Bob Feller – Very Good, Very Young, Very Long

 

On this date (April 16) in 1940, 21-year-old Bob Feller threw the first – and still only – Opening Day not hitter in MLB history.  That makes this an appropriate day to reflect on just how talented the pitcher, who would become known as “Rapid Robert” and “The Heater from Van Meter” was.

Bob Feller was very good – very early.  He didn’t just go directly from high school to the major leagues; he went to the major leagues while he was still in high school.  In fact, he earned a share of the major league single-game strikeout record before he earned his high school diploma.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself.  If Van Meter, Iowa native Robert William Andrew Feller wasn’t born to be a baseball player (BBRT would argue he was), he certainly was raised to be one. Feller’s father William was an avid baseball fan and started tutoring Bob at a very young age and, by the time Bob was twelve, Feller’s father had built a baseball field, complete with scoreboard and bleachers, on the Feller farm.  The field was called Oakview Park and was home to the Oakviews, a team (including Bob Feller) of semi-pro and high school players.  In Feller’s formative years, he played not only for the Oakviews, but also for the Adel American Legion team, the local Farmers Union team and his high school team.

In 1935, Feller, sixteen-years-old and still in high school, was signed by the Cleveland Indians – reportedly for one dollar and an autographed baseball. The next year, Feller made his major league debut as a 17-year-old, pitching one scoreless inning in relief on July 19, 1936. In his first six games, all in relief, Feller totaled eight innings pitched, giving up 11 hits, seven runs, eight walks, and notching nine strikeouts. Despite those stats, the Indians felt the youngster – who had shown a blazing fastball and knee-buckling curve – was ready for his first major league start.  It came on August 23, 1936, against the St. Louis Browns.  In that initial start, Feller threw a complete game 4-1 victory, giving up six hits and four walks and striking out 15. The teenager suffered a pair of losses (to the Red Sox and Yankees) before evening his record at 2-2 with another complete game win over the Browns in which he fanned ten.  Then, on September 13, Feller bested the Athletics 5-2, throwing a complete game two-hitter, walking nine, but striking out seventeen – which, at that time, tied the MLB single-game strikeout record.  Feller finished the 1936 season with a 5-3 record, 3.34 ERA and five complete games in eight starts.  He walked 47 and fanned 76 in 62 innings. And, of course, he had yet to complete high school.

In his first start of the 1937 season (April 24 against the Browns), the teenage phenom – who had been featured on the cover of the April 19, 1937 issue of Time magazine – came up with a sore elbow.  Feller ended up pitching six innings, striking out 11, in a 4-3 loss and didn’t appear in another game until mid-May, then was shelved again until June 22.  The break did give Feller time to complete high school (his graduation was broadcast live on NBC Radio).  He finished the year, 9-7, 3.39, with 106 walks and 140 strikeouts in 148 2/3 innings. Not bad for an 18-year-old, but the best was yet to come.

From 1938 to 1941, Feller won 93 games (44 losses) – making the All Star team all four seasons and leading the AL in wins three times, ERA once, complete games twice, shutouts twice, innings pitched three times, and strikeouts all four seasons.  At the end of the 1941 season, Feller had 107 major-league victories.  And, he was all of 22-years-old.

In that four-season span, Feller also set a then major league record for strikeouts in a single game (18 versus the Tigers on October 2, 1938) and threw the previously noted Opening Day no-hitter.  Note: That 1940 opener was an omen of what was to come, as 1940 proved to be, perhaps, Feller’s greatest season.  He led the league in wins (27), ERA (2.61), complete games (31), shutouts (4), innings pitched (320 1/3), and strikeouts (261) – finishing second to Hank Greenberg in the MVP voting.

The career of Bob Feller – baseball’s most rapidly rising comet – was, however, about to be interrupted. Two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, Feller became first professional athlete to enlist in the U.S. armed forces; eventually serving as a Gun Captain aboard the USS Alabama. Feller was discharged from the Navy in late August, 1945, having missed 3 ½ MLB seasons. He immediately rejoined the Indians and finished up the season with a 5-3, 2.50 record, completing seven of nine starts and striking out 59 in 72 innings.

In his first full season after his discharge, Feller picked up right where he left off before the war,  leading the league in wins (26), complete games (36), shutouts (10), innings pitched (371 1/3) and strikeouts (a then MLB-record 348), while posting a 2.18 ERA.   In the first three full seasons after his post-war return, Feller led the league in wins twice, complete games once, shutouts twice, innings pitched twice, and strikeouts three times.  Makes one wonder what Feller would have done without the war-time interruption.  You can get a pretty good idea when you consider that, in the six full seasons surrounding his military service, (three before/three after), Feller’s average season was 24-12, 2.80 ERA, 26 complete games, five shutouts, and 239 strikeouts.

Ultimately, Rapid Robert Feller finished an 18-season career with 266 wins, 162 losses, a 3.25 ERA, 3,827 innings pitched, 279 complete games, 44 shutouts and 2,581 strikeouts. He made eight All Star teams, threw three no-hitters (12 one-hitters), led the AL in strikeouts seven times, wins six times, innings pitched five times, shutouts four times, complete games three times and ERA once.

Just how good was Bob Feller? In his December 15, 2010 obituary, the New York Times described Feller like this: “Joining the Indians in 1936, Feller became baseball’s biggest draw since Babe Ruth, throwing pitches that batters could barely see — fastballs approaching 100 miles an hour and curveballs and sinkers that fooled the sharpest eyes.”  The statistics back that assessment up and so do the hitters.  Accomplished batsmen from Stan Musial to Joe DiMaggio to Ted Williams have described Feller as one of the best – if not the best – pitcher of his time. In DiMaggio’s words: “I don’t think anyone is ever going to throw a ball faster than he (Feller) does. And his curveball isn’t human.”

Finally, I would be remiss to not note that I was privileged to meet Bob Feller at a minor league baseball game (long after his retirement as a player) and he was a true gentleman who retained his love for (and insight into) the game and his appreciation of the fans (no one was denied an autograph or a smile that day.)

 

Bob Feller – very good, very early, very long.   And, very much missed.

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

Book Review: Down To The Last Pitch – Good to the last page

down_to_last_pitchDown To The Last Pitch – How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time

By Tim Wendel

 2014 DA CAPO PRESS

$25.99

 

The 1991 World Series, matching the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, will go down as one of the most exciting ever played.  The 1991 Fall Classic went the full seven games, ending in a 1-0, ten-inning win for the Twins.  Three games went extra innings, four came down to the final at bat and five were decided by a single run.  The Series was filled with tension and turning points (close plays at the plate, critical double plays, controversial umpires’ calls, base-running blunders, game-saving catches, timely strikeouts). ESPN, in celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the World Series, named the 1991 matchup the “greatest World Series ever.”

The 1991 Series had more going for it than dramatic games and avid home crowds (all the games were won by the home team).  It was, in fact, an historic event even before the first pitch was thrown. Never in major league history had a team gone from last place to pennant winner (punching a ticket to the Fall Classic) in a single year.  In 1991, both World Series’ participants had accomplished that feat.

If ever a World Series deserved its own book, it was the 1991 match up.  Fortunately, for baseball fans, Tim Wendel (award-winning author, one of USA Today Baseball Weekly’s founding editors, exhibit advisor to the Baseball Hall of Fame and, as evidenced by his prose, a knowledgeable and passionate baseball fan) has given us that book in the form of the recently released Down To The Last Pitch – How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time.

Down To The Last Pitch lives up to the events it describes.  Wendel couples his journalistic skills with an understanding and appreciation of the national pastime to take readers deep into the 1991 World Series – not just into the ballpark, but right into the dugout and onto the field. Down To The Last Pitch provides an inside look at what was going on behind the scenes and in the minds of the players, managers and coaches as – game by game – the tension ratcheted up.  Wendel presents this historic Series in a combination of his own words and observations and those of its participants. For baseball fans, it’s a story worth telling, reading and remembering.

As Atlanta third baseman and 1991 National League MVP Terry Pendleton said of the Series, “Every pitch, every strike, every ball, every inning – everything mattered in every game.”

Just how much it all mattered comes through in Wendel’s account of Minnesota catcher Brian Harper’s thoughts during a break in the action after the Twins had intentionally walked David Justice to load the bases with one out and the score tied at 0-0 in the top of the eighth inning of Game Seven. Wendel lets Harper describe the pressure in his own words:  “That’s when I envisioned a come-backer to Jack (Morris), he throws it to me at home plate, then I airmail one past (Kent) Hrbek into right field. We lose the Series and I’m the goat of all time. I would be the next Bill Buckner.  I literally thought this after we walked David Justice. So, I then I’m thinking, ‘Okay, get that thought out of your head. Lord, please help me relax here and let me do my job.’”

Harper was apparently successful in pushing that negative vision from is mind.  And, it’s a good thing, because his nightmare (just slightly modified) began to play out right before his eyes. The Braves’ next hitter, Sid Bream, hit a grounder to Hrbek at first base, who fired to Harper for the force out at the plate, leaving Harper to make that inning-ending (or game-losing) home-to-first double play throw- which, as we all know, he did successfully.

Wendel’s game-by-game description of the Series provides plenty of these very human insights into the action, adding color and depth to his accounting.  He includes the often told story of how Twins’ starter Jack Morris (who threw a ten-inning, complete game shutout in Game Seven) had to lobby manager Tom Kelly to stay in the game after the ninth inning. He ends the tale with Kelly’s submission and comment, “Oh hell. It’s only a game.”   Down To The Last Pitch adds a little context to Morris’ grit and determination, having already noted that Morris (described as having “the air of an ornery, aging gunslinger”) was disgruntled after being lifted for a pinch-hitter in the sixth inning of Game Four (tied 1-1 at the time and eventually won 3-2 by the Braves). Morris later told Sports Illustrated, “TK screwed up by taking me out.  We would have won it.”  Nobody was taking the ball from Morris’ hand in the deciding game.

Down To The Last Pitch also uses the flow of the game as a natural bridge to observations on, not just the players involved, but baseball itself.  The reader gains insight into such player-related topics as John Smoltz’ 1991 turnaround (a 2-11 won-lost record in the first half and a 12-2 record in the second half), how reliever Rick Aguilera ended up as the first pitcher used as a pinch hitter in the World Series since 1965, and events that shaped the baseball lives of many of the players who took the field for the Series (like Mike Lemke’s childhood pickup games on the grounds of the Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center or the impact of the lights from the Twins’ original Metropolitan Stadium shining into the bedroom window of a young Kent Hrbek).

Wendel also uses game action to lead into more general commentary on baseball. The crack of the bat on Twins’ number-nine hitter Greg Gagne’s Game One home run, for example, takes Wendel back a previous conversation with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson (who hit 586 MLB home runs). Robinson described the sound of a home run as “Like you’re out in the woods and you step on a branch. A dry branch. It’s that snap that goes just so.”  That’s the sound Wendel reports hearing, even above the crowd, on Gagne’s home run.  That distinctive snap spurred him to share Robinson’s thoughts not only on the “sound” of a home run, but also on its excitement. In Robinson’s words, “Nothing else offers the kind of excitement a home run does. Not even a perfect game. Because a home run is instant – it’s so surprising.”

Down to the Last Pitch also includes commentary on factors affecting the Series’ outcome that may have escaped the average fan.  Wendel delves, for example, into the unavailability of speedsters Otis Nixon (drug-related suspension) and Deion Sanders (Atlanta Falcons’ football training camp) – two Braves’ players with potentially game-changing speed. Few remember that Nixon, out for the Series, hit .297 with 72 stolen bases in 124 games in 1991.

Ultimately, Down To The Last Pitch is a great read not just for Twins and Braves fans – although it is a must for followers of those teams – but for any fans who want to get closer to the game.  I was lucky enough to attend the Twins’ home games in the 1991 Series and, after reading Down To The Last Pitch, I feel “closer” to the action than ever.

And, there is even more.  Once you’ve completed Wendel’s account of the seven exciting contests that made up the 1991 World Series, there is – like an extra inning game – even more baseball to come.  The book includes two Appendices: One covering what happened after the Series to many of the principals involved (and other notables from the 1991 season); and a second outlining a dozen great World Series moments.

In short, Down To The Last Pitch has something for baseball fans down to the last page.

