After his thrilling September call-up (during which he hit .368 with a .105 ISO, scored 9 runs, and went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts), and a promising Spring Training showing (.327 with only 9 strikeouts in 55 at-bats), I can guarantee it wasn’t just me – an ardent Cincinnati Reds fan – who was way too over-excited about the full-time impact of Billy Hamilton in 2014. Everywhere you looked, he was on people’s ‘must-watch’ or ‘most intriguing’ lists, or picking up NL ROY votes on imaginary preseason ballots.
It took four games, approximately 1.9 percent of the regular season, for the panic to set in. After the Man of Steal started the season 0-for-12 with six strikeouts, including an Opening Day debut in which he was awarded a golden sombrero by Adam Wainwright, reaching base just once in that dreadful Opening Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was benched by new Cincinnati manager Bryan Price. Previously exuberant Reds fans cursed themselves for falling in love with a 160 pound greyhound of a prospect; fantasy hounds hung their heads when they realized Hamilton’s inability to get on base would mean he couldn’t steal them*. Expectations were more than just tempered – they were dashed completely.
Well, funnily enough, it turns out we may all have overreacted to his ‘failure’ to meet the preseason hype. That is, no, Billy Hamilton is not Rickey Henderson. But he’s also not a bust. Since that fateful benching, The Fast Kid has actually fallen somewhere very nicely in the middle ground, hitting a more than serviceable .280/.310/.378 in combination with stellar center field defense and his customary base path speed. His tenure might have gotten off to a rough start, but now that he’s has started to hit just a little bit, Hamilton is looking more and more like an everyday leadoff man.
Not that he’s stopped doing the sorts of things that we were all so excited about during Spring Training of course; We’ve seen him create runs out of nothing, most famously turning an otherwise routine Jay Bruce pop fly into an RBI against St. Louis (much to my anti-Cardinals glee) earlier this month. He’s robbing hits in the outfield seemingly every other day, Mike Olt and Andrelton Simmons being among his most recent victims. Then there’s the stolen bases (though he does lead the NL in caught stealing currently with 5**). He even hit his first home run of his major league career off of Jeff Samardzija on Tuesday night, much to the pitcher’s surprise:
As you can see, it wasn’t your garden variety wall-scraper, aided by the friendly home confines of great American Ball Park, or even a hooked line drive that squeaked inside the foul pole. Nope, Hamilton’s shot went 397 feet deep into the right field bleachers***, and was the highlight of perhaps his best night in a Reds uniform to date; the 23-year-old produced his third three-hit game of the season, adding two infield singles to his debut jack, scored twice, was on base all five times, stole a base, and robbed Olt. Shrugging off three separate rain delays, he pretty much singlehandedly willed Cincinnati to a 3-2 win, kicking off a home stand by snapping the team’s three-game losing streak.
It was like catnip for Cincinnati fans – Billy Hamilton at his very finest, his dynamic play sparking the Reds’ stale offense (don’t get me started on Brandon Phillips) to victory – and a more than encouraging sign for his future.
While I’m sure it has been a more than interesting first month following The Billy Hamilton Experience as a casual observer from afar, it’s been little less than a rollercoaster ride for those of us invested in his, and thus Cincinnati’s, success. From the preseason peak, to the small sample size valley, at the close of April the ride thankfully looks to be leveling out at a reasonably comfortable level.
Bring on May.
* Thankfully I only fall into the former group – who the heck knows what I might have done had I actually owned Hamilton on any of my roto teams too.
** Billy ‘Freakin Hamilton! Caught stealing! 5 times! Whaaaat?!
*** It was also the first Cincinnati home run in seven games, covering 251 at-bats and 283 plate appearances, and only the second long ball Samardzija had allowed all season (Chase Utley hit the other).
