Friday, April 30, 2010

Mike Montgomery Coming On Fast For KC

Last week the Royals decided to promote top left-handed pitching prospect Mike Montgomery after watching him obliterate A-Ball hitters for four starts.

In 24.2 innings of work, Montgomery allowed just 14 hits, and 4 walks while punching out an absurd 33 batters. Tonight, he'll make his debut at AA pitching for Arkansas. Should things go as well in AA - or anything close to as well - as they did in A ball, Montgomery will put himself in prime position for a rotation spot with the big club sometime during 2011.

All of that of course depends on how Montgomery performs.

At 6'5" 180lbs the lefty has the exact body scouts love, tall, and wide through the shoulders. His delivery is smooth and clean leaving little hint of impending injury. He works with a 92-94mph fastball that has good - not great - movement and should enable him to limit home runs.

While his primary off-speed offerings, a curve and change up had work to be done, it appears that he's done that work quickly. While Montgomery performed brilliantly last season, the improvement of those two pitches has taken him to another level.

At just 20 years old Montgomery has thrust himself into the debate for best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball. It'll be interesting to see how he performs at AA, and just how fast he can rise.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is Liriano Back?

NOTE: This study utilizes stats from all four of Liriano's 2010 starts. It is worth noting that the pitcher he was in game one, looked precisely nothing like the pitcher he has been the past three starts. It is therefor possible that 25% of the data in use may not be representative of the pitcher we will see from this point on. Should that be the case, we can revisit this discussion at a later date. But given Liriano's up-and-down nature the past two seasons, I firmly believe that non-inclusion of that data would express bias, something I always seek to avoid.


In 2006, Francisco Liriano took baseball by storm, striking out almost 11 batters per nine innings, walking fewer than 2.5 per inning, and posting a huge 55% ground ball rate. It was fair to say that for 16 starts Liriano was not only the best pitcher on the Twins, a team that featured two time Cy Young winner Johan Santana, but probably the most dominant pitcher in baseball.

Of all the things a pitcher can do well, he did them all, and he did them all exceptionally well. His fastball was hard - 95.6mph on average, and it moved a ton, inducing ground balls by the bushel. His change up came fitted with a parachute, and faded hard from the swing of right handed batters.

But it was his slider that struck the most fear in opponents. It was, for lack of a better way of putting it, essentially unhittable. For the hitters unfortunate enough to find themselves in two strike counts, it was generally nothing more than a matter of time until they joined the chorus of batters making the long, slow walk back to the dugout wondering precisely where the ball they had just swung at had disappeared to.

Then one fateful evening, his world exploded at the exact same instant that the tendon in his left elbow did.

It would be a long time until Francisco Liriano would see a baseball field again. Despite front office and managerial declarations of a pitcher throwing "up to 96 free and easy...," a year and a half of rehab wasn't enough to get Liriano back. Instead, the Liriano who came back in 2008 was one who's formerly dominant slider was nowhere to be found. In his place was a pitcher who managed an average fastball velocity of just 90.9mph, a slider that lacked bite, and a change up that no longer twisted batters in knots.

But, given his reduced stuff, Liriano fared decently, particularly after returning from a demotion to AAA. He still averaged 7.93K/9 - which is above average, and a respectable 3.79BB/9. But his GB rate had fallen down to 41%. He was a shell of the pitcher he once was.

In 2009 though, the wheels came off. Liriano regained a little more velocity, back to 91.7 mph on his average fastball, but his command vanished. He struck out a few more at 8.03K/9, but his walk rate shot up to 4.28 and his ground ball rate fell to 40%. This time he was put on the disabled list with a "tired arm," but it was pretty clearly known that he was demoted because the formerly dominant pitcher was struggling mightily with his confidence. He simply didn't know what was wrong, and he didn't know how to fix it.

My how much one off season can change things.

Beginning this winter in the Dominican League and continuing into spring training, Liriano went on a 68.2 inning tour de force, striking out 97 while walking just 12. Impressive numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but also numbers compiled against questionable talent levels. I was skeptical to say the least. I've seen this song and dance before.

But after a shaky first game of the season in very cold game at Chicago, Liriano has been devastating once again. Suddenly the radar guns are popping - he's averaging 93.3 mph with his fastball. It's not the overpowering pitch that it used to be, but plenty hard to be sure. But can the Liriano who's dominated his past three outing while posting 23 consecutive scoreless innings continue his performance?

For this study we'll be doing things a tad differently than we did with our analysis' of Jake Peavy and Justin Verlander, because this situation is a bit more complicated.

Pitch Data

                       Velocity      Value/100   %Thrown
Fastball06:        94.7              0.13             43.6
Fastball09:        91.7             -1.99             56.3
Fastball10:        93.3              1.10             51.5
Slider06:           87.8              3.47             37.6
Slider09:           86.2              1.38             26.7
Slider10:           84.0              6.38             31.2
Changeup06:    83.5              2.82             18.7
Changeup09:    84.7              0.91             16.9
Changeup10:    84.4              0.44             17.3

The fastball still hasn't regained it's old velocity, but it's up 1.6 mph over last year, and creeping closer to it's old levels. Moreover, it's actually been more effective this year than it's ever been in the past, and at a 51.5% usage rate, he's going to it more than he did in 2006.

