If there has been one overarching theme to the 2014 MLB season so far, it’s been players missing time. Whether it’s been because of (asinine) draft pick compensation rules, attending the birth of one’s child (goodness me was that David Murphy-related ‘controversy’ farcical), or as in the vast majority of cases, due to injury, far too many players have been off the field, their absences spoiling the game we all love.
The month of June is off to a promising start however. After the spate of Tommy John surgeries necessitated in April and May, as far as I’m aware, we’ve now gone three days without one being announced (It’s my understanding that Chris Withrow of the Dodgers was the last player to have been announced as going under the knife). Even better, a host of players are making their returns this week – all carrying some relevance. Let’s break them down quickly;
– Stephen Drew, who was only absent by his own/Scott Boras’ doing after turning down a qualifying offer over the winter, finally made his season debut for Boston last night, going 0-2 with a walk in a defeat to the Cleveland Indians. Having played in the minors since May 21st having finally signed a pro-rated contract for around $10 million this year, the left-handed Drew batted eighth in the Red Sox lineup and instantly slotted in at shortstop, pushing Xander Bogaerts to third base, and with both Mike Napoli and Mike Carp out, the surprisingly effective Brock Holt across the diamond to first. While there were certainly more ideal landing spots out there (Detroit have a more glaring need, and less infield competition), landing back in Boston can only be considered a good thing for Drew. Sure, he probably could have gone to the Mets, but their stinky offense and the Wilpon Quagmire of Financial Despair (H/T to Jonah Keri) would likely have ensured a less than happy tenure in Queens. He won’t be anything special for the Sox, but in need of some stable production, he’ll fill a role nicely – the same attitude with which he should be approached in terms of fantasy pick-ups. He’ll be a stable middle infielder, a low-upside, high-basement type, perfect for a team ravaged by injury or simply short of middle infield depth. Just don’t expect Drew to be a savior, both in reality or fantasy.
– Jose Abreu on the other hand, woah boy. This fellow’s return might be make-or-break for your fantasy squad. After two weeks on the disabled list and a couple of simulated games at U.S. Cellular Field, the Cuban slugger, who even after being out since May 18th still led the White Sox in home runs (15) and RBIs (42), was activated in time for the start of a three-game set against L.A. at Dodger Stadium. With no DH hole to be stashed in, Abreu jumped right back into the thick of things playing first base, and picked up where he left off at the plate, muscling out a two-run shot off of Clayton Kershaw in his second at-bat, Chicago’s only runs of the game. And this was after being struck in the chest by an overthrown ball while stretching during pre game warm-ups! The Sox have been treading water without him, but with the AL player of the month for April back in the mix, they could yet put a run together in the disastrous AL Central for second-place behind Detroit. He should immediately be back in fantasy starting lineups too, though it will be worth paying attention to whether he perhaps gets a day of rest from playing the field at some point in this interleague series.
– Elsewhere, Josh Hamilton is slated to make his return to the Angels lineup today in a game against the Astros, in which first base prospect and recent contract signee Jon Singleton will also be making his debut for Houston. Hamilton has been out since April 9 with a torn ligament in his left thumb having (rather rashly) slid into first base headfirst, but was hitting .444 with two home runs in the tiny sample size prior. His return will likely spell trouble for the 42-year-old Raul Ibanez, who has been god-awful in 2014, though I’d be concerned if you were starting him in your league anyway. Hamilton should probably reside on your bench for at least a couple of days while you evaluate his return; thumb injuries can be tricky, and Hamilton is prone to streaks even when fully healthy. Resting him is probably the safe play, unless you don’t have any other viable outfield options. Of course, slotting Mike Trout straight back in after he missed Sunday’s game with back stiffness is a no-brainer.
– Stay away from Yordano Ventura though! After a disastrous May 26th outing in which his velocity noticeably dropped and he was forced to exit in the third inning, the 23-year-old flamethrower dodged the Tommy John bullet and was instead diagnosed with “lateral elbow discomfort.” After successfully completing a bullpen session, Ventura will be thrown back in on Thursday to face the Cardinals in the Battle For Missouri. In addition to his prior inconsistency, not only do I dislike the match-up, but I’m worried about Ventura’s long-term outlook; elbow injuries don’t normally solve themselves this quickly, especially ones which cause such an appreciable velo decline. Though he’s officially returning, don’t be surprised if Ventura heads straight back to the trainer’s room in a month or so.
