Tagged: Mike Trout

Many Happy Returns: Finally, Some Players Make it Back!

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.

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The end is nigh: a GIF goodbye to Spring Training (Part II).

With Opening Day II only one sleep away, it’s time to bid adieu to Spring Training. As always it started out a pleasure, then dragged on for what seemed like an eternity, but we’ve made finally it; only today’s slate remains before we can settle down for the halcyon days of an 162-game summer. Continuing on from Part I yesterday, let us send off Spring Training in style, and celebrate the good, the bad, and the downright ridiculous, in the manner I have arbitrarily deemed best – a GIF review.

Picking up where Part I left off, the 2014 edition of Spring Training provided the accustomed quota of oddities. If it wasn’t Hank the dog signing a contract with Milwaukee (and scoring his own bobblehead night), it was mascots gobbling up foul balls.

Bartolo Colon was seen hustling up to first base to score a hit in his first at-bat as a Met. A bee attack halted a Red Sox vs Yankees match-up – providing some excellent reaction shots. Jake Peavy nearly cut his finger off in a fishing knife accident. Los Angeles Angels infielder Ian Stewart was forced to sit out after his four-year-old daughter innocently head butted him while they were playing. Absurdity was everywhere!

Unfortunately, not every pre-season moment was so amusingly wacky. If this spring will be remembered for anything, it will be the rash of serious pitching injuries which occurred; Texas will be missing their three top starters come Opening Day (Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, and Yu Darvish), though they are all expected to return sooner rather than later. The same can’t be said for Jarrod Parker and Patrick Corbin, two young staff anchors who will be out for the year after both undergoing Tommy John surgery. And spare a thought for Braves pitchers Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen, who went down within days of each other – both will be hitting the operating table for a second time, and are out for the season (Medlen’s post-injury interview was particularly saddening).

The hits just kept on coming elsewhere too – and in horrifying fashion. After protective caps for pitchers were widely panned before Spring Training opened, in a sickening incident, Aroldis Chapman caught a Salvador Perez line drive with his face. The Cincinnati closer had a metal plate inserted after sustaining multiple facial fractures, his ordeal catching the attention of several fellow throwers, José Fernández in particular. Thankfully the Cuban Missile should be okay, and has been tentatively scheduled to return at some point in late May/early June.

On a more positive injury-related note, Grady Sizemore has managed to stay healthy for over a month! Lured to the reigning champion Red Sox by a one year, $750,000 major league deal, the 31-year-old Sizemore has officially beaten out Jackie Bradley Jr. for Boston’s Opening Day center field role on the back of his eye-opening spring display; tomorrow he’ll be making his first appearance in an MLB game since Sept. 22, 2011.

If the healthy return of Sizemore was one of the biggest surprises of the spring, Giancarlo Stanton’s continued crushing of baseballs was altogether predictable. That he will start the season on yet another crappy Marlins team – despite the optimism of some scouts – doesn’t make the biggest power in the game any less entertaining; here’s to hoping we have a full season of ludicrous Stanton bombs ahead, even if a change in zip codes is part of it.

Going nowhere for the foreseeable future, Miguel Cabrera punished pre-season pitching as if it were any regular June game – his .352/.439/.611 spring line pretty much in line with his pre-injury pace of 2013. Miggy’s signing of an 8 year, $248 million extension topped off a pretty wonky offseason for Detroit, but if the crushing that he laid on poor Aaron Harang a few days back is anything to go by, the Tigers are primed for another long postseason run on the back of their newly-minted superstar.

And finally, as the game’s brightest stars should always do during spring (unless you’re Clayton Kershaw that is), Mike Trout shone. My baseball crush did nothing but, well… crush, laying waste to anyone who dared pitch him; on his way to a .407/.458/.796 triple slash line, no. 27 on the Angels led AL players in HRs (5), including smashing a grand slam the day after signing his one-year, $1 million record contract.

Of course, Trout has since (last night actually) agreed to an extension of his own, buying out his first three years of arbitration eligibility and the following three of his free agency; he’ll now be an Angel through 2020, and will hit the market again before his age-30 season. For now though, let’s just enjoy his astounding talents and not worry about the money – not everyone can so casually drill a ball over a hedge after all. Bring on the regular season, and meaningful baseball brilliance!

Busted Bracket? Try some baseball betting!