Other baseball books by Tim Wendel you may enjoy: Summer of 68: The Season that Changed Baseball and America Forever (reviewed here); High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time; Far From Home: Latino Baseball Players in America; The New Face of Baseball: The One-Hundred-Year Rise and Triumph of Latinos in America’s Favorite Sport.

BBRT tweets  baseball @DavidBBRT

Nerves of “Steal!”

Remind me never to play poker against this kid!

 

April 13, 1926 – Opening Day Duel for the Ages

 

Walter Johnson – spinner of seven Opening Day shutouts.

 

April 13, 1926 marked the fourteenth and final Opening Day start for the Washington Senators Walter “Big Train:” Johnson.  The 38-year-old right-hander (a future Hall of Famer and considered one of – if not the – top power pitchers of his era) was in his twentieth big league season, having already collected 397 of his eventual 417 wins.  Johnson was coming off a 20-7, 3.07 1925 campaign for the Senators, who had led the AL with a 95-66 record, losing the World Series in seven games to the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Johnson had gone 2-1, 2.08 in the Series, with three complete games.)

Opposing Johnson, before 25,000 fans at Washington D.C.’s Griffith Stadium, was Philadelphia Athletics’ right-hander Eddie Rommel.  The 28-year-old Rommel, in his seventh MLB season, had led the AL in victories in 1925, going 21-10, with a 3.69 ERA for the Athletics, whose 88-64 record trailed only the Senators in the AL.

Note: In his first seven AL seasons, Rommel had led the AL in victories twice (1922 & 1925) and in losses twice (1921 & 1923).  Johnson, as he took the mound on Opening Day in 1926, had led the AL in wins six times, ERA five times, strikeouts 12 times, shutouts seven times and complete games six times.

In addition to Johnson, the starting lineups included five future Hall of Famers: Centerfielder Al Simmons and catcher Mickey Cochrane for the Athletics; and centerfielder Sam Rice, second baseman Bucky Harris and leftfielder Goose Goslin for the Senators.

The stage was set for a great Opening Day match-up – and the fans were not disappointed. Johnson threw a complete Dame, 15-inning shutout (his record seventh Opening Day shutout), giving up six hits and three walks against nine strikeouts.  Rommel proved nearly the Big Train’s equal that day, going fourteen scoreless frames, before giving up a lone run in the bottom of the fifteenth (Rommel gave up nine hits and six walks, while striking out just one in a gritty performance).  Two pitchers going into the fifteenth inning on Opening Day? Doubt we’ll ever see that again.  For BBRT’s thoughts on the decline of the complete game click here.

Little did fans know how special that 1926 opener was.  Turned out Johnson’s masterpiece was his final Opening Day start.  The Big Train finished the 1926 season 15-16, 3.63.  The following year a leg injury kept him from starting the Opener and he retired after running up a 5-6, 5.10 record. Rommel went 11-11, 3.08 in 1926.  He pitched another six seasons, never again topping 13 wins – although from 1927-32, he went 53-21 with 53 starts and 129 relief appearances.

How good was Johnson? His final record was 417-279, with a career ERA of 2.17, 531 complete games in 666 starts, and still MLB-record 110 shutouts.  In arguably his best season (1913), Johnson notched an AL-leading 36 wins (versus seven losses – a league-leading .837 winning percentage) and a league-low 1.14 ERA, while also boasting AL-high complete games (28), shutouts (11), innings pitched (346) and strikeouts (243).

Twins’ Opening Day 2014 – Winter Is OVER!

This part of Opening Day was exciting!

This part of Opening Day was exciting!

Minnesota winter is officially OVER – and we can thank Mother Nature and the Minnesota Twins.  BBRT was in the stands yesterday (April 7) – third deck behind home plate – as the Minnesota Twins opened their home season with an 8-3 loss to the visiting A’s.  Despite the disappointing outcome, it was baseball that counted, the field was in great shape (just three days ago about a half-foot of snow fell on the Twin Cities), the beer was cold, the hot dogs hot, the peanuts salted, the cotton candy “shudder sweet” and approximately 36,000 fans were ready to welcome baseball and the Twins “home.”

The temperature at game time was in the mid-50s (about 20 degrees warmer than the 2013 home opener that BBRT shivered through, read about it here) and the sun was shining.  In Minnesota, in April, we break out the shorts and sun screen and call this kind of day “a real scorcher.”

We arrived at Target Field early, for a trio of reasons (baseball tends to do things in threes):

1) The Twins continued a tradition of having franchise “celebrities” open the gates.  This year’s case of honorary gatekeepers included such notables as Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, three-time AL batting champ Tony Oliva, former Twins’ manager Tom Kelly and former Twins’ first baseman Kent Hrbek.

2) We didn’t want to miss any of the Opening Day festivities, especially the ceremonial first pitch from Somali-American and Minnesota resident Barkhad Abdi (nominated for an Oscar for his role the 2013 film “Captain Phillips.) Abdi, by the way, made a strong throw to the plate.  As a bonus, there was also a solid performance by local a cappella (never thought I’d use “a cappella” in a baseball post) group Home Free, who won season four of “The Sing Off.”

3) It is a tradition in the BBRT family that all significant food (any that requires leaving your seat to acquire) must be purchased before game time.  This rule was enacted to protect the integrity and accuracy of the obligatory scorecard.

Once inside the Target Field, the feasting began.  We started with the new Porchetta Egg Rolls ($8).  We liked the combination of the creamy filling (pork and cream cheese) and crunchy outside (fried egg roll).  The portion, two large egg rolls was perfect for sharing. It could have used a bit more cream cheese and BBRT would suggest some hot Chinese mustard for dipping.  Next, we went for the traditional Walleye and Fries ($11.50) – a reliable, tasty treat – a large, flaky walleye fillet, with a crisp breading and generous portion of fries.

The Smoked Meat sandwich from Andre Zimmern's Canteen.

The Smoked Meat sandwich from Andre Zimmern’s Canteen.

Next, we spotted local celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern’s AZ Canteen. Zimmern is perhaps best known for his Travel Channel show Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and the offerings here were, as expected, a bit more exotic. We had our choice of Crispy Belly Bacon with Jalapeno Jelly and Vinegar Slaw or a Smoked Meat Sandwich with Vinegar Slaw and Maple Syrup Hot Sauce (both $12.50). We opted for the Smoked Meat Sandwich, which was moist and flavorful (a more interesting blend of flavors than in most ball park foods). For those who might be a bit wary of unidentified smoked “meat” – given Zimmern’s passion for bizarre foods – rest easy, it’s pastrami. BBRT would also recommend Zimmerns’ Cucumber-Mint Lemonade, with or without vodka.  All in all, there’s lot of new food items to try at Target Field, so get there hungry – and get there early.

Anyway, once full (close to uncomfortable so), we purchased official Twins’ “2014 Opening Day” pins and attached them to our hats, picked up a scorecard and headed for our seats for the aforementioned festivities.  (Oh yes, and while there wasn’t the jet-propelled flyover you see at so many ball parks, an American Bald Eagle did soar majestically high over the field in the middle innings.  Much more Minnesotan.)

The game itself left a little to be desired, even beyond the score.  There were a combined ten walks, one hit batsman and one run-scoring balk.  There were also nine Twins’ strikeouts and ten left on base on offense, as well as shaky starting pitching (starter Kevin Correia gave up six runs on nine hits and two walks in 5 2/3 innings). All of this seemed reminiscent of 2013, when the Twins had MLB’s second-most hitter whiffs, third-highest rate of men left on base and worst starting-rotation ERA.

Still, it’s just one game, and there is hope.  The Twins just came off a 3-3 road trip, the hitting has looked better and there is more potential in the starting pitching staff.  And, most important, we have 155 more games to watch the story develop.

There were bright spots: a rousing ovation for three-time batting champ and new/now first baseman Joe Mauer; a nice welcome home for former Twin Jason Kubel, who had a double and an RBI and is hitting .381 in the early season; and a warm reception for former Twin/now A Nick Punto, who came on as a pinch-runner in the seventh.

The play of day goes to the Twins’ Chris Colabello, who started in right field and ended the top of the second inning with a diving catch on Eric Sogard’s sinking liner and then threw to second to double off Alberto Callaspo.  Colabello, who had a single and a walk in five at bats, was selected AL Player of the Week (shared with Angels’ outfielder Josh Hamilton) for the first week of the 2014 season.  In six games last week, Colabello hit .391 (9-for-23) with four doubles, one home run, four runs scored and a then AL-best 11 RBIs.

The versatile (1B/OF/DH) Colabello is one of those “feel good” baseball stories. Colabello went undrafted by organized ball out of college and – before signing with the Twins’ organization in 2012 (at age 28) – played seven seasons in the independent Can-Am League, where he averaged 83 games, .317, 18 home runs, 100 runs and 85 RBI per season.  In 2011, he hit .348, with 20 home runs and 79 RBI in 92 games.  In his first season in the Twins’ system, Colabello hit .284 with 19 home runs and 98 RBI for the Twins’ New Britain (AA-level) club. In 2013, he moved up to (AAA) Rochester, where he earned 2013 International League MVP and Rookie of the Year honors by hitting .352 with 24 home runs and 76 RBI in 89 games between call-ups (55 games) to the Twins. At the major league level, things did not go as well (.194-7-17 in 2013). That performance and Joe Mauer’s move from behind the plate to first base (Colabello’s primary position) led some to suggest he consider playing overseas. Colabello, however, did not give up on his “American (League) Dream,” stuck with the Twins and a strong showing in Spring Training (.349-1-8 in 43 at bats) earned him a spot on the roster – and the clean-up slot in the home opener batting order.

Another story that grabbed BBRT’s attention was the travel of catcher Chris Hermann, who lined up for the Rochester Red Wings (AAA) home opener on Sunday and then found himself being introduced as a Twin during yesterday’s opening ceremonies.  Hermann was called up following an ankle injury that sent Jason Bartlett to the Disabled List. Hermann’s resume is not as flashy as Colabello’s (.258, with 29 home runs in 485 minor league games and .189-4-19 in 64 games for the Twins in 2012/13). He did, however, hit .412 in 17 at bats this spring, and had the thrill of lining up along the first base line for the Twins home opener player introductions.  Two openers, at two levels, in two days – that’s a busy schedule.

This Opening Day activity was NOT exciting.

This Opening Day activity was NOT exciting.

If there was one low-light to the game, it came in the third inning when a long fly ball down the right field line by As’ shortstop Jed Lawrie led to a lengthy (more than four minutes) replay review.  The initial foul call was upheld, but the whole process was unsatisfying for the fans. Note: This was the second four-minute-plus replay delay for the Twins this season.  BBRT remains old school in opposition to replays.  My feelings: 1) Over a 162-game season, the calls will even out.  2) Long replay delay disrupt the flow of the game, particularly for the pitcher; 3) At least, without the new challenge system, fans had something to watch when a manager disagreed with a call (arm waving, hat throwing, dust kicking and, of course, the ultimate: ejection).

All in all, despite the loss and the replay delay,  it was (as always) a good day at the ball park.   The sky was bright blue, the ball was stark white, the grass deep green and the fans adorned in lots of red and blue Twins’ garb.  The crack of the bat on a well hit ball was as sharp as ever, 95-mph fastball literally “popped” into the catchers’ mitts, the vendors’ voices were in good form and the “We’re gonna win Twins” theme song sung with gusto.  The players fans love to watch ended up with the dirtiest uniforms, mustard fingerprints somehow found their way to the edge scorecards around the stands and rally hats appeared in the late innings.  The hot dogs had that special ball park flavor, the scorecard was cheap and informative, the day’s slate of MLB games could be followed on the scoreboard – and Target Field remained one of MLB most inviting ball parks.  Oh yeah, and there was NO wave!  Perhaps, most important, baseball is back and winter is OVER.

With that review of opening day complete, let’s look at just a few interesting (at least for BBRT) early season developments.

Yu Darvish picked up right where he left off in 2013 throwing seven shutout innings (7 hits, 1 walk, 6 strikeouts) in his first start – beating the Rays 6-0 on April 6.  In the process, Darvish reached 500 career whiffs faster than any MLB pitcher ever (401 2/3 innings). Darvish topped the record (404 2/3 innings of the Cubs Kerry Wood).

