Tagged: Rookie

On The Bump: Eddie Butler

As the season progresses (and sadly, as more and more starters succumb to Tommy John surgery), many a young pitcher will be called up to make his ML debut. To introduce some of the more intriguing first-time starters then, I’ve a priming segment: On The Bump. Consider these posts your cliff notes, a cheat sheet if you will, for looking good at the local sports bar in front of your friends, annoying your significant other at home, or purely for feeling smug whilst sneakily watching MLB.tv on your iPhone at work. Whatever floats your boat, you’ll be prepared at least. 

Who is this guy? Timothy Edward Butler, that’s who! No wonder he goes by Eddie… Anyhow, Butler is a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher who grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, and attended Greenbrier Christian Academy. The Texas Rangers selected him in the 35th round of the 2009 draft straight out of high school, but Butler opted instead to take his talents to Radford University. Three years later, he was a (supplemental) first round pick, this time drafted 46th overall by the Colorado Rockies, and received a $1 million signing bonus. Probably the right choice to stay in school then.

What has he done? Immediately sent to the Pioneer League after signing in 2012, Butler promptly went 7–1 with a 2.13 earned run average (ERA) and 55 strikeouts, leading the league in ERA, WHIP (1.06) and opponents’ average (.230) in his short pro debut. Not a bad start. His 2013 campaign though, would be even more impressive. Beginning the season with the Low-A Asheville Tourists, Butler would make only 9 dominant starts (1.66 ERA, 0.92 WHIP) in the South Atlantic League before being moved up to the Modesto Nuts of the California League. There we would again impress, posting a 2.39 ERA and 1.17 WHIP. After pitching one inning of scoreless ball in the All-Star Futures Game, the then 22-year-old was promoted once again, this time to the Double-A Tulsa Drillers, where he would make six starts to conclude the season. Allowing just two runs in his time at Double-A, Butler would finish the season with a cumulative 1.80 ERA, and strike out 143 batters in 149.2 innings (28 starts), and land on Top 100 rankings released by Baseball America (#24), Baseball Prospectus (#26), and MLB.com (#41). So far in 2014, he’s made 11 starts at Tulsa, throwing 68.2 IP with a 2.49 ERA and 1.180 WHIP, whilst forming one of the scariest one-two combinations in the minor leagues with Jon Gray.

How has he done it? Well, according to Fangraphs writer Marc Hulet’s scouting report when he ranked Butler as the rockies’ no. 1 prospect prior to the 2014 season, “Butler made huge strides with his secondary stuff in 2013 and projects to now have three solid weapons with his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, changeup and slider — all of which feature a lot of movement. He also has a curveball that lags behind his other offerings. Along with swing-and-miss stuff, Butler’s ground-ball tendencies make him an ideal pitcher for Colorado.” Here’s his changeup making Xander Bogaerts, you know, the guy currently hitting .297 with a 133 OPS+ who won a World Series ring with the Boston ‘freakin Red Sox last year and is a whole year younger than me, look particularly foolish during the Futures Game last summer:

With a pretty low arm slot (which helps him get so much late break on his secondary stuff, particularly that upper 80s slider), you’d have thought Butler would be susceptible to large platoon splits. Not the case; left-handed hitters hit just .202/.278/.300 against Butler in 355 plate appearances last year, compared to a .192/.250/.262 line in 512 plate appearances for righties. Though his K/9 rate has dropped off significantly so far in 2014 to just 5.24, it’s not too much of a worry at this point. Just re-watch the gif a few times – he’ll be fine. (For a more complete breakdown of his stuff, I’d recommend Baseball Prospectus’ ‘The Call-Up’ feature, though it’s available to subscribers only).

Why is he pitching in the majors? How about this? Because Franklin Morales is stinking up the joint. Pressed into starting duty after, surprise surprise, Brett Anderson of all people, was injured (who saw that coming?!), Morales has posted a 6.03 ERA in 62.2 innings of work, which is somehow the third-most innings anyone on the Rockies staff has pitched this year. Furthermore, those numbers are not simply bad luck, as evidence by his nauseating 5.77 FIP.