After leading the National League in batting average (.269), runs scored (783), and shattering the record for the highest RISP mark of all time* during the 2013 regular season, then finally upgrading from offensive black hole Pete Kozma to Jhonny Peralta at shortstop while simultaneously shuffling their defense to fit in even more bats over the winter, perhaps we expected too much of the St. Louis offense headed into the 2014 season. But my goodness have the Cards been woeful on that side of the ball thus far; in scoring just 3.41 runs per game, the team ranks 14th among Senior Circuit clubs, propped up only by the anemic San Diego Padres. After collectively hitting like prime-Miguel Cabrera with RISP last year too, the Redbirds are batting just .221/.290/.299 with a 69 OPS+ in such situations this year, and have left 196 men on base – tied with Arizona for the 2nd worst mark among NL teams. Presumed to be the division’s powerhouse squad, Mike Matheny‘s men already trail the upstart Milwaukee Brewers by 5.5 games in the NL Central.
All of which contributed to the Cardinals’ recent roster moves; after Sunday’s win it was announced that second baseman (and my preseason focus) Kolten Wong and outfielder Shane Robinson would be optioned back to Triple-A Memphis, the pair to be replaced on the 25-man roster by rookie infielder Greg Garcia and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. Primarily done in order to spark their offense, such a roster shakeup may well effect the St. Louis lineup far beyond the standard promotion/demotion.
The decision to send down Wong seems slightly puzzling in spite of his slow start. After struggling during his first big-league stint – he hit .153/.194/.169 in a very sparsely-distributed 59 at-bats – and infamously being picked off at first base in the World Series, the 23-year- old was again scuffling, batting just .225/.276/.268 and losing playing time to Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso before his demotion. But neither Ellis (.160/.267/.160) nor Descalso (.097/.152/.161) have hit a lick so far, which in addition to Wong being not the only everyday starter currently struggling, makes the move a little more fishy. Team GM John Mozeliak has cited the need to restore the former first round pick’s confidence with everyday at-bats in a less-pressured environment as the main factor in his decision to send down the rookie, but this marks the second time in which Matheny has pulled the plug on Wong playing daily at the keystone because of a slow start. His infield replacement Garcia meanwhile, though off to a thumping start at Memphis (he carries a .277/.366/.554 line to the majors), has troublingly never hit with as much power as he’s demonstrated so far this season, meaning that barring his aberration somehow continuing, he’ll likely see little meaningful time before being returned to Triple-A duty. Perhaps then, it will be third time lucky for Wong.
Where things get more interesting however, is the demotion of Robinson. There’s little actually to say in regards to Robinson himself – he was carried on the club as a fifth outfielder and had two hits in 20 at-bats, but with Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos also vying for time in center field and one option year remaining, he was likely an easy choice to become the odd man out. Grichuk on the other hand, is an intriguing figure. Acquired in the deal which sent David Freese to Los Angeles this past winter, the 22-year-old responded well to a change in organization, and was hitting .310/.359/.529 so far at Triple-A Memphis, with six walks and 17 strikeouts in 87 at-bats. Selected one pick ahead of Mike Trout in the 2009 amateur draft, the 6-1, 195 pound right-hander should bring a much-needed power injection to Busch Stadium, along with the capability to play all three outfield positions well on defense.
Most significantly was how was Grichuk was selected ahead of bigger-name peers for promotion, skipping ahead of higher-touted outfield prospects Stephen Piscotty and Oscar Taveras to be first in making it to the majors**. That he leapfrogged both despite being a lesser prospect suggests that this is merely a short-term solution; the Cards don’t want to burn the service time of either Piscotty or Taveras (who is still battling ankle injuries too), when they would only likely find themselves in a positional timeshare. While I’m sure the organization like Grichuk, his likely future as a fourth outfielder/impact bench bat makes risking his development a more palatable option that wasting studs like Taveras on the bench – an opinion seconded by Craig Edwards on the Viva el Birdos blog: ” Grichuk is a solid prospect, but not expected to be an impact player at the major league level absent more development… promoting Grichuk for limited at bats makes the most sense when trying to balance the short and long term needs of the St. Louis Cardinals.”
