2017 John Paciorek Award to Chris Saenz

JPA2In 2014, BRT launched its own baseball recognition – The John Paciorek Award (JPA). The JPA recognizes players who have had short, most often very short, major league careers, but whose accomplishments, nonetheless, deserve recognition.  (Note: Information on John Paciorek’s career – the inspiration for the JPA – can be found at the end of this post. Paciorek’s day in the sun constitutes arguably the best one-game MLB career ever.)

________________ 2017 JPA Winner – Chris Saenz _______________

SaenzThis year, BBRT honors right-handed pitcher Chris Saenz with the JPA – for making his one-game stint on the MLB pitcher’s mound truly memorable. Saenz’ big day came on April 24, 2004 and was made possible by a combination of an injury to Brewers’ starting pitcher Chris Capauno, an overworked Brewers’ bullpen and the fact that Saenz had started at Double A five days earlier, so a spot start for the Brewers would keep him on his pitching schedule. It was, in a way, the perfect storm for an unexpected MLB debut.

Saenz – a Brewers top-30 prospect in his fourth pro season – was called up from Double A Huntsville (where he was 1-1, 3.86) to make a spot start against the Saint Louis Cardinals, whose powerful lineup included the likes of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Reggie Sanders.  (The Cardinals would lead the NL in runs scored, batting average and finish second in home runs that season, while making it to the World Series.) Let’s look at how things went for Saenz, before we examine how the 6’3”, 200-pound righty worked his way to the mound that day – and the factors that made it his only MLB appearance.  

The first MLB batter Saenz faced was Cardinal second baseman Bo Hart and the Milwaukee pitcher got his MLB career of to a good start, fanning Hart (swinging) on three pitches. (No surprise there, Saenz consistently struck out more than a batter per inning in the minors.) Saenz then seemed to pick up a minor case of MLB-debut jitters, sandwiching a single and a pair of walks around a foul pop out, before getting Redbirds’ SS Edgar Renteria to fly out – ending a shaky, but scoreless, first big league inning.

When he came out for the second, Saenz seemed to have settled down and found his proverbial groove. He recorded a 1-2-3 second, with two strikeouts.  In the third, the only batter to reach was Pujols (hit by pitch) and Saenz picked up a fourth strikeout. The Cardinals went down in order in the fourth and fifth innings, with  Saenz notching two more strikeouts.  Pujols managed a single off Saenz in the sixth, but was the only base runner in the inning. Saenz walked Renteria (on a 3-2 pitch) to open the seventh – and his first day (and career) in the majors was done.

Not a bad day’s work (yes, it was a day game) for a raw rookie: six innings pitched, two hits, three walks, no runs and seven strikeouts.  For those who track such things, Bo Hart faced Saenz three times that day (first, third and fifth innings) and struck out swinging all three times.  Two was a lucky number for Saenz, as the Brewers scored two times (on two hits) in the first inning to ensure Saenz the win (Milwaukee 3 – St, Louis 1); Hart, Saenz’ most frequent strikeout victim was playing at the two-bag for the Cardinals; and the game was played in front of an announced attendance of 22,222 fans.

A ONE-OF-A-KIND …  SINGLE-GAME CAREER …  PERFORMANCE

While statistics before 1900 can be sketchy, baseball-reference.com shows that Saenz is the only pitcher to complete a one-game MLB career of at least five innings pitched, without giving up a single run (earned or unearned). Five pitchers before 1900 had one-game careers of at least five innings that resulted in a 0.00 ERA, but they all (Jack Keenan, Frank Kreeger, Clay Fauver, George Snyder and George Stultz) gave up unearned tallies in those efforts.

There was some speculation (primarily among sportswriter and fans) that Saenz’ performance might earn him another start or two, but two days after his debut, he was on his way back to Huntsville.  For the year at Huntsville, he went 5-5, 4.15 with 84 strikeouts in 84 2/3 innings. Unfortunately, his season included a September elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery and set his career back (eventually ending it.)

So, how did Saenz earn his day in the major leagues? He was signed by the Brewers (28th round of the 2001 Major League Draft) out of Pima Community College in Tucson Arizona.

Saenz started his pro career (at age 19) with the Pioneer (rookie) League Ogden Raptors.  He showed solid potential, appearing in 21 games (four starts) and going 3-1, 4.24 with 14 walks and 48 strikeouts in 46 2/3 innings.  His ability to fan at least a batter an inning would be a trademark of his professional career. In 2003, Saenz moved up to the Low A Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League – where he pitched 37 games (all in relief) and went 3-5, with eight saves and a respectable 3.51 ERA. He did walk 32 batters in 74 1/3 innings, but his 99 strikeouts (12 per nine innings) were impressive. The following season (2003) saw Saenz work primarily as a starter (26 starts in 27 appearances) mostly with the High A High Desert Mavericks of the California League – although he did get in one game with the Double A Huntsville Stars of the Southern League. Saenz went 9-9, 5.04, working on command issues (59 walks in 134 innings), but maintained his bat-missing stuff (142 strikeouts).

Then came 2004, his early season call up to the Brewers, his return to Huntsville and his Tommy John surgery.  After missing the 2005 and 2006 seasons, Saenz attempted a comeback,  signing with the Angels in 2007 and playing with the  Arkansas Travelers of the Double A Texas League – where things did not go well (1-7, with an 8.41 ERA and 31 walks versus 24 strikeouts in 46 innings). The Angels released Saenz and he finished the season with the Reno Silver Sox of the Independent Golden Baseball League, where he found more frustration – 0-4, 8.10 with 16 walks and 22 strikeouts in 26 2/3 innings.  Saenz gave it one last try in 2008, with the independent Northern League Schaumburg Flyers, where he went 1-1, 8.42, with 15 walks and 18 whiffs in 25 2/3 innings.  He retired from professional baseball at the age of 26.  Still, Saenz is one of the fortunate few to have their day in the major league sun – and to have proven on that day that he truly belonged.

________________________________________________________

PAST JOHN PACIOREK AWARD WINNERS:

2014 – Brian Scott Dallimore

In his first start (not his first game) for the 2004 Giants, Dallimore had two singles, a Grand Slam (his first MLB hit and only MLB home run), a walk and a hit by pitch.  For the full JPA take on Dallimore’s 27- game MLB career, click here.

2015 – Roy Gleason

Gleason played in just eight MLB games, had a double in his only MLB at bat – but also earned a World Series ring (1963) and a Purple Heart. Ultimately, he was the only ballplayer with MLB experience to serve on the front lines in Vietnam. For the full JPA take on Gleason, click here. Note: Gleason’s life is detailed in the book “Lost in the Sun – Roy Gleason’s Odyssey from the Outfield to the Battlefield.”

2016 – John Allen Miller

Miller played just 32 MLB games (during the 1966 and 1969), taking the field (at 1B/LF/3B/2B) for the Yankees and Dodgers. Miller collected ten hits in 61 MLB at bats (.164 average) and hit just two home runs – but he made those long balls count.  Miller made his MLB debut with the Yankees on September 11, 1966 and hit a two-run homer in his first big league at bat –  making him (surprisingly) the first Yankee ever to homer in his first MLB at bat. (Little did Miller know he would not get another home run or RBI until the final at bat of his MLB career.)  Miller’s final at bat came as a Dodger (September 23, 1969) and he stroked a solo home run.  That narrow “body of work” made Miller one of just two players in MLB history to homer in their first and final official appearances in a major league batter’s box. For more on Miller, click here.

 

INSPIRATION FOR THE JPA

pACIOREKJohn Paciorek – signed out of Saint Ladislaus High School in Hamtramck, Michigan (where he had starred in football, basketball and baseball) – appeared in his first major league game on the final day of the 1963 season (September 29) at the age of 18.  The 6’ 1”, 200-pound outfielder had spent the 1963 season with Class A Modesto Colts. The Colts’ parent club, the Houston Colt .45s (that was the current Astros’ franchise name back then), was suffering through a difficult season. The team was 65-96 going into that final game.  Looking to the future, Houston had, in fact, fielded an all-rookie lineup (average age 19) on September 27. Youth was still being served two days later when John Paciorek started his first MLB game. The results were surprising – and worthy of recognition.

 

paciorekPaciorek, by the way, went on to become a high school teacher and multi-sport coach and is the author of two books (Plato and Socrates – Baseball’s Wisest Fans and The Principles of Baseball: And All There Is To Know About Hitting.) You also can enjoy Paciorek’s prose (and expertise) directly at his blog “Paciorek’s Principles of Perfect Practice” by clicking here. You can find out even more about Paciorek in Steven Wagner’s 2015 book Perfect: The Rise and Fall of John Paciorek, Baseball’s Greatest One-Game Wonder.”  (See the review of “Perfect” by clicking here.)

A final note. John Paciorek’s insight into the national pastime should come as no surprise. Paciorek comes from a true “baseball family.”  He was the first born of eight siblings and was followed to the big leagues by younger brothers Jim and Tom Paciorek.  (Like John, Jim’s MLB career was short – 48 games for the Brewers in 1987. Brother Tom, however, achieved a .282 average over an 18-season MLB career.)

 

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Member: Society for American Baseball Research; The Baseball Reliquary; The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

MLB Games – the Long(est) and Short(est) of It

Chasen Shreve Yankees photo

Chasen Shreve went the final three innings fanning five –  for the win as the Yankees topped the Cubs in 18 innings.  Photo by Keith Allison

It’s kind of appropriate that today (May 8, 2017), BBRT is looking back at yesterday’s Cubs/Yankees tilt – an 18-inning, six-hour and five-minute battle that will, ultimately, be most noted for the fact that the 15 pitchers who took the mound fanned an MLB single-game record 48 batters.  (FYI- The Yankees won it 5-4.)  The game fell well short of MLB’s longest in terms of time (which began on this date in 1984) or innings.  Later in this post, we’ll look at MLB’s longest and shortest games.  First, however, a few “factoids” from yesterday’s tilt.

 

  • Yankee pitchers fanned 26 hitters, Cubs’ hurlers whiffed 22. Strikeouts accounted for 44 percent of the total outs.
  • Two hitters accounted for 36 percent of the Yankee batters’ strikeouts – outfielder Aaron Hicks and third basemen Chase Headley each fanned a game-high four times (no other Yankee whiffed more than twice, while the Cubs had five players with three strikeouts).
  • A lot of bats were missed; there were 38 swinging strikeouts versus ten called.
  • The Cubs went into the bottom of the ninth down by three, but tied it up against Yankees’ star closer Aroldis Chapman on three singles, two walks, and a hit batter. There was no more scoring until the 18th.
  • The first ten batters in extra innings went down on strikes.
  • Both starting pitchers (Yankees’ Luis Severino and Cubs’ Jon Lester) went seven innings and notched nine strikeouts.
  • Three strikeout innings were notched by the Cubs’ Wade Davis (10th); Yankees’ Tyler Clippard (10th); Cubs’ Carl Edwards Jr. (11th); and Yankees’ Jonathan Holder (14th).
  • The Yankees left 22 runners on base, the Cubs stranded 30.

______________________________________________________

Now for the long and short of MLB games. 

LONGEST GAME (BY TIME)

May 8, 1984 – Brewers/White Sox – 8 hours and 6 minutes – with an asterisk*

Tom Seaver's only win in relief came in MLB longest-ever game (time-wise).

Tom Seaver’s only win in relief came in MLB longest-ever game (time-wise).

MLB’s longest-ever (time-wise) game started on May 8, 1984 and, like yesterday’s Yankees and Cubs contest, it was played in Chicago.  This time it was at (old) Comiskey and the home town White Sox prevailed 7-6 in 25-innings, taking a record-long eight hours and six minutes.  I do give and asterisk to this one – since it was not continuous play.  The game started at 7:30 p.m. and was suspended after seven innings (at 1:05 a.m.) due to the MLB curfew rule then in force.  It finished up the next day.

There were plenty of chances for this one to end earlier. The game was tied 1-1 going into the ninth, when the Brewers scored twice to take the lead. The White Sox came back with two of their own in the bottom of the inning – and the teams played on.  No one scored again until the top of the 21st, when the Brewers put up a three-spot.  The White Sox, however, scored three of their own in the bottom of the inning – and the teams played on. Finally, with one out in the bottom of the 25th White Sox’ RF Harold Baines hit a walk off home run (making it, of course, the latest walk-off long ball ever) against Chuck Porter (starting his eighth inning of relief) to win it for the ChiSox.  A few tidbits:

  • White Sox’ CF Rudy Law, C Carlton Fisk and 2B Julio Cruz, as well as Milwaukee DH Cecil Cooper each had 11 at bats in the game.
  • Chicago’s Dave Stegman, who came on as a pinch runner for DH Greg Luzinski in the 8th and stayed in to play LF, struck out a game-high five times in eight at bats.
  • The teams used a combined 14 pitchers (six for the Brewers, eight for the White Sox).
  • Two relievers went seven or more innings: losing pitcher Chuck Porter of the Brewers (7 1/3); Juan Agosta of the White Sox (7 innings).
  • The winning pitcher was future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who pitched the 25th inning for the ChiSox. It was Seaver’s only relief appearance of the season (one of just nine in his career) and his only career win in relief (he also had one save and two losses in that role).
  • Five future Hall of Famers played in the game: for the White Sox – catcher Carlton Fisk and winning pitcher Tom Seaver; for the Brewers – starting pitcher Don Sutton, SS Robin Yount and closer Rollie Fingers (who blew the save in the ninth).
  • Outside of Harold Baines’ walk-off home run, White Sox’ LF Tom Paciorek was (arguably) the hitting star of the game, going five-for-nine, with one run and three RBI (no one else had five safeties). LF Ben Ogilvie went two-for-ten for the Brewers, but added a home run and four RBI.

LONGEST GAME BY INNINGS – AND HOW THE GAME HAS CHANGED

On May 1, 1920, the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) and Boston Braves locked up in the longest MLB duel ever – by innings – playing to a 1-1 ties over 26 innings.  This one gets a special nod, since it is also the longest game in which both starting pitchers were on the mound for the entire game. (My, how the game has changed.)

Starting pitchers Leon Cadore of Brooklyn and Joe Oeschger of Boston each threw more than 300 pitches (analysts estimate Cardore at 345 and Oeschger at 319) in completing their 26-inning, record-setting starts. Cadore gave up 15 hits and five walks, while fanning seven; while Oeschger allowed only nine hits and four walks, while also striking out seven batters.   Oh, and here’s another sign of how the game has changed, the time of the 26-inning contest was only 3 hours and 50 minutes.  The Robins scored their lone tally in the fifth, the Braves in the sixth – followed by 20 innings of scoreless ball.

LONGEST CONTINUOUSLY PLAYED GAME (BY TIME)

Perry

BBRT give special recognition to the second-longest MLB game ever – and the longest in terms of continually play – The San Francisco Giants 8-6 win over the New York Mets on May 31, 1964.  This one took seven hours and 23 minutes – and was the second game of a doubleheader.

  • Each team used six pitchers in the contest.
  • Tom Sturdivant and Larry Bearnath of the Mets pitched in both games of the doubleheader – with Bearnath throwing seven scoreless innings after giving up one run in two innings in Game One of the Twin bill.
  • Galen Cisco, who took the loss for the Mets, pitched nine innings in relief (giving up two runs on five hits).
  • Gaylord Perry got the win for the Giants, tossing ten scorlesss innings in relief (seven hits, one walk, nine strikeouts). Bob Hendley got the save.
  • Five Mets and three Giants notched ten at bats in the game.
  • Gil Garrido, Jim Davenport and Willie Mays also spent some time at SS for the Giants during the game.
  • The list of pinch hitters used by the Giants was pretty impressive: Duke Snider; Willie McCovey; Matty Alou; Del Crandall; Cap Peterson. Mets’ pinch hitters were not as well known: rJesse Gonder; George Altman; Dick Smith; Hawk Taylor; John Stephenson.
  • Four hitters collected four hits: Giants – RF Jesus Alou (four-for-ten, one run, two RBI) and C Tom Haller (four-for-ten, one run, one RBI); Mets- RF Joe Christopher (four-for-ten, two runs, three RBI and the game’s only homer) and 3B Charley Smith (four-for-nine, one RBI).
  • The Giants led 6-1 after three innings, but the Mets tied it with two in the sixth and three in the seventh. Then there was no scoring until the top of the 23rd.
  • Five future Hall of Famers played in the game for the Giants – Gaylord Perry, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Duke Snider.
  • The first game went just nine innings and two hours and 29 minutes. It does mean fans got nine hours and 52 minutes of baseball for the price of one ticket – which, by the way, is the longest MLB double header ever in terms of game time. (Note: The longest double header ever in terms to total time came on July 2, 1993.  The Padres and Phillies split a pair of games in Philadelphia. Game One: SD 5-2 over Philadelphia. Game Two: Philadelphia 6-5 over the Padres.  It took a total of 12 hours and five minutes, including two rain delays totalling 4 four hours and 44 minutes and a 25-minute break between games).

 

SHORTEST GAME EVER – NINE INNINGS IN 51 MINUTES

LIKE SPEED DATING

On September 28, 1919, the Phillies took on the Giants in New York, with Philadelphia’s Lee Meadows (12 wins and 19 losses) taking on New York’s Jesse Barnes (24-9).  The outcome was as expected, Giants 6 – Phillies 1. The game featured a total of 18 hits and three walks.  None of this is surprising.  What is surprising, however, is that it took just 51 minutes to play the entire nine innings.  Now, THAT is pace of game.

SHORTEST DOUBLEHEADER

The shortest doubleheader (game time) ever was completed in two hours and seven minutes of game time.  It was September 26, 1926 in Saint Louis – but did not involve the Cardinals.   In Game One, the Saint Louis Browns topped the Yankees 6-1 in 1 hours and 12 minutes.  The Browns also won Game Two, this time by a 6-2 score, in just 55 minutes.

Baseball-almanac.com, baseball-reference.com and the Society for American Baseball Research proved valuable resources for this post.

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Member: Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Relilquary; The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance. 

Baseball Reliquary 2017 Honorees – Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, Charlie Brown

I’ve asked this before, but it’s clearly the best way to introduce the Baseball Reliquary and its Shrine of the Eternals.

What do the following have in common – a one-armed major league outfielder, a pitcher who once threw a no-hitter while high on LSD, a team owner who sent a midget to the plate, a man in a chicken suit, a member of Major League Baseball’s 3,000-hit club, an MLB manager who won eight World Championships, a baseball card designer, a surgeon, a labor leader, a statistical wizard and more than one best-selling author?

ReliquaryNewThese diverse individuals are all past electees to The Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals – an honor that recognizes individuals who have had impact on our national pastime that goes beyond statistics and touches upon the culture and character of the game.  In essence, the Shrine of the Eternals is our national pastime’s fan-focused hall of fame. (And this year, you can add a broadcasting legend, a pop-culture icon and a cartoon character to the list. More on that in a bit.)

The Baseball Reliquary this week announced its latest (2017) Shrine of the Eternals electees, who will be enshrined during ceremonies slated for 2:00 p.m., Sunday July 16th, at the Donald R. Wright Auditorium, Pasadena Central Library, 285 E. Walnut Street, Pasadena, California. (For more information, call 626-791-7647.)  The honorees for this Shrine of the Eternals 19th indusction ceremony include:

  • Vin Scully, who spent 67 years as a Dodgers’ broadcaster and whose voice became as much a sound of the game as the crack of the bat meeting the ball, the slap of the horsehide sphere into a leather mitt, the unique whirr of a good curveball and the shouts of beer and hot dog vendors.
  • Bob Uecker, former MLB player who translated his knowledge of the game, .200 career batting average and self-deprecrating sense of humor into an off-the-field career as a broadcaster, actor, comedian and (pun intended) pitchman.
  • Charlie Brown, a cartoon character whose love the game and enduring sense of optimism taught us some important life lessons from atop the pitcher’s mound.

Before taking a closer look at this year’s electees (and BBRT’s ballot), I’d like to provide a brief overview of both the Baseball Reliquary and its Shrine of the Eternals. Let me begin by saying, if you are a baseball fan, I would highly recommend you consider membership in the Baseball Reliquary – a truly free-spirited (if somewhat eccentric) organization dedicated to celebrating the human side of baseball’s history and heritage.  The Baseball Reliquary is an open and fan-focused organization, committed to recognizing baseball’s place in American culture and to honoring the character and characters of the national pastime. It pursues that mission through its collection of artifacts, traveling exhibitions, ties to the Whittier College Institute for Baseball Studies and (perhaps, most visibly) through its own version of the Baseball Hall of Fame – the Baseball Reliquary Shrine of the Eternals.  For more on the Baseball Reliquary, and why you should become a member, click here.

Now, to the Shrine of the Eternals. Here’s what the Reliquary has to say about this honor.

The Baseball Reliquary Shrine of the Eternals

Similar in concept to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Shrine of the Eternals differs philosophically in that statistical accomplishment is not the principal criterion for election. The Baseball Reliquary believes that the election of individuals on merits other than statistics and playing ability will offer the opportunity for a deeper understanding and appreciation of baseball than has heretofore been provided by “Halls of Fame” in the more traditional and conservative institutions.

Criteria for election shall be: the distinctiveness of play (good or bad); the uniqueness of character and personality; and the imprint that the individual has made on the baseball landscape. Electees, both on and off the diamond, shall have been responsible for developing baseball in one or more of the following ways: through athletic and/or business achievements; in terms of its larger cultural and sociological impact as a mass entertainment; and as an arena for the human imagination.

Each year, the Baseball Reliquary submits a list of candidates to its members and the top three vote-getters are honored.  With that background behind us, let’s take a look at the 2017 honorees.   Note: voting percentages for all the candidates can be found at the end of this post.  For more on the Shrine of the Eternals, click here

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2017 SHRINE OF THE ETERNALS HONOREES

Vin Scully (1927-  ) – 59.5%

Photo courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary/

Photo courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary/

If anyone’s career is appropriate to a spot in the Shrine of the Eternals, its Vincent Edward “Vin” Scully – whose career as a baseball broadcaster was a close to eternal as anyone has ever come – 67 years behind the microphone. (Note: Scully’s total of 59.5 percent of the vote is the highest figure since the annual Shrine of the Eternals election process was inaugurated in 1999, topping the 53 percent totals of Bill “Spaceman” Lee in 2000 and Buck O’Neil in 2008.)  Scully was the voice of the Dodgers from 1950 until his retirement after the 2016 season, as well as NBC’s lead television broadcaster for much of the 1980s and the voice of the World Series for CBS radio in the 1990s.

“Let’s all take a deep breath as we go to the most dramatic ninth inning in the history of baseball. I’m going to sit back, light up, and hope I don’t chew the cigarette to pieces.”

               Vin Scully calling the final inning of Don Larsen’s 1956                   World Series perfect game.

I have never seen an exact count of the number of games Scully “called” during his career, but we do know he was on the broadcast team for 28 World Series, 21 no-hitters and three perfect games.  The fact is, the fluid sound of Scully’s voice and his often poetic anecdotes, became as much the sound of major league baseball as the crack of the bat, the slap of leather ball into leather glove or the shouts of vendors eager to part with hot dogs or beer.

It may sound corny, but I enjoyed listening to Vin call a game almost more than playing in them.

                                                          Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax

How impressive are Vin Scully’s credentials?  Here are just of few of the recognitions he has received: Baseball Hall of Fame Ford Frick Award (1982); Lifetime Achievement Emmy and induction into National Radio Hall of Fame (1995); three-time national Sportscaster of the Year (1965, 1978, 1982); American Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame (1992) and Sportscaster of the Century (2000) recognitions; MLB Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award (2014); and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2016). Again these are just a few of his recognitions. (Scully, for example, was also named California Sportscaster of the Year 32 times, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and more than one street named after him.)  And now, he will take his place in the Shrine of the Eternals.  Can’t wait for the speech.  For more on Scully, you might try The Vin Scully Story, by Carl Smith (2009).

Bob Uecker (1934- ) – 37%

Photo courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary/

Photo courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary/

Dubbed “Mr. Baseball” by TV talk show host Johnny Carson for his tongue-in-cheek approach to the national pastime, Bob Uecker will finally get his seat “in the front row” – at this year’s Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremony.

Uecker has clearly made baseball his life and Milwaukee his hardball home.  Born and raised in Milwaukee, Uecker grew up watching the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers and signed his first professional contract with the major-league Milwaukee Braves (1956). Uecker – a catcher by trade – made his big league debut with the Braves in 1962 (after six minor league seasons, during which he played 557 games and hit .274, with 78 home runs and 254 RBI). In six major league seaons (Braves, Cardinals, Phillies), Uecker played in 297 games and hit an even .200, with 14 home runs and 74 RBI.

Anybody with ability can play in the big leagues. To last as long as I did with the skills I had, with the numbers I produced, was a triumph of the human spirit.

                                               Bob Uecker, reflecting on his MLB career

Uecker retired as a player after the 1967 season and began a full-time career as play-by-play announcer for Milwaukee Brewers in 1971 – a position he still holds. Over the years, he has also served as a baseball color commentator for ABC (1970s) and NBC (1990s); hosted a pair of syndicated sports television shows; appeared as broadcaster Harry Doyle in the “Major League” movies; and played a key character in the sitcom Mr. Belvedere. Uecker received the National Baseball Hall of Fame Ford C. Frick Award for his work as a baseball broadcaster in 2003.

What separates Uecker from many former players-turned-broadcasters is his dry and self-deprecating sense of humor. For example, of his original signing, he says “I signed with the Milwaukee Braves for three-thousand dollars. That bothered my dad at the time because he didn’t have that kind of dough. But he eventually scrapped it up.”   Or there’s his comment on catching the knuckleball, “I found the easy way to catch a knuckleball, just wait until it stopped rolling and then pick it up.”

Uecker’s wit (and knowledge of and love for the game) not only earned him a spot in the broadcast booth, but also pop-culture stardom through dozens of appearances on the Tonight Show and a starring role in a series of Miller Lite commercials (as well as his movie and TV roles).

In addition the Ford Frick Award, Uecker was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame (2001); the Braves Wall of Honor (2009); and  on August 31, 2012, the Brewers erected the Uecker Monument outside Miller Park – alongside the statues of  such heroes as Hank Aaron and Robin Yount. The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association named Uecker as Wisconsin Sportscaster of the Year five times and inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2011.  For more on Uecker, try his book “Catcher in the Wry.”

Charlie Brown (1950-    ) – 25.5%

Image courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary.

Image courtesy of The Baseball Reliquary.

Charlie Brown – created ty the late Charles M. Schulz – takes the field (the mound actually) for the love of the game – and in the process teaches us a lot about humanity and grace (under pressure and in the face of disappointment).

Brown is both the manager of the Peanuts baseball team and, almost always, its pitcher. While he imagines himself as possessing a blazing fastball, sharp-breaking curve and devastating change up, he usually ends up literally being upended and undressed by line drives up the middle.  Still, he shows up and takes his turn on the mound – with optimism – game after game, loss after loss, come rain or shine.   Despite decades of disappointment, Charlie has never lost hope – nor waned in his love of the game.  There is always the next contest or the coming season.

Brown is truly the underdog’s underdog – even his favorite player reflects his approach to the game (and life).  It’s not Mantle, nor Mays, nor Trout, but rather little-known Joe Shlabotnik.  Yet, in his enduring passion for the game and his unbreakable spirit (in the face of what some say is close to 1,000 losses versus single-figure wins), we can all learn a lesson about the importance of optimism, perspective and  perseverance in the face adversity. Note:  At their peak, Charlie Brown and his team’s exploits appeared in more than 2,500 newpapers in 75 countries.

There’s somethng lonely about a ball field when it’s raining.

                                                                                Charlie Brown

As is noted in the final line of Charlie Brown’s Shrine of the Eternals nomination “Yes, Charlie Brown may be a blockhead, but in his unshakeable belief in himself and his imagination, he will always be a winner.”  He clearly won enough hearts to take a place in the Shrine of the Eternals.

Scully, Ueker and Brown join 54 previous inductees to the Shrine of the Eternals. For the full list, click here.

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BBRT’S BALLOT

Now, here’s a look at the candidates BBRT voted for who didn’t make the final three.  Let me add here that one of my favorites – who garnered my vote in past elections – is (sadly) no longer on the ballot.  That would be David Mullany (1908), inventor of the Wiffle® Ball (1953). The basis for my support is that Mullany’s Wiffle Ball changed backyard baseball for millions of young (and old) players and fans – including me. Here are the 2017 nominees that got my vote, but did not receive enough support for 2017 election.

Ted Kluszewski (1924-1988)

I love to recognize players who do something we are not likely to see again. Therefore, I again cast a ballot for Ted “Big Klu” Kluszewski – perhaps the last of the true power hitters who also practiced exceptional plate discipline.  In 1954, for example, Big Klu hit .326, with 49 home runs and 141 RBI – a season made even more remarkable by the fact the Kluszewski struck out only 35 times (versus 78 walks). I doubt if we’ll ever see another player top 40 home runs without reaching 40 whiffs.  Kluszewski, in fact, had a streak of four seasons (1953-56) when he hit over .300, drove in 100+ runs, bashed 35+ home runs – and struck out no more than 40 times in any season.  In those four seasons, Kluszewski hit 171 home runs – and fanned 140 times (average 43 HR’s and 35 whiffs a season). It should also be noted that Kluszewski led NL first baseman in fielding percentage every year from 1951 through 1955.  Unfortunately, a back injury in 1956 hampered his performance in th later years of his career (he played until 1961).

Kluszewski is also noted for adding a bit of flair to the game, making his own intimidating fashion statement. Klu complained that his uniform jersey was too tight for his large and powerful biceps. He went on to have the sleeves cut from his jersey – exposing his bare arms from the shoulder.  (This was considered a bold move at that very conforming time in the game’s history.)

Kluszewski only appeared in one post-season – hitting .391, with three homers and ten RBI in the 1958 World Series (for the White Sox).  True to his form – Big Klu did not strike out even once (25 plate appearance) in the Series.  For trivia buffs, left unprotected in the 1960 expansion draft, Kluszewski hit the first-ever home run for the expansion Angels (a two-run shot in the first inning of the Angels’ first game – April 11 versus the Orioles). He added a punctuation mark, by hitting the Angels’ second–ever home run (a three-run shot) the very next inning. The Angels won 7-2, and (of course) Kluszewski did not strikeout.

Ultimately, however, Big Klu is best remembered for those sleeveless jerseys and muscular arms.  This four-time All Star – whose last name,like mine, ends with “ski” – got my vote for the Shrine.

Mike Marshall (1943-  ) 

I should probably say Doctor Mike Marshall, since this former major league reliever (14 seasons … 1967, 1969-81) earned three college degrees, including a Ph.D. in Kinesiology from Michigan State University. Kinesiology is the study of muscle movement and Marshall used his knowledge to develop his own exercise program focused on minimizing stress, reducing injury and accelerating recovery time.  While his unorthodox methods, advanced education and outspoken approach often had him at odds with baseball’s traditionalists (and may be part of the reason he pitched for nine teams in 14 seasons), they did get the job done.

The fact is, we never saw a closer quite like Mike Marshall before he came along – and we’re not likely to see one like him again. In 1974, as a Dodger, he put up the grand-daddy of all relief seasons – setting the record for appearances with 106 and innings pitched in a season in relief at 208 1/3. He finished the campaign 15-12, with a league-topping 21 saves and a 2.42 ERA.  That season, Marshall was called on to go more than one inning in 74 games (68.5 percent of the time); and he toiled three or more innings 22 times. He also relieved in 13 consecutive regular season games – an MLB record later tied (1986) by the Rangers’ Dale Mohorcic. His efforts won him the 1974 Cy Young Award and Sporting News NL pitcher of the year.

Marshall holds the MLB and NL record for games pitched in relief in a season (106 – Dodgers, 1974), as well as the AL record (89 in relief – Twins, 1979 – he also had one start that year).  The Blue Jays’ Mark Eichhorn tied Marshall’s AL record in 1987. Marshall led his league in games pitched four times and saves three times – finishing 97-112, 3.14 with 188 saves.

Marshall currently teaches exercise physiology and operates pitching clinics in Florida. A true “fireman” from an era when closers came in to put out fires and stayed on the mound to ensure they were no flare ups, Marshall got my vote for the Shrine.

Rube Waddell (1876-1914)

Rube Waddell is almost universally recognized as the zaniest player in MLB history – but he also was one of the best (at least when he was focused on the game). Waddell was known t0: leave a ball game to chase fire engines; miss a game he was scheduled to start because he was fishing or playing marbles with neighborhood kids; bring his outfielders in to sit on the grass and then proceed to fan the side; wrestle alligators in the off-season; and (frequently) do battle with owners and managers.  Waddell simply was more interested in the freedom to enjoy life and do things his way than in money or professional stability.  But, when Waddell was on his game, he was arguably the best pitcher of his time. The 6’1”, 195-lb. lefty led the AL in strikeouts six consecutive seasons (1902-1907) – by a wide margin.

How good was Waddell?  In 1902, he joined the Philadelphia Athletics in June – making his first start on June 26 (with just 86 games left in the season). Waddell proceeded to win 24 games (the league’s second-highest total) against seven losses, with a 2.05 ERA.  Despite his shortened season, he led the AL with 210 strikeouts, fifty more than the runner-up (none other than Cy Young).

In 1904, Waddell set a modern (post-1900) MLB record with 349 strikeouts that stood until 1965.  Waddell, elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1946, finished with a 193-143, 2.16 stat line – leading the AL in strikeouts six times, ERA twice, wins once and complete games once. For more on Waddell, BBRT suggests: Rube Waddell: The Zany, Brilliant Life of a Strikeout Artist, by Allan Howard Levy and Just a Big Kid: The Life and Times of Rube Waddell, by Paul Proia.

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson (1935 –  )

Mamie Johnson was one of three females to play for the Indianapolis Clowns during the declining days of the Negro Leagues (and the only woman ever to pitch in the Negro Leagues).  Johnson took the mound to the Clowns for three seasons (1953-55), running up a 33-8 record.  Her exploits are chronicled in the children’s book A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, by Michelle Y. Green.