Meanwhile, after starting the season ridiculously hot, the Rockies have cooled significantly of late; since May 20, Colorado has won just two games and lost ten (including being drubbed 16-8 by Arizona last night) to fall two games below .500 and 9 1/2 games behind the division-leading Giants. In that stretch their staff has a 5.58 ERA, the second-worst such mark in the majors, and seen their offense further diminished by the losses of Nolan Arenado (broken finger, May 24th) and Carlos Gonzalez (finger, sent to the 15-day DL today). Throw in Jordan Lyles breaking his glove hand last night, and the Rockies are in addition to suddenly swooning, banged up too, and in need of some help to stay in the NL West race.

What they’re saying: “The time is right… Eddie has been very dominant at times over the last couple of seasons. We knew he was a big-leaguer, it was just a matter of time. We feel like we could use some help in the rotation and he’s a very talented young pitcher.” Thanks for making my job easy Walt Weiss. Much better than Troy Tulowitzi’s offering anyway – “I hope he comes in and pitches well enough to give us a chance to win.” Great insight there Troy.

Worth a follow on Twitter? Err, maybe? Here are a few samples:

Perhaps not actually.

Anything else? 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. Keep an eye out for his Double-A running mate Gray too; with Lyles’ injury, he could soon be arriving in Colorado to partner Butler once again in the very near future.

On The Bump: Rafael Montero

As the season progresses (and sadly, as more and more starters succumb to Tommy John surgery), many a young pitcher will be called up to make his ML debut. To introduce some of the more intriguing first-time starters then, I’ve a new segment: On The Bump. Consider these posts your cliff notes, a cheat sheet if you will, for looking good at the local sports bar in front of your friends, annoying your significant other at home, or purely for feeling smug whilst sneakily watching MLB.tv on your iPhone at work. Whatever floats your boat, you’ll be prepared at least. 

Who is this guy? The Mets’ No. 2 prospect behind Noah Syndergaard, that’s who! Out of the Dominican Republic Montero signed with the Mets at the relatively late age of 20 back in 2011. Despite his late introduction to professional ball stateside however, the diminutive righty has shot through the farm system to become one of the more polished pitching prospects in the game. 

What has he done? Montero split the 2013 season between Double-A and Triple-A, compiling a total of 156 innings and 150 strikeouts to go with a combined 12-7 record and 2.78 ERA in his 27 starts. Pitching in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks in Triple-A, Las Vegas’ Cashman Field, Montero greatly aided his prospect status with 88.2 innings of sub-3 FIP ball – he had a 2.87 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and surrendered only two homers in nine home starts. Having started 2014 back in the PCL, the 24-year-old has done nothing but impress once again; prior to his promotion he was 4-1 with a 3.67 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 41 2-3 innings, and tossed 5 1-3 hitless innings (98 pitches) in his last start – a win over Salt Lake. He also started the 2013 Futures Game at Citi Field for the World team

How has he done it? Though slight of build, he possesses as close to a perfect delivery as any in the game, an easy and repeatable motion from a three quarter arm slot that truly benefits his performance. According to Marc Hulet of Fangraphs ‘[Montero’s] strengths as a pitcher are his above-average command and control, which help all three of his pitches play up. He possesses a low-90s fastball, slider and changeup.” Sounds dead-on: while he doesn’t overpower batters (though he can reach back for some 95 mph heat if he needs it), thanks to his sound mechanics, that great command of his fastball and slider in particular has allowed him to dominate his minor league competition thus far. 

Why is he pitching in the majors? Primarily because Jenrry Mejia, after a couple of decent enough starts to begin the season, has lately proven he can’t work through a big league lineup effectively more than twice (he can ‘moonwalk’ off the mound after striking out a batter to end the inning however). To wit, Mejia was limiting opponents to a .193/.258/.246 line in their first plate appearance of the game, a somewhat-palatable .245/.365/.415 triple slash the second time around, but a disastrous .405/.500/.595 clip the third time through. Combine his dicey injury history (the 24-year-old has already undergone two operations on his right elbow, including Tommy John surgery in 2011), with the Mets’ horrific relief corps (they’ve deployed both Jose Valverde and Daisuke Matsuzaka far too plentifully for a team with any self-respect), and a trip to the bullpen was log in the cards for Mejia – opening up a rotation spot.

