Throughout the season (minus last week, when I was vacationing at Safeco Field), I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in The Senior Class: Week 9, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 9! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Oakland Athletics (7-6 over the last fortnight, 33-22 overall) ↑ With a run differential of +112, the A’s are lapping the rest of the American League; the four other teams who can boast a positive differential – Detroit, Toronto, LA, and Seattle (Seattle?!) – when combined, have a +98 mark. I would highlight a single player, Josh Donaldson for example, and point to their individual success as fuel to the team’s fire, but everyone – Brandon Moss, Derek Norris, Yoenis Cespedes, even Kyle Blanks since being acquired from the Padres – has been getting it done of late. As usual, the A’s are winning without runaway star contributors, and as usual, no one is batting an eyelid.
- Detroit Tigers (5-9, 31-21) ↓
- Toronto Blue Jays (10-3, 33-24) ↑ Speaking of turning heads, I present the Toronto Blue Jays, and most particularly, Edwin Encarnacion, in the month of May. Perhaps inspired by the Raptors’ #WeTheNorth campaign, The Jays turned up in a big way over the past 31 days, going 21-9 in that span, including a 9-game stretch in which they consecutively swept Boston, Oakland, and Tampa Bay. Plenty has been made of Encarnacion, who in tying Mickey Mantle for the most home runs in the month of May by an AL player launched balls over a mile and a quarter, and the rest of the powerful Toronto offense (they’ve failed to hit a long ball in just two games over the past fortnight), but it will be pitching that will keep the Jays at the AL East summit. Even with Mark Buehrle continuing to defy the advanced metrics, and top prospect Marcus Stroman living up to the hype in his first start (the diminutive righty held the Royals to one run on five hits with no walks and five strikeouts over six innings yesterday), the club remain linked to Jeff Samardzija. One of just two teams not to make the postseason this millennium, and considering the current state of the AL East, pushing all their chips into middle by trading for Samardzija, might not be a bad idea for team GM Alex Anthopolous.
- Los Angeles Angels (7-6, 30-25) ↓ Mike Trout is out of the lineup today with back stiffness. Along with his OPS dropping to ‘just’ .929 this year, I’m beginning to think that maybe he isn’t a cyborg solely designed to break baseball records anymore, and might even have some human flaws.
- New York Yankees (7-6, 29-25) →
- Baltimore Orioles (5-8, 27-27) ↓ Nelson Cruz is being paid $8 million this year. Nelson Cruz has 20 home runs, a 186 OPS+, and a 2.2 WAR value. It’s the first day of June.
- Seattle Mariners (7-6, 27-28) ↑ After my Memorial Day visit, I officially love Safeco Field, which was made even better by the Mariners soundly beating the Angels. Seeing Chris Young throw five innings of no-hit ball was definitely unexpected, as was my mother taking a liking to Justin Smoak simply because of his name. The Mariners, even slow-footed Robinson Cano, victimizing poor Hank Conger on the basepaths for three stolen bases in one inning was pretty darn entertaining too.
- Boston Red Sox (6-7, 26-29) ↓ After enduring a brutal 10-game losing streak, the Red Sox have now amassed a six-game winning streak. In between a pair of walk-off wins, the continued war of words between David Ortiz and David Price, and Clay Buchholz‘s struggles though, perhaps most notably, some of the kids that Boston placed so much emphasis on prior to the season have finally started coming through; since the start of that dreadful losing streak, Xander Bogaerts has stormed his way to a .397/.465/.603 line, and Rubby De La Rosa, acquired in the Dodgers dump, impressively fired seven scoreless innings of four-hit ball yesterday, striking out 8 Rays along the way. Now, if only the Sox could get Jackie Bradley Jr. to improve his ghastly 66 OPS+ too…
- Texas Rangers (8-5, 28-28) ↑
- Chicago White Sox (7-6, 28-29) ↑
- Kansas City Royals (5-8, 26-29) ↓ Reading Rany Jazayerli’s Twitter rants, whether they be concerning Ned Yost‘s latest gaffe, Dayton Moore’s continued incompetence, Kansas City’s punchless offense, another hitting coach being fired, potential James Shields trades, or Mike Moustakas‘ quick demotion/promotion swing, never gets old. Being a fan of the Royals must get stale pretty quickly I’m guessing.