His addition might bring a further wrinkle to the St. Louis lineup. If Matheny and Mozeliak believe tat Allen Craig‘s slow start (he’s hitting .190/.248/.280, with just 5 extra base hits) is intrinsically tied to his move to the more physically demanding right field, with Grichuk available to fill that position occasionally, Matt Adams‘ job security at first just took a hit. Adams has been solid in hitting for average this ear, but his power – his best tool – has gone walkabout (I propose that it’s tied to his looking to hit against the shift so often). If the Cardinals want to invigorate Craig back at first, Adams might well find himself limited to pinch-hitting duty, much like last year. The promotion of Grichuk is not just insurance for the struggling Bourjos and Jay in center field then, but may indeed factor into who’s playing first base too.
As put by St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, “We’ve been thinking about or contemplating this for some time in the sense of when you look at how we were playing and what we were doing, there’s just no silver bullet to make a quick fix because frankly, our everyday lineup has to produce.” The Cardinals are still in a strong position. That they are able to make such aggressive changes and tinker with their lineup so much is a testament to their incredible organizational depth – this isn’t like a Houston club that throw everything against the wall hoping someone surprises them by sticking. But these are moves of concern; things haven’t gone as planned in St. Louis so far. Perhaps Mozeliak and co. expected too much too.
* The Cardinals’ average of .330 (part of a crazy .330/.402/.463, 139 OPS+ RISP line), eviscerated the previous record of .311 set by Detroit in 2007. No other team hit above .282.
** Joey Butler actually had the best line in Triple-A this season of the outfielders, currently hitting .403/.519/.597 in Memphis, but can’t play center field.
There’s no denying it – the Billy Hamilton Era hasn’t begun smoothly. With the spotlight fixed upon him as crucial to Cincinnati’s 2014 chances, the Man of Steal has started the season 0-for-12 with six strikeouts, including an Opening Day debut in which he was awarded a golden sombrero by Adam Wainwright (he did finally reach base yesterday on his final plate appearance of the opening series against the Cardinals courtesy of a Pat Neshek four pitch walk). It’s not just about the raw numbers though, or distinct lack of, but the manner in which Billy the Fast Kid has fared at the plate; the aforementioned Wainwright, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn have all pounded the inner half with fastballs with no fear of powerful retribution in order to get ahead in the count early before victimizing the Reds’ new center fielder with breaking balls to put him away. For even the most ardent of optimistic Reds fans (fair warning: occasionally I myself get irrational about Cincinnati), through the first 1.9 percent of the regular season Hamilton’s lack of offensive performance and early exploitation has been a veritable cause for concern.
Perhaps it was the inordinate focus on his potential to win you a single fantasy category by himself, but expectations for Hamilton heading into 2014 were simply waaaay too high (I might have contributed to the hype train): as put by Tyler Grote of Bleacher Report, “Billy Hamilton became Broadway the second Shin-Soo Choo left for Texas. He’s been cast to center stage with about all of a month’s worth of experience working as an extra.” No one should have realistically expected Hamilton to replicate the 143 OPS+ mark that Choo racked up during his single year in a Reds uniform last season, but after his electrifying September call-up (per Fangraphs, in 13 games, he went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts and scored 9 runs. He also managed to hit .368 in that span with a .105 ISO) and an encouraging Spring Training showing (he hit.327 and only struck out nine times in 55 at-bats, while unveiling an improved bunt tool), the pumping up of Hamilton’s tires by some media outlets would have convinced the impartial observer we were dealing with the next Rickey Henderson.
The Reds themselves are somewhat to blame for this; in December, general manager Walt Jocketty said to the Cincinnati Enquirer‘s John Fay, “He’s the guy. We feel confident he can be a good leadoff hitter.” Joey Votto, on Cincinnati’s 700 WLW radio network, said of his teammate “if [he] learns to walk, he could be an MVP candidate.”
The truth is, as unfortunately noted by David G. Temple on Fangraphs, “at this point, he just doesn’t have great hitting skills.” Pre-2013, a year in which Hamilton posted a .651 OPS at Triple-A Louisville and walked just 38 times in 547 plate appearances, Baseball Prospectus wrote “You can knock the bat out of his hands with good velocity and he doesn’t have the discerning eye to work counts and lay off spin… he’s a virtual zero offensively.” It appears, for all the coaching of Eric Davis and Don Long, and bunting workouts with Delino DeShields, that little has changed since – something the Steamer, Oliver and ZiPS projections all predicted; the three major systems had his 2014 OPS at .643, .593, and .681 respectively. PECOTA too, projects Hamilton to hit .244 with an on-base percentage right around .300. Batting leadoff in the opening home series of the season against the vaunted Cardinals rotation therefore has only served to unfairly expose the worst tool in Hamilton’s game for everyone to see – and thus worry about.