Happy baseball everybody! By the time this has posted, the 2014 MLB season will be one game old, and the Dodgers and Diamondbacks might already have sparked an international incident by taking their ongoing feud to foreign soil; one Yasiel Puig bat flip and the Australian public could have a brawl on their hands. Anyway… With everyone already gambling on March Madness (my two brackets are already busted – S/O to Duke!), what better time to lay some additional baseball-related bets? As a responsible 22-year-old, I’ve picked out a few of my favorite props for the upcoming season – some of which are informed value plays, others simply hunches. Feel free to consider/ignore them at your leisure.

I love, love, LOVE me some Rays action this year. Perennially underrated by the bookmakers in regard to their over/under regular season wins total, Vegas finally seems to have caught on to the fact these guys are routinely good; the over has been a solid bet for the past couple of seasons, but their newly jacked line and stiff AL East competition have me staying away from laying anything on it this year. Instead, I’ll be taking them to win the whole darn thing. With David Price still leading a loaded pitching staff, Wil Myers’ mighty presence in the offense all year, and Joe Maddon’s usual defense/matchup innovation, at +1500 on sportsbook.com, Tampa Bay represent a terrific value to go all the way – especially given how fellow contenders Detroit, Texas, and Oakland have all suffered rough Spring Trainings. I’d also very happily take them over the defending champion Red Sox, who at +1200, somehow have longer odds than the Yankees (+1000).

If I was strictly taking a winner from the NL, I’d pick the St. Louis Cardinals, whose price of +900 trails only the Dodgers (+600) in lowest possible gains. This considered, I’d much rather have the Washington Nationals at +1200, a team much like the Rays in that they boast great pitching (both in terms of talent and depth), complemented by an above-average offense. Their division looks to be a cakewalk, so wagering a few dollars on the Nats to win the NL East wouldn’t be a bad move, just one with little potential. Similar to the AL teams, there are a few curious odds for Senior Circuit teams; the Giants for instance (at +3000), are twice as likely to win than the Diamondbacks (+6000), and also have lower odds than the Reds (+4000). I know it’s an even numbered year again, but c’mon man, the Giants?!

On to individual player props then, and a few which especially stood out. Though I despise the win statistic’s weight when it come to judging pitchers, betting the over on Sonny Gray’s 12.5  line is one of the few props that will net you more than your original stake (+105). My logic on this one, aside from the value offered, is that Gray’s a potential stud on a good team, and with the recent injuries of staff ace Jarrod Parker and rotation mate A.J. Griffin, will be leaned upon more than ever – eradicating any innings limit fears that might have limited his opportunity to hit the over.

I’m less bullish on Matt Cain. He has the same 12.5 line as Gray, and at even money, playing his under could be a strong move. As I may have given away above, I’m really not sold on this Giants team’s capacity to finish above .500, especially in a division featuring the Dodgers, much improved Padres, and forever #gritty Diamondbacks. Though he rebounded nicely after a couple of disastrous innings during the first half of the season, I’m sufficiently worried about Cain to lay money on a poor 2014 win-loss record.

Equally, I’m not in love with Chris Davis’ (no, not the Khris Davis I focused on yesterday) chances of crushing 50+ HRs once more. Understandably though, he’s favored to repeat as the long ball champ; even factoring in some regression, his awesome power should get him to at least 35. If you’re looking for a dark-horse candidate, Prince Fielder at +1800 offers a nice play. After enduring a rough year off the field during 2013, I’m hoping he’ll respond in a big way in 2014. Additionally, his winter move to the Rangers and the very homer-friendly Globe Life Park in Arlington can only be considered another cause for optimism concerning Fielder’s revival.

When it came to odds for awards, I turned to the Bovada sportsbook. I’ve documented my love for Mike Trout, believing his candidacy for AL MVP this year to be little more than a slam dunk; at 5/1 he has the least profitable odds – even over two-time defending winner Miguel Cabrera – but hey, when can you turn down free money? On the NL side of things, although I advocated for Bryce Harper as part of my ongoing award predictions, I also cited Yadier Molina as a strong figure of opposition. At 12/1, Harper isn’t a bad play, but the 16/1 odds you’ll receive on Yadi make him a more appealing prospect. As the heart and soul of perhaps the best team in the NL, should he manage to stay healthy all season long, Molina will have himself a strong case to take home the hardware.

Choosing between potential Cy Young award winners was slightly more difficult. In the NL, I plumped for Stephen Strasburg’s 8/1 number over the heavily favored Clayton Kershaw, but there weren’t really any good value plays – a problem which carried over into the AL. Given my Rays affection, it’s probably not surprising I like David Price to win the Junior Circuit trophy, but the guy is legitimately incredible; after returning from the DL last season, the lefty pitched 131.2 innings, in which he racked up 102 strikeouts while allowing only 13 walks, good for a 2.53 ERA, and a .233/.253/.337 opponents’ line. Price is only 9/1 though, just behind Yu Darvish, so isn’t an especially sexy choice. His teammate Alex Cobb on the other hand, at 33/1 is an attractive outside shot, much more so than fellow rotation member Matt Moore, who is 12/1.

There are so many bets out there that you can always find value in some place. Just remember to observe the only two rules of baseball gambling: 1) Clear your internet history so you don’t look like a complete degenerate. 2) Never, ever, pick Fernando Rodney to win AL Cy Young (66/1). With that in mind, Happy baseball (betting) everybody!

What’s there left to say about Mike Trout?

Following up on my selection of Bryce Harper as 2014 NL MVP last Friday, today was supposed to mark the occasion of my AL MVP pick. But really how much is there left to say about Mike Trout?

Since arriving in the Majors in May 2012, the Millville Meteor has been the most valuable player in baseball, posting consecutive 10+ WAR seasons in his age 20 and 21 campaigns. He has robbed home runs in spectacular fashion, playing center field with all the grace of a gazelle – a gazelle with a crazy vertical leap. On the basepaths, he’s a terror, using the speed that routinely turns grounders into infield hits to pose a constant threat when on base – which by the way, he generally is. At the dish, he’s been one of the five best hitters in the game, combining a patient approach (he was third in the majors with 110 walks last year), with both a plus hit tool (hitting .326 and .323 in the past two years respectively) and surprising power (he already has 62 home runs). Furthermore, he owns Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez, the two pitchers he has faced most often so far in his young career, with Darvish recently admitting he has no idea how to pitch to him – high praise indeed, given his position as reigning AL strikeout king. By all measures, Trout is the most valuable player in the sport (hence why his upcoming contract terms are being widely, and wildly, debated). That Miguel Cabrera has beaten him to the official hardware in both the past two years is merely indicative of a voting class that still favors RBI(zzzzzz) over metrics that also take into account fielding and base running – y’know, crucial elements of the sport.

I’m not here to argue about Cabrera stealing Trout’s shine though; as Jonah Keri put it so wonderfully, “Criticizing Cabrera or Trout is like whining about the mole on Kate Upton’s upper lip.” Despite his lack of formal acknowledgment, when it comes to who’s most valuable, we know. The Angels are lucky to have him, and should hold on to their young superstar for as long as humanly possible. Things could have been very different after all…

In making Mark Teixeira a very rich man – signing the prize position player of the 2008 free agency class to a eight year, $180M contract – the Yankees sacrificed their first round pick in 2009’s MLB amateur draft to his former employer, the Angels, as compensation (Los Angeles would also receive a supplemental pick in the deal). Of course, in a rare turn of bad luck for the Yanks, that sacrificed pick later turned out to be a certain high school kid from from South Jersey (the supplemental pick too, if you were interested, was Tyler Skaggs). In an alternate world, Mike Trout would now be in pinstripes – and a whole heck of other things would probably be different too. Let the butterfly flap it’s wings.

Having extended an eight year offer of their own during the Winter Meetings, lets say Teixeira, having enjoyed his three month spell in SoCal so much, turns down the overtures of not only New York, Boston, Baltimore, and the Nationals, and instead re-ups with the Angels.

Having missed out on Teixeira, but already spent a cool $243.5M in bringing aboard CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, the Yankees opt to sign the still-available Manny Ramirez to a two year pact. Though Teixeira amasses 3.0 additional WAR than Ramirez during the season, hitting .292/.383/.565 and finishing second in AL MVP voting, he performs miserably in the postseason, hitting just .180/.282/.311 in what begins a trend of disappointing playoff performances. The Angels fall to the Yankees in the ALCS, who (like in reality) go on to win the World Series over Philadelphia, Ramirez batting a serviceable .281/.324/.469 along the way. With the World Series title in their back pockets, the Yanks also head into 2009 armed with two first round picks, and one very specific target.

At an introductory press conference, New York’s scouting director Damon Oppenheimer speaks first: “He was the second guy on our overall board. It was (Stephen) Strasburg and then Trout.” With the 25th pick in the 2009 draft, the Yankees have of course, snagged Mike Trout, who had fallen into their laps after scouts didn’t pay enough attention to his Northeast high school. Additionally, with Trout already in the bag, the Evil Empire pass on picking up another high school outfielder, Slade Heathcott, and instead select Tyler Skaggs just four picks later. Not even Alex Rodriguez’s and Manny Ramirez’s joint PED admission later in the season can bring down the Yankees, though they eventually fall in the playoffs.

Fast forward to the winter of 2011. With Teixeira in Anaheim, free agent first baseman Albrt Pujols turns instead to his biggest offer, signing for ten years and $275M to be the face of the new Miami Marlins franchise, swallowing his request for a no-trade clause to be included in the deal. With no money left to spend, Miami can’t afford their other free agent target Jose Reyes, who agrees to fill the void at shortstop for the Cardinals. Prince Fielder remains available until January, when Texas finally step up and sign him in an pseudo arms race with the Angels for the most bloated 1B contract in the AL West (and yes, the use of “bloated” was very intentional).

The 2012 season begins, and Trout is called up by the Yankees in May. He does Mike-Trout things, posting a rookie season for the ages in which he hits 326/.399/.564 with an 168 OPS+, his play both inspiring comparison to ‘True Yankee’ Mickey Mantle, and John Sterling to come up with two incredibly annoying home run calls by June (I’m thinking “No Doubt! Mike Trout!” or “That one’s Troutta here!”). Quickly realizing the next franchise cornerstone is in the fold, Derek Jeter steps away from the game graciously after the season, having suffered a gruesome broken ankle in the postseason; in his retirement press conference, he speaks of recognizing how his body can’t do it everyday anymore, and jokes about how he’s been overmatched at shortstop for years anyhow. Rebuffing questions about whether he’d have preferred a retirement tour, Jeter says he wouldn’t want to detract from Trout – who will be the next Yankee captain.

After an amazing sophomore campaign, Trout is unanimously regarded as the best player in baseball. His cheap contract too, means that the Yankees have money to burn elsewhere, and instead of signing Jacoby Ellsbury, re-sign Robinson Cano – GM Brian Cashman dismissively amused that the Yankees would ever not lock in the game’s best player at the keystone for the rest of his career. Having signed Yu Darvish in 2011 with the money they saved not signing Teixeira (and the Rangers’ hands tied by the enormous Fielder contract), they augment their staff further with the addition of Masahiro Tanaka, and swing Tyler Skaggs along with a host of other top prospects to Tampa for a one year rental of David Price. With such formidable pitching depth, and Trout and Cano leading the offense, no one even cares about Rodriguez’s season-long suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal; the Yankees romp to the 2014 title regardless.

Mike Trout is named the 2014 AL MVP, just as he will be back in reality.

An Ode to Baseball’s Player Union.

Just putting it out there, but does anyone else find it slightly ridiculous that LeBron James will be paid $19,067,500 for his efforts during the 2013/14 NBA season? Many would say it’s way too much already, considering he plays a game for a living – plus he’s got endorsement deals to go on top of that base figure. Others – Bill Simmons for instance – think that James’ check should be significantly larger, say, in the $75M range. After all, he has been named the NBA’s MVP 4 times, won 2 titles, lost another 2, and been a 7-time All-NBA 1st Team selection – and even that’s cutting his career resumé very, very, short. Either way you look at it, overpaid or undervalued, one thing is clear however; compared to baseball’s salaries, one of the best players in basketball’s history has been truly shafted by his union’s negotiating skills (or lack of).

Let’s take James’ current 2013/14 salary, $19,067,500, and see where it would land him amongst baseball’s highest (total salary) earners in 2014; 22rd, behind not only top players like Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano, but the slightly less desirable likes of Ryan Howard ($25,000,000), Mark Teixeira ($23,125,000) Carl Crawford ($21,107,142). He’s barely ahead of Mark Buehrle ($19,000,000), and will likely fall further behind as soon as Mike Trout puts pen to paper. Now admittedly, LeBron famously took less money to sign with the SuperFriends in Miami, so is only tied for the 8th highest salary in his own sporting field (with teammate Chris Bosh as it happens; Dywane Wade is no. 10), but even the very top NBA earners are overwhelmed in number by their baseball-playing peers. In fact, Only Kobe Bryant’s (egregiously awful – I’m a Suns fan) $30,453,805 2014 salary would crack baseball’s top 11 for the current calendar year – Dirk Nowitzki, if anyone’s interested, would check in at no. 12 – just behind Felix Hernandez – if such a joint rich list formally existed.

Now I’m not saying that baseball players don’t deserve their money (well, maybe in the cases of Howard, Teixera, Crawford et. al), but when looking at the similar revenues generated from the two sports, one thing is drastically apparent; one union clanked iron at the negotiating table, and the other smashed their labor deal out of the park. If the puns didn’t make it apparent, the MLBPA might be the strongest professional sports union in existence, whereas the NBPA, well, it blows.

Since 2000, NBA revenue is up 120 percent, from about $2.5 billion to $5.5 billion, while MLB revenue has also seen a significant, but similarly proportioned boom; it has increased from about $3.4 billion in 2000 to about $8 billion in 2013, good for a 135 percent jump. But while the MLBPA have long fought off a salary cap on players earning power, the NBPA famously agreed to maximum thresholds for the sport’s top stars in order to end the 204 day lockout which nearly nixed the league’s 1999 season. And in doing so, they preserved basketball’s middle class, but screwed the big stars. In the word’s of super-agent Art Tellem, “They are really stealing from LeBron.”

Per Sports Business Journal, and spotrac.com, in 1999-2000, of the 20 players whose contracts had the highest average annual value, 11 were NBA players, led by Kevin Garnett at $21 million a year. Baseball made up the other 9, but Kevin Brown was the sport’s highest earner at only $15 million a year. By 2002-03 the distribution became a little more even; of the top 21 (three NBA players tied at No. 19 averaging $15 million a season), 11 were NBA and 10 were MLB, with Alex Rodriguez’s first 10-year deal significantly entering the fray. Fast forward to 2007-08, and the numbers had flipped – nine of the top 20 highest-paid players were in the NBA and 11 were in MLB, who in A-Rod and Johan Santana could boast sport’s top two highest earners. And finally, 2013, where of the top 21 highest-paid athletes in America (two players were tied for 20th place), 13 were MLB players, and only 6 NBA athletes (the other two were NFL quarterbacks Joe Flacco and Drew Brees). Furthermore, 8 of the top 10 deals belonged to baseball players – and this was all before Cano, Masahiro Tanaka, Clayton Kershaw or Jacoby Ellsbury signed new contracts this winter.

The discrepancy between the two sport’s top salaries really is remarkable, and even more so when you consider the proportional importance of individual players to each game; with only 5 players a side, a star in basketball can have much more impact than the one of the 9 players in a baseball lineup. Mike Trout being taken away from the Angels would cost them around 10 wins a season. When LeBron left Cleveland, the Cavs went from a league best 61 wins in 2009/10 to a conference-worst 19 the following season – a 42 win differential – and along the way also tied the longest losing streak in any American professional team sport (26). And you’re telling me Masahiro Tanaka, who has yet to throw a pitch in an MLB regular season game and will likely appear in 50 fewer games than James, will make $2,922,500 more than him in salary during 2014?

Seriously, well played MLBPA.

Bryce Harper is… underrated?!

As previously detailed in my ROY cases for Noah Syndergaard and Xander Bogaerts, 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 NL MVP pick.

He famously donned Sports Illustrated’s cover alongside the tagline ‘Baseball’s Chosen One’ while still a high schooler. The then-catcher was picked No. 1 in the 2010 draft, and secured a a $6.25 million signing bonus along the way. He blew kisses to pitchers in the Minors. He was booed vociferously by a raucous Dodgers crowd when he made his ML debut less than 2 years later. Within a week, Cole Hamels ‘welcomed’ him to the league with a good ol’ plunking, only to see his victim steal home that same inning. In that same season, at just 19, he became the youngest All-Star in baseball’s history. If that weren’t enough, since his debut, he’s muscled more home runs during his age 19 and 20 seasons (42) than any hitter since Tony Conigliaro, and accrued as many WAR over that period as Ty Cobb.

And yet somehow, Bryce Harper might now be underrated.

After posting a rookie season for the ages, winning the NL ROY award on the strength of a .270/.340/.477 line and 22 homers in 139 games, Harper headed into 2013 with the expectations of the baseball world upon his young shoulders; the Washington Nationals were expected to be World Series contenders, their star 20-year old to be the MVP-like force behind their inevitable success. Things didn’t quite work out as planned.

The Nats missed the postseason altogether in Davey Johnson’s last year at the helm, somehow limping only to a record of 84-78 in an NL East division which contained the lowly Marlins, Mets, and Phillies. And though Harper improved, he still wasn’t producing like Mike Trout – his symbolically aligned partner in carrying baseball for the next generation – drawing the ire of impatient fans and internet commentators alike. But while his end of season statistics may have ultimately disappointed those who predicted a breakout performance, they also obscured the truth; Harper was playing like an MVP, until he quite literally, hit the wall.

Through his first 25 games (103 PAs), the man whose eye-black sets the internet alight was batting .356 with 9 home runs and a ridiculous 1.181 OPS. Then, in his 26th game of the season, came the first collision – Harper falling foul of Turner Field’s outfield fence. He carried on regardless, but his line had already dropped to .303/.400/.622 just 37 plate appearances later, when his second run-in with an outfield wall occurred – this time at Dodger Stadium.

Harper would wind up on the DL, his balky knee forcing him out of five weeks of action. He would return in early July, but not the same player – something Harper himself admitted in September – managing just (by his high standards at least) a .789 OPS en route to a final line of .274/.368/.486 in 118 games played.

Even playing on a knee which required offseason surgery though, Harper showed across-the-board improvements in his game during 2013; per David Golebiewski, “Harper boosted his batting average (from .270 as a rookie in 2012 to .274), on-base percentage (.340 to .368) and slugging percentage (.477 to .486) while also sharpening his strike-zone control (his walk-to-strikeout ratio climbed from 0.47 to 0.65). His park-and-league-adjusted OPS spiked from 18 percent above average to 33 percent above average.” After swinging at most everything low and away as a rookie, the 20-year old demonstrated a more mature approach at the plate in his sophomore effort, jacking his walk rate almost 3 percentage points (9.4% in 2012 to 12.3% in 2013) despite pitchers throwing him marginally less strikes (41.2% as opposed to 42.3%). And even despite his injury, Harper’s trademark raw power remained, his .212 ISO mark remarkably similar to the .206 figure he posted the year prior.

Not that such incremental improvement satiated the demands of those preseason prognosticators – apparently an injury-marred campaign is no excuse in the march towards superstardom nowadays. After an offseason in which Mike Trout’s otherworldly play and soon-expected extension attracted more of the media’s attention however, Harper has quietly slinked away from the limelight – and dedicated himself to getting healthy for a monster 2014 (he may even have hit the gym too hard, with recent photos of his huge new physique inspiring PED talk – which Harper quickly shot down).

With World Series aspirations once more after the addition of Doug Fister, the Nats will need him if they’re to make a serious run during the postseason. Fortunately for new manager Matt Williams, Harper appears to be on board with the plan already: recently citing “I don’t want to run into another wall,” in recognising the importance of his everyday presence towards his team’s success, the young slugger has clearly matured in his first real time away from the glare – a factor that along with his health, should have opposing pitchers quaking in their cleats come April. With that in mind, and other pennant contenders St. Louis lacking a true superstar (although a fine leader, Yadier Molina doesn’t qualify in my eyes), the Dodger’s wealth of riches unreliable in terms of their health (I’m looking at you Hanley Ramirez and Matt Kemp), I’ve no problem in predicting this year to be the year for Harper; I’ll take his  16/1 odds of winning NL MVP over the 6/1 Andrew McCutchen, 7/1 Joey Votto or even 9/1 Paul Goldschmidt all the way to the bank, thank you very much.

It’s been too long for Bryce Harper to be out of the spotlight. I’m ready for him to snatch it back in a big way.

Hello Baseball! Kole Calhoun is Coming.

