led rotation. If Maddon plays his part to build a annual playoff contender that would be impressive, but to win pennants and a World Championship on the North Side would be epic.

Consider the following:

Chicago’s National League franchise has been around since the inception of the NL in 1876.  Since being rebranded as the Cubs in 1903, they have won 10 NL pennants. Following a World Series loss in 1906 the Cubs won back-to-back World Championships in 1907 and 1908. That was a long time ago. Wonder if they had t-shirts, hats, and a couple ten-inch disc records produced to celebrate the achievement? Lending historical perspective, Henry Ford’s first Model-T was being produced late in 1908.

The issue with the Cubs entering the 2015 season is that their resume looks way less impressive than it did after 1945, which was the last time they managed to reach the World Series. It didn’t happen with Jim Frey in 1984. It failed to happen with Don Zimmer in 1989. It also didn’t work with Jim Riggleman in 1998. Dusty Baker tried hard, but failed in 2003, before Lou Pinella fell short in 2007 and 2008. 38 years of nothing (1946-1983), followed by just these 6 playoff appearances from 1984-2008. However, in all of those years the Cubs started the season tied for 1st place. Hope springs eternal. All Aboard!!!

Chip Hale – Arizona Diamondbacks

It started promising in 2011 for Kirk Gibson with a 94-win team and a playoff appearance, but back-to-back 81-win seasons preceded the D-Backs going in the tank with a 64-98 mark last season. Give Alan Trammell (1-2) partial credit for managing the final 3 games.

Enter Chip Hale who most recently served as a coach for Bob Melvin’s Athletics from 2012-2014. Hale previously spent time as a coach with the Diamondbacks from 2006-2009 when Melvin was the Arizona manager.

Hale’s previous managing experience consists of 3 seasons with the Diamondback’s AAA affiliate in Tucson. He was an infielder who also played parts of 6 seasons with the Twins and 1 season with the Dodgers during the 1990s, but only accumulated 159 career hits.

What about the other 13 skippers in the NL?

Bruce Bochy – San Francisco Giants

9th season for Bochy in San Francisco and 21st overall as a manager where he continues to compile hall of fame credentials. 2010, 2012, and 2014 ended with a World Series trophy in his hands. In Game 7 of last year’s World Series, Bochy made one of the all-time brilliant managerial moves by bringing Madison Bumgarner in relief to start the 5th inning and letting it ride. Bumgarner was fresh off a complete game shutout in Game 5 just three days earlier. 5 scoreless innings later Bumgarner got the Royals’ Salvador Perez to pop out to Pablo Sandoval in foul territory with the game tying run on third base to win the World Series. Bochy also won an NL Pennant managing the San Diego Padres in 1998.

Bud Black – San Diego Padres

9th season for Black in San Diego who replaced Bochy in 2007 after the Padres had been bounced from the Division Series round in back-to-back seasons. Black’s never gotten the Padres to the postseason with his best effort being a 90-win 2010. Expectations are high for a revamped Padres’ team roster that looks much different from what the organization ran out there during 4 straight losing seasons.

Don Mattingly – Los Angeles Dodgers

5th season for Donnie Baseball in Los Angeles. His tenure is highlighted by back-to-back NL West titles, but with playoff defeats to the St. Louis Cardinals in both seasons. Clubhouse chemistry might be less toxic this season and Mattingly gets to look super smart by handing the ball to Clayton Kershaw at least once a week.

Clint Hurdle – Pittsburgh Pirates

5th season for Clint Hurdle in Pittsburgh. 94 wins in 2013 and 88 wins last year, plus superstar OF Andrew McCutchen both years has given Hurdle the opportunity to bring playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh for the first time since 1990-1992 when a “slender” Barry Bonds and half a pack of cigarettes were still a part of the Pirates dugout during the Jim Leyland era.

Ron Roenicke – Milwaukee Brewers

5th season for Roenicke in Milwaukee. The highlights have been being tied two games apiece vs the Cardinals in the 2011 NLCS and leading the NL Central by 6.5 games with a 51-34 last season. The lowlights have been the end of that NLCS, the end of last season, and the end of Ryan Braun being trusted following 2012.

Fredi Gonzalez – Atlanta Braves

5th season for Gonzalez in Atlanta. Following 94 and 96 win playoff seasons in 2012 and 2013 respectively the Braves dropped to 79 wins last season.

Terry Collins – New York Mets

5th season for Collins with the Mets. The previous win totals of 77, 74, 74, and 79 last year speaks to the Mets consistency at being mediocre.