Braves outfielder B.J. Upton also picked up where he left off.  After hitting .184 in 126 games in 2013, he finished the first week of the 2014 season 3-for-25 (.120 avg.) with 11 strikeouts in six games.

The World Champion Boston Red Sox threw their fans a curve.  After not being swept in a single home series in 2013, they were swept (3 games) by the Brewers in their first Fenway Park series of 2014.

Rockies’ center fielder Charlie Blackmon surprised the a large home crowd with a six-for-six day at the plate as Colorado topped Arizona 12-2 on April 4. Blackmon, who also made a “Web Gem” sliding catch in the top of the fourth, finished the day with three doubles, a home run, two singles, six runs and five RBI.  The 27-year-old Blackmon looks like he’s here to stay.  He averaged .309 in six minor league seasons – and .309 in 82 games for the Rockies in 2013.

Yasiel Puig surprised just a few fans, when he was benched for the Dodgers’ home opener after arriving late for pregame workouts.

Yankee captain Derek Jeter began his Mariano Rivera-like farewell tour with a pair of Yankees pinstriped Lucchese cowboy boots and a Stetson hat – presented by the Houston Astros.  More mementos are sure to come.  In the meantime, on Sunday (April 6), Jeter collected a pair of hits, to reach 3,320 for his career – placing him at eighth all time.

Here are the targets ahead:

Pete Rose – 4,256 hits

Ty Cobb – 4,189

Hank Aaron – 3,771

Stan Musial – 3,630

Tris Speaker – 3,514

Honus Wagner – 3,420

Carl Yastrzemski – 3,419

Finally, a special nod to Carle Place High School (Long Island, NY) junior Mike Delio, who not only tossed a 7-inning perfect game in his first outing as a varsity starter (Delio played for the junior varsity as freshman and sophomore), but also struck out all 21 hitters (on just 84 pitches – a low to mid-80s fastball and knucklecurve) in the 15-0 victory over Hempstead.

Baseball Lore – Teenager Girl Strikes Out Ruth and Gehrig, Using “Drop” Learned from Dazzy Vance

On April 2, 1931, 17-year-old Chattanooga Lookouts’ hurler Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell Gilbert (the second woman to sign a professional baseball contract*) walked to the mound with no outs, one run in and Yankee shortstop Lyn Lary on first base – in the first inning of an exhibition game against the vaunted New York Yankees.  Watching the petite 5’5” lefthander’s sidearm warm-up pitches (primarily sinkers) was the next scheduled batter – Babe Ruth. On deck was Ruth’s partner in power, Lou Gehrig.

That Jackie Mitchell should be in this spot was a surprise to some, but not all.  Mitchell was a skilled athlete, adept in both basketball and baseball.  Her father, Joseph Mitchell, began schooling her in the basics of baseball almost as soon as she could walk.  The finer points of pitching, in particular how to throw the sinker or drop ball, were passed on to Jackie at a very young age by her next door neighbor – future Baseball Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance.

By the time Mitchell was 17, she was playing for a traveling basketball team in the fall and winter and a women’s baseball team in the spring and summer.   Joe Engel, president of the Southern Association’s (AA) Chattanooga Lookouts, apparently liked what he saw and, on March 28, 1931, signed Mitchell to a Lookouts’ contract for the upcoming season.  Just five days after signing that contract, Mitchell walked to the mound, before a roaring crowd estimated at 4,000 – to face the great Babe Ruth.

The March 31, 1931, Chattanooga News wrote this about Mitchell just two days before her appearance.

“She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball. Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny.”

Mitchell – using a deceptive side-arm delivery and her trademark “drop ball” – started Ruth off with ball one.  Ruth then swung and missed at the next two pitches (prompting the Bambino to ask the umpire to inspect the ball). Ruth took Mitchell’s fourth offering for a called third strike on the outside corner – tossing his bat to the ground and stomping back to the dugout.  Unlike Ruth, Gehrig was in no mood to “take” any pitches and wound up swinging and missing at three straight “drops.”   Mitchell then walked Tony Lazzeri and her first (and what proved to be final) appearance for the Lookouts was done.  A few days later, Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis reportedly voided Mitchell’s contract, on the grounds that baseball was too strenuous for women.

Note: Although Mitchell’s historic appearance, and the fact that this was an exhibition game, minimize the importance of the outcome, the Yankees won the contest 14-4.

Mitchell continued to play baseball, joining a number of amateur squads and popular “barnstorming” baseball teams. She spent four years (1933-37) with the barnstorming House of David team, which once again gave her the opportunity to face major leaguers.  On September 12, 1933, Mitchell was the starting pitcher in a House of David 8-6 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Sportsman’s Park.  Mitchell left baseball in 1937 and declined an offer to come out of retirement to join the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League in 1943.

There was some controversy after Mitchell’s historic appearance against the Yankees, with critics theorizing it was a publicity stunt cooked up by Engel and agreed to by Ruth and Gehrig. They cite Engel’s reputation for promotion, Mitchell’s signing just days before the contest, and the fact that the game was originally scheduled for April Fools’ Day (but delayed due to rain).  If Ruth and Gehrig were “in on it,” they never said so, and others assert that the rumors of their involvement surfaced to protect male egos; and that Ruth and Gehrig were fooled by Mitchell’s unusual delivery and the significant drop of her sinker. Mitchell later said the only agreement with the Yankees was that they would that they would try to avoid hitting line drives straight up the middle (back to the mound). Whatever side you come down on, it’s a great story – and Jackie Mitchell is a great charactor –  from the history of our national pastime.  BBRT says: Like Tug McGraw, “Ya Gotta Believe!”

*In 1898. Elizabeth Stroud (under the name Lizzie Arlington) played (pitched) in a game for the Reading Coal Heavers of the Class B Atlantic league.

 

Below: L-R: Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Jackie Mitchell before the Lookouts/Yankee contest. 

 

Happy Real Opening Day!! Entertainment – and a rant.

Baseball RoundTable’s “Happy Opening Day” gift to all BBRT fans.  Actually, it’s a re-gift from 2012, but this comedy  bit – at least for me – never gets old.  

 

No that you’ve had some fun, here’s BBRT’s rant.  This year, we’ve had Opening Continent (Australia); Opening Night (San Diego) and now, finally, Opening Day. Whew! Having one team (LA Dodgers) play 3 games, while 27 of the 30 MLB teams have played zero, makes as much sense as the three or four ceremonial “first” pitches we so often see. Maybe, I’m old school (certainly the “old” part), but I miss the days when the NL opener was always in Cincy, the AL in Washington D.C. and everyone else opened on Day 2. Oh, yeah, and there was just one first pitch and no “wave.”

Regardless, it’s great to have baseball and box scores (not to mention hot dogs, scorecards, Twins caps and 6-4-3 double plays) back. I’ll be at the Twins’ home opener April 7.  Hope all BBRT followers make their home openers.

 

I tweet baseball  @DavidBBRT

Way Off Base – BBRT Projects 2014 Pennant Races

Way off base – that’s pretty much how BBRT’s 2014 predictions will be. I’m looking for a few surprises in the Division races – and I’m going to go out on a limb with a couple of my choices.  (Note:  To see BBRT’s predictions for 2014 MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year winners click here; for a look at 2014 “prospects” click here; and for comments on some veteran players BBRT will be watching this season click here.  Now for the Division races and post season. We’ll start with the basic predictions and move on to a team-by-team evaluation for those readers who like to dig a little deeper.  The look at the upcoming pennant races are, by the way, are more projections (of BBRT’s opinions) than predictions.  But, I think you’ll find some thought-provoking observations – even if you don’t agree.

Note:  BBRT held these predictions until after the opening series in Australia – and is still referring to them as “preseason” picks – to express my disapproval regarding these early overseas openers.  Not much of a protest, I admit.  However, you can see my last season’s rant on this topic here.

AL East

This may be the toughest division in baseball -  every team could finish above .500.  (In 2013, all but the Blue Jays finished north of .500 and, as a division, the AL East finished 55 games over break-even.)  BBRT is going against conventional wisdom and predicting the defending World Champion Red Sox will finish third, with the restructured (and better balanced, even with Robinson Cano) Yankees capturing the Division and the Rays (thanks to the East’s best pitching and defense) repeating as an AL Wild Card. Ultimately, however, any of these three teams can take the Division, depending on who gets the breaks (good and bad).

  1. Yankees
  2. Rays (Wild Card)
  3. Red Sox
  4. Orioles
  5. Blue Jays

AL Central

BBRT does not expect any big surprises in the AL Central.  The Tigers’ power hitting and, in particular, their power pitching should keep them in first place pretty much from wire to wire.  The Royals and Indians will fight it out for second place, with the Royals looking a bit deeper.

  1. Tigers
  2. Royals
  3. Indians
  4. White Sox
  5. Twins

AL West

BBRT looks for a shakeup in the AL West standings, with the Rangers winning the Division and the Angels (thanks in part to a finally healthy Albert Pujols) capturing second place (and an AL Wild Card spot). This may be the one division in which offense trumps pitching in determining the outcome, largely because the Athletics (winners of the West the past two seasons) have seen injuries bring their superior staff back to the pack. Still, the A’s have managed to surprise, so don’t count them out. They’ll stay close, but the firepower of the Rangers and Angels is likely to be too much to overcome.

  1. Rangers
  2. Angels (Wild Card)
  3. A’s
  4. Mariners
  5. Astros

NL East

It looks like a two-team race in the NL East, with the Washington Nationals poised to edge out the Atlanta Braves (whose chances to repeat at the top of the division are hampered by health issues in the starting rotation).  BBRT likes the Mets’ young pitching, mentored by newly acquired veteran Bartolo Colon, to bring them into third.

  1. Nationals
  2. Braves (Wild Card)
  3. Mets
  4. Phillies
  5. Marlins

NL Central

The 2013 NL Central race featured three teams that won 90 or more games – and all three made the playoffs.  Those franchises didn’t “mess with success.”  So, not much has changed and it looks like a three-team race again (Cards, Red, Pirates).  BBRT expects the Cards (who don’t seem to have a weakness) to come out on top again, with the Reds taking second (reversing positions with the Pirates).

  1. Cardinals
  2. Reds (Wild Card)
  3. Pirates
  4. Brewers
  5. Cubs

NL West

The Dodgers are the Cardinals of the West – a team with a strong pitching staff, solid defense and a well-balanced offense.  They should easily dominate the West, leaving the Diamondback and Giants to battle it out for second place and a likely Wild Card berth.  Going into the season, BBRT give the Giants the edge, based on a more consistent lineup and the belief that two of the three starting pitchers suffering subpar seasons in 2013 (Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelson, Tim Lincecum) will rebound and make pitching an SF strong suit again.  Arizona’s chances to hold off the Giants also were dimmed a bit by the loss of staff ace Patrick Corbin.

  1. Dodgers
  2. Giants
  3. Diamondbacks
  4. Padres
  5. Rockies

 

WORLD SERIES – TIGERS defeat DODGERS

Now, for those who want a deeper look, here are some team-by-team thoughts.

 

 AL EAST

 

Can Yankee captain Derek Jeter lead the Bombers to an East title?

Can Yankee captain Derek Jeter lead the Bombers to an East title?

Yankees – First Place

Probably no team made more changes in the off-season than the Yankees – and still they look as potentially successful and potentially susceptible (to age, injuries and controversy) as they did one year ago. Last year, BBRT correctly predicted the Bronx Bombers would miss the playoffs for just the second time in 19 seasons (although I also had the Blue Jays taking the East title). This year, a rejuvenated Yankee team should take the AL East.

Why? First, the key losses. Gone are: All Star 2B Robinson Cano (free agency); legendary closer Mariano Rivera (retirement); 3B Alex Rodriguez (suspension); 11-game winner Andy Pettite (retirement). Also moving on are pitchers Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Boone Logan; OF Curtis Granderson; and infielders Mark Reynolds and Kevin Youkilis.  The Yankees, however, did not just sit back and absorb the losses. In the offseason, they lured solid leadoff hitter Jacob Ellsbury (.298, 52 steals) from the division-rival Red Sox, picked up an All Star catcher in former Brave Brian McCann (a left-handed pull hitter, who could benefit from his new home park), and added a proven clutch hitter in Carlos Beltran (Cardinals).  Add this group to the line-up holdovers from last season’s 85-win squad and the Yankees line up looks stronger and more balanced than a year ago.