What they’re saying: Las Vegas 51s manager Wally Backman gave his departing stud a nice endorsement on his way out the door – “With Rafael, he’s able to locate to both sides of the plate, commands his off-speed stuff. He throws every pitch over the plate for strikes. If he falls behind in the count, he’s capable of throwing his changeup, his breaking ball over for strikes at any time. He’s always ahead in the count and the kid really knows how to pitch.” But c’mon, what was he really going to say? The objective Hulet, in his pre-season write-up of New York’s top 10 prospects deemed that “Montero cannot challenge the ceilings of Zack Wheeler or Noah Syndergaard but he has the potential to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter.” That’s a darn sight better than Mejia anyway.

Worth a follow on Twitter? Unfortunately not. As far as my not-so-extensive search indicated, Rafael Montero does not have Twitter, or even Instagram. He does however, have a very poorly maintained fan page on Facebook – which has so far garnered a whole 23 likes. Go Rafael!

Anything else? He’ll be squaring off against Masahiro Tanaka, who is currently the proud owner of a 2.57 ERA and perfect 5-0 record, so is unlikely to pick up the ‘win’. If he manages to notch a hit and break the Mets pitchers’ collective 0-63 streak though, he’ll be a winner in my eyes no matter what he does on the mound.

Dave Dombrowski, Robbie Ray, and forgetting Fister.

A little advance warning – this post by no means condones the Doug Fister trade. The many reasons why that deal was immediately heralded as a coup for the Washington Nationals, rated not just by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs as the worst transaction of the 2014 offseason, but ranking no. 1 and 2 in the Baseball Prospectus staff’s 11 least-favorite offseason moves, all still stand true today. It was the sort of lopsided piece of business that, in the words of Jonah Keri, made ‘every front-office type, journalist, and peanut vendor share the same reaction at the same time: “The Tigers traded Doug Fister for what?!’ It doesn’t especially matter how Fister would go on to miss the first 34 games of the Nationals’ season recovering from a strained right lat muscle, and then allow five earned runs on nine hits over 4.1 innings when he finally made his debut against Oakland last Friday, the fact of the matter remains; you would have to think that if all other 28 ML teams knew Fister and crucially, his two years of team control, was available, Detroit would have received more in return than Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi*, and Robbie Ray.

But if there’s one thing we should have learnt by now, it’s the mantra that all new GM’s should have tattooed to their wrist: Don’t Doubt Dave Dombrowski.

This is the man after all, who cut his chops as the architect of the legendary (for sad reasons) 1994 Expos team. His next masterpiece of team-building; only steering the expansion Florida Marlins to a championship in just their fifth season of existence. Before he left the post in 2001, he’d drafted Josh Beckett and signed a 16-year-old kid out of Venezuela. That kid turned out to be Miguel Cabrera, and in 2003, the Marlins won it all once again. His subsequent work in Detroit is so legendary it’s a surprise that anyone trades with him anymore; he fleeced the Marlins to get Miggy after the 2007 season by giving up two top 10 prospects, Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, who haven’t amounted to much. He bagged Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco at bargain prices. He nabbed Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer at the expense of Curtis Granderson. He picked up Jhonny Peralta, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, and of course Fister. In the 58 trades he’d made prior to this season at the helm in Detroit, Double D had given away just 84.5 bWAR worth of players, but acquired 188.9 bWAR – a net profit of 104.4 bWAR.

Might acquiring Robbie Ray just be his next heist?