- Cleveland Indians (7-6, 26-30) ↑
- Minnesota Twins (4-8, 25-28) ↓ Struggling center fielder Aaron Hicks has abandoned switch-hitting, and will now bat exclusively from the right side. Sounds like a good idea in theory considering his awful offensive production, minus the fact that Hicks has actually been substantially better from the left side so far this year; the 24-year-old has a .250/.400/.325 line as a southpaw in 2014, compared to a brutal .154/.280/.205 line as a righty. The Byron Buxton Era can’t come soon enough up at Target Field.
- Tampa Bay Rays (4-8, 23-33) ↓ Does much more need to be said? I suppose it could be mentioned that Tampa are in the midst of a 5-game tailspin, and Wil Myers is now on the disabled list too.
- Houston Astros (9-5, 24-33) → Naturally, in the time I was on vacation, and thus not paying attention to my fantasy baseball teams, George Springer went off while slotted in one of my bench spots. In that May 24th to 29th span, in 34 plate appearances Springer had 6 home runs, walked more often than he struck out (5BBs to 4Ks), possessed a .417 average, and accrued a ridiculous 1.767 OPS mark. Even more ludicrously, the Astros went 6-0 and are now no longer the worst team (by record anyway) in the American League. Now excuse me while I go light myself on fire…
While you (along with most everyone in America) were watching the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft play out yesterday, some baseball was being played! Here’s a recap of some of the things you missed while making fun of the Jaguars and watching Jonny Football sit at a table for an extended period of time:
– It took until the 20th game, 84th plate appearance and 318th pitch of his major league career, but Houston’s much-heralded rookie George Springer finally hit his first home run as a big-leaguer, an opposite field shot off Tigers lefty Drew Smyly that got out to the right field bleachers in a hurry*. It would be the first of three runs scored by the Astros in the inning, and lift them to a 6-2 win over Detroit, snapping their seven-game winning streak in the process. He would also show off his athleticism in the field, laying out to rob Miguel Cabrera of a hit.
– Another home run milestone was also reached elsewhere in the AL, this time in Toronto. In a ‘rivalry’ game against the Phillies, Edwin Encarnacion launched the 200th, and then 201st home runs of his career, giving him four in the past three games, and capping off a four game sweep for the Jays in which they comprehensively outscored Philadelpia 31-11. Having endured a sluggish April at the Dish, the 31-year-old Encarnacion is now hitting .281 in May, and has only struck out 3 times in contrast to his five walks. Look out AL East, it looks like the guy who put up 36 jacks and a .904 OPS last year is back.
– Michael Brantley continued his sizzling start to the month too, nabbing three hits (including a double and a home run) in Cleveland’s 9-4 beatdown of AL Central mates Minnesota. Brantley is now hitting .400 this month, and leads the team in average, runs, RBI, and homers. In other Cleveland-related news, Jonny Manziel!!!
– Nolan Arenado extended his hit streak to 28 games with a third-inning single off of Texas starter Matt Harrison. It would be his only hit of the game (one of just five for the league-leading Colorado offense, who were shutout 5-0), but gave him the franchise record, beating the mark set by teammate Michael Cuddyer just last season. Halfway to Joe DiMaggio‘s all-time record, Arenado has now hit .360 (40-of-111) with four home runs, 10 doubles and 19 RBIs since his run began back on April 9th. Today though, he’ll face Johnny Cueto, who leads the Majors with a 1.31 ERA and a .132 opponent’s batting average, in the first of a three-game set at Cincinnati.