In addition, they signed a potential front-of-the-rotation starter in Masahiro Tanaka (24-0, 1.27 in Japan last season).  The Bronx Bombers still need a rebound from former ace C.C. Sabathia, but with Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova, contributions (finally and hopefully) from 2011 All Star Michael Pineda, and a bullpen headed by new closer David Robertson, the pitching looks to be in good shape.

Key Question – How much can the Yankees expect from Derek Jeter and Mark Teixiera, who played a combined 32 games last season?

Rays –Second Place/Wild Card

Pitching and Defense wins games – and that Rays have plenty of both.  BBRT believes  they have enough to again make it to the post season – despite the East’s lowest payroll.   Tampa Bay may have the best YOUNG starting staff in baseball in baseball in David Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Ordozzi (the likely replacement for injured Jeremey Hellickson). This staff is backed by a defense that’s made the second-fewest errors in all of MLB last season (59, second to Baltimore’s 54). For the end game, the Rays lost closer Fernando Rodney (who saved 37 games last year), but went out and picked up Grant Balfour (who saved 38 games with a 2.59 ERA for the A’s last year) and  Health Bell (168 career saves, with 43 saves a recently as 2011).

While the offense is spotty, BBRT sees enough punch – from 3B Evan Longoria, 1B James Loney and RF Wil Myers -  to take the Rays back to the playoffs.  A return to 20-homer power by 2B Ben Zobrist (.275-12-71 in 2013) would help.

Ultimately, the Rays will go as far as pitching and defense will carry them.  BBRT thinks that the distance will be measured in 90 wins and a Wild Card slot.

Key Question – How good can Wil Myers be?  If he continues to develop, the Rays offense will take an important step forward.

Red Sox – Third Place

The Boston Red Sox return the core of a last year’s World Series Champion team: On offense that means DH David Ortiz; 2B Dustin Pedroia; 1B Mike Napoli; and RF Shane Victorino.  The two key losses are leadoff hitter/CF Jacob Ellsbury and C Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Free agent signee A.J. Pierzynski (.272-17-70 with Texas) should bring enough offense and more than enough “grit” to replace “Salty,” but Ellsbury’s bat and speed will be missed at the top of the lineup.

The core of the Red Sox’ rotation also will be back (Jon Lester and Felix Doubront, Clay Bucholz, Jake Peavy and John Lackey). It’s a rotation without a lot of flash, but one that can offer consistent quality starts.  In the bull pen, it’s unlikely that 39-year-old closer Koji Uehara can repeat his 2013 success (4-1, 1.09, 21 saves – just 9 walks versus 101 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings). If he’s even close, however, the Red Sox will again have one of the league’s elite closers.  If Uehara falters, the Sox have free-agent pickup Edward Mujica (37 saves for the Cardinals last year) in the wings.

Overall, the Red Sox have a balanced team that should be in the race to the finish. But  considering the strength of the Division,  the possibility of two rookies in the line up and concerns over the age of some key veterans, BBRT sees that finish as third place. In AL East, however, the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox all have a chance to reach the post season.

Key Question – Who plays center field, rookie Jackie Bradley or comeback hopeful Grady Sizemore?

Orioles – Fourth Place

In any other Division, the Orioles might very well be fighting for the top spot. In the AL East, thin pitching may compromise their chances. The Birds boast a powerful line up, which also plays solid defense (the fewest errors in MLB in 2013).  The offense is led by 1B Chris Davis, last year’s AL HR and RBI leader. Davis gets solid support from holdovers CF Adam Jones, C Matt Weiters, SS J.J. Hardy and newcomer DH Nelson Cruz (all who popped 20+ home runs in 2013).   Of concern is Gold Glove/solid hitting third baseman Manny Machado’s recovery from knee surgery and whether at 30-years-old, OF Nick Markakis can reverse his decline at the plate and return to his 2007-09 form (when he averaged .299-20-100 per season).

Pitching, however, is the main issue – as it was last season when the Orioles used 14 starters.  The starting staff is led by right hander Chris Tillman and much-welcomed newcomer Ubaldo Jimenez, but lacks the depth of those at the top of the East. Couple that with the loss of All Star closer Jim Johnson (and no experienced replacement in the wings) and the Orioles, while still likely to top .500, are unlikely to compete with the AL East’s top three.

Key Question – Is Tommy Hunter (6-5, 2.81, 4 saves last season) ready to replace All-Star closer Jim Johnson (50 saves in 2013), now with the Athletics (especially since the O’s passed on Grant Balfour)?

Blue Jays – Fifth Place

In 2013, after a very busy winter – including the acquisition of Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey and Melky Cabrera –  many (including BBRT) had the Blue Jays making the playoffs. BBRT won’t make the same mistake again.  The Jays finished fifth in 2013 and didn’t improve their roster in the off season.  To compete in the tough East, the Jays will need a rebound from starters R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle (and then some – last season, the Jays’ starting ERA was the second worst in the AL), and full (read healthy) seasons from SS Jose Reyes and RF Jose Bautista.

Key Question – How many games – and what level of performance – will they get from the two Jose’s so key to their line up? Reyes and Bautista played 93 and 118 games, respectively, in 2013.

 

AL CENTRAL

Tigers – First Place

Justin Verlander leads the Tigers' staff of power arms.

Justin Verlander leads the Tigers’ staff of power arms.

While excitement in the Motor City may start with two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, it’s the power arms of the Tigers’ rotation that will keep Detroit on top of the AL Central – even after parting with slugger Prince Fielder and fourteen-game winner Doug Fister in the off season.

The Tigers have one of the best 1-2-3 mound combinations in baseball in Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander (2011 CYA) and Max Scherzer (2013 CYA) and Anibel Sanchez (who may have a CYA in his future).  The back of the rotation features Rick Porcello (a 13-game winner) last year and Fister’s likely replacement, Drew Smyly. The Tigers addressed a trouble spot in the off-season, acquiring veteran closer Joe Nathan (6-2, 1.39, 43 saves with Texas).

The offense is led by Cabrera, with capable support from the likes of RF Torii Hunter, CF Austin Jackson and DH Victor Martinez. Also adding to the offense is 2B Ian Kinsler (acquired in the Fielder trade), who not only improves the middle infield defense, but put up a 2013 line of .272-13-72, with 15 steals (and is only two season removed from a 32-home run campaign).  Still, there are challenges. The acquisition of Kinsler, following the mid-season 2013 acquisition of sharp-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias, was going to 1) shore up the infield defense, 2) allow Cabrera to move back to first, and 3) open third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos (.276-18-76 at AAA.)  The best-laid plans can go awry, and Iglesias will start the season on the Disabled List (stress fractures in both shins). This may leading to a platoon at the key SS position (unless the Tigers go after free agent Stephen Drew).  Still, the Tigers appear to have enough in a strong pitching staff and a balanced line up (led by run-producing machine Cabrera) to hold off the challengers until Iglesias returns.

Key Question – How long will Jose Iglesias be out – and who will fill the gap at shortstop?

Royals – Second Place

The Royals remained among the AL Wild Card contenders until late in the 2013  season – finishing ten games over .500 and showing promise for 2014.  While neither their pitching nor offense will dominate opponents, there is enough depth and quality in both to move up a notch into second place (and even challenge for a Wild Card berth).  The Royals are led on offense buy 1B Eric Hosmer and DH Billy Butler and, on the mound, by starter James Shields and closer Greg Holland (47 saves a year ago).  The Royals also can expect contributions on offense from the likes of C Salvador Perez, LF Alex Gordon, and RF Norichika Aoki. A rebound from 3b Mike Moustakas (.233-12-42 last year) would be a welcome boost.

The starting rotation doesn’t have the power of the Tigers, but there is consistency and quality in Shields, 15-game winner Jeremey Guthrie, Bruce Chen, Jason Vargas and highly touted rookie Yorlando Ventura.  The starting staff is backed by a bullpen that sees closer Holland ably supported by a group of hard-throwing setup and middle men.

Key Question – Will Mike Moustakas put up stronger power numbers in 2014?

Indians – Third Place

The Indians surprised a lot of people with 92 wins and a Wild Card spot last year.  This year, looks less promising. The first disturbing sign is the Tribe’s need to replace 350 innings of starting pitching due to the free-agent losses of  Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. The new rotation – led by last year’s 14-game winner Justin Masterson – has potential, but Corey Kluber is the only other starter with at least ten wins a year ago.  Danny Salazar showed electric stuff late in the season, and Zach McAllister should hold the number-four position. The Indians will need to hold auditions for the final spot and it’s time for Trevor Bauer to finally show his potential. If Bauer doesn’t step, we may see a move of hard-throwing Carlos Carrasco from the bull pen to the rotation. There are some quality arms in the bullpen, but still some uncertainty at closer. The hope is that newcomer John Axford (a set-up man in Milwaukee and Saint Louis in 2013) can close for the Indians. Axford did save 81 games for Milwaukee in 2011-12.

The offense looks decent, but not spectacular. The power needs to come from 1B Nick Swisher, DH Carlos Santana and 2B Jason Kipnis (who hit 22, 20 and 17 homers, respectively, last year). And solid seasons will be needed from C Yan Gomes, SS Asdrubal Cabrera, CF Michael Bourn and LF Michael Brantley.  The Indians have enough to edge over .500, but the Tigers and Royals put more potential on the field. Third base could be interesting, as the Indians appear to be looking at either moving C/DH  Carlos Santana to the hot corner (thanks to Gomes’ 2013 performance) or trying out Lonnie Chisenhall (who hit 11 home runs in 308 MLB at bats last year, but averaged only .225).

Key Question – Can projected lead-off hitter Michael Bourn improve on his .316 On Base Percentage? (As a Brave in 2012, Bourn hit .274, with a .348 OBP and 42 steals.  In 2013, those numbers dropped to .262, .316, 23.)

White Sox – Fourth Place

The White Sox won’t be in the race, but they should improve on last year’s 63-win season. On the mound, Chris Sale (11-14, 3.07) has true “ace” stuff and Jose Quintana and Erik Johnson showed potential in 2013. Overall, however,  the rotation is suspect. Couple that with the need to replace closer Addison Reed (hard-throwing Nate Jones – 89 whiffs in 78 innings last year is the most likely candidate) and Chicago will need plenty of offense to win. Unfortunately, the offense need help (only Miami scored fewer runs than the Sox last season, and the Sox didn’t do much to address the issue).  They did acquire CF Adam Eaton and 3B Mark Davidson in the off season; both are one-time “prospects” who have yet to realize their potential. Adam Dunn  and Cuban import Jose Abreu will be expected to supply the power. The Sox are hoping Abreu can be the next successful run producer out of Cuba (ala Yeonis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig).  The Sox may be better, but not third-place better.

Key Question: Will Jose Abreu (.316-19-60 in 83 games in Mexico) be the next successful Cuban import?

Minnesota Twins – Fifth Place

The Twins suffered the perfect storm in 2013 (again), finishing 25th out of 30 MLB teams in runs scored, while giving up the second most runs.  They should improve a bit –  but not enough –  in the pitching department with the addition of starters Ricky Nolasco (a reliable innings-eater who went 13-11, 3,70 with the Marlins and Dodgers last year) and Phil Hughes (who had a dismal 2013, but won 16 games in 2012).  The Twins also have an able bullpen, led by closer Glen Perkins (2-0, 2.30, 36 saves).

The Twins did little address their offsense in the off season.  Joe Mauer is the offensive leader, and his shift to first base may lead to a fourth batting title. After that it thins out fast. The Twins absolutely must have a rebound from OF/DH Josh Willingham (.208-14-48 last season after a .260-35-110 season in 2012). Further development from Brian Dozier (the top returning HR and RBI man at .244-18-66) would help; as would the emergence of either Oswaldo Arcia or Aaron Hicks as a productive corner outfielder.  The club is also looking at (and hoping for a rebound from) former Twin OF Jason Kubel, who suffered a notable decline in 2013, after a 30-homer season for he Diamondbacks in 2012.  If he could provide 15-20 HR power, he will find himself back in the Minnesota line up.  Realistically, after Mauer, Willingham and Dozier, the Twins lineup has a lot to prove.  The Twins do have solid – even top line – prospects on their way up both offensively (Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton) and on the mound (Alex Meyer and Trevor May), but they won’t be competitive until those names start to show up on the regular season roster.

