Every week throughout the season (minus last week, when I was vacationing at Safeco Field), I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 9! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (9-3 over the last fortnight, 36-19 overall) → After initially hoping they’d be able to avoid a roster move, Matt Cain was finally placed on the DL yesterday, and Yusmeiro Petit will take his turn against the Cardinals today. With Pablo Sandoval and the rest of the offense rolling, and ten consecutive games against sub-.500 teams after this series with St. Louis is complete, there’s probably no better time for the Giants to lose Cain for a stretch.
- St. Louis Cardinals (7-6, 29-26) ↑ With Matt Adams banished to the DL with a calf strain, the Redbirds finally pulled the Super-2 trigger yesterday and called up their top prospect, Oscar Taveras. The jewel of St. Louis’ loaded farm system, Taveras was batting .325 in 49 games with Memphis with seven homers and 40 RBIs, and is being counted on to provide an injection to a languishing Cardinals offense that after leading the senior circuit in darn near every metric last year, is producing just 3.93 runs per game in 2014 (10th best among NL teams). The 21-year-old Dominican will apparently bat sixth in the order, and also presumably push Allen Craig to first base while he plays in right field. The real fun however, will come when the Cards finish up their early June interleague schedule and Adams returns; someone is going to be squeezed out of playing time, a problem shared by the…
- Los Angeles Dodgers (6-7, 29-27) ↓ An awkward situation resolved itself on Wednesday when left fielder Carl Crawford was placed on the DL with a left ankle sprain. For the previous 5 days, Matt Kemp had found himself riding the pine, replaced in center field by Andre Ethier – something that apparently didn’t sit too well with the highly-paid Kemp. Crawford’s injury permitted Kemp back into the lineup, but starting in left field for the first time since his rookie year, the 29-year-old hasn’t exactly excelled since his return; he’s gone 0-13 over the last four days, and is now batting .242 with a .719 OPS on the season. Given how Don Mattingly is making noise that he might not even start Kemp today, it might be time to go out and grab Joc Pedersen in your fantasy leagues.
- Atlanta Braves (7-7, 29-25) ↑
- Milwaukee Brewers (6-7, 33-22) ↓ After racking up 13 saves with a 12.9 K/9 ratio in April, the Francisco Rodriguez revival train came off the tracks in May. Over the past 30 days, K-Rod has allowed 7 earned runs and three homers in just 11 innings pitched, his strikeout rate falling to a meager 6.5/9 in that span. Paging Jim Henderson…
- Colorado Rockies (4-7, 28-26) ↓
- Washington Nationals (4-8, 26-27) ↓ Ryan Zimmerman went 0-3 as a designated hitter in his first rehab game at Class-A Potomac yesterday, but the bigger news is where he’ll be playing today. Working his way back into the swing of things after breaking his right thumb back on April 12th, Zimmerman will be playing left field, his first experience of the outfield, as the Nationals experiment with him at positions other than third. The 29-year-old will also apparently get time at first base, which he could man for the Nationals while Adam LaRoche remains on the DL.
- Miami Marlins (6-5, 28-26) → In some much-needed good injury news, right-hander Henderson Alvarez has been cleared to pitch Tuesday after complaining of a sore elbow in his most recent start. The last thing the Marlins need is another promising starter following Jose Fernandez to the operating table.
- New York Mets (6-7, 25-29) ↑ Rafael Montero has been demoted, clearing the way for Daisuke Matsuzaka to start next Wednesday. I would argue, but the Mets have 35 quality starts this season, the third-highest mark in the majors. They must be doing something right.
- Cincinnati Reds (5-8, 24-29) ↓ With a team OPS of .673 for the season, the Cincinnati offense is officially floundering. Jay Bruce is back, but has done little, scratching his way to a .111/.111/.148 triple slash line since making his return. Perhaps worse, he’s now being out-slugged by Billy Hamilton. Only two members of the Reds starting lineup, Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco rank above league average by OPS+. Joey Votto, the only other Red who can claim such a title, is eligible to come off the DL today, but unfortunately doesn’t yet appear ready to return. Thank goodness for Mike Leake, Johnny Cueto, and the rest of the excellent starting pitching, a staff should be further boosted by the imminent return of Mat Latos. Without them, my Reds would be dead and buried already.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (8-6, 25-29) ↑
- Philadelphia Phillies (7-6, 24-28) ↑ Ruben Amaro remains a contentious figure at best, but it appears he at least got something right – keeping Chase Utley. After receiving a lucrative contract extension in the midst of a successful streak last summer, the 35-year-old has continued his hot-hitting ways in 2014, batting .323/.379/.525 so far. At the keystone, that’s incredible production, and well worth the $15 million the Phillies have invested in him this season. Whether he can avoid injury and keep it up for the remaining length of the contract however, well into his late thirties, remains the funkier angle of Amaro’s logic.
- San Diego Padres (5-7, 25-30) ↓
- Arizona Diamondbacks (5-6, 23-34) → Believe it or not, the D’Backs have actually been relatively respectable in May, going 14-12 over the past month. Arizona’s pitching remains a mess, but with Aaron Hill supporting Paul Goldschmidt nicely, their offense isn’t half the train wreck. They travel to Coors Field this week, so expect the trend of horrific pitching, good hitting to continue.