– Aramis Ramirez is back in the Milwaukee lineup tomorrow after sustaining a strained left hamstring on May 13. He’ll be able to DH too, given how the Brewers are visiting Target Field for an interleague series. A notorious slow starter, Ramirez should be a more than viable third base option the rest of the way should he avoid re-aggravating that hammy… Andrew Cashner, after an elbow scare, is scheduled to rejoin the Padres’ rotation on Saturday against the Nationals. Unless you’re in absolute need of gaining ground over the weekend however, it’s probably best to let this one play out with the hard-throwing righty on your bench however… Ryan Zimmerman should be appropriately settled back in to the Washington lineup by then – the 29-year-old has been cleared to return on Tuesday after breaking his thumb on April 12th. Where he’ll play however, remains intriguing; the right-hander has been playing left field during his rehab stint at Potomac, so Ryan Zimmerman: ML Outfielder might be a thing now… In obligatory Reds news, Joey Votto (quadriceps) is nearing a rehab assignment, and Mat Latos threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings in his latest Triple-A start. He should be back next week.
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. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 6! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (5-2 last week, 23-13 overall) ↑ I’ll leave this one to Tom the Intern.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (2-5, 19-18) ↑ Though the Giants may own them (they’re 2-6 against their NL West rivals this year, after going 8-11 in 2013), and they’re currently behind the Rockies, I’ve a lot of faith in the Dodgers eventually winning their division. Not exactly a bold prediction I know, it’s the freakin’ Dodgers and their immensely deep pockets after all, but I can’t imagine their listless play continuing much longer – especially considering how they’ve now got Clayton Kershaw back. Their lefty ace went seven innings strong in his return on Tuesday, striking out nine Nationals while throwing only 89 pitches, providing some welcome relief for an exhausted bullpen that began the day leading the majors in innings pitched. In other news, Yasiel Puig is still being Yasiel Puig, and it’s glorious.
- Colorado Rockies (4-3, 22-16) ↑ The Rockies are scoring 1.27 more runs per game than anyone else in the National League, and rank first in all of baseball in average (.303), on base percentage (.351), and slugging percentage (.499). Troy Tulowitzki meanwhile, has a 228 OPS+, has already amassed 3.9 WAR in just 35 games, and a heat map that Jonak Keri described as “a nuclear blast that’s threatening to wipe out Western civilization.” With so many crazy offensive stats to keep track of, perhaps it’s a good thing Nolan Arenado had his hit streak ended on Friday night.
- Miami Marlins (5-1, 20-17) ↑ After winning five straight, and nine of their last ten heading into Fridays game against the Padres, it was of great surprise that having sent staff ace Jose Fernandez to the mound the Marlins were crushed 10-1. Of course, this whole Miami season has been a surprise so far – who saw Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGehee and Derek Dietrich being valuable offensive contributors, or Tom Koehler being the top performer in a rotation containing the aforementioned Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez? You would have to think the wheels will fall off this week, with a trip out West to face the Dodgers and Giants on the slate, but these ain’t your normal Marlins anymore.
- Washington Nationals (2-4, 19-16) → Doug Fister finally made his debut against Oakland yesterday, but got shelled for 9 hits and five earned runs in just 4.1 innings as the Nats dropped the first meet of their three-game interleague series. Things will presumably get a little easier in the nation’s capital over the next even days – Washington have favorable matchups against Arizona and the Mets on the docket – but their season is beginning to feel a little 2013-ish; full of injury, unfulfilled promise, and eventual disappointment. New manager Matt Williams seems to have a cool head on his shoulders at least.
- St. Louis Cardinals (3-3, 18-18) →
- Milwaukee Brewers (1-5, 22-14) ↓ They might only be one game out of leading the entire Senior Circuit in record, but boy have things come back down to earth quickly in Milwaukee. Without Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew’s on-field performance has quickly regressed (since losing the Hebrew Hammer, they’re 4-8), each passing day he spends on the DL the club looking more and more like the average team their pythagorean win/loss expectation dictates. Thankfully for Milwaukee fans, Braun is due to return on Tuesday – whether he can singly lift them back to their lofty April perch however, remains dubious.