– Ranked by MLB.com as the No. 2 prospect in the Rangers’ farm system, left-handed second basemen Rougned Odor was called up after Donnie Murphy went on the disabled list with a strained neck and Josh Wilson was designated for assignment. After hitting .279 with six home runs and 17 RBIs in 32 games at Frisco, the moved immediately into the Texas starting lineup, becoming the youngest to play in the majors so far this season at just 20 years and 94 days old. He promptly went 0-4.
– In another middle infield prospect promotion, right-handed shortstop Wilmer Flores was brought up by the New York Mets in an attempt to patch up their woeful offense (they had failed to score in 23 straight innings before getting a run in the first frame of yesterday’s tilt against the Nationals). Of course, like Odor, Flores also went 0-4 in his debut, but he has far less competition for the starting slot than his peer in Texas – who will presumably be pushed aside when Jurickson Profar returns off the DL.
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) May 9, 2014
– Surpise, surprise, Giancarlo Stanton did something few else could: hit a humpback liner out to center field for a home run in 3.63 seconds, on an 0-2 pitch from Dale Thayer, at Petco Park no less! The two-out, two-run jack gave Miami the Marlins their first lead of the game in the 11th, and would secure only their third road win of the season. Additionally, Stanton’s 40 RBIs for the season lead the NL, and through 35 team games are the most in Marlins franchise history.
– Having conquered elbow inflammation during March, rehabbed from a strained lat muscle in April, and seen the prospect he was traded for (Robbie Ray) called up and make an immediate impression on the Tigers, Doug Fister will today finally debut as a Washington National. Expected to throw no more than 100 pitches, the big righty will square off against Tommy Milone in Oakland, as the Nats start a three-game inter league series at O.co Coliseum.
That’s it! Enjoy the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft today!
Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in The Senior Class: Week 5, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 5! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Detroit Tigers (4-0 last week, 16-9 overall) ↑ You can only beat what’s put in front of you, and recently, Detroit have been doing just that. After playing just four games last week, bringing their season total to 25 (Seattle have played the next fewest in the AL, with 28), and handily winning them all, the Tigers finally have a full slate to look forward to over the next seven days. Considering how they’ll face Kansas City (once), Houston, and Minnesota, while being scheduled to send Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer to the mound twice apiece, Brad Ausmus‘ crew stand a good chance of remaining in single-digit losses by this time next Sunday.
- Oakland Athletics (3-3, 18-12) ↓ The A’s sure got their revenge on Texas by outscoring them 25-4 in their three-game sweep, but were comprehensively dealt with by Boston over the past couple of days. Having faced a pretty light schedule so far this season, today’s tilt at Fenway will serve as somewhat of a yardstick; are the A’s actually good enough to beat the cream of the crop, and compete all year with the likes of Boston and Detroit? With Sonny Gray on the bump to face John Lackey, the Oakland have a decent enough chance to prove they belong.
- Los Angeles Angels (4-2, 15-14) ↑ Scoring 5.38 runs per game, the Angels have by some distance the best offense in the AL thus far – not that much of a surprise considering Mike Trout‘s continued excellence (he once again leads the AL in WAR), Albert Pujols‘ solid bounce back, and Howie Kendrick‘s nice start at the plate (.314/.391/.441). Where Anaheim have stood out most so far though, has been on the mound, where they have allowed just 4.03 runs per game – the third best mark in the AL. C.J. Wilson, Tyler Skaggs and Jered Weaver have all been solid, but Garrett Richards has been the star so far; the 25-year-old Oklahoma product has struck out 40 and allowed an opponent’s batting average of just .184 in his first 38 innings (6 starts), posting a surprising 2.84 ERA. If the hard-throwing righty can get the walks under control (18 BB in the early going), the Angels might really have found something here.
- Baltimore Orioles (3-2, 15-13) ↑ Manny Machado returns, fielding nerds rejoice everywhere. Including me.
