Author Archive

Fixing The Pirates’ Offense

At 47-43, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit just one game back in the NL Central standings. The club has a winning record after the All-Star break for the first time since Sid Bream slid and Barry Bonds bolted. And for the first time since the 1997 “Freak Show” edition of the club, whose entire payroll was less than what Albert Belle made that year, the Bucs will play pennant-altering games in the second half. The fans are taking notice: attendance is up by 3,000-4,000 per game at PNC Park, and local TV ratings have increased by a third.

But there’s one major weakness that could turn the Pirates’ resurgent season sour: the offense. Pittsburgh ranks 11th in the NL in on-base percentage, 14th in slugging and 12th in runs scored. Outside of MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, no current starter has been comfortably above-average in the batter’s box. It’s going to be hard to keep up with the Cardinals and Brewers with such a tepid lineup.

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Mike Cameron: Stealth Star of the ’90s and Aughts

The end appears close for Mike Cameron. The 38-year-old, hobbled by injuries over the past two seasons, was designated for assignment by the Red Sox on Thursday. Cameron could well end up on another club’s bench if he is released and only costs the pro-rated portion of the major league minimum, but his immediate future isn’t the purpose of this post. Rather, I want to celebrate the career of one of the least-appreciated stars of the late 1990s and the new millennium.

Take a look at the Wins Above Replacement Leaderboard for position players since 1997, the year when Cameron became an everyday player for the White Sox:
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Pitchers Outhitting the Competition

Everyone knows that Clayton Kershaw is awesome. He’s 23 years old, throws in the mid-nineties and has a slider so breath-taking that even the McCourts can’t put a price on it. But did you know that he’s actually outhitting the competition this season?

Kershaw has a .627 OPS as a hitter, while holding opponents to a .569 OPS. He’s one of three starting pitchers with at least 30 plate appearances who have fared better in the batter’s box than the opposition. Kershaw has done it by dominating on the mound and sprinkling in some singles as a hitter. Rotation mate Chad Billingsley (.855 OPS as a hitter, .749 as a pitcher) and Chicago’s Carlos Zambrano (.822 as a hitter, .725 as a pitcher), on the other hand, are swinging big bats but giving up plenty of hits as well.

The hitting exploits of Kershaw, Billingsley and Big Z made me wonder: which pitchers, either by virtue of superb pitching and singles-hitting or so-so mound work and slugging, outhit the competition by the widest margin in a single season?

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The Pedro Cerrano All-Stars

Bats, they are sick. I cannot hit curveball. Straightball I hit it very much. Curveball, bats are afraid. I ask Jobu to come, take fear from bats. I offer him cigar, rum. He will come.

— Pedro Cerrano in Major League

Every baseball fan is familiar with the Pedro Cerrano archetype: the hard-hitting batter who blasts fastballs into the next county but whose knees turn to jelly when the pitcher snaps off a breaking ball. I caught part of Major League while flipping through the channels the other day and I began to wonder, who in the majors today most resembles the Cleveland Indians’ Jobu-worshipping, cigar-smoking slugger?

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Ichiro’s Silent Season

At 32-31, the Seattle Mariners are surprisingly in the thick of the AL West race. Whether the club is capable of keeping pace with the Rangers is another matter: Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report gives Seattle a 3.5 percent chance of claiming the division. Still, by most measures, the Mariners have played markedly better baseball in 2011. That is, except for one glaring example. And his name is Ichiro.

Known for his Jedi-like bat control, scorching speed and deadly arm, the 37-year-old has racked up the fifth-most Wins Above Replacement among position players since he left Japan and arrived in Seattle in 2001. He averaged 4.8 WAR from 2008 to 2010. Yet, this season, Ichiro has been a sub-replacement-level player (-0.6 WAR).

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Alcides Escobar: Golden Glove, Brutal Bat

For a season and a half, Kansas City Royals fans were subjected to the fall-down range and errant arm of Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop. Hoppers hit to his left were all but guaranteed base hits, and booted would-be double play balls gave opponents extra chances to pummel the pitching staff. Those defensive woes were supposed to end in 2011 with Alcides Escobar, picked up from the Brewers as part of the Zack Greinke mega-deal, taking over at short for the Royals.

