Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 10! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (4-2 last week, 40-21 overall) → As Buster Olney proffered on the Baseball Tonight podcast earliest this week, the Giants are official ridiculous. At 40-21 overall, they’re on pace for a 106-win season, and unsurprisingly have the best playoff odds of any NL team (95.7%). And while they’ve largely done it with pitching (they rank 3rd amongst all ML teams in ERA and BAA, and second in WHIP), their offense has kicked it up a notch of late too. Pablo Sandoval, who was hitting .171 heading into a May 10th game against the Dodgers, has been on fire ever since, batting .340 with six homers and a .932 OPS in a 105 plate appearance sample size. Buster Posey meanwhile, looks to be finally getting back to his MVP-level usual at the dish; his two-run homer (his eighth of the year) off reliever Carlos Torres broke a 2-2 tie in the eighth inning yesterday, not only gave the Giants the lead for good, but extended his hitting streak to five games and concluded his second three-hit effort in less than a week. Every single everyday player in fact, now has an OPS+ over 100 (league average). The moral as always: beware the Bay in an even-numbered year.
- Washington Nationals (5-1, 31-28) ↑ Doug Fister‘s stats in the five games he has started since his disastrous Nationals debut: 32.1 innings pitched, 25 hits allowed, 2 walks permitted, opposing batters line of .212/.236/.347, 2.23 era, 5-0 record. Hold on, I’m busy getting flashbacks of my feelings circa 2010 about the robbery of Pau Gasol by the Lakers. What a steal.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (3-3, 32-30) → Jonah Keri did a fantastic job yesterday breaking down the Matt Kemp quandary, and the Dodger’s unenviable outfield problem: in Keri’s words, “They have four outfielders making too much to sit on the bench, and, despite the seemingly impossible math, Kemp is the fifth-best option.” And that doesn’t even factor in the team’s top prospect, Joc Pederson, who is raking at Triple-A at the moment and would immediately be their best defensive center fielder if he were to be called up to the majors. The Giants are now 8 games ahead in the NL West by the way.
- Atlanta Braves (3-2, 32-27) → Congratulations to Craig Kimbrel, who at the tender age of 26, yesterday surpassed John Smoltz as the Braves’ all-time leader in saves, notching no. 155 in a 5-2 win over Arizona. Since debuting in 2010, his 43.1% strikeout rate leads all relievers, as does his 1.41 ERA. During that span, he’s been worth 10.3 WAR (the next highest is Greg Holland at 8.4), and blown just 17 save opportunities. Without question, the best closer in baseball.
- Milwaukee Brewers (3-4, 36-26) →
- St. Louis Cardinals (2-4, 31-31) ↓
- Miami Marlins (4-3, 32-29) ↑
- Colorado Rockies (0-6, 28-32) ↓ Did I, or did I not say regarding Eddie Butler‘s debut, “He’ll be going up against Hyun-Jin Ryu and the Dodgers when he makes his debut at Coors Field on Friday, so perhaps don’t rush out to add him in your fantasy leagues just yet.” 5.1 Innings, 13 base runners, and 6 earned runs later, you can’t say you weren’t warned. The Rockies are in the mire right now, and looking at their upcoming schedule (they’re facing Greinke and Kershaw this weekend, before series vs. Atlanta, at San Francisco, at L.A., vs. MIL, vs. STL, at MIL, at WASH, vs L.A.) there’s not much relief on the horizon. Oh well, Colorado: Contenders, was fun while it lasted.
- New York Mets (3-4, 28-33) →
- Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2, 29-31) ↑ Cannonball coming! Since losing the first game of a doubleheader to the Yankees back on May 18th, the Bucs have walked away victorious in 12 of their last 18 outings. Josh Harrison has been a minor revelation in that time, batting .325/.366.519 while playing some nice defense out in right field, putting some pressure on Starling Marte out in left. Though an excellent defender, Marte has batted just .234 with a .665 OPS this year, and has been banished to the bench by Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle for the Pirates’ last three games. With Gregory Polanco presumably on the way in the very near future, could it in fact be Marte most at risk of losing playing time? Just two games behind the Cardinals for second place in the NL Central, and with an extremely favorable schedule over the next month, the Pirates have a real chance to make a push for the postseason at the moment. Playing their best guys would be a good idea (#FreePolanco!).