Key Question – Will either Mike Pelfrey or Vance Worley – considered key acquisitions a year ago – rebound? In 2013, Pelfrey went 5-13, 5.19 and Worley went 1-5, 7.21.

 

AL WEST

Rangers – First Place

Prince Fielder brings his potent bat to the Rangers' offense.

Prince Fielder brings his potent bat to the Rangers’ offense.

The Ian Kinsler for 1B Prince Fielder (.279-25-106 in an “off year’) trade, the addition of LF Shin-Soo Choo (.285-21 HR, 20 steals, 107 runs) at the top of the order, coupled with injury concerns in the Oakland A’s starting rotation pave the way for Texas to capture the West title in a close race with the Angels.  There will be plenty of offense in Texas, with Fielder, Choo and the likes of 3B Adrian Beltre (.315-30-92), RF Alex Rios, SS Elvis Andrus.  In evaluating the Rangers’s offense, it’s also important to recognize it’s not all about power.  Andrus, Choo, Rios and CF Leonys Martin stole a combined 114 bases in 2013.

The pitching is less stable – and, in fact, pitching concerns are common across the Division. . Yu Darvish gives the Rangers a true number-one (and potential Cy Young Award winne)r, but Derek Holland (10-9, 3.42) and Matt Harrison will start the season on the DL. Martin Perez (10-6, 3.62) is in the number-two slot. That leaves a fight for rotation spots among Alexi Ogando, Coby Lewis, Tommy Hanson, Robbie Ross and Joe Saunders – and we may see a staff generated by default. (There has even been some talk of moving Tanner Scheppers – was thought of as a potential replacement for Nathan -from the bullpen to the rotation. Scheppers delivered a 1.88 ERA in 76 innings last season.) The Rangers also face the prospect of replacing departed closer Joe Nathan (43 saves in 2013), with Neftali Perez and Joakim Soria the key candidates.

Ultimately, BBRT thinks the Rangers have enough offense to offset any shortcomings on the mound.

Key Question – Will the Rangers’ bullpen – minus Joe Nathan and whomever moves into the rotation to replace Derek Holland and Matt Harrison – be able to hold the  leads the offense and rotation pass on to them?

Angels – Second Place/Wild Card

The Angels were a major disappointment in 2013, finishing 78-84, despite high expectations from fans and analysts alike.  While many prognosticators seem to have learned their lesson and project a third- or fourth-place finish for the Halos, BBRT projects the Angels to finish second – thanks in part to the pitching woes facing their key competitors (the Rangers and Athletics).  This is based on the blief that 1B Albert Pujols (finally free from plantar fasciitis) and a revitalized LF Josh Hamilton will rebound from 2013’s performance (putting together combined 2014 total in the area of 60/65 home runs and 200/220 RBI). Add in the expected contributions of the phenomenal Mike Trout, 2B Howie Kendrick and newcomer 3B David Freese and the Angels’ offense should be potent (despite the loss of Mark Trumbo).

The starting rotation will again be led by Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson and there is potential for improvement in Garret Richards (a 3.59 ERA in the second half) and Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs (both acquired in the Trumbo trade).  The bullpen looks sound enough, with Ernesto Fieri (37 saves) now in the closer role.  To finish second, the Angels just need reasonable performance from the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation (provided Pujols and Hamilton live up to expectations and Trout stays healthy).

Key Question – Is a healthy Albert  Pujols ready reverse his declining offensive numbers? If so, he changes not only the strength of the Angels lineup, but its “attitude” as well.

A’s – Third Place

The A’s have surprised a lot of people –including BBRT – taking the West title the past two seasons. Pitching (the AL’s second-lowest ERA in 2013) has been the key – lots of strong young arms in the rotation and a solid bullpen. Now the A’s go into the season with two key starters (Jarrod Parker and A.J Griffin) on the DL and All Star Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65)  replace by Scott Kazmir (10-9, 4.04 with Cleveland), the A’s pitching comes back to the AL West pack in 2013.  The A’s lost closer Grant Balfour, but their strong bullpen should not skip a beat, thanks to pick up Jim Johnson (50 saves last year).

The lineup is intriguing – if not stable (no specific lineup/batting order  was used more than five tims last season). Its strength is in its depth (four players with 20+ homers, led by 1B Brandon Moss, 3B Josh Donaldson and LF Yeonis Cespedes), rather than its ability to simply overpower the opposition.

Ultimately, the A’s need strong seasons from young starters Dan Straily and Sonny Gray and continued platoon magic to repeat as Division champs.  BBRT thinks they will fall a bit short.

Key Question – Is Josh Reddick  fully recovered from wrist surgery and ready to return to his Gold Glove and 32-homer form of 2012?  If so, he adds a powerful bat and solid defense to the A’s outfield – perhaps enough to push the club into the post season.

Mariners – Fourth Place

The Mariners made the biggest splash in the offseason signing 2B Robinson Cano (as well as Cory Hart and Logan Morrison) to bolster an offense that finished 12th in the AL in runs scored. There isn’t enough protection for Cano in a lineup that hit only .237 a year ago. Unfortuately,  the lack of offense production will likely derail the work of a pretty solid pitching staff led by Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, high-potential youngster Taijuan Walker and new closer Fernando Rodney. Overall, it looks like a 13th consecutive season out of the playoffs for Seattle.

Key Question –   Is Corey Hart, after surgery on both knees, ready to contribute?  Hart who did not play last season, is a two-time All Star, who hit .270, with 30 home runs in 2012. A healthy Hart could help create more opportunities for Cano.

Astros – Fifth Place

The Astros finished an MLB-worst 50 games under .500 in 2013 and seem to be treading water while they wait for a host of prospects (George Springer, Jonathan Singleton, Carlos Correa, Mark Appel) to work their way onto the roster. Newcomer Scott Feldman (12-12, 3.86 with the Cubs and Orioles last year) will add some experience and could help bring some of yound mound talent along.  The bullpen, which blew 29 saves a year ago, should be better, with the Astros signing veterans Jessie Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers.  Overall, the team will be improved, but not enough to move up in the AL West standing.

Key Question – When will we see Of George Springer, Minor League Baseballs 2013 Offensive Player of the Year (.303-37-108, with 45 steals at AA/AAA last season)?

 

NL EAST

 Nationals – First Place

A breakout season by Bryce Harper could put the Nats on top of the NL East.

A breakout season by Bryce Harper could put the Nats on top of the NL East.

It all starts on the mound for the Nationals, who boast what may be the NL’s top rotation – Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmerman, newcomer Doug Fister (replacing departed Dan Haren) and Ross Detwiler or Taylor Jordan in the fifth spot.  Backing up this quality rotation is a bullpen headed by Rafael Soriano (43 saves, despite a loss in velocity).  If the Nationals do have a weak point, it may be the pen, which had the NL’s fifth worse ERA a year ago.  With the strength of the rotation, however, the bull pen should not be over-taxed.

The Nationals’ offense should be provide plenty of spark – led by LF Bryce Harper (just 21-years-old and primed for a breakout season), 3B Ryan Zimmerman, SS Ian Desmond, RF Jayson Werth, and 1B Adam LaRoche – all of whom reached at least 20 home runs in 2013.  All the pieces are in place to unseat the Braves – and new manager Matt Williams may prove to be just the right skipper to keep this crew on an even keel.l Critical to 2014 success will be a strong confidence-building  start to the season.

Key Question: Will this be the year the carefully handled Stephen Strasburg reaches 200 innings pitched? That would signal good things for the Nats,  a great season for Strasburg and less stress for the bull pen,

Braves – Second Place – Wild Card

The Braves easily captured the NL East last year despite sub-par seasons from a trio of key players CF (B.J Upton and 2B Dan Uggla both hit under .200 and RF Jayson Heyward managed only 14 home runs and 38 RBI).  Line-up issues are amplified this season by the need to replace All Star catcher Brian McCann. There is, however, ample offense in 1B Freddie Freeman (.319-23-109 and a legitimate MVP candidate), LF Justin Upton (.263-27-70) and 3B Chris Johnson (.321-12-68). Even SS Andrelton Simmons chipped in with 17 round trippers.  Still, the Braves can ill-afford to have one-third of the lineup underachieving in 2014.

The Braves also face some challenges on the mound, where starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy could both be lost for the season and Mike Minor is likely unavailable early on.   The Braves did acquire free agent Ervin Santana, but the disruption to the rotation could prove costly.  Still, they have quality starters in Alex Wood (3-3, 3.13) and Julio Teheran (14-8, 3.20) – with Teheran potentially filling the role of number-one starter. Others auditioning for starting roles include journeyman Freddie Garcia and David Hale and Gus Schlosser.  While the rotation is in disarray, the bullpen is solid, with closer Craig Kimbrel (50 saves, 1.21 ERA, 13+ strikeouts per nine inning) possibly the best in the business.

Ultimately, BBRT projects the patchwork rotation will cost the Braves a repeat East title (and, if Minor is out for very long, perhaps even a Wild Card slot).

Key Question – Can B.J. Upton (.184-9-26 in 2013) join brother Justin as a key contributor to the Braves’ offense? 

Mets – Third Place

Despite losing ace Matt Harvey for the season, the Mets look to be in good shape to hold on to third place in the East. Plus, they get points for showing a commitment to becoming competitive in the off season, with such acquisitions as OF Curtis Granderson and SP Bartolo Colon. In addition, they made some low risk signings in starters Daisuke Matsuzaka and John Lannan and relievers Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth. The offense will be, again, centered around 3B David Wright, with a supporting cast of Granderson, 1B Ike Davis (hopefully healthy) and 2B Daniel Murphy.

The real excitement, however, is focused on the starting rotation, where Jon Neise, Zack Wheeler and Dillon Gee have all shown potential (all with ERAs under 3.75 a year ago), veteran Bartolo Colon (18-6, 2.65 last year) is now on board as the number-one starter (and mentor), Jenrry Mejia has a shot at the number-five spot, and Noah Syndergard (when he comes up) could possibly be the best of the lot. (And, don’t forget Matt Harvey for 2015.)  The bull pen needs help (hence the signing of vets Farnsworth and Valverde) and may prove a trouble spot.

Ultimately, the Mets’ solid pitching will enable them to hold on to third place – and a weak offense will keep them for going any higher.  That said, if the Braves’ rotation suffers a complete meltdown, the Mets could move up a notch.

Key Question – Can Curtis Granderson return to form?  Granderson is only one season, a fractured forearm and a broken knuckle away from a 43- home run, 126 RBI season (2012). 

Phillies – Fourth Place

To move up a notch in the standing, the Phillies would need key infield veterans like 1B Ryan Howard, 2B Chase Utely, and SS Jimmy Rollins to rebound.  Howard is particularly important, being a potential 40-home run bat when healthy.  If those three can once again do some damage, there is help available from the outfield – CF Ben Revere (.305, with 16 steals in 88 games), RF Marlon Byrd (.294-24-88) and CF Dominic Brown (.272-27-83).

The Phillies’ rotation will be missing Roy Halladay (retirement), but it still looks pretty good with Cliff Lee (14-8, 2.87), newcomer A.J. Burnett (10-11, 3.30 with the Pirates) and Cole Hamels expected back in late April or early May. The rotation falls off after those three, with the Phils likely to fill out the last two spots from among Kyle Kendrick, Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), Miguel Gonzalez and spring surprise David Buchanan.  The pen ccould be problematic, with closer Jonathan Papelbon (29 saves a years ago) showing signs of wear.

The Phillies are a veteran team and age seems to be catching up with key players.  BBRT is hoping that the majority of those veteran players rebound.  Couple that with the fact that Lee, Burnett and Hamels should help prevent long losing streaks and the Phillies – though not in contention – could finish third. Fourth, however, seems more likely.

Key Question – Will Cole Hamels rehab remain on track and will he be ready to take his turn in the rotation by May 1?

Marlins – Fifth Place

Like the Phillies, the Marlins will be improve this year, but their 100-loss season leaves so much room for improvement, they can take good strides without reaching .500.  Clearly, they need to jump start the offense.  In 2013, the Marlins finished last among all MLB teams in runs scored, home runs and batting average.  Newcomers C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, SS Rafael Furcal, 1B Garrett Jones and 3B Casey McGehee will help – but there are no Cano-like bats in that mix. What could really help would be a return to form by Giancarlo Stanton, who fell from .290-37-86 in 2012 to .249-24-62 in 2013.