Escobar, a former top 20 prospect who Baseball America said “was born to play shortstop,” has been as good as advertised with the glove. Unfortunately, his bat has been so bad that it has wiped out the value provided by his exquisite range, body control and cannon arm.

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Prince Pineda Is Dealing

In spite of a lineup featuring Suzuki, Smoak, Death To Flying Things and scrubs, the Seattle Mariners sit just one game under .500 at 24-25 and trail the first-place Rangers by a game-and-a-half.

The offense is still wheezing along, besting only the Twins in park-and-league-adjusted batting, and the M’s have been the worst defensive club in the AL thus far, according to Ultimate Zone Rating. The starting pitching, on the other hand, has been superb and has kept the Mariners in AL West contention to this point. With a collective 3.40 xFIP from its starters, Seattle is neck-and-neck with Oakland for the top honors in the league.

Felix Hernandez, as always, is dominating. Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are pitching fairly well, and Zombie Bedard has been fantastic this May. King Felix isn’t the only royalty in Seattle’s rotation, though — Prince Michael Pineda is making major league hitters look like mere paupers during his rookie season.

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Gordon Beckham Is Broken

When the Chicago White Sox selected Gordon Beckham with the eighth-overall pick in the 2008 draft, the club thought it had nabbed a premium prospect whose polished game was nearly ready for the big leagues. The Georgia product tied for the Division I lead in home runs during his junior season, setting a new school record for career round-trippers while leading the Bulldogs to a runner-up finish in the ’08 College World Series. Beckham then blistered minor-league pitching to the tune of a .322/.375/.519 line, rising from Low-A ball to the South Side by June of 2009 after a little more than 250 plate appearances in the minors.

Beckham gave every indication that he was ready for prime time. He hit the ground running with the White Sox in ’09, putting up a .351 Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) in 430 PA while earning the Sporting News’ AL Rookie of the Year Award. Just 22 years old at the time, Beckham looked like a franchise cornerstone and a needed first-round success story for an organization that had recently been criticized for taking low-upside players like Lance Broadway and Kyle McCulloch.

Since then, however, Beckham has been sliding backwards. His wOBA dipped to .305 in 2010, and he’s the owner of a sordid .262 wOBA so far this season for a Chicago team whose park-and-league adjusted offense is 12 percent below average. In late April, White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker told the Chicago Sun-Times, “[Beckham]’s swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone. He’s frustrated. He’s getting himself out a lot.”

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Brignac Flailing in Tampa

In the second inning of the Rays’ Thursday afternoon’s game against the Indians, Reid Brignac stepped to the plate at Progressive Field to face Justin Masterson with the bases loaded. Brignac took an inside sinker from Masterson for ball one. On the next pitch, Masterson left a sinker over the fat part of the plate, and Brignac sliced it down the left field line. Tampa’s shortstop froze for a moment, and then darted out of the box, eventually pulling into second base with an opposite-field double that scored two.

He stood there for a moment,” said Rays broadcaster Dewayne Staats, “as if number one, he couldn’t believe it would be fair, and number two, that he was actually looking at a potential extra base hit!”

Brignac looked into the Rays’ dugout and pointed toward his eyes, as if indicating that he momentarily lost track of the ball. But you’d have to forgive him if he just didn’t believe his eyes — it was Brignac’s first extra-base hits in 104 at-bats dating back to last year, the longest stretch of punchless hitting in team history.

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Where Might Chris Davis End Up?

With Opening Day nearing, Chris Davis is staring at the prospect of a fourth stint in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Mitch Moreland is the favorite to win the Rangers’ first base job. Mike Napoli will get some DH starts along with Michael Young, who was booted off third base when Adrian Beltre signed. It’s possible that Young is shipped elsewhere, but the three years and $48 remaining on his contract make that unlikely unless Texas includes lots of cash or Nolan Ryan treats a rival GM like Robin Ventura, applying a vice-like headlock and shouting, “eat the contract!”