Mike Matheny – St. Louis Cardinals 

4th season for Matheny in St. Louis. Back-to-back NL Central titles. Three straight trips to the NLCS including a pennant in 2013 before losing the World Series to Boston.

Mike Redmond – Miami Marlins

3rd season for Redmond in Miami where he gets to continue enjoying Giancarlo Stanton moon shots and the cheesy home park special effects that follow. 85 losses in 2013 was better than the 100 losses in 2013.

Ryne Sandberg – Philadelphia Phillies

3rd season for Sandberg in Philadelphia. Ryno took over from Charlie Manuel with 42 games to play in 2012 in what was the first of two 73-win seasons.

Walt Weiss – Colorado Rockies

3rd season for Weiss in Colorado. 74 and 66 wins won’t get much done in a fierce NL West.

Matt Williams – Washington Nationals

2nd season for Williams in Washington. The defending NL East champs won 96 games, but lost to the Giants in the NLDS.

Bryan Price – Cincinnati Reds

2nd season for Price in Cincinnati. Dusty Baker had taken the Reds to the postseason in 3 of the previous 4 seasons. Price, an injured Joey Votto and a poor Jay Bruce effort took them to 76-86 last year.

Thank you baseball-reference.com and wikipedia.com for helping me fill in the blanks.

Matt Harvey’s Return Is Key to Mets’ Success in 2015

One of baseball’s best pitchers in 2013 didn’t play in a single game in 2014.

Matt Harvey took the baseball world by storm in 2013, exploding onto the scene and having a fantastic first full season. He was a ray of hope for a fan-base who had watched their team miss the playoffs each of the past six seasons. It appeared as if the New York Mets had found their savior, the player that would help them become relevant again. Even though the Mets were still on pace to miss the playoffs again in 2013, the team and the fans were still overjoyed that they had found their star player. Then on August 26, 2013, every Met fan’s worst nightmare came true. Harvey went on the disabled list.

He was diagnosed with a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Harvey originally wanted to try to rehab before opting for surgery, but the Mets stepped in and convinced him to get surgery. On October 22, Matt Harvey had Tommy John Surgery. Everyone involved with the Mets and all the fans were devastated. The original plan put forth by General Manager Sandy Alderson was by 2014, the Mets would be back to being a playoff-level team. Now with the Harvey injury, he now had another year to delay the plan. So 2014 went by without Harvey, and the Mets suffered through another season in which they missed the playoffs and finished under .500. As we approach the 2015 MLB season, the Mets need a healthy Harvey if they want any chance at the playoffs.

Coming off Tommy John Surgery is never easy, but if anyone can come back from it and return to top form it’s Matt Harvey. He’s as fierce of a competitor as there is. Every time he takes the mound, he gives 100% of what he has and never holds back. His numbers are there to prove it. In the 26 games he started in 2013, Harvey went 9-5 with a 2.27 ERA and 191 strikeouts. He started the 2013 All-Star Game which took place at Citi Field in front of his home fans. Despite missing all of September due to his injury, Harvey still finished fourth in the National League Cy Young Award voting. He accomplished all of this in his first full season. And it wasn’t even technically a full season.

Harvey will return in 2015 and re-take his place as the ace of the Mets. He’ll join a pitching staff that includes young fireballer Zack Wheeler, 2014 National League Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom, veteran righty Bartolo Colon and either southpaw Jon Niese or  right-hander Dillon Gee. If Harvey returns to his 2013 form, the Mets are in great shape this season. Although some people may argue that it will be hard for Harvey to return to his 2013 form because of the surgery, it really all depends on the player. Some players struggle at first after coming off Tommy John Surgery, but some players thrive and come back better than before. Knowing Harvey and how fierce of a competitor he is, the latter seems more likely. Harvey is fully recovered and ready to go for this season. He may have an innings limit restriction, just as Stephen Strausburg was limited in 2012 by the Washington Nationals after he had the same surgery in 2010. Harvey will have to agree to the innings limit put forth by the Mets, but there’s no way he’ll allow the Mets to keep him sidelined if they make the playoffs this year, as the Nationals did with Strausburg in 2012. The Mets will likely take precautions to ensure that if they do make the playoffs, Harvey will not have reached his innings limit yet.

With a healthy Matt Harvey back to top form, the Mets have the potential to have one of baseball’s best pitching staffs in 2015. With the addition of Max Scherzer, the Washington Nationals are considered by many to have baseball’s best staff. However, with Harvey returning, the Mets have a staff to rival them. With the two teams being division rivals, we should be in for some good pitching duels this season.