The two most important aspects of his fastball, aren't really about the speed though. He's also back to inducing a huge percentage of ground balls. /;l[p=In 2006, people generally overlooked his phenomenal 55.3% ground ball rate. As we noted earlier, that rate fell to a career worst 40.2% last year, but suddenly it's back up to 51.8% Not quite as strong as before, but more than enough to be well above average.

Where the increased velocity really makes itself apparent, is in the differential. The gap in speeds between Liriano's fastball and slider has gone up considerably, from 5.5 mph last year, to 9.3 mph this year, making it much more difficult to time.

The slider is actually MORE effective this year than it's ever been. At +6.38/100, it's actually been almost twice as effective as the pitch he threw in 2006. That's phenomenal. What's weird, he's throwing it softer than last year, as he's trimmed more than 2mph off the pitch, despite gaining about 1.6mph of velocity on his fastball compared to last year. He's throwing it almost four mph slower than 2006.

The change up is not nearly as dominant of a pitch as it used to be, but it remains effective, and he still uses it right around 18% of the time and the velocity is surprisingly consistent.

Ok, so we can begin to see how Liriano's stuff stacks up. In some cases better than 2006 (fastball/slider) and in others worse (change up/velocity). He's not throwing as hard, but he's remained extremely effective.

Swing Data

1) Liriano is inducing a lot swinging strikes - 10.7%, but that's actually the worst rate of his career. That said, it's still more than 2% above league average, which is a lot. 2006 Liriano induced swinging strikes on an outrageous 16.4% of his pitches, more than double league average. It was that ability to make guys swing at nothing but air that enabled him to strikeout upwards of 11 batters per inning.

The fact that his swing-and-miss rate hasn't improved (and has actually gotten ever so marginally worse) compared to last season suggests that we shouldn't be expecting a spike in strikeout rate. Indeed, with a strikeout rate of 8.36/9IP, we're seeing a pitcher who is striking out almost precisely as many batters as he has the past two seasons.

Summation: Liriano is getting fewer swinging strikes than ever before, and generally that means lower strikeout rates.

2) There is some reason to believe that everything I said in point one may be rendered moot. Despite getting fewer swinging strikes overall, Liriano is actually getting batters to swing at more pitches out of the zone than at any other point in his career.

At 31.9%, batters are chasing an enormous number of his pitches. This has always been a Liriano staple, as he's averaged 28.1% out-of-zone swings throughout his career.

BUT! Hitters are also making contact with those out-of-zone pitches more than ever before. In 2006 batters made contact with just 35.3% of pitches that left the zone. They swung a lot, and they almost always came up empty. This year he's getting hitters to chase more often at 30.2%, but they're also putting the bat on the ball more often than ever before at an impressive 55.0%.

What gives?

Summation: Liriano is getting hitters to chase more often, which usually means more strikeouts, but they're making contact more often too.

 3) Liriano is throwing strikes. Of everything you will read in this article, nothing is more important than this piece of information. To realize why this is you must first understand everything above. Liriano never lost his ability to strike batters out, and while there mixed signals about why he's been successful, most show that his ability to strike batters out hasn't gotten definitively better.

What is happening now is that Liriano has regained his ability to hammer the strike zone, getting strike one on 62.7% of batters, his best rate ever. He's also throwing 66% strikes overall, his best rate since his 67% mark in 2006.

Simply put Liriano is attacking hitters again. He isn't nibbling. He isn't hiding his fastball. He's saying, "here it is, lets see what you can do with it." The answer thus far has been, 'nothing.'

PitchFX Data

Unfortunately we don't have PitchFX data from 2006, so we can't compare information from then to now. But we can at least look to see what, if any differences exist between his stuff last year, and his stuff this year. As always, I'll be posting the graphs next to each other to allow you to see the differences for yourself.

Liriano has never had a clear release point, but at least now, it's more consistently at the same level. The grouping is much, much tighter.

Here the improved movement on his pitches is readily apparent. He's getting significantly increased depth on all of his pitches, along with increased bite on his slider and fade on his change up and fastball.

On a pure stuff level, this Liriano is much better than the one we saw in 2009. Particularly with the slider and fastball.

On the slider he's gained 5.74in of drop and 1.74in of bite.
On the fastball he's gained 2.23in of drop and 0.26in of fade.
On the change he's gained 2.84in of drop and 0.36in of fade.

Essentially, he's doing everything you want to do with those three pitches quite a bit better than he did last year. The improved quality of those pitches, combined with the improved command we spoke of earlier leads one to believe that the change in Liriano is due to more than just luck and that, in all likelihood, this 'new Liriano,' is for real.


I'm not certain I have a definitive answer for you about our initial question, "is Francisco Liriano back?"