If he’s destined for Round Rock, Davis told Tim MacMahon of that he’d prefer the Rangers to let him get a fresh start in a new organization:

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Hackin’ Jose Reyes

With a healthy, productive season, Jose Reyes will become a very wealthy man next winter. The switch-hitter, eligible for free agency following 2011, could hit the market as a 28-year-old at a premium position with at least three 5.5+ WAR seasons to his name.

That’s not to say that Reyes’ game is without question marks, however. Hamstring issues that haunted him early in his big league career crept back up in 2009, costing him most of the season, and he missed time last year getting treatment for an overactive thyroid as well as nursing an oblique injury. Reyes didn’t play poorly in 2010, but a 2.8 WAR campaign was disappointing nonetheless. One of the biggest reasons that Reyes fell short of being the championship-caliber player we’ve come to expect was a downturn in his plate discipline.

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Astros Lose Castro to Torn ACL

The Houston Astros’ 2011 season figures to go about as well as NASA’s recent Glory satellite launch — it’s going to end with disappointment and a thud. CAIRO, Oliver and PECOTA all project the ‘Stros for fewer than 70 wins, and considering that Marc Hulet dubbed Houston’s farm system second-worst in the game, it could be years before Houston has the talent to compete once again. The Astros’ plight got even bleaker today, as it was announced that one of the club’s precious few long-term talents, Jason Castro, will likely miss the entire year with a torn right ACL.

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Milledgeville Sputters To The South Side

In naming Lastings Milledge the ninth-best prospect in the game prior the 2006 season, Baseball America said that the precocious outfielder figured to be part of a Queens offensive core including Carlos Beltran, Jose Reyes and David Wright. BA also threw out this quirky nugget of information about the would-be stud: Milledge’s family “has followed [his] career throughout the minors in a recreational vehicle affectionately dubbed ‘Milledgeville.’ ”

That rec vehicle was supposed to roll into Queens for good. But half a decade and three teams later, Milledgeville has bald tires, scratched paint and the horse power of a single burro. Rather than becoming a star in baseball’s biggest media market, Milledge is just hoping to avoid a summer spent taking the International League tour through places like Toledo, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Durham. Having washed out of New York, Washington and Pittsburgh, Milledge will try to carve out a bench role with the White Sox after agreeing to a minor league deal with a Spring Training invite. Can Milledgeville get back on track, or is it destined for the scrap yard?

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Angels Acquire Vernon Wells for Napoli, Rivera

The Angels entered the offseason with money to spend and designs on nabbing a primo free agent position player, like Carl Crawford or Adrian Beltre, to invigorate a team that ranked 13th in the American League in wOBA and toward the middle of the pack in UZR. After Crawford inked with the Red Sox and Beltre joined the division rival Rangers, it looked as though L.A.’s most prominent winter move would be adding lefty relief pitching.

That changed Friday, as the Angels acquired Vernon Wells from the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera. In picking up Wells, the Angels added name value and spent the cash that was sitting in the club’s coffers. Unfortunately, they didn’t get any better in the process. The team is now saddled with a cumbersome contract for a player who is almost assuredly going to regress next season, and who is entering the typical decline phase of a player’s career. The Jays, meanwhile, get out from under the baseball equivalent of a subprime mortgage and pick up the trade’s best player to boot.

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Andruw Jones Fitted For Pinstripes

The first memory most fans have of Andruw Jones is witnessing the then-teenager terrorize the New York Yankees in Game One of the 1996 World Series. While Jones’ Braves ultimately came up short in that Fall Classic, the Curacao native announced his presence as a future star by belting two home runs (replacing Mickey Mantle as the youngest ever to go deep in the World Series) and striding swiftly to fly balls that mere mortals would have to dive for, or miss altogether.

