If there has been one overarching theme to the 2014 MLB season so far, it’s been players missing time. Whether it’s been because of (asinine) draft pick compensation rules, attending the birth of one’s child (goodness me was that David Murphy-related ‘controversy’ farcical), or as in the vast majority of cases, due to injury, far too many players have been off the field, their absences spoiling the game we all love.
The month of June is off to a promising start however. After the spate of Tommy John surgeries necessitated in April and May, as far as I’m aware, we’ve now gone three days without one being announced (It’s my understanding that Chris Withrow of the Dodgers was the last player to have been announced as going under the knife). Even better, a host of players are making their returns this week – all carrying some relevance. Let’s break them down quickly;
– Stephen Drew, who was only absent by his own/Scott Boras’ doing after turning down a qualifying offer over the winter, finally made his season debut for Boston last night, going 0-2 with a walk in a defeat to the Cleveland Indians. Having played in the minors since May 21st having finally signed a pro-rated contract for around $10 million this year, the left-handed Drew batted eighth in the Red Sox lineup and instantly slotted in at shortstop, pushing Xander Bogaerts to third base, and with both Mike Napoli and Mike Carp out, the surprisingly effective Brock Holt across the diamond to first. While there were certainly more ideal landing spots out there (Detroit have a more glaring need, and less infield competition), landing back in Boston can only be considered a good thing for Drew. Sure, he probably could have gone to the Mets, but their stinky offense and the Wilpon Quagmire of Financial Despair (H/T to Jonah Keri) would likely have ensured a less than happy tenure in Queens. He won’t be anything special for the Sox, but in need of some stable production, he’ll fill a role nicely – the same attitude with which he should be approached in terms of fantasy pick-ups. He’ll be a stable middle infielder, a low-upside, high-basement type, perfect for a team ravaged by injury or simply short of middle infield depth. Just don’t expect Drew to be a savior, both in reality or fantasy.
– Jose Abreu on the other hand, woah boy. This fellow’s return might be make-or-break for your fantasy squad. After two weeks on the disabled list and a couple of simulated games at U.S. Cellular Field, the Cuban slugger, who even after being out since May 18th still led the White Sox in home runs (15) and RBIs (42), was activated in time for the start of a three-game set against L.A. at Dodger Stadium. With no DH hole to be stashed in, Abreu jumped right back into the thick of things playing first base, and picked up where he left off at the plate, muscling out a two-run shot off of Clayton Kershaw in his second at-bat, Chicago’s only runs of the game. And this was after being struck in the chest by an overthrown ball while stretching during pre game warm-ups! The Sox have been treading water without him, but with the AL player of the month for April back in the mix, they could yet put a run together in the disastrous AL Central for second-place behind Detroit. He should immediately be back in fantasy starting lineups too, though it will be worth paying attention to whether he perhaps gets a day of rest from playing the field at some point in this interleague series.
– Elsewhere, Josh Hamilton is slated to make his return to the Angels lineup today in a game against the Astros, in which first base prospect and recent contract signee Jon Singleton will also be making his debut for Houston. Hamilton has been out since April 9 with a torn ligament in his left thumb having (rather rashly) slid into first base headfirst, but was hitting .444 with two home runs in the tiny sample size prior. His return will likely spell trouble for the 42-year-old Raul Ibanez, who has been god-awful in 2014, though I’d be concerned if you were starting him in your league anyway. Hamilton should probably reside on your bench for at least a couple of days while you evaluate his return; thumb injuries can be tricky, and Hamilton is prone to streaks even when fully healthy. Resting him is probably the safe play, unless you don’t have any other viable outfield options. Of course, slotting Mike Trout straight back in after he missed Sunday’s game with back stiffness is a no-brainer.
– Stay away from Yordano Ventura though! After a disastrous May 26th outing in which his velocity noticeably dropped and he was forced to exit in the third inning, the 23-year-old flamethrower dodged the Tommy John bullet and was instead diagnosed with “lateral elbow discomfort.” After successfully completing a bullpen session, Ventura will be thrown back in on Thursday to face the Cardinals in the Battle For Missouri. In addition to his prior inconsistency, not only do I dislike the match-up, but I’m worried about Ventura’s long-term outlook; elbow injuries don’t normally solve themselves this quickly, especially ones which cause such an appreciable velo decline. Though he’s officially returning, don’t be surprised if Ventura heads straight back to the trainer’s room in a month or so.