- New York Yankees (2-3, 16-13) ↓ With a -13 run differential, the Yankees are still somewhat getting by with a smoke and mirrors act. Visiting the Angels and Milwaukee for series this week, the Bombers will receive a stern test of their mettle – the Friday return of C.C. Sabathia to Miller Park should see a hero’s welcome from the Brewers fans however.
- Boston Red Sox (3-3, 15-16) →
- Texas Rangers (1-5, 16-14) ↓ I must have cursed Texas in this space last week; in likely their healthiest state since the start of the season, the Rangers were simply punted by AL West rivals Oakland and Los Angeles over the past seven days, with Martin Perez and Yu Darvish getting knocked about especially brutally. Things aren’t going to get much easier for the frontline pair this week either; Darvish is slated against the top-ranked Angels offense today, and will face Boston on Friday, whereas Perez will be tasked with stymying Colorado’s explosive offense during the days in between.
- Tampa Bay Rays (3-4, 14-17) → Heath Bell was finally DFA’d, but the equally terrible, yet much more despicable Josh Lueke remains on the team. Urgh.
- Kansas City Royals (3-3, 14-15) → Fun stat of the day: to start the season, the Royals are winless when scoring 3 or fewer runs (0-15) and unbeaten when scoring at least 4 runs (14-0). Bonus factoid: thanks to Billy Butler‘s first home run of the year on Friday, the Royals as a team are now one jack ahead (12) of Jose Abreu‘s individual bomb total (11).
- Toronto Blue Jays (2-4, 13-17) → Well, Dustin McGowan is starting again today, so I guess my Marcus Stroman love was a tad premature. With Brandon Morrow now out though, it can’t be long until the Jays call up the diminutive righty.
- Cleveland Indians (2-4, 13-17) → It’s probably not an encouraging sign for your team when Michael Brantley has been by far and away your best player. The 26-year-old is having a veritable breakout, hitting .271/.336/.458, while leading the team in HR (5), runs (15), and RBIzzzzz (23), but unless Carlos Santana starts mashing (he did hit .261 with 3 homers last week, though his average remains a ghastly .158), the Indians will be up against it with both Jason Kipnis (strained oblique) and Michael Bourn (hamstring/continued case of NL-to-AL-itis) out for the near future.
- Seattle Mariners (4-1, 13-15) ↑ Wouldn’t you know it, the Mariners become a somewhat frisky team when someone else along with Robinson Cano hits. Mike Zunino (1.071 OPS), Michael Saunders (1.033), and Kyle Seager (1.030) have been terrific over the past seven days, helping Seattle to an impressive 4-1 record over that time – the M’s taking two apiece from Texas and the Yankees. With no. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma making his return yesterday against the Astros too, it’s been a good week for Seattle. Shame they have to travel for a 4-game set against Oakland this week really then, a series which will likely set them back down the standings again.
- Minnesota Twins (1-4, 13-15) ↓
- Chicago White Sox (2-4, 14-17) ↓ Adam Eaton‘s hamstring strain lands him on the 15-day DL, and suddenly the offense that has kept the Pale Hose afloat so far becomes a little less potent. The Sox could badly do with their pitching picking up some of the slack – at 5.29 runs allowed per game, they are worst among Junior Circuit teams.
- Houston Astros (2-3, 10-20) → Through 66 plate appearances, the George Springer era has not got off to a good start. Known for his prodigious power/speed combination, the 24-year-old has yet to clear the fence, and has a 0 SBN number, all whilst batting just .180/.254/.213 and looking lost at the dish; even before his call-up there were worries about his plate discipline and contact rate – with 23 strikeouts to 5 walks, those concerns have been more than justified. Throw in his 5 errors in fifteen games out in right field, and its little wonder why Bo Porter dropped him from the lineup yesterday. On the bright side though, Collin McHugh!