- Cincinnati Reds (3-3, 27-32) ↓ I’d have laid big money on Johnny Cueto notching another shutout against the hapless Phillies offense yesterday. Instead, it was the Reds who were anemic on O, and Cueto gave up four runs on six hits, walking one and striking out five over five innings in the 8-0 loss. Can we tie this Cincinnati season in a bag, weight it down, and toss it overboard yet? Please?
- San Diego Padres (2-4, 27-34) →
- Philadelphia Phillies (1-6, 25-34) → As much as I like Aaron Nola as a pitching prospect, I’m still struggling to figure out why the Phillies popped him at no. 7 overall in the 2014 Amateur Draft. The LSU junior projects to have one of the quickest progressions to the majors, á la Michael Wacha, which would make sense if the Phillies were in the pennant race this year and needed immediate back-end rotation help, or expected to contend in 2015. Unfortunately, Philadelphia are neither, and having gone 5-12 in their last 17 games, are in imminent danger of being surpassed by the Diamondbacks in these rankings.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 26-37) →
- Chicago Cubs (5-1, 24-34) → After the selection of Kyle Schwarber, a catcher at Indiana, but likely left fielder or first baseman in the majors, as the no. 4 overall pick on Thursday, a trade of some of the Cubs’ ultra-stocked position player crop for some young pitching talent (or perhaps, David Price) has to be on the horizon right?
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 10!
Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 7! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (4-3 last week, 27-16 overall) → Bruce Bochy‘s gang continue to quietly roll on atop the NL West, but the injury bug that they had mostly evaded for the first 6 weeks of the season has begun to bite; after losing Brandon Belt for six weeks after he underwent surgery to repair his fractured thumb, Tim Hudson missed his Friday start against the Marlins with a strained hip.The 38-year-old should be back in time for his next start, but probably won’t be too miffed if he’s held out again – he’ll otherwise be taking on the Rockies at Coors Field.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (4-2, 23-20) → Yasiel Puig so far in May: 67 plate appearances, .421/.507/.772 triple slash line, 10 walks, 12 strikeouts, and five home runs. The wild horse is loose, and bat-flipping like his life depended upon it.
- Milwaukee Brewers (5-1, 27-15) ↑ In his 152 plate appearances this year, Khris Davis has 3 walks, good (bad?) for a 2.0 BB%. In his 152 plate appearances this year, Khris Davis has 42 strikeouts, good (bad?) for a 27.6 K%. And yet by OPS+ (he has a disgusting mark of 73, 13th worst among Senior Circuit qualifiers) the artist formerly known as Khrush is by far Milwaukee’s best option to play left field. Dear Lord do the Brewers need a outfield bench upgrade from the pitiful trio of Logan Schafer, Elian Herrera and Kaleb Gindl.
- Colorado Rockies (2-3, 24-19) ↓
- Washington Nationals (3-3, 22-19) → Doug Fister‘s second start as a National went a lot better than his first, as he allowed just five hits over seven innings, striking out six and walking none, in Wednesday’s win. Then again, he was only facing the Diamondbacks.
- St. Louis Cardinals (4-2, 22-20) → After playing 26 of the first 38 games on the road, the Redbirds returned home to Busch Stadium on Monday and were promptly hammered 17-5 by the Cubs. They’ve won 3 straight since though, and remain the sleeping giants of the NL in my eyes. With Trevor Rosenthal struggling in the closer role of late, keep an eye on Jason Motte‘s imminent return in your fantasy leagues.
- Atlanta Braves (3-3, 22-18) ↑ The Braves released renderings for their new $672 million stadium in Cobb County this week. In other news, aside from Freddie Freeman and his dancing, Atlanta’s offense still stinks.