Effa Manley (1900-81)

The first woman enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Effa Manley – during the 1930s and 1940s –  ran the day-to-day operations of the Negro National League Newark Eagles (owned by her husband Abe Manley).  She took the reins at a time when baseball, on the field and in the executive offices, was considered a “man’s domain.”  Effa, often thought of as a light-skinned black, was actually white.  She, however, grew up with a black stepfather and mixed-race siblings and was active in the New Jersey branch of the NAACP and Citizen’s League for Fair Play.  Effa Manley deserves recognition for overcoming both racial and sexual barriers as she exercised leadership in the national pastime. Multiple books have been written about Manley’s accomplishments. BBRT recommends: Queen of the Negro Leagues: Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles, by James Overmyer

Pete Reiser (1919-81)

Combine Willie Mays’ skill set (younger folks, think Mike Trout) with Pete Rose’s hustle and Yasiel Puig’s on-field abandon and you have Pete Reiser. In his first full MLB season (CF, Dodgers), a 22-year-old Reiser dazzled defensively and led the NL in runs scored (117), doubles (39), triples (17), batting average (.343), total bases (299) and hit by pitch (11) – tossing in 14 home runs and 76 RBI for good measure. Unfortunately, unpadded outfield walls, helmet-less at bats (the fiery Reiser was a frequent beanball target) and aggressiveness on the base paths (Reiser twice led the NL in stolen bases and holds the NL record for steals of home in a season at seven) took their toll.

In his ten-season career, the switch-hitting Reiser endured five skull fractures, a brain injury, a dislocated shoulder and a damaged knee.  He was carted off the field 11 times during his career (six times unconscious) and once actually given last rites at the stadium – and he played on. The three-time All Star retired as a player with a .295 career average, playing in 861 games over ten seasons. No telling what he might have done with padded outfield walls and batting helmets.  Pete Reiser was a true – and talented – gamer. For more on Reiser, try Pete Reiser: The Rough and Tumble Career of the Perfect Ballplayer, by Sidney Jacobson.

Reuben Berman (1890-1977)

On May 16, 1921, during a game between the Giants and Reds at New York City’s Polo Grounds, Reuben Berman captured a foul ball that was hit into the stands. The custom at the time was to return the ball to the playing field.  Some teams even employed security guards to retrieve balls if the fans declined to return them. In extreme cases, arrests were made and charges (larceny) filed.  On that day in May of 1921, Berman, refused to return a foul ball – and, when confronted, tossed the ball deeper into the stands. After what some reported as an exchange of profanities and a minor scuffle, Berman was ejected from the Polo Grounds.  Berman, however, was not done with the Giants.  He filed a lawsuit against the club asserting he was illegally detained and had suffered mental anguish and a loss of reputation because of the incident.  The case went all the way to the New York Supreme Court, which found in Berman’s favor, granting him the sum of $100 (he had asked for $20,000).

The $100 victory is not what got Berman my vote for the Shrine of the Eternals, it was the impact on fans of his stubbornness – and what became known as “Reuben’s Rule” or “Berman’s Law.” Berman’s case was the most important step in establishing the fans’ right to that precious souvenir – an official, game-used baseball. Every time we see a scrum (for a baseball) in the stands, or a one-handed (beer or baby in the other hand) catch of a foul ball, or a smiling youngster showing off his white, red-stitched prize, we can thank Reuben Berman.

John Young (1949-2016)

A 6’3”, 210-pound, left-handed first baseman, John Young hit .325, with four home runs, 60 RBI and 26 stolen bases (in 29 attempts) in 99 games at Single A Lakeland (Tigers’ farm team) as a twenty-year-old (in 1969). The first-round draft choice (16th overall in the 1969 draft) looked like a player with great promise – and, in fact, enjoyed a big league cup of coffee with the Tigers in 1971 (two games, four at bats, two hits, one run, one RBI, one double). A wrist injury derailed his playing career, but didn’t dampen his love for the game and he went on to a long career as a scout.

It was during his scouting days that Young developed a concern for the decline of baseball among young people – particularly in the inner cities.  In response, Young came up with the concept for the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. Officially launched in 1989, the RBI program is now supported by all thirty MLB clubs and is active in approximately 200 communities – with more than 250,000 participants annually.  Overall, MLB teams have donated more than $30 million to the program. (The program also includes educational and life skills components.) A few RBI alumni in the major leagues include: Carl Crawford, Justin Upton, CC Sabathia, James Loney, Manny Machado and Yovani Gallardo.  His good works on behalf of baseball’s future earned my vote.

Bing Russell (1926-2003)

Okay, you are probably more aware of Bing Russell for his role as Deputy Clem Foster on Bonanza, as Robert in the original Magnificent Seven movie or for his volume of work on the big and small screen (including more than two dozen movies and even more television roles.) Or, maybe you are aware that his is actor Kurt Russell’s father.

Bing Russell, however is here because his passion for acting was equaled (perhaps even surpassed) by his passion for our national pastime. He’s also here because, as a baseball fan, he got to “live the dream” – owning his own baseball team. Russell’s infatuation with baseball began as a young boy growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida – spring training home of the Yankees. He became the team’s unofficial Florida mascot and errand runner – becoming friends with the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Gomez and Lou Gehrig.  With that friendship came a life-long passion for the national pastime.

Later in life – the early 1970s – Russell translated his acting success into ownership of the independent (Class A) Portland Mavericks – a team whose roster emerged from tryouts involving (as his Shrine of the Eternals nomination points out) “a collection of misfits, reprobates, hangers-on and washouts.”

This collection of last-chance or only-chance players turned professional baseball on its ear, having fun while also taking the measure of its major league-affiliated Northwest League opponents.  The team lasted from 1973-77; never had a losing season; won their Division in 1973, 75, 76 and 77; developed a rabid, involved and fun-loving fan base; and set a short-season minor-league attendance record in 1977 (3,787 per game). Russell also is credited with hiring the first female General Manager – Lanny Moss – in professional baseball; which also turned some heads among baseball’s conservative owners.

Side note: Russell’s players with Portland included Jim Bouton and Russell’s son Kurt Russell – who followed Bing’s passion for baseball and acting.

MLB baseball regained its interest in the Portland area (the Mavericks were born after the Pacific Coast League Portland Beavers moved to Spokane in 1972) and worked to reclaim the territory – an effort that ultimately went to arbitration and earned Russell the highest payout ever (at the time) for minor league territorial rights.

For a great look at this remarkable and entertaining story – check out the 2014 documentary film The Battered Bastards of Baseball.

FOLLOW/LIKE Baseball Roundtable’s Facebook page (click here). We’ll soon be launching bobblehead give-aways, starting with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.

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THE SHRINE OF THE ETERNALS:  2016 VOTING PERCENTAGES

Vin Scully … 59.5%

Bob  Uecker … 37.0

Charlie Brown … 25.5

Leo Durocher … 24.8

Bob Costas … 23.5

Octavius V. Cato … 23.o

Effa Manley … 23.0

Chet Brewer … 22.0

Charles M. Conlon … 22.0

Charlie Finley … 22.0

J.R. Richard … 22.0

John Young … 20.0

Rocky Colavito … 18.0

Luke Easter … 18.0

Lisa Fernandez … 18.0

Ernie Harwell … 18.0

Mamie Johnson … 18.0

Denny McLain … 18.0

Hideo Nomo … 18.0

Rube Foster … 17.0

Mike Marshall … 17.0

Fred Merkle … 17.0

Pete Reiser … 17.0

Bert Campaneris … 16.0

Ted Kluszewski … 16.0

Bing Russell … 15.0

Annie Savoy … 15.0

Rusty Staub … 15.0

Chris Von der Ahe … 15.0

Tug McGraw … 14.0

Phil Pote … 14.0

John Thorn … 14.0

Dave Parker … 13.0

Nancy Faust … 12.0

Oscar Gamble … 12.0

Dave Okrent .l. 12.0

Joe Pepitone … 12.0

Vic Power … 12.0

Charley Pride … 12.0

Rube Waddell … 12.0

Reuben Berman … 11.0

Jose Canseco … 10.0

Mo’ne Davis … 10.0

Mike Hessman … 10.0

Manuel Perez … 10.0

Margarets Donahue … 8.0

Manny Ramirez … 8.0

Sam Nahem … 7.0

Steve Wilstein … 7.0

Babe Dahlgren … 6.0

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

 

Member: Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Reliquary; The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

April 2017 Wrap – April Showers of Long Balls

April17Well, April is behind us and, while April didn’t necessarily provide the kind of showers that will bring May flowers, it did bring showers of home runs – including three-homer games by Yoenis CespedesMatt Kemp and Anthony Rendon; home runs as part of three cycles (Wil Myers, Trea Turner, Carlos Gomez); double figures in home runs for the month by Eric Thames, Ryan Zimmerman, Khris Davis and Aaron Judge; and even a home run hit by a pitcher being used as a pinch hitter (Michael Lorenzen).

So, let’s get on to BBRT’s traditional review of the previous month of the MLB season. I hope you enjoy this look back at April – and come across a highlight or two you may have missed.  (Note:  April is always the easiest month to “wrap,” since monthly and year-to-date leaders are the same. Future wrap ups will look at month and year-to-date stats.) Before we get into detailed highlights and statistics, here are a few quick observations – events or stats that particularly caught BBRT’s eye. (Appreciation to great sources: Baseball-Reference.com, MLB.com, ESPN.com, Statcast and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.)

  • The Washington Nationals scored more runs in April (170) than the Kansas City Royals had base hits (161).
  • Despite the DH, only one American League team (Yankees) finished among MLB’s top five teams in runs scored.
  • Washington RF Bryce Harper set a new MLB record for runs scored in April (32) – and was arguably not even the best hitter on the Nationals.  In addition to scoring 32 runs, Bryce hit .391, with nine home runs and 26 RBI. Nats’ 1B Ryan Zimmerman, however, put up a .420-11-29 line for the month (topping MLB in average, home runs and RBI, as well as hits and slugging percentage).
  • Run support counts: The Red Sox’ Chris Sale finished April with MLB’s highest strikeout total (52) and second-lowest ERA (1.19) – but won only one game (against two losses).  The Twins’ Phil Hughes and Brewers’ Wily Peralta both went 4-1 for the month – despite ERA’s north of five (5.06 and 5.19, respectively).
  • On the final day of the month, the Nationals’ 3B Anthony Rendon not only had a three-homer day, but also became just the 13th MLB player to drive in ten or more runs in a game – going six-for-six, with three home runs, a double, two singles, five runs scored and ten RBI.  It was a bit of a surprise; Rendon came into the game hitting .226, with no home runs, just five RBI and five runs scored.  In one game, he doubled his runs, tripled his RBI, raised his batting average 52 points – and how do you put a percentage on going from zero home runs to three?  Oh yes, the Nationals pulled out a squeaker over the Mets 23-5.
  • Home cookn’ was good in April. Home teams went 205-165 (.553). More important: Only seven of 30 teams finished the month below .500 at home, while 19 teams finished below .500 on the road.  The Royals were the best example of this – going 5-5 at home and 2-11 on the road.
  • A pair of 32-year-old veterans were the only two batters to finish April with averages north of .400 – the National’s Ryan Zimmerman (.420) and the Dodgers’ Justin Turner (.404).
  • The Twins Erwin Santana was the only qualifying pitcher to record an ERA under 1.00 for the month.  Santana gave up just three runs in five starts, going 4-0, 0.77.  In 35 innings pitched, he gave up just 13 hits.
  • The Rockies have been outscored by six runs this season – but stand six games over .500 (16-10); while the Rangers have outscored their opponents by eight runs, but are three games under .500 (11-14).
  • Only four players reached 25 RBI in April (good start toward that century mark) and three of them hit back-to-back-to-back in the middle of the Nationals’ order. Your 25-RBI guys: Nationals’ 1B Ryan Zimmerman (29 RBI), RF Bryce Harper (26); 2B Daniel Murphy (26).  The outlier on the list? The Twins’ Miguel San0 (25 RBI to go with a .316 aveage and seven homers.)
  • The Astros’ Dallas Keuchel got six starts in April and made the most of them, going 5-0 (April’s only five-game winner) with a 1.21 ERA.
  • Mets’ reliever Hansel Robles finished April tied for second in victories (four), going 4-0, 1.84, while pitching a total of 14 2/3 innings in 13 appearances.

—-LET’S LOOK AT TEAMWORK—-

No team won more games in April than the Nationals – 17-10, .680 – and they literally bludgeoned their opponents into submission. The Nats led MLB in runs scored with 170 (29 more than the second-most productive D-backs); batting average .295 (the Astros were second at .272); hits (265); doubles (58);  on base percentage (.369); and slugging percentage (.510).  The Nationals were  second  in home runs with 43 (two behind the Brewers). Meanwhile, their ERA (4.40) was 24th among MLB’s 30 teams.  Three teams came in with 16 wins on the month: the Astros (16-9);  Rockies (16-10); and D-backs (16-11).

At the othe end of the spectrum, the Royals had April’s worst record 7-16, .304 – with middle-of-the-pack pitching (4.18 ERA, 18th) and a woeful offense.  The Kansas squad was last in MLB in runs scored (63), batting average (.210), hits (161), on base percentage (.270) and slugging percentage (.336). They finished the month on a nine-game losing streak, with a lineup that featured  five hitters batting under .230. Two other teams finished April with less than ten wins: the Giants (9-17) and the Blue Jays (8-17).  Full standings are in a chart at the end of the post.

Nationals RUNning Away from Opponents in April

The Nationals put up the strongest run differential in April, outscoring opponents by 48 tallies.  The only other team to reach even top a plus-30 differential was the Yankees (+43). At the other end of the standings, the Royals had MLB’s worst April run differential at minus-37.  Two other teams came in at minus-30 or worse: the Padres (-31) and Giants (-33). 

IF THE SEASON ENDED APRIL 30, THE PLAYOFF TEAMS WOULD BE:

NL: Nationals, Cubs, Rockies. Wild Cards: D-backs, Dodgers.

AL:  Astros, Orioles or Yankees, Indians. Wild Cards: White Sox, Orioles or Yankees.

Surprises Thus Far

The injury-strapped Mets and undeerperforming Giants and Blue Jays (29th and 28th in runs scored), all in last place in their respective divisions – and the NL West Division Rockies; fifth in rus scored, but 26th in ERA, somehow getting the job done (16-10), despite being outscored 125-119 through April).

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BASEBALL ROUNDTABLE PLAYERS AND PITCHERS OF THE MONTH

Ryan Zimmerman photo

Photo by Keith Allison

National League Player of the Month – Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, Nationals …  Hard to go against MLB’s top hitter on the season (.420). The 32-year-old Zimmerman – coming off a series of injury-hampered seasons  – has been healthy and scorching hot for the Nationals. Through April he was .420-11-29 – leadinG  MLB in all three Triple Crown categories.  (It’s a great start for the Comeback Player of the Year Award.)  For the 2014-15-16 seasons, Zimmerman averaged 90 games, .242 average, 12 home runs and 53 RBI.  Others in the running  were: Nationals’ Bryce Harper (.391-9-26, with an MLB-best 32 runs scored) and Nationals’ 2B Daniel Murphy (.343-5-26). 

American League Player of the Month – Aaron Judge, RF, Yankees … This big rookie (6’7″, 280-pounds) is playing big for the surprising Yankees.  His April numbers were .303-10-20.  His ten April roundtrippers tied for the AL lead and matched  the MLB rookie record for the month.  Judge also led the AL in runs scored with 23. Others in the running: White Sox RF Avisail Garcia (AL-leading .368 average, five home runs, 20 RBI) and Twins’ 3B Miguel Sano (.316, seven home runs, league-leading 25 RBI).  

National League Pitcher of the Month – Greg Holland, Closer, Rockies … Holland is one of the main reasons the Rockies stand atop the NL West with a 16-10 record. Holland saved 11 of the Rockies’ April victories (in 11 save opportunities) – leading all of MLB in saves.  He pitched in 12 games, with a 1.50 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 12 innings pitched. Also in the running: Phillies’ Jeremy Hellickson (4-0, 1.80) and Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw (4-1, 2.29, with 39 strikeouts in 35 1/3 innings). 

American League Pitcher of the Month – Erwin Santana, Starter, Twins ... Santana went 4-0 in five April starts, averaging seven innings per outing, with an MLB-low 0.77 ERA and .116 batting average against  In 35 innings pitched, Santana has given up just 13 hits and three earned runs, while walking ten and fanning 26.  Also in the running: Rockies’ Dallas Keuchel (5-0, 1.21) and Mariners’ James Paxton (3-0. 1.39).

—-TEAM STATISTICS – APRIL 2017 —-

MOST RUNS SCORED (MLB Average – 109)

NL: Nationals – 170; D-backs – 141; Brewers 135

AL: Yankees – 128; Mariners – 119; Tigers 118

FEWEST RUNS ALLOWED (MLB Average – 109)

NL: Dodgers – 92; Phillies – 100; Marlins – 103

AL: White Sox – 83; Yankees – 85; Astros – 89

BATTING AVERAGE (MLB Average – .247)

NL: Nationals – .295; D-backs – .269; Braves – .263

AL: Astros – .272; Red Sox – .270; Yankees – .266

HOME RUNS (MLB Average – 29)

NL: Brewers – 45; Nationals – 43; Mets – 37

AL: Yankees – 37; Rangers – 34; A’s – 31; Rays – 31

STOLEN BASES (MLB Average – 13)

NL: D-backs – 32; Brewers – 25; Reds -23

AL: Rangers – 22;  Mariners – 21; Yankees – 18

The Need for Speed

The Rockies swiped an MLB low four bases (eight attempts) in April. 

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN

No team has put fewer runners across the plate then the Royals (63). The second-lowest tally belongs to the Giants (87 runs.) As you might expect the Royals were also at the bottom in April batting average (.210).  Their 24 home runs, however, topped seven other teams – with the Big Papi-less Red Sox hitting the fewest April round trippers (15). The Red Sox lack of power led to the sixth-fewest runs among the 30 MLB teams. .

TEAM EARNED RUN AVERAGE (MLB Average – 4.09)

NL: Dodgers – 3.50; Cubs – 3.77; D-backs – 3.81

AL: White Sox – 3.11; Yankees – 3.35; Astros – 3.38

BEST STARTING STAFF ERA FOR APRIL – Cardinals (3.32)

WORST STARTING STAFF ERA – Red (5.96)

BEST BULLPEN ERA FOR APRIL – White Sox (1.94)

WORST BULLPEN ERA – TIGERS (6.43)

STRIKEOUTS (MLB Average – 202)

NL: D-backs – 252; Dodgers – 242; Mets – 239

AL:  Astros – 238; Indians – 236; Angels – 236

FEWEST WALKS ALLOWED (MLB Average – 81)

NL: Phillies – 65; Nationals – 67; Dodgers – 73

AL: Yankees – 65; Indians – 66; Twins – 69

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COING

The worst team Earned Run Average in April  belonged to the Tigers at 5.19 – the only team over 5.00. The Padres and Angels gave up the most April home runs (38). The fewest pitchers’ strikeouts: Twins (153) and Braves (158). In terms of control, no team has walked more batters than the Orioles (99), although the Reds can see their tail feathers (98 walks allowed). 

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INDIVIDUAL PLAYER PERFORMANCE

Now, let’s take a look at some individual player highlights for April, followed by the statistical leaders.

Here Comes the Judge

Aaron Judge YANKEES photo

Photo by apardavila

On April 29, Yankees’ rookie outfielder Aaron Judge bashed his tenth homer of the month, tying the April record for MLB rookies (Jose Abreu, 2014 and Trevor Story, 2016). The 6’7”, 280-pound Judge finished the month  at .303-10-20.

Here Comes the Vet

Angels’ 1B/DH Albert Pujols – in his 17th MLB season – put up a .24o average, with three home runs and 22 RBI in April.  The three home runs put him at 594 for his career – six shy of 600 and 13 behind Sammy Sosa for the number-eight spot all time.  The 22 RBI gave him 1,839 for his career and moved him past Al Simmons, Manny Ramirez, Dave Winfield, Rafael Palmeiro, Ken Griffey Jr. and into a tie with Ted Williams for number-fourteen all time.  Side note: Pujols started his career with ten consecutive seasons of a 300+ average – 30+ home runs – 100+ RBI.

OUCH!  OUCH! OUCH!  REALLY?

On April 4, Cardinals’ RF Stephen Piscotty had a tough – if somewhat shortened – day at the office.  It all started with one out in the fifth inning of the Cardinals 2-1 loss to Cubs. First, Piscotty was hit by a pitch (right elbow) by Cubs’ starter Jake Arrieta.  Piscotty then took second base on a wild pitch, but was hit on the left elbow by catcher Wilson Contreras’ throw to the bag.  Cardinals’ 2B Kolten Wong followed with a slow grounder to Cubs’ second sacker Javier Baez, who bobbled the ball – leading Piscotty to round third and scoot for home. Piscotty did  score, but was hit in the head by Baez’ throw the plate. The three “hits” left the Cardinals’ outfielder stunned, shaken up and lying face down near home  plate (and, ultimately, helped from the field and out of the game).

THINGS ARE HOPPING IN SEATTLE

The Mariners 2017 home opener took place on April 10 – and, like most teams, they had some new concession offerings.  One of the most popular new concession was the Chapulines ($4) – grasshoppers roasted and tossed in chili-lime salt. How popular were they?  They sold out – 312 orders per game (reportedly in honor of Edgar Martinez’ career batting average) – at all three games of the opening home stand (roughly 18,000 grasshoppers).

Cycles Built For Three

April saw three players hit for the cycle: the Padres’ 1B Wil Myers (April 10), Nationals’ SS Trea Turner (April 25) and Rangers’ CF Carlos Gomez just under the wire (April 29).

Myers, in the Padres April 10th 5-3 victory over the Rockies (in Colorado), singled to right field  in the first, hit an RBI double to left  in the second, homered to right in the sixth and tripled to left center in the eighth.   He finished the game four-for-four with two runs scored and two RBI.

Turner’s cycle came on April 25 – fueling the Nationals 15-12 win over the Rockies (also at Coors). Turner singled to right in the first inning, hit a two-run double to left in the second inning, smacked a two-run homer to right in the sixth and drove in three more  with a bases-loaded triple in the seventh.  For the day, Turner was four-for-six, with four runs scored and seven RBI.  The very next night, Turner almost became the first player to hit for the cycle two games in a row.  Again facing the Rockies – after striking out in the first and grounding out to third in the second – Turner hit a solo home run in the fifth inning, singled in the seventh and doubled in the eighth.

Carlos Gomez baseball photo

Carlos Gomez – Two cycles to his name.  Photo by Keith Allison

Gomez’ April 29th cycle – in a 6-3 win over the Angels in Texas – was the second of his career. Gomez doubled to left in the first inning; lined a single to the right side in the third; hit an RBI triple to right-center in the fifth (later scoring on a Rougned Odor’s home run); and hit a two-run homer to center in the seventh.  Gomez finished the game four-for-four, with two runs scored and three RBI. Gomez’ first cycle came nine seasons ago – May 7, 2008 – when he was with the Twins.

 

Four-For-Three

Only four players have hit for the cycle three times in a career: the Reds’ John Reilly (1890 and twice in 1893); the Yankees’ Bob Meusel (1921, 1922, 1928); Babe Herman (Brooklyn Robins twice in 1931 and Cubs in 1933); Adrian Beltre (Mariners in 2008 & Rangers in 2012 and 2015).

An Immaculate Inning

On April 18, Reds’ reliever Drew Storen became the 78th MLB pitcher to throw whats is referred to as an immaculate inning – striking out the side on nine consecutive pitches. Storen came on in the top of the ninth (with the Reds leading the Orioles 9-3) and fanned Jonathon Schoop, J.J. Hardy and Hyun Soo Kim.  For more on immaculate innings and those who have thrown them, click here.

Tough to Fan

Mookie Betts photo

Mookie Betts – Doesn’t miss much,  Photo by Dennis Heller

On April 19, Boston RF Mookie Betts did something he hadn’t done in 129 regular-season plate appearances (dating back 29 games to September 12, 2016) – strikeout. It came in the top of the fourth inning of the Red Sox’ 3-0 loss to the Blue Jays – on a 2-2 slider from Francisco Liriano. It was the longest “strikeout-free” MLB streak since the Marlins’ Juan Pierre went 147 plate appearances without a K in the scorebook in 2004.

 

 

PUTTING THE BAT ON THE BALL

The longest “strikeout-free” stretch in MLB history belongs to outfielder Joe Sewell. Sewell went from May 19 to September 19, 1929 – a streak of 115 games – without striking out. During his 115-game streak, Sewell racked up 516 plate appearances and  436 at bats without making the post-K “walk of shame” to the bench. The 5’6”, 155-pound Indians’ third baseman also collected 143 hits (.328), with 27 doubles, two triples, seven HR and 56 RBI during the whiff-less streak.   On the season, Sewell fanned just four times in 578 at bats – and it wasn’t even his best campaign in terms of at bats/per whiff.   That would be 1932, when Sewell struck out just three times in 503 at bats – or once each 167.7 at bats (the post-1900 MLB record). For his career (14 seasons/Indians and Yankees), Sewell fanned 114 times in 7,132 at bats – or once each 62.6 at bats.

Side note: In 1927, Sewell had a tough year on the base paths.  He was caught stealing in a league-leading 16 times (in 19 attempts).  Notably, he was successful in 17 of 24 attempts the season before and seven of eight attempts the season after.

YA GOTTA SEE THIS!  HOW ABOUT AN UNASSISTED DOUBLE PLAY BY A PITCHER?

More #WhyIHateThe DH

On April 6, Reds relief pitcher Michael Lorenzon was sent to bat for fellow pitcher Cody Reed with two outs and the bases empty in the bottom of the sixth inning of a 4-4 game (Philadelphia at Cincinnati). Lorenzon delivered a go-ahead home run to right center (the Reds eventually won 7-4). Through April 2017, Lorenzen is a .244 MLB hitter (11-for-45, with two home runs and eight RBI.)  Ironically, the Reds did not have a single pinch hit homer in 2016 – and it took a pitcher to break the hex.

On April 21, Cardinals’ pitcher Adam Wainwright blasted a 96-mph fastball from the Brewers’ Wily Peralta into the second deck in left field for a third-inning, two-run home run. The very next inning, he added a two-run single, giving him four RBI in the Cardinals 6-3 win in Milwaukee.  (Wainwright got the win, giving up two runs on six hits in five innings – while fanning nine.) Side note: Wainwright is one of only thirty MLB players to hit a home run on the first MLB pitch they ever saw (May 24, 2006). Notably, eight of those 30 were pitchers.

Run Don’t Walk

Must we track everything?  On April 22,  Oakland A’s 33-year-old SS Adam Rosales  led off the first inning with a home run off the Mariners’ Ariel Miranda.  Miranda’s embarrassment didn’t last long as Rosales rounded the bases – according to Statcast – in just 15.90 seconds.  Statcast notes that this is the fastest over-the-wall home run trot (gallop?) ever.  How fast? Well, Charlie Blackmon of the Rockies hit an inside-the-park home run the night before – and Blackmon’s dash around the bags was less than four-tenths of a second (0.36 seconds to be exact) slower than Rosales’ “leisurely” trot.  Note:  The A’s topped the Mariners 4-3, while the Rockies bested the Giants 6-5.

Walk Don’t Run

Pirates’ starter Ivan Nova hadn’t given up a walk since last September 13 (146 batters faced without a free pass), when he started against the Yankees on April 23. And, he continued his streak – striking out the side in order in the first inning, retiring the side in order (one strikeout) in the second and getting the first two batters in the third (streak now at 154  consecutive batters faced without a walk).  That brought Yankees’ starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery to the plate for his for his first-ever MLB at bat (in fact, his first professional plate appearance at any level).  What happened?  Nova walked him on a 3-2 count.  Nova went seven innings in the contest, giving up four hits and one runs, striking out seven and walking only Montgomery.  As of April 30, Nova has pitched 36 innings in 2017, with just the one walk and 22 strikeouts.

Run or Walk … Just Don’t Ride

On April 20, San Francisco Giants staff “ace” Madison Bumgarner went down (possibly until the All Star break) with rib and shoulder injuries- sustained in a dirt-bike accident.  Ouch!

Just Like Little League

Remember in Little League, when the coach would move pitchers on and off the mound  in a close game – maybe bringing the shortstop in to pitch to a hitter and then moving him back to shortstop? On April 30, the Yankees did something similar. Yankee reliever Bryan Mitchell had come on to pitch a scoreless top of the ninth, with the Yanks down to the Orioles 4-2. The Bombers came back to tie it in the bottom of the inning.  In the top of the tenth, New York went to closer Aroldis Chapman, but instead of sending Mitchell to the bench, they moved him to first base. Chapman pitched a scoreless tenth.  Then, protecting the closer’s arm (I assume), in the top of tjhe eleventh, Greg Bird came in to play first base and Mitchell went back to the mound. (Unfortunately, this  story does not have a Cinderella ending, Mitchell gave up three runs and took the loss.)

Surprise Player of the Season (So Far)

Brewers’ 1B/OF/DH Eric Thames – a 30-year-old outfielder returning the MLB after three seasons in Korea – is one of the first surprises of the 2017 season. (We can expect plenty of surprises … good and bad … between now and October. That’ why we love the game, isn’t it?).  In reality, Thames’ power stroke should not come as a total surprise.  (Although, he did hit just .263, with one home runs and five RBI in 22 Spring Training games.)

Thames – who played college ball in California for West Valley Community College and Pepperdine University (where, in 2008, he hit .407 with 13 round trippers) – was a seventh-round draft pick of the Blue Jays in 2008.  Thames showed his power potential in the Blue Jays’ minor league system. In 2010, for example, he played in 130 games for Double A New Hampshire Fisher Cats and hit .288, with 27 home runs and 104 RBI.  He started the 2011 season with the Triple A Las Vegas 51s, hitting .342-6-30 in 32 games before a callup to Toronto.  He was up and down between Toronto and Las Vegas, finishing his first MLB season with a .262-12-37 line in 95 games. In 2012, he spent time with the Blue Jays and Mariners (he was traded to the Mariners in July), hitting .232, with nine roundtrippers and 25 RBI in 86 MLB games.  He then spent the entire 2013 season in the minors (the Mariners had acquired outfielders Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay in the off season) and was traded by Seattle to the Orioles on June 30, 2013.  The O’s designated Thames for assignment in September and he was picked up by the Astros (who assigned him to Triple A Oklahoma City).

Thames then played in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he was scouted and signed by the NC Dinos of the Korean League.  Thames played in Korea for three season – hitting .348, with 147 homers and 382 RBI.  Oh yes, and tossed in 64 stolen bases.  He was the league’s Most Valuable Player in 2015 – when he hit  .481-47-140, and swiped 40 bags.

In November of 2016, the Brewers signed Thames to a three-year 16 million dollar deal – which has been a bargain thus far – through April, his stat line was .345-11-19 – with 28 runs scored.

_______________________________________

Now the Stats

BATTING AVERAGE (among qualifiers)

NL:  Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals – .420; Justin Turner, Dodgers – .404; Bryce Harper, Nationals – .391.

AL: Avisail Garcia, White Sox – .368; Mike Trout, Angels – .364; Starlin Castro, Yankees – .352

The lowest April average, among players with at least 50 plate appearances, goes to the Yankee’s Greg Bird at .107 (6-for-66). Another New Yorker, the Mets’ Curtis Granderson has the lowest average (at least 50 plate appearances) for April in the NL at .128 (11-for-86).

HOME RUNS

NL: Eric Thames, Brewers – 11; Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals – 11; Bryce Harper, Nationals and Freddie Freeman, Braves – 9

AL: Khris Davis, A’s – 10; Aaron Judge, Yankees – 10; seven with 7.

RBI

NL: Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals – 29; Bryce Harper, Nationals – 26; Daniel Murphy, Nationals – 26

AL:  Miguel Sano, Twins – 25; Nelson Cruz, Mariners – 23; Albert Pujols, Angels – 22

RUNS SCORED

NL: Bryce Harper, Nationals – 32; Eric Thames, Brewers – 28; Adam Eaton, Nationals – 24.

AL: Aaron Judge, Yankees – 23; Mitch Haniger, Mariners – 20; Francisco Lindor, Indians – 20

STOLEN BASES

NL: Billy Hamilton, Reds – 10; A.J. Pollock, D-backs – 10; five with seven

AL: Jarrod Dyson, Mariners – 8; Jose Altuve, Astros – 7; Lorenzo Cain, Royals and Jacob Ellsbury, Yankees – 6

WALKS DRAWN

NL: Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs – 22; Bryce Harper, Nationals – 22; Brandon Belt, Giants and Eric Thames, Brewers – 18

AL: Brad Miller, Mariners – 18; Miguel Sano, Twins – 18; Edwin Encarnacion, Indians – 17

STRIKEOUTS

NL: Trevor Story, Rockies – 39 (90 AB’s); Jonathan Villar, Brewers – 37 (107 AB’s); Kyle Schwarber, Cubs – 35 (93 AB’s)

AL: Edwin Encarnacion, Indians – 35 (85 AB’s); Danny Espisosa, Angels – 34 (88 AB’s); Chris Davis, Orioles -33 (80 AB’s);

—-PITCHING—-

ERA (qualifiers)

NL: Mike Leake, Cardinals – 1.35; Ivan Nova, Pirates – 1.50; Gio Gonzalez, Nationals – 1.62

AL: Erwin Santana, Twins – 0.77; Chris Sale, Red Sox – 1.19; Dallas Keuchel, Astros – 1.21

WINS

NL: Jeremy Hellickson, Phillies – 4-0; Hansel Robles, Mets – 4-0; Clayton Kershaw Dodgers (4-1); Wily Peralta, Brewers – 4-1

AL: Dallas Keuchel, Astros – 5-0; Erwin Santana, Twins – 4-0;  Phil Hughes, Twins – 4-1; Andrew Triggs, A’s – 4-1

STRIKEOUTS

NL: Jacob deGrom, Mets- 44 (31 2/3 IP); Zack Greinke, D-backs – 40 (36 2/3 IP); Max Scherzer, Nationals – 40 (33 2/3 IP)

AL: Chris Sale, Red Sox – 52 (37 2/3 IP); Danny Salazar, Indian – 42 (29 IP); Yu Darvish, Rangers – 41 (38 2/3 IP)

OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN

WALKS ALLOWED: Wade Miley, Orioles  – 19 (31 IP) and Marty Perez, Rangers – 19 (31 2/3 IP).