Release the prospect hounds! Yesterday, they had George Springer‘s Astros debut to slather over; soon they should have another stud outfield prospect to get excited about too. After Pittsburgh’s starting right fielder Jose Tabata left yesterday’s game against the Cincinnati Reds with “mild” concussion-like symptoms* – an injury sustained when he crashed into the fence making a spectacular catch – the Pirates have a decision to make: do they simply continue on their NL Central quest with Travis Snider manning RF everyday, or do they call up top prospect Gregory Polanco from AAA to the majors? If you were wondering, the correct answer is the latter option.
Signed as an international free agent back in 2009, the toolsy outfielder from Santo Domingo emerged from nowhere in 2012 to post a .325/.388/.522 line at Low-A West Virginia in the South Atlantic League, with 16 home runs and 40 stolen bases in his 485 plate appearances to boot. Having earned a ranking as the 51st best prospect in baseball from Baseball America, Polanco’s breakout continued last year, the then 21-year-old batting .285/.356/.434 (and accruing 12 home runs and 39 stolen bases too) across three stops, finishing the year at Triple-A Indianapolis. Having appeared in 44 Dominican Winter League games in which he produced a .922 OPS, the fast-mover homered off of David Phelps in his very first at-bat of Spring Training this year, eventually posting a very respectable .804 OPS in his 10 games played. Everything then looked in place for Polanco to make his big league debut with the Pirates sometime after the Super-2 deadline in June.
In conjunction with Tabata’s injury, Snider’s own health problems/lack of production, and Pittsburgh’s slow start, the 22-year-old’s incredible showing so far in 2014 may have accelerated that original timetable; rivaling the much-ballyhooed production of Springer, Polanco has so far batted a ridiculous .426 with two home runs and six extra-base hits in his 47 at-bats for the Indianapolis Indians. Perhaps even more incredibly, considering how he’s still learning to identify and handle breaking balls, according to J.J. Cooper, as of Tuesday Polanco had swung and missed at only six of the 170 pitches he had faced so far this year, one of which was to protect on a steal attempt. In the words of former Double-A coach Carlos Garcia, “You are talking about the next superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates. This kid is unbelievable.”
While the full extent of Tabata’s ailment is unclear as of yet, Pittsburgh could certainly do with the shot in the arm Polanco has the potential to provide offensively. Continuing the positional malaise of last year (Pittsburgh’s right fielders combined to bat .242/.299/.385 with 16 home runs, 62 RBI and 144 strikeouts in 675 plate appearances, good for 0.8 collective fWAR), the 2014 platoon of Tabata and Snider have so far combined to hit just .231/.275/323 with only two home runs and 4 RBI through their 69 plate appearances. Their struggles however, have only been a microcosm of the team’s offensive woes; the Bucco’s currently have a team batting average of .223 (third-worst in the majors, propped up only by Houston and Tampa Bay), and a ghastly on base percentage of .294 (26th in the ML), while their 57 runs scored place them in the lower third of NL production. It’s likely however, that the Pirates will at least wait a little while to see what Snider can do in an everyday role, though his own brittle injury history (the 26-year-old set a personal high when he played in 111 games for the Pirates in 2013) and lack of production (he owns a .641 OPS in 471 plate appearances in his time as a Buc) don’t offer much hope of a breakout ahead.
Already possessing the range of a center fielder thanks to that foot speed that so aids him on the base paths, Polanco would thus likely be an instant upgrade not only at the plate, but in the field as well; along with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte, his presence would almost instantly elevate Pittsburgh’s to one of the most exciting outfield trios in the game**. Given the competitive nature of the NL Central – with the perennial win-machine Cardinals, frisky Brewers, and my Reds coming around too – and how their other top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon (out for the year due to Tommy John surgery) and Tyler Glasnow (lower back tightness) are both on the shelf, Pittsburgh probably can’t afford to wait much longer for Polanco’s impact. The Pirates need to get their season going if they’re to seriously push once again for the playoffs. Calling up Polanco – especially now that there is a spot in the lineup available – would certainly be one way to move into a higher gear.