- Miami Marlins (2-4, 22-21) ↓ I’m still not ready to write about how I feel regarding Jose Fernandez‘s Tommy John surgery, but thankfully Bill Barnwell has moved on already. In his Friday post for Grantland, Barnwell astutely illustrated how Fernandez was the perfect prototype for aggressively calling up stud young pitchers – demonstrating how he was basically the same guy in High-A ball as he was in the major leagues. By promoting him straight from Class-A ball however, the Marlins extracted over 200 innings of Cy Young worthy pitching from Fernandez before his injury, while fellow heralded prospects Dylan Bundy and Jameson Taillon lingered in the minors before blowing out their arms. A great piece, and an interesting future strategy, though being labeling Fernandez a prototype rather than a cautionary tale does little to soften the blow of losing the most exciting pitcher in the game.
- Cincinnati Reds (3-3, 19-21) → I hate to think about where the Reds would be this year without Johnny Cueto; with Mat Latos yet to make a start, Homer Bailey scuffling, and Tony Cingrani ineffective, not to mention an offense already without Jay Bruce and perhaps now Joey Votto too, Cueto has been carrying Cincinnati almost single-handedly thus far in 2014. This week apparently, everyone else aside from Reds fans like me also caught on to how good he has been; amongst many other pieces, the Dominican Republic native was most notably given the spotlight treatment from Dave Schoenfield on the ESPN Sweetspot blog, and the subject of a brilliant PitchCraft feature from Shane Ryan on Grantland. Sam and Ben on the Effectively Wild Podcast too, noted how Cueto’s ERA+ since 2011 is second only to Clayton Kershaw amongst all qualified starters during that time. Knowing Cincinnati’s (lack of) injury luck this season though (the Reds are second only to the Rangers in DL assignments thus far), he’ll be down within the next week now.
- San Diego Padres (4-2, 20-23) ↑ With Carlos Quentin back from injury, the battle for outfield playing time is officially on. Considering how Seth Smith‘s recent tear will likely grant him a corner spot, that leaves 2 positions to be filled by either Quentin, Will Venable, Chris Denorfia, or Cameron Maybin. With the Padres ranking last among all teams in the majors in batting average (.219), on base percentage (.274), and slugging percentage (.342), you would have to think manager Bud Black will prioritize offense when filling out his lineup card.
- New York Mets (3-4, 19-22) ↓ Both Rafael Montero and Jacob deGrom were more than solid in their big league debuts on the mound this week, limiting the Yankees to just four runs in 13 innings between them. They received absolutely zero run support though, the offense behind them tallying only 7 cumulative hits in those two games. deGrom however, did finally end the Mets pitchers’ streak of futility at the plate – the group are now 1-66 on the season.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (2-3, 17-23) ↓ Jason Grilli reckons he’s ready to return from the DL, and wants to step straight back in as closer. He probably will too given Mark Melancon‘s performance on Thursday; the 29-year-old failed to record an out, and allowed two hits and two walks en route to his second blown save in seven opportunities, bringing the Pirates’ blown save total to 10 already this season. After nailing down 55 of their 70 opportunities last year, Pittsburgh are currently on pace for the most blown saves ever, a record currently held by the 2004 Colorado Rockies (34).
- Philadelphia Phillies (1-4, 17-22) ↓
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 16-28) → Jonah Keri made the point here somewhat, but when will the Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks accept their fate and start to sell off some of their few desirable players?
- Chicago Cubs (1-5, 13-27) → As good as he’s been so far this year, if the Cubs could get Jon Gray for Jeff Samardzija, as proposed by Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post here, they should pull the trigger in a millisecond. Sounds pretty darn unlikely though.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 7!
Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 6! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- San Francisco Giants (5-2 last week, 23-13 overall) ↑ I’ll leave this one to Tom the Intern.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (2-5, 19-18) ↑ Though the Giants may own them (they’re 2-6 against their NL West rivals this year, after going 8-11 in 2013), and they’re currently behind the Rockies, I’ve a lot of faith in the Dodgers eventually winning their division. Not exactly a bold prediction I know, it’s the freakin’ Dodgers and their immensely deep pockets after all, but I can’t imagine their listless play continuing much longer – especially considering how they’ve now got Clayton Kershaw back. Their lefty ace went seven innings strong in his return on Tuesday, striking out nine Nationals while throwing only 89 pitches, providing some welcome relief for an exhausted bullpen that began the day leading the majors in innings pitched. In other news, Yasiel Puig is still being Yasiel Puig, and it’s glorious.