HOME RUNS ALLOWED: Jered Weaver, Padres – 10 (28 2/3 IP).

ERA (minimum 20 innings): Josh Tomlin, Indians – 8.87  (23 1/3 innings). 

SAVES

NL: Greg Holland, Rockies – 11 (11 ops); Kenley Jansen, Dodgers – 7 (7 ops) Tony Watson, Pirates – 7 (7 ops)

AL: Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox – 8 (9 ops.); Brandon Kintzler, Twins – 7 (7 ops); three with six

STANDINGS – CLOSE OF PLAY APRIL 30

Standing

 

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I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

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Member:  Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Reliquary; The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance. 

 

 

Twins in First Place – and other Opening Day Musings

THE LAST TIME THE TWINS WERE ON TOP OF THE CENTRAL

Okay the headline may be a bit “over the top.”  But, when was the last time you might have read a headline touting the “First Place Twins?”  Not as long ago as you might think.  That would have been the morning of June 9, 2015 – as the Twins started the day with a 33-24 record, tied with the Royals for first place in the AL Central.  The Twins lost that day (to the Royals) 2-0, to slip out of the lead.  So, Opening Day 2017 was a clash of early June 2015 AL Central Division titans.  This time, however the Twins came out on top.  Side note:  It may seem longer since the Twins topped the Central Division standings since 2015 is the only season between 2011 and 2016 that the Twins avoided 90 losses.  

Here’s BBRT take on yesterday’s game – and other Opening Day musings. (What I chose to highlight may give you some idea about how I watch – and score – a ball game.)

You always get a special kick on opening day, no matter how many you go through. You look forward to it like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.

                                                                       Joe DiMaggio

Yes, indeed, something wonderful can happen on Opening Day.  This year, the Twins topped the Royals 7-1 and ended the day tied for first place.  Compare that to a year ago, when the Twins loss their eighth straight Opening Day game on their way to nine straight season-opening losses and a 59-103 record. No wonder yesterday’s victory seemed truly wonderful.

Opening Day is the most hopeful and optimistic day of each year.  At least for this one day, every team is a contender, every rookie a potential “phenom,”  every fading veteran a potential “Comeback Player of the Year,” and every new face in the lineup or on the bench a welcome addition.

                                                Baseball Roundtable – March 26, 2013

20171The weather, however, was not as wonderful – the low fifties, overcast (the F-16 fly-over was cancelled) with a stiff wind (at least in the second deck where I was seated).  The hooded “Twins Tees” proved handy and the hot chocolate vendors did a “brisk” business.  Still, despite the overcast, it was 51 degrees – although it felt more like 42. (We Minnesotans have a built in sensor for what the day’s temperature “feels like.”)

 

PRE-GAME

Long lines of fans - anxious for the return of baseball - waited for the Target Field gates to open.

Long lines of fans – anxious for the return of baseball – waited for the Target Field gates to open.

Fans were clearly ready for the return of baseball and the Twins (a sell-out crowd).  Nearby watering holes were packed before the game and long lines of festive fans crowded the Plaza as DJ Advance provided pre-game music.  There was plenty of Twins gear in evidence and, if you weren’t wearing something “Twins,” there was a Twins hooded tee for the first 30,000 through the gates. (For more on Twins – and other unique MLB – give-aways for 2017, click here.)

Once in the park, the pre-game  festivities included a solid rendition of the national anthem by a brass quintet from the Minnesota Orchestra – without scheduled singer Dessa (illness).

Grey sky, no flyover, no Dessa – almost seemed like a bad omen.  But former Twins’ coach Rick Stelmaszek (gotta love a guy with a “Z” in his name) and current coach “Everyday Eddie” Guardado turned it around. Stelly, who spent 32 years with the Twins, tossed out the first pitch (to Guardado) to a notable ovation. There were also a host of traditional Opening Day activities: the introduction of both teams along the sidelines (with mini-fireworks added for Twins’ players); season ticket holders unveiling a giant American flag in the outfield;  a pair of bald eagles at home plate; and 94-year-old World War II veteran Henry Langevin raising the American Flag during the anthem.  In addition, the pregame included a memorial tribute to members of the Twins’ family who passed away since last season’s opener – ending with special recognition of Twins’ pitcher Yorman Landa and Royals’ pitcher Yordano Ventura, who both lost their lives in off-season automobile accident.

THE GAME – THE TWINS STROLLED (WALKED) AWAY WITH IT

Those who follow BBRT know of my contention that there is always something new and/or interesting to see at a ballgame.  This one was no exception.  Here are just a few observations:

  • Twins’ batters struck out 11 times to the Royals four, but still outscored Kansas City 7-1.
  • Twins’ starter Erwin Santana had zero strikeouts over six innings, then fanned the side in the seventh (his final inning).
  • At one point in the deciding bottom of the seventh, the Twins had the bases loaded and three runs across in the inning – and had hit just one ball out of the infield (more on that later).
  • Twins’ Designated “Hitter” Robbie Grossman came to the plate five times, scored once, had an RBI and never put the ball in play (two walks, three strikeouts).
  • Twins’ SS Jorge Polanco went two-for-three in the game – with both his hits coming in the same inning.
  • The sixth inning saw the Twins benefit from their first challenge of the season and their first intentional walk under the new (just wave ‘em to first – like in softball) rule. No-o-o!
  • The Twins revived the bunt as an offensive weapon.
  • In the seventh and eighth, all attempts by fans in left field to start “The Wave” died out quickly. (Yesss!)

THE SEVENTH INNING – A TRUE STROLL (WALK) IN THE (BALL) PARK

In the top of the seventh inning, Twins’ starter Erwin Santana (who had not struck out a single batter – but also had given up just two hits and a walk) walked CF Lorenzo Cain to start the inning and then fanned 1B Eric Hosmer, C Salvador Perez and DH Brandon Moss in order.

In the bottom of the inning, things really got strange. Twins’ SS Jorge Polanco opened the frame with a single to center (off Royals’ reliever Matt Strahm).  It was a 1-1 game at the time, so manager Paul Molitor sent RF Max Kepler up to bunt.  Kepler laid down a beauty to the right of the pitcher’s mound – and beat it out.  (Although it did require Target Field’s first challenge of the season to reverse the original “out” call.) Eddie Rosario (LF and number-nine hitter) was called on to move the runners up, and executed a nice third-to-first sacrifice bunt. Leadoff hitter 2B Brian Dozier was intentionally walked (waved) to first to load the bases. (Apparently, MLB did not publicize the new rule very well, as fans all around me were asking “What happened – How did he get on base?”)  DH Robbie Grossman then walked to drive in Polanco.

That was all for Strahm, with Peter Moylan coming in from the pen to face CF Byron Buxton. Moylan fanned Buxton and was relieved by Travis Wood, who walked 1B Joe Mauer and 3B Miguel Sano – enabling Kepler and Dozier to stroll to the plate uncontested. So, at this point the Twins had three runs in, based loaded – and only one ball out of the infield. New catcher Jason Castro got the game back on a more traditional path with a two-run (Grossman and Mauer scoring) single to left.  Polanco then rapped his second hit of the inning – a single to right which scored Sano. Finally, Kepler fanned to end the carnage.  Twins 7 – Royals 1.  And that was pretty much the ball game.

Just a few other observations:

  • Attendance was 39,615 – Minnesota fans have truly been waiting for baseball to return.
  • BBRT loves double plays and the Twins rewarded me with a 6-4-3 twin killing in the second inning and a 4-6-3 version in the ninth.
  • The Twins used a line up that had a lead off hitter who, last season, hit 42 home runs and drove in 99 – and a cleanup hitter who went .261-11-49 a year ago.
  • For those who like home runs: Mike Moustakas poled one to right-center in the fourth inning to give the Royals a 1-0 lead; and the Twins’ Miguel Sano scorched oen to left in the fourth inning to tie the game.
  • If defense if your game:  two diving catches (highlight reel stuff) by CF Byron Buxton and 2B Brian Dozier’s glove scoop and flip on a bunt.
  • During the Kiss-Cam, only two “gentleman” removed their caps before the kiss.
  • The free Twins Magazine now includes a scorecard – saved a dollar.
  • BBRT likes to rate each park’s Bloody Mary (a full look at Twins concessions, click here.  )  I tried the Bloody Mary at Two Gingers (second deck) and it passed muster.  Not just mix and vodka, but solid spices added and two large olives ($10.50).

A FEW MLB OPENDING DAY TIDBITS

Madison bumgarner photo

Photo by andyrusch

MADBUM GOES DEEP

The first MLB 2017 regular season game produced a first of its own – as San Francisco Giants’ “Ace” pitcher Madison Bumgarner became the first pitcher to slam two home runs on Opening Day (giving him the 2017 MLB lead). Bumgarner was also perfect on the mound through five innings (he retired the first 16 batters in order, striking out eight) before giving up three consecutive hits and three runs with one out in the sixth.

Bumganer ended the game two-for-two with a walk at the plate and threw seven innings of six-hit, three-run ball – striking out eleven and walking no one.  He got a no-decision, as the D-backs won 6-5 on shortstop Chris Owings’ walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.  The Giants’ new closer Mark Melancon – acquired to reinforce a leaky bullpen – took the loss, giving up two runs in the bottom of the ninth.

MOST HOME RUNS IN AN OPENING DAY GAME

When Giants’ mound “Ace” Madison Bumgarner crushed a pair of home runs in the opening game of the 2017 season, he came within one of the MLB Opening Day record.  Three players – the Blue Jays’ George Bell, Cubs’ Tuffy Rhodes and Tigers’ Dmitri Young share the record for home runs in an opening day game with three.

On April 4, 1988, George Bell – batting clean-up and serving as the DH – became the first major leaguer to hit three home runs in an Opening Day game as his Blue Jays topped the Royals 5-3 in Kansas City. 

On a windy April 4, 1994, Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes (leading off and playing CF for the Cubs in Chicago) hit three solo shots off Mets’ starter Dwight Gooden. Rhodes also had a single and a walk in five plate appearances. Despite Rhodes’ record-tying performance, the Cubs lost to the visiting Mets 12-8. 

On April 4, 2005 the Tigers’ Dmitri Young rapped three Opening Day home runs – as the Tigers topped the Royals 11-2 in Detroit. 

On the other side of the coin (or plate), on March 31, 1996, White Sox catcher Ron Karkovice set an MLB Opening Day record by striking out five times as Chicago lost 3-2 in Seattle.

METS LOVE OPENING DAY

The Mets topped Atlanta on Opening Day 2017, running their season opener record to 36-20 – that .643 Opening Day winning percentage is the best in MLB.

MORE #WhyIHateTheDH

Pitcher Jeremy Hellickson tripled and drove in a run as his Phillies topped the Reds 4-3 on Opening Day 2017 in Cincinnati.  Hellickson got the win.

LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED

Phillies’ 2B Cesar Hernandez and Astros’ CF George Springer each led off their teams 2017 opening game with home runs –  becoming the 34th and 35th players to do so. Only Astros’ OF Terry Puhl accomplished the feat twice – 1978 and 1980.

AN OPENDING DAY TIDBIT JUST FOR TWINS FANS

AlyeaBeing a Twins fan, one of my favorite Opening Day records is seven RBI in game one of the season – shared by the Twins’ Brant Alyea and the Cubs’ Corey Patterson.

On April 7, 1970 – in his very first game as a Twin – LF Brant Alyea became the first player (and still only American Leaguer) to drive in seven runs in an Opening Day game – as Minnesota topped the White Sox 12-0 in Chicago. Batting fifth, Alyea went four-for-four, with two home runs, two singles and two runs scored.  The game, it turned out, would foreshadow a strong April for Alyea.  In 17 April games, he hit .415, with seven runs, 23 RBI, four doubles and five home runs.

Thirty-three seasons later – on March 31, 2003 – Cubs’ CF Corey Patterson tied Alyea’s record. In a 15-2 win over the Mets in New York, Patterson, batting seventh, drove in seven runs, going four-for-six with two home runs and two runs scored.  Patterson, a career .252 hitter (12 seasons), was an Opening Day All Star. In seven Opening Day appearances, Patterson hit .440, with seven runs, 12 RBI and three home runs.

A LOOK AT THE TRUE KINGS OF OPENING DAY

TED WILLIAMS

Ted Williams photo

Photo by Wicker Paradise

Perhaps no one looked forward to Opening Day more than Ted Williams – the king of the Opening Day batter’s box.  A career .344 hitter, Williams was even better on Opening Day.  Teddy Ballgame played in fourteen openers and was never held hitless.  He compiled a .449 Opening Day average (22 hits in 49 at bats), with three home runs, eight doubles, one triple, nine runs scored, 14 RBI and eleven walks.  His Opening Day on-base percentage was .550 and his season-opener slugging percentage was .837.

WALTER JOHNSON

The Washington Senators’ Walter Johnson can be crowned king of the Opening Day hill.  On his first-ever Opening Day start (April 14, 1910), the 22-year-old Johnson tossed a 3-0 one-hit shutout against the Philadelphia Athletics.  Sixteen years (and 13 Opening Day starts) later, a 38-year-old Johnson fulfilled his last Opening Day assignment with a 15-inning, complete-game, 1-0 win (6 hits, 3 walks, 9 strikeouts) over the A’s.  Johnson holds the record for Opening Day pitching victories with nine (against five losses) and also threw a record seven Opening Day shutouts.

A FINAL THOUGHT

20172I never have minded the naming of ballparks after sponsors – Target Field actually works for me.  But now, it seems like everything at the ballpark has a sponsor – from the challenge/replay to the foul lines (see poto). 

 

 

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

 

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Member:  Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Reliquary; Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance. 

New 2017 Target Field Concessions – From Kale to Cookies and Bratwurst to Black Beans

AABloody3

The latest Bloody Mary at Hrbek’s Pub (Section 114). – the Triple Sausage Sampler. Wowza!

Today (March 30), Baseball Roundtable again took part in a new rite of spring. No, it wasn’t the first robin, the day we first heard “Pitchers and Catchers Report,” the Minnesota lakes ice-out, or even MLB’s Opening Day.  It was the Twins’ Eighth Annual Media Food and Beverage Preview.  Sponsored by the Minnesota Twins and Delaware North Sportservice (the team’s exclusive food and beverage partner), this annual event features a look at (and taste of) the upcoming season’s new Target Field food and beverage offerings.

I have neither the space, nor the time, to touch on all the new food and beverage items that were unveiled this afternoon. (They ranged from a traditional Shrimp Broil to an Indian Chicken Tikka Salad to a Shaved Smoked Beef Sandwich.) However, I would like to share a comment or two on some I found especially tasty, interesting or both. For the Twins’ concessions guide, which lists the full and most up-to-date (locations, prices could change) slate of concessions, locations and prices, click here.

WHEN IT COMES TO BALLPARK FOOD – THESE ARE THE GOOD OLD DAYS!

Those who follow BBRT know, when it comes to the national pastime, I can be a bit “old school” – looking back fondly on the days of two-hour ball games, regularly scheduled double headers, high stirrups, complete games, two-dollar bleacher seats and fans who, when they looked down, were filling in a scorecard, not checking their smartphones.  There is, however, one thing I do not memorialize as part of the baseball’s good old days – ballpark food. When it comes to ballpark concession options, these are the good old days – and they just keep getting better.

When I first started attending MLB games, standard fare consisted of hot dogs (not always that hot), beer and soda (not always cold), peanuts, cotton candy, Cracker Jack® and, if you were lucky, maybe ice cream (usually frozen malt cups with a not-so-tasty wooden spoon) or licorice ropes. The culinary tour that was part of the 2017 Target Field Food and Beverage Preview provided ample evidence of just how far ballpark food has come. 

Let’s look at some of Target Field’s new concessions for 2017.

AABloodyThe Triple Sausage Sampler and Double Threat Bloody Mary’s.  If you follow BBRT, you know that I review the Bloody Mary’s at every ballpark I visit.  Of one thing I can assure you, when it comes to Bloody Mary’s, Hrbek’s Pub (near Section 114 at Target Field) continues to raise the bar.  We’ve seen such offerings as the Bigger Better Burger, College Daze, and Cluck and Moo Bloody Mary’s.  For 2017, they are putting forward what I consider the best Bloody yet – The Triple Sausage Sampler Bloody Mary.  Okay, I’m a sausage guy (I am of Polish descent, after all).  This one – $19.95 at Hrbek’s – comes with a healthy portion of skewered Kramarczuk’s Bratwurst, Polish and Andouille sausages (all perfectly spiced), ripe olive, sweet pepper, cheddar and Swiss cheeses and a beef stick – as well as a dill pickle spear and celery stalk. There is also, of course a beer chaser.  Wow! Oh yes, for four dollars more they’ll add a cheeseburger slider. A meal in a glass –with a chaser.

Shrimp Boil samples ready for tasting. It was, indeed, a feeding frenzy.

Shrimp Boil samples ready for tasting. It was, indeed, a feeding frenzy.

4 Bells Shrimp Boil. If you’re hungry and want something a little different at the ballpark, try 4 Bells (Section 114) Shrimp Boil. A generous portion of peel-and-eat shrimp, Butcher and the Boar ® Sausage, red potatoes and corn on the cob – with Creole seasoning. ($14.50 for a generous portion of true southern comfort.)

 

 

 

 

 

AAAllNationsRoots for the Home Team “All Nations Lake Street Salad.”  I was particularly fond of the fresh and light taste of the Roots for the Home Team (Near Gate 34 on weekends) All Nations Lake Street Salad – collard greens; red and yellow pepper; roasted corn; tomatoes; carrots; black-eyed peas – with a Tomatillo Lime Cilantro dressing and Crumbled Queso Fresco Cheese topping. Thinking outside the box or want something a little lighter at the ballpark?  The All Nations Lake Street Salad is one of nine new salads that Root for the Home Team has created for 2017.  ($9 of $11 with chicken.) Note: Roots for the Home Team partners with youth garden programs in the Twin Cities to give multicultural teens the opportunity to develop business and entrepreneurial skills.

AAHotIndiaHot Indian Chicken Tikka Salad.  Okay, I’ve got a soft spot for ethnic foods and “Hot Indian Foods” knows how to reach it – even at the ballpark. For this season, they’ve added a Hot Indian Chicken Tikka Salad – baby kale, shredded paneer, crispy chickpeas, superbly spiced chicken.  (Worth a stop at Section 120 – $12.50).

 

 

 

AAcookieCookie Cart.  Dessert, aah, sweet dessert!  Why not stop at the Cookie Cart. Twelve kinds of cookies – six packs for $8 and $3 for a frosted cookie.  These are cookies like grandma used to make (chocolate chip, peanut, oatmeal, they are all here) – and the organization provides areas teens with the opportunity to develop work, life and leadership skills while working with an urban non-profit bakery.  If you are craving a sweet, the Cookie Cart has just what you are looking for.  They will operate in Section 101 during Saturday and Sunday games.

 

 

 

 

AAZimmernAndrew Zimmern’s Canteen (Section 114) Skewers. These tasty skewers come in Braised Boneless Beef Short Rib; Mediterranean Chicken; and Braised Pork Shoulder – on flat bread, with roasted eggplant spread, herbed yogurt sauce and tomato-cucumber (served with chips).  Easy to eat, and easier to enjoy ($14.50 each). The Canteen’s new 2017 offerings also include a Frozen White Chocolate Mousse ($7.50) for dessert.   I finished the Mousse before I could get a photo of it (dulce de leche, lady fingers, white chocolate) – and then licked away every drop that had slipped from spoon to fingertips.

 

AAButcherVegan Sriracha Brat. Vegan anyone? For vegan readers, there is “The Herbivorous Butcher” and the Vegan Italian Sausage and Vegan Sriracha Brat (each $12.50).  I preferred the extra “bite” of the Sriracha Brat.  If you’re vegan at the ballpark, this is probably the way to go.  They also carry Hebrew National Kosher Hot Dogs in pairing with MSP Kosher Hot Dog.  (Look for both in Section 129.)

The barrio crew at work,

The barrio crew at work.

Barrio Adobe Grilled Chicken Burrito. Barrio continues to deliver its own special taste to Target Field (Sections 105 and 305).  This year, they are featuring the Adobe Grilled Chicken Burrito (black beans, rice, Monterey Jack, avocado-tomatillo Pico, Pico de Gallo, salsa, fresh jalapeno) – as a Burrito or in a bowl ($11.00). Delicioso!  Add a margarita and you’re ready for extra innings.

 

 

 

 

AACAPKurd-Marczuk’s (cart in Section 101) is  offering a Twins baseball cap filled with cheese curds, chopped Polish sausage, topped with gravy.  These were tasty, chewy, and easy to carry – I’d buy them without the souvenir mini-cap. (Prices here range from $9.50-$20.00.)

 

 

 

 

 

Murray's Shaved Smoked Beef samples ready to go.

Murray’s Shaved Smoked Beef samples ready to go.

Murray’s Shaved Smoked Beef. Murray’s new offering for 2017 is the Shaved Smoked Beef Sandwich on a toasted bun, featuring Murray’s garlic butter and house-cut, dill-seasoned chips.   For all the beef eaters out there, garlic and beef make a pertty good ballpark combo. Murray’s will have a new cart in Section 116. ($14.50.)

 

 

These are just some of the new items. There are also such offerings as Buffalo Chicken Poutine; Boneless Barbeque and Buffalo Wings; Barrio Barbacoa Tacos; and Andrew Zimmern’s Sloppy Ko (Korean barbeque). In addition, lots of favorites are back at locations like: Pizza Luce; Red Cow; Minnie and Paul’s; Izzabella’s Gelato; Mac’s Walleye and Chips AND MANY MORE.  Again, for the full list of offering, prices and locations, click here.

If you’re planning a trip to Target Field  and wondering about promotions, event and “deals,” click here.

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Member:  Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Reliquary; Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance. 

Baseball Roundtable 2017 “Watch List”

Spring Training is winding down, and it’s the time of year when Baseball Roundtable picks a few MLB prospects to keep an eye on in the coming season.  In this post, we’ll take a look at a handful of young players truly poised to make an MLB splash this season, a few others who have a chance to showcase their skills at the major league level – and add a couple of side trips to view a top prospect we won’t see this year and a trio of Yankee youngsters who could change the outcome in the AL East.  (Statistics through March 20.)

POISED TO MAKE SPLASH AT THE MAJOR LEAGUE LEVEL

  1. ANDREW BENITENDI (OF, RED Sox)

BenIf there was ever a can’t miss prospect, it’s Red Sox’ OF Andrew Benitendi.  The 22-year-old, 5’10”, 170-pound fly chaser has been at the top of his game wherever he’s played.  His senior year in high school, he hit .564-12-57 with 38 steals and was the 2013 Ohio Gatorade Player of the Year and ABCA/Rawlings National High School Player of the Year.  In 2015, his sophomore season at the University of Arkansas, he hit .380 with 19 home runs and was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, Baseball America Player of the Year, as well as the winner of the Dick Howser Trophy and Golden Spikes Award.

The Red Sox made Benitendi the seventh overall pick in the 2015 MLB Draft – and 14 months later, he was playing at Fenway. (He hit .312-20-107, with 26 steals in 151 minor league games, before his 2016 call up – where he hit .295-2-15 in 34 games for Boston.) This spring, he’s kept right on hitting – .308-2-8 in fourteen games (with six walks against just four strikeouts). Look for Benitendi to patrol LF at Fenway and do some damage with his left-handed bat as well.

  1. DANSBY SWANSON (SS, Braves)

Dansby Swanson, the 2014 College World Series Most Outstanding Player (Vanderbilt University) was the first overall pick (Arizona Diamondbacks) in the 2015 MLB (June) draft.  Just six months later, he was traded to the Atlanta Braves (see box below), the fastest any first-overall draft choice was ever moved. A mere eight months after that (August 2016), he was in the major leagues – getting just enough at bats to keep his rookie status for 2017.  (Side note:  Both of the top two prospects on this list took just 14 months to get their first taste of the major leagues.) But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before the D-backs/Braves trade – in fact, before his first-ever professional game at any level – Swanson was hit in the face with a pitch in a simulated game (delaying his 2015 pro debut by about a month). He went on to play in 22 games at Class A Hillsboro, going .289-1-11. The following season, now in the Braves’ system, Swanson hit .275-9-53, with 13 steals, in 105 games at High A and Double A. He was called up August 17 and went .302-3-17 in 38 games for the Braves.  The 6’1”, 190-pound, 23-year-old is not known for flashy skills, but rather for “veteran” defensive instincts and reliability, a quick bat, good plate discipline and the potential to add power to his game.  This spring, Swanson was sidelined for a couple of weeks with a side strain, and has gone .389-1-4 in 18 at bats (seven games).  Look for him to be a surprisingly steady (for a rookie) influence in the Braves infield.

BRAVES’ MAKE HAUL IN MILLER TRADE

In the NL West, the Diamondbacks seem to consistently find themselves chasing the pitching rich Dodgers and Giants. In 2015, they went “all in” to close the mound gap. Early that December, they signed free-agent Zack Greinke – a former Cy Young Award winner, who led the NL (as a Dodger) in winning percentage (19-3, .864) and ERA (1.66) in 2015. At almost the same time, they added Shelby Miller to the rotation in a trade with the Braves.  Miller had been an All Star in 2015. He also led the NL in losses (6-17), despite a 3.02 ERA. The Diamondbacks also got minor league pitcher Gabe Speier in the deal; while sending number-one overall draft pick SS Dansby Swanson, OF Ender Inciarte and minor league pitcher Aaron Blair to the Braves.

What was the outcome? For the Diamondbacks, Miller had an off year, going 3-12, 6.15 (although he did show improvement; 3.98 ERA in the second half). Speier went 4-2, 2.62, while moving from Rookie League to Double A. The Diamondbacks finished fourth – 22 games off the pace. The Braves fared better – w-a-a-ay better. Inciarte hit .291-3-29 with 16 stolen bases and won a Gold Glove for his play in center field.  Swanson moved up to the Braves (see prospect description above) and seems set to be their shortstop for the long-range future.  Blair went 5-4, 4.65 at AAA, and 2-7, 7.59 with the Braves. The rebuilding Braves did finish last – 26 1/2 games out.

  1. HUNTER RENFROE (OF, Padres)

I like Hunter Renfroe a lot – and I’m convinced “13” (Renfroe was the 13th overall selection in the 2013 MLB draft) will be a lucky number for the Padres.  Renfroe played college ball at Mississippi and in 2013 won the C Spire Ferriss Trophy as the best college player in Mississippi. In 2011-12, he also played for the Bethesda team in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League – where his number was retired after a 2012 season when he set new team records in runs scored, runs batted in, home runs and total bases. In four minor league season (438 games), the 6’1’, 220-pound right-handed hitter hit .281, with 77 home runs, 283 RBI and 23 steals.

Before a September 2016 call up to the Padres, he was hitting .306-30-105 at Triple A El Paso. In 11 late season games for San Diego, Renfroe hit .371-4-14. In 15 Spring Training games, he’s hitting .304, with two homers and seven RBI. Look for him in RF in San Diego.

  1. Yoan Moncada (2B, White Sox)
Yoan Moncada photo

Photo by apardavila

The key player in the Chris Sale trade, Moncada was signed out of Cuba by the Red Sox in 2015. As a teenager in the Cuban National Series, Moncada hit .277-4-28 in 101 games. The 21-year-old made his MLB debut in 2016, going four-for-nineteen in eight games with the Red Sox.  Considered one of MLB’s top-five prospects, he hit .287-23-100, with 94 stolen bases over two minor league seasons. This spring, the 6’2”, 205-pound infielder is hitting .317-3-13 in 17 games.  Reports indicate the rebuilding White Sox won’t rush Moncada to the major leagues, but BBRT is guessing he’ll force his way to “The Show” before season’s end.

 

 

 

  1. JOSH BELL (1B, Pirates)

Pirates’ first baseman Josh Bell is less of a can’t miss prospect than the first four on this list – more because of health concerns than performance expectations. The 24-year-old Bell, at 6’2”, 240-pounds, looks like the prototypical power-hitting first baseman. To this point, he’s shown power potential, but has been more of a line-drive hitter.  In five minor league seasons (487 games), Bell has hit .303, with 44 home runs and 285 RBI (and he’s tossed in 23 steals, not bad for a 240-pounder).

Bell was signed by the Pirates (out of high school) in the second round of the 2011 MLB Draft. In his senior campaign for Jesuit College Preparatory School (Dallas, Texas), Bell hit .548, with 13 home runs and 54 RBI, earning a spot on the USA Today All-USA High School Team, Gatorade/ESPN Texas Player of the Year honors and a scholarship offer from the University of Texas.  Bell began the 2016 season at AAA Indianapolis, going .295-14-60 before a call up to the Pirates.  He got in 45 games for Pittsburgh, hitting .273-3-19.  Bell should be a fixture in the Pirates lineup this season.

Oh, about that health issue. In 2012, Bell had significant (left) knee surgery (meniscus) and then, this February, had minor surgery to remove what was termed a loose body from the same knee.  Bell is back with the team, but has only two hits in seven spring games (21 at bats). He’s got some catching up to do, but he should be in the line upon Opening Day.

THREE YOUNG YANKEES THAT COULD MAKE A DIFFERENCE

The Yankees are seeing a changing of the guard and – at least to BBRT – it looks pretty good.  Consider what these three youngsters could mean to the Bronx Bombers’ future. 

Catcher Gary Sanchez (24-years-old) made his MLB debut last season and went .299-20-42 in 53 games. He’s maintaining the momentum this spring, with a .361-4-13 line in 13 games. 

Then there is 1B Greg  Bird (24-year-old), who showed a power bat in the minors and came up last year to hit .261-11-31 in 46 games for the Yanks.  This spring, Bird is .421-4-6 in 16 games.

Finally, there is OF Aaron Judge (also 24), who hit .270-19-65 at AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre last season (93 games) before going .179-4-10 in 27 games for the Yankees. New York still expects good things from this top prospect, who is at .286-2-3 in 17 spring games.

ALSO ON THE BBRT WATCH LIST

MITCH HANIGER  (OF, Mariners)

Mitch Haniger photo

Photo by Keith Allison

Haniger’s 19 hits leads all hitters this spring. The 26-year-old has nine extra bases hits (six doubles, one triple and two home runs) and eight RBI. Haniger (6’2”, 215-pounds) ripped up Double A and Triple A last season (.321-25-94 in 129 games) and then hit five home runs and drove in 17 (but hit only .229) in a brief call up to the Diamondbacks.  After playing college ball at Cal Poly, where he earned Big West Conference Player of the Year and All American honors in 2012, he was drafted by the Brewers as a supplemental pick (end of first round) in 2012. He was traded to the D-backs in 2014 and then to the Mariners in November of 2016. Haniger has strong minor league numbers (.290-61-268 over 455 games). He’s also a plus defender who may very well have played his way into a starting role this spring.

 

 

PETER O’BRIEN  (OF/1B,  Royals)

As of this writing (March 20), Peter O’Brien is tied for the Spring Training lead in home runs (six) with a more familiar name (Bryce Harper). Through Monday, the 6’4”, 235-pounder was hitting .333-6-13 and opening some eyes.    O’Brien was a second-round pick (Yankees) in the 2012 MLB Draft, traded to the Diamondbacks in 2014 and then to the Royals (who liked his power bat) this January. He played college ball for Bethune-Cookman and the University of Miami and was named Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2010 and All Atlantic Coast Conference in 2011. O’Brien’s best minor league seasons were 2015 (.284-26-107 at Triple A) and 2014 (.271-34-74 at three levels). In a brief 2016 call up to the Diamondbacks, he hit .141-5-9 in 28 games. Despite a solid spring, O’Brien – who still needs to work on plate discipline – is expected to start the season in the minors. Still, BBRT expect to see him in a Royals’ uniform soon.

BROCK STASSI  (1B, Phillies)

Brock Stassi (6’2”, 190-pounds) has been a run-producing machine this spring, with an MLB-leading 15 RBI in just 17 games. The 27-year-old’s line in 43 Spring Training at bats is .326-5-15. Stassi may be THE surprise of Spring Training. A 33rd-round draft pick (2011).  Stassi has a .263 average, with 42 home runs and 271 RBI in 580 minor league games (six seasons). He played college ball for the University of Nevada and was a First-Team All-Western Athletic Conference pick during his senior season. He’s had a solid spring, but the Phillies may find it hard to take him north – or even free up a spot on the forty man roster. It doesn’t help his cause that 24-year-old Tommy Joseph, who surprised the Phillies with 21 home runs in 107 games after being called up last season is penciled in for the first base slot – although Stassi’s left-handed bat could be valuable off the bench. Keep an eye on him as the season progresses.

ONE TOP PROSPECT WE WON’T SEE

ALEX REYES  (RHP, Cardinals)

aLEX rEYES CARDINALS photo

Photo by Corn Farmer

Twenty-two-year old Alex Reyes (6’3”, 175-pounds) looked to have a lock on a spot in the Cardinals’ rotation. With a high-90s fastball (with movement), a power curve and a solid changeup, he earned a call uP last August and went 4-1, 1.57 with 52 strikeouts in 46 innings (12 appearances/five starts). This followed four minor league seasons in which he went 20-21, 3.50 with 449 strikeouts in 334 innings pitched.  BBRT was anxious to see what Reyes – signed as an amateur free agent in 2012 – could do in a full season for St. Louis. It was, however, not to be.  In February, he suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament that required Tommy John surgery.  See you in 2018.