The fish should draw big crowds every fifth day – if just to watch exciting 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez (12-6, 2.19) take the mound. After that there’s potential in a set of young arms (Nathan Eovaldi, Henderson Alvarez, Jacob Turner), but no one with more than five victories a year ago. If the starters can get the game to the pen, the Marlins have some hard throwers to get to the ninth inning and closer Steve Cishek (34 saves).

Ultimately, a lack of offense and a starting rotation learning on the job will result in a fifth-place finish.

Key Question – Are Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton enough to put a few more fans in the seats?

NL CENTRAL

Cardinals – First Place

Yadier Molina - potential MVP for Central Division title bound Cardinals.

Yadier Molina – potential MVP for Central Division title bound Cardinals.

The Cardinals have chance to return to the World Series in 2013, boasting a well-balanced team that should repeat as NL Central champions.   They have a solid rotation – one through five – in Adam Wainwright (19-9), Michael Wacha (4-1), Shelby Miller(15-9), Lance Lynn (15-10) and Joe Kelly (10-5) – and a sound bullpen led by closer Trevor Rosenthal (who took over after Edward Mujica, now with Boston, lost the job), with support from Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist, Randy Choate and Seth Maness.  Wisely, the Cardinals did not mess with success and everyone is back in their roles for 2014.

The Cardinals’ lineup is also stacked, starting behind the plate with hard-hitting, Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina – a potential NL MVP.  The infield boasts 1B Matt Adams (.284, 17 HRs), major prospect 2B Kolten Wong, 3B Matt Carpenter (.318-11-78) and newcomer SS Jhonny Peralta (.303-11-55 in 107 games). The outfield features solid defense, as well as the bats of Matt Holliday and Allen Craig in the corners. Defensive wiz Petrer Bourjus was signed to hold down CF until top prospect Oscar Taveras is ready.

Key Question – Hard to find a question with this squad, maybe “Is Kolten Wong ready?”  If he needs more seasoning, the Cardinals have free-agent signee Mark Ellis as insurance. 

Reds – Second Place – Wild Card

While the Reds are not likely to overtake the Cardinals, they are in a good position to move past the Pirates into second place (and a Wild Card berth) in the Central. They have a strong lineup led by 1B Joey Votto, 2B Brandon Phillips, 3B Todd Frazier and RF Jay Bruce.  They did lose lead-off hitter/CF Shin-Soo Choo, and are hoping speedster Billy Hamilton can fill the void.  (In the minors, Hamilton hit .311 with 155 stolen bases in 2012 and followed up by hitting .256 with 75 steals at AAA in 2013).  He hit .368 in 13 games after being called up by the Cardinals (with 13 steals in 14 attempts), but there’s still some concern regarding his ability to get on base at the major league level.  If he can hit .250 and draw some walks, Hamilton can be a real game changer.

The Reds have a solid five-man rotation – Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Tony Cingrani, Mat Latos and Mike Leake.  They will, however, miss innings-eater Bronson Arroyo (lost to free agency) – and the bullpen will have to adjust following the late Spring Training injury to flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman.

Overall, the Reds seem to fall just short of the Cardinals (particularly in depth) and will miss key contributors Arroyo, Choo and Chapman.  End result, second place in a tough race with the Pirates.

Key Question – Who will step up and fill the closer’s role, while Aroldis Champman heals?

Pirates – Third Place

The Pirates were the feel-good team of 2013, making the playoffs and logging their first winning season in 20 years. The offense will again be led by 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen and league co-leader in home runs 3B Pedro Alvarez, with support from 2B Neil Walker, C Russell Martin, and LF Sterling Marte. SS Jordy Mercer and RF Jose Tabata also hit well in 2013 (averaging .285 and .282, respectively).  Still, even with McCutchen in the line up and the rest matching last year’s performance, the offensive firepower is not as intimidating as the Cardinals or Reds.

The Pirates have a good rotation, with Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, and Francisco Liriano, Wandy Rodriguez and Charlie Morton – but again, the Bucs don’t match the Cards or Reds.  It would help if prospect Jameson Taillon fully mastered his command and took a spot in the rotation, or if Edinson Volquez (a low risk signee) became the next Francisco Liriano (Comeback Player of the Year).  The bullpen is a true strength, led by closer Jason Grilli and set up man Mark Melancon, with support from Tony Watson, Justin Wilson and Vin Mazzaro. (Last season these five compiled a  2.25 ERA over 340 innings).

While the Pirates are not likely to match last season’s 94 wins, they should again be over .500 and in the Wild Card hunt.

Key Question – Has the so often up-and-down Liriano (16-8, 3.02) finally righted his ship, or is he due for another down year?  The Pirates need Liriano to repeat his 2013 performance (or at least come close) to contend and to take some of the load off the bullpen.

Brewers – Fourth Place

Offense should be the Brewers strength this season, led by Ryan Braun (returning from his Biogenesis-related suspension). In addition to getting Braun back, the Brewers signed free agents Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay to address a power shortage at first base and Matt Garza to bolster the rotation.  The Brewers also expect strong numbers from CF Carlos Gomez (who had a breakout .284-24-73, 40 steals campaign in 2013), LH Khris Davis, SS Jean Segura and 3b Aramis Ramirez. This is a potent line up, but the key is Braun. In his first six seasons, Braun averaged .313-34-107, 21 steals, and he’s anxious to re-prove and redeem himself.  Look for a big season.

The Brewers signed Matt Garza and Will Smith in the off–season to bolster the pitching staff, which still lacks a true ace and depends on a relatively inexperienced closer. However, there is reason for hope. The staff posted an excellent 3.31 over the second half of the season.  The rotation of Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Wily Peralta, and Marco Estrada could surprise.

The Brewers suffered through suspension (Braun) and injury (Braun, 2B Rickie Weeks, 3b Aramis Ramirez) last season. If healthy, they can improve significantly on their 74-88 record.  Catching any of top three (Cards, Red, Pirates), however, is not likely.

Key Question – Who replaces traded lead-off hitter Norichika Aoki? The leading candidate are SS Jean Segura (.294-12-49, with 44 steals) and 2B Scooter Gennet ( .324-6-21, 2 steals in 69 games after hitting .280 in 79 contests at AAA). It looks like Segura and Scooter in the one and two spots – setting the table for Braun and company.

Cubs – Fifth Place

The Cubs have rotation is headed by  Travis Wood, Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson – who went a combined 25-43 in he Cubs 66-96 2013 season.  It wasn’t all their fault, however, as only the Marlins and White Sox scored fewer runs than the Cubbies last year (tough to be a baseball fan from Chicago).  Unfortunately, the offense looks pretty much the same for 2014.  The heart of the lineup will again be 1b Anthony Rizzo, SS Starlin Castro and RF Nate Schierholtz – and the first two need to rebound from sub-par seasons in 2014.

The pitching looks a little better than the offense, with Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood showing the most promise (Wood rang up a 3.11 ERA in 200 innings and Samardzija fanned 214 batters in 213 2/3 innings). Edwin Jackson is holding the number-three spot, Jason Hammel number four and number five could be drawn from among Carlos Villaneuva, James McDonald, Chris Rusin and Tsuyoshi Wada.  BBRT expects we will see a lot of starters moving through the rotation.

The team did take steps to bolster a bullpen that had the second most blown saves (26) in 2013, signing Jose Veras, who saved 21 games for Detroit and Houston one year ago. Pedro Strop should be the primary setup man.

Final analysis – a long summer at Wrigley.

Key Question – How many of the Cubs’ young prospects will we see at  Wrigley this year?

 

NL WEST

Dodgers – First Place

Clayton Kershaw's strong left arm should propel Dodgers to the top of the West.

Clayton Kershaw’s strong left arm should propel Dodgers to the top of the West.

The Dodgers starting rotation may not be five-deep in quality like the Cardinals, but LA’s top three – Clayton Kershaw,  Zack Grienke and Hyun-Jin Ryu – bring more to the mound than the Rebirds’ top of the rotation. The trio last season went a combined 45-21, with a 2.44 ERA (led by Kershaw’s 16-9, 1.83).  Overall, the Dodger rotation’s 3.13 ERA was the lowest in MLB. For 2014, the final two spots appear slated for Josh Beckett and newcomer Dan Haren (replacing a rehabbing Chad Billingsley). The bullpen is staffed with quality arms (and a host of former closers) led by closer Kenley Jansen (28 saves, 1.88 ERA in 2013), with support from Brian Wilson, Chris Perez, Brandon League and J.P. Howell.

The Dodgers’ lineup combines great defense with solid offense (which should be even better in 2014 with a full season of SS Hanley Ramirez (.345-20-57 in 86 games) and RF Yasiel Puig (.319-19-42 in 104 games). The outfield of Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Puig is one of the best offensively and defensively – and will only get stronger when Matt Kemp is ready gto rejoins the lineup.

Key Question – Can hard-hitting Cuban star Alex Guerrero make the transition shortstop to second base (or will Dee Gordon man the keystone)?  Guerrero could bring even more power to the LA lineup.

Giants – Second Place

Picking the Giants for second place reflects BBRT’s confidence that the once vaunted starting rotation (which finished 2013 with the third worst ERA in the NL) can regain its luster.  Madison Bumgarner led the way last year at 13-9, 2.77 ERA. If the Giants are to improved significantly on their 76-86 record of a year ago, Bumgarner will need some help from holdovers Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, who all had subpar years in 2013.  BBRT expects better things from Cain and Vogelson.  Cain (8-10, 4.00 in 2013) is only one season removed from a 16-5, 2,79 campaign, while Vogelsong (4-6, 5.73) was 14-9, 3.37 in 2012.  Two-time Cy Young Award winner Lincecum may be less of a rebound candidate after consecutive down years.  Rounding out the rotation is veteran Tim Hudson, who should be an asset on the mound and in the clubhouse.  The bullpen is adequate, with closing duties being handled by slider specialist Sergio Romo (38 saves in 2013).

The lineup is solid with MVP-candidate C Buster Posey (.294-15-72  in an off year) complemented by the likes of  3B Pablo Sandoval,  1B Brandon Belt, 2B Marco Scutaro (who needs to overcome back problems), CF Angel Pagan and RF Hunter Pence.  Six of there eight lineup regulars hit between .278 and .297 in 2013. The team finished fourth in the NL in batting last year, but tenth in runs – primarily due to a need for more power (the Giants finished ahead of only Miami in home runs.  To address that issue, they signed OF Micheal Morse, who hit 13 home runs in 88 games last year, but posed a 30+ HR season as recently as 2011.

Overall, the Giants have a steady – if not spectacular lineup – that should produce enough runs to grab second place and a Wild Card spot.

Key Question – It’s been the same for two seasons – What’s happened to Tim Lincecum and can he regain his All Star form?

Diamondbacks – Third Place

Arizona made a number of key acquisitions via both free agency and trade. They added another bat to the offense, acquiring OF/1BMark Trumbo (.234-34-100), added starter Bronson Arroyo (14-12, 3.79) to the rotation, and brought in closer Addison Reed (40 saves for the White Sox).  Trumbo may be the key to the offense, providing protection for 1B Paul Goldschmidt (an MVP candidate who went .302-36-125, with 15 steals a year ago). Additional offense will come from 3B Martin Prado, RF Gerardo Parra, 2B Aaron Hill and c Miguel Montero. BBRT also expects improvement from 26-year-old CF A.J. Pollock, who played good defense and put up a .269-8-38, 12 steals line in 2013.

The Diamondbacks will sorely miss starter Patrick Corbin (14-8, 3.41), lost for all or most of the season due to a partially torn ligament in his pitching elbow. With Corbin out, it’s critical Arroyo overcome back issues that emerged in spring. The Diamondbacks expect quality starts from Trevor Cahill (8-10, 3.99) and Wade Miley (10-10, 3.55); with the four and five spots in the rotation likely to Brandon McCarthy (5-11, 4.53) and Randall Delgado (5-7, 4.26).  Arroyo should be a calming influence  on  and mentor to –  the young staff.  Addison Reed is set as closer in a bullpen that should hold its own.