- Atlanta Braves (2-4, 19-15) ↓ Yes, the Braves have gone 2-8 over their last ten, but their schedule was brutal – a trip to Miami, followed by series against San Francisco and St. Louis at home? No thank you. What that ugly stretch did do was establish that the Braves are in a very similar position to that of the last two years; they’re a good team, but not a great one, and can certainly be pitched too. Predictably, the second base position has become a black hole offensively, with Dan Uggla‘s already tiny offensive value (his occasional power, and ability to draw a walk), completely falling off a cliff thus far in 2014, and Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky little better in relief. How soon will it be until Tommy La Stella‘s phone rings?
- Cincinnati Reds (3-2, 16-18) ↓ Literally hours after the discussion that he was too passive was rekindled (He has a .409 OBP thus far, but only a .262 average), Joey Votto belted a huge leadoff home run (437 feet apparently) on a 3-0 fastball from Boone Logan to lift Cincinnati to their second straight win over the Rockies. With Jay Bruce out for a month recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, the Reds will need their leader more than ever to carry them on offense if they’re to remain competitive in the NL Central; to wit, batting ahead of Votto yesterday were Skip Schumaker, Bryan Pena, and Brandon Philips – not exactly the ’27 Yankees. But hey, at least Todd Frazier has the longest home run of 2014 now, so there’s that at least.
- New York Mets (1-5, 16-18) ↓ Is it time to worry about David Wright? He’s generally been one of the most valuable players in the league when healthy, but in his age-31 season (in which he’s making a cool $20 million), he’s only been marginally better than average (he has a 103 OPS+, and 0.3 WAR value thus far). With only 1 home run, and an uncharacteristic .362 slugging mark, his power looks to have evaporated in the early going. Maybe he’s simply just injured, again, but the decline of their captain is not an encouraging line of thought for Mets fans to pursue.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2, 15-20) ↑
- Philadelphia Phillies (3-4, 16-18) ↓ A.J Burnett had been utterly fantastic through his first seven starts as a Phillie, boasting a 2.06 ERA with his hernia and all. He’d been so good in fact, I even was beginning to come round on Ruben Amaro‘s incredulous decision to hand him such a large contract considering Philadelphia wouldn’t be contending. Naturally, he got blown up by the Blue Jays for six earned runs in his next start, and for hours afterwards I cursed myself for being even partially complementary of Amaro’s management.
- San Diego Padres (3-4, 16-21) → If he keeps up his current pace, Everth Cabrera is one day going to be a fascinating case study concerning the effects of PEDs on a person’s eyesight; after walking at a 9.5% clip between 2009-2013, then subsequently being busted, the 27-year-old shortstop has only drawn five free passes so far this season, good (bad?) for a 3.2% BB rate. Not-so-coincidentally, he’s only on pace for 39 stolen bases this season, after an per-162-game average of 89.5 the prior two campaigns. If I had some knowledge of Biology, I’d be heading the study, I swear.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 13-25) ↑
- Chicago Cubs (2-5, 12-22) ↓ The Cubbies may have dropped 3 of 4 to their crosstown rival White Sox last week, but at least the Wrigley faithful had the pleasure of ESPN broadcasters Dan Shulman and John Kruk singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch while broadcasting from the bleachers on Sunday night.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 6!
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.
Seeing as I didn’t exactly do my team full justice in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series – which finally concluded yesterday with a parting glance at Jose Reyes’ and Toronto’s injury woes – I figured today I would spend some further time scrutinizing a player close to my heart. Or at least, he was. Then again, he could yet climb back in. Brandon Phillips is a contentious subject for Cincinnati fans heading into 2014.
Since arriving in the Queen City in 2006, the dynamic play and happy-go-lucky personality of Brandon Phillips had secured the second baseman a long leash with Reds fans. Combining consistently Gold Glove worthy defense with above average offensive production, DatDudeBP was a perennial All-Star with a smile, more loved than even the Cincinnati’s best player, Joey Votto. So when his offensive output dropped off significantly in 2013 (If anyone brings up RBIs as a measure of production – GTFO), we ignored the five year trend of decline and found excuses for him. When his behavior followed suit however, well that ticked off more than just the fans.