– Aramis Ramirez is back in the Milwaukee lineup tomorrow after sustaining a strained left hamstring on May 13. He’ll be able to DH too, given how the Brewers are visiting Target Field for an interleague series. A notorious slow starter, Ramirez should be a more than viable third base option the rest of the way should he avoid re-aggravating that hammy… Andrew Cashner, after an elbow scare, is scheduled to rejoin the Padres’ rotation on Saturday against the Nationals. Unless you’re in absolute need of gaining ground over the weekend however, it’s probably best to let this one play out with the hard-throwing righty on your bench however… Ryan Zimmerman should be appropriately settled back in to the Washington lineup by then – the 29-year-old has been cleared to return on Tuesday after breaking his thumb on April 12th. Where he’ll play however, remains intriguing; the right-hander has been playing left field during his rehab stint at Potomac, so Ryan Zimmerman: ML Outfielder might be a thing now… In obligatory Reds news, Joey Votto (quadriceps) is nearing a rehab assignment, and Mat Latos threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his latest Triple-A start. He should be back next week.
Boy, the baseball Gods are in a vengeful mood this year. Anyone have any idea what has upset them? It’s evidently not Yasiel Puig‘s bat-flips like some of the old curmudgeon sports writers would have you believe – he’s still standing after all. Still, they’re smiting down other young, exciting, and crucial players at a depressingly prolific rate right now. It’s getting ridiculous – just ask the poor Texas Rangers, who can barely cobble together a starting rotation anymore. Is there a player we can send as some sort of sacrifice offering to appease them? No one would miss Josh Lueke I’m guessing – probably not even the Rays. Fine, too drastic a measure. Until you come up with something better to end the madness though, here’s a quick rundown of some of the more important figures who were sidelined over the past weekend, and a reason perhaps why the higher powers don’t want them taking the field.
In the case of Gio Gonzalez, the logic of the Gods is easy; in a year in which nearly every team has a starter missing from the rotation, why should one team allowed to be fully healthy? Boosted by the return of Doug Fister (who turned in a very nice seven innings of one run ball in his second start last Thursday), the Nationals had all of eight days with a fully healthy starting staff before Gio Gonzalez was given the special treatment. After being rocked for 7 earned runs in just 4.1 innings in his previous start against the Athletics, Gio was once taken behind the woodshed on Saturday, allowing 5 runs to the Mets of all offenses, lasting just 3 innings to boot. After telling the club he was struggling to find any consistency with his arm slot – a precursor for shoulder trouble – he was given an MRI on Sunday morning. The results came back negative however, so for now the 28-year-old lefty is only on the 15-day DL with slight shoulder inflammation, joining the likes of Bryce Harper, Adam Laroche and Ryan Zimmerman in watching from the bench.
It’s dubious exactly why, but poor Will Middlebrooks seems to have had the worst of injury luck in his young career. Maybe his two trips to the DL already this year are a form of karmic retribution for taking Jenny Dell away from us on NESN Red Sox broadcasts, but permitting a sixteen-year-old to take her to prom should surely make up for something. Anyhow, after seeing his promising rookie year cut short by a wrist fracture caused by a HBP, suffering through torn cartilage in his rib cage and lower back problems in 2013, and then injuring his calf earlier this year, Middlebrooks will once again be making himself comfortable in the Boston training room for a while after sustaining a non-displaced fracture of his right index finger during Saturday’s game against the Tigers. Ian Kinsler‘s scorching line drive apparently left the digit bent and discolored, and it will now be immobilized in a split for the next five to seven days. No return timetable has been set of yet, but batting .197 at the moment, maybe Middlebrooks needed some extended time off anyway. He gets to spend more time with Jenny now too, so it can’t be all that bad.
Oh, Andrew Cashner… My fingers are sincerely crossed that you aren’t the next young, hard-throwing pitcher to have caught the Tommy John plague, but I’m very concerned. You’ve tempted fate all year with that 2.35 ERA, 143 OPS+ and 2.76 K/BB ratio; we should have learnt by now that as baseball fans, we aren’t allowed nice things (see Harvey, Matt last year). So of course, with the Padres looking like coming around somewhat, the Gods were going to pick you next to reminds us of our cruel mortality. It would have been Nate Eovaldi, but that dreadful mullet you sport, and the fact they’ve already taken Jose Fernandez from the Marlins this year, swung it in your (dis-)favor. Hopefully your sore elbow will require nothing more than the 15-day DL stint set out for you, but with a history of injuries (albeit shoulder ones), you’re not giving us much reason for hope here.
Seriously though, why did you have to take down Jose Abreu though – is leading the major leagues in home runs as a rookie not sacred anymore? I can understand wanting to get Paul Konerko some extra playing time in his final year, but wouldn’t just Abreu having a tight back for a couple of days be sufficient? Instead, it had to be posterior tibia tendinitis in the ankle, a nagging injury that will likely plague the 27-year-old all year long rather than heal completely during his short time on the disabled list. Do you know how important the back foot achilles is to power hitters? Just look at Ryan Howard (though he wasn’t great to start with). Is this all some part of a weird Cuban vendetta? First it was Aroldis Chapman taking a liner to the head, then Fernandez, and now this.