You have no idea how close todays installment of 2014 MLB Season Preview was from becoming a celebration of all things Mike Trout. It would have put yesterdays appreciation of new Kansas City Royal Norichika Aoki to shame. Common sense prevailed for now at least – though I’ll no doubt be wearing my no. 27 jersey into enemy territory (read: Safeco Field) when I make the trip up to Seattle in May. As it is, my Los Angeles Angels preview today looks at one of Trout’s 2014 outfield mates, and a prime breakout candidate; after an impressive end to 2013, Kole Calhoun is touted to begin 2014 as Anaheim’s leadoff hitter and everyday right fielder. 

Listed at a generous 5’10, the left-handed Kole Calhoun certainly didn’t look like a future big league regular when he was selected out of Arizona State by the Angels in the 8th round of the 2010 Draft – scouts dubbing him a “hard-nosed non-athletic grinder” (per Baseball Prospect Report). Even heading into 2013, John Sickel could only envision Calhoun as “a good fourth outfielder and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him become a coach or manager someday” – not exactly a glowing report, but testament to big league potential at least. Fast forward a year to 2014 however, and the now 26 year old Calhoun profiles to not just defy expectations as Anaheim’s starter in right field – joining Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton in a star-studded Angels outfield – but is also on track to become their everyday leadoff hitter.

Calhoun’s rapid ascension has occurred on the basis of his superb hitting at every level so far, including during his impressive 2013 rookie season. In his first full season of professional ball at Class A Empire in 2011, the diminutive Calhoun hit .324, blasted 22 HRs, stole 20 bases, and was subsequently named the organization’s minor league player of the year. Immediately promoted to Triple A Salt Lake City for 2012, Calhoun succeeded again in slashing .298/.369/.507, though both his HR and SB totals dropped off slightly. When the winter acquisition of Josh Hamilton blocked his surge to the majors in 2013, Calhoun quickly forced the Angels’ hand by crushing Triple A pitching at a .354/.430/.620 clip, pasting 12 HRs in 240 at-bats for good measure; with the big team under-performing once again, and beset by injuries, he was called up for good in late July.

In a 58 game stretch in which played most everyday (he amassed 49 starts), the supposed fourth outfielder cracked 8 HRs on his way to posting a .282/.347/.462 line (including an .889 OPS against lefties) – and quickly became one of the bright spots in what otherwise became another waste of a Mike Trout pre-arbitration year for the Angels franchise. Calhoun’s performance too, made quite the impression on the team’s GM Jerry Dipoto, who demonstrated his faith in the right fielder’s emergence by trading away fellow outfield competition Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos, upgrading the roster in other areas while clearing the way for Kole to breakout in 2014. As if his actions weren’t a vote of confidence enough, Dipoto took added his voice to the matter this Spring, saying of Calhoun “He does a lot of things well. He defends, he throws, he throws accurately, is a good baserunner, he swings, he’s got patience, he gets on base, he’s got power.” Not bad praise for a “grinder” 8th round pick who was expected to contribute little, if at all, at the big league level.

Having dropped Trout into the 2-hole midway through last season, the leadoff position in manager Mike Scioscia’s batting order is open for Calhoun to win this spring. Of his chance, Scioscia recently was quoted in saying “I think Cole is definitely a candidate… Whoever is hitting in front of Mike has to be a player who, first, is able to take advantage of being challenged and, second, bring some on-base to the table with decent speed to where they aren’t clogging up the bases.” Barring a spring disaster, Kalhoun should win the role; last year he possessed both an above-average BB% (9.5) walk rate and a below-average SO% (18.5%) whilst also defying the platoon splits often associated with lefties (.356 wOBA vs LHP, .329 wOBA vs RHP). He’s no slouch when it comes to power either, his ISO of .210+ at every stop (discounting his .179 in 222 PA with LAA) deterring pitchers from simply attacking him over the plate. With adequate speed on the basepaths too, Calhoun seems ideally suited to be driven in by his outfield mates – filling a need which haunted the Angels after Trout’s move last year.

Given the opportunity, it’s hard not to envision the scrappy Calhoun succeeding as he has done at every level so far. At 26 already, he’s unlikely to be a future star, but a prominent role as an above-average regular is more than attainable this season – should he continue the play which surprised so many in 2013. Whether it’s because of the Mike Trout Magic Dust, or his “hard-nosed non-athletic grinder” attitude, Calhoun seems ready to once and for all cast off the scouts’ dispersions. Watch for his breakout to poke out from under Trout’s mighty outfield shadow; unheralded as ever, Calhoun is coming.