 

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Member:  Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Baseball Reliquary; Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; Baseball Bloggers Alliance

Bobbles to Bangles – 2017 MLB Team Giveaways

MLB’s regular season is closing in fast and, as is BBRT’s tradition, it’s time to take a look at the ballpark “extras” fans can expect – promotions, giveaways, theme nights, special discounts and more.  Being from Minnesota, I will put a little “extra” emphasis on the Twins; but I’ll share some information on unique giveways across MLB.

DISCLAIMER:  Keep in mind, promotional items and schedules are subject to change without notice. For a complete list and up-to-date details regarding 2017 Twins promotions (including dates, numbers of items, activities and eligibility) click here  For details on promotions and events across MLB, visit each team’s website.

This year’s team  promotions range from bobbles (bobbleheads, that is) to bangles (like the Hanley Ramirez Chain and Diamondbacks’ Mothers’ Day “Clutch”).  They also range from traditional (baseball caps, jerseys and gloves) to hi-tech (the Phillies are literally giving away a “Tech Kit,” as well as a cell phone wallet and “texting” gloves) to super practical (Mariners’ Potting Soil Night).  And, they salute players new (like Dansby Swanson and Michael Fulmer) and old (like Hank Aaron and Whitey Ford).  In addition, they celebrate a range of individual and team events from Rod Carew’s 1977 MVP season to the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win. Even mascots like the Phillie Phanatic, Fredbird and T.C. Bear are getting into the act. There is truly something for everyone. The giveaway BBRT is most excited about, however, is something new that the Twins are offering to young fans.

BASEBALL ROUNDTABLE 2017 MOST UNIQUE NEW BALLPARK GIVEAWAY

TwinsTThis season, on April 23, the Twins’ are introducing a truly personal touch to ballpark promotions – a customizable Twins Youth T-Shirt.  That’s right!  The Twins Tee will come with iron-on letters and numbers, so youngsters can have their very own personalized Twins outfit (or maybe wear the name and number of their favorite player).  The first 5,000 youngsters 14-and-under will receive T-Shirts, so get there early. Plus, Sunday is Kids Day, so young folks can get a player autograph before the game; enjoy a half-price Kids Meal ($4 for a hot dog; chips or apple sauce; and milk, soda or juice) during the game; and can run the bases after the game.  Now, that is kid- and parent-friendly day at Target Field.  BBRT Note: Among the runners-up for most unique promotional item were the Phillies “texting” gloves and a singing Francisco Cervelli bobblehead from the Pirates. 

In the remainder of this post, BBRT will take a look at some of the most popular or unique items in the MLB’s “Gift Bags” for the year – listing my top five (hometown) Twins promos, as well as a featured promotional item from each team’s 2017 collection.  Since bobbleheads remain the king of ballpark promos, I’ll also list the bobbleheads (and dates) for each team. Then, I’ll also take a look at the Twins’ special Theme Days and Nights, as well as discounts on tickets and concessions. (Twins fans may want to be sure to read – or scroll – past the team-by-team section to take in the Twins-specific events and bargains.)  I’ll finish up with BBRT’s 2017 All-Bobblehead All Star Team. And, again remember, before finalizing your plans, check each team’s website for details (dates and promotions may change) on dates, numbers, eligibility, etc.

BOBBLEHEADS ARE STILL THE TOP MLB GIVEAWAY

2017 bobblehead giveaways range from the unique (Robin Yount Motorcyle) to the traditional (Gary Sanchez' swing.)

2017 bobblehead giveaways range from the unique (Robin Yount Motorcyle) to the traditional (Gary Sanchez’ swing.)

The king of MLB giveaways remains the bobblehead.  This year, teams are slated to hand out 133 different bobbleheads – totalling more than 2.25 million individual bobblers.  (An exact count is difficult, as some teams list totals for giveaways as “all fans” or “as long as supplies last” – 2.25 million is a conservative estimate. Smith and Street’s Sports Business Journal – in a November 30, 2015 article – reported that MLB teams distributed 3.17 million bobbleheads in 2015.) I would also note that the BBRT estimate does not include bobbleheads to be distributed as part of theme nights that require special tickets.

One final thought on bobbleheads.  If bobbleheads are the royalty of ballpark giveaways, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the King of the court.  This season, the Dodgers will handout approximately 400,000 bobbleheads (10 different bobbblehead days) – the most in MLB.

 

MINNESOTA TWINS TOP-FIVE 2017 GIVEAWAYS

This season, the Twins will handout a treasure trove of team-identified baseball merchandise, including:

  • 40,000 bobbleheads
  • 40,000 Twins caps
  • 40,000 stocking caps
  • 30,000 long-sleeve, hooded t-shirts
  • 20,000 baseball card packs
  • 25,000 T-shirts
  • 10,000 fur trapper hats
  • 10,000 1987 World Series Steins
  • 10,000 Twins Hall of Fame commemorative pins
  • 10,000 pairs of socks
  • 10,000 plastic bat & ball sets
  • 10,000 magnetic schedules
  • 10,000 tote bags
  • 7,500 beach towels
  • 5,000 beach totes

gold radial gradationNow, here are BBRT’s five favorite 2017 Twins giveaways. For more details and a complete list of Twins giveaways, theme nights and special ticket or concessions offerings, click here

 

 

  1. Twins Long Sleeve Hooded Tee (30,000 – April 3) … Twins hoodies are rapidly becoming an Opening Day tradition.  A very nice Twins wearable – and, after all, what’s better than something free on Opening Day?
  2. Twins Customizable Youth Tee (5,000 – April 23) … See box  and photo near the top of this post.
  3. Rod Carew Bobblehead (10,000 – August 18) … This bobblehead is part of a Twins’ celebration of Rod Carew’s Summer of’ ’77; when Sir Rodney led the league with a .388 average, 239 hits, 128 runs scored and 16 triples.  He added 14 home runs, 100 RBI and 23 stolen bases on his way to the AL Most Valuable Player Award.  If you score only one bobblehead this season, this is the one. (Oh yes, there’s also post-game fireworks.)
  4. Twins 1987 World Championship Stein (10,000, must be 21+ – July 22) … Great way to recognize that surprising 1987 World Series win (especially if you fill it with your favorite beverage).  As a bonus, it’s part of the July 21-22 1987 World Series Championship Reunion Weekend.
  5. Tie: Twins Fur Trapper Hat (10,000 – April 15) and Twins Red Cap (20,000 – April 22) … Twins Senior Manager for Marketing and Promotions Julie Vavruska indicated the fur trapper hats have been especially popular with Twins’ fans and, from BBRT’s point of view, you can never have too many Twins baseball caps. This season, I prefer the red one.

_______________________________________________________

Now let’s move to a look at one unique item – and the bobblehead list – for each team.

Arizona Diamondbacks

DiamondbacksclutchThe BBRT-featured Diamondbacks promo will be given out on Mother’s Day (May 14) – a Diamondbacks Clutch.  Swee-ee-t!  Arizona’s bobbleheads include: Jake Lamb (April 8); Paul Goldschmidt (June 24); Robbie Ray (July 22); Sugar Skull (September 9).

 

 

 

Atlanta Braves

The Braves featured item honors one of MLB’s all-time greats – a Hank Aaron Replica Statue (August 18).  The team is also giving away five bobbleheads, honoring returning players and newcomers: Ender Inciarte Game Ender Catch (May 19); Bartolo Colon (June 9); Dansby Swanson (June 16); Matt Kemp (July 14); Freddie Freeman (August 25).

Baltimore Orioles

OriolesThe Orioles’ BBRT-featured giveaway is a Replica Stadium recognizing the 25th Anniversary of Orioles Park at Camden Yards (August 19) – although the Oriole Bird Bobblehead Toothbrush Holder (September 24) also caught my eye.  Orioles’ 2017 bobbleheads include: Zach Britton (July 1); Jonathan Schoop (August 5).

 

 

Boston Red Sox

RammyThe featured Red Sox item truly qualifies as baseball bling – A Hanley Ramirez Chain (May 1).  The featured bobbleheads for 2017: Rick Porcello Cy Young Award (April 5); Mookie Betts (April 14); Craig Kimbrel (May 24); Chris Sale (June 12); Manny Ramirez (June 27); Jackie Bradley, Jr. (August 3).

 

Chicago Cubs

Cubs trophyWe’ll give a little more space here to the Cubbies, who are celebrating the end of the curse (and, of course, a World Series Championship).  The Cubs’ featured item is the Replica 2016 World Series Trophy (April 15.)  However, fans can also pick up a Replica WS Championship Banner (April 12); Replica 2016 NL Champions Pennant (May 21); Championship Wall Flag (June 11/13-and-under); and Championship Parade Confetti Globe (June 20).  The Cubs’ bobbleheads: “The Final Out” (May 20); “World Series MVP” (June 8); “Turning Two” (July 5); “Starting Aces” (August 17).

Chicago White Sox

WhiteSoxClockThe ChiSox, this season, are treating fans to a Hawk Harrelson Alarm Clock (May 13). Their 2017 free bobbleheads: Southpaw (June 25); White Sox Stormtrooper (August 26).

 

 

 

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds’ top giveaway (from BBRT’s perspective) is actually a bobblehead – a triple bobblehead to be exact.  On  Spetember 16, the team will handout a Past and Present Bobblehead featuring Tony Perez, Sean Casey and Joey Votto. That’s a home run!  (Note: One of my favorite bobblers of all time was the Reds’ 2015 triple, featuring the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton, who helped the Reds claim the 1990 World Series Championship.) Also on the Reds’ 2017 bobblehead list: Adam Duvall (May 20); Anthony DeSclafani (June 3); Billy Hamilton (July 15); Raisel Iglesias (August 5); Homer Bailey (August 26); Fan Vote (September 23.)

Cleveland Indians

IndiansTrophyThe Indians are showing off Cleveland pride with their BBRT-featured giveaway – a Replica of the 2017 American League Championship Trophy (May 24)They are also a great source for that coveted Indians’ jersey, as their promotional schedule includes a: Carlos Santana jersey (June 10); Cody Allen jersey (June 24); Andrew Miller jersey (July 8); Edwin Encarnacion jersey (August 26); and a 1977 jersey (September 9). Bobbleheads for 2017: Jose Ramirez (May 27); Francisco Lindor (July 4); Jason Kipnis (July 22); Terry Francona (August 23).

Colorado Rockies

EarthDayOkay, I admit it, I’m a John Denver fan – which helps make choosing the Rockies’  Earth Day 2017 T-shirt (April 21) as the BBRT-featured Rockies’ Giveaway easy- although the Jon Gray Hair Hat (June 16) was tempting.  The Rockies’ bobbleheads for this season: DJ LeMahieu NL Batting Champ (April 8); MARVEL Super Heroes (July 8); Adam Ottavino Star Wars (July 22); Nolan Arenado (August 19).

 

Detroit Tigers

TigersHarThe Tigers featured giveaway reflects the weather of the Motor City – the “April in the D” Trapper Hat (April 8, when the fans will probably need them). The Tigers’ bobblehead giveaways: Michael Fulmer Rookie of the Year (June 16); James McCann (July 29); Alan Trammel (August 19).

 

 

Houston Astros

AstrosGnoemBBRT’s pick-to-click Astros’ giveaway is the Lance McCullers “Glow in the Dark” Gnome (May 20) – for a couple of reasons: 1) Who wouldn’t want a glow in the dark gnome?; and 2) It’s sponsored by Nolan Ryan Beef.  Astros’ bobbleheads: Jose Altuve (April 8); Carlos Correa (July 15); Jeff Bagwell Batting Stance (August 5); Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Mike Hampton Triple Bobblehead (August 19); George Springer Diving Catch (September 16). The weekend of August 4-5 should be exciting in Houston, it’s Jeff Bagwell Hall of Fame Weekend at the ballpark – and you could score a Replica 1997 Bagwell Jersey (August 4) and a Bagwell bobblehead (August 5), while also enjoying fireworks (August 4) and a pregame Hall of Fame ceremony (August 5).

Kansas City Royals

Kansas City has a rich baseball history – as well as the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum – and  BBRT really likes their May 7 Kansas City Monarchs Jersey giveaway. Royals’ bobbleheads for this season: Kelvin Herrera (April 29); Danny Duffy (May 13); Alex Gordon (June 3); Eric Hosmer (July 22); Kevin Appier (August 19); George Brett (September 30).

Los Angeles Angels

AngelsCaracasKeeping a focus on unique items, BBRT is featuring the Angels’ Cinco De Mayo giveaway – Angels’ Maracas (May 5, of course). The Angels’ bobbleheads feature a Hall of Famer and a future Hall of Famer.  Mike Trout is featured on a series of three bobbleheads honoring his 2016 MVP season (May 16, August 4, August 22); Trout will also be recognized with a MVP Double Bobblehead (July  18); and Nolan Ryan will be honored with a August 25 bobblehead promo.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers

DodgersPhoneThe Dodgers are not only the king of bobbleheads (10 different bobblehead giveways), they may very well be the royalty of MLB promotions.  In 2017, 65 of the Dodgers’ home games will feature some type of giveaway, theme or event. BBRT chose to feature a unique item – the Dodgers Phone Charger (April 4); but I could easily have picked from a  long list of promotional items,  headlined by such giveaways as the ten Great Dodger Moments Coins; the Vin Scully Commemorative Microphone Statue (May 3); the Dodgers Chips and Salsa Dish (May 8); and the replica Jackie Robinson Statue (April 15).  As for bobbleheads, the Dodgers’ 2017 lineup includes: Corey Seager (April 29); Kenley Jansen (May 10); Joc Pederson (May 23); Justin Turner (June 6); Andre Ethier (June 21); Dave Roberts (July 6); Clayton Kershaw (July 26); Gil Hodges (August 15); Adrian Gonzalez (September 6); TBD (September 26).

Miami Marlins

U.S. engineer/inventor Charles Kettering once said “My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there. ” With that in mind, the Marlins’ promotional giveaway featured in this post is the Fortune Teller Baseball (which I predict will be given to the first 10,000 fans on September 4). Marlins’ 2017 bobblehead lineup: Don Mattingly (April 14); Felo Ramirez (May 28); Giancarlo Stanton 2016 HR Derby (June 3); Dee Gordon (July 29); J.T. Realmuto (August 25); Christian Yelich (September 17).

Milwaukee Brewers

EuckerThe Brewers will literally be putting Bob Eucker behind (actually on) the 8-Ball on August 13, when they hand out their Bob Eucker 8-Ball promotional item.  Also unique is the May 28 giveaway Robin Yount Bobblehead (on a motorcyle), which recognizes the Baseball Hall of Famer’s passion for motorcyle and auto racing. (See photo at the top of the post.) Other bobbleheads: Jonathan Villar (April 23); Zach Davies (July 2)

 

New York Mets

HarveyA review of MLB giveaways wouldn’t be complete without at least a couple of garden gnomes, so here’s the Mets’ Matt Harvey Garden Gnome (April 22)  – although the Noah Syndergaard Hair Hat (May 6) and Yeonis Cespedes Compression Sleeve (July 23) also were tempting.  The Mets’ team of 2017 bobblehead giveaways includes: Asdrubel Cabrera (July 1); Noah Syndergaard/Thor (July 22); Yeonis Cespedes (August 19).

 

 

 

 

 

New York Yankees

The Yankees featured giveaway commemorates the 40th Anniversary of the team’s 1977 World Series win  – a replica of the 1977 World Championship Ring (September 17). Yankee bobbleheads for the season celebrate the old and new when it comes to player selections: Gary Sanchez (April 30); Reggie Jackson (June 9); Whitey Ford (July 9); Aroldis Chapman (August 27 – this one should go “fast.”)

Oakland A’s

AsWatchThe A’s are ready to offer fans a good time on May 7, with their Sean Manaea LED Wrist Watch. (No need for Manaea to buy a vowel that’s for sure.)  On the bobblehead front: Bob Melvin (May 6); Khris Davis (June 3); Miguel Tejada & Bary Zito (July 1); G-Eazy (July 28).

 

Philadelphia Phillies  Go Tech

PhilllieTextingglovesFor the Phillies, BBRT decided to go for unique, something no other ball club was giving away – Phillies Texting Gloves (April 25). Social media, here comes the Phanatic. The Phillies, BTW – might as well go all the way with this – are also giving away a Phillies Cell Phone Wallet (April 12) and a Phillies Tech Kit (earphones, charging/power plugs, case – May 22);   Phillies bobbleheads: Mike Schmidt (July 8). Phillie Phanatic Solar Bobble Body (July 30).PhilliesPhonePhilliesTech

Pittsburgh Pirates

PiratesCervelliThe Pirates are one of only two teams – the other is the Reds – which have a bobblehead as the BBRT-featured giveaway.  But really, how can you resist a Francisco Cervelli “That’s Amore” Singing Bobblehead (April 8).  Additional Pirates’ bobbleheads for 2017: Bob Walk Chair Tip (May 20); Jody Mercer (June 17); Gregory Polanco El Coffee (August 19).

 

 

 

 

Saint Louis Cardinals

DogBowlBark in the Park, Pups in the Park, Dog Days at the Park, whatever you call it, take your dog to the ballgame day is pretty popular around MLB.  In St.Louis, it’s Purina Pooches in the Ballpark (May 20).  And, even if your pooch can’t make it to the game, you can go home with a Cardinals Pet Bowl.  Don’t have a pet, show up on September 10 for a Build-A-Bear Cardinals Pup.  Oh yes, and here are the Redbirds’ bobbleheads for the season:  Yadier Molina (April 8); Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter Double (April 29); Orlando Cepeda (June 9); Bob Gibson Final Out #1 (June 24); Kids Fredbird (June 25); Tim McCarver Final Out #2 (July 8); Mystery HOF Manager (August 25); Scott Rolen (September 30).

San Diego Padres

The Padres’ 2017 promo schedule is, once again, bobble-less. Still, there is the popular Padres and Puppies Calendar (April 23).  Who can resist puppies?

San Francisco Giants

GiantsCableUnique to the Giants is the September 3 San Francisco Cable Car Replica giveaway – a bit of Bay Area history. The Giants’ 2017 bobbleheads include: Johhny Cueto Shimmy (April 15); Giants Retro (June 24); and Charlie Brown (July 22).  I’d also like – ‘er love – to get one of the  June 25 promo 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love blankets.

 

 

Seattle Mariners

MarinersTBBRT was especially fond of the Mariners’ (July 21) I “Club” New York T-Shirt giveaway because it was the only one I came across that actually referred to the opposing team.  (I like that spirit.)  The Mariners were pretty big on bobbleheads as well (seven players/165,000 bobbleheads): Ichiro Dual Bobblehead (April 19); Felix Hernandez (May 6); Jay Buhner (May 20); Nelson Cruz (June 3); Kyle Seager (July 8); Edgar Martinez (August 11); Robinson Cano (September 9). August 11-13, the Mariners are planning plenty of action around the retirement of Edgar Martinez’ number: Edgar Martinez Bobblehead (August 11, 45,000); Edgar Martinez number-retirement ceremony and Replica Number Plaque (August 12, 45,000); Edgar Martinez Replica Jersey (August 13, 45,000).  The Mariners were also the only team with a “Potting Soil Night.” 

Tampa Bay Rays

RayspillowThe Rays are right up to date, with the giveaway BBRT has chosen to feature – the Chris Archer Emoji Pillow (July 23).  I must admit that the Bubble Blowing Evan Longoria (May 6) figure also  intrigued me.  The Rays’ bobbleheads: Kevin Kiermaier Gold Glove (April 8); Matt Duffy Double Play (June 10); Kevin Kiermaier Star Wars (June 24); MARVEL Iron Man (August 5); Blake Snell (September 16).

 

Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers’ most unique item would seem to be the Jonathan Lucroy Chest Protector Backpack (August 20)  Among the bobbleheads for the coming season: Adrian Beltre Dancing Legs (April 29); Elvis Andrus/Rougned Odor High Five #1 (May 13); Cole Hamels Super Hero (June 3); Elvis Andrus/Rougned Odor High Five #2 (July 29); Pudge Rodriguez Hall of Fame (August 12).

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays’ BBRT-featured giveaweay is a Blue Jays Sleeved Blanket, presented at the final home game (September 24).  Blue Jays’ bobbleheads: Marco Estrada (May 14); Josh Donaldson (June 4); Aaron Sanchez (July 9);

Washington Nationals

NationalsScherzerGlobeTop Nats’ giveaway goes to the Max Scherzer Snow Globe  (May 24), honoring the ace of the staff and 2016 Cy Young Award Winner. The Nationals are featuring three bobblehead giveaways: Daniel Murphy (April 14);  Trea Turner (May 12); Tanner Roark (June 9).

 

 

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Now, for Twins fans, a look at …
TWINS SPECIAL EVENTS AND THEME NIGHTS

Wine, Women and Baseball … May 5, July 7, August 29

1 (1)Back in the Days of the Metrodome, the Twins launched their Wine, Women and Baseball event  – which still sells out (approximately 400 for each event). Twins Senior Manager for Marketing and Promotions Julie Vavruska said the original event was held in tents on the Plaza outside the Metrodome.  It’s now held (pregame) at the Loews Minneapolis Hotel – where attendees enjoy wine tastings, light appetizers and desserts, and “Pamper Yourself” stations (manicures, massages, hair styling, etc.). You can expect Twins wives to drop in, and each participant also receives a Twins Cross Body Bag. Topping it all off, of course, is an evening at Target Field.

The Twins have a host of special events slated this season, including the: 1987 World Series Championship Reunion Weekend (July 21-22); Diversity Day (August 3); T.C.’s Summer Bash and Mascot Softball Game (August 6); Rod Carew Summer of ’77 Tribute (August 18); and Twins Hall of Fame Weekend (August 19-20).  Twins Marketing and Promotions executive Julie Vavruska indicated there would be a range of special activities and promotions linked to those events.

“We’ll be giving out our first-ever, at-the-gate T.C. Bear bobblehead at the T.C. Summer Bash,” she said. “And you can expect photo and autograph opportunities related to the 1987 World Series team reunion.”

Vavruska was also excited about this season’s Diversity Day tumbler giveaway (August 3), which makes use of a computer-generated program to make each of the 5,000 tumblers to be handed out unique. “You’ll know that the tumbler you received is a one-of-a-kind item,” she said.  “No one will have the same one.”

Vavruska also discussed the Twins’ ambitious Theme Night/Day schedule, noting that theme events – which require a special ticket – enable the team to reach specific groups.

“We started with just a handful of events in 2015, with a goal of bringing in people who hadn’t been to the ballpark before,” she said. “We got great feedback and results.  In 2015, 70 percent of the theme-event participants were first-time visitors to Target Field.”

The Twins have since expanded the theme concept, which both attracts fans (new and old) and generates a sense of community at the ballpark.   For full details, check out the Twins promotional schedule on the team website. Here, however, is a list of Theme Events and the promotional items that go with the special ticket.

  • University of Minnesota Night … May 5 (Maroon and Gold Twins cap)
  • MARVEL Super Heroes Day … May 6 (“Guardians of the Infield” T-shirt)
  • Scrubs Night … May 16 (Twins hospital scrub top)
  • Faith Day … May 28 (Post-game program)
  • University of St. Thomas Night  … June 20 (Purple and Gray Twins cap)
  • Star Wars Night  … June 21 (Brian Dozier “A Force 2B Reckoned With” Stormtrooper bobblehead)
  • University of North Dakota Night … July 7 (Green and White Twins cap)
  • College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University Night … July 18 (Red and White Twins cap)
  • Sportsmen’s Night … August 5 (Blaze Orange/Camo reversible Twins beanie)
  • North Dakota State University Night … August 15  (Yellow and Green Twins cap)

 

On Cancer Awareness NIght, participating fans will be able to select a Twins cap in colors that reflect the cancer charity of their choice.

On Cancer Awareness Night, participating fans will be able to select a Twins cap in colors that reflect the cancer charity of their choice.

  • Cancer Awareness Night … August 30 (Unique Twins caps in colors reflecting the cancer charity each attendee would like to support)
  • Minnesota Wild Night …. September 12 (Exclusive co-branded Wild/Twins cap)
  • Love Your Melon Night … September 14 (Twins Love Your Melon beanie)
  • Zubapalooza Night … September 29 (A pair of Minnesota Twins Zubas)

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WE ALL LOVE A BARGAIN – TWINS’ DEALS

Anyone who knows me personally, knows how I love a bargain.  Here are a few of my Twins’ favorite Bargains.

EVERY GAME

Cub Family Section … Free hot dog and soda with each ticket in the alcohol-free family section. Hot dog and soda available at Hennepin Grille (Section 311).

EVERY MONDAY THROUGH THURSDAY GAME (excluding Opening Day)

Military/Veterans Appreciation … Active Military or veternas with valid ID can purchase up to four Home Plate View tickets at half price.

ALL WEEKDAY DAY GAMES

Treasure Island Senior Day … Fans 55 and over receive a $5 discount on Field Box and Treasure Island Cove seats.

EVERY SUNDAY

Kids Day … Kids Meals (Hot Dog – Chips or Apple Sauce – Beverage) are half-price ($4); Pregame player autograph opportunity for kids 14-and-under; Kids can run the bases post game. Kids Meals at Hennepin Grille (Section 311) and Taste of Twins Territory (Section 124).

EVERY TUESDAY

U.S. Bank Meal Deal … Free hot dog and soda with each U.S. Bank Home Run Porch View ticket. Hot dog and soda at Hennepin Grille (Section 232), The Deck Section U, and Taste of Twins Terrioty (Section 234).

EVERY WEDNESDAY

Schweigert Dollar-A-Dog Day … Hot dogs for $1 at the Hennepin Grille and Taste of Twins Territory concession stands. (limit two person, total of 20,000 per game).

Student Day … Ballpark Access tickets for students for $5, and students can download a free Metro Transit Ride Pass. One ticket per student with valid ID

THE BIG FINISH – YOUR 2017 MLB ALL BOBBLEHEAD ALL STARS

C – YADIER MOLINA, CARDINALS

1B – PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, DIAMONDBACKS

2B – JOSE ALTUVE, ASTROS

3B – NOLEN ARENADO, ROCKIES

SS – FRANCISCO LINDOR, INDIANS

LF – ALEX GORDON, ROYALS

CF – MIKE TROUT, ANGELS

RF – GIANCARLO STANTON, MARLINS

SP – CLAYTON KERSHAW, DODGERS

CL – ZACH BRITTON , ORIOLES

MGR – TERRY FRANCONA, INDIANS

THROWING OUT FIRST PITCH – WHITEY FORD, YANKEES

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

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BBRT 2017 National League Preview – Cubs Win! Cubs Win!

Spring Training and the WBC are in full swing and thoughts are focused on the upcoming season.  A couple of weeks ago, BBRT made its predictions for the coming American League season. (Click here for that post.)  In this post, I’ll take a look at the National League. You can see projected standings, won-lost records and award winners immediately below and go deeper into this long post for a review of each team, some “stat facts” and a couple of “players to watch” for each squad.  Oh yes, and remember these are just my own observations – like you, from the outside looking in. Like all prediction, their accuracy is up for debate.

PREDICTED NL STANDINGS

EAST

Washington Nationals (92-70)

New York Mets (85-77)

Miami Marlins (81-81)

Atlanta Braves (74-88)

Philadelphia\a Phillies (71-91)

CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs (99-63)

St. Louis Cardinals (89-77) … Wild Card

Pittsburgh Pirates (80-82)

Milwaukee Brewers (72-90)

Cincinnati Reds (68-94)

WEST

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

San Francisco Giants (90-72) … Wild Card

Colorado Rockies (81-81)

Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86)

San Diego Padres (64-98)

National Leqgue Champions: Chicago Cubs

A detailed look at each team is provided after the award winner predictions. ____________________________________________

NL AWARD WINNERS

MVP

  1. Kris Bryant – Cubs (3B) … The Cubs are likely to go to the World Series again and Bryant, last season’s NL MVP is likely to lead them. He was .292-39-102, with 121 runs scored in 2016. If he continues to cut down on the strikeouts – dropped from 199 in 2016 to 154 last year – the 25-year-old could be even better.
  2. Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers (LHP) … Simply the best starting pitcher in baseball, Kershaw won the Cy Young Award and MVP in 2014. I wouldn’t bet against him being the first pitcher to accomplish that feat twice. If he leads the Dodgers to the West Division title with 20+ wins, he’ll be in the running. Last season in just 21 starts, he went 12-4, 1.69 with 172 whiffs in 149 innings.
  3. Nolan Arenado – Rockies (3B) … Arenado is my kind of player – bringing leather and lumber to the ballpark. Just 25, and in is fourth MLB season, he has won four Gold Gloves.  He also led the NL in home runs and RBI in each of the last two seasons (.294-41-133 last year).  If the Rockies can finish above .500 and anywhere near the Dodgers/Giants, Arenado could be the MVP.

Other potential candidates: Buster Posey, Giants; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs; Paul Goldschmnidt, Diamondbacks.

CY YOUNG AWARD

  1. Clayton Kershaw – Dodgers … Three-time CYA winner; 2014 NL MVP; four-time ERA leader; three-time league leader in strikeouts; twice league leader in wins; twice league leader in complete games; three-times league-leader in shutouts. Kershaw has to be the favorite.
  2. Max Scherzer – Nationals … Perhaps a long shot, since he’s nursing a finger injury. However, he pitched through the injury last season and ended up 20-7, 2.96 with a league-leading 284 strikeouts. Don’t count out the defending NL Cy Young Award winner in the chase for his third CYA.
  3. Madison Bumgarner – Giants… The epitome of a big-game pitcher. Consistently posts 15018 wins, an ERA under three and 200+ whiffs. One of these years, MadBum’s gonna be the man.

Other potential candidates: Noah Syndergaard, Mets: Johnny Cueto, Giants; John Lester, Cubs; Jake Arrieta, Cubs.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

  1. Dansby Swanson – Braves (SS) … Swanson, just 23, looks to be ready to join the amazing crop of young and talented shortstops dotting MLB rosters. He’s still a rookie, but got a 38 game “look:” from the Braves last season and hit .02, with three home runs, 17 RBI and 20 runs scored. The first overall pick of the 2015 is one of – if not the – 2017 ROY favorites.
  2. Hunter Renfroe – Padres (OF) … Last season’s Pacific Coast League MVP, Renfroe scorched Triple A pitching for a .306 average, with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. Then, in 11 games with the Padres, this former first-round draft pick, hit .371-4-14. He’ll get plenty of opportunity to show his stuff with the rebuilding Padres.
  3. Tyler Glasnow – Pirates (RHP) … At 6’ 8” and 220-pounds, the Pirates hope Glasnow is a big presence in their 2017 rotation. He looked a little overmatched in a late call up last season (0-2, 5.01), but did fan 24 in 23 1/3 innings. In four minor league seasons, he’s gone 36-19, 2.03 with 645 strikeouts in 500 innings. With that seasoning, I’m betting he’s ready for the NL.

Other potential candidates: Josh Bell, Pirates; Manuel Margot, Padres; J.P. Crawford, Phillies.

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NOW A TEAM BY TEAM LOOK AT THE NL

EAST

First Place – Washington Nationals (92-70)

Max Scherzer Nationals photo

Two-time CYA winner Max Scherzer will lead the Natinals’ rotation. Photo by apardavila

The Nationals won the AL East by eight games last season – and the pitching staff led the way – putting up the second-lowest ERA in all of MLB (3.51). The Nats are returning the bulk of that staff.  The Nats also scored the fourth-most runs in the NL – and the most in the East Division.  The offense should be even stronger this season, with a full year of SS Trea Turner and the addition of CF/leadoff  hitter Adam Eaton (trade with the White Sox).  The Nationals will be back on top.

The Nationals starting rotation will again be led by Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96, 284 strikeouts in 228 1/3 innings), who continues to deal with a ring-finger injury.  Scherzer was the NL Cy Young Award winner last season and is only the sixth pitcher to win the CYA in both leagues.  Following Scherzer in the rotation is Stephen Strasburg (15-4, 3.60), who is an ace when he’s healthy, but has averaged only 137 innings in each of the last two seasons (due to back and elbow issues). If he’s healthy, he could win 17-20 games.  Last season, Strasburg won 15 games in just 24 starts.  The three and four spots also boast proven, quality arms.  Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83) can be expected to notch 15 victories, while southpaw Gio Gonzalez (11-11, 4.57) has put up double-digit wins in each of the past seven seasons. The final spot should go to Joe Ross (7-5, 3.43), coming off shoulder surgery. If any of these falter, the most likely candidate is A.J. Cole (1-2, 5.17 with the Nationals last year and 8-8, 4.26 in Triple A).   Clearly, the Nationals have a quality rotation, but there are a couple of health questions that need to be answered.

NATIONALS STAT FACT

Last season, the National’s had MLB’s second-lowest ERA at 3.51 (only the Cubs were lower at 3.15). They also head the second-lowest starters’ ERA at 3.60 (again trailing the Cubs, 2.96) and second-lowest bullpen ERA at 3.37 (the Dodgers were at 3.35).

The Nationals “fanned” on signing a free-agent closer, so it appears Shawn Kelley (3-2, 2.64 with seven saves) will get the job. The 32-year-old has just 11 saves (in 23 opportunities) in eight MLB seasons, so he’s far from a proven commodity.  Still, his 80 strikeouts in 58 innings last season indicate he has closer “stuff.”  Getting the ball to Kelley will be Blake Treinen (4-1, 2.28 in 73 games) and Koda Glover (2-0, 5.03; but 3-1, 2.25 in three minor league stops – A/AA/AAA – last season).  A couple of additional assets in the pen include Sammy Solis (2.74 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 41 innings) and veteran Oliver Perez (2-3, 4.95.) If Kelley holds up at closer, the pen should be up to the job.  If not, look for closer-by-committee or a plunge into the trade market.