- Colorado Rockies (4-3, 22-16) ↑ The Rockies are scoring 1.27 more runs per game than anyone else in the National League, and rank first in all of baseball in average (.303), on base percentage (.351), and slugging percentage (.499). Troy Tulowitzki meanwhile, has a 228 OPS+, has already amassed 3.9 WAR in just 35 games, and a heat map that Jonak Keri described as “a nuclear blast that’s threatening to wipe out Western civilization.” With so many crazy offensive stats to keep track of, perhaps it’s a good thing Nolan Arenado had his hit streak ended on Friday night.
- Miami Marlins (5-1, 20-17) ↑ After winning five straight, and nine of their last ten heading into Fridays game against the Padres, it was of great surprise that having sent staff ace Jose Fernandez to the mound the Marlins were crushed 10-1. Of course, this whole Miami season has been a surprise so far – who saw Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGehee and Derek Dietrich being valuable offensive contributors, or Tom Koehler being the top performer in a rotation containing the aforementioned Fernandez, Nathan Eovaldi, and Henderson Alvarez? You would have to think the wheels will fall off this week, with a trip out West to face the Dodgers and Giants on the slate, but these ain’t your normal Marlins anymore.
- Washington Nationals (2-4, 19-16) → Doug Fister finally made his debut against Oakland yesterday, but got shelled for 9 hits and five earned runs in just 4.1 innings as the Nats dropped the first meet of their three-game interleague series. Things will presumably get a little easier in the nation’s capital over the next even days – Washington have favorable matchups against Arizona and the Mets on the docket – but their season is beginning to feel a little 2013-ish; full of injury, unfulfilled promise, and eventual disappointment. New manager Matt Williams seems to have a cool head on his shoulders at least.
- St. Louis Cardinals (3-3, 18-18) →
- Milwaukee Brewers (1-5, 22-14) ↓ They might only be one game out of leading the entire Senior Circuit in record, but boy have things come back down to earth quickly in Milwaukee. Without Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew’s on-field performance has quickly regressed (since losing the Hebrew Hammer, they’re 4-8), each passing day he spends on the DL the club looking more and more like the average team their pythagorean win/loss expectation dictates. Thankfully for Milwaukee fans, Braun is due to return on Tuesday – whether he can singly lift them back to their lofty April perch however, remains dubious.
- Atlanta Braves (2-4, 19-15) ↓ Yes, the Braves have gone 2-8 over their last ten, but their schedule was brutal – a trip to Miami, followed by series against San Francisco and St. Louis at home? No thank you. What that ugly stretch did do was establish that the Braves are in a very similar position to that of the last two years; they’re a good team, but not a great one, and can certainly be pitched too. Predictably, the second base position has become a black hole offensively, with Dan Uggla‘s already tiny offensive value (his occasional power, and ability to draw a walk), completely falling off a cliff thus far in 2014, and Ramiro Pena and Tyler Pastornicky little better in relief. How soon will it be until Tommy La Stella‘s phone rings?
- Cincinnati Reds (3-2, 16-18) ↓ Literally hours after the discussion that he was too passive was rekindled (He has a .409 OBP thus far, but only a .262 average), Joey Votto belted a huge leadoff home run (437 feet apparently) on a 3-0 fastball from Boone Logan to lift Cincinnati to their second straight win over the Rockies. With Jay Bruce out for a month recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, the Reds will need their leader more than ever to carry them on offense if they’re to remain competitive in the NL Central; to wit, batting ahead of Votto yesterday were Skip Schumaker, Bryan Pena, and Brandon Philips – not exactly the ’27 Yankees. But hey, at least Todd Frazier has the longest home run of 2014 now, so there’s that at least.