As shouted from the rooftops at the time of the deal (Matthew Kory’s words in that aforementioned BP piece are a typical response), Ray wasn’t much of a prospect. After being popped in the 12th round and signed for nearly $800,000 in the 2010 amateur draft, he promptly slogged his way through the lower rungs of the Nats’ farm system for the next two seasons, the nadir coming when he posted a 6.56 ERA in 21 starts (22 appearances) at High-A in 2012. The light then somewhat clicked on in Ray’s third trip to the Carolina League in 2013, the 6’2 lefty putting up a 3.11 ERA in 16 starts, striking out 100 batters with just 60 hits allowed along the way, before he was promoted to Double-A in the second half. There he made 11 starts, struck out over a batter an inning (9.31 K/9 if you’re picky), lowered his walk rate, and had a 3.72 ERA. Then came the trade, and the projections, Marc Hulet initially pegging the Brentwood, Tennessee native with the following:

After making just 11 starts at the level last year, Ray will likely return to Double-A to open the 2014 season. A lack of premium talent in the upper levels of the system in Detroit could help him quickly reach Triple-A.

So much for that. Ray would jump straight into the Triple-A pool, and immediately dominate, making five starts (six total appearances) during which he assembled an impressive 1.53 ERA, before an injury to Anibal Sanchez (a finger laceration to be specific), dictated the Tiger’s find themselves a starter for May 6. As we all know, they called upon Ray, who in a feat literally no one expected, probably not even the mastermind/witch Dombrowski himself, pitched in the majors before Fister this season.

Yes, it was against the Astros, and as put by Jeff Sullivan, ‘there’s only so much you can make of a start, particularly when it’s a first start.’ But one run on five hits with five strikeouts in 5.1 innings? That’s something. Some of his pitches looked a work in progress, as excellently detailed by Sullivan here, but the promise was apparent. For an encore yesterday though, this time facing the Twins, he was even better; he stifled the Minnesota offense for six shutout innings, giving up just four hits and surrendering only one walk, striking out two. When he left, the Tigers were up 3-0, but would go on to lose 4-3 after the bullpen blew the lead. Having showcased a lean, athletic build, easy delivery, and decent four-seam fastball in his two starts so far, Ray has proven he has the components of a major-league starter – the results themselves speak to his effectiveness. Dave Dombrowski might well have done it again.

No, Ray’s not an impact rookie like Jose Fernandez, with a future as an ace ahead, but could he develop into an above-average mid-rotation starter, more than capable of eating 200 innings a year? Absolutely. Already, he’s a back-of-the-rotation type. Funny, because many would label Fister an above-average mid-rotation starter too, except that he’s 30-years-old and heading for free agency. Ray, on the other hand is just 22, and has six full years of team control left before he’ll sniff the lucrative open waters. That payday might yet be delayed even further, seeing as how Ray is due to be sent back down to Toledo today with Sanchez returning from the DL, such is the wealth of starting pitching in Detroit.

Still, you’re telling me that Dombrowski couldn’t have got Tyler Clippard, Drew Storen, or even Rafael freakin’ Soriano included in the trade, to prevent bullpen blowups like what happened yesterday occurring?! C’mon man…


* Lombardozzi was of course then included in Detroit’s trade for Alex Gonzalez, as they panicked and pulled the trigger too early sought a capable fill-in at shortstop with positional incumbent Jose Iglesias out for the year.

Month one of The Billy Hamilton Experience

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). 

Meet Marcus Stroman!

As the saying goes, ‘there’s no smoke without fire.’ So when a rainout last Friday conveniently enabled the Blue Jays to shuffle their Triple-A affiliate Buffalo’s rotation, and align the starts of prized prospect Marcus Stroman with the struggling Dustin McGowan, the rumors that an imminent rotation change north of the border started like wildfire. With McGowan apparently lacking the stamina to pitch deep into games (he recently admitted to feeling fatigued around the 60-pitch mark), Stroman dominating Triple-A competition, and the Blue Jays desperately needing strong contributions from their starters in the loaded AL East, the move looked locked in; yesterday’s aligned outings, Stroman vs Louisville, and McGowan at Kansas City, should have been the duo’s last shared night of pitching (starting-wise, anyway – out of options, McGowan would likely end up in the bullpen).