The biggest change in the Nationals lineup is right at the top, with newcomer Adam Eaton (trade White Sox). Eaton (.284-14-59 with 14 steals) will lead off and play CF.  Eaton is likely to be followed by 23-year-old SS Trea Turner (.342-13-40 in 73 games – after .302-6-33 in 83 Triple A contests). A full year of Turner will further boost the Nationals’ offense.  The middle of the lineup belongs to the proven bats of 2B Daniel Murphy (347-25-104); RF Bryce Harper (.243-24-86, with 21 steals, but capable of much more – he was .330-42-99 in 2015); and 3B Anthony Rendon (.270-20-85, with 12 steals). Included in the supporting cast are 1B Ryan Zimmerman (.218-15-46 in 115 games), who needs to bounce back from age and injuries; LF Jayson Werth (.244-21-69); and new catcher (free-agent) Matt Weiters (.243-17-66). Given a healthy pitching staff, this is more than enough offense to win the East.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Max Scherzer nursed a stress fracture in his right ring finger over the second half of 2016 (and did it successfully – going 10-1. 2.86 over the second half). He ended with a 20-7, 2.96 record and his second Cy Young Award. Keep an eye on the Nationals’ “ace.” Washington gave up some top pitching prospects in the Adam Eaton trade and needs a full season from Scherzer. Besides, why not watch the hurler who last season lead the NL in wins (20); starts (34); innings pitched (228 1/3); and strikeouts (284)? Scherzer is one of only six pitchers to win the Cy Young in both leagues; is one of just three pitchers to fan 20 batters in a nine-inning game; and one of just six pitchers to throw two no-hitters in one season.  Worth watching to see what he does next.

SS Trea Turner, just 23-years-old, is one of the crop of outstanding young shortstops dotting MLB rosters.  In 73 games for the Nationals last season, he hit 342-13-40, with 33 steals. This after minor league seasons in which he hit .331, .322 and .302.  It should be fun to watch him develop.

Second Place – New York Mets (85-77)

Noah Syndergaard photo

Noah Syndergaard’s “Thor-like” arm will lead the Mets’ rotation. Photo by Keith Allison

With the Mets, contending is likely to be all about pitching – and their pitching is all about health.  Consider their starting rotation. Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Jacob deGrom all had elbow issues last season (Matz and deGrom required surgery); Matt Harvey had only 17 starts (surgery related to thoracic outlet syndrome); and  Zach Wheeler was out due to Tommy John surgery.  Despite all of this, Mets’ starters put up MLB’s third-best ERA (and their relievers were sixth-best). Meanwhile, the team scored MLB’s fifth-fewest runs. Bottom line:  If the pitching holds up, they’ll contend. If not they could drop to third.

The Mets’ rotation starts with hard-throwing Noah Syndergaard (14-9, 2.60, with 218 strikeouts in 183 2/3 innings). Syndergaard is the ace of the staff, but there is plenty of quality to follow.  Jacob deGrom (7-8, 3.04 in 24 starts) was an All Star (14-8, 2.54) in 2015.  Matt Harvey (4-10, 4.86) was 13-8, 2.71 in 2015. Steve Matz was 9-8, 3.40 in 22 starts. Zack Wheeler, coming of Tommy John surgery, hasn’t pitched since 2014, but was 11-11, 3.54 that season.  I’ve already noted the health issues with these very live (all under 30-years-old) arms.  Very simply, the Mets need at least three of these hurlers to put in a full, healthy season. Fortunately, if last season proved anything, it’s that the Mets do have places to turn to in case of injury. Ready to step in are Robert Gsellman (4-2, 2.42 in eight appearances, seven starts) and Seth Lugo (5-2, 2.67 in 18 appearances, eight starts).  The Mets should put a competitive rotation on the mound.

METS STAT FACT

The Mets hit the second-most home runs in the NL last season (218), but scored the fourth-fewest runs (671) – in great part due to their .225 average with runners in scoring position, last in the NL. The Mets were, in some way, an all-or-nothing offense.  They were the only NL team to score more than half their total runs (51.1 percent) via the home run. Maybe it’s time to diversify.

Jeurys Familia – and his high 90’s sinker – will again hold the closer’s role, after a 3-4. 2.55 season in which he posted a league-leading 51 saves (following a 43-save season in 2015).  As reliable as his arm is, the Mets still face a question at closer.  As this post is being written, Familia is still facing a possible MLB suspension related to a domestic violence case. If he is out for any amount of time, it will call for significant adjustment in bullpen roles. Right now it looks like key set up man Addison Reed will have the ninth inning to start the season. Reed was 4-2, 1.97 in 80 games a year ago – whiffing 91 batters in 77 2/3 innings.   Key members of the pen will likely be Fernando Salas (3.91 ERA in 75 appearances for the Angels and Mets); Hansel Robles (3.48 in 68 games); and Jerry Blevens (2.79 in 73 games). Josh Smoker also looked good in a late season call up, going 3-0, 4.70 in 20 outings, but fanning 25 batters in 15 1/3 innings. (Plus. I’d like to see a guy named Smoker on the mound.) The bullpen could be strength once Familia returns.

With 3B David Wright looking to start the season on the DL, the Mets’ lineup has a bit of a hole in the middle.  But, it’s one they are used to filling. Wright has played a total of 75 games in the past two seasons. Jose Reyes (.267-8-24, nine steals in 60 games) and Wilmer Flores (.267-16-49 in 103 games) should fill the gap.  The Mets’ middle-of-the-lineup power will come from LF Yeonis Cespedes (.280-31-86); RF Jay Bruce (.250-33-99); and, hopefully, 1B Lance Duda (who played only 47 games last season due to a back injury). Duda hit .229-7-23 last season, but hit 57 home runs in 2014-15.  The Mets need his power bat. CF Curtis Granderson has a hold on the leadoff spot – but he’s not your typical top of the lineup guy (.237-30-59, with just four steals).  If any of the Mets’ OF falters (or goes down with injury) look for former number-one draft pick Michael Conforto to step in.  Despite hitting just .220-12-42 in 109 games last season, the Mets remain high on the 24-year-old Conforto, who hit .270-9-26 in 56 games after a 2015 call up. If the Mets fall out of contention, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them move Conforto into the lineup and look to trade one of their veteran OF’s. Rounding out the lineup should be Asdrubel Cabrera (.280-23-62) at SS; Neil Walker (.282-23-55) at 2B; and Travis d’Arnaud (.247-4-15 in 75 games) at catcher.

It looks like the Mets will again have plenty of power at the plate, and have the potential for plenty of power arms on the mound.  There are just too many injury-related questions – from Wright and Duda to deGrom, Matz and Harvey – to expect them to catch the Nationals.  And, then, there’s also the impact of the Familia suspension on the bullpen.  They are in the right division to hold on to second place, but I don’t see them in the post season.  Note:  If the entire starting rotation stays healthy. the Mets could win 95 games, but that’s asking a lot.

A Couple of Players to Watch

The Dark Knight – Matt Harvey – is coming back from rib removal surgery (thoracic outlet syndrome) and was limited to 17 starts last season (4-10, 4.86).  In his healthy 2015 season, he made 29 starts, going 13-8, 2.71 and fanning 188 batters (versus just 37 walks) in 189 1/3 innings.  If he gets healthy, you could be looking at the Comeback Player of the Year.

Since joining the Mets in July of 2015, OF Yeonis Cespedes has hit .282, with 48 home runs and 130 RBI in 189 games.  When he has been in the lineup, the Mets have played .589 ball, without him in the lineup (since he joined the team), they’ve played at a .439 clip.  Keep an eye on Cespedes – his performance may well determine where the Mets finish.

Third Place – Miami Marlins (81-81)

Giancarlo stanton photo

The Marlins could use a full season of Giancarlo Stanton’s powerful bat. Photo by Corn Farmer

The loss of 24-year-old Jose Fernandez in a tragic boating accident in late September took a toll on the Marlins – on and off the field.  Fernandez, the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year, was 16-8, 2.86 with 253 strikeouts in 182 1/3 innings at the time of his death.  Obviously, you can’t replace Fernandez’ arm (nor his personality and presence). The Marlins did try to address at least the on-field loss, signing free-agent pitchers Jeff Locke and Edison Volquez and trading for Dan Straily. Those three won a total of 33 games last season.  They also bolstered the bullpen (free-agents Brad Zeigler and Junichi Tazawa). Still, you simply can’t replace an arm like Fernandez’ and the Marlins are returning a lineup that scored the third-fewest runs in the NL a year ago.  Third place seems like the peak – unless the Mets’ rotation falls apart.

There is no real “ace” at the top of the rotation, but there are a lot of arms competing for one-through-five.  Some of the leading candidates: Wei-Yin Chen (5-5, 4.96 in 22 starts); Adam Conley (8-6, 3.85 in 25 starts); Edison Volquez (10-11, 5.37 for the Royals, but a 13-game winner in 2014 and 2015); Tom Koehler (9-13, 4.33 in 33 starts); Dan Straily (14-8, 3.76 in 31 starts for the Reds); Jeff Locke (9-8, 5.44 for the Pirates). The Marlins should be able to put together a workable rotation, but will still lack a “stopper.”

MARLINS STAT FACT

The Marlins were one of two NL teams without a complete game last season (the other was the Brewers). The Marlins also went without a CG outing in 2015. (The Pirates were the only other team without a CG that season.) Their last complete game came on June 3, 2014, when Henderson Alvarez blanked Tampa1-0 on a five-hitter.

The Marlins made a run at a couple of free-agent closers – in particular Kenley Jansen.  They ended up adding Brad Ziegler (4-7, 2.25 with 22 saves for Boston and Arizona) and Junichi Tazawa (3-2, 4.17 in 53 games for the Red Sox).  Going into 2016, A.J. Ramos (2.81 with 40 saves and 73 strikeouts in 64 innings) should handle the ninth inning.  Ziegler will be a key late-inning setup man, along with Kevin Barraclough (6-3, 2.85 in 75 games, with 113 strikeouts in 72 2/3 innings). David Phelps (7-6, 2.26 in 64 games) should also get plenty of work,

When you look at a lineup that includes RF Giancarlo Stanton, it’s hard to imagine the Marlins had the second-fewest HR’s in the NL last season. (They also had the third-fewest runs scored, despite boasting the league’s second-highest batting average.)  They need a couple of things – more power sprinkled trough the lineup and more days in the lineup for Stanton (who has topped 125 games only twice in seven MLB seasons).  Last year, Stanton hit .240-27-74 in 119 games (groin injury). A full year of Stanton would be a big plus. Joining Stanton in the middle of the lineup, expect CF Christian Yelich, coming off a career year (.293-21-98, nine steals) and LF Marcell Ozuna (.266-23-76). Ichiro Suzuki (.291 in 143 games) will also get playing time in the OF.  The top of the order will again feature 2B Dee Gordon (.268 with 30 steals in a season that also featured an 80 game PED-related suspension) and 3B Martin Prado (.305-8-75). Look for Adeiny Hechavarria (.236-3-38) at SS; Justin Bour (.264-15-51 in 90 games) at 1B; and catcher J.T. Realmuto (.303-11-48, with 12 steals) to fill in the bottom of the order.

Overall, a lack of power in the lineup, coupled with uncertainties in the rotation (particularly the lack of a true number-one starter) will keep the Rays out of the post season.  They still, however, have enough to hold off the Braves and Phillies, and should reach the .500 mark.

A Couple of Players to Watch

2B Dee Gordon served an 80-game, PED-related suspension last season and ended up at .268-1-14 with seven steals.  Gordon was an All Star in 2014 and 2015, leading the NL in stolen bases both seasons (64 and 58) and winning the 2015 NL batting title (.333).  It will be interesting to monitor his post-suspension performance.

Giancarlo Stanton hits some of the longest home runs in MLB.  ESPN Home Run Tracker credits him with the two longest of 2016 – and the only two of at least 490 feet.  Stanton hit 27 long balls in 119 games last season (groin strain). However, his durability can be a question. In seven MLB seasons, he’s averaged just 118 games a year – and topped 125 games only twice (in both those seasons, Stanton hit 37 home runs).  His power stroke is worth watching, as is his health.

Fourth Place – Atlanta Braves (74-88)

The Braves has some high-potential young arm in their minor league system, but they are not yet ready to expose them to MLB hitting. So, as they enter a new ballpark, Atlanta has added some not-so-new (veteran) pitchers to the staff – 43-year-old righty Bartolo Colon (free-agent); 42-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey (free agent); and “the kid,” 30-year-old Jaime Garcia (trade with the Cardinals). Together these three likely members of the rotation have 41 years of MLB mound experience.  That may prove a two-edged sword, age and innings can catch up to you suddenly. Unfortunately, for all these pitchers, they will be backed by an offense that produced MLB’s second-fewest runs in 2016 (only the Phillies scored fewer).  I don’t see the Braves finishing higher than fourth.

Let’s look first at the rotation, which will be led by the quality arm of Julio Teheran (7-10, 3.21 with 167 strikeouts in 188 innings). Teheran was an All Star in 2014 and 2016 and should be a double-digit winner this season.  After that, the rotation is a mixture of styles that offer as many questions as answers.  There are the aforementioned Bartolo Colon (15-8, 3.43 in 34 starts for the Mets last season), who just keeps rolling along. The 43-year-old (turns 44 in May) has won 62 games (40 losses) over the past four seasons and has reached the 190-inning mark in all four.  Last season, Colon threw his fastball nearly 90 percent of the time.  Then there is the other 40+ starter, R.A. Dickey (10-15, 4.46 for the Blue Jays), who throws a knuckler more than 80 percent of the time – and has won at least ten games in each of the past five season.  If they stay healthy, they could eat plenty of innings – and keep hitters off balance – for the Braves.   Also in the rotation should be Jaime Garcia (10-13, 4.67 for the Cardinals) and youngster (25-years-old) Mike Foltynewicz (9-5, 4.31). If any of these falter, Matt Wisler and Josh Collmenter are in the wings.  A servicable rotation, but not enough to offset a still rebuilding offense.  A lot of placeholders, while young arms develop in the minors.

BRAVES STAT FACT

Last season, the Braves hit the fewest HR’s in MLB (122); scored the second-fewest runs (649), grounded into the third-most double plays (145) – but still drew the most intentional walks (60). Pretty good sign there are some holes in the lineup.

The closer will likely be Jim Johnson, who stepped up last season when Arodys Vizcaino went on the Disabled List.  Johnson – who saved 101 games for the Orioles in 2012-13 – finished 2-6, 3.06 with twenty saves in 23 opportunities.  Vizcaino – with a career 3.52 ERA (four seasons) and a 9+ strikeouts per nine-inning ratio – should be back as a key set up man. Ian Krol (2-0, 3.18 in 63 games) should also see plenty of work. Others likely to be in the mix include Paco Rodriguez, Mauricio Cabrera and Jose Ramirez. Ramirez’ 33 strikeouts in 32 2.3 inning (3.58 ERA) show promise.

Freddie Freeman (1B) is a truly professional hitter and the key to the Braves’ offense.  Last season, Freeman hit .302-34-91.  He didn’t, however, get much help in the power department – although things may be better this season.  LF Matt Kemp, who came over from the Padres mid-season, went .280-12-39 in 56 games for the Braves (.268-35-108 overall).  A full season of his production will help. Joining Freeman and Kemp in the middle of the lineup is RF Nick Markakis (.308-16-66). Recently acquired 2B Brandon Phillips will also boost the offense.  He hit .280-22-94 for the Reds last season. The top of the order could be interesting. Leadoff should go to 26-year-old CF Ender Inciarte – a Gold Glove defender with an improving bat (.291-3-29, with sixteen steals and 85 runs scored). In the two-spot is a youngster (23-years-old) the Braves see as a rising star, SS Dansby Swanson (acquired in the Shelby Miller trade). Swanson hit .302-3-17 in 38 games for the Braves last season – even better than his .275-9-55, with 13 steals at two minor league stops.  Filling in the bottom of the order, you should see 3B Adonis Garcia (.273-14-65) and C Tyler Flowers (.270-8-41 in 83 games).

The Braves continue to rebuild and once top prospects – particularly the stockpiled pitching prospects – start to move up, they should contend.  While they are not likely to contend this season, this cast should make games at the new ballpark interesting.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Who wouldn’t want to watch a 43-year old, 5’11”/ 285-pound right-hander, who still relies primarily on his fastball in his 20th MLB season?  Colon has won between 14 and 18 games in each of the past four seasons and needs just 17 wins to reach 250.  Each time he is on the mound or in the batter’s box, there’s a potential for a viral video.  I’ll be watching.

Sean Rodriguez, who came over from the Pirates (free agent) hit .270 with 18 home runs for Pittsburgh last season – all career highs for the nine-year MLB veteran. He also saw action in 57 games at 1B, 29 at 2B, 27 at SS, 11 at 3B, 17 in RF, 10 in LF and 5 in CF.  BBRT will be watching to see how the Braves put his versatility (and his bat) to use in 2016.

Fifth Place – Philadelphia\a Phillies (71-91)

Photo by Keith Allison

Photo by Keith Allison

Nobody scored fewer runs (610) in MLB than the Phillies – and they gave up the fifth-most tallies (796). That 186 negative run differential was the worst in baseball.  While there may be some improvement in 2017, the team is still rebuilding. Philadelphians may have to wait a couple more years to get into the hunt.

You can expect young players at the corners to be the cornerstone of the Phillies’ offense. 3B Maikel Franco (24-years-old) hit .255-25-88 in his first full MLB season. He should just get better.  At the other corner, 1B Tommy Joseph (25-years-old, 6’1”, 255-pounds) is a potential 30-40 home run guy (and he has two first names).  Last season, as an MLB rookie, he hit .257, with 21 home runs and 47 RBI in 107 games – after hitting .347-6-17 in 27 contests at the Triple A level.  These two should fit somewhere into the heart (3-4-5 spots) in the lineup.  CF Odubel Herrera (25), doesn’t have the power of Franco or Joseph, but looks to hold onto a middle of the lineup spot. Herrera hit .286-15-49, with 25 steals last season.  Challenging for a spot in the middle – and sure to get plenty of at bats – will be new (trade with the Dodgers) LF Howie Kendrick. Kendrick (33 and in his 12th MLB season) adds a much-needed veteran presence in the lineup and clubhouse. He went .255-8-40, with ten steals, with the Dodgers last season (batting up and down the lineup and playing 1B, 2B, 3B and LF). With a more stable role, he should approach his .289 career average. Anything north of ten homers, however, would be a bonus.  2B Cesar Hernandez (26), a .294 hitter (with 17 steals), should hold down the leadoff spot. He’s only in his third full MLB season and continues to improve.  Hernandez led the NL with 11 triples a year ago, but needs to work on his base running (17 steals, but thrown out 13 times).  The Phillies added a second veteran bat in the off season in likely RF Michael Saunders (free agent). Saunders hit .253-24-57 for the Blue Jays and will add some power to the offense. Freddie Galvis (.241-20-67, with 17 steals) will likely start the season at short, but prospect J.P. Crawford could force the Phillies to make a move.  Cameron Rupp (.252-16-54) will work behind the plate.  A year of growth for the likes of Franco, Joseph and Herrera, plus the veteran bats of Kendrick and Saunders should help the Phillies put more runs on the board, but they still have a long way to go.

PHILLIES STAT FACT

The Phillies negative 186 run differential was the worst in all of MLB. Second worst was Minnesota at -167.  In 2015, the Phillies were second worst at a negative 183, with Atlanta the worst at -187.

Improvement in the rotation, like in the lineup, depends significantly on “growth” among young players. While veterans Jeremy Hellickson (12-10, 3.71) and newcomer (free agent) Clay Bucholz (8-10, 4.78 for the Red Sox) will be counted on for stability, the Phillies are looking for improvement from Jerad Eickhoff (11-14, 3.65 in 2016, his first full MLB season); 23-year-old Aaron Nola (6-9, 4.78 in 20 starts – after 10-4, 2.39 in two minor league stops); and 24-year-old Vincent Velasquez (8-6, 4.12). Alec Asher is an interesting prospect. He went 2-1, 2.28 in five starts for the Phillies and 4-2, 2.37 in 12 minor league starts; including 3-0, 1,53 at Triple A.  He may be earmarked for more seasoning, but we could see him inm Philadelphia mid-season.

The closer role will likely go to either hard-throwing Hector Neris (4-4, 2.58, with two saves and 102 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings). He would be replacing returnee Jeanmar Gomez (3-5, 4.85 with 37 saves) in that role. Gomez (47 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings) doesn’t miss as many bats as Neris and seemed to fade down the stretch (2.59 ERA before the All Star game, 8.33 after).  Others in the pen should include: veteran (free agent) Joaquin Benoit (3-1, 2.81 in 51 games for the Blue Jays); newcomer Pat Neshek (trade), 2-2, 3.06 in 60 games for the Astros; and returnee Edubray Ramos (1-3, 3.83 in 42 games). They could use a power southpaw arm in the pen, so I wouldn’t count out 24-year-old Joely Rodriguez, who got a look-see last season (2.79 in 12 games for the Phillies). Rodriguez has eight professional seasons under his belt and went 7-0, 2.35 in 53 games at A, AA and AAA last season.

Overall, the Phillies should improve as young players develop and learn from the scattering of veterans the Phils have brought in.  It should be a more interesting team to watch, just not yet competitive.

A Couple of Players to Watch

I love to watch third basemen (grew up an Eddie Mathews fan), so I’ll be following Maikel Franco, betting on a 30-home run season in his second full MLB year. Although I must admit, his 106 strikeouts versus just 40 walks concerns me. None other than Mike Schmidt, however, has indicated he thinks Franco is capable of a 30-HR, 100-RBI season this year.  

RHP Vincent Velasquez has a big arm (210 strikeouts in 186 2/3 major league innings), but tends to run up high pitch counts.  Still he has shown signs of true brilliance. On April 14, for example, he shutout the Padres on three hits (3-0), while fanning 16 and walking none. He needs to build some consistency.  Here are his 2016 monthly ERA’s: April – 1.78 in five starts; May – 5.12 in six starts; June – 1.86 in three starts; July – 3.19 in five starts; August – 7.52 in five starts; and September 2.57 in one start. Still, 152 strikeouts in 131 innings (versus 45 walks) shows the former Astros’ second-round pick (who has had Tommy John surgery) has potential well worth watching.

CENTRAL DIVISION

First Place – Chicago Cubs (99-63)

Kris Bryant photo

Kris Bryant. Consecutive MVP Awards? Photo by apardavila

The Cubs outscored their opponents by an MLB best 270 runs last season.  How dominant was that?   The second-best run differential was run up by the Boston Red Sox – and it was nearly 100 runs lower (at 176) than the Cubbies.  Second-best in the NL was the Nationals at 156.  Still, the World Champs did lose closer Aroldis Chapman, CF Dexter Fowleer and starter Jason Hammel to free agency. There is still more than enough talent here to carry them back to the World Series – and, besides, they added Wade Davis and Koji Uehara to bolster the bullpen; Albert Almorza, Jr. looks ready to move into Fowler’s shoes; and, even without Hammels, the rotation looks plenty strong.

The lineup is again loaded – with YOUNG AND VERSATILE players who have been through a pennant race and post-season and play like veterans. The offense will be led by 25-year-old 3B Kris Bryant (.284-39-102). Bryant has just two MLB seasonS under his belt and has been Rookie of the Year and MVP.  He should contend for MVP honors again. And, keep in mind, Bryant did all this while appearing at 3B, 1B, SS and all three outfield spots.  Joining Bryant in the middle of lineup will be 1B Anthony Rizzo  (.292-32-109), at 27-years-old already a six-season MLB veteran. Rizzo is a Gold Glover with a  30-homer, 100-RBI bat.  Then there is 23-year-old SS Addison Russell, a plus defender who hit .238-21-95.  At the top of the lineup, we see a veteran presence with 2B/OF  Ben Zobrist (.272-18-76) and youth with 24-year-old Kyle Schwarber, who hit .246-16-43 in 69 games as a rookie in 2015 (and can catch and play outfield). Schwarber is coming off 2016 knee surgery, but looks healthy and is reportedly being considered for the leadoff spot.  Fowler’s CF position looks to go to  veteran Jon Jay (.291-2-26 with the Padres) and/or 22-year-old Albert Almora, Jr., who went .277-3-15 in 47 games for the Cubs after hitting .303 in 80 games at Triple A.  In right field, Jason Heyward and his Gold Glove return, but the Cubs would like to see more offense out of him (.230-7-49).   Wilson Contreras (.282-12-35) and Miguel Montero (.216-8-33) will handle the catching. To add even more versatility, the Cubs have utility man Javier Baez (just 24), who hit .243-14-59, with 12 steals in 142 games – and played 1B/2B/3B/SS and LF.  The lineup is again stacked in Chicago; with lots of options.

CUBS STAT FACT

The Cubs led all of MLB with 103 wins last season, finishing 17 ½ games ahead of the second-place Cardinals in the NL Central. In the process, they tallied MLB’s lowest team ERA (3.15), fewest total runs allowed (556), third-most runs scored (808) – and recorded the most Defensive Runs Saved (107).  See you guys again in October.

Even without Jason Hammel’s 15 wins, the Cubs’ rotation has plenty to offer. Consider returnees: Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44); Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13); Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10); and John Lackey (11-8, 3.35). Auditioning for the fifth spot are Brett Anderson, coming off a back injury (1-2, 11.91 for the Dodgers last season, but 10-9, 3.69 in 31 starts in 2015) and Mike Montgomery (4-5, 2.82 for the Mariners and Cubs). Montgomery appears to have the edge.

In the bullpen, the Cubs will miss closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100 mph-plus heat.  But they acquired a more than adequate replacement (trade with Royals) in Wade Davis (2-1, 1.87 with 27 saves for the Royals) and also added free-agent Koji Uehara (3.45 ERA in 50 games for the Red Sox). A couple of others who will play key roles are: Hector Rondon and closer-in-waiting Carl Edwards, Jr. (who fanned 52 batters in 36 innings last season). The pen should again be solid – particularly given a starting rotation not likely to tax the relief corps.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Kris Bryant, the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year and 2016 NL Most Valuable Player (.292-39-102) plays and hits all over the field.  Last season, this hitting machine played 107 games at 3B, 60 in LF, 14 in RF, nine at 1B and one each at SS and in CF.  In 2016, Bryant dropped his strikeout total from a league-leading 199 as a rookie in 2015 (.275-26-99) to 154 and pretty much improved his stats across the board.  If he further improves his plate discipline in 2016, look out.  He bears watching.

Albert Almora, Jr. is among the candidates to replace CF Dexter Fowler.  A first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 2012, Almora averaged .288 over five minor league seasons, and was hitting .303 at Triple A when called up last season.  In 47 games as a Cub, the now 22-year-old hit .277-3-14. He’s a solid defender, as well.  I’ll be watching to see if he earns Fowler’s spot this spring.

Second Place – St. Louis Cardinals (89-77)

Last season, in an off year, the Cardinals still finished 10 games over .500. Unfortunately, that was one-game out of a Wild Card sport and 17 ½ behind the Central Champion Cubs.  The Redbirds should improve in 2017, contending again for a wild Card berth, but not catching the rival Cubbies.

Matt Carpenter photo

Matt Carpenter – a veteran presence and offensive weapon for the Cardinals. Photo by Keith Allison

Looking at the Cardinals’ lineup, Brandon Moss and Matt Holliday – who represented 48 of the Cardinals’ NL-leading 225 home runs – are gone (free agency). There is, however, still possibility for improvement. Over at 1B, Matt Carpenter continues to provide solid production (.271-21-68, with a .380 on base percentage). Last season, Carpenter split his time relatively equally between 3B, 1B and 2B.  A more stable position this year could result in improved offensive numbers.  Joining Carpenter in the middle of the lineup are RF Stephen Piscotty (.273-22-85, seven steals) and either LF Randal Grichuk (.240-24-68) or C Yadier Molina (.307-8-58 and still an outstanding defensive presence).  I lean toward Grichuk in the number-five hole, as Molina’s (.307-8-58) bat fits into a number of lineup slots.  Right at the top, we’ll see free-agent signee Dexter Fowler (.276-13-48, 13 steals), who provides solid defense and a .393 on base percentage. Note:  The fact that Fowler was signed away from the rival Cubs is an added plus. I look for the Cardinals’ OF to improve on defense and at the plate. SS Aledmys Diaz – a 2016 Rookie of the Year candidate – should fit into the number-two spot. In 111 games last season, Diaz – stepping in after Jhonny Peralta was injured – hit .300-17-65.  The job is his to lose. Filling out the lineup are some interesting 2B/3B combinations: 3B Jhonny Peralta (.260-8-29 in 82 games, but .271-17-71 and an All Star in 2015), who can also play SS; 2B Kolton Wong (.240-5-23); and Jedd Gyorko (.243-30-59), who last year appeared in 11 games at 1B, 46 at 2B, 39 at 3B and 26 at SS. Gyorko is one of the Cardinals’ most valuable assets.

CARDINALS STAT FACT

The Cardinals 35 stolen bases were the fewest in the NL last season, and their 57 percent success ratio was the league’s lowest.

The Redbirds’ rotation put up an NL (and MLB) best 2.99 ERA in 2015, but slid to an NL seventh-best 4.33 last season.  A return to 2.99 is probably out of reach, but the Cards should be able to get back under 4.00.  Either Carlos Martinez (16-9, 3.04 after a 14-7, 3.01 season in 2015) or Adam Wainwright (13-9, 4.62­) may end up at the top of the rotation. Wainwright missed most of 2015 (ankle injury/surgery). In 2013-14, he won 39 games, with an ERA under 3.00 both seasons. A return to past form by the 35-year-old would be a plus for the Redbirds. Also in the rotation, expect Mike Leake (9-12, 4.69) and Lance Lynn (returning from Tommy John surgery). From 2011-2015, Lynn was 60-38 for the Cardinals.  With top prospect Alex Reyes out for the season, there are a few options for the final spot: Michael Wacha (7-7, 5.09 last year, but 17-7, 3.38 the year before); prospect Luke Weaver (the 23-year-old was 1-2, 5.70 in a 2016 call  up, but 7-3, 1.30 with 92 whiffs in 83 innings at Double A /Triple A); and former closer Trevor Rosenthal, who may get a shot at a starting role.

In the pen, Korean star Seung-hwan Ho has taken over from Rosenthal.  Ho’s nickname is Stone Buddha, so he better be good. The 34-year-old was, in fact, one of Korea’s best – and went 6-3, 1.97 with 19 saves and 103 strikeouts in 79 2/3 innings for the Cardinals. Serving key roles in the pen will likely be Kevin Siegrist (6-3, 2.77 in 67 games) and free-agent signee Brett Cecil (1-7, 3.93 in 54 games for the Blue Jays).

Overall, the Cardinals just don’t have enough to overtake the Cubs, but  with solid pitching should capture a Wild Card spot.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Seung-hwan Ho could be an NL surprise.  Last season, Ho went 6-3, 1.97 with 19 saves and 103 strikeouts (versus just 18 walks) in 79 2/3 innings for the Cardinals.  In the previous eleven seasons (Korea/Japan), Ho notched 357 saves, with a 1.81 ERA. Can’t wait to see the 34-year-old’s first full season as an MLB closer.

Will the real Michael Wacha please stand up (or take the mound)?  Wacha who went from 17-7, 3.38 to 7-7, 5.09 (and faced some shoulder issues). He looked good early in Spring Training.  I’ll be watching to see how he performs in 2017, and how the Cardinals work to protect his arm.

Third Place – Pittsburgh Pirates (80-82)

starling marte photo

Starling Marte, BBRT’s favorite Pirate, does it all. Photo by jmd41280

The Pirates need some stability on the mound.  In 2017, they used 14 different starters and only two had at least 20 starts (Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano each had 21). One of those, Liriano, has since been traded.  If the starting rotation seems unsettled, the middle of the lineup and the OF defense are just the opposite – with Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco.

Marte (.311-9-46, with 47 steals) in center, McCutchen (.292-23-96 in right) and Polanco (.258-22-86, with 17 steals) in LF will be at the heart of the Pirates’ line up. At the top of the order will be 2B Josh Harrison (solid at .283-4-59, 19 stolen bases) and 24-year-old 1B Josh Bell. Bell hit .273-3-19 in 45 games – and is just growing into his power potential – after going .295-14-60 in 114 games at Triple A. Jung Ho Kang (.255-21-62) is slated for 3B, but could face some legal issues.  If he’s not available for the Opener, look for David Freese (.270-13-55). Jody Mercer (.256-11-59) will handle shortstop, while Francisco Cervelli (.264-1-53) will do the bulk of the catching.  The Pirates scored the sixth-most runs in the NL last season.  I believe there is real potential for this group to improve – a little more power from Marte, more contact from McCutchen (he hit between .292 and .327 in the four seasons preceding 2016’s .256) and continued development by Bell.

PIRATES STAT FACT

Pirate relievers threw 585 innings last season, second only to the Dodgers (590 2/3). The starters averaged just 5.3 innings per game.  Overall, the Pirates used 14 starters, with no pitcher getting more than 21 starts.

While the Pirates’ lineup seems set (excluding the Kang issue), the rotation has question marks.  The number-one spot clearly belongs to Gerrit Cole (7-10, 3.88 – after a 19-8, 2.60 the year before.) Cole has had some elbow issues, but he should put up 15 wins this season.  Veteran (seven MLB seasons) Ivan Nova is also a lock for the rotation.  Nova went 5-2, 3.06 for the Pirates – with three complete games in 11 starts) after coming over from the Yankees in early August last season. Then the fun begins.  Here are the candidates for the final fours spots (in BBRT’s estimation of rotation likelihood): 25-year-old Jameson Taillon (5-4, 3.38 in 18 starts as a rookie); 24-year-old Chad Kuhl (5-4, 4.20 in 14 starts as a rookie); 23-year-old Tyler Glasnow (0-2, 4.24 in seven appearances- two starts – as a rookie); 24-year-old Steve Brault (0-3, 4.86 in eight games – seven starts – as a rookie).  Also in the mix could be former Blue Jay Drew Hutchinson, who came over in an August trade. Hutchinson – at 26 – could offer a little more experience.  While he was only 1-0, 5.25 in nine MLB appearances last season, he was a 13-game winner for Toronto in 2015. It’s going to be an interesting spring for the Buccos..

The bullpen will be headed by southpaw closer Tony Watson (2-5. 3.05 with 15 saves), who took over the role after Mark Melancon was traded to the Nationals last summer. Melancon saved  98 games for the Pirates in 2014-15, and had 30 saves when he was traded – so Watson has some big shoes to fill.  He has a career (four MLB seasons) ERA of just 2.56, so the Pirates are confidents he can handle the ninth. Others in the pen should include Daniel Hudson (coming off an off year with Arizona; 3-2, 5.22, but a dependable groundball pitcher) and hard-throwing Felipe Rivero (1-3, 3.29 – with 39 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings after coming over from the Nationals). Rivero is in his fifth MLB season and has notched 135 strikeouts in 125 1/3 innings. Juan Nicasio (10-7, 4.50 in 52 games); Antonio Bastardo (3-0, 4.13 in 28 games) and Jared Hughes (1-1, 3.03 in 67 games) should see also plenty of work.

The Pirates’ offense should again finish in or near the top half of the NL (sixth last season) in runs scored.  The won-lost record, however, will depend on an inexperienced pitching staff, with second-year major leaguers likely to hold down three rotation spots and Watson in his first full season as closer.  Pittsburgh is unlikely to get back into the post season this year.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Tyler Glasnow – at just 23 – is a prospect worth watching.  And, at 6’8” and 220 pounds he won’t be hard to spot.  He boasts a high-90’s fastball and an effective high-70’s curve. He only got two starts with the Pirates last season, but he was 8-3, 1.87 with 133 strikeouts in 110 2/3 innings (20 starts) at Triple A. In five minor league seasons, he’s fanned 645 batters in 500 innings.  He still needs to cut down on his walks – but he should be fun to watch (and the Pirates need him to earn a rotation spot).

Josh Bell, the Pirates’ 24-year-old 1B, maintained his rookie status for 2017, but his 47 MLB games in 2016 (.273-3-19) should help him in the 2017 Rookie of the Year race. Bell is a switch hitter with size (6’2”, 240-pounds) and power (.295 with 14 home runs at AAA before his call up).  He bears watching in the ROY competition.

Fourth Place – Milwaukee Brewers (72-90)

Ryan Braun Brewers photo

Ryan Braun has to lead the Brewers offense. Photo by JHTaylor

The Brewers are rebuilding and the process is not far enough along to yield any great dividends in the win column. Still, there will be some interesting young players in the lineup, they still have Ryan Braun and, if you like stolen bases, this team is your cup of tea (an MLB-leading 181 steals last season).

Let’s start with the lineup. Last season, the Brewers pounded out 194 home runs, but also fanned an MLB-leading 1,543 times. They let a lot of both go when they non-tendered 1B Chris Carter (signed with the Yankees). Last season Carter led the NL in home runs (tied at 41) and strikeouts (206), while hitting .222.   That leaves only one truly proven MLB power bat in the lineup – LF Ryan Braun (.305-30-91, with 16 steals). In ten MLB seasons, Braun has topped 30 home runs six times, 100 RBI five times and a .300 average six times.  Joining Braun in the meat of the Brewers’ line up, look for some combination that includes a couple of  newcomers: trade-acquisition 3B Travis Shaw (.242-16-71 for Boston in his first full MLB season) and free-agent signee 1B Eric Thames (.317-40-118 in Korea last season and a .250-21-62 hitter in 181 MLB games in 2011-12).  Also in the middle-of-the-lineup mix should be RF Domingo Santana.  The 24-year-old has just 135 games of MLB experience and hit .256-11-32 in 77 games for the Brewers last season.  The leading candidates for the CF spot both seem likely to hit in the bottom of the order. Keon Broxton has solid defensive skills, but just 82 games of MLB experience. Last season, hit .242-9-19, but with 23 steals, in 75 games for the Brew Crew.  He also fanned in 36 percent of his plate appearances. Competing for the CF is Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who has more experience at the MLB level, but hit just .209-13-44 in 2016 and also fanned in 34 percent of his plate appearances.  The very top of the order offers more promise – 2B Jonathon Villar hit .285-19-63 and led the NL with 62 steals in his first full MLB season (2016).  Villar, just 25, can also play short and third.  Alongside Villar will top prospect Orlando Arcia. The 22-year-old looks to be a future Gold Glover and hit .282 and stole 104 bases in five minor league seasons. He hit just .219 in 55 games for the Brewers a year ago, but he’ll have to continue his development at the major league level (and may spend some time near the bottom of the order).  Andrew Susac and Jett Bandy likely will handle the catching.  Finally, the Brewers will look for ways to get infielder Scooter Gennett’s reliable bat (263-14-56) in the lineup.

BREWERS STAT FACT

“M” was not a lucky initial in the NL last season – at least on the mound.  Milwaukee and Miami were the only two NL teams to record zero complete games.  Notably, the Brewers’ overall staff  ERA was 4.50 before the All Star break, but a more impressive 3.59 in the second half.

Junior Guerra may be the definition of a late bloomer. Last season, at age 31, he started his first MLB game – in a professional career that began in 2006 and had, to that point, included just three major league relief appearances.  All Guerra did is go 9-3, 2.81 in 23 appearances (20 starts). Also in the rotation will be Zach Davies, who got to the show a little quicker than Guerra.  Davies, 24-years-old, made 28 starts for the Brewers last season and led the team in wins (11-7), while posting a 3.97 ERA. Competing for the final three spots, look for Jimmy Nelson (8-16, 4.62); Wily Peralta (7-11, 4.86); Matt Garza (6-8, 4.51); Tommy Milone (3-5, 5.71); and Chase Anderson (9-11, 4.39).

Free-agent Neftali Feliz has the inside track for the closer designation. He’s a hard thrower with 99 career saves (eight seasons). In 2016, he went 4-2, 3.52 in 62 games for the Pirates, fanning 61 hitters in 53 2/3 innings. His presence should help the bull pen. Key set up men include Carlos Torres (3-3, 2.73 in 72 games) and Jhan Martinez (0-1, 3.18 in 46 games).

Overall, it looks like the rebuilding will continue – and the Brewers will also continue to struggle. There are, however, some prospects in the pipeline – like LHP Josh Hader; OF Lewis Brinson; and RHP Brandon Woodruff – so help may be on the way.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RHP Junior Guerra is a personal favorite.  You gotta admire a guy who starts out in the minors at age 21 … plays until age 30 (minors, Venezuela, Mexico) before getting his first shot at the majors (three games for the White Sox in 2015). Then, finally, at age 31 he becomes a major league starter (9-3, 2.81 for the Brewers).  I’ll be hoping for Guerra to follow up with a solid 2017 season.

Brewers’ 2B Jonathon Villar had a breakout year in 2016 – .285-19-63, with 92 runs scored, 63 RBI and a league-leading 62 stolen bases.  Every one of those figures represents a personal season high (minor league or major league).  It will be fun to see: 1) if he can continue to build on that success; 2) how much havoc he can wreak on the bases.

Fifth Place – Cincinnati Reds (68-94)

Joey Votto photo

Joey Votto – keeps putting up MVP-like numbers.. Photo by Keith Allison

The Reds – who won just 68 games a year ago – are serious about rebuilding.  So serious, in fact, that they traded away their most effective 2016 pitcher Dan Straily (who led the team in wins, starts, quality starts, innings pitched and strikeouts) for a trio of prospects. Straily’s 14 wins (8 losses) were, in fact, 20.6 percent of the Reds’ total. Couple that with Homer Bailey’s elbow surgery and uncertainty about the readiness of the Reds’ top pitching prospects and you have a formula for another fifth-place finish.

With Bailey on the 60-day Disabled List, Anthony DeSclafani should lead the rotation.  DeSclafani missed the first couple of months of the 2016 season with an oblique strain, but looked good upon his return (9-5, 3.28). Behind DeSclafani is Brandon Finnegan.  The 23-year-old southpaw was a dependable 10-11, 3.98 in 31 starts last season – his first MLB season as a full-time starter. After those first two, things get a little less clear. Tim Adelman, who got 13 starts for the Reds (4-4, 4.00) as a 28-year-old rookie last season is a leading option, along with a couple of prospects from among Robert Stephenson, Cody Reed and Amir Garret. There is no guarantee any of them are ready.  If needed, free-agent signee Scott Feldman could fill a need. The 12-season MLB veteran went 7-4, 3.97 last season and has 183 starts in 321 career appearances.

REDS STAT FACT

The Reds’ bullpen led MLB in home runs allowed (103), total runs allowed (356) and walks allowed (297).  They also led the NL in relief losses (32), had the league’s fewest saves (28), worst save percentage (52.8 percent) and second-worst relief ERA (5.09).  There is work to do.

The Reds’ bullpen did not get the job done last season – see the above Stat Facts. (Ah, remember the days of Arolidis Chapman and his 30+ saves or, further back, the “Nasty Boys” bullpen of Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Meyers.) Cincy took a step toward resolving the issue with the January signing of veteran closer Drew Storen (98 career saves). This is not a slam dunk, however.  Last season, with Toronto and Seattle, Storen went 4-3, 5.23 with three saves.  He’s just 29, so he should be able to rebound.  The Reds need a return to the form that delivered 29 saves for the Nationals in 2015.  There will probably be key roles in the pen for Michael Lorenzen (2-1, 2.88 in 35 games a year ago); Tony Cingrani (2-4, 4.14, with 17 saves in 2016) and Raisel Iglesias (3-2, 2.53 in 37 games, with 83 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings pitched). Ultimately, if Storen can close, the bullpen roles should fall into place.  If not, there could be a scramble in organizating the pen.

The Reds had a middle of the pack offense last season – and not much has changed.  Four-time All Star and 2010 NL MVP 1B Joey Votto will lead the offense.  Votto was .326-29-97 in a typical Votto season. He is also a solid defender (Gold Glove in 2011). LF Adam Duvall .241-33-103 will provide protection and support. The only other consistent power source is veteran SS Zack Cozart (.252-15-50). CF Billy Hamilton should be back at leadoff.  He’s a burner – and speed is his game on defense and offense (.260-2-17, with 58 steals). Rounding out the lineup are a number of names that might not be too well known outside of Cincinnati. With Brandon Phillips gone (trade), Jose Peraza looks to get the nod at 2B. He’s just 22, but hit .324-3-25, with 21 steals, in 72 games for the Reds last season. Eugenio Suarez looks solid at 3B, putting up a .248-21-70 line (with 11 steals) in his first full MLB season. Scott Schebler (.265-9-40 in 82 games) has the inside track in RF. The Reds are hoping Devin Mesoraco (coming off shoulder surgery) can handle the backstop duties. Mesoraco was an All Star in 2014, hitting .273-25-80, but has played only 39 games over the past two seasons.  If he isn’t ready, look for Tucker Barnhart (.257-7-51).  If the youngsters work out, the offense could be improved, but there is still a long way to go in this rebuilding process.

A Couple of Players to Watch

LF Adam Duvall (28-years-old) came into his own last season as a regular (and an All Star) for the Reds.  He showed excellent leather and pounded out a .241-33-103 season. He has three minor league seasons of 30 or more homers under his belt.  He needs to cut down on his strikeouts (164 last season). If he does, we will be watching a force to be reckoned with.

Right-hander Raisel Iglesias appeared in 37 games last season, going 3-2, 2.53 with six saves and striking out 83 in 78 1/3 innings. His workload included five starts. The 27-year-old Cuban had 16 starts for the Reds in 2015 (out of 18 appearances) – going 3-7, 4.15, but fanning 104 in 95 1/3 innings. He now appears destined for the bullpen and, perhaps, an eventual closer’s role.  Given the Reds’ pitching needs, it will be interesting to see just how they use him.

WEST

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

Clayton Kershaw photo

Clayton Keershaw – that says it all. Photo by kla4067

The NL West is the toughest call in the league, as the Dodgers and Giants will likely fight it out to the end; with one taking the division and the other a Wild Card spot. BBRT thinks it may all come down to the “aces” – who has the better season, Clayton Kershaw or Madison Bumgarner.  My money is on Kershaw this season – and a Dodger title. I look at it this way.  The Giants gained ground when they acquired Mark Melancon to fortify a leaky bullpen, but the Dodgers should have a full year of Kershaw.  That balances out and points to another Dodgers over the Giants squeaker,

Good pitching is a Dodger tradition and the team’s success will continue to start with the ace of the rotation – southpaw Clayton Kershaw. Despite missing about ten starts with back issues, Kershaw was again the best pitcher in baseball (12-4, 1.69, with 172 strikeouts in 149 innings). A full season from the three-time Cy Young Award winner just makes LA that much stronger. Although there are health concerns up and down the rest of the rotation, they are plenty of arms to step in if problems surface. The Dodgers used 15 starting pitchers last season and still led the division.  Number-two in the rotation will be another lefty – Rich Hill, acquired from Oakland last August and coming off his career-best season (12-5, 2.12 in 20 starts). The next three spots should go to Kenta Maeda, 16-11, 3.48 with 179 strikeouts in 175 2/3 innings in his rookie season. Maeda was a star in Japan for eight seasons (97-67, 2.39) before signing with the Dodgers, so his 2016 season is no fluke. It would not surprise to see some stiff Spring Training competition for the final two spots.  A short list of candidates would include. 1) Young (20-years-old) Julio Urias. The lefty was 5-1, 1.40 at Triple A and then 5-2, 3.39 with the Dodgers. The team may want to limit his innings, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he went north for the opener; 2) veteran southpaw (How many lefties can the Dodgers run out there?) Scott Kazmir – (10-6, 4.57); 3) Alex Wood (1-4, 3.73 with ten 2016 starts – but a 12-game winner in 2015); 4) Brandon McCarthy (2-3, 4.95 with nine starts last season); and 5) Hyun-Jin Ryu, coming off elbow surgery, but a 14-game winner in both 2013 and 2014.  If I had to guess, I see a rotation of Kershaw, Hill, Kazmir, Urias and Ryu.

DODGERS STAT FACT

The Dodgers had the stingiest bullpen in MLB last season (3.35 ERA), despite an MLB-record 607 relief appearances. The pen also picked up 32 of LA’s victories, tops in the NL (tied with the Marlins) and logged the most bullpen strikeouts (633). The Dodgers 47 saves were fourth in the NL; while their 68.1 percent save percentage was very middle-of-the-pack – seventh in the NL.

The Dodgers’ bullpen stability is reflected in the fact that Kenley Jansen racked up all of the Dodgers’ 47 saves (in 53 opportunities), winning the NL Trevor Hoffman Reliever of the Year Award. Jansen’s back in place (3-2, 1.83).  Looking to the remainder of the pen, Pedro Baez (3-2, 3.04 in 73 games); Grant Dayton (0-1, 2.05 with 39 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings pitched as a rookie); and Josh Fields (1-0, 2.79 in 22 game)s all look to play key roles – as does newcomer, veteran Sergio Romo (1-0, 2.64 in 40 appearances with the Giants and with 498 strikeouts in 439 2/3 career relief innings). The pen should be fine, particularly if the rotation stays just a little healthier.

The Dodgers’ lineup is solid.  Right in the middle you have 1B Adrian Gonzalez, who had a typical year in 2016 (285-28-90).  He is a run producer. He’ll get plenty of support from SS Corey Seager (just 22 and one of the brightest young stars in the game), who won the Rookie of the Year Award on the strength of a .308-26-72 season; 3B Justin Turner (.275-27-90); and catcher Yasmil Grandal, an acknowledged pitch-framer, coming of a career-high 27 home runs and 72 RBI (despite a .228 average).  The outfield has both potential and question marks. LF and the leadoff spot appear slated for 24-year-old Andrew Toles, who hit ,314-3-16 in 48 games with the Dodgers (and has a .309 average over 306 minor league games). Joc Pederson holds the edge in centerfield. He was .246-25-69 last season, but has a .224 average and 311 strikeouts over 306 major league games. Then in RF, there is the mercurial Yasiel Puig – .263-11-45 last season.  Puig is hard to figure out.  He has shown exciting potential, and been criticized for a lack of focus (last season included a demotion to AAA, where he hit .358 in 24 games.). Further, his batting averages have gone (.319-.296-.255-.263). In 2017, Puig could be an All Star or spend some more time at Triple A. Also in the outfield mix are Andre Ethier and Trace Thompson.  The Dodgers coveted Twins’ All Star 2B Brian Dozier, but when that deal could not be made, went out and got Tampa Bay 2B Logan Forsythe (.264-20-52) – a solid keystone option. The Dodgers, ultimately, have plenty of offense – particularly if their starting rotation is healthy and keeping opposition run totals down – to repeat in the West.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Dodgers’ SS Corey Seager, the 2016 NL Rookie of the Year, is only 22 and already has a .308-26-72 MLB season under his belt.  The former first-round draft pick hit .307 with 62 home runs in four minor league seasons and looks poised for a long run as a power-hitting shortstop.  He should be fun to watch.

Clayton Kershaw.  Oh come on, who wouldn’t want to watch this guy pitch? Great control over a mid-90’s fastball, a mid-80’s slider, a big mid-70’s curve and an occasionally changeup.  He is a classic on the mound and it’s paid off with six All Star selections, three Cy Young Awards, the 2014 NL MVP Award, four ERA titles (and a career 2.37 ERA) and three strikeout crowns (and a 300+ strikeout season in 2015). When he pitches, get a ticket.  Too obvious a choice? Then try southpaw Julio Urias, just 22, but starting to look like Kershaw-lite. The Mexican-born Urias was 5-1, with a 1.40 ERA at Triple A Oklahoma City (49 strikeouts in 45 innings) last season – and then 5.2, 3.39 (84 whiffs in 77 innings) with the Dodgers. In 72 minor league appearances, he is 12-8, 2.66 with 313 K’s in 267 1/3 innings.  If he sticks in the LA rotation, you’ve got another must-buy ticket.

Second Place – San Francisco Giants (90-72)

Madison bumgarner photo

Madison Bumgarner – epitome of a big game pitcher. Photo by slgckgc

The Giants filled their most significant hole in the off-season when they picked up proven closer Mark Melancon (Nationals) in free agency. Last season, six Giants relievers recorded saves and the team blew an MLB-high 30 save opportunities. Melancon is a proven closer, who has saved 131 games in the past three seasons. Last season, he saved 47 games in 51 opportunities. Add in a solid starting rotation and solid defense and you have a contender.  There just might not be enough offense  – particularly from a power point of view – to catch the Dodgers, but it will be close.

Let’s start with the rotation – and that starts with southpaw Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74, with 251 strikeouts in 226 2/3 innings). MadBum is a proven big game pitcher. He’s not quite Clayton Kershaw, but a head-to-head matchup would be a pretty good contest.   Number-two in the rotation is Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79), who could be the number-one on most staffs. Following those two are Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81) and Matt Moore (13-12, 4.08 for the Rays and Giants). There could be a battle for the five-spot.  Right now it looks like Matt Cain (4-8, 5.64), but he hasn’t made it to the 100-inning mark in any of the past three seasons, so health may be a concern.  If he’s not ready, or falters, Albert Suarez (3-5, 4.29) and a couple of prospects (Ty Blach and Tyle Beede) are waiting for a chance. Blach did well in a brief call up last season and was 14-7, 3.43 at Triple A.  Beede was 8-7, 2.81 at Double A.

GIANTS STAT FACT

The rivalry!  It may surprise a few Dodgers’ fans, but last season the Giants pitching staff had a lower ERA than LA (3.65 to 3.70). They also edged the Dodgers in starters’ ERA (3.71-3.95). They did lag the Dodgers in bullpen ERA (3.65 to 3.35) … a deficiency they worked to address in the off-season.  On defense, the Giants again outshone the Dodgers, making an NL-low 72 errors to the Dodgers’ 80. The offensive edge went to the Dodgers, however.  They outscored the Giants (725-712), out homered them 189 to 130.  The Giants, however, hit .258 to the Dodgers .249.  Two closely matched, long-standing rivals.

The Giants bullpen suffered through 30 blown saves in 2016.  So, San Francisco went out and signed Mark Melancon (47 saves in 51 opportunities).  That set things up for a much-improved pen. Former closers Santiago Castillo and Sergio Romo are gone and key set up men Hunter Strickland (3-3, 3.10 in 72 games), Derek Law (4-2, 2.16 in 61 games) and Will Smith (1-1, 2.95 in 26 games ) seem likely to get plenty of relevant innings.  Overall, roles should be better defined and bullpen performance improved.

The face of the Giants – on offense and defense – is clearly Buster Posey. A Gold Glove catcher, four-time All Star and 2012 NL MVP, Posey delivered a .288-14-80 line in 2016 – and knows he can do better. His main offensive help will come from RF fan-favorite Hunter Pence (.289-13-57 in 196 games), who needs to stay healthy; SS Brandon Crawford (.275-12-84 and a two-time Gold Glover); and 1B Brandon Belt (.275-17-82). Pence and Crawford have both shown the ability to deliver more power than they did in 2016. CF Denard Span (.266-11-53, with 12 steals), looks to be at the top of the order but, at 33, may be losing a step. Mark Williamson (.223-6-15 in 54 games) and Jarrett Parker (.236-5-14 in 63 games) may platoon in LF.  The Giants clearly need a healthy Pence if the OF is going to be productive.  Joe Panik (.239-10-62) will be at 2B. The Giants need a rebound from Panik, who hit .305 in 2014, .312 in 2015, but only .239 a year ago. The surprise of 2016 – the versatile Eduardo Nunez (.288-16-67, with 40 stolen bases for Minnesotan and San Francisco) may get most of the time at third base. Nunez, however, can play all around the infield so Conner Gillaspie or Kelby Tomlinson could see playing time at the hot corner – with Nunez moving around and adding some lineup flexibility.

Overall, the Giants have the pitching and defense to compete, but the lag the Dodgers in offensive fire “power.”  Still a rebound by Panik, a healthy season by Pence and a little more power from Posey and Crawford could be enough to push them past the Dodgers.  No matter what, I expect it’ll be close.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Southpaw Madison Bumgarner is a joy to watch. He’s been All Star each of the past four seasons, going 63-37, 2.86 with 903 strikeouts in 863 2/3 innings. Not only that, he’s 8-3, 2.11 in the post season and was the MVP of the 2014 NL Championship Series and World Series.  Plus, when he picks up a bat – and switches over to the right side – he rakes (at least for a pitcher). In 453 career at bats (in 228 games), Madbum has hit 14 home runs and driven in 49.  In the past three seasons alone, he’s gone 52-for-229 (.227 average), with 12 home runs, 27 runs scored, 33 RBI and 15 walks.  Just another reason #WhyIHateThe DH.

Pitching prospect Tyle Beede may not start the season with the Giants, but watch for him to come up before season’s end. The 23-year-old Beede was the Giants’ first-round draft pick in 2014. Last season, he went 8-7 at Double A Richmond and logged the league’s lowest ERA at 2.81.  Note:  From the Madison Bumgarner school, in 31 minor league at bats, Beede has collected nine hits (a .290 average). His repertoire includes a mid- to high-90’s fastball, an 80-mph curve, a change up and a developing sinker-slider.

Colorado Rockies (81-81)

ROCKIES STAT FACT

Coors Field is a statistician’s nightmare – and one should be aware of the impact on “stats” before evaluating the team.  Consider this hitters’ paradise from a Rockies’ point of view. Home batting average – .304. Away – .246.  Home runs at home – 116. Away – 88.  Runs scored at home – 508. Away – 337.

Or if you’re a Rockies’ pitcher. Home ERA – 5.40. Away – 4.37,  Home runs give up at home – 99. Away – 82. Opponents’ average at home – .289. Away – .259.

Nolan Arenado photo

Nolan Arenado. did someone say leather and lumber? Photo by jenniferlinneaphotography

The Rockies always have a potent offense and 3B Nolan Arenado will be right in the middle of it for some time to come. Just 25-years-old, Arenado is in is fourth MLB season and, not only has he won four Gold Gloves, the past two seasons he has led the NL in home runs, RBI and total bases.  His 2016 line was .294-41-133. Joining Arenado in the heart of the lineup are veteran RF Carlos Gonzalez (.298-25-100); newcomer free-agent Ian Desmond (.285-22-86), who is slated for 1B and should improve on those numbers at Coors; and 24-year-old SS Troy Story, limited to 97 games due to a thumb injury, but who still put up a .272-27-72 line. How good is this Rockies lineup? Desmond, a solid and consistent power source, has spent eight seasons as a SS/2B/OF, but had to switch to 1B to find a spot.   In the one-two spots in the lineup are CF Charlie Blackmon (.324-29-82, with 17 steals) and 2016 NL batting champ 2B DJ LeMahieu (.348-11-66, with 11 steals). To illustrate the “Coors’ Impact,” Le Maheiu hit .391 at home and .303 on the road. Rounding out the lineup are 23-year-old David Dahl (in LF, although he could play CF), who hit .315-7-24 in 63 games as a rookie (after .315-18-61 in 92 games at Double A and Triple A).  Dahl may not be ready on Opening Day (rib injury). George Parra (.253-7-39 in 102 games) is likely to get the early season call. Parra could also take 1B, with Desmond moving to LF. Tom Murphy (.273-5-13 in 21 games) and Tony Walters (.250-3-30 in 71 games) will handle catching with Nick Hundley gone via free agency. It’s a solid lineup that should help the Rockies improve on their 75-87 record of a year ago.

Another year of experience should help the rotation – which has potential to improve, but (thanks to Coors Field) little margin for error. Chad Bettis logged 32 starts a year ago and went 14-8, 4.79. The Rockies would be satisfied with another 14 wins in 2017. Then there is Jon Gray – a 2013 first round draft pick – who went 10-10, 4.61 as a 24-year-old rookie. He has a high-90’s (occasionally triple-digit) fastball and a hard slider that helped him record 185 strikeouts in 168 innings. Also in the rotation, expect Tyler Chatwood, who came back from Tommy John surgery to go 12-9, 3.87. Jeff Hoffman has also had arm issues (and Tommy John surgery), but is considered a top prospect. Hoffman came to the Rockies from the Blue Jays in the Troy Tulowitizki trade and went 6-9, 4.02, with 124 strikeouts in 118 2/3 innings in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last season.

The Rockies made a move to bolster the bullpen by signing former Royals’ closer Greg Holland, who missed the 2016 season due to Tommy John surgery, but saved 125 games for the Royals in 2013-14-15.  Holland is expected to be the closer, but if he isn’t ready other options are free-agent signee Mike Dunn (6-1, 3.40 in 51 appearances for the Marlins); Adam Ottavino (1-3, 2.67, with seven saves and 35 strikeouts in 27 innings – after … here it is again … Tommy John surgery in 2015); and Jake McGhee (2-3, 4.73 with 15 saves). The Rockies are also hoping that Jairo Diaz, who underwent Tommy John surgery last March, can return. In a 2015 call up, he had a 2.37 ERA in 21 appearances. Best hope for the Rockies, whose bullpen had an MLB-worst 5.13 ERA last season, is that Holland is ready to close, Diaz is recovered and Ottavino, Dunn and McGhee can slide into their roles.

Overall, the Rockies look better this season, but there are still a lot of question marks in the pitching staff – and too many past Tommy John surgeries to deal with. Still, third place – and even. 500+-  is within reach.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Greg Holland is coming back from Tommy John surgery (missed the 2016 season) to take over the closer’s role. From 2013-15, Holland saved 125 games for the Royals, appeared in 181 games, struck out 242 batters in 174 innings and notched a 1.97 ERA.  If they are to make progress, the Rockies need him to return to form.

Rockies’ 3B Nolan Arenado is the kind of player BBRT loves to watch – the ones that flash leather and lumber.  In the league just four years, Arenado has won four Gold Gloves. He’s also been an All Star twice and led the NL in home runs and RBI the past two seasons. In 2015-16, Arenado played in 317 of the Rockies’ 324 games, averaged .291, hit 83 home runs, drove in 263 and scored 213.  That is a player well worth watching.

Arizona Diamondbacks (76-86)

Paul Goldschmidt Diamondbacks photo

Paul Goldschmidt – the best of the D-backs. Photo by jnashboulden

Pitching. Pitching. Pitching.  The Diamondbacks had MLB’s absolute worst staff ERA last season at 5.09. That effectively negated an offense that scored the tenth-most runs.  The result was a negative 138 run differential and a fourth-place (69-93) finish.  I expect the pitching staff will rebound a bit, but not enough to move the Diamondbacks out of fourth place (unless the Rockies’ pitching staff totally implodes).

The Diamondbacks do have some names and some talent in the offense.  How can yon not like 1B Paul Goldschmidt, a four-time All Star, who hit .297-24-95, with 32 steals last season – in what could be considered and off year?  Oh, and he also has a pair of Gold Gloves. At the opposite corner, the D-backs have 3B Jake Lamb (.249-29-91) to add some punch.  Also helping drive the offense will be LF Yasmany Tomas, just 26, who delivered a .272-31-83 season – but does have defensive limitations. The leadoff spot belongs to CF A.J. Pollock, who suffered through a broken elbow and a groin injury last season, but hit  .315-20-76, with 39 steals the year before. He could bring a lot of spark to the lineup.  Joining Tomas and Pollock in the outfield expect to see David Peralta, who – like Pollock – had a tough year health wise (on the disabled list three times in 2016). Peralta got in only 48 games a year ago, but in 2015 hit .312-17-78 and led the NL in triples with 10.  Up the middle, look for some combination of SS Nick Ahmed (.218-4-20), SS/2B Chris Owings (.277-5-49, with 21 steals) and utility man Brandon Drury (.282-16-53). Although Ahmed may be the best defender in the group, it may be hard for the Diamondbacks to turn their backs on the offensive potential of Owings and Drury.  Drury, just 24-years-old, may be the most intriguing of the group, as he can play corner OF and any infield position. Also in the mix is newcomer Ketel Marte, who hit .259-1-33 with 11 steals for the Mariners. Catching will be handled by newcomer Chris Ianetta (signed in January), who hit .210-7-24 for the Mariners and Jeff Mathis (a solid defender and pitch-framer).  Chris Herrmann (.284-6-28 in 56 games could see time at C, 1B and OF) depending on matchups and fatigue.

DIAMONDBACKS STAT FACT

The Diamondback had the NL’s (and MLB’s) worst starters’ ERA last season at 5.19 (and they don’t even play half their games in Colorado).  Only one starter picked up more than eight wins – Zack Grienke (13-7, 4.37). The bullpen didn’t fare much better. Its 4.97 ERA was the fourth-worst in the NL and MLB.

The pitching should be better in 2017. (Really, how could it not be.) Zack Grienke will again head the rotation and he should be better than his 13-7, 4.37 record (partially due to injuries that limited him to 26 starts). Grienke was 19-3, 1.66 with the Dodgers in 2015 – and while that is not a likely outcome for 2017, the former Cy Young Award winner (2009) should be closer to his career 3.42 ERA. His 13 wins were his fewest since 2008 and his ERA his highest since 2005. Southpaw Robbie Ray was inconsistent in 2016 (8-15, 4.90), but the 25-year-old showed potential – fanning 218 in 174 1/3 innings.  Newcomer Taijuan Walker (8-11, 4.22 in 24 starts for Seattle); Shelby Miller (3-12, 6.15); Patrick Corbin (5-13, 5.15); and Archie Bradley (8-9, 5.02) are likely to compete for the final three spots.  All, of course, need to improve on 2016’s performance, Miller may be the most interesting. He was a 15-game winner as recently as 2013 and never had an ERA over 3.74 before this past season. 2016 was Corbin’s first full year back after Tommy John surgery … and he was an All Star (14-8, 3.41) for the D-backs in 2013.  In the end, the Diamondbacks need a rebound from at least a couple of the hurlers competing for the back of the rotation.

The Diamondbacks brought in 40-year-old Fernando Rodney (free agent) from Miami to handle the closer’s role.  Arizona will be Rodney’s fifth team in three seasons (Mariners/Cubs in 2015; Padres/Marlins in 2016.). He did save 41 games a year ago (3.44 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 65 1/3 innings). However, he also walked 37 – and that may be an issue.  If Rodney missteps, young (25-years-old) Jake Barrett could get a shot at the ninth inning. Barrett boasts a mid-90’s fastball and an effective slider.  Last season, as a rookie, he went 1-2, 3.49, four saves in 68 games – with 56 whiffs in 59 1/3 innings). From 2013-15, Barrett recorded 76 saves in the minor leagues.  He’ll definitely have an important role in the pen, as will Randall Delgado (5-2, 4.44 in 79 appearances – with 68 strikeouts in 75 innings.) Other likely arms include Enrique Burgos; Andrew Chafin; and Zach Godley. Rodney could make a difference in the pen, but not enough.

The Diamondback go into the season with some emerging young stars on offense, but without enough pitching to contend – particularly in a division that includes the pitching rich Dodgers and Giants.

A COUPLE OF PLAYERS TO WATCH

CF A.J. Pollock fell victim a broken elbow and a groin injury last season – getting into only 12 games. In 2015, he was an All Star (.315-20-76, with 39 steals and a Gold Glove). If he stays healthy he has a chance to become a member of the 30-30 club and seems a shoe-in for a .300 average, 20-25 HR’s and 30 steals.  He is a rising star and should be fun to watch.

2B/3B Brandon Drury, 24-years-old, looks ready for a solid MLB career.  Last season, as a rookie, he hit .282-16-53 in 134 games – pretty much reflecting the numbers he put up in six full minor league season.  He’s a versatile player (2B/3B/1B/OF), so the Diamondbacks will find a place for his bat. Drury also has a solid glove and could develop into a Gold Glove second baseman with power (20-25 home runs).

RHP Brandon Shipley will be working for a spot in the 2017 rotation. He was a first-round pick (15th overall) in the 2013 MLB draft and promoted to the Diamondbacks late last July (4-5, 5.27). He’s got a four-pitch repertoire and a 3.79 ERA in four minor league seasons.

Fifth Place – San Diego Padres (64-98)

Not so long ago, the Padres were all about turning the corner with veterans – bringing in such names as Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, James Shields and Craig Kimbrel. Oops! That didn’t work. Now it’s all about rebuilding with talented youngsters.  For the immediate future, the result looks to be the same (a fifth-place finish). Longer-term there is more promise.

The Padres do have a couple of dependable and proven bats at the corner infield spots – and in the middle of the lineup. 1B Wil Meyers, at 26-years-old, is in his fifth big league season.  Last year was a breakout for Meyers, as he hit .259-28-94, with 28 steals.  The Padres are looking for a repeat. Across the diamond is 3B Yovaris Soloarte who, despite injury and personal tragedy (the death of his wife), turned in a .286-15-71 line in 109 games.  Those two must anchor an offense that will have to “grow up” at the MLB level. Joining them in the middle of the lineup should be RF Hunter Renfroe, who – at 25-years-old – seems ready for the “Show.”  Last season at Triple A, Renfroe hit .306, with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. The top of the order (one and two) looks to be the remainder of the outfield. Leading off could be LF Travis Jankowski (25-years-old), who hit .245 with 30 steals in 131 games as a rookie in 2016. Jankowski looks like a future Gold Glover on defense, but needs to develop offensively (just two home runs and 12 RBI a year ago).  In between Renfroe and Jankowski (and possible in the number-two spot in the lineup), we may see 22-year-old Manual Margot, who hit .304-6-55, with 30 steals at Triple A last year.  If any of these don’t work out, Alex Dickerson (.257-10-37 in 86 games) could take a garden spot.  The bottom of the lineup looks like 2B Ryan Schimpf, who showed good power (20 home runs and 51 RBI in 89 games), but not enough plate discipline (.217, with 105 strikeouts). Corey Spangenburg, who missed nearly all of last season due to injury, may challenge at 2B. In 2015, Spangenburg hit .271 in 108 games. Youngster (23-years-old, see a trend here?) Luis Sardinas should start the season at SS.  Last season, Sardinas his .244 in 66 games for the Mariners and Padres.  Rookie Austin Hedges (24-years-old) should be behind the plate. He hit .326-21-82 at Triple A last season.  His game-calling skills have also been praised as he’s worked his way through the minors.

PADRES STAT FACT

The following six players from the Padres 2016 Opening Day lineup are no longer with the team. CF and leadoff hitter Jon Jay; C and number-two hitter Derek Norris; RF and number-three hitter Matt Kemp; SS and number-five hitter Alexei Ramirez; LF and number-seven hitter Melvin Upton Jr.; SP and number-nine hitter Tyson Ross.

Then again, the Padres lost 15-0 to the Kershaw-led Dodgers.  So maybe change isn’t such a bad thing.

Hard to pick the leader of the rotation, but it is interesting to note that the five-man rotation to start 2017 will not include any hurler who was in the 2016 Open Day rotation. Gone from the team via trades are James Shields, Drew Pomeranz and Andrew Cashner; Tyson Ross left as a free agent; and Colin Rea had Tommy John surgery.  Now, the likely starters include free-agent signees Jhoulys Chacin (6-8, 4.81 for the Angels and Braves) and Jered Weaver (12-12, 5.06 for the Angels, but an 18-game winner as recently as 2015). Joining those two we’ll likely see veteran Clayton Richard (who started 2016 as a reliever with the Cubs and ended up getting nine starts for the Padres and was 3-3, 2.52 with San Diego) and Luis Perdoma (the Padres’ top winner last season at  9-10, 5.71). Competitors for the fifth spot include Trevor Cahill (4-4, 2.74 as a reliever last season, but a steady starter early in his career); Christian Freidrich (5-12, 4.80); and Jarred Cosart (0-4, 6.00).

The Padres are anxious to see how Carter Capps bounces back from Tommy John surgery (did not play in 2016). The 26-year-old could be closer material.  In 2015, after a 1.80 ERA in 13 appearance at Triple A, he put up a 1.16 ERA in 30 games for the Marlins.  More important, he fanned 58 hitters in 31 innings in his MLB stint. If Capps isn’t ready, look to Brett Mauer to close. Despite an overall 0-5, 4.52 record, Mauer converted 13 out of 15 save opportunities after the Fernando Rodney trade. From July 1 on, Mauer had an ERA of 3.08 and fanned 25 batters in 32 innings.  Also likely to have key bullpen roles are Ryan Buchter (3-0, 2.86 in 67 games) and Brad Hand (4-4, 2.92 in a whopping 82 games).  Hand fanned 111 batters in 89 1/3 innings.  Depending on Capps, the bullpen could be a strength.

Overall, it looks like a long season in San Diego – with lots of new names to learn.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RF Hunter Renfroe, a Padres’ first-round draft selection in 2013, has moved to the majors in quick fashion.  In four minor league seasons, he hit .281-77-283 in 438 games.  He was the 2016 Pacific Coast League Most Valuable Player in 2016, when he hit .306, with 30 home runs, 105 RBI and 95 runs scored in 133 games.  That earned him a September call up, where he hit .371 with four home runs in 11 games for the Padres.  Watch him – he looks ready.

RHP Carter Capps misses a lot of bats.   Drafted by Seattle in the third round of the 2013 draft, Capps has fanned 177 batters in 135 1/3 innings in four minor league seasons. He earned a call up to Seattle in 2012, where he fanned 28 major-league batters in 25 innings (3.96 ERA). In 2013, he went 3-3 with the Mariners (5.49), while fanning 66 batters in 59 innings. He got 17 games with the Marlins in 2014, fanning 25 in 20 1/3  innings (3.98 ERA). He then exploded on the scene in 2015, making 30 appearances, posting a 1.16 ERA and whiffing 58 batters in 31 innings. Capps missed the entire 2016 season (Tommy John surgery) and was traded to the  Padres in July of 2016.  BBRT and the Padres are anxious to see what they have.

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT   Follow there for post notifications.

Member: Society for American Baseball Research (SABR); The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum; The Baseball Reliquary; Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

2017 American League Preview

Box scores – albeit Spring Training box scores – are officially  back, which makes it time for BBRT’s predictions for the coming season.  I’ll start with the American League.  You can see projected standings, won-lost records and award winners immediately below and go deeper into this long post for a review of each team, some “stat facts” and a couple of “players to watch” for each squad.  Remember these are just my own observations – like you, from the outside looking in. Like all prediction, their accuracy is up for debate.  Coming soon: A look at the National League.

PREDICTED STANDINGS

EAST

Boston Red Sox (93-69)

Toronto Blue Jays (89-73) – Wild Card

New York Yankees (83-79)

Baltimore Orioles (80-82)

Tampa Bay Rays (75-87)

CENTRAL

Cleveland Indians (97-65)

Detroit Tigers (83-79)

Kansas City Royals (81-81)

Chicago White Sox (70-92)

Minnesota Twins (65-95)

WEST

Houston Astros (92-70)

Texas Rangers (88-74) – Wild Card

Seattle Mariners (83-79)

Los Angeles Angels (75-89)

Oakland A’s (72-90)

LEAGUE CHAMPION – Boston Red Sox

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PREDICTED AWARD WINNERS

MVP

  1. Mookie Betts – Red Sox (RF) … Five-tool player (.318-31-113, with 26 steals and a Gold Glove in 2016) will lead Red Sox to the Division title (and be out from David Ortiz’ big shadow). At just 24, he’s the new Mike Trout – and just getting better. Besides, he’s 5’9” and named “Mookie” – gotta like that.
  1. Jose Altuve – Astros (2B) …. Another young dynamo who does it all (.338-24-96, 30 steals in 2016 and a 2015 Gold Glove), Altuve will be recognized as the sparkplug behind and Astros’ division title.
  1. Mike Trout – Angels (CF) … In first five full seasons never finished lower than second in MVP voting (won his second MVP award last season with a .315-29-100, 30 steal line). Angels’ overall performance may cost him ballots this season.

Other likely candidates: Josh Donaldson (Blue Jays); Francisco Lindor (Indians); Miguel Cabrera (Tiges).

CY YOUNG AWARD

  1. Chris Sale (Red Sox) … Could lead the AL in wins and strikeouts. Has notched 200+ whiffs and finished in the top five in CYA balloting in four straight seasons. Won 17 games with the White Sox last season, should do better with the Red Sox.
  1. Corey Kluber (Indians) … 2014 Cy Young winner should not be counted out. (Has fanned 741 batters over the past four seasons and won 18 games in 2016.
  1. Cole Hamels (Rangers) … A dark horse candidate, but went 15-5, 3.22 with 200 strikeouts in 2016. Since joining the Rangers mid-season 2015 is 22-6.

Other likely candidates: David Price (Red Sox); Rick Porcello (Red Sox); Justin Verlander (Tigers).

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

  1. Lucas Giolito – White Sox (RHP) … Considered one of – if not the – top pitching prospects in baseball, the 22-year-old (acquired from the Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade) already has five minor league seasonS under his belt – with a 25-15, 2.73 record and 397 strikeouts in 369 innings.
  2. Andrew Benintendi – Red Sox (LF) … Probably the pre-season consensus pick for ROY, the 22-year-old hit .312-20-107 in 151 minor league games (two seasons) and then .295-2-14 in 24 games after the Red Sox brought him up  lasta season.
  3. Jharel Cotton – A’s (RHP) … The 25-year-old righty (acquired by the A’s from the Dodgers in the Rich Hill/Josh Reddick trade) went 11-6, 4.31 at AAA before being called up to the A’s, where he went 2-0, 2.15 in five starts, fanning 23 batters in 29 1/3 innings. He showed good poise and a great changeup and a developing cutter to complement a 92-94 mph fastball.  Could surprise a lot of people.

Other likely candidates:  Yoan Moncada (White Sox); Michael Kopech (White Sox); Aaron Judge (Yankees).

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Now, for those in detail,  here’s a team-by-team rundown.  (Based on rosters as this post is written.)

EAST DIVISION

First Place – Boston Red Sox (93-69)

Mookie Betts photo

Mookie Betts will lead BoSox to AL East title. Photo by Dennis Heller

Despite the fact that the Red Sox scored the most runs in MLB last season (878), they secured their spot at the top of the East for 2017 when they acquired potential Cy Young Award winner Chris Sale (17-10, 3.34 for the White Sox). Sale will head a rotation that also includes last year’s AL CYA winner Rick Porcello (22-4, 3.15) and 2012 AL CYA winner lefty David Price (17-9, 3.99 for 2016). There are solid arms competing for the four and five spots – Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright.

Red Sox Stat Fact

The Red Sox scored 878 runs last season – the most in MLB. Just as important, they outpaced the second-highest AL total (Toronto) by 101 runs.

While David Ortiz  and his .315-38-127 bat are gone from the offense, there is still plenty from a combination of young stars like MVP candidate RF Mookie Betts (.318-31-113, with 26 steals) and SS Xander Bogaerts (.294-21-89, with 13 steals) – and veterans like former AL MVP 2B Dustin Pedroia (.318-15-74) and 1B/DH Hanley Ramirez (.286-30-111). Rounding out the lineup are newcomer (free agent) 1B/DH Mitch Moreland (who popped 22 home runs for the Rangers last year); CF Jackie Bradley Jr. (.267-26-87); and potential Rookie of the Year Andrew Benintendi in LF.  Pablo Sandoval is back at 3B after shoulder surgery, with the Red Sox hoping he can return to his form of a couple years ago. Catching will be handled by a combination Sandy Leon (.310-7-35 as a rookie) and defensive wiz Christian Vazquez.

The only question mark seems to be the bullpen. Craig Kimbrel (2-6, 3.40, 31 saves) is one of the best closers in the business, but there are some other spots to sort out among newcomer Tyler Thornburg (8-5, 2.15, 13 saves with the Brewers); Joe Kelly; Matt Barnes and Robbie Ross.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RF Mookie Betts (.318-31-113, with 26 steals) was an All Star, Gold Glover, Silver Slugger and number-two finisher in last season’s AL MVP voting – all at age 24. He’ll be an MVP favorite this year.

LF Andrew Benintendi was called up in August and the 21-year-old hit .295, with two home runs and 14 RBI over 34 games.  He should be a leading Rookie of the Year Candidate.

Second Place – Toronto Blue Jays (89-73)

Josh Donaldson photo

Josh Donaldson, 2015 MVP, three-tiem All Star leads Toronto offense. Photo by Terry Foote

Okay, the Blue Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion and his 42 homers and 127 RBI, but there is still plenty of power left with returnees 3B Josh Donaldson (.284-37-99), SS Troy Tulowitzki (.254-24-79); RF Joey Bautista (.234-22-69 in 116 games, but capable of a 35-40 home run season) and new comer (DH) Kendrys Morales (.263-30-93 for the Royals).  The Blue Jays do have some lineup questions – LF and 1B in particular, where candidates include Justin Smoak, Steve Pearce, Melvin Upton, Jr., Ezequiel Carrera and prospect Dalton Pompey. Watch for platooning as this sorts itself out.

Ultimately, the Jays’ pitching (which boasted the AL’s lowest overall ERA – 3.78 – last season) is what will keep them in contention. The team’s starting rotation had the lowest ERA in the AL last season (3.64) – and most of it is back – led by right-hander Aaron Sanchez (15-2, 3.00) and southpaw J.A. Happ (20-4, 3.18). Marco Estrada (9-9, 3.48) and Marcus Stroman (9-10, 4.37) should hold down the three and four spots.  Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is gone (free agency) and the Blue Jays would like Francisco Liriano (8-13, 4.60 with the Pirates and Jays) to deliver one of his trademark comeback seasons in the number-five spot.

Blue Jays Stat Fact 

The Blue Jays 22 blown saves and 4.11 bullpen ERA last season were both the fourth-worst in the AL.  Blue Jays starters, however, logged the AL’s lowest ERA (3.64). 

Roberto Osuna is only 22-years-old, but he’s a proven closer (4-3, 2.68, 36 saves).  With Brett Cecil and Joaquin Benoit gone (free agency), the Jays may look to Jason Grilli (7-6. 4.12) and 2016 Rule 5 pickup Joe Biagini (4-3. 3.06) to play key roles in getting to the ninth inning.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Joey Bautista is coming off an injury-interrupted season (.234-22-69 in 116 games). The Blue Jays need him to bounce back to his 35-home run, 100-RBI form. Bautista is 36-years-old – in his 14th MLB season – so he bears watching.

After 101 games at the MLB level in 2016 (and 163 games over the past two seasons), Devon Travis is probably beyond the “prospect” stage.  The 26-year-old 2B, however, could be an emerging star – a .317 hitter in five minor league seasons, Travis hit .300-11-50 in 101 games for the Blue Jays last season.  Keep an eye on him, he looks like the real deal.

Third Place – New York Yankees (83-79)

Aroldis chapman photo

Aroldis Chapman returns to fire up the Yankee bullpen. Photo by Keith Allison

Lots of folks slotted the Orioles in third place, but BBRT likes the Yankees’ off-season additions – fire baller Aroldis Chapman (MLB’s hardest thrower), Chris Carter (last season’s NL home run champ) and veteran OF/1B Matt Holliday (.246-20-62 in 110 games for the Cardinals last season). BBRT also likes the Yankees’ balance of rising youngsters like catcher Gary Sanchez (.299-20-42 in just 53 games in 2016), 1B Greg Bird (.261-11-31 in 46 games after putting up solid power numbers at AA and AAA) and OF prospect Aaron Judge – playing alongside proven veterans like Holliday, CF Jacob Ellsbury (.263-9-56, with 20 steals, in an off-year) and LF Brett Gardner (.261-7-41, with 16 stolen bases).  There is also plenty of offensive support from 2B Starlin Castro (.270-21-70) and SS Didi Gregorius (.276-20-70, with seven steals).

The bullpen – led by Chapman (4-1, 1.55 ERA, with 36 saves and 90 strikeouts in 58 innings for the Yankees and Cubs), Dellin Betances (3.08, with 12 saves and 126 strikeouts in 73 innings) and Tyler Clippard (3.57 ERA and 72 whiffs in 63 innings for the Diamondbacks and Yankees) should be one of the best.

Yankee Stat Fact

Masahiro Tanaka just  missed the 200-innings pitched mark last season (199 2/3 IP). If he had reached 200, he would have been the first Yankee pitcher to reach that figure since 2013 (when both C.C. Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda topped 200 innings).

The starting rotation (Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia, Michael Pineda and more) poses a range questions related to age, injury and performance. Tanaka will again lead the staff, after a 14-3, 3.07 record in 2016. If his past elbow issues are truly behind him, 2017 could be a career year for the 28-year-old.  C.C. Sabathia, at 36-years-old, is starting to show signs of wearing down (even beyond the knee brace). He’ll likely be the only southpaw in the rotation and the Yankees need more than last season’s 9-12, 3.91 record.  Michael Pineda absolutely has to improve on last season’s 6-12, 4.82.  He’s shown the potential to be better, but it’s no given. Leading candidates for the final two spots include Chad Green (204, 4.73); Luis Severino 3-8, 5.83); Luis Cessa (4-4, 4.35).

I think the Yankees will surprise a few people in 2017, but finish just shy of a Wild Card sport.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Catcher Gary Sanchez (24-years-old) stormed the American League late last season – and went .299-20-42 in just 53 games. He’s a .275 hitter with 99 home runs in seven minor league seasons.  What will 2017 hold – stardom or regression?

1B prospect Greg Bird (24-years-old) hit .261-11-31 in 46 games after a 2015 call up. He missed the entire 2016 season after shoulder surgery, but is back to earn the starting role at 1B.  The Yanks need him to replace Mark Teixeira.

Fourth Place – Baltimore Orioles (80-82)

Mark Trumbo Orioles photo

Mark Trumbo, the AL HR leader is back for the Orioles. Photo by Keith Allison

If you can bully your way into the playoff, the Orioles could be back in a Wild Card spot in 2017.   No team hit more home runs than the Birds last season (253), but they still finished seventh in the AL in runs scored.  The re-signing of AL home run leader Mark Trumbo (.256-47-108) to serve as primary DH (he can also handle some OF) was key to the Orioles’ chance to compete 2017. Also bringing power to this long ball-dependent offense are 1B Chris Davis (.221-38-84, with 219 strikeouts in 566) at bats; 3B Manny Machado (.29-37-96 and a two-time Gold Glover); CF Adam Jones (.265-29-83 and a four-time Gold Glover); and 2B Jonathon Schoop (.267-25-82).  Veteran SS J.J. Hardy, at 34-years-old, may be losing a step, but the three-time gold Glover is steady in the field and still has some pop in his bat.  Behind the plate, free-agent signee Wellington Castilllo (.264-14-68 for Arizona) appears to be the Orioles’ choice at backstop. What this line-up has in power, however, it lacks in “table-setting” and speed on the bases.

Orioles Stat Fact

The Orioles’ 19 stolen bases were the fewest by any team last season. No other team stole less than 35. Joey Rickard led the team with four stolen bases.

The Orioles’ rotation had the third-worst ERA in the AL last season (4.72), although Camden Yards contributed to that figure.  Still, the Birds have not done much to improve.  The number-one slot in the rotation belongs to Chris Tillman (16-6, 3.71.) Kevin Gausman (9-12, 3.61) and Dylan Bundy (10-6, 4.02) seem set at two and three. At the end of the rotation, it looks like Ubaldo Jimenez and Wade Miley will be back, although there could be competition from the likes of Tyler Wilson or Mike Wright. Notably, all four of the hurlers mentioned for the four and five spots had ERAs over 5.00 in 2016.

The Birds do have one of the best bullpens in baseball, with closer Zach Britton (2-1, 0.54 ERA) saving 47 games in 47 opportunities. He’s backed by Darren O’Day (3-1, 3.77); Brad Brach (10-4, 2.05); Mychal Givens (8-2, 3.13); and Donnie Hart (0-0, 0.49). This group looks to get plenty of work in 2017.

The real question is whether power, solid defense and a great bullpen can compensate for a suspect starting rotation, too many empty swings and a lack of speed.  BBRT’s guess is no.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Southpaw closer Zach Britton is a saves machine (47 saves in 47 opportunities), who posted a 0.54 ERA in 67 innings pitched (74 strikeouts) last season. Over the past three seasons (all with the O’s), he’s notched 120 saves and a 1.38 ERA in 209 innings pitched. It’s worth the price of admission to watch him work.  Britton has now recorded 49 consecutive saves (in save opportunity situations). Eric Gagne holds the record at a whopping 84.

Given the Orioles’ starting pitching issues, you might want to keep an eye on Corey Sedlock – the Orioles’ 2016 first-round draft pick. The 21-year-old, 6’ 3”, 200-pound right hander was the Big Ten Pitcher of the year in 2016 and notched a 3.00 ERA in nine starts at Class A Aberdeen. He’s reported to have a four-pitch repertoire, topped by a four-seam fastball that reaches the mid-90s.  While Sedlock is likely to open the season in the minors, he has the potential to move up the ladder quickly.

Fifth Place – Tampa Bay Rays (75-87)

It looks like another difficult year for the Rays, who have to compete in the tough AL East. Still, the potential of their starting rotation makes them a sleeper pick to move up in the standings.  The key word, however, is potential.

Chris Archer Tampa Bay Rays photo

Chris Archer, a dark horse Cy Young candidate, will lead the Rays’ pitching staff. Photo by rrescot

Righty Chris Archer (28-years-old) leads the staff and has “ace” stuff – fanning 233 in 201 1/3 innings.  However, gopher balls (30 on the season, seventh highest in the AL) and a lack of run support relegated him to a 9-19, 4.02 season. Still, Archer’s 3.25 ERA after the All Star break offers promise for 2017. Likely to join Archer in the rotation are 26-year-old Jake Ordozzi (10-6, 3.69); 29-year-old Alex Cobb (coming back from an injury, but a 10-game winner in 2014); 24-year-old Blake Snell (6-8, 3.54); and 27-year-old Mark Andriese (8-8, 4.37).  Waiting in the wings is prospect Jose De Leon, acquired from the Dodgers in the Logan Forsythe trade. De Leon went 7-1, 2.61 for the Dodgers’ Triple A club (Oklahoma City) last season.

The bullpen is led by closer Alex Colome (2-4, 1.91, with 37 saves in 40 opportunities). The bullpen cast should include Brad Boxberger (4-3, 4.81 – the AL saves leader with 41 in 2015, but coming off an injury-derailed 2016); Xavier Cedeno (3-4, 3.70); and Erasmo Ramirez (7-11, 3.77).

Rays Stat Fact

Tampa Bay has finished last in attendance for five consecutive seasons.

Tampa Bay scored the second fewest runs in the AL last season – and gave up a chunk off offense (Logan Forsythe – .264 with 20 home runs) to acquire top pitching prospect De Leon. The offense – what there is – will again be led by right-handed hitter 3B Evan Longoria (.273-36-98); left-handed batter 1B/DH Brad Miller (.243-30-81); and switch-hitting OF/DH Corey Dickerson (.245-24-70). In the OF, CF Kevin Kiermaier put up a line of  .246-12-37, with 21 steals in 105 games, and is one of the best defensive CF in the game.  He likely will be flanked by newcomer Colby Rasmus (.206-15-54 in 107 games for the Astros) and Steven Souza Jr. (.247-17-49). Matt Duffy, who hit .276 after coming over from San Francisco in the Matt Moore trade, should be back at short, but the Rays do have a lot of options in the infield – Duffy can play 3B/2B/SS; Norm Franklin can fill in at 1B/2B/3B; and even Brad Miller has played every position expect pitcher and catcher in the major leagues (four seasons). Catcher is a question mark. The Rays did sign Wilson Ramos (.307-22-80 for the Nationals), who is coming off a career year – but also coming off knee surgery and opening the season on the Disabled List.

Overall, the East is just too tough, and the offense too scarce, for the Rays to escape the cellar.

A Couple of Players to Watch

As 3B Evan Longoria goes, so goes the Rays’ offense.  Last season, Longoria led the team in batting average (.273); home runs (36), RBI (98), runs scored (81) and base hits (173).  The Rays have to see similar results from Longoria to have any chance of moving up in the standings.  2016, however, was Longoria’s strongest season since his last All Star year (2010).

RHP Jose De Leon – acquired from the Dodgers in the Logan Forsythe trade – brings another young (24-years-old) gun into the Rays’ pitching stable. In four minor league seasons, De Leon is 23-13, 3.35, with 446 strikeouts in 330 2/3 innings. Last season, at Triple A, he was 7-1, 2.61. He earned a call up to the Dodgers (2-0, 6.35.) De Leon will likely start the season at AAA, but could move up quickly – giving the Rays’ some trading options (a young starting pitcher for a bat or two). Stay tuned.

CENTRAL DIVISION

Cleveland Indians  (97-65)

Corey Kluber photo

Corey Kluber heads a stellar mound staff. Photo by apardavila

The Cleveland Indians are heavy favorites to retain their Central Division title – and may very well return to the World Series (only the Red Sox starting rotation seems to stand in their way). Think about it. The Indians made it to the World Series despite losing two members of the starting rotation in September, as well as their top bat – Michael Brantley – for nearly all of the season.

The Indians expected dominance all starts with pitching.  Cleveland had the AL’s second-lowest ERA last season (and second-best among starters as well as relievers) and topped the AL in strikeouts. Not only are the Indians bringing this stellar pitching staff back, they’ve added free-agent signee Edwin Encarnacion (.263-42-127 for the Blue Jays) to an offense that scored the AL’s second-most runs in 2016.

Let’s look at the pitching first. The rotation starts with 2014 CYA winner Corey Kluber (18-9, 3.14 with 227 strikeouts in 2016). He’s followed by Carlos Carrasco (11-8, 3.32); Danny Salazar (11-6, 3.87); Trevor Bauer (12-8, 4.26); and Josh Tomlin (13-9, 4.40). This is a solid rotation (although with the addition of Chris Sale, the Red Sox have the edge).

The bullpen is headed by closer Cody Allen (3-5, 32 saves, 2.51 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 68 innings); Andrew Miller (10-1, 12 saves, 1.45 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings); and Bryan Shaw (2-5, 3.24 and 60 whiffs in 66 2/3 innings). The final three innings should belong to the Indians with this trio.  Having Miller for the whole season – he came over from the Yankees at the end of July – will make the Indian’s pen even more effective.

Indians Stat Fact

Cleveland’s home record of 53-28 tied the Rangers for the best in the AL. They were, however, only two games over .500 on the road (41-39).

The Indians’ lineup, with Encarnacion now in the middle, looks strong – particularly if Brantley is ready to resume left field duties. You’ve got 2B Jason Kipnis (.275-23-82, with 15 steals) and young and improving (already a star) shortstop Francisco Lindor (.301-15-78, with 19 steals) at the top. In the middle you have Encarnacion and Carlos Santana (.259-34-87), likely to share 1B/DH and LF Brantley. Even the bottom of the lineup shows some pop with 3B Jose Ramirez (.312-11-76, 22 steals – entering his fifth MLB season at age 24); RF Lonnie Chisenhall (.286-8-57); and CF Tyler Naquin (.296-14-43 in 116 games). Catching could be a question mark. Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez both missed significant time due to injury last season.

Ultimately, the Indians are the class of the Central. .

A Couple of Players to Watch

SS Francisco Lindor, just 23 and entering his third MLB season, may very well be the best player on this roster. Last season, he was an All Star, a Gold Glover and put up a .301-15-78 line, with 19 steals.  This season, he’s likely to be a 30-30 (HR/SB) player and be the catalyst for the Cleveland offense.

I would also keep an eye on CF Tyler Naquin – entering just his second MLB season (at age 25). Naquin, a .287 hitter in five minor league seasons, hit .296, with 14 home runs and 43 RBI in 116 games for the Indians last season.  Right now, it looks like he’ll platoon with Abraham Almonte in center, but Naquin could win the full-time spot. (Besides, he’s on my fantasy squad.)

Detroit Tigers – Second Place (83-79)

Miguel Cabrera photo

Miguel Cabrera – hard to argue with a former MVP and Triple Crown winner in the middle of your lineup. Photo by Keith Allison

The Tigers finished eight games off the pace in the AL Central (behind Cleveland and out of the playoffs for the second straight season). The team is in a process of rebuilding with young players like SPs Mike Fulmer and Daniel Norris and OF JaCoby Jones – but they still have enough solid veterans to remain competitive (and hold on to second place) while these players develop.

The middle of the Tiger batting order belongs to veterans 1B/DH Miguel Cabrera (.316-38-108),  DH/1B Victor Martinez (.289-27-86) and RF J.D. Martinez (.307-22-68). The key plate-setters at the top will be 2B Ian Kinsler (.288-28-83, with 14 steals) and LF Justin Upton (.246-31-87). Keep in mind, Cabrera is 33-years-old; Victor Martinez is 38; and Kinsler is 34.  The Tigers can ill afford an off-season from any of these veterans.  The remainder of the infield consists of Jose Eglesias at SS (.255-4-32) and Nick Costellanos at 3B (.285-18-58).  Costellanos seems to be finding his stroke (career highs in home runs and batting average lasts season), but needs to cut down on the strikeouts.  CF looks like a battle between JaCoby Jones, Matt Mahtook and possibly Tyler Collins (who could slot in better as a versatile fourth outfielder). Overall, OF defense could be an issue again in 2016. The Fielding Bible rated the Tigers garden the second worst defenders in MLB last season.  At catcher, James McCann and his plus-arm should hold sway, but he needs to improve on his .221-12-48 stat line. .

Tigers Stat Fact

Handling Cleveland may be the key to the Tigers’ season. They finished eight games behind the Indians a year ago – and went 4-14 against the Tribe.

The rotation starts with Justin Verlander, who was revitalized in 2016 (16-9, 3.04 with a league-leading 254 strikeouts in 227 2/3 innings – his best totals in since 2012).  The question is: At 34-years-old, and with nearly 2,500 innings on his right arm, can he do it again?  From Verlander, the rotation goes to Michael Fulmer (11-7, 3.06 as a rookie); Jordan Zimmerman (a disappointment last season at 9-7, 4.87); southpaw Daniel Norris (4-2, 3.38 in 13 starts – with lots of upside); and Matt Boyd (6-5, 4.53). In the wings are past starters Anibel Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. Key for the Tigers will be Verlander’s ability to match last year’s performance (at age 34), Zimmerman’s ability to bounce back from last season’s injury issues (neck) and the development of Norris.  Very simply, there are some questions here. Still, this group put up the fourth-best ERA among AL starting rotations in 2016, so they should be able to get the job done.

Francisco Rodriguez (at 35-years-old) returns as the Tigers’ closer – after a 3-4, 3.24, 44-save record in 2016.  Among the key relievers getting the ball to Rodriguez, expect Bruce Rondon (5-2, 2.97 in 37 games) and Alex Wilson (4-0, 2.96 in 62 games).

Despite some aging in the lineup and question marks in the rotation, the Tiger appear to have enough to hold onto second place, but not enough to catch the Indians.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Miguel Cabrera is a hitting machine, a former Triple Crown winner and two-time MVP, who shows little sign of slowing down in the batter’s box after 14 MLB seasons (four batting titles, two HR crowns). It will be interesting to see if Cabrera, who will turn 34 in April, shows any signs of wear and tear. I’m betting he rakes again.

Michael Fulmer was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2016, after going 11-7, 3.06 in 26 starts. However, there are some questions to be answered. Fulmer went 9-2, 2.11 in 13 first half starts – and then 2-5, 3.94 in 13 starts after the break.

Kansas City Royals – Third Place (81-81)

Danny Duffy photo

Danny Duffy – new staff ace? Photo by KellyK

The Royals were MLB’s darlings in 2014 and 2015, with two World Series appearances and one Championship. Then, last season, they slipped to third place, .500 and 13 ½ games behind the Indians. The Royals look to be a .500 club again in 2016 – despite the tragic loss of key starter Yordano Ventura in an off-season accident. The fact is, pitching and defense will still be strengths for Kansas City – which scored the third-fewest runs in 2016 and lost DH Kendrys Morales’ 30 home runs and 93 RBI to free agency.

The rotation will be led by southpaw Danny Duffy, who didn’t make his first start until May 15 last year, and ended up 12-3, 3.51 with 188 strikeouts in 179 2/3 innings. The number-two spot (replacing Ventura) will likely go to free-agent signee veteran Jason Hammel (15-10, 3.83 for the Cubs last season).  Ian Kennedy will also be in the rotation, after going 11-11, 3.68 for the Royals a year ago. Competitors for the final spots are Jason Vargas (coming back from Tommy John surgery, but an 11-game winner in 2014); Six-foot-ten-inch Chris Young (who had off-season surgery after a 3-9, 6.19 season); free-agent signee Travis Wood (4-0, 2.95 in 75 relief appearances for the Cubs last year, but a starter as recently as 2014); hard-throwing Matt Strahm (2-2, 1.23 in 21 games in relief for the Royals); and Nate Karns (6-2, 5.15). Solid top of the rotation, somepretty good competition for the back end.

Royals Stat Fact

Kansas City finished at .500 a year ago, despite being outscored by 37 runs (712-675) and out-homered by 59 (206-147).

The bullpen has some question marks, particularly with closer Wade Davis (who did spend some time on the DL last season, but still logged 27 saves) gone to the Cubs (in the Jorge Soler trade),  Kevin Herrera will spend the full season as closer (2-6, 2.75, 12 saves and 86 strikeouts in 72 innings last season). He appears ready for that role, but that creates some issues in getting the ball to the ninth (Herrera’s previous role). Right now, it looks like Jaokim Soria; Brian Flynn; and whoever loses out in the battle for starting spots (Woods, Strahm, Young, free-agent Mark Minor).