Arizona should be in the hunt for second place, but the loss of Corbin is a serious blow. If the Giants rotation falters again, however, the Diamondbacks are ready to move past San Francisco into a Wild Card slot,

Key Question – Can prospect Archie Bradley (12-5, 1.97 at AA last year) make the jump to the Diamondbacks at some time in the season, easing the rotation issues

Padres – Fourth Place

The Padres may surprise a few people this season, and BBRT would not be surprised to see them improve on 2013’s 76-86 record, but anything beyond fourth place is unlikely.

The Padres starting rotation will be led by Andrew Cashner, 10-9, 3.09 in his first full season as a starter. Number-two looks to be Ian Kennedy, picked up from the Diamondbacks at last season’s trade deadline.  After going 3-8, 5.23 in Arizona, Kennedy found pitcher-friendly Petco Park to his liking, going 4-2, 4,24 for the Padres – and he is only two seasons (2011) away from a 21-4 campaign. There is also potential in free-agent signee Josh Johnson (2-8, 6.20 in an jnjury-plagued 2013 season in Toronto), but he’s already starting 2014 on the Disabled List.  Veteran Eric Stults, 11-13, 3.93 last season and Tyson Ross are expected to round out a rotation that has the potential to be fairly good (particularly at home). Closing duties will be handled by Huston Street (33 saves, 2.70 in 2013). Street has been on the DL three times in the last two seasons, so the Padres added Joaquion Benoit (who saved 24 games for the Tigers last season) as a set-up man and closer “insurance.”

While the pitching has the potential to be competitive – if the starters can avoid injury – the offense needs work.  The Padres finished 12th in the NL in runs scored and did not make any significant moves to improve. What they need most in a rebound from 3B Chase Headley, who went from .286-31-115 in 2012 to .250-13-50 in an injury-marred (thumb and knee) in 2013. The Padres offense really will go only as far as Headley’s bat can take them. Most of Headley’s offensive help will come from 2b Jedd Gyorko (23 HRs in 2013), Carlos Quentin (.275-13 HRs), CF Will Venable (22 HRs/22 SBs) and SS Everath Cabrera (.283, 37 steals – despite a 50-game suspension).

Rockies – Fifth Place

The Rockies went shopping in the offseason.  They picked up free agent LaTroy Hawkins to close games and free agent/former AL MVP Justin Morneau to handle first base. Both are former Twins and the Rockies hope they like Colorado’s mountain air as much as another former Twin, RF Micheal Cuddyer, last year’s NL batting champ (.331 – 56 points higher than his career average).  Also acquired, through trades, were starting pitchers Brett Anderson and Jordan Lyles, reliever Franklin Morales and OF Drew Stubbs. If any of these are going to make a major impact, Morneau and Hawkins are the most likely suspects.

Pitching will again be in short supply in Colorado (Colorado starters  had the NL’s worst ERA, 4.57, in 2013). Still, the Rockie’s have a three starters that put up good numbers last season: Jorge De La Rose (16-6, 3.49), Jhoulys Chacin (14-10, 3.48)  and Tyler Chatwood (8-5, 3.14). All three, like newcomer Anderson, have injuries in their history.  If they stay healthy, however, the Rockies have a chance to improve on last seasons 80-82 record. The bullpen could be interesting. First, in 2013, not to be outdone by the starters, they ran up the N L’s nighest bullpen ERA (4.23) – in great part due to the loss of closer Rafeal Betancourt (who will miss all of 2014 after Tommy John surgery), which changed roles across the pen. This year, the closing duties fall to 41-year-old LaTroy Hawkins. If the ageless one is up to the task, the bullpen may stabilize.  If not, it could be a long year in the late innings.

The offense is fairly good, led by CF Carlos Gonzalez (.302-26-70), SS Troy Tulowitzki (.312-25-82), C  Wilin Rosario (.292-21-79) and RF Cuddyer’s (.331-20-85). Keep in mind,through, they get half their at bats in Colorado’s rarified air.

If key members of the offense avoid injury and De La Rosa, Chacin and Chatwood can repeat last year’s performance, the Rockies could move over .500 and into fourth place (I don’t see them catching the Dodgers, Giants or Diamondbacks).  BBRT think that too much has to go right for that to happen.

Key Question – Will Colorado’s mountain air and the chance to reunite with former teammate Micheal Cuddyer revitalize 2006 AL MVP and four-time All Star Justin Morneau’s bat?

Feel free to toss in your questions, opinions, projections and predictions in the comments section.

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

 

 

BBRT’s Spring is Officially Here!

Spring is here!

Spring is here!

Spring is now officially here for BBRT.  Last year, it began with a Yankees’ Spring Training game. See that post (Link Here).  This year, it began at yesterday’s Mets/Nationals contest, at the Nationals’ Space Coast Stadium (Viera, Florida).  While the score is of little impact (Mets won 7-5), the game had all BBRT has come to expect from Spring Training.

There was, of course, the very messy scorecard – The Nationals used 25 players (seven pitchers), while the Mets used 20 (just four pitchers).  It was, however, still my first completed scorecard of 2014.

Like many spring games, it started out pretty “clean.”  It was just 2-1 (in favor of the Nats) after seven innings – with a two-team total of 8 hits and two walks.  And, like so many Spring Training contests, it got a little “loose” at the end – a total of nine runs on eight walks and seven hits in the final two frames.

Still, it was baseball in the sun – 63 degrees at game time, low seventies by the late innings.  And, the price was right, right field box seats (row 5) for $22.  And, as always, there was plenty to see and talk about - a controversial infield fly call in the seventh, fan conversation surrounding the use of designated hitters in a game involving two NL teams, hot dog vendors in short supply and spectators wondering why the umps were wearing jackets.

Bryce Harper look strong this spring.

Bryce Harper looks strong this spring.

For BBRT, there was the first witnessed double play of the season (my season doesn’t really start until I see a twin killing).  In top of the third, Nats’ third baseman Zach Walters made a nice backhanded grab, threw to second baseman Jeff Kobernus, who completed the play with a throw to first baseman Adam LaRoche. I got to see former Twins Denard Span (we still miss him in Minnesota) lead off for the Nats with a double, steal third and score on a ground out by Bryce Harper. LaRoche, Span, Harper, names we’ll hear a lot more about during the regular season.

There were a pair of unlikely hitting stars.  The only home run of the game (a three-run shot in the eighth inning) came off the bat of Nationals’ first baseman Brock Peterson, who had replaced Adam LaRoche in the top of the inning.  The 30-year-old Peterson had a mid-season call-up with the Cardinals last season (after a decade of minor league and independent ball). Peterson, who hit .296, with 25 homers and 86 RBI in 122 Triple A games last year, went just 2-for-26 with 11 strikeouts for the Cardinals in 2013 (and was released after the season).  Trying to win a roster spot with the Nationals, the 1B is 7-for-18 (.389) with one home run and six RBI this spring.

The other player with three RBIs in the game was Mets’ right fielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis (gotta love the name on the back of the uniform).  Known as a fine defensive outfielder, Nieuwenhuis hit just .236 in 138 games for the Mets over the past two seasons.  He’s having a decent Spring Training (.304-1-7 in 10 games) – but is trying to retain a spot in a crowded Mets’ outfield.  In this game, he earned his three RBI with a bases loaded walk in the eighth inning and the game-winning two-run single in the ninth (breaking a 5-5 tie).

The feathered fan is high on Spring Training baseball.

This feathered fan is high on Spring Training baseball.

The winning pitcher?  Met’s righty Jacob deGrom, who arrived in the “winner’s circle” via a blown save, 1 1/3 innings pitched, with two hits, two walks, one earned run and one strikeout. (He came on with two outs and two on in the eighth and gave up Brock Peterson’s three-run, game-tying shot. ) deGrom who has yet to pitch at the MLB level is 1-0, 1.23 ERA this spring – giving up one run on four hits, with three walks and seven strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings.

Also got to see a “prospect” BBRT is high on (see my prospect post here) – Mets 6’6” right hander Noah Syndergaard, a rookie being counted on for the 2014 rotation.  Syndergaard was a little shaky, but did show good stuff – fanning five in 3 2/3 innings. He has ten Ks in 8 2/3 spring innings and last season struck out 11.5 per nine innings at AA.

A different kind of wave from the Nationals' bullpen.

A different kind of wave from the Nationals’ bullpen.

A few other observations from this first game.  1) I completed my usually ball park Bloody Mary test.  On the plus, they pour the vodka and let you add the mix and condiments (olives, celery, peppers, pickles, various hot sauces, salt, pepper.) On the negative – $12 price tag and the cup was simply identified as “Bloody Mary” – no team logo to make it a free souvenir. The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers Bloody Mary bar is still the best I’ve come across (see it here ). 2)  A seagull nesting atop a light pole provided a particular Florida flavor to the game. 3) The Nat’s bullpen provided a friendly kind of wave and retrieved foul balls for young fans. 4) My first ball park hot dog of the year, with fried peppers and onions, was delicious (I was at a ball game, after all) and priced right at just $6; making up for the $12 Bloody Mary.

 

Ahhh!  Spring is here!

MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Predictions

As the regular season approaches, it’s time for some BBRT predictions – starting with the major player awards.  Here’s what BBRT sees for MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. We’ll start with the senior circuit.

National League MVP – Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals

Yadier MolinaIf the Diamondbacks had a better shot at the post season, this prediction would be a lot more difficult. Yadier Molina would be joined as a front runner by Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt, last year, led the NL in homers (36) and RBI (125), while tossing in a .302 average and 15 steals. The fact is, Goldschmidt is just 26-years-old and – if the Diamondbacks can contend – he probably has an MVP in his future (just not this year).  From BBRT’s perspective, the Cardinals are poised for a solid season, and catcher Yadier Molina is well-positioned to win the MVP and lead the Redbirds into the post season. One of the game’s best defensive catchers (six consecutive Gold Gloves) and a top notch game caller, Molina has developed into one of the game’s top-hitting backstops as well – averaging .305-.315-.319 over the past three seasons.  Anything like 2013’s .319-12-80 line should earn Molina the MVP award. (He’s finished in the top four in MVP voting in each of the past two seasons).  He is the one player the Cards can’t do without.

If Molina falters, it seems like a wide-open race, with contenders including:

  • Dodgers’ shortstop Hanley Ramirez – Despite being plagued by injuries in 2013, Ramirez showed just how valuable he can be (.345, 20 homers, 57 RBI and ten steals in just 86 games.) Ramirez needs to stay healthy to contend for the MVP.
  • Braves’ first baseman, Freddie Freeman – If the Braves are going to hold off the Nationals and win the NL East, they will need a big season from the 6’5” slugger.  Even a repeat of 2013’s .319-23-109 will get Freeman some votes.  BBRT thinks he’ll do better – at least in the power categories.
  • Pirates’ outfielder Andrew McCutchen – Coming off 2013’s MVP season (.317-21-84, with 27 steals), “Cutch” needs the Pirates to top 90 wins again to ensure a repeat MVP opportunity. BBRT’s guess?  The Pirates and McCutchen fall short.
  • Giants’ catcher Buster Posey – A former NL MVP (2012), Posey still has MVP skills behind the plate and at the plate (.294-15-72 in 2013 was an off-year for the Giants’ backstop, who sports a .308 career average).

A couple of dark horse candidates:

Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (see the first paragraph) and Nationals’ outfielder Bryce Harper, who just might be ready for the breakout season we’ve all been waiting for (which could vault an even stronger Nationals team past the Braves and to East crown).

NL Cy Young – Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

Clayton KershawThe Dodgers’ lefty Clayton Kershaw, who captured the NL CYA in 2011 and 2013 is BBRT’s pick to repeat.  He’s coming off a 16-9 season that included a league-leading 232 strikeouts and a league-low 1.83 ERA (his third consecutive season with the NL-low ERA).  His consistency, the fact that he can throw four quality pitches for strikes and the likelihood that the Dodgers will top the NL West combine to put Kershaw in good shape to again be recognized as the NL’s top hurler. Then, of course, there is the fact that he probably IS the NL’s bet pitcher.  There is a challenger in the wings, however.

The Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, at JUST 21-years-old is also JUST too good not to be in this race. The right-hander has an explosive fast ball and an equally devastating breaking ball.  How good is Fernandez – or, better yet, how good can he be?  In 2012, in two minor league stops, he went 14-1, with a 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts (versus just 34 walks) in 134 innings.  Then in 2013, he made the jump from High A to the majors, won the Rookie of the Year award and went 12-6, 2.19, with 187 strikeouts in 182 2/3 innings (all for a Marlins team that lost 100 games.) With a better team behind him, Fernandez would be right there with Kershaw.  Jose may not win the CYA this year, but there’s one (or more) in his future.