The 6-foot-3 McGowan, who has lost years to injury, tried his best to delay the inevitable yielding of his rotation spot to Baseball Prospectus’ no. 27 ranked prospect. Against the same Royals offense that last week made Corey Kluber look like Clayton Kershaw, McGowan turned in his finest outing of the season, allowing only three hits and two earned runs in six innings of work, dropping his ERA from 6.88 to 5.87 in the process. Unfortunately for the 32-year-old, Stroman was also at his best – more on that later – seemingly intent on proving to Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopolous why it should be him taking to the bump to face the Pirates on May 4th. 

At just 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, Stroman might not immediately look like one of Major League Baseball’s best pitching prospects, but the soon to be 23-year-old’s filthy stuff (it’s his birthday on Thursday) belies his less than imposing stature. Since being taken with the 22nd overall pick by the Jays back in 2012*, the native of Long Island, N.Y., aside from a short PED suspension in 2012 (deemed a genuine mistake from an earnest kid – he paid off his mom’s mortgage with part of his $1.8 million signing bonus), has rolled his way through the minors. After an impressive, albeit abbreviated, 2012, he was excellent for Double-A New Hampshire in 2013, recording strikeout and walk rates of 28.1% and 5.9% respectively, in 111.2 innings of 3.30 ERA ball. So far in 2014, he’s been even better; heading into Tuesday’s match-up with Louisville, in his first taste of Triple-A competition, Stroman had a 2.18 ERA with 26 strikeouts and six walks over 20 2/3 innings.

I hear you though – ‘Get to the good bit – what about that ‘filthy’ stuff you mentioned?’ Well, according Jason Parks’ Top 101 Prospects write up for Baseball Prospectus:

The diminutive former Duke Blue Devil and USA Baseball standout showcases a dynamic arsenal and, with a plus-plus fastball and slider, one of the most explosive one-two combinations in the minors. The heater is a low to mid-90s offering with late giddy up, while the slider comes with sharp wipeout action. He shows excellent feel for the slide piece, with an additional ability to tighten it up to cutter depth with upper-80s to low-90s velocity. He’ll also flash a plus changeup with abrupt late fade and good trajectory deception.

Quite simply, Stroman has elite promise in the strikeout-ability category**. Turns out he can field his position pretty handily too:

That video was filmed during Stroman’s outing for Buffalo against Louisville yesterday, and may have been the fourth or fifth most impressive thing he did all night. The highly touted right-hander didn’t allow a hit in six shutout innings against the Bats, striking out 10 and issuing just one walk before being lifted after 80 pitches (56 of them for strikes). 

 With a 1.69 ERA and 36 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings, it’s taken all of five starts for Stroman to make it quite obvious that Triple-A is of no obstacle to him, and he’s done seasoning in the minors. Assistant GM Tony LaCava recently stated that Stroman’s time is ‘coming soon’ – that time should be now. With McGowan not the only Blue Jays starter struggling (hey there Brandon Morrow!), and the team badly in need of a power arm atop the rotation (however good they are, Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey aren’t exactly lighting up radar guns), there’s an obvious need for the organizations no. 2 prospect too. Toronto management should not let themselves be confused by Kansas City’s terrible offense.

#FreeMarcusStroman indeed.


* Washington had actually drafted him straight out of Patchogue-Medford HS back in 2009 in the 18th round, only for Stroman to go to Duke University instead.

** Considering their shared diminutive profiles, the subsequent concerns over his pitch trajectory, and the incredible strikeout potential they both possess, I can’t keep myself from drawing comparisons between Stroman and Yordano Ventura – who is working out pretty well in Kansas City by the way.

Sputtering in St. Louis: the domino effect of Randal Grichuk’s promotion

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.

 

The Cuban Revelation: the Jose Abreu move is more than paying off in Chicago

Way, way back in my MLB Season Preview SeriesI lamented how quietly the Chicago White Sox had quietly limped to a 99-loss season in 2013. In doing my research for the post, I’d been surprised to see quite how bad they had been, and wondered how they had pulled off such anonymous incompetence. I figured it had been their anemic offense, something an influx of exciting new players would help cure, and thus get the Pale Hose back on the national radar. Using that logic, I wrote about Adam Eaton as the key to Chicago’s turnaround.