Maybe Puig should be looking out for himself after all…
With my significant other over 5000 miles away, how better to spend Valentine’s Day than writing the next installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series. Having yesterday reviewed the most underpaid pitcher in all of baseball during 2013 – Francisco Liriano – and (probably foolishly) expressed the hope that his inconsistent days were behind him, I today look at another pitcher who experienced a pseudo-breakout last year. Pegged by ESPN’s Buster Olney to win a wild-card spot this year, the San Diego Padres will need Tyson Ross to continue where he left off in 2013 if they are to meet expectations.
John Sickel’s 2009 scouting report concluded with the comment “… has very good stuff but is still figuring out what to do with it.” Five years later, having had the team that originally drafted him effectively give up on his eventual development, Tyson Ross of the San Diego Padres, has worked out the recipe for success. Or at least it appeared that way over a 13 game stretch at the end of last season.
Drafted in the 2nd Round back in 2008 by the A’s, the Padres cheaply acquired Ross (for utility infielder Andy Parrino and pitcher Andrew Werner) in November 2012 after a season in which he made 13 starts and compiled an undesirable 6.50 ERA. That he came at such a low price was understandable; the power arm that Oakland envisioned never materialized, as Ross’ funky motion – Baseball Prospectus pitching mechanics expert Doug Thorburn said Ross had “zero momentum and a short stride” – inspired neither strikeouts nor any measure of control. 4 years after Sickel said Ross was “still figuring out” his stuff, he remained stuck doing just that; a stalled prospect of little value, Oakland had other needs to fill, and sent him packing. Once the Padres got their hands on him prior to 2013 however, something changed.
His development turned over to San Diego’s pitching coach Darren Balsley, Ross’ preseason work focused not on completely overhauling his irregular delivery, but on repeating his timing better, and simplifying his repertoire. It apparently worked. With his improved preparation, Ross saw his fastball velocity leap to the extent that he averaged 94.9mph with the pitch in his final start of the season, the culmination of a 13 game stretch that has Padres fans excited for 2014. Having become effectively a two-pitch starter (Ross threw his fastball and slider a combined 98% of the time to RHB in 2013, and 89% to LHB – his change up constituting the remainders), the 26 year-old dominated post All-Star break; in 80 IP, Ross allowed just 56 hits (opponents batted just .201) en route to a 2.93 ERA. His strikeout rate too climbed; after recording a meager 5.7 K/9 through 70-plus innings in 2012, Ross amassed 85 Ks in the second half, a statistical climb attributable to not just the improved fastball velocity, but the emergence of a deadly slider.
Even though batters mostly knew what was coming – pretty much either a heater or the slider – they could do little about it. Per Fangraphs, Ross’ was the third-most valuable of all sliders thrown (measured by value metric “wSL”) behind only AL Cy Young runner-up Yu Darvish and NL Comeback Player of the Year Francisco Liriano. On that pitch alone, Ross induced batters into swinging strikes 24.8% of the time, as opponents hit just .145, with an isolated power mark of .030. Its emergence also gave Ross a way to strike out lefties, who made contact far less often than in years prior, and with weaker results when they did; his 3.87 xFIP when facing LHB was a significant improvement on the platoon splits that plagued Ross’ early career. Able to now strike batters out on both sides of the plate, Ross’ reliance on the slider also induced ground balls at an elite rate – his 2.00 GB/FB suggesting that his success was independent of Petco Park’s famed friendliness towards pitchers.
Ross will be part of a 2014 Padres rotation full of reclamation projects; having acquired Andrew Cashner from the Cubs in 2012, the Friars added Ian Kennedy from Arizona last July, and signed Josh Johnson in free agency this past offseason. With Joaquin Benoit signed to replace the departed Luke Gregerson as the Padres setup man, and Huston Street in reserve for the ninth inning, San Diego’s pitching should prove to be the team’s strength. Leading the way will be Ross, who according to Balsey last year “wants to be dominant.” Slated to earn just $1.98 million this year, if Ross can replicate that second-half line (2.93 ERA, 80 IP, 56 H, 23 BB, 85 K) over a full season of work in 2014, he not only will steal Liriano’s throne as the most underpaid pitcher in baseball, but will have achieved his goal – he’ll be one of the best pitchers in the NL. And probably the only one operating with just two pitches.
Small sample size be damned, Padres fans should be excited about their young righty; it may have taken a few years and a change of scenery, but Ross looks to have finally figured it out.