And really, if Houston can promote Springer already, given their more pressing circumstances, Pittsburgh have little excuse not to.
* I will for once resist arguing that there is no such thing as a “mild” concussion.
** Baseball Prospectus, in fact, wrote of the impact of such a defensive triumvirate, “the gaps in the PNC Park outfield will be the newest graveyard for doubles and triples.”
As previously detailed in my case for Noah Syndergaard, I’ll occasionally be interspersing my usual content with my (probably misguided) award predictions for the upcoming season. Today marks the next installment pertaining to my poor judgement – it’s time for an AL ROY pick. Let’s just say it isn’t quite the dark horse equivalent to my NL selection…
Brian Cashman only projects his Japanese import to be a third starter, despite Masahiro Tanaka’s Spring Training so far. Jose Abreu might hit 30 home runs, but he may also struggle to just make contact. Houston’s stud outfielder George Springer will similarly come up with nothing but air far too many times. Taijuan Walker already has shoulder soreness. Kyle Zimmer may not get an opportunity to crack the Royals’ rotation, especially if Ervin Santana returns. I briefly flirted with the idea of Nick Castellanos, but let’s face it – there can only really be one AL ROY. It’s obviously Xander Bogaerts.
It’s not often that a player can boast about being a key cog on a World Series champion one year while still retaining his rookie eligibility for the next, but the no. 2 prospect in all of baseball can. The fact that Bogaerts only flashed his potential in his major-league cameo too, yet still drew rave reviews for his performance, should have the rest of the AL East on notice. As assessed by Marc Hulet of Fangraphs, the Aruba native “could be a perennial all-star at either shortstop or third base for years to come in Boston.”
The then-20 year old earned his one-way ticket to Fenway Park on the back of his combining to accrue an .865 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2013. He played sparingly during the regular season however, appearing in only 18 games and hitting .250/.320/.364 over 50 plate appearances. Then came October. Despite his youth, Bogaerts was asked to take over as Boston’s starting third baseman in the middle of the ALCS, and took full advantage of the opportunity; as put by Baseball Prospectus “he looked like a veteran of huge, high-leverage, bright-spotlight moments when it counted, drawing key walks and scoring runs when the Red Sox needed them most.” And if their testimony to his precocious ability to belie his years weren’t enough, just ask Max Scherzer about his already incredible approach at the plate.
At 6’3 and 185 lbs, Bogaerts is bigger than the traditional shortstop, but with Boston’s apparent lack of interest in re-signing Stephen Drew, that will be the position he plays everyday in 2014, with Will Middlebrooks back manning third. By all accounts, his defense will be at least average for the position, with his offense primed to set him apart from his shortstop peers. Dubbed by Keith Law to be “Troy Tulowitzki with a little less arm”, Fangraphs judged his approach to be advanced for age. Similarly, in their Top 100 Prospects write-up, MLB.com assessed of Bogaerts’ offensive skills “He uses his smooth, balanced swing to make hard contact and drive the ball to all fields. He has big raw power and already knows how to use it.” So while it may be hard for him to replicate the .893 OPS he put up during the postseason, it’s neither an unattainable target for the young star to strive for in his first full season. To put it plainly, such a mark will likely be the regulation mark for Bogaerts in the future should he continue adeptly handling the heightened competition – an adaptation he has made successfully at every stop of his professional career so far.
Projected to begin the season hitting seventh in a potent Red Sox lineup, and with no competition (yet) for his position, Bogaerts has a great opportunity to accrue the sort of counting stats (RBIzzzzzz!) ROY voters traditionally love. His being on a nationally recognized, winning team too will only further bolster his case, setting him apart from most of his fellow junior circuit rookies. The award is his to lose at this point, at least in my opinion. Now, if we had to choose where Bogaerts will rank among Boston’s best hitters by seasons end – that’s a question worth debating. For the record, give me somewhere among David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia on the Red Sox podium.
Did I mention this guy is 21?
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.