Tagged: First Base

The Cuban Revelation: the Jose Abreu move is more than paying off in Chicago

Way, way back in my MLB Season Preview SeriesI lamented how quietly the Chicago White Sox had quietly limped to a 99-loss season in 2013. In doing my research for the post, I’d been surprised to see quite how bad they had been, and wondered how they had pulled off such anonymous incompetence. I figured it had been their anemic offense, something an influx of exciting new players would help cure, and thus get the Pale Hose back on the national radar. Using that logic, I wrote about Adam Eaton as the key to Chicago’s turnaround.

In a way, I was right; Eaton has been every bit the leadoff force that many predicted of him back before injury derailed his 2013 season in Arizona (and before Kevin Towers traded him at his lowest value). In a larger respect though, I was dead wrong; while Eaton’s arrival has undoubtedly had a positive impact on both sides of the ball, it has been the South Sider’s other notable offseason addition that has garnered baseball’s attention so far. One month into his major league career, 27-year-old rookie Jose Abreu has crushed his way into the wider consciousness, and, in the words of Jonah Keri today, “turned a moribund White Sox team into a must-watch outfit every night.”

Signed to a six-year, $68 million deal back in October (the largest in White Sox history in terms of total money), the acquisition of the right-handed slugger was deemed “a calculated risk, but one we had to take,” by none other than Chicago GM Rick Hahn at the time. Even after putting up video-game numbers in Cuba (Abreu batted .316 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs over 83 games in 2013, while posting a .479 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage*), there were still concerns over how his perceived ‘long’ swing would hold up against American League competition, the usual cultural shift worries, and whether the heavy expectations upon his shoulders (he’d be replacing beloved face of the franchise Paul Konerko at first base) would further impede his production translating. That “bold and aggressive” move though, is looking like a stroke of genius on the part of Hahn so far in 2014.

Abreu has been sensational during his first four weeks in the majors, obliterating pitches and setting all sorts of records along the way. With a major hat-tip to ESPN’s Stats and Information crew, through last nights games:

– Abreu’s 10 home runs are the most by a White Sox rookie in any month, and the most for a White Sox player since Konerko had 11 in 2001 (Jim Thome hit 10 in 2006).

– His 31 RBIs set an MLB rookie record for March/April, beating the previous mark set by… Albert Pujols. His impressive total also established a new franchise record for the opening month, topping Konerko’s mark of 28 in 2002, and has tied Frank Thomas for the most by a White Sox player in any month (Thomas had 31 in August 2003)**.

– And (as illustrated in this excellent piece) he’s just destroying the outside pitch: Eight of his 10 home runs have come against pitches on the outer half of the plate or off the outside corner, which along with his .797 slugging percentage against similar pitches, give Abreu the highest marks in baseball (His six extra-base hits against pitches out of the strike zone rank second only to Mike Trout).

Less statistically significant, but still valid: he’s destroyed at least one backstop phone, been called ” the best player in the world … ever … right now,” by Evan Longoria (admittedly after he hit the above walk-off grand slam against Grant Balfour and the Rays on Friday), taken pretty good pitchers by the names of David Price, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer deep already, and taught Danny Salazar to never, everhang a breaking ball again.

More than anything though, Abreu has awakened the Pale Hose offense from its 2013 slumber; along with Eaton, he’s at the forefront of a lineup which leads the majors in runs scored (143), and is largely responsive for keeping Chicago afloat at .500 in the AL Central (especially considering how ace Chris Sale is out and the rest of the team’s pitching stinks – only Arizona have allowed more runs). His monstrous impact has even made Hawk Harrelson more exclamatory than usual. So while it’s a cert that he won’t keep up his torrid pace of record-making (if he hits 62 homers and 193 RBI, I’ll turn vegan), Abreu has already achieved something I thought far more improbable; almost single-handedly, he’s made the White Sox watchable again. 