Just a bit behind Kershaw and Fernandez is right-hander Adam Wainwright, who could win 20 for the Cardinals – after an NL-leading 19 wins (versus 9 losses), with a 2.94 ERA one year ago.  Wainwright has finished in the top three in CYA voting three times since 2009 (he missed the 2011 season after Tommy John surgery) and, if Kershaw stumbles, this consistent performer could take the crown.

A few dark horse candidates:

BBRT thinks Braves’ closer Craig Kimbrel can (and should) earn Cy Young consideration- particularly if he can again rack up close to 50 saves. Over the past three seasons, this hard-throwing right-hander has saved 138 games (leading the NL all three years), had an ERA of 1.57 and struck out 14.8 hitters per nine innings.

The Diamondbacks’ southpaw Patrick Corbin could surprise. Corbin started 2013 13-3, 2.45 (April through August), before tailing off to 14-8, 3.41.  If he can avoid the late season slump, he will be in the CYA race.

Nationals’ right-hander and former phenom Stephen Strasburg, another year away from (2010) Tommy John surgery, may be ready to finally realize his full potential.  For those who don’t remember, in his MLB debut, Strasburg went seven innings, allowing just two earned runs, while striking out 14, with NO walks. While Strasburg went 8-9 last year, his peripherals were not much different than his 15-6 season in 2012 – 2012 ERA 3.16, 197 strikeouts and 48 walks in 159 1/3 innings; 2013 ERA  3.00, 191 strikeouts and 58 walks in 183 innings. If the Nationals contend with the Braves and Strasburg leads the staff, he has a chance.

NL Rookie of the Year – Billy Hamilton, OF, Reds

hamiltonRun, Forest, Run. The  Reds’ outfield prospect Billy Hamilton stole 155 bases in 2012 –  in 132 games at High A Bakersfield and Double A Pensacola – the all-time single-season record for organized baseball.  Hamilton followed up in 2013 by stealing 75 bases in 132 games at Triple A Louisville, before a September call up to the Reds.  In 13 games for Cincinnati, he hit .368 (9-for-19) and stole another 13 bases in 14 attempts. Don’t let that average fool you, Hamilton still has plenty to learn at the plate (he hit just .256 at Louisville). You can’t, however, teach speed and the Reds think highly enough of Hamilton to have penciled him in to replace the departed Shin-Soo Choo.  It should be fun to watch him on the base paths and the outfield – and to track his development at the plate.

Hamilton, by the way, was not BBRT’s “first” first choice for NL ROY.  That would have been Oscar Taveras (OF) Cardinals, until recurring ankle issues pushed his season back. That injury cut Taveras’ 2013 season short (46 games, .306 average, five home runs, 32 RBI for the Triple A Memphis Redbirds), and seems to still be causing problems. (That may explain the Cardinals’ trade for CF Peter Bourjos.)  Once Taveras is ready, it will be hard to keep him out of the Cards’ line up.  The 21-year-old (with five minor league seasons under his belt)  has little left to prove at the minor league level. Signed by the Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2008, Taveras has put up a .320 average, with 45 home runs and 275 RBI in 374 games, while advancing steadily through the Cardinals’ system.  In 2011, at age 19, he captured the Midwest League (Class A) batting title, hitting .386, with eight home runs and 62 RBI in 78 games. In 2012, he led the Texas League with a .321 average, adding 24 homers, 94 RBI and ten stolen bases.  His ability to hit pitches off the plate reminds BBRT (a long-time Twins fan) of three-time AL batting champ Tony Oliva.

Kolten Wong, the Cardinals’ second base prospect, is already a household name for some fans.  He first came to BBRT’s attention in Game Four of the World Series, when he was brought in as a pinch runner in the ninth inning with his Cardinals trailing 4-2. Wong was picked off first (with two out and Carlos Beltran at the plate) by Red Sox closer Koji Uehara – marking the only World Series game ever to end on a pick-off play. Wong hit only .153 in 32 games (59 at bats) for the Cardinals at the end of the 2013 regular season.  That, however, is not an indication of his potential.  He was called up after hitting .303, with 10 home runs, 45 RBI and 20 stolen bases in 107 games at Triple A Memphis – and has posted a .301 average over three minor league seasons.  He may very well earn some ROY votes.

Dark horse candidate:

BBRT likes Mets’ right-handed starter Noah Syndergaard.  In 2013, his first season in the Met’s system, Syndergaard split time between High A and Double A – going 9-4, with a 3.06 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 117 2/3 innings.  Perhaps more telling is that fact that, while striking out 133, he walked only 28.  For his four minor league seasons, the hard-throwing (mid-90s, with a decent curve) righty is 22-12, with 329 whiffs and 81 walks in 293 2/3 innings. With Matt Harvey facing Tommy John surgery, the Mets need to shore up their rotation.  While Syndergaard will likely start the season at Triple A, solid performance at that level could lead to a mid-season call up, another exciting mound presence for the Mets and a shot at Rookie of the Year.

 Now let’s move on to the American League.

 

American League MVP – Prince Fielder, 1B/DH, Rangers

Prince FielderJust about everyone’s going to go with the one-two finishers of the past two seasons – Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout – for AL MVP.  BBRT is going to take a different route, projecting a close race among three candidates, with new Rangers’ first baseman Prince Fielder capturing this year’s AL MVP Award. Fielder has something to prove, and he will put up big numbers in a hitters park, helping the Rangers unseat the Athletics at the top of the AL West. A season of .290-35-110 would not be a surprise.

Hitting machine Miguel Cabrera, moving across the infield to first base for the Tigers, will also be a top candidate, and if he comes close to another Triple Crown could slide past Fielder. Let’s face it, when .320-35-110 would be an off year (and for Cabrera it would), you have to expect to be in the MVP hunt.  BBRT just thinks voters may: 1) Set expectations for Cabrera high 2) be ready for a change.

Also in the running will be five-tool star Mike Trout. Trout will again likely see a MVP-worthy numbers falling victim to the Angels’ inability to make the post season. MVP runner-up the past two seasons, Trout’s MVP fortunes will depend on the Angels won-lost record.

A couple of wild card candidates:

Albert Pujols, Angels, who says he is finally healthy again (plantar fasciitis). If that’s the case, he is capable of MVP numbers.  However, if he helps the Angels find success in the playoff hunt, Pujols is likely to share votes with teammate Trout.

Brian McCann, Yankees, is a long shot for MVP, but the new Yankee catcher is a left-handed pull-hitter, and New York’s short right field may help him to a career year. In addition, he may share the credit if Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda find success on the mound in 2014.  If the Yankees take the East, BBRT bets McCann will garner votes.

CY Young Award – Yu Darvish, Rangers

Yu Darvish pitching at Goodyear StadiumBBRT will go with the flow for AL CYA, looking to Texas right-hander Yu Darvish to take the crown. Darvish went 13-9, 2.83 last season, topping the AL with 277 strikeouts in 209 2/3 innings.  This follows an AL rookie campaign of 16-9, 3.90, 221 whiffs in 191 1/3 innings. Also, keep in mind, Darvish’s seven seasons in Japan resulted in a line of 93-68, 1.99, with 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings.  Darvish, just 27, has the stuff and the experience to capture the CYA, even in Texas’ hitters’ paradise of a park. It should be his year.

Next on BBRT’s list is Seattle righty Felix Hernandez.  In 2013, Hernandez went 12-10, 3.04 in 31 starts – and averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings (versus just two walks). An improved Seattle offense should get him a few more wins – and remember, Fernandez did win the 2010 CYA with a 13-12, 2.27 line.

Detroit may put up a pair of good candidates in former Cy Young winners (2011 & 2013, respectively) Justin Verlander (who was back to form in late 2014) and Max Scherzer (21-3, 2.90 last season).

Dark horse candidates:

Kansas City’s veteran staff leader James Shields (13-9, 3.15 in 2013) could be a surprise candidate– if the Royals make a move up the standings.

Chicago White Sox’ left-hander ander Chris Sale also has CYA potential. Sale went 11-14 last year (despite a 3.07 ERA and 226 strikeouts in 214 1/3 innings).  Only 25, Sale was 17-8, 3.05, with 192 Ks in 192 innings for the Sox in 2012. He definitely has the stuff, he just needs some support from the Chicago offense.

Rookie of the Year – Xander Bogaerts (Red Sox, SS-3B)

BogaertsBBRT sees a four-player race for AL Rookie of the Year, led by Red Sox’ infielder Xander Bogaerts – who will be challenged by Yankee right-handed starter Masahiro Tanaka (already a star in Japan, but an MLB rookie), 2013 Minor League Offensive Player of the Year George Springer (Astros) and Seattle right-handed starter (and future staff ace) Taijuan Walker.  BBRT expects Tanaka and Walker to split the “pitcher votes) and Springer to suffer a bit from plate discipline, letting Bogaerts capture the award in a close race.

Seems strange to list a player who sports a .296 average in 12 post-season games as the pre-season Rookie of the Year prediction, but Bogaerts’ still has only 18 games of regular-season major league experience (.250 in 44 at bats, with seven runs, five RBI, one HR and one stolen base). A smooth fielder who came up as a shortstop, he split his time between SS and 3B for the Red Sox down the stretch drive. Bogaerts, ranked as 2014’s top shortstop prospect by MLB.com, hit .296 with 54 home runs, 235 RBI and 17 steals in four minor league seasons.

Then, of course, you have right-handed hurler Masahiro Tanaka, who joins the Yankee rotation after a dominating 24-0, 1.27 ERA (8 complete games) with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. Just 25-years-old, Tanaka has gone 99-35, 2.30 in seven Japanese seasons – and, over the past three seasons, he has thrown 609 1/3 innings, striking out 593 hitters, while running up a 53-9 record, with a 1.44 ERA, 30 complete games and 11 shutouts.

Also in the running will be Astros’  OF George Springer, 2013’s Minor League Baseball Offensive Player of the Year. Springer has put up Mike Trout-like numbers in the minor leagues over the past two seasons. In 2012, at High A and AA, he played 128 games and hit .302, with 24 HRs, 87 RBI and 32 stolen bases.  He moved up to AA/AAA last season and did even better – 135 games, .303, 37 HRs, 108 RBI and 45 steals. He still needs to work on plate discipline (145 walks versus 312 strikeouts over the past two seasons), but (given the state of the Astros) he may be allowed to develop at the major league level.  That makes him an ROY contender.  (Note:  BBRT still has trouble picturing the Astros in the AL.  It just doesn’t seem right.  In fact, in an early draft of this post, I had Springer in the running for NL ROY.)

Then there’s  Mariners’ righty Taijuan Walker. After going 5-3, 3.61 with 64 strikeouts in 57 1/3 innings at Triple A Tacoma, Walker went 1-0, 3.60 with four walks and twelve strikeouts in three late-season starts (15 innings pitched) for the Mariners.  In four minor league seasons, Walker struck out 400 hitters (371 2/3 innings) versus 149 walks.  BBRT and the Mariners are confident he is ready.

Dark horse candidates include:

Nick Costellanos (Tigers, 3B-OF) is considered one of the minor leagues’ best pure hitters. Costellanos gets the opportunity at the hot corner, as Miguel Cabrera moves across the diamond to first base.  Last year, at Triple A, Costellanos hit .276, with 18 home runs and 76 RBI.   He also hit .278 in 18 at bats after a September call up to the Tigers.

Then there’s Twins OF prospect Bryan Buxton. Even though the 20-year-old is likely to start the season at the Double A level, Buxton – the 2013 Minor League Player of the Year and MLB.com’s top-rated prospect – is a BBRT dark horse candidate for AL Rookie of the Year. He’s a true five-tool player. In his first full minor league season, split between Class A Cedar Rapids and High Class A Fort Myers, Buxton hit .334 with 12 homers, 77 RBI, 109 runs and 55 stolen bases in 125 games. BBRT’s hope is for a mid-season call up (to appease frustrate Twins’ fans).

 

Coming soon:  BBRT MLB 2014 standings predictions.

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT.