By the metrics, Jeff Samardzija has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball this year. After Johnny Cueto gave up six earned runs in his Tuesday start, the ‘Shark’ leads all qualified starters in ERA with a mark of 1.46. Through his 68 innings pitched, the 29-year-old has an obscene ERA+ number of 266, a figure 68 points better than his nearest competition (Mark Buehrle, if you were wondering). He’s tied for first with Cueto in pitcher WAR, both NL Central righties holding a 2.7 value above replacement. Though his strikeout rate is at its lowest since he became a full-time starter back in 2012 (7.1 K/9 in 2014, compared to a 9.1 average the prior two seasons), he is walking fewer batters (2.8 BB/9 in contrast to 3.1), and inducing more ground balls then ever before (after a 0.90 GB/FB ratio in 2012/3, Samardzija is currently inducing grounders at a 51.6% clip – good for a 1.06 ratio). Never before has Jeff Samardzija been as good as he is now.
And yet after 10 starts, as good as he has been, Samardzija still has a big fat zero in the win column.
In the grand scheme of things, the fact that the Cubs have gone 1-9 in games he has started this year, doesn’t especially matter anymore; it seems most people associated with the sport have recognized that wins are driven by run support, good defense, and a solid bullpen. It’s now not completely unusual for stud pitchers to endure wonky looking seasons by record – just ask Cliff Lee (6 wins in 2012), or Cole Hamels (8 wins last year). Samardzija’s brilliance this year in fact, has perhaps only been shoved further into the spotlight by the fact that his team can’t muster up any support for him; nuggets like this, “Going back to last year, Samardzija has now gone 13 consecutive starts allowing two or fewer earned runs. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, that’s the second-longest streak since the league started compiling earned runs in 1913,” via Jesse Rogers of ESPNChicago.com, and this from Ted berg of usatoday.com, “Samardzija became the first pitcher in the live-ball era — and one of only two since 1917 — to open a season with seven straight starts of at least five innings with fewer than three earned runs and record no wins in the process,” have ensured Samardzija’s infamous dominance has gone down in lore.
The Indiana native’s 0-4 record doesn’t seem to be hurting his trade value either. After being unable to come to an agreement with the team in regards to a long term contract this past offseason, articles linking Samardzija with trades to the Rockies, Blue Jays, Marlins, and of course the Yankees, have been abundant. Former Cub Matt Garza added fuel to the fire too, when he advised Samardzija to “pitch your way out of there.”
So why then, do standard fantasy leagues place so much value on the win ‘statistic’? Despite his high standing in all of the aforementioned metrics, Samardzija’s excellence lands him… 31st among pitchers on the ESPN Player Rater? While his closest comparisons in terms of underlying stats – Cueto and Adam Wainwright – rank first and second respectively, Chicago’s ace finds himself in the same fantasy realm as Aaron Harang, who is about to turn back into a pumpkin. Heck, he’s only six spots and .20 ahead of Giants reliever Jean Machi, who has somehow walked his way into five wins already this season. The importance attributed to the win category is quite frankly, baffling.
Now I’m not advocating the win be erased from baseball altogether – like with the inherently unreliable RBI statistic as a harbinger of offensive excellence, if the win were to be erased fans of records would most likely march on Cooperstown and riot. But seriously, can it be done away with in fantasy leagues at least? Use another category, quality starts for instance – of which Samardzija has 8 already – when it comes to rewarding quality starting pitching. Every year otherwise, there will be another unlucky Lee, Hamels, or Samardzija type, plugging away on a crappy team while some fluke soft-tosser, or God forbid, a reliever, steals in a few wins and jumps ahead of them in value. I don’t even own Samardzija and am infuriated by the prospect of such an outcome occurring!
Next year then, do away with the win. Jeff Samardzija might be racking them up on another team by then, but some ace out there will be getting shafted. Make sure you aren’t going to be stuck owning their misfortune.
After his thrilling September call-up (during which he hit .368 with a .105 ISO, scored 9 runs, and went 13 of 14 in stolen base attempts), and a promising Spring Training showing (.327 with only 9 strikeouts in 55 at-bats), I can guarantee it wasn’t just me – an ardent Cincinnati Reds fan – who was way too over-excited about the full-time impact of Billy Hamilton in 2014. Everywhere you looked, he was on people’s ‘must-watch’ or ‘most intriguing’ lists, or picking up NL ROY votes on imaginary preseason ballots.