- New York Mets (1-5, 16-18) ↓ Is it time to worry about David Wright? He’s generally been one of the most valuable players in the league when healthy, but in his age-31 season (in which he’s making a cool $20 million), he’s only been marginally better than average (he has a 103 OPS+, and 0.3 WAR value thus far). With only 1 home run, and an uncharacteristic .362 slugging mark, his power looks to have evaporated in the early going. Maybe he’s simply just injured, again, but the decline of their captain is not an encouraging line of thought for Mets fans to pursue.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2, 15-20) ↑
- Philadelphia Phillies (3-4, 16-18) ↓ A.J Burnett had been utterly fantastic through his first seven starts as a Phillie, boasting a 2.06 ERA with his hernia and all. He’d been so good in fact, I even was beginning to come round on Ruben Amaro‘s incredulous decision to hand him such a large contract considering Philadelphia wouldn’t be contending. Naturally, he got blown up by the Blue Jays for six earned runs in his next start, and for hours afterwards I cursed myself for being even partially complementary of Amaro’s management.
- San Diego Padres (3-4, 16-21) → If he keeps up his current pace, Everth Cabrera is one day going to be a fascinating case study concerning the effects of PEDs on a person’s eyesight; after walking at a 9.5% clip between 2009-2013, then subsequently being busted, the 27-year-old shortstop has only drawn five free passes so far this season, good (bad?) for a 3.2% BB rate. Not-so-coincidentally, he’s only on pace for 39 stolen bases this season, after an per-162-game average of 89.5 the prior two campaigns. If I had some knowledge of Biology, I’d be heading the study, I swear.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-3, 13-25) ↑
- Chicago Cubs (2-5, 12-22) ↓ The Cubbies may have dropped 3 of 4 to their crosstown rival White Sox last week, but at least the Wrigley faithful had the pleasure of ESPN broadcasters Dan Shulman and John Kruk singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch while broadcasting from the bleachers on Sunday night.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 6!
Every week throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. First up, it’s the NL. It’s The Senior Class – Week 4! (All records correct as of Saturday morning).
- Atlanta Braves (4-2 last week, 15-7 overall) → The Atlanta rotation continues to amaze, and will only be getting stronger this week when Mike Minor returns. Minor will likely supplant David Hale, who owns the highest ERA of the starting crew (2.93), but his status as the team’s top lefty might well be in danger; fellow southpaw Alex Wood looked like Chris Sale on Tuesday, allowing only four hits and one run with no walks and a career-high 11 strikeouts in eight innings against the Marlins. Jose Fernandez however, was somehow even better, saddling Wood with the tough-luck loss. In other news, B.J. Upton wore prescription glasses for the first time in his major-league career on Friday, and noted an improvement in his vision. Perhaps the benefit of some visual clarity will help him boost his horrific .207/.286/.293 season line and ignite the Braves offense.
- Milwaukee Brewers (5-1, 17-6) ↑ The Brew Crew rolled against a weak schedule last week, beating up on the lowly Pirates, Padres, and Cubs, and now have a 4.5 game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central lead. Even if they regress to the .500 form that many predicted for them before the season, the wins they’ve banked already will mean they’ll end up with a 86.5-win season; that wouldn’t have been enough for a Wild-Card berth last year, but Milwaukee are showing no signs of slowing down – Baseball Prospectus‘ Effectively Wild podcast with Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh did an excellent job of breaking down how the Brewers have the most improved playoff odds since the start of the year. Francisco Rodriguez by the way, who was only meant to be covering for Jim Henderson as closer for the first few games, may now have locked down the ninth-inning job; K-Rod now has 10 saves and hasn’t allowed a run in his 13 innings, striking out 20 in the process.
- St. Louis Cardinals (2-4, 13-11) ↓
- Los Angeles Dodgers (2-4, 13-11) ↓
- San Francisco Giants (3-3, 13-10) → After missing a great portion of 2013 with a particularly bad hamstring injury, the rerun of Angel Pagan has been huge to the Giants thus far. Batting .337 atop the lineup, along with the production of fellow outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Morse (who has 4 HRs in the last week), the 32-year-old’s contact skills have been especially crucial in masking the early struggles of Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, and thus keeping the San Francisco offense mildly respectable. It was worrying then, when an MRI this week revealed a slight tear in Pagan’s patella tendon – he should be able to play through the injury, though of course now there is the inherent risk that the tendon could completely tear, and the Giants could be without their spark plug center-fielder for an extended stretch once again.