Even after his uneven start, Bryan Price and the Reds are standing behind their decision to anoint Hamilton the starting role in center field. The calls for him to be benched, or even sent back to Louisville, are at this point ridiculous – it’s been three games after all (though it is worth noting Hamilton was not in the starting lineup for this afternoon’s game against the New York Mets). Until he goes full-on Aaron Hicks 2013 – the perfect example of a prospect called to The Show too soon – his defense and base running alone (not to mention the Reds’ lack of replacement center field options) should ensure him a spot in the opening lineup. Bryan Price does however, have for now quite the quandary to address in regards to Hamilton’s spot in the lineup; leading off gives him the best chance to use his famous speed should he get on base (and finally subdue the Joey Votto is selfish narrative/RBIzzzzz argument), but exposes his greatest deficiency in a prominent role. Batting in a more appropriate spot however – ie. vying with Zack Cozart for the eight hole – would likely lose him a lot of opportunities to use the legs that are the stuff of Yadier Molina‘s nightmares.
Certainly Hamilton’s early struggles can for now be forgiven due to his age and inexperience – I can’t stress this enough, it’s been three games, he’s 23, and even the best hitters go through slumps – but if his subpar on-base skills and total lack of power end up costing the team about as much as his legs help them, my love for base running highlights won’t be held hostage should a change be beneficial to my Reds. Of course, I’m hoping he does eventually hit – but I’ve drastically tempered my expectations from where they were a mere week ago.
If all else fails, at least Cincinnati will still have the most terrifying pinch-runner in the game to call up every September.
As a recent inductee into the much-fêted Torn ACL Club, (there’s only one membership requirement, but I wouldn’t recommend it), a subdivision of the Busted Knee Alliance, I’ve a fairly new appreciation of professional sportsmen who come back from serious injury. Mine was fairly innocuous all things considered, and yet still, after one day of rehab work, already my quadriceps have fallen out with me. So whether it be Yasmani Grandal, Tyler Pastornicky, Scott Sizemore, Corey Hart, or even (hopefully) Manny Machado – really anyone who has ever had knee problems – I’m rooting for you to succeed this year regardless of the laundry you wear. Hence why I’ll be crossing my fingers in sincere hope that Grady Sizemore’s health permits him to stick in the Boston outfield mix for the whole of 2014.
I’ve only ever known Sizemore as an injury prone player; that’s how long his various afflictions have plagued him. After all, he’s undergone seven surgeries since 2009 alone, including (amongst treatment for his left elbow, a pair of sports hernias, and in 2012, a herniated disk in his lower back) microfracture procedures on both knees. When he last appeared in a regular season game on Sept. 22, 2011, an 11-2 win for his Cleveland Indians over the Chicago White Sox, Sizemore was apparently a shell of his former self – not that I noticed. My newly-acquired baseball fandom knew nothing of his time as perhaps the most dynamic player in the game.
I’ll leave it to Jeff Sullivan of Fangraphs to point out just how good Sizemore was back in the days in which he once played 382 straight games:
Between 2005 and 2008 — Sizemore’s age-22 and age-25 seasons — only Ichiro Suzuki played in more games, and only Ichiro and Jose Reyes batted more times. Between 22 and 25, Sizemore was worth 26.8 WAR, 20th in baseball history. Names around him include Evan Longoria, Barry Bonds, David Wright and Andruw Jones. He was worth 5.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances, 58th in baseball history. Names around him include Hank Greenberg, Hanley Ramirez, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson.
By the end of his age 25 season in 2008, Sizemore already had 111 home runs, 117 stolen bases, three All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger award and three top-12 MVP finishes… After 2008, Sizemore owned a career .279/.370/.491 over 3,109 plate appearances. His 127 OPS+ made him just the ninth center fielder since integration to post a 120 OPS+ or better in at least 2,500 plate appearances by age 25.