It took four games, approximately 1.9 percent of the regular season, for the panic to set in. After the Man of Steal started the season 0-for-12 with six strikeouts, including an Opening Day debut in which he was awarded a golden sombrero by Adam Wainwright, reaching base just once in that dreadful Opening Series with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was benched by new Cincinnati manager Bryan Price. Previously exuberant Reds fans cursed themselves for falling in love with a 160 pound greyhound of a prospect; fantasy hounds hung their heads when they realized Hamilton’s inability to get on base would mean he couldn’t steal them*. Expectations were more than just tempered – they were dashed completely.
Well, funnily enough, it turns out we may all have overreacted to his ‘failure’ to meet the preseason hype. That is, no, Billy Hamilton is not Rickey Henderson. But he’s also not a bust. Since that fateful benching, The Fast Kid has actually fallen somewhere very nicely in the middle ground, hitting a more than serviceable .280/.310/.378 in combination with stellar center field defense and his customary base path speed. His tenure might have gotten off to a rough start, but now that he’s has started to hit just a little bit, Hamilton is looking more and more like an everyday leadoff man.
Not that he’s stopped doing the sorts of things that we were all so excited about during Spring Training of course; We’ve seen him create runs out of nothing, most famously turning an otherwise routine Jay Bruce pop fly into an RBI against St. Louis (much to my anti-Cardinals glee) earlier this month. He’s robbing hits in the outfield seemingly every other day, Mike Olt and Andrelton Simmons being among his most recent victims. Then there’s the stolen bases (though he does lead the NL in caught stealing currently with 5**). He even hit his first home run of his major league career off of Jeff Samardzija on Tuesday night, much to the pitcher’s surprise:
As you can see, it wasn’t your garden variety wall-scraper, aided by the friendly home confines of great American Ball Park, or even a hooked line drive that squeaked inside the foul pole. Nope, Hamilton’s shot went 397 feet deep into the right field bleachers***, and was the highlight of perhaps his best night in a Reds uniform to date; the 23-year-old produced his third three-hit game of the season, adding two infield singles to his debut jack, scored twice, was on base all five times, stole a base, and robbed Olt. Shrugging off three separate rain delays, he pretty much singlehandedly willed Cincinnati to a 3-2 win, kicking off a home stand by snapping the team’s three-game losing streak.
It was like catnip for Cincinnati fans – Billy Hamilton at his very finest, his dynamic play sparking the Reds’ stale offense (don’t get me started on Brandon Phillips) to victory – and a more than encouraging sign for his future.
While I’m sure it has been a more than interesting first month following The Billy Hamilton Experience as a casual observer from afar, it’s been little less than a rollercoaster ride for those of us invested in his, and thus Cincinnati’s, success. From the preseason peak, to the small sample size valley, at the close of April the ride thankfully looks to be leveling out at a reasonably comfortable level.
Bring on May.
* Thankfully I only fall into the former group – who the heck knows what I might have done had I actually owned Hamilton on any of my roto teams too.
** Billy ‘Freakin Hamilton! Caught stealing! 5 times! Whaaaat?!
*** It was also the first Cincinnati home run in seven games, covering 251 at-bats and 283 plate appearances, and only the second long ball Samardzija had allowed all season (Chase Utley hit the other).
After leading the National League in batting average (.269), runs scored (783), and shattering the record for the highest RISP mark of all time* during the 2013 regular season, then finally upgrading from offensive black hole Pete Kozma to Jhonny Peralta at shortstop while simultaneously shuffling their defense to fit in even more bats over the winter, perhaps we expected too much of the St. Louis offense headed into the 2014 season. But my goodness have the Cards been woeful on that side of the ball thus far; in scoring just 3.41 runs per game, the team ranks 14th among Senior Circuit clubs, propped up only by the anemic San Diego Padres. After collectively hitting like prime-Miguel Cabrera with RISP last year too, the Redbirds are batting just .221/.290/.299 with a 69 OPS+ in such situations this year, and have left 196 men on base – tied with Arizona for the 2nd worst mark among NL teams. Presumed to be the division’s powerhouse squad, Mike Matheny‘s men already trail the upstart Milwaukee Brewers by 5.5 games in the NL Central.
All of which contributed to the Cardinals’ recent roster moves; after Sunday’s win it was announced that second baseman (and my preseason focus) Kolten Wong and outfielder Shane Robinson would be optioned back to Triple-A Memphis, the pair to be replaced on the 25-man roster by rookie infielder Greg Garcia and outfield prospect Randal Grichuk. Primarily done in order to spark their offense, such a roster shakeup may well effect the St. Louis lineup far beyond the standard promotion/demotion.
The decision to send down Wong seems slightly puzzling in spite of his slow start. After struggling during his first big-league stint – he hit .153/.194/.169 in a very sparsely-distributed 59 at-bats – and infamously being picked off at first base in the World Series, the 23-year- old was again scuffling, batting just .225/.276/.268 and losing playing time to Mark Ellis and Daniel Descalso before his demotion. But neither Ellis (.160/.267/.160) nor Descalso (.097/.152/.161) have hit a lick so far, which in addition to Wong being not the only everyday starter currently struggling, makes the move a little more fishy. Team GM John Mozeliak has cited the need to restore the former first round pick’s confidence with everyday at-bats in a less-pressured environment as the main factor in his decision to send down the rookie, but this marks the second time in which Matheny has pulled the plug on Wong playing daily at the keystone because of a slow start. His infield replacement Garcia meanwhile, though off to a thumping start at Memphis (he carries a .277/.366/.554 line to the majors), has troublingly never hit with as much power as he’s demonstrated so far this season, meaning that barring his aberration somehow continuing, he’ll likely see little meaningful time before being returned to Triple-A duty. Perhaps then, it will be third time lucky for Wong.
Where things get more interesting however, is the demotion of Robinson. There’s little actually to say in regards to Robinson himself – he was carried on the club as a fifth outfielder and had two hits in 20 at-bats, but with Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos also vying for time in center field and one option year remaining, he was likely an easy choice to become the odd man out. Grichuk on the other hand, is an intriguing figure. Acquired in the deal which sent David Freese to Los Angeles this past winter, the 22-year-old responded well to a change in organization, and was hitting .310/.359/.529 so far at Triple-A Memphis, with six walks and 17 strikeouts in 87 at-bats. Selected one pick ahead of Mike Trout in the 2009 amateur draft, the 6-1, 195 pound right-hander should bring a much-needed power injection to Busch Stadium, along with the capability to play all three outfield positions well on defense.
Most significantly was how was Grichuk was selected ahead of bigger-name peers for promotion, skipping ahead of higher-touted outfield prospects Stephen Piscotty and Oscar Taveras to be first in making it to the majors**. That he leapfrogged both despite being a lesser prospect suggests that this is merely a short-term solution; the Cards don’t want to burn the service time of either Piscotty or Taveras (who is still battling ankle injuries too), when they would only likely find themselves in a positional timeshare. While I’m sure the organization like Grichuk, his likely future as a fourth outfielder/impact bench bat makes risking his development a more palatable option that wasting studs like Taveras on the bench – an opinion seconded by Craig Edwards on the Viva el Birdos blog: ” Grichuk is a solid prospect, but not expected to be an impact player at the major league level absent more development… promoting Grichuk for limited at bats makes the most sense when trying to balance the short and long term needs of the St. Louis Cardinals.”
His addition might bring a further wrinkle to the St. Louis lineup. If Matheny and Mozeliak believe tat Allen Craig‘s slow start (he’s hitting .190/.248/.280, with just 5 extra base hits) is intrinsically tied to his move to the more physically demanding right field, with Grichuk available to fill that position occasionally, Matt Adams‘ job security at first just took a hit. Adams has been solid in hitting for average this ear, but his power – his best tool – has gone walkabout (I propose that it’s tied to his looking to hit against the shift so often). If the Cardinals want to invigorate Craig back at first, Adams might well find himself limited to pinch-hitting duty, much like last year. The promotion of Grichuk is not just insurance for the struggling Bourjos and Jay in center field then, but may indeed factor into who’s playing first base too.
As put by St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, “We’ve been thinking about or contemplating this for some time in the sense of when you look at how we were playing and what we were doing, there’s just no silver bullet to make a quick fix because frankly, our everyday lineup has to produce.” The Cardinals are still in a strong position. That they are able to make such aggressive changes and tinker with their lineup so much is a testament to their incredible organizational depth – this isn’t like a Houston club that throw everything against the wall hoping someone surprises them by sticking. But these are moves of concern; things haven’t gone as planned in St. Louis so far. Perhaps Mozeliak and co. expected too much too.