- Chicago Cubs (6-6, 19-33) → Going into Thursday’s game, Kris Bryant was batting .349 with 15 home runs and 44 RBIs for the Tennessee Smokies, with a .452 OBP (he’s added another home run since, obviously) .Accordingly, he was bumped up to no. 8 in Keith Law’s most recent prospect rankings, leapfrogging fellow Cubs prospect Javier Baez, who checked in at no. 9. The first round selection of the Cubs last year, Bryant has destroyed Southern League pitching to such an extent that a promotion to Triple-A can’t be far away, which will hopefully serve as a prelude to a September cup of coffee in the big leagues. Until then though, it’s another dull losing season at Wrigley.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 9!
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.
While Spring Training lingers on for the next three weeks or so, I’ll every now and then be interspersing my usual content with award predictions for the 2014 season. Today marks the first such instance of my forecasting, as I plump for a relative outsider in the National League ROY race.
Boy was 2013 a doozy of a year for exciting rookies joining the Senior Circuit; in terms of hitters there was the indomitable Yasiel Puig, overshadowing key contributors such as Jed Gyorko and Nolan Arenado, whereas on the pitching side of things, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Gerrit Cole all built strong enough cases to claim the award in any other year but for one including the dominant eventual winner – the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez. The 2014 class too, looks like a heated debate waiting to happen; aside from the (currently-blocked) future stars Archie Bradley and Oscar Taveras, names such as Billy Hamilton, Kolten Wong, Kris Bryant, Chris Owings, even Eddie Butler, are waiting in the wings themselves ready to break out. Somewhere in the middle of those two echelons though, is my favorite – the New York Mets’ top prospect, Noah Syndergaard.
Packaged to New York alongside catcher Travis d’Arnaud in exchange for R.A. Dickey prior to the 2013 season, the 6’6 righty simply destroyed the minors in his first year as a member of the Mets organization. Behind – as Baseball Prospectus so aptly put it – “his ungodly K/BB numbers” (he struck out 133 batters in 117.2 innings, walking just 28 along the way), Syndergaard blazed through a season in which he spent time at Single-A, but ultimately finished at Double-A Binghamton. With a “plus-plus fastball that he can throw to a teacup” (H/T to BP again) that regularly flirted with triple digits, a curveball that manager Terry Collins has already dubbed the “hook from hell”, and a potentially plus change up too, the Texas native oozes ace potential – something that has not gone amiss so far this spring.
When Baseball Prospectus wrote “He could probably do a decent Matt Harvey impression at the major-league level right now,” even after his supreme 2013 showing, I was skeptical; the 21 year old hadn’t thrown a single pitch in Triple-A after all. Then came Monday, and his Spring Training debut, after which I quickly changed my mind. In his first Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves, Syndergaard demonstrated exactly why Mets fans are dreaming of a time in the near future in which he, Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler will all simultaneously occupy the same rotation. He pitched two innings of scoreless ball, striking out both Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis with 98mph fastballs, giving up a solitary single to Ryan Doumit, and generally looked at ease against big-league opposition. When Terry Collins said afterwards “he’s on track to be special,” he wasn’t wrong – Syndergaard is going to be great. When the Mets allow him to be so however, is the question crucial to his ROY case.
The timetable for Syndergaard’s arrival will presumably be much akin to the paths taken by Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler to The Show; both were delayed somewhat by the Mets’ willingness to delay the inevitable ticking of their respective service time clocks, and were brought up only once their addition wouldn’t cause further financial damage to a low-payroll squad rocked by the Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme scandal. With Jonathon Niese, Bartolo Colon, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, and Jenrry Mejia all healthy so far – the likelihood of Syndergaard being taken back north at the end of the month would appear to be slim; he’d instead spend until late June or even July at Triple-A Las Vegas waiting for his Super-2 eligibility to expire, and spend only a half-season in the majors. Typically, that’s not going to be long enough to stake a legitimate ROY case, no matter how good you are.
However, the reports of Mets GM Sandy Alderson’s internal staff meeting might have ramifications that would see their top prospect arrive sooner rather than later; as John Harper of the Daily News pointed out, “if Alderson really thinks this team is capable of winning 90 games, Syndergaard should be up here sometime in May.” With news of his demands now public, Alderson to some extent owes it to Terry Collins (and the fans too for that matter) to provide him with the best roster possible – a prospective 25-man unit which would easily include Syndergaard. And if he is to crack the rotation early (Collins has said it “conceivable” that the 2010 draft pick makes it straight from Spring), Syndergaard’s case for ROY may well be comparable to Fernandez’s 2013 offering in terms of results.
Though it may seem that I’m banking on the aforementioned Taveras and Bradley encountering similar issues in regard to their service clocks in building my case for Syndergaard, I equally believe in the power righty’s potential. Though he may not spend the year in the majors, I’m all-aboard the hype wagon after the rave reviews he has so far drawn from teammates, managers, and opposition alike this Spring. That, and the fact that Mets fans sorely need a Matt Harvey-like feel-good story replacement to root for this year, is why I’m picking Noah Syndergaard as my 2014 National League Rookie of the Year.