* Numbers which actually made it a below-average year for the big righty. Including postseason appearances, he batted .392 over the 2010-13 seasons, with 133 home runs, 337 RBIs, 311 runs and 278 walks.

** Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cuban defector is the first rookie with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a calendar month since Al Rosen and Luke Easter both did it for the Cleveland Indians in June 1950.


The best/worst inning of 2014: thank you Mike Carp

You certainly can’t blame John Farrell for his post game comment “it’s not been a good night.” He’d just seen his Boston Red Sox get pasted by their AL East arch-rival – the New York Yankees – in an ugly affair that took a marathon 3 hours, 51 minutes to complete. His much-vaunted lineup had seemed disinclined to swing at any of C.C. Sabathia‘s sluggish offerings (seriously, someone get C.C. a feed bag of Captain Crunch quick – he looks horrible right now), Jacoby Ellsbury was lacing hits seemingly every time he came up to bat, and Boston’s starting pitcher Felix Doubront was abysmal; it most certainly was not a good night – at least from his perspective.

But for the objective fan of baseball (like me), woah boy. Never before had the end of a 14-5 game been so exciting, completely because Farrell had actually prefaced his lament with a phrase that is like catnip to an impartial observer: “Any time you end up with a position player on the mound (it’s not been a good night).” Position player + pitching = high comedy. In yesterdays instance, having already used three relievers to combine for 5 1/3 innings, first baseman/occasional outfielder/pinch-hitter/NON-PITCHER Mike Carp was asked by Boston to stretch his valuable versatility even further, and climb the mound for the top of the ninth. And thus, as is always the case whenever a position player is summoned to the bump, an otherwise-boring game suddenly became must-watch (mlb.)TV.

It all started so promisingly – after being cheered voraciously to the mound by the remaining Fenway faithful, and walking Mark Teixeira, Carp (somewhat hilariously) induced a 6-5-3 double play from the second batter of the inning, Brian McCann; Carp would later acknowledge “That was cool right off the bat.” Unfortunately (for him and the Sox at least), that would be the highlight of the inning, because with two outs and none on, the wheels officially came off – and the exceptional performance began.

Mixing a genuine 66 to 70 mph knuckleball with what appeared to be both a four-seam and two-seam ‘heater’ (offerings that apparently ranged from 79 to 84 mph), Carp would walk the next four hitters – pushing across a run – before getting pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson to pop-up to David Ross for the final out. Though he didn’t cede a hit, Carp would face seven batters, and throw a total of 38 pitches – only 15 of which were strikes*! The resultant plot graph of his pitch location was a masterpiece in horrible command/beautiful entertainment:

More than simply that analytical equivalent to the Mona Lisa though, Carp’s outing provided additional entertainment value thanks to the trolling tweets, inspired trivia questions, and exquisitely tongue-in-cheek scouting analysis that followed. Furthermore, though Carp was quoted post-game in saying “Obviously, I’m not taking it too seriously out there,” the shaking off of his catcher at least once and look in at the umpire when he disagreed with a non-strike call suggested otherwise – only adding to the mirth-factor of his pitching debut.

Now this is not intended to bash Carp – he actually looked incredibly comfortable in an otherwise tough spot, and admirably saved an already-taxed Boston bullpen from further embarrassment – but his appearance last night was brilliant in its exceptionally farcical nature. The Yankees looked genuinely unwilling to swing in fear of inciting a brawl (or just couldn’t reach that far outside the zone). It wasn’t the first time we’ve seen a position player seen on a mound this year either, nor will it likely be the last, but Mike Carp’s outing may well be the funniest come seasons end.

Only if you’re not John Farrell that is.

* and even then, he was occasionally helped out by some relaxed umpiring/David Ross framing.

Panic Stations or Patient Stances? Underwhelming fantasy contributors at 1B.