By all measures – entertaining video highlights included – Sizemore was one of the five best position players in baseball, at just the tender age of 25 looking set to be an MVP candidate for years to come. And yet if it weren’t for his Spring Training play for the Boston Red Sox over the last couple of weeks, I’d never have known.
While my Reds were also supposedly in on him, the now 31-year-old Sizemore was lured to the reigning champion Red Sox by a one year, $750,000 major league deal (plus incentives that can take him past $6 million). Even with Jacoby Ellsbury departed to the Yankees, it seemed an odd decision, Boston not only having Jackie Bradley Jr. on the way up to play center, but a gluttony of players for every other outfield spot too – a stellar group consisting of Shane Victorino, Mike Carp, Daniel Nava, and Jonny Gomes. A lottery ticket without a clear opportunity to begin with, the underwhelming performance of Bradley (batting .189 thus far) in combination with flashes of the old brilliance – including two spectacular grabs made in the field against the Cardinals on Monday – have not only assured Sizemore sticks with the club, but may well have pushed him up through the once-presumed clogged depth chart into a starting role.
Even if he will forever struggle to remain fully healthy, Boston, with their considerable outfield depth, will give him the best opportunity to showcase the offensive skills that once put him in such elite company. As evidenced this Spring, when healthy, Sizemore can still contribute, and could potentially be another monumental bargain for the Sox. Much like former Indians teammate CC Sabathia, I’ll be pulling for Grady Sizemore all year regardless of his performance. Just getting back out onto the field healthy is achievement enough.
Since arriving in the Majors in May 2012, the Millville Meteor has been the most valuable player in baseball, posting consecutive 10+ WAR seasons in his age 20 and 21 campaigns. He has robbed home runs in spectacular fashion, playing center field with all the grace of a gazelle – a gazelle with a crazy vertical leap. On the basepaths, he’s a terror, using the speed that routinely turns grounders into infield hits to pose a constant threat when on base – which by the way, he generally is. At the dish, he’s been one of the five best hitters in the game, combining a patient approach (he was third in the majors with 110 walks last year), with both a plus hit tool (hitting .326 and .323 in the past two years respectively) and surprising power (he already has 62 home runs). Furthermore, he owns Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, the two pitchers he has faced most often so far in his young career, with Darvish recently admitting he has no idea how to pitch to him – high praise indeed, given his position as reigning AL strikeout king. By all measures, Trout is the most valuable player in the sport (hence why his upcoming contract terms are being widely, and wildly, debated). That Miguel Cabrera has beaten him to the official hardware in both the past two years is merely indicative of a voting class that still favors RBI(zzzzzz) over metrics that also take into account fielding and base running – y’know, crucial elements of the sport.
I’m not here to argue about Cabrera stealing Trout’s shine though; as Jonah Keri put it so wonderfully, “Criticizing Cabrera or Trout is like whining about the mole on Kate Upton’s upper lip.” Despite his lack of formal acknowledgment, when it comes to who’s most valuable, we know. The Angels are lucky to have him, and should hold on to their young superstar for as long as humanly possible. Things could have been very different after all…
In making Mark Teixeira a very rich man – signing the prize position player of the 2008 free agency class to a eight year, $180M contract – the Yankees sacrificed their first round pick in 2009’s MLB amateur draft to his former employer, the Angels, as compensation (Los Angeles would also receive a supplemental pick in the deal). Of course, in a rare turn of bad luck for the Yanks, that sacrificed pick later turned out to be a certain high school kid from from South Jersey (the supplemental pick too, if you were interested, was Tyler Skaggs). In an alternate world, Mike Trout would now be in pinstripes – and a whole heck of other things would probably be different too. Let the butterfly flap it’s wings.
Having extended an eight year offer of their own during the Winter Meetings, lets say Teixeira, having enjoyed his three month spell in SoCal so much, turns down the overtures of not only New York, Boston, Baltimore, and the Nationals, and instead re-ups with the Angels.
Having missed out on Teixeira, but already spent a cool $243.5M in bringing aboard CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees opt to sign the still-available Manny Ramirez to a two year pact. Though Teixeira amasses 3.0 additional WAR than Ramirez during the season, hitting .292/.383/.565 and finishing second in AL MVP voting, he performs miserably in the postseason, hitting just .180/.282/.311 in what begins a trend of disappointing playoff performances. The Angels fall to the Yankees in the ALCS, who (like in reality) go on to win the World Series over Philadelphia, Ramirez batting a serviceable .281/.324/.469 along the way. With the World Series title in their back pockets, the Yanks also head into 2009 armed with two first round picks, and one very specific target.
At an introductory press conference, New York’s scouting director Damon Oppenheimer speaks first: “He was the second guy on our overall board. It was (Stephen) Strasburg and then Trout.” With the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, the Yankees have of course, snagged Mike Trout, who had fallen into their laps after scouts didn’t pay enough attention to his Northeast high school. Additionally, with Trout already in the bag, the Evil Empire pass on picking up another high school outfielder, Slade Heathcott, and instead select Tyler Skaggs just four picks later. Not even Alex Rodriguez’s and Manny Ramirez’s joint PED admission later in the season can bring down the Yankees, though they eventually fall in the playoffs.
Fast forward to the winter of 2011. With Teixeira in Anaheim, free agent first baseman Albrt Pujols turns instead to his biggest offer, signing for ten years and $275M to be the face of the new Miami Marlins franchise, swallowing his request for a no-trade clause to be included in the deal. With no money left to spend, Miami can’t afford their other free agent target Jose Reyes, who agrees to fill the void at shortstop for the Cardinals. Prince Fielder remains available until January, when Texas finally step up and sign him in an pseudo arms race with the Angels for the most bloated 1B contract in the AL West (and yes, the use of “bloated” was very intentional).
The 2012 season begins, and Trout is called up by the Yankees in May. He does Mike-Trout things, posting a rookie season for the ages in which he hits 326/.399/.564 with an 168 OPS+, his play both inspiring comparison to ‘True Yankee’ Mickey Mantle, and John Sterling to come up with two incredibly annoying home run calls by June (I’m thinking “No Doubt! Mike Trout!” or “That one’s Troutta here!”). Quickly realizing the next franchise cornerstone is in the fold, Derek Jeter steps away from the game graciously after the season, having suffered a gruesome broken ankle in the postseason; in his retirement press conference, he speaks of recognizing how his body can’t do it everyday anymore, and jokes about how he’s been overmatched at shortstop for years anyhow. Rebuffing questions about whether he’d have preferred a retirement tour, Jeter says he wouldn’t want to detract from Trout – who will be the next Yankee captain.
After an amazing sophomore campaign, Trout is unanimously regarded as the best player in baseball. His cheap contract too, means that the Yankees have money to burn elsewhere, and instead of signing Jacoby Ellsbury, re-sign Robinson Cano – GM Brian Cashman dismissively amused that the Yankees would ever not lock in the game’s best player at the keystone for the rest of his career. Having signed Yu Darvish in 2011 with the money they saved not signing Teixeira (and the Rangers’ hands tied by the enormous Fielder contract), they augment their staff further with the addition of Masahiro Tanaka, and swing Tyler Skaggs along with a host of other top prospects to Tampa for a one year rental of David Price. With such formidable pitching depth, and Trout and Cano leading the offense, no one even cares about Rodriguez’s season-long suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal; the Yankees romp to the 2014 title regardless.
Mike Trout is named the 2014 AL MVP, just as he will be back in reality.
When I checked the alphabetical AL standings and saw Houston were next up in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I groaned aloud. I can only equate writing about the Houston Astros to the chore of doing ironing; no one wants to do it, it’s not enjoyable, relaxing, or even educational – it just needs to be done if something is to be presentable. However depressing the Astros are though, the show must go on. So having yesterday dealt with Detroit’s frittering away of the opportunity to cement themselves as the class of the AL, today I’m faced with previewing a team that has lost 324 games over the past 3 seasons (including their last 15 of 2013), and will once again be picking first in the amateur draft this summer. The last time they weren’t doing so, way back in 2011, the Houston Astros selected George Springer.
As a Phoenix Suns fan, I was all aboard the respective Riggin for Wiggins/Sorry for Jabari/Concede for Embiid tanking trains entering the 2013-14 season. Of course, they’ve gone on to be annoyingly half-decent this season, neither good enough to contend nor bad enough to bottom out, and have thus probably entrenched themselves in the mediocre middle ground of the NBA for the next half-decade in the process. The best amateur talent is available only to the biggest losers after all, a fact especially true in the lottery-free draft practiced by MLB. So I can understand the bold approach of Jeff Luhnow’s Houston Astros; the whole concept of systematically rewarding teams for being atrocious is an inefficiency to be exploited by those shameless enough to do so. Sometimes you have to be bad to get good. And the Astros of this decade have been really, really, REALLY bad.
Having in 2013 become only the the 12th team since 1900 ever to lose 111 games, their third consecutive 100+ loss season, the Astros are finally primed to begin the climb back to relevancy – starting in 2014. The first installment of (un)deserved riches should hit the field this year, a crop of young talent led by 2011’s 11th overall pick George Springer. And if the dynamic center fielder is anything to go by in terms of the general sort of talent on the way, all the painful losses will have been well worth it.
Ranked by both ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball America as the 19th best prospect in professional ball, Springer tore up the minors in 2013, narrowly missing a historic 40-40 season (he only had 37 HRs to go with his 45 SB) on his way to posting a .303/.411/.600 line between Class AA and AAA. He actually improved as he progressed too, upping his line from .297/.399/.579 in Double A to .311/.425/.626 at Triple A – overcoming a .028 drop in BABIP in the process. His isolated power also soared at the higher level – from an already-impressive .282 to a frankly outrageous .315, with Fangraphs recently estimating further gains: “At 6’3″, 205 pounds, Springer has a muscular frame that projects well for future power development if he adds some weight over the course of his career.” Just for good measure, as if his hitting didn’t make him an elite prospect already, Springer also possesses plus speed, a tool he utilized well not only the basepaths, but parlayed effectively into playing a rangy center field.
Before Houston fans need to go take a cold shower however, we should mention the strikeouts, and the odd peripherals that led Keith Law to label him “a mold-breaker”. Seriously, they’re like some weird baseball experiment; despite more than a quarter of his plate appearances last year ending in a strikeouts (161Ks to 589 PAs) and a horrific 65.3% contact rate, the 24 year old also demonstrated above-average plate discipline, drawing 83 walks (good for a 15.4% BB% in his 266 Triple-A PAs). By the numbers, Springer apparently swings hard at everything in the zone regardless of the count, missing at a mindless rate, yet also has the eye to lay off the junk. As Jeff Sullivan put it, “It’s not that he misses a bunch of unhittable pitches. He actually misses more hittable pitches.” The question of whether this unintentional experiment will befoul Springer’s admirable average at the top level of the sport will soon be answered however.
Asked what to expect of the UConn product in 2014, GM Jeff Luhnow vouched ”I think George Springer will be a starting outfielder in Houston this year.. Whether it happens Opening Day or sometime during the season, he’s a special talent.” Most projections have him on track to make it in May, thereby both delaying the start of his service clock and allowing Springer the chance to get some Triple A repetitions in right field – the acquisition of Dexter Fowler presumably pushing him to the corner when he reaches the majors. Once he makes it to Minute Maid Park though, expect big things. Though he would be the jewel of several other teams’ minor league systems, Springer is somehow only the 3rd best prospect in the Astros setup, which already the best in the game is expected to add heralded NC State LHP Carlos Rodon with the first overall pick in this years draft. Springer’s arrival will mark just the beginning of a stream of top prospects then, though his should be among the most memorable.
After having my Baltimore preview rendered irrelevant the day prior, Jackie Bradley Jr. thankfully didn’t find himself traded/injured/prematurely-retired by the time my 2014 MLB Season Preview rolled around to Boston yesterday. From one promising center fielder to another then, as today I focus on Adam Eaton – one of the many young players the Chicago White Sox will be hoping break out this year. They could sure use some impetus in 2014.