In a way, I was right; Eaton has been every bit the leadoff force that many predicted of him back before injury derailed his 2013 season in Arizona (and before Kevin Towers traded him at his lowest value). In a larger respect though, I was dead wrong; while Eaton’s arrival has undoubtedly had a positive impact on both sides of the ball, it has been the South Sider’s other notable offseason addition that has garnered baseball’s attention so far. One month into his major league career, 27-year-old rookie Jose Abreu has crushed his way into the wider consciousness, and, in the words of Jonah Keri today, “turned a moribund White Sox team into a must-watch outfit every night.”

Signed to a six-year, $68 million deal back in October (the largest in White Sox history in terms of total money), the acquisition of the right-handed slugger was deemed “a calculated risk, but one we had to take,” by none other than Chicago GM Rick Hahn at the time. Even after putting up video-game numbers in Cuba (Abreu batted .316 with 19 home runs and 60 RBIs over 83 games in 2013, while posting a .479 on-base percentage and a .604 slugging percentage*), there were still concerns over how his perceived ‘long’ swing would hold up against American League competition, the usual cultural shift worries, and whether the heavy expectations upon his shoulders (he’d be replacing beloved face of the franchise Paul Konerko at first base) would further impede his production translating. That “bold and aggressive” move though, is looking like a stroke of genius on the part of Hahn so far in 2014.

Abreu has been sensational during his first four weeks in the majors, obliterating pitches and setting all sorts of records along the way. With a major hat-tip to ESPN’s Stats and Information crew, through last nights games:

– Abreu’s 10 home runs are the most by a White Sox rookie in any month, and the most for a White Sox player since Konerko had 11 in 2001 (Jim Thome hit 10 in 2006).

– His 31 RBIs set an MLB rookie record for March/April, beating the previous mark set by… Albert Pujols. His impressive total also established a new franchise record for the opening month, topping Konerko’s mark of 28 in 2002, and has tied Frank Thomas for the most by a White Sox player in any month (Thomas had 31 in August 2003)**.

– And (as illustrated in this excellent piece) he’s just destroying the outside pitch: Eight of his 10 home runs have come against pitches on the outer half of the plate or off the outside corner, which along with his .797 slugging percentage against similar pitches, give Abreu the highest marks in baseball (His six extra-base hits against pitches out of the strike zone rank second only to Mike Trout).

Less statistically significant, but still valid: he’s destroyed at least one backstop phone, been called ” the best player in the world … ever … right now,” by Evan Longoria (admittedly after he hit the above walk-off grand slam against Grant Balfour and the Rays on Friday), taken pretty good pitchers by the names of David Price, Justin Verlander and Chris Archer deep already, and taught Danny Salazar to never, everhang a breaking ball again.

More than anything though, Abreu has awakened the Pale Hose offense from its 2013 slumber; along with Eaton, he’s at the forefront of a lineup which leads the majors in runs scored (143), and is largely responsive for keeping Chicago afloat at .500 in the AL Central (especially considering how ace Chris Sale is out and the rest of the team’s pitching stinks – only Arizona have allowed more runs). His monstrous impact has even made Hawk Harrelson more exclamatory than usual. So while it’s a cert that he won’t keep up his torrid pace of record-making (if he hits 62 homers and 193 RBI, I’ll turn vegan), Abreu has already achieved something I thought far more improbable; almost single-handedly, he’s made the White Sox watchable again. 


* Numbers which actually made it a below-average year for the big righty. Including postseason appearances, he batted .392 over the 2010-13 seasons, with 133 home runs, 337 RBIs, 311 runs and 278 walks.

** Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Cuban defector is the first rookie with 10 homers and 30 RBIs in a calendar month since Al Rosen and Luke Easter both did it for the Cleveland Indians in June 1950.