We’re three-plus weeks into the Fantasy Baseball season, and aside from Alexei Ramirez, Charlie Blackmon, and Chris Colabello, no one, it seems, is hitting. Fine, that’s a tad of an overstatement – but perusing the ESPN Player Rater in search of some trade targets, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of highly-thought-of first basemen who are s-t-ruggling so far in 2014. Given their propensity, darn near every owner must currently have a flailing first bagger – the question is, should they be panicking, or remaining patient?

It’s probably best to address the elephant in the room first; Miguel Cabrera – who if not first overall, was drafted only behind Mike Trout – is currently 376th on the Player Rater, the closest hitter to him thus far being… Lonnie Chisenhall?! After inking his mammoth extension with Detroit, the 31-year-old has scuffled his way to a .235-4-2-10-0 fantasy line and struggled to make hard contact consistently; as Tristan Cockcroft pointed out in an excellent piece yesterday, Cabrera’s .159 well-hit average falls well below the average .307 mark he hit during 2011-13. Furthermore, there are concerns over the lingering effects of offseason core surgery – the Venezuela native last week admitting he’s still working towards full strength. Miggy owners shouldn’t push the panic button on their high-price investment yet however; Cabrera did yesterday produce his first game with two extra-base hits (and just his third multi-hit game of the season), hinting that he might return to his planet-eating, healthy self soon. Furthermore, he has experienced slumps before – in the same article, Cockcroft cited a 16-game stretch in 2012 (y’know, when he won the Triple Crown), during which he scraped a 219/.296/.406 line, mostly thanks to some horrible peripheral stats (.266 WHAV, 22.8 Miss%, 59.3 GB%). His slow start is almost certainly just a momentary blip in his excellency, and definitely has nothing to do with a lack of ‘lineup protection’ now that Prince Fielder has been sent packing.

Speaking of which… I’m guessing the Rangers are searching for the receipt on that one. Acquired in exchange for Ian Kinsler, the hefty Fielder has got off to a uninspired start in Texas, barely hitting above the Mendoza line after typically being drafted just outside the first round (13.1 ADP). More than simply his .208 average though, despite being known for his tremendous power and the move to the home run-friendly Globe Life Park in Arlington, the first baseman has so far only hit two long balls. He has shown some recent signs of awakening (he’s now 8-for-26 over his last eight games, with two home runs, three doubles and eight walks), but the decline in his numbers seen during the last couple of years are looking more and more than simply an aberration, and likely the beginning of an ungraceful fall. Throw the injury-ravaged Texas lineup into the equation too, which may well limit his counting stats, and Fielder owners are likely to be underwhelmed this season. Not that too many other slugging 1B out there are faring too well either…

Drafted just ahead of Fielder (11.1 ADP), Toronto 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion has similarly struggled out the gate – ranking 28oth on the Player Rater after finally hitting his first home run of the season against the Orioles yesterday. Though offseason surgery on his left wrist can’t yet be completely ruled out in factoring into his struggles, Encarnacion’s early-season impatience is likely at the heart of his problems; by his recent standards (10% in 2013, 14.5% and 14.6% the two years prior), he has unusually high K% (22.9) so far, suggesting that it’s his pitch selectivity undermining his production rather than any issues with the wrist. Given his consistency over the past couple of years, I’d expect to see him circling the bases (parrot and all) more frequently in the imminent future.

The same optimistic outlook can’t be applied to Billy Butler. After finishing just 152nd on the Player Rater in 2013*, the 28-year-old has continued to underwhelm fantasy owners who perhaps thought he was a buy-low candidate entering 2014 – currently sitting at 567 on the Player Rater. Not only has Butler failed to hit for average (.217), but his power seems to have evaporated; from its .197 peak in 2012, Butler’s ISO mark fell to .124 last year, and is a paltry .029 (!) so far in 2014. Billy Hamilton, for comparison’s sake, has a mark of .058, twice as high as Butler. The loss of power is only part of a worrying trend in peripherals for Butler however; always a groundball guy (he has a career rate of 48.4%), Butler has taken his worm-burning to a ridiculous level thus far in 2014, hitting grounders at a 63.2% clip (as David Temple proposed on Fangraphs, a swing change might be to blame). Not too drastic a problem if you’re the aforementioned speedy Hamilton, who stands a fair chance at gaining routine infield singles, but at 6-1, 240lbs, a significant one for the plodding Butler. Now at 72.3% ownership, Butler has been one of the most dropped players in leagues thus far; if you’re not one of the growing number already, join the bandwagon and cut Butler.