Now, Jones’ career has come full circle. He has reportedly signed a one-year, $2 million deal to serve as the Yankees’ fourth outfielder, with an additional $1.2 million in performance incentives possible. Thirty-four in April, Jones has the secondary skills to start for some teams, and he may now be the best reserve fly catcher in the game.
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O’s Add Derrek Lee

The Baltimore Orioles have continued their Extreme Makeover: Infield Edition by agreeing to terms on a one-year contract with free agent first baseman Derrek Lee. The exact terms of the deal aren’t yet known. But Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman suggests that Lee’s base salary figures to be in the $7-8 million range, and Yahoo’s Tim Brown adds that the deal includes a couple million bucks in possible incentives.

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Dotel Signs With Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays entered the offseason knowing that the team’s bullpen would look drastically different on Opening Day 2011 than it did last October. While Jason Frasor decided to accept Toronto’s arbitration offer rather than testing the market as a Type A free agent, fellow Type A Scott Downs signed a three-year deal with the Angels, and Type B free agent Kevin Gregg is expected to pitch out of someone else’s ‘pen next year. Attempting to compensate for those relief losses, the Jays have reportedly signed Octavio Dotel to a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Dotel’s pact pays him $2.75 million in 2011, with a $3.75 million club option for 2012 that includes a $750K buyout.

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Rockies Acquire Matt Lindstrom

The Colorado Rockies have acquired right-handed reliever Matt Lindstrom from the Houston Astros for a pair of minor league pitchers, Wes Musick and Jonnathan Aristil. Lindstrom, swapped from the Florida Marlins to Houston last December, will join Huston Street, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Belisle, Franklin Morales and others in a Colorado bullpen that placed third in the National League in reliever xFIP in 2010.

Turning 31 next month, Lindstrom’s ERA has jumped significantly since he made his debut with the Fish in 2007. He had a 3.09 ERA in ’07 and a 3.14 mark in 2008, but that figure rose to 5.89 in 2009 and 4.39 this past season. However, his underlying performance hasn’t degraded that much — he’s not as bad as those past two totals suggest, but he was never really a relief ace in the first place.

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Kansas City’s Current Rotation

The Kansas City Royals possess one of the most fertile farm systems in recent memory. In addition to top position prospects Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Will Myers, K.C. has unparalleled pitching talent — Mike Montgomery, John Lamb, Danny Duffy and Christopher Dwyer are potential top-of-the-rotation lefties. From the right, there’s Aaron Crow and two of the four youngsters acquired in the Zack Greinke deal, Jeremy Jeffress (likely headed to the ‘pen) and Jacob Odorizzi. Pitching prospects are more volatile than their position player counterparts, so some of the arms listed above will almost assuredly flame out due to injury or attrition. But by sheer volume, Dayton Moore should soon be able to fill out the front of the Royals’ rotation with talented, cost-controlled pitchers.

Before the prospect cavalry arrives, though, things could get ugly. Post-Greinke, Kansas City’s Opening Day rotation figures to include Luke Hochevar, Kyle Davies, Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan, with Gil Meche a long shot to log significant innings due to a damaged shoulder (he may just stay in the bullpen). Chances are, the team adds a low-level free agent starter or two to compete for the fifth spot.

Dan Szymborski has released 2011 ZiPS projections for K.C. Here are the forecasts for the four guys currently penciled into the rotation, as well as Meche. I’d recommend that fans keep their noses buried in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook this season, because Royals games might look like Charlie Brown’s All-Stars running on a loop until those celebrated arms arrive:

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Buck, Fields Find New Clubs

Heading into the 2007 season, outfielder Travis Buck and third baseman Josh Fields were primo prospects. Baseball America ranked Buck, the Oakland Athletics’ supplemental first-round pick in the 2005 draft, as the 50th best farm talent in the game. A standout quarterback at Oklahoma State, Fields gave up throwing spirals to sign with the Chicago White Sox for $1.55 million as the 18th pick in the 2004 draft. He entered 2007 as BA’s #45 prospect.

By now, Buck and Fields were supposed to be franchise bulwarks. Instead, they’re merely looking to land bench jobs and avoid the trainer’s table in new cities. A Super Two player non-tendered by the A’s, Buck inked a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians. Fields was similarly humbled; Kansas City non-tendered him, and the Pirates extended him a minor league contract with small incentives based on major league plate appearances.

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