* The Cardinals’ average of .330 (part of a crazy .330/.402/.463, 139 OPS+ RISP line), eviscerated the previous record of .311 set by Detroit in 2007. No other team hit above .282.
** Joey Butler actually had the best line in Triple-A this season of the outfielders, currently hitting .403/.519/.597 in Memphis, but can’t play center field.
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.”
A hot topic ever since his one-man assault on Kyle Kendrick and the boo-birds of Philadelphia just over a week ago, what to expect from Ryan Braun in 2014 is a true quandary for the fantasy baseball community, and one which shows no signs of being answered soon. The volatile combination of sensational past performance, a lingering injury, and his return from a 65-game PED suspension that ended his 2013 have all contributed to make the 30-year-old Braun one of the most intriguing names out there in fantasy circles this year – and an absolutely infuriating player to own (I should know – more on that later). Consider this then, frustrated owners, your Braun-primer, recapping what there is to know about Braun’s current situation, and (hopefully) helping in answering that nagging question; just what the heck do you do with Ryan Braun?!
Let’s start with some history. Pre-2013 – whether artificially aided or not – Braun was one of the most dependable first-round selections around, averaging a .312-34-109-22-105 line in his first full five seasons in the majors (2008-12), twice securing a top-3 finish on ESPN’s Player Rater. Furthermore, he played 150 games or more in every one of those five seasons – a necessary component to being a true fantasy stud.
2013 however, drastically altered the perception of Braun (in more ways than one); a thumb injury landed him on the DL for the first time in his career, and would eventually cost him 38 of the first 97 games of the Brewers’ season. Then came the unexpected hammer blow to owners everywhere – the season-ending suspension which ensured the righty slugger a final finish of 369th overall on the aforementioned Player Rater (89th among outfielders). Typically drafted third overall behind only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera, there was perhaps no bigger bust than Braun (though the injury-plagued Matt Kemp and his 388th place Player Rater finish might have run him close).
The concerns over his thumb (and the presumably lost effect of the PEDs – a factor I personally never bought into*) led to his stock dropping over the winter, with many critics doubting his previously unparalleled combination of hit-for-average, hit-for-power and base-stealing ability to still be fully present. A solid spring (he launched three home runs and had a .806 slugging percentage in 16 Cactus League games), eased doubt though, the Hebrew Hammer eventually securing an average draft position of 15.3 – his ADP only .1 behind 5th-ranked outfielder Adam Jones, and considerably higher than the previously mentioned Kemp (72.0).
Which brings us to the present. Milwaukee’s no.3 hitter is currently rocking a .269-3-10-2-9 line, good for a 6.43 value and 25th place ranking on the early Player Rater; no great shakes then, the consensus second-rounder performing slightly below expected, but superficially at least (and especially when considering how young the season is – Alexei Ramirez, Dee Gordon, and Charlie Blackmon are ranked in the top 5 two weeks in) far from a disaster. The real trouble though – and the cause of the Braun dilemma – comes when you look beyond the simple 5×5 stats.
According to MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy, the same thumb injury that so affected his pre-suspension playing time last year (numbness in the thumb that affects his grip and in turn leads to blisters), is back. The different tactics employed by Braun and the Brewers’ medical staff (per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, padding on the bat or in his batting glove), haven’t apparently worked; his trouble not just swinging the bat effectively, but throwing the ball without issue had already kept him out of one game before it was earlier announced he would be rested for today’s tilt against the Cardinals. Throw in his slow start to0 – aside from that Philadelphia game, the Milwaukee man’s fantasy line would be just .234-0-3-2-6 – and there are very legitimate reasons for Braun owners to be worried about their investment.
Now if it weren’t for the thumb, I wouldn’t be so worried about Braun’s slow start – we’re two weeks in remember, and with a potent Milwaukee offense around him (Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have been particularly great so far) the counting stats would almost certainly come around. But the lingering effect of that ailment, aside from likely cutting into his offensive output, will almost certainly also effect the newly-converted left fielder’s playing time – much like in 2013 – and thus dent his overall production. What with his problem sounding like a classic sort of daily-maintenance and eventual surgery injury too, the occasional off days, designated-hitter games, and likely DL stint will make Braun a fantasy nightmare for those in weekly leagues, and someone whose everyday availability will require constant surveillance in daily leagues.