They keys to the offense belong to 1B Eric Hosmer (.266-25-105 – and a three-time Gold Glover); CF Lorenzo Cain (.287-9-56, with 14 steals in 103 games): and possibly newcomer RF/DH Jorge Soler (.238-12-31 in 86 games for the Cubs). A couple of veterans should fill the top of the order: SS Alcides Escobar (.261-7-55, with 17 steals, who played in all 162 games a year ago – and was a 2015 Gold Glover) and 3B Mike Moustakas (.240-7-13 in 27 games in 2016), an All Star in 2015.  LF belongs to Alex Gordon, a four-time Gold Glover coming off a subpar offensive season.  Salvador Perez is one of the best catchers in the game (four consecutive Gold Gloves), as well as an offensive threat (.247-22-64). He should again slot in somewhere near the middle of the lineup. Second base may be up for grabs with Whit Merrifield, Raul Mondesi and Christian Colon in the mix – none played more than 81 games in 2016. Merrifield had the best season in 2016 (.283-2-29, eight steals in 81 games as a rookie), but the Royals reportedly still have high hopes for Mondesi. At DH, the Royals will be hard pressed to replace (free agent) Kendrys Morales’ 30 home runs and 93 RBI.  It looks like a revolving door with the competitors including Brandon Moss (.225-28-67), Soler (if he doesn’t earn a full-time outfield slot); Merrifield (if he doesn’t hold off Mondesi at 2B); Cheslor Cuthbert (.274-12-46); and Paul Orlando (.302-5-43, with 14 steals – and competition for Soler for the third OF spot).

Middle of the road pitching and a lack of offense hurt the Royals a year ago and, with the loss of DH Kendrys Morales and closer Wade Davis, they seem to have taken a step backward.  They look like a .500 club again.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Salvador Perez is simply the best defensive catcher in the AL – four seasons as the Royals’ full-time backstop and four Gold Gloves (last season he led the AL, tossing out 48 percent of potential base stealers).  He’s also turned into a solid offensive player (.247-22-64 last season). A pleasure to watch behind (and at) the plate.

LF Alex Gordon is a four-time Gold Glover who has fought through injuries (groin and wrist) over the past two seasons. In 2016, he hit just .220-17-40 in 128 games. In his last season of at least 150 games played, he hit .266-19-74 with 12 steals. The Royals need a return to those kinds of offensive numbers

Chicago White Sox – Fourth Place 70-92

dAVID ROBERTSON WHITE SOX photo

David Robertson will take the ninth inning for the ChiSox.Photo by Keith Allison

The White Sox are rebuilding – and doing it in a hurry.  They added some top prospects (at the cost of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton) over the past couple of years and the 2017 team has enough “potential” to be interesting, but not enough proven talent. The veterans may have to “hold the fort” a bit longer.

The middle of the lineup will feature 31-year-old 3B Todd Frazier (who hit 40 homers and drove in 98 runs, but put up only a .225 average) and 30-year-old 1B Jose Abreu (.293-25-100, who has driven in 100+ runs in each of his three MLB seasons). Other likely veterans in the lineup include 2B Brett Lawrie (.248-12-36); LF Melky Cabrera (.296-14-86).  Youth will be served at the top of the lineup with CF Charlie Tilson (a 24-year-old rookie), who hit .282 in 100 games at Triple A last season (but also suffered a foot injury early in Spring Training) and 23-year-old SS Tim Anderson, who hit .283-9-30 in 99 games as a rookie (but needs to cut down on his strikeouts – 117 K’s versus only 13 walks last season). Avisail Garcis is the likely starter in RF, but has still hasn’t lived up to his power potential (.245-12-51 in 120 games). DH is up for grabs – although Abreu and Garcia may spend some time there.  Prospect Matt Davidson (who has shown some power in the minors) may get a look and utility man Tony Saladino ( .282-8-38, 11 steals in 93 games) should see time around the infield and perhaps at DH. Omar Narvarez and Kevin Smith are the (inexperienced) options at catcher.

White Sox Stat Fact

The Sox 4.10 starters’ ERA was right in the middle of the AL (seventh) – with Chris Sale.  Take Sale out of the equation and that ERA jumps to 4.33 (twelfth). Sale had six of the White Sox seven complete games.  The current likely rotation had one complete game among them in 2016.  #BigShoesToFill.

Southpaw Jose Quintana takes over from Sale as the ace of the staff – he was 13-12, 3.20 last season and has the stuff for a number-one or number–two starter.  Still he has reached ten wins only once in five seasons.  The number-two spot will go to another lefty, Carlos Rodon (9-10. 4.04, but on the upswing – he was 7-3, 3.45 with 77 strikeouts in 73 innings over the second half).  At just 24-years-old, he should improve in his third MLB season.  After these two southpaws, however, things get a little rocky. The back of the rotation looks like 35-year-old James Shields (who had been a steady winner through 2015, but last season finished 6-19, 5.85); Miguel Gonzalez (5-8, 3.73); and free-agent signee Derek Holland (7-9, 4.95 with the Rangers), looking for a rebound after three injury-hampered seasons with the Rangers. Holland went 38-21 in 31 starts in 2011-12-13, but 13-12 in 35 starts in 2014-15-16.

David Robertson is back at closer after a 5-3, 3.47, 37-save season. He does need to improve on his walk rate.  In 2016, he walked 32 batters (75 strikeouts) in 62 1/3 innings – and his save percentage was 22nd among pitchers with at least ten saves.   Getting the ball to Robertson are Nate Jones with a high-90s fastball and a .2.29 ERA in 71 appearances (80 strikeouts in 70 2/3 innings); Dave Jennings (2.08 in 64 appearances); and Zach Putnam (2.30 in 25 appearances).  Mike Ynoa (24-years-old), who looked good in his rookie season (1-0, 3.00, 30 strikeouts in 30 innings) could also see more work this season. If Robertson can harness his control, this is a solid pen.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Okay, the White Sox are rebuilding, so keep an eye on a couple of recent “prospect” additions – acquired in the Sale and Eaton Trades.

Yoan Moncada, acquired from the Red Sox in the Chris Sale trade, is considered one of the top prospects in baseball.  He can play 2B and 3B and last season hit .294-16-62, with 45 steals in the minors. He’s just 21-years-old, but if the White Sox flounder early, he could be in the lineup sooner rather than later.

RHP Lucas Giolito (22-years-old), acquired from the Nationals in the Eaton trade, is a starter whose fastball has hit triple digits. He moved from A to Double A to Triple A last season – and even got a look-see at the major league level. In five minor league season, he is 25-15, 2.73, with 397 strikeouts in 369 innings. He may need a little more seasoning, but again, if the White Sox find themselves out of the race early, Giolito could see a major league mound before September.

Minnesota Twins – Fifth Place (65-95)

Only the Diamondbacks had a worse team ERA than the Twins in 2016 (5.09 to 5.08). Further, the Twins had the worst ERA among starters (5.39) and fifth worst out of the pen (4.63), as well as the third-worst save percentage (saves versus saver opportunities) at 57 percent.  They didn’t do much in the offseason to address these issues – other than signing free-agent catcher Jason Castro (an acknowledged accomplished pitch framer).  So, despite the fact that the Twins have a group of potentially exciting young position players, the team seems destined for another last-place finish,.

It all starts with pitching and, in Minnesota, that means Ervin Santana (7-11, 3.38 in 30 starts). Santana will likely be followed in the rotation by Hector Santiago (13-10, 4.48 for the Angels and Twins, but 3-6, 5.05 with Minnesota) and Phil Hughes (1-7, 5.68 in just 12 games – fractured knee). The Twins need Santiago to pitch more like he did for the Angels (10-4, 4.24) and for Hughes to comeback from the knee injury and off-season surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. (Hughes was a 16-game winner for the Twins in 2014).  There’s likely to be competition for the final two spots, with candidates including: Kirk Gibson, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffy – all with ERA’s north of 5.00 last season. A couple of outside possibilities for the rotation are starter-turned-reliever Trevor May and Twins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year Stephen Gonsalves.

The bullpen also has question marks, but should be improved. It now appears Brandon Kintzler (0-2, 3.15. 17 saves in 20 opportunities) will be back at closer, as Glen Perkins (who saved 102 games for the Twins from 2013-15) works his way back from shoulder surgery.  The Twins added veteran Matt Bellisle (1.76 ERA in 40 games for the Nationals last season), and he should strengthen the pen. Ryan Pressley (3.70 with 67 whiffs in 75 1/3 innings) also should be assured of a role.  Michael Tonkin, J.T. Chargois, Taylor Rogers and newcomer Craig Breslow will be competing for spots.

Twins Stat Fact

Defense-Defense-Defense.  Twins pitchers gave up the most hits (1,617), earned runs (814), home runs (221) and the highest opponents’ batting average (.283) in the AL in 2016.  The defense behind them didn’t fare much better – leading the AL in errors (120) and unearned runs allowed (75). Pretty good insight into why the Twins finished with the AL’s worst record (59-103).

The Twins lineup has a bit more to offer – and looks to be on the upswing (pun intended).  The power comes from leadoff hitter 2B Brian Dozier (.268-42-99, with 18 steals); 23-year-old 3B Miguel Sano (.236-25-66 and a likely 40-HR candidate down the road); 24-year-old LF Max Kepler (.235-17-63 in 113) games; and likely DH Kennys Vargas .(230-10-20 in 47 games). The Twins like 23-yeaer-old Jorge Polanco at SS (.282 in 69 games), but he is a work in progress on defense. Joining Kepler in the outfield is CF Byron Buxton, who seems like he’s been a prospect forever, but is still only 23-years-old. Eddie Rosario (.269-10-32 in 92 games) or 2016 surprise Robbie Grossman (.280-11-37 in 99 games) should fill the final OF spot. Buxton, an elite defender, has had trouble adjusting to major league pitching (.224-10-38), but showed improvement at the end of 2016. 1B/DH Joe Mauer, a three-time batting champion, will be back at 1B (and some DH), but it’s been awhile since he’s shown the kind of offense you want out of a 1B/DH. (Mauer has a .308 career average, but has hit .277-.265-.261 over the past three seasons.) Newcomer Jason Castro, an accomplished pitch framer brought in to aid the pitching staff, will handle the catching.  Don’t expect a lot of offense, Castro was .210-11-32 in 113 games last season.  Still as Sano, Buxton, Polanco and Kepler mature, this offense should put runs on the board.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Twins’ 2B Brian Dozier hit 42 home runs last season, and an AL record 40 as a second baseman (two came as a DH). He finished as .268-42-99, with 19 steals.  Prior to last season, Dozier’s highest HR total was 28. However, he has increased his home run total every season since his 2012 MLB debut.  It will be interesting to see if the 42-HR season was an aberration, or if Dozier will continue as a major (30+ HR) power threat.  Also of interest, the Twins shopped Dozier in the off-season.  If things go badly, will they attempt to move him again before the trade deadline?

Byung-ho Park represents a significant investment for the Twins –  $12.85 million to the Korean Baseball Organization’s (KBO) Nexen Heroes for the right to negotiate with Park and another $12 million in the form of a four-year contract with the 1B/DH. Park, who hit .324 with 105 home runs and 270 RBI over his last two seasons in Korea (2014-2015), hit just .191 with 12 homers and 24 RBI in 62 games for the Twins. He didn’t fare much better at Triple A (.224-10-19 in 31 games). Park cleared Waivers and was moved from the 40-man MLB roster in the off-season. Twins’ fans will be watching to see if Park adjusts and the investment pays off – or if it goes the way of the Tsuyoshi Nashik signing (from Nippon Professional Baseball) in 2010.

WEST DIVISION

First Place – Houston Astros (92-70)

Jose altuve photo

Jose Altuve – Astros’ spark plug. Photo by roy.luck

What the Astro lacked last season, as they finished in third place, was a veteran presence to show the way for their youthful lineup.  They went out and got it with the signing of free-agent veteran DH Carlos Beltran (.295-29-98 for the Rangers and Yankees) and the trade of two minor league pitchers to the Yankees for catcher Brian McCann (.242-20-58). Their presence in the middle of the lineup and leadership in the dugout should keep the young Astros on course for a first-place finished

There is a lot to like about this lineup – from the top down. OF George Springer and 2B sparkplug Jose Altuve will top the order.  Springer (.261-29-92, nine steals) appears to be moving to center to make room for newcomer Josh Reddick (.281-10-53 in 115 games) in right.  (The Astros have plenty of outfield options with Springer, Reddick, Norichika Aoki and Jake Marisnick.)  Altuve is a potential MVP who does it all. Last season, he won his second batting title (.338) and chipped in 24 home runs, 96 RBI, 108 runs scored and 30 stolen bases.  The 5’6” dynamo makes this team go.  And there is plenty more. Carlos Correa – just 22-years-old – is one of today’s most exciting young shortstops (.274-20-96, with 13 steals) and may man the cleanup spot. 3B Alex Bregman (23-years-old) got off to a slow start (he had only one hit in his first 34 MLB at bats), but came on strong (hitting .311 the rest of the way and finishing at .264-8-34). Behind the plate, you have McCann, as well as veteran Evan Gattis (.251-32-72) – who could spell each other, as well as take a turn at DH. At first base, the Astros will look to Yulieski Gurriel – who defected from Cuba in February of 2016 – and signed with the Astros in July. Gurriel hit .262-3-15 in 36 games (3B/1B/LF) for Houston. (He had a .335 average over 15 seasons in Cuba and Japan).   In short, this lineup is stacked with solid hitters – and a combination of youth and experience.  They are going to score some runs.

Astros’ Stat Fact

In 2016, the Astros starting rotation’s ERA went from 2015’s 3.71 (second best in the AL) to 4.37 (eighth best). They need to turn that back around.

When it come to the starting rotation, the Astros are looking for significant rebounds up and down the staff.  It starts with southpaw Dallas Keuche,l who fell to 9-12, 4.25 in 2016 – after a 20-8, 2.48 Cy Young Award season in 2015.  Keuchel did have shoulder issues last season, and bears watching. Two and three in the rotation should go to 23-year-old Lance McCullers (a respectable 6-5, 3.22 – but coming off  shoulder and elbow issues that limited him to 14 starts); and Collin McHugh (13-10, 4.34 – after 19-7, 3.89 in 2015). The back of the rotation looks to be drawn from among Mike Fiers (11-8, 4.48), veteran Charlie Morton (coming off a hamstring injury – and surgery – that limited his 2016 season to four starts for the Phillies) , Brad Peacock and Joe Musgrove.  There are questions in this group – particularly related to durability.  The dark horse may be Musgrove.  The big (6’5”, 265-pound) righty is only 24-years-old and was 4-4, 4.06 in his rookie season – after going 7-4, 2.74 in two 2016 minor league stops.

The bullpen got off to a rocky start in 2016, but righted itself when Ken Giles moved into the closer role (2-5, 4.11 with 15 saves and 102 strikeouts in 65 2/3 innings). Over the second half, Giles was 1-2, 3.77 with 14 saves and 52 whiffs in just 28 2/3 innings. Giles displaced Luke Gregerson at closer (4-3, 3.28 with 15 saves).  Gregerson should be a key set-up man.  Also in the pen are the bat-missing arms of Will Harris, James Hoyt, and Tony Sipp.  Plenty of live arms.

The Astros have a potent offense, solid defense (third-fewest errors and most defensive runs saved in the AL), some new veteran leadership and a solid bullpen.  The only question mark is the starting rotation, but if a couple of the key starters can bounce back, they should end up atop the AL West.

A Couple of  Players to watch

Second baseman Jose Altuve is THE player to watch on the Astros.  Just 5’6” and 165-pounds, he is the sparkplug that ignites the Astros’ offense. At 26-years-old and starting his sixth full season in the major leagues, Altuve is already a four-time All Star, Gold Glove Winner, two-time batting champion, three-time AL leader in hits (641 base hits over the past three seasons), two-time AL stolen base leader (124 steals over the past three seasons) – and he’s added power to his game (24 home runs in 2016). 

BBRT will give you two members of the pitching staff to watch.  First, Dallas Keuchel – to see if the assumed staff “ace” and 2015 Cy Young award winner can come back from shoulder issues and a 9-12, 4.55 season in 2016. The other is 24-year-old RHP Joe Musgrove, who started 2016 at Double A and ended up going 4-4 4.06 for the Astros (ten starts).  He has a minor league record of 28-11, 2.83, with 320 strikeouts in 337 1/3 innings. One more year of experience – and a full year at the MLB level – could make him a difference-maker for the Astros.

Second Place – Texas Rangers (88-74)

Adrian Beltre photo

Adrian Beltre continuing to build a Hall of Fame resume. Photo by Keith Allison

The Rangers basically won their division by going 15-4 against the rival Astros. BBRT doesn’t see that happening again – particularly since the Astros have added some veteran leadership in the off-season.

Thee Rangers scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last season, but they are going to miss the bats of Carlos Beltran, Ian Desmond and Mitch Moreland (all lost to free agency). The Rangers did work to shore things up a bit, signing free-agent Mike Napoli earlier this month.  Napoli went .239-34-101 for Cleveland last season and will slot into 1B (replacing Moreland). The home run and RBI totals were career highs for Napoli – 35-years-old and going into his twelfth MLB campaign. The Ranger’ lineup will again key off of 3B Adrian Beltre and he’s got plenty of credentials.  In 2016, Beltre not only put up a .300-32-104 season, he also picked up his fifth Gold Glove. The five-time Gold Glover and  four-time All Star is a stud in the middle of the lineup, but he will turn 38-years-old in April and did suffer a calf injury this spring.  He has to hold off father time if the Rangers are to compete. Joining Beltre and Napoli in providing power will be 23-year-old 2B Rougned Odor (.271-33-88); veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.292-24-81); and 21-year-old LF Nomar Mazara (.266-20-64 in his rookie campaign).  Odor and Lucroy should be steady source of power, but Mazara cooled off after a strong start (hitting just .229 after August 1). Along with Mazara (who may see time at both corner OF spots), we’ll likely see Carlos Gomez in CF (.284-8-24 in 33 games for the Rangers, but only .210-5-29 in 85 games with the Astros).  Gomez is a career .257 hitter and is likely to finish in that range. Competing for time in the OF and at DH are Shin-Soo Choo (coming off an injury-marred season), Jurickson Profar  (.239-5-20 – and also available to fill in in the infield); Ryan Rau (.258-8-22  in 99 games and also available at 1B); and perhaps Delino DeShields (.209-7-13 in 74 games). The Rangers would prefer to move Choo’s glove (and bat) to DH, so we may see a Profar, Gomez, Mazara garden on a regular basis.  Finally, there is shortstop Elvis Andrus, coming off a career year (.302-8-69, with 24 steals). The Rangers should score runs again, but there are concerns.  Can Beltre and Napoli repeat their 2016 performances? Which Carlos Gomez will show up? Will Choo bounce back from injury?   Ultimately, the Rangers should have a solid lineup, just less stable than the rival Astros.

Southpaw Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.32).  is back at the top of the rotation, but needs to cut down on walks.  Yu Darvish (7-5, 3.14 in 17 starts after coming back from Tommy John surgery) could get back to his 2012-13-14 All Star form – if he stays healthy. Those two will be followed by lefty Martin Perez (10-11, 4.39), a solid innings eater and two likely drawn from among: free-agent signee Andrew Cashner; A.J. Griffin; and Tyson Ross (coming off thoracic outlet surgery). Ross was the Padres’ Opening Day starter in 2016 – the only game he pitched last season. Ross, however, was an All Star and 13-game winner as recently as 2015 and – if healthy – could boost the Rangers’ rotation.

Rangers Stat Fact

The Rangers were 36-11 in one-run ball games in 2016 (including 8-1 versus the rival Astros) – a modern-era MLB one-run game winning percentage of .766.

In the bullpen, Sam Dyson should return as the closer – after going 3-2, 2.43 with 38 saves a year ago. Dyson is not your typical “lights-out” closer (just 55 strikeouts in 70 1/3 innings).  He’s more of a groundball pitcher, but he gets the job done. Key arms behind Dyson include: Jeremy Jeffress; Matt Bush; Alex Claudio; and Tony Barnette – all with ERA’s under 3.00 last season.

Put it all together and the Rangers should be right on the Aatros’ heels in 2016. If Houston’s starting rotation falters, the Rangers could repeat as division champs.

A Couple of Players to Watch

Free-agent signee Tyson Ross – the San Diego Padres’ 2016 Opening Day starter – is coming off shoulder issues (pitched only on Opening Day last year). Ross, who will turn 30 in April – is a 2014 All Star and has a 3.64 ERA, with 633 strikeouts in 670 2/3 career innings.  If he’s back and healthy, he could put up solid numbers for the Rangers

No one means more to the Rangers’ squad than 3B Adrian Beltre – .300-32-104 in a resurgent 2016 campaign (he also picked up a Gold Glove). Beltre, however is 38, and is playing against father time.  He seems destined for the Hall of Fame (should pick up his 3,000th hit, 450th home run, 1,500th run scored, 1,600 the RBI and 120th stolen base thise season). BBRT will be watching his numbers in 2017.

Third Place – Seattle Mariners (83-79)

Edwin Diaz Mariners photo

Closer Edwin Diaz fanned more than 15 batters per nine innings for the Mariners. Photo by THE Laura Smith

Lots of new faces in Seattle this year, but the results will likely be pretty much the same as a year ago.

The rotation starts with Felix Hernandez (11-8, 3.82), who missed some time with a calf strain (had just 25 starts) and seems to be showing signs of wear (turning 31 in April and a veteran of 12 MLB seasons and more than 2,400 MLB innings). Last season saw Hernandez notch his fewest wins since 2008, highest ERA since 2006 and fewest innings pitched since his rookie campaign (2005). Still, he’s a six-time All Star and the Mariners are counting on a return to form. The number-two spot goes to Hihashi Iwakuma, a steady innings-eater who went 16-12, 4.12 – but will be 36 in April. Hard-throwing James Paxton showed signs of breaking out last season (6-7, 3.79 with 117 strikeouts in 121 innings), but made just 20 starts (bruised elbow).  A full year of Paxton would be a plus for Seattle. A couple of newcomers – Drew Smyly, acqujred in a trade with the Rays, and Yovani Gallordo, picked up in a trade with the Orioles, should round out the rotation. Smyly was 7-12, 4.88 in 30 starts with the Rays, while Gallardo was 6-8, 5.42 with the O’s. If either of those two falters in Spring Training, I’d bet on 28-year-old Cuban Ariel Miranda (5-2, 3.88 in ten starts) to take a spot.

Mariners’ Stat Fact

Seattle played a whopping 60 one-run games last season (30-30 record).  If they could have gone 33-27 in those contests, they would have been in the Wild Card picture.

Hard-throwing Edwin Diaz took over closer duties in July and finished 0-4, 2.79 with 18 saves.  Diaz looks to be the full-time closer. He fanned 88 batters in just 51 2/3 innings. Former closer Steve Cishek, coming off hip surgery could be the numer-one setup man (if healthy).  He was 4-6, 2.81 with 25 saves a year ago. Other key members of the pen are newcomer southpaw Mark Rzepczynski (great on a jersey); Nick Vincent; and youngster Dan Altavilla (considered to be a potential closer in waiting). Altavilla had a 0.73 ERA in 15 relief appearances for the Mariners last season, after going 7-3, 1.91, with 16 saves at Double A.  Overall, the Mariners pen looks solid.

The Mariners offense is powered by DH Nelson Cruz, 2B Robinson Cano and 3B Kyle Seager, and the numbers point to plenty of production. Cruz went .287-43-105 last season; Cano went .298-39-103; and Seager .278-30-99. However, the trio accounted for half of the Mariners’ 2017 home run output and 42 percent of the RBIs. They will look for some help from new leadoff  hitter (trade with the D-backs) SS Jean Segura (.319-20-64, with 33 steals) and 1B Danny Valencia (.287-17-51). Leonys Martin (.247-15-47, with 24 steals) appears set in CF and a spot near the top of the order.  However, Spring Training may see auditions for the other two spots among Jarrod Dyson (.278-1-25, with 30 steals for the Royals); prospect Ben Gamel (.308-6-51, with 19 steals at Triple A); and Mitch Haninger (.229-5-17 in 34 games with the D-backs).  At catcher, Mike Zunino should get most of the playing time, backed by newcomer veteran Carlos Ruiz.

The Mariners made a lot of moves in the off-season, but still face questions in the rotation and an offense that is too dependent on their big three. They have enough talent to finish above .500, but a playoff spot seems unlikely.

A Couple of Players to Watch

OF prospect Ben Gamel hit just .188 in 33 games at the MLB level (Yankees/Mariners), but hit .304, with 16 home runs, 155 RBI and 32 stolen bases at Triple A in 2015-16. Watch to see if Gamel to win a spot in the Mariner’ outfield.

Closer Edwin Diaz fanned 15.3 batters per nine inning last season, second only to the Yankees’ Dellin Betances (15.5).  Diaz and Betances, in fact, were the only pitches to fan more than15 batters per nine. (Aroldis Chapman was seventh at 14.)  Diaz is only 23-years-old, so this youngster bears watching.

Fourth Place – Los Angeles Angels (75-89)

Mike Trout photo

Mike Trout – Keeps putting smiles on the faces of Angels’ fans. Photo by Keith Allison

The Angels have been active in the free-agent market in the past – see Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton – but played it fairly conservative this off-season. Unfortunately, that means it’s unlikely they will move up in the standings.

Still, there is star power in the Angels’ lineup – starting with a pair of future Hall of Famers: CF Mike Trout (.315-29-100, with 30 steals) – who is a perennial MVP candidate and (hard to believe) just 25-years-old – and 37-year-old DH Albert Pujols (.268-31-119), who should pole his 600th home run this season.  These two will likely hold down the three and four spots in the order. The question is, can Pujols, coming off foot surgery, deliver another solid year at age 37?  3B Yunel Escobar (.304-5-39 in 132 games will likely leadoff, but lacks the speed of a typical leadoff hitter (zero steals last season).  C.J. Cron at 1B (.278-16-69, despite missing 30+ games after being hit by a pitch, should provide some protection behind Pujols and Trout. Andrelton Simmons brings Gold Glove skills to the SS position, but his .281 average last year was a career high (career average .261),  He slots in somewhere near the  bottom of the lineup. Flanking Trout in the outfield expect to see newcomer free-agent Cameron Maybin (.315-4-43, 15 steals in 94 games for the Tigers) and Kole Calhoun (.271-18-75), who may be poised for a breakout year. All three offer solid defense. Free-agent Ben Revere, who joins the Angels after an off-year with the Nationals (.217 average versus a career .285 mark) may also see some time in the OF. Free-agent signee Danny Espinosa, who hit just .209 last season for the Nationals, seems slated for 2B, while newcomer Martin Maldanado and returnee Carlos Perez should share catching duties (all three offer more on defense than offense.)  A year ago, the Angels finished tenth in runs scored and there are still too many offensive holes in the lineup to improve.

Angels’ Stat Fact

The Angels had the AL’s fourth-worst ERA a year ago, gave up the league’s fifth-most home runs and struck out the fewest batters.

The rotation is filled with question marks.  Gone from last year’s rotation are Jered Weaver (free agency); Nick Tropeano (Tommy John surgery); and Andrew Heaney (Tommy John surgery).  At the top of the rotation is Garrett Richards – who seems to have avoided Tommy John surgery with stem-cell therapy (key word “seems”) – and went 1-3, 2.34 before being shut down last season (six starts). Richards was a 15-game winner (15-12, 3.65) in 2015, and the Angels are hoping for a healthy 2017.  Matt Shoemaker could deliver quality innings in the number-two slot (9-13, 3.88 last season, with a 3.75 ERA over four seasons). Shoemaker, however, suffered a small/minor skull fracture (Is there such a thing?) when hit by a line drive last September. He will be watched carefully in spring.  It’ll take Spring Training to sort out the remainder of the staff.  Among the leading candidates: Tyler Skaggs (3-4, 4.17), who recorded only ten starts last year, coming back from Tommy John surgery; veteran Rickey Nolasco (8-14, 4.42 for the Twins and Angels); free-agent Jesse Chavez (2-2, 4.43 in 62 relief appearances for the Blue Jays and Dodgers), who has bounced between starter and reliever; and a couple of prospects –  6’9” Alex Meyer (1-3, 6.75 with the Twins and Angels) and Brooks Pounders (2-1, 9.74 with the Royals, but 5-3, 3.14 at Triple A).  Starting pitching may be an issue in LA.

In the pen, it looks like a race between experienced closer Huston Street (at 33-years-old, coming off an injury-shortened season and knee surgery) and closer-in-waiting Cam Bedrosian (2-0, 1.12 in 45 games, with 51 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings).  Either Street or Bedrosian could serve in a setup role, along with Andrew Baily (3-1, 5.36, but with a 2.38 ERA in 12 appearances after coming over from the Phillies). Other likely occupants of the Angels’ pen include Deolis Guerra (3-0, 3.21 in 44 games); Jose Alvarez (1-3, 3.45 in 64 games): Mike Morin (2-2, 4.37 in 60 games); and J.C, Ramirez (3-4, 4.35 in 70 games).  The bullpen could be a plus for the Halos.

When you look at the holes in the lineup and the questions in the starting rotation, its hard to see the Angels finishing ina top-three spot this season..

A Couple of Players to Watch

People will show up just to see Mike Trout – just 25-years-old and after five full seasons, he’s a: five-time All Star; two-time MVP (including last year); skilled CF; intimidating base runner (30 steals last year, a league-leading 49 in 2012); and a power threat (.306 career average, three seasons of 30 or more home runs). Worth the price of a ticket.

Matt Shoemaker has a solid fastball, good control and a split-finger out pitch. As a rookie, in 2014, he went 16-4, 3.04. He’s been up and down since, but seemed to right himself after a slow start in 2016 – before suffering a head injury (that required surgery) after being hit by a line drive. In the six starts before the injury, he went 4-2, 3.15.  It will be interesting to see how Shoemaker responds after that injury.  If he bounces back, he can make a significant impact on the Angel’s rotation.

Fifth Place – Oakland A’s (72-90)

Ryon Healy photo

Ryon Healy – Angels need his bat in the lineup. Photo by Keith Allison

Oakland scored the fewest runs in the AL last season – and gave up the second-most. They didn’t make enough changes in the off-season to make a big enough difference.

LF Khris Davis was the brightest bulb in the A’s lineup last season, delivering a .247-42-102 season. Unfortunately, the only other current “A” to reach 15 home runs was SS Marcus Semien (.238-27-75).  (Danny Valancia hit 17 dingers for the A’s, but was traded to the Mariners for prospect RHP Paul Blackburn.)  The A’s will look for offense from free-agent 3B Trevor Plouffe (.260-12-47 with Minnesota, but with two 20+ HR campaigns under his belt).  The Plouffe pickup likely will result in Ryon Healy moving over to 1B (he could also see time at 3B and DH). The A’s need the 25-year-old Healy’s bat in the lineup every day. Last season the 25-year-old went .305-13-37 for the A’s, after going .326-14-64 in two minor league stops. When Healy is not at 1B, look for Yonder Alonso (.253-7-56). The OF looks like Khris Davis in left, with free-agent signees Rajai Davis (.249-12-48, 43 steals) in center and Matt Joyce (.242- 13-42) in right.  Mark Canha, who missed most of last season due to a hip injury, may see time in RF as well. In his 2015 rookie season, Canha hit .254, with 16 home runs and 70 RBI.  Canha can also fill in at 1B and DH. Second base sees Jed Lowrie (.263-2-27) returning, but don’t be surprised if the A’s look for ways to squeeze more offense out of the position. Finally, Stephen Vogt should be the number-one catcher.  He hit .251 with decent power (14 home runs) last season.

Three spots seem assured in the A’s rotation, Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea. Gray is the key pitcher.  The former first-round pick suffered through an injury-plagued 2016, going 5-11, 5.69 – as compared to 33-20, 2.88 over his first three seasons.  The A’s need Gray to return to form. Graveman went 10-11, 4.11 in 31 starts and was a steady presence in the rotation. Southpaw Seth Manaea went 7-9, 3.86 for the A’s and has a 16-9, 2.85 ERA record in three minor league seasons.  He may be ready to break out. Over his last six starts of 2016, Manaea went 34 1/3 innings, struck out 32 and gave up only four earned runs.  There’ll be lot of competition for the final two spots. Best bets appear to be Jharel Cotton (2-0, 2.15 in five starts after a September call up) and Andrew Triggs (1-1, 4.31). Others in the mix include Daniel Mengden, Raul Alcantara and Jesse Hahn.  Should be an interesting Spring Training. If things work out, the rotation could be considerably improved.

A’s Stat Facts

Statistics sometimes tell the story.  The A’s scored the fewest runs in the AL last season (653) – and gave up the second most (761) – for a negative 108-run differential (the AL’s second worst). In the AL, only the Twins had a more negative run differential at -167. In the NL, the largest negatives were the Phillies (-186); Reds (–138); Diamondbacks (-138); and Braves (-138). The Cubs, by the way, had the greatest positive run differential at +270. The Red Sox were second at +176,

Ryan Madson (6-7, 3.62, 30 saves) returns as closer – but needs to improve his strikeout rate (his lowest since 2006) and his save percentage (81.1 percent – 13th among the 16 AL pitchers with at least 15 saves). Ryan Dull should be anything but dull as a key setup man. Last season, he went 5-5, 2.42 in 70 appearances, with 73 whiffs in 74 1/3 innings. The A’s will also be counting on two  former closers: Sean Doolittle (2-3, 3.23 in 44 games) and Santiago Casilla (2-5, 3.57 in 62 appearances).  Liam Hendriks and John Axford are also in the picture.

A Couple of Players to Watch

RHP Jharel Cotton looked good after coming over from the Dodgers in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill trade. He went 2-0, 2.15 in five starts, He was also 3-1, 2.82 at Triple A and 8-5, 4.90 at Double A. Could be a sleeper in the A’s rotation. Side note: At Triple A, in an August 9 game last season – Cotton’s Nashville Sounds versus the Round Rock Express – Cotton came within one out of a nine-inning perfect game. Cotton struck out 12 in the effort.

If he gets the call, watch for Matt Chapman. The 23-year-old infielder (3B) hit only .237 at two minor league stops last season, but delivered 36 home runs and 96 RBI.  If he can develop a bit more plate discipline (173 K’s last year), he could move up.

Coming Soon:  NL Preview

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