- Washington Nationals (3-4, 13-11) →
- Cincinnati Reds (4-3, 11-12) → Aroldis Chapman threw some BP, Johnny Cueto had another complete game. Aside from Devin Mesoraco‘s inevitable BABIP regression hitting soon, things are looking up in Cincy (YES!).
- Colorado Rockies (4-2, 13-11) →
- New York Mets (5-2, 13-10) ↑ Faced with a seemingly tough series against St. Louis this past week, the Metropolitans naturally took 3 0f the 4 games. Jenrry Mejia was particularly fantastic in Monday’s game, tossing 6.2 scoreless innings while striking out 7, lowering his ERA to 1.99 on the season. He’ll get another good chance to lower that number against the Marlins today. Elsewhere in Flushing this week, Daisuke Matsuzaka racked up the first save of his career on Thursday with a 1-2-3 ninth inning. Having already seen Bobby Parnell, Jose Valverde, and Kyle Farnsworth in the role, perhaps Terry Collins has found someone to his liking.
- Pittsburgh Pirates (1-6, 9-15) ↓ Of their last 15 games (all against NL Central foes), the Pirates have won… 3. Things have got ugly in Pittsburgh fast; aside from their poor recent record, the Carlos Gomez brawl last Saturday led to both Travis Snider and Russell Martin receiving suspensions, and now key cogs Martin (hamstring) and closer Jason Grilli (left oblique) have been placed on the DL. With upcoming games against the Cardinals, and then interleague sets with the Orioles and Blue Jays, it’s likely going to only get worse for the Bucs in the next week or so.
- Philadelphia Phillies (4-3, 11-12) ↑ The Phillies last week went to L.A. and came away with a 3-1 series win. More significantly however, was the return of Cole Hamels; after recovering from biceps tendinitis, the 30-year-old southpaw made his season debut on Wednesday and threw 6 very solid innings of 2-run ball. Along with Cliff Lee, the presence of Hamels will once again give the Phillies one of the most-envied top of the rotation combinations around the majors – whether the pair can lift up the rest of the pitching staff and keep the team in contention however, will, like last year, be the burning question around Citizen’s Bank Park all season long.
- San Diego Padres (3-4, 11-13) ↓ Josh Johnson will be out for the season after his recent elbow injury necessitated Tommy John surgery. *Yawn*.
- Miami Marlins (3-3, 10-13) ↓ The Jose Fernandez Show should carry a R rating. HE IS FILTHY.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (3-4, 8-18) → Even when the Diamondbacks win, they somehow lose; after staging a stunning ninth-inning rally to win at Wrigley Field on Wednesday, it was announced newly-added slugger Mark Trumbo will be out for an extended period of time with a stress fracture in his foot. Trumbo suffered a similar injury back in 2011, an ailment which took 5½ months to heal. If it takes that long this time around, he might have a new manager to frustrate upon his return.
- Chicago Cubs (3-4, 7-15) → The Cubs celebrated Wrigley Field’s 100th anniversary on Wednesday with not just a loss to Arizona, but a 400-pound cake. Naturally, the amazing-looking Wrigley Field replica was later found ingloriously disposed of in a dumpster outside the real stadium. Because #Cubs.
Check back tomorrow for my AL rankings – The Designated 15: Week 4!
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.”
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.
Yesterday, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series got dark, as I took on a skeptical tone in looking back on the very dubious winter (non-) moves of Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. Today however, I move on from the perpetual mediocrity Philadelphia seem to be stuck in, and focus on one of the best stories of 2013 – the long-awaited return of the Pittsburgh Pirates to the postseason, and the unexpected rejuvenation of a certain pitcher. It’s Matthew Berry’s fantasy kryptonite – Francisco Liriano. Must. Resist!