Continuing the trend of light-hitting Royals – which isn’t very specific, continuing the whole team is making Dee Gordon look like Barry Bonds in terms of power at the moment – Eric Hosmer has unfortunately failed to continue the power surge he exhibited at the end of the 2013 season. There’s no problem with his average (.311), but his blank in the home run column and lack of counting stats (S/O to the anemic Kansas City offense!) have Hosmer languishing at 351st on the Player Rater (only 2 spots ahead of B.J Upton!) after achieving an ADP of 52.7. He’s still not doing quite as badly as Allen Craig though, who after roping line drives instead of homers through most of 2013, has continued the same approach in 2014 – except minus all the line drives. Drafted just six spots after Hosmer (58.5 ADP), the oft-injured Cardinal has just one jack and a horrid .184 average three weeks in. Given his spot in the potent St. Louis lineup however, he probably stands a better shot than Hosmer at accruing some solid counting stats by the end of the year; without any health problems reported, and no trade value, Craig is worth hanging with and waiting on for his bat to heat up.

God only knows my team could do with Craig doing so. And don’t get me started on his fellow 1B-eligible struggler, Carlos Santana (I own him and his 136 BA on 2 teams). It can’t be just me feeling aggrieved however; what with all the high-profile names mentioned, if you’re getting production from your first baseman (hello to all the surprised Albert Pujols owners out there), you’re one of a lucky few.

* I’m assuming the fact that his DH-only eligibility contributed more to his 2014 ADP of 121.5 than his disappointing performance the previous year.

An Inconvenient Truth; Ryan Zimmerman belongs at 1B.

Finally, there appears to be some resolution in the nation’s capital. After saying on Sunday that Ryan Zimmerman merely had inflammation in his right shoulder, not structural damage, and that he expected the 29-year-old to remain at the hot corner for the remainder of the season, new Nationals manager Matt Williams admitted to 106.7 The Fan FM on Monday night that his third baseman actually has an arthritic shoulder, and might soon see time at first base if the move were to keep him off the DL.

Williams’ admission came off the back of another ghastly throwing error by Zimmerman in the fourth inning of Saturday night’s game against the Atlanta Braves, an errant toss that allowed Andrelton Simmons to reach on what was an otherwise routine grounder, a run to score on the play, and the floodgates to open; Stephen Strasburg would allow another run in the frame on a Julio Teheran single and four more in the fifth, knocking him from the game as the Nats fell to their 15th loss to the Braves in their last 21 games against their division rivals. 

That particular play on Saturday was a microcosm of the struggles Zimmerman has experienced since undergoing major shoulder surgery in November 2012. Previously an excellent defender – he averaged 11.1 UZR per year between 2007 to 2010, winning the NL Gold Glove award in ’09 – Zimmerman’s fielding value had already dropped off from its Evan Longoria/Adrian Beltre-like peak to a more league-average level during 2011-2012, before falling off a cliff last year; his horrific 2013 mark of -14.0 UZR in 1245.2 innings wasn’t far off the -16.8 number put up by the statuesque Miguel Cabrera, the loopy throws resulting from his sidearm motion frequently pulling Adam LaRoche off the first base bag – and occasionally putting the first couple of rows of spectators in danger too.  Playing shallower in order to shorten his throws to first didn’t help his rating much either; as Davey Johnson picked up on last year, Zimmerman’s taking a couple of strides closer to the batter has severely diminished his range, allowing more ground balls to get by than ever, and additionally dragging Ian Desmond further over from short. 

Within a couple of years then, the Nationals have witnessed their star groundball-vacuum become a complete defensive liability. It’s not like the Nats can simply bench Zimmerman either. Since becoming the first player the Nationals took in the draft after the team relocated to Washington, chosen out of the University of Virginia with the fourth overall pick in 2005, he has been the rock of their lineup, collecting two Silver Slugger awards on his way to a career .286/.352/.477 triple slash line. Throw in his six-year, $100 million contract extension – signed after an injury-shortened 2011, but only kicking in this past week – which will lock him through his age-34 season too, and it’s clear Washington aren’t about to declare Zimmerman simply a sunk cost. 

All things considered, there’s never been a greater time to move Zimmerman to first base; positional incumbent Adam LaRoche isn’t the player who the Nats re-signed after a monster 2012, and is in the last year of his contract. Anthony Rendon played third in college, so could feasibly slide around from second. Danny Espinosa, benched last year in favor of Rendon, could ably fill in at the keystone. On days facing lefties, such a construction might actually be an improvement given how Espinosa has hit southpaws better than LaRoche (he has a .258 average, .332 on-base percentage and .450 slugging percentage as compared to LaRoche’s .244/.300/.429 line). 

Yes there are downsides to such a plan – the team would be dreadfully thin in terms on infield depth, LaRoche would be wasted, and there would be extra pressure on Zimmerman’s bat at the less physically-, but more statistically-demanding position of first – but at this point, after putting off such a move last year, the transition is long overdue. . Putting his shoulder, and therefore his bat, and thus the $100 million still owed to him, back at third is a recipe for disaster – and not just for those fans behind first. Even with the ascension of Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond, not to mention the addition of Jayson Werth, the Nationals still need Zimmerman; though he might not be the franchise cornerstone of a couple of years ago, he is still a vital part of their offense – and someone crucial to their chances as a postseason contender.

Williams’ words today then mark a welcome recognition of an inconvenient truth. Whether he follows through in committing to such a less-than-ideal situation remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure; the ticket holders behind first base will be grateful if he does.

Platooning with Brandon Moss.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Billy Beane saw value where few else did.

Drafted in the 8th round out of high school way back in 2002 by the Boston Red Sox, as an infielder and pitcher, Brandon Moss was slowly transitioned to the outfield and eventually made his ML debut in 2007. With Boston’s strong positional depth though, the lefty never caught on with the club; by 2008, he was packaged to Pittsburgh as part of the Manny Ramirez to L.A. deal. The Pirates however, saw nothing to their liking either, and designated for assignment the Georgia native in 2010. Moss cleared waivers without a claim and found himself outrighted to the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians. Attempting to catch on elsewhere in 2011, he signed a minor-league free agent deal to play in Philadelphia, but would receive just 6 at-bats with the Phillies. Then, in 2012, with the 28 year old a free agent once again, Oakland came calling.

Since then, well, I’ll leave it to David Fiers of Fangraphs to explain the colossal bargain Oakland (typically) acquired: “among first baseman with at least 750 plate appearances, Moss’ .381 wOBA ranks fifth and his 146 wRC+ rates as fourth best. Socking 51 dingers over that time frame places Moss eighth and his 139 RBIs come in at 15th.” Again, the Phillies only gave this guy 6 at-bats in 2011, nor did Moss ever receive more than 250 in his time with either Boston or Pittsburgh. What the hell happened then, for Brandon Moss’ production to spike so dramatically as soon as he shrugged on an Athletics jersey?!

Though it’s by now common knowledge that many hitters perform far better against opposite-handed pitchers, many teams still either choose to ignore, or don’t possess the necessary positional flexibility to fully take advantage of, platoon pairing. Thankfully for Moss, Beane’s Athletics are not one of those teams – in fact, along with Tampa Bay (it’s not a coincidence both are low-budget organizations), they consistently wring offensive production from small investments by forming platoons. But while Matt Joyce remains the long-time poster boy of the strategy in Tampa, Brandon Moss might just be the biggest platoon beneficiary of anyone currently employed in the league.

After racking up 21 HRs, 52 RBIs, and a slash line of .291/.358/.596 (*cough* .359 BABIP *cough*) in 84 games in 2012, Moss received a career-high 505 plate appearances as the Athletics’ primary first baseman in 2013. Of those, 417 were against right-handed pitches, and boy, did the lefty crush ‘em;

As shown in the table above, Moss was a full 68 points better in batting average and 164 points better in slugging percentage versus right-handers, against whom he slugged 26 of his 30 home runs. Additionally he walked more and struck out less when facing righties, his platoon use alleviating concerns about the slugger’s plate discipline.

Credit where credit’s due, given consistent playing time for the first time in his career, Moss did make strides in regard to his approach at the dish; his walk rate reached almost 10% and, although still very high (27.7%), he cut his strikeout rate by almost 3% over the season – an improvement made almost entirely over the second half of the season (his K% went from 30.8 to 23.2. after the All-Star break), helped by both his declined proclivity to swing at pitches out of the strike zone, and also by a raised contact rate. His power too, despite the offense-supressing reputation of Oakland’s home ballpark, the O.co Coliseum, was legitimate rather than fluky; his ISO of .267 ranked third among qualified hitters, while according to ESPN’s home run tracker, the average true distance of his home runs was 403.7 feet – 20 of his 30 dingers were judged “Plenty” or “No Doubt” (meaning they cleared the fence by at least 20 feet).

It’s clear by the numbers however, that Moss was helped most in breaking out during 2013 by Bob Melvin’s line-up writing ability – put in the best position to succeed by his manager, the lefty did just that. Hitting on a situational basis, Moss is clearly among the best power bats in the game, and a bargain at his 2014 price of $4.1M if he can replicate the 2.2 WAR he accumulated in 2013. Alongside the performance of fellow oft-overlooked contributors Josh Donaldson, Coco Crisp, and Josh Reddick, Moss’ continued righty-crushing will go a long way towards Oakland defending their AL West division crown.

Let’s just hope he won’t have to face too many lefties come playoff time.

Hello Baseball! Your 2014 Yankees Infield!

If yesterdays installment of my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series was full of promise – detailing Twins prospect Josmil Pinto’s opportunity to shine before his hyped peers join him in the bigs – todays portion… well, there’s not so much potential. Yes, it’s the turn of the New York Yankees, who having spent nigh on half a billion dollars on free agents this winter, still enter Spring Training play with question marks at every infield position. 

The 2013 Yankees infield wasn’t really much to write home about in terms of startling production – a sentiment ESPN’s Paul Swydan astutely evidenced: “for the first time in 11 seasons, the WAR posted by the New York Yankees’ infield starters was less than 10.0. In fact, it fell well short of that mark, as Lyle Overbay, Robinson Cano, Jayson Nix and Eduardo Nunez combined for a more modest 5.3 WAR.” Riddled by injuries across the diamond, the Yankees still somehow bumbled their way to a 85 win season, vastly outperforming their pythagorean winning percentage (which called for a 79-83 record) in the process, but finished 2013 with plethora of questions surrounding their future infield; the health status of presumed starters Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, the future availability of Alex Rodriguez, and the free agency of their best player – Cano. How they addressed such matters this past offseason can only be summed up by the title of the aforementioned Swydan’s article: Yanks infield could be worst ever.” Oh.