Questionably inked to a six-year, $72.5 million contract in 2011 as a 30 year old coming off a career year (.300/.353/.457, 122 wRC+, 5.6 WAR), Phillips last year publicly called out the man responsible for prioritizing his signing, Reds CEO Bob Castellini. Despite his leveraging of Cincinnati management and overlooking of the fact that second basemen don’t tend to age gracefully, Castellini had apparently done Phillips wrong by signing other key teammates to (larger) contracts too. In a July interview with the Cincinnati Magazine, the unhappy player sounded off regarding the man who signs his checks:
“To this day, I’m still hurt. Well, I don’t wanna say hurt. I’ll say scarred. I’m still scarred. It just sucks that it happened. For him to do something like that and tell me they didn’t have any more money, that’s a lie.
All of a sudden, $72.5 million was, according to Phillips, “a slap in my face.” Not long after too, cameras caught Phillips berating beat reporter C. Trent Rosecrans over a tweet which rubbed him the wrong way; simply stating Phillips’ less than stellar career offensive statistics when hitting in the No. 2 hole earning the Cincinnati Enquirer writer the distasteful threat “I’m tired of you talking that negative sh*t on our team, dog. I found out your Twitter name now motherf***er. It’s a wrap.” Top athletes get away with such behavior routinely though; it’s when they stop producing that we have an issue with it. And unfortunately for Phillips in 2013, he fell off the wagon on the field too.
After three consecutive seasons of above-average offense, the increasingly unpopular Phillips hit just .261/.310/.396 (91 wRC+) in 2013, his OPS ranking seventh among second basemen on the Senior Circuit. As Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris noted too, it marked another year of decline:
Here’s the list of statistics in which Phillips showed a five-year worsts in 2013: Batting average, home runs, runs, stolen bases, strikeout rate, swinging strikeout rate, slugging percentage, isolated slugging percentage, batting average on balls in play, batted ball distance on homers and flies, ultimate base running, and four-component speed score.
That’s a heck of a lot of offensive categories. Yes, he had a career high 103 RBIs (…urgh, I’m disgusted to even acknowledge so), as most competent major leaguers could hitting behind the NL’s two best on-base men; hitting savant Joey Votto was on base 101 times when Phillips came to the plate, whereas the recently departed Shin-Soo Choo was there 56 times himself. His 69 weighted runs created , and .257 true average spoke more volume of his struggles however, which in combination with the disappearance of his running game, public missteps, and remaining $50 million owed in salary over the next four seasons, landed Phillips on the trading block this winter.
The Braves were reportedly in on the now-32 year old, but insisted on Dan Uggla’s albatross contract being a part of any return package. The Reds blanched. The Dodgers made overtures before landing Cuban infielder Alexander Guerrero. The Kansas City Royals had interest before signing Omar Infante. Talks progressed beyond mere rumor with the Yankees about a Brett Gardner/Phillips swap, only for New York to nix a potential deal (they have of course since signed Gardner to a 4 year $52 million extension). With trade scenarios cropping up every other it seems then, that barring a sudden rejuvenation, Phillips will be playing elsewhere as soon as Cincinnati can find a taker for his contract.
It will be interesting to see if the former favorite can rebound in 2014 however, whether it be with the Reds or elsewhere. Though his strikeout and contact rates both went in the wrong direction last season, his decline was far greater than expected. At least some of his down year can be pinned on a more than ordinary HBP which occurred in Pittsburgh on June 1st; prior to Tony Watson hitting his left forearm in the eight inning of a game against the rival Pirates – Brandon later acknowledging “He got me good… I thought it was broke for sure.” – Phillips was hitting .291/.340/.476. The keystoner played through the pain however, avoiding the DL and surely in no coincidence, posted his lowest isolated power mark since 2006 (.135). Whether his being nicked up last year can really be viewed as the sole reason for his below-par performance rather than a sign of attrition, will certainly play a part in deciding Phillips’ future with the Reds organization. But as he recently stated in an interview with Jon Danneman of FOX19 – breaking his offseason media silence in the process – “If they feel like they can do better without me than good luck with that”.