It’s unclear then, whether Braun is worth the hassle. On the one hand, he might find a solid management option, play most-everyday, and provide tremendous statistical worth. More likely, at least in my opinion – I traded Braun in one of my leagues this week – he’ll be in and out of the lineup, and provide merely above-average value on a per-game basis. That’s not bad by any means, but not what you paid for, and a real pain in the proverbial. I would suggest then, that if there’s any residual buzz in your league left to be exploited from that Philly outing, you swing him – but for no less than 70 cents on the dollar.
80% of Braun is still valuable after all, no matter how frustrating he is. But if you still can, let someone else ponder that annoying fantasy thought every morning: ‘I wonder what I’ll get out of Ryan Braun today…’
*I’m no doctor, but I doubt the PEDs had much actual impact on his on-field performance, ie. I find it hard to believe Braun is actually a 15 HR guy who was merely masquerading as a power hitter. More likely, the drugs allowed him to recover quicker from the niggling injuries he naturally picked up over the long 162 game season, and possibly allowed him to push through a couple of games when he would have otherwise been unable to play. Again though, I’m no doctor – just a humble English literature student.
Just stop it you detractors out there – Tony Cingrani is legit. I may be an ardent Cincinnati Reds fan, but such an opinion isn’t bias; given the amount of time he’s been doing so, it’s time to recognize the big lefty’s dominance. His performance can no longer be considered a small sample size fluke, nor merely passed off as a high-wire act. I prefer to call it effectively simple.
As noted by Mike Holian, “In 2013, Cingrani made 18 starts. Over the course of those outings, the third-round pick in the 2011 draft (did someone say absolute steal?) led the majors with 10.1 K/9 rate while allowing more than three runs in just one of those trips to the hill.” More than simply that though, the Rice product didn’t even allow more than five hits in any of those starts, let alone three runs – a mind-blowing fact considering his limited repertoire.
Three starts into 2014 then, and the streak lives on – making a little bit of history in the process: his current run of 21 starts without more than five hits allowed hasn’t been done, according to Sean Lahman, in 100 years. Not that he’s benefited from being pulled early (and no, that is not some sub-shade being thrown at old manger Dusty Baker‘s tendencies); the 24-year-old has gone at least five innings in 16 of his 21 starts, meaning opposing hitters have had plenty of chances to ‘figure out’ Cingrani. Such opportunity hasn’t benefited them in the least so far – over 127 innings, Cingrani has a 2.83 ERA and 149 strikeouts, and with every start is looking more and more like a potential ace.
So why then, do some people still consider Cincinnati’s sophomore a fluke?
Admittedly, the former college closer is rather a one-trick pony, or in Jerry Crasnick’s words, a “one-man Baskin-Robbins franchise,” but what a hell of a trick it is; last year, according to FanGraphs, he threw his fastball 81.5 percent of the time – a figure surpassed only by Bartolo Colon’s 85.5 percent among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings (for comparison’s sake, his mark would have been the 18th highest fastball percentage amongst all ML pitchers if the qualifier was limited to 10 innings). Mike Podhorzer additionally pointed out “What’s even more incredible is how Cingrani has such a strong history of high strikeout rates, yet the average fastball induces the lowest rate of swings and misses among all pitch types.” While the aforementioned Colon’s strikeout rate has sat around 14% to 15% in three of the last four seasons, Cingrani last year posted a 28.6% rate in the majors, that after putting up a ridiculous mark of 41.9% in Triple-A.
Despite knowing what’s coming then, due in part to his hiding the ball extremely effectively, and also helped by his lanky limbs and deceiving arm slot, opposing hitters have so far been unable to catch up to Cingrani* – his 93mph gas often looking more like 97 or 98. So while Cingrani does possess a 79mph slider and a 86mph changeup (and even threw a couple of cutters and curveballs last year, which are yet to be seen in 2014), he just doesn’t throw them often. No, in his words, it’s all about that four seam offering – “I don’t even think about it. I just throw it… There’s literally no thought process. It just goes. That’s all it is.”