Brian Cashman knows it: “our strength is not our infield this year.” Despite spending close to half a billion dollars in free agency this past offseason (exact figures are hard to come by, and depend on the inclusion of Masahiro Tanaka’s posting fee), and blowing past the luxury tax figure the Yankees had been so austerely attempting to duck for the last couple of years, Cano was allowed to leave for Seattle Mariners. As a result, heading into Spring Training with no one else left on the market (I feel we can safely rule out Stephen Drew and his draft pick compensation), New York’s infield profiles to be cobbled together out of a collection badly aging former stars, injury risks, and career backups. Perhaps put best by SB Nation’s ‘Pinstripes Alley’ , “With as much money as the Yankees have spent this offseason, having an infield as shaky as this seems like building a fancy luxury liner with the most amazing amenities without reinforcing the hull.” So while manager Joe Girardi can say “There’s a lot of competition here” all he wants this Spring Training, it doesn’t obscure the fact that it’s a contest between separately dire possibilities.

It’s fairly impossible to say anything with certainty regarding first baseman Mark Teixeira, aside from his contract officially taking on albatross status (he is still owed $67.5 million through the next 3 seasons); missing all but 15 games of 2013 with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist – an injury that has claimed the career of many a hitter before – was a good method in masking the dramatic extent of his recent decline however.

At the keystone, 36-year-old Brian Roberts will be first up in attempting to fill the void left by Cano – if he makes it through Spring Training first that is; his 77 games of wRC+ 90 level offensive production marked his largest workload since 2009, having played only 59, 39, and 17 the three years previous, though were still not enough for AL East rivals Baltimore to offer their seasoned veteran another chance. When he inevitably hits the DL though, Scott Sizemore might be there to fill in – the former Athletic having failed to log a full season since 2011 himself after tearing, then re-tearing, an ACL.

At shortstop there’s a 40 year old with a propensity for gift baskets who, if he stays healthy, will be oldest starting shortstop in the history of baseball. Naturally, he was limited by injuries in 2013 too, playing only 17 games.

Manning third base is future Hall of Famer Alex Rodrig… 32 year old Kelly Johnson, who has played 16 games total at the position over his career. To be fair to the journeyman Johnson, he most probably represents New York’s best chance at real production from their infield – he did after all crack 16 homers in 118 games for the Rays in 2013. Backing him up, Eduardo Nunez, with Brendan Ryan’s (immensely better than Jeter’s) glove and PCL batting champ Dean Anna expected to duke it out for any remaining playing time.

Once the backbone of a World Series offense, the Yankees infield now resembles a hospice, full of ailing players long removed from the peak of their powers – had they any real ones to begin with. More than simply an injury risk though, whichever quartet thrown out by Girardi each day will a liability on both offense and defense, something to be overcome by the seemingly strong outfield and starting pitching staff. If they’re to win close to 85 games again, it will most certainly be in spite of the (lack of) production of the ‘Poor Four’. With 2014 being Jeter’s final season, only God knowing how everyone else will hold up, and not much coming down the minor league pipeline, the Yankees face an uphill struggle in restoring their infield to its former glory beyond just this season. Cashman will certainly have plenty of work to do next winter in finding better than the current replacement level players (at best) he’ll be responsible for trotting out this summer.

Until then, I give it two weeks before Yankees fans long for the days of Robinson Cano not running out routine grounders.

Hello Baseball! The Evolution of Brandon Belt.

On Friday my 2014 MLB Season Season Preview Series covered the emergence of Padres RHP Tyson Ross, of whom San Diego will be hoping can parlay his post All-Star break surge last season into a full season of domination in 2014. Today, I round out the NL West as my focus moves up the California coastline to San Francisco, who had their own second-half breakout performer in 2013; after having experienced a couple of rough seasons since entering the majors as a much-hyped prospect, Brandon Belt looks ready to become one of the best first basemen in the game.