Did you know the White Sox last 99 games last year, and compiled the third worst record in the majors? I’m guessing if you’re a Chicago fan, sure you already did – I don’t mean to rub it in. I was just surprised. Obviously Detroit were a good team in winning 93 games and the AL Central, and both Cleveland and Kansas City defied the curses placed on their respective towns and improved, but finishing behind lowly Minnesota? I had no idea the Sox had sunk so low.
And therein lies the problem. Despite finishing fourth in the AL in ERA+ (their 108 being tied with Boston), Chicago traipsed through 2013 devoid of inspirational hitting or defense; their OBP mark of .302 was second-worst to only the historically abysmal Astros, whom also redeemed the Sox (-72) from the ignominy of being ranked last in Rtot (Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Average). With nominal ‘Face of The Franchise’ Paul Konerko in the twilight of his career, Adam Dunn doing Adam Dunn-like things, and an otherwise uninteresting flotsam of role players, Chicago lacked the identity necessary for public concern. Enter Eaton.
After batting a combined .375 with 59 XBH (7HRs), with 48 RBI, 130 runs scored and 44 stolen bases in 130 games with Class AAA Reno and AA Mobile, as a member of the Diamondbacks organization in 2012, expectations were sky-high for Eaton entering last year; Keith Law tabbed him his top potential impact rookie, while Baseball America ranked the former 19th round pick as Arizona’s third-best prospect, the best hitter for average in the system, the fastest baserunner, and the best outfield arm. After suffering an injury to his left ulner collateral ligament in March however, Eaton was limited to just 66 games in which he slashed only 252/.314/.360. Having seen AJ Pollock develop into a competent starter in his absence, (and perhaps Eaton’s apparently abrasive locker-room personality) when the opportunity arose for Arizona to acquire the power bat they had for so long craved, their once-hyped prospect was deemed expendable.
Acquired in December’s three team trade that saw Mark Trumbo go to Arizona, and Chicago effectively swap Hector Santiago for Eaton, Chicago’s GM immediately alluded to his new center fielder’s fiery disposition: “This is a dirtbag baseball player… This is a guy who has been described to me by someone with words I can’t use. But we were looking to give us an edge that we were lacking a little bit in recent months.” More than just his scrappy attitude however, Eaton’s potential for a significant on the field impact makes his acquisition a good piece of business relative to Chicago’s climb back to relevancy; with his salary under team control through the next two seasons (he’s first eligible for free agency in 2019), Eaton represents the latest step in Chicago’s effort to build a foundation for future success through youth, joining the likes of Avisail Garcia and Jose Abreu as a cog which should still be in place as part of the next relevant Sox team. The 25 year old’s arrival in center field also makes the defensively shaky Alejandro De Aza surplus to requirements – if traded at the right time, his departure could further net Chicago a useful young piece or two.
In taking advantage of Arizona’s curious policy of selling players at their lowest value (Justin Upton anyone? Trevor Bauer?), Chicago have cheaply procured a multi-faceted piece they sorely lacked ever since Juan Pierre left town – a prototypical leadoff fitter, strong outfielder, and threat on the base paths. At 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, Eaton will primarily be expected to dig in and do whatever it takes to get on base – improving that ghastly 2013 OBP – from which he can then showcase his famed all-out attitude; “If I’m on first base I’m going to score for my guy because I want him to get an RBI,” said Eaton in January, “I don’t see playing the game any other way. I may be out of this game in five years because I’m playing so hard, but that’s the only way I can play and the only demeanor I can bring to this team.” The attitude comparisons to AJ Pierzynski are almost too obvious, but it’s clear that Eaton is ready to step into the shoes left vacant as Chicago’s resident irritant. Sox fans can dream of a similar victory parade moment as Pierzynski’s immortal 2005 ‘thanks for putting up with me’ quote; I’ll be content with measuring Eaton’s impact by my capacity to recall Chicago’s 2014 record next year.