If you had been following baseball long enough, you already knew the story on Francisco Liriano coming into 2013 – a tale which spanned the complete spectrum of performance, consistent only in its inconsistency. For those that didn’t however, and saw a guy that posted a 3.02 ERA and 2.92 FIP, notched 163 strikeouts (with a 24.5 percent strikeout rate) in 161 IP, and was worth 3.1 WAR, here’s a quick refresher course;
The Francisco Liriano story can only be described as a roller coaster ride. After breaking onto the scene in a big way as a 22 year-old rookie with the Twins in 2006 (30.4 K%, 6.8 BB%, 2.16 ERA, 2.55 FIP, 3.8 WAR in just 121 IP), Liriano hurt his arm in late August the same year – yet still went out to pitch. 2 innings later, and he was slated for Tommy John surgery, a procedure which kept the lefty out until midway through 2008. Over the next two seasons, Liriano alternated moments of brilliance with horrific outings, finishing 2009 with a 5.80 ERA, and seemed set to become another talent robbed of his potential too young by injury. In 2010 however, Liriano returned to prominence. Striking out 201 in 31 starts, he accrued 4.4 WAR and finished 11th in AL Cy Young voting – the phenom was back, or so it seemed. His return to success was short-lived though; over the 2011/12 seasons, Liriano would be plagued with wildness, amass a combined 5.23 ERA over 52 starts, and after being traded to the Chicago White Sox, lose his rotation spot a mere month before hitting free agency. The ‘What If?’ narrative was once again pertinent.
Heading into 2013 then, Liriano wasn’t exactly a hot commodity on the free agent market – yet was asking for a two-year contract as a minimum. In need of pitching depth though, Pittsburgh were the only club to bite, first offering a 2-year, $12.75 million deal, only to nix the initial contract when Liriano broke his right arm in a Christmas Day prank. In a compromise of sorts, the two sides eventually agreed on a $1 million base salary for 2013, and a vesting option for 2014 laden with incentives should Liriano avoid the DL. By taking a low-risk flyer on Liriano, the Pirates snagged what would turn out to be the most underpaid pitcher in baseball during 2013 – a player whose eventual performance (measured by WAR) was worth closer to $15.5 million. As noted by Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, “Liriano missed qualifying for the ERA title by one inning. Had he qualified, he would have had the third-lowest opponent OPS (.611), third-best opponent slugging percentage (.314), fourth-lowest opponent batting average (.224) and fifth-best ERA (3.02) among National League left-handers.” The two pitchers ahead of him? Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw. What changed then, for Liriano to once again be one of the best left-handers in the league after appearing ready to wash out of the league just a year previous?
Simply put, Liriano abandoned the four seam fastball that had been the primary cause of his erratic control and home run problems over the prior two years, instead turning to the sinker as his only ‘hard’ pitch. Liriano also drastically upped his slider usage; from a mark of 28.18% at the beginning of 2011 – back when he was with the Twins – Liriano was throwing 41.58% of his pitches as sliders by the end of 2013. Not only did his BB/9 rate return to an acceptable level (3.5 BB/9 in 2013, as opposed to the 5+/9 he had issued in the four preceding years), but Liriano’s previous issues with HR/9 rate also subsided (0.5/9 in 2013). With a strong emphasis on pounding the bottom of the strike zone with his sinker and slider, Liriano induced more ground balls than the years previous – and yet rather than evolving into a pitcher aiming for contact, still struck out more than a batter an inning. Left handers in particular, (as my Reds will attest after their lefty-heavy lineup generated only 4 hits in 7 innings of 1 run ball pitched by Liriano in the NL Wild Card game), fared horribly when facing Liriano; over the season, lefties combined to hit just .131/.175/.146, one of the most statistically dominant splits produced in major league history.
Pittsburgh coaching staff have claimed that the broken arm was actually a blessing in disguise for Liriano is re-discovering his form, special assistant Jim Benedict stating “because he spent so much time in extended spring training, he had time to get his delivery right and build his arm up slowly.” Whether true or not, Liriano’s new and improved approach was a catalyst for the Pirates (the team won 17 of the 26 games started by Liriano) in their breaking of the 20-year playoff drought, and his consistent production gives hope for the year ahead. The Pirates will need him too; having let staff ace AJ Burnett go (it seems like at this juncture) without making any meaningful free agent acquisitions this winter, they’re banking on the fact that 2013 NL Comeback Player of the Year has finally figured it out. If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the years with Francisco Liriano however, it’s to expect the unexpected. Whether the Liriano lottery pays out for a second straight year will go a long way in deciding whether Pittsburgh can keep their newly minted playoff streak alive.