I first hopped on the Brandon Belt bandwagon by playing simulation baseball when I should have been revising for my exams – Out Of The Park Baseball was just far more interesting to me than Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry, as any sane person will attest. Anyhow, with his entrancing 5-star potential drawing my hypothetical GM attention, Belt was always a prime trade target for my many simulated franchises. And such was his top prospect status at the time, he always raked. Accordingly, when the lanky first baseman made it to the majors in 2011, there was one guy across the Atlantic Ocean who joined the thousands of Giants fans in San Francisco in expecting big things. The significant geographic removal however, did not diminish my disappointment when the lynchpin of my fake teams appeared not to be the destined star I, and many Giants fans, had assumed.

Selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, Belt spent two years in the minors, advancing quickly by virtue of his posting a slash line of .343 .457 .596 over 189 games. As a much-hyped rookie in 2011 then, Belt struggled to a .225 batting average in 209 PAs and often found himself relegated to the bench – losing playing time to both over-the-hill World Series hero Aubrey Huff and .233-career hitter Brett Pill. Though 2012 saw Belt’s core statistics improve (he hit .275 with a .360 OBP, though just 7 HRs), his playing time still suffered on account of his platoon splits; manager Bruce Bochy‘s reluctance to provide Belt much-needed playing time against fellow lefties drawing the ire of many internet commenters who saw his development stall while buried on the bench. Without the trust of his manager entering 2013, Belt did little to improve his own situation; stubborn to adjust the approach that had brought him so much success in the minors, he continued to hit poorly – at least by a first baseman’s standards – his batting average falling to .260, and continued to play inconsistently.

The turnaround for Belt came on an otherwise innocuous trip to Philadelphia in late July – which he entered with a 1-19 streak – where at the behest of hitting coach Hensley Meulens, he sought out Phillies outfielder Dominic Brown. Brown had significantly cooled down from his ridiculous 12 HR month of May, but was nonetheless  enjoying a undeniable breakout – a fact Meulens had noted when coaching him at the All-Star game, along with the physical similarities of Brown and his struggling first baseman. As reported by Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury NewsBrown had told Meulens how he had simply changed his grip on the bat, and had seen immediate results. Willing to try something new in attempting to turn around his season, Belt decided to give it a go too, figuring “if it only took him a couple of days, maybe I can do it in a couple of days, too.” Belt spent three days on the bench in Philadelphia working on developing his new swing in conjunction with moving back in the batter’s box; when he returned from the self-enforced absence, Belt was a different player.

In the month of August, Belt hit .350 with a 1.051 OPS; in September and October, .341 with a .910 OPS. Armed with a new, more level swing, he not only successfully lowered his strikeout rate (23.5% in the first half, 19.8% in the second), but more importantly cut his FB% from 43.9 to 38.9. With his home AT&T Park the biggest drain of lefty power across the majors in 2013 per Fangraphs thanks to the cavernous dimensions of right field, Belt started lacing line drives into the gaping space rather than continually sending fly balls to die; his second half line drive rate of 27.7% marked a raise of 6.2% from his pre-break rate. By then end of the season, Belt had pulled his slash line up to .289/.360/.481 while also setting career highs home runs (17), runs scored (76) and RBIs (67). Despite his slow start too, his eventual 139 wRC+ led the team; by statistical measures at least, the man affectionately dubbed ‘Baby Giraffe’ had become the Giants’ best offensive player.

With runs once again expected to be at a premium in San Francisco, the Giants will certainly need their lanky lefty’s breakout to be real if they are to return to the top of the NL West; a stern task in a division which includes the reigning Dodgers, gritty Diamondbacks, and supposedly improved Padres (sorry Rockies fans – it just ain’t happening this year). Slated to be the club’s no. 3 hitter on Opening Day – ahead of the big bats of Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, and just plain big Pablo Sandoval – Belt will have every chance to demonstrate last year’s development was legitimate. It might have taken a couple of years to earn the opportunity, but Brandon Belt finally looks poised to lead the Giant’s offense.

They can only hope he produces like he did on my simulation teams.