Cingrani does apparently recognize that a quality starting pitcher will typically need a larger repertoire of serviceable pitches at his disposal than what he currently possesses – “To be the best, I say you have to have three really good pitches” – but seems to be getting by just fine anyhow in the meantime**. If those secondary offerings he’s been working on do begin to catch up however – as they looked to have done a little during his Sunday outing against the Tampa Bay Rays – then the Reds’ divisional foes best look out; while Cingrani may currently still be somewhat of a curiosity, albeit a dominant one, he could soon be a worst nightmare to face.
* Not only has he been hell on fellow southpaws, but Cingrani has also limited righties to a .193 average.
** With Mat Latos reportedly out a while longer too, the Reds will need Cingrani to continue on his current path if they’re to compete in the highly-competitive (hello Milwaukee all of a sudden!) NL Central.
Pittsburgh’s top pitching prospect reportedly first began feeling pain in his elbow with two weeks remaining in spring training having been re-assigned back to minor league camp, and was at first prescribed two weeks of rest. Upon resuming throwing activity however, further pain led to additional examinations of the joint, during which it was discovered that the prized righty had a partially torn ulner collateral ligament. Though not fully ruptured, the UCL was deemed by Dr. David Altchek to be too damaged to possibly repair and rehabilitate without going under the knife, meaning the Pirates will now be without Taillon for not only the entire 2014 season, but likely some of 2015 too.
Selected with the 2nd overall pick of the 2010 MLB amateur draft out of The Woodlands High School (Texas), the Pirates gave Taillon a then-franchise record $6.5 million signing bonus. Handled incredibly carefully during his three years in the minors, the heralded prospect progressed slowly, but deliberately – his pitch repertoire and mechanics drawing comparison to Stephen Strasburg along the way. In 2013, he split time at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis, making 25 starts (and one relief appearance) and throwing 147 1/3 innings en route to a 3.73 (and a 8.7 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9), and was due to initially resume 2014 at Triple-A Indianapolis with a view to his major league debut coming later in the season. Obviously, such a timetable has now been set aside.
Taillon’s 12-18 month absence will not only be an unfortunate bump in his promising development though, but a colossal blow to the Pittsburgh’s best laid plans, the 22-year-old’s stint on the shelf presumably leaving them a little short in quality rotation arms for 2014. With A.J. Burnett gone to Philadelphia (the circumstances of his departure remain fairly dubious – Burnett having said he would retire, only to later renege on his word), the Pirates were counting on the Canadian American’s high-90s heat being available to call up mid-season, his arrival figuring to provide a similar boost to that which Gerritt Cole provided in 2013 – a move which propelled the Bucs back into the postseason after a 20-year drought. Now however, given how unlikely it seems that they will acquire another quality arm from outside of the organization, in their push to make it back to the playoffs, the club will be extremely reliant upon Cole’s continued ascension, Francisco Liriano to remain Matthew Berry’s ‘Fantasy Kryptonite’, Edinson Volquez to be a Liriano-esque success of a reclamation project, Wandy Rodriguez‘s health, and Charlie Morton.
Given how poor my Cincinnati Reds and (barring the Cardinals) the rest of the NL Central have looked so far, Taillon’s absence might not hurt so much during the regular season; as well as the aforementioned five starters, Pittsburgh can still call upon Stolmy Pimentel, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton as alternatives, or even stretch out Jeanmar Gomez from his relief role every now and again as they work their way through the rest of the season. The playoffs however – should the Pirates make it back again – would likely be the arena in which the loss of the Taillon’s potential impact would be felt most. We saw just last year how valuable a prospect’s live arm can be in such a setting; aside from Cole in Pittsburgh, Sonny Gray was arguably Oakland’s best chance in the ALDS against Detroit, while Michael Wacha similarly provided St. Louis with some impressive postseason pitching. Losing the 10th best pitching prospect in the game (per Baseball America‘s 2014 prospect rankings) and what ESPN writer Christina Karhl called “mid-90s gas and big-breaking benders” then, will severely deplete what damage Pittsburgh once might have stood of inflicting come October.
So while the modern frequency and recovery rate of Tommy John surgery would suggest we’ll see Taillon back on the bump at some point in 2015, the present prognosis for Pittsburgh isn’t quite so sunny; with the ace up Clint Hurdle‘s sleeve rendered moot, the Pirate’s chances of playoff success just got substantially lower.