He's certainly better than he was at any point last year, and likely better than at any point in the past two years. And if you take out the first game from this season out of the equation, he is essentially as good as he was in  2006 (in terms of performance at least).

He's showing vastly improved command, he's getting more ground balls, and striking out more than at any point since his return from Tommy John. His pitches are legitimately much better than they were last year and hitters are chasing his pitches more than ever.

But he's also still not throwing as hard as he did in 2006 (though the gap has closed considerably), and he still hasn't matched the phenomenal ground ball, strikeout, or walk rates that he did.

So we can safely say that a much more effective Liriano is probably back. All that's left to be determined is how much better? Liriano should be pretty effectively able to answer that question over his next 3-4 starts.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Is It Time For Panic With Justin Verlander?

A couple days ago here at Central In Focus we looked at the performance of Jake Peavy and asked if there was something wrong with the pitcher beyond bad luck and determined that indeed there probably was. Today we'll be doing the same thing with Tigers ace Justin Verlander.

Justin is coming off the most dominant year of his sterling career and the Tigers are relying on his right handed power arm to help carry them to an AL Central title. 2009 saw Verlander post career highs in innings pitched (240.0), K/9 (10.09), BB/9 (2.36).

The only negative trend is essentially an extenuation of one that had been going on for a few years - an increased fly ball rate, to 42.8%. That rate has risen each year he's been in the league since 2005. But the career worst fly ball rate last year didn't seem to affect him too much as he posted a career best HR rate.

However after such a strong season in 2009, one that saw him garner considerable interest for the American League CY Young Award, the beginning of his 2010 season couldn't have begun much worse. His numbers are down across the board and some of the Detroit faithful are beginning to grouse.

Let's take a look at some of the numbers. The combination of his 7.77K/9, 3.68BB/9, and 1.28HR/9 are good for an FIP of 4.30. That seems about right to me. But with an ERA of 6.95 it should be of particular condolence for Tigers fans. Verlander certainly hasn't been great in 2010, but he hasn't been nearly as bad as his ERA would indicate. But why?

Typically when looking at outlier statistics, they can be explained away by BABIP. Extreme BABIP's one way or another are a fantastic indicator of regression to the mean. While Verlander's BABIP of .328 is above his career average of .307, it's identical to the one he posted in 2009, and by no means a significant outlier. What strikes me as a bit odd about the BABIP number is that, given his fly ball tendencies, those numbers tend to come down. I'd expect he's been a bit unlucky as a few more hits have fallen in than perhaps normal. Not a huge deal, but worth noting.

Statistically, the big outlier that jumps out to me is his left on base percentage (LOB%) of 55.6% this season. Verlander's career LOB% is right in line with Major League average at 71.8% of runners stranded on base. But with Verlander allowing almost half of all runners he's allowed on base to score, it's taken a significant toll on his ERA. That simply wont continue, and as that evens out, his ERA will come down.

However, the BABIP and to a greater extent, the LOB% don't tell us why the true indicators of pitching talent - the K%, BB%, and GB% are all trending negative. To determine why he's been less effective, we should look at his PitchFX data to see what sort of information we can glean.

First the pitch Data: (Type: 2009 %-Velocity / 2010 %-Velocity)

4-Seam: 67.5%-95.6mph / 53.6%-95.5mph
2-Seam: 0.2%-89.3mph / 9.2%-94.7mph
Slider: 2.9%-86.6mph / 4.8%-87.6mph
Curve: 19.4%-80.1mph / 17.9%-80.8mph
Change: 10.1%-84.2mph / 14.5%-85.2mph

There are some pretty noticeable difference here, and I highlighted the ones that seemed most relevant to me. The biggest standout is that 2010 Verlander is throwing a lot fewer four seam fastballs (but not many fewer fastballs overall). That is perhaps in an attempt to generate more ground balls as his home run rate continues to climb. The problem is that he simply isn't getting much depth of his two seam fastballs, something we'll examine a bit later.

There are also small changes that could be explained due to sample size as much as a change in pitching style. Increases in the amount of change ups thrown, and a decease in the number of curve balls. But again, the difference is small enough that one has to question it's relevance. Still, it's worth noting.

Like we did with Peavy, we'll put the charts from 2009 against the charts from 2010 so we can compare them side-by-side.

Ironically if there are any differences in lateral movement, it's slightly better in 2010 with his slider and change up both improving their fade.

Again, very subtle differences that actually favor his 2010 performance. The one area of concern is the two-seam fastball. He's throwing it quite a bit more in 2010 than he did in 2009, and while it has improved marginally in lateral movement, it simply isn't getting enough depth to induce more ground balls, and perhaps (pure speculation on my part) it's proving a somewhat easier pitch to hit.

Again, everything looks to be within the same range and 2009.

So why is Verlander struggling so much more? It appears to be mostly bad luck and a regression to his career norms. Verlander prior to 2009 was a very good pitcher, posting a career FIP of 4.19 and a career xFIP of 3.80.

Both above average marks.

He also sported above average career K/9 rates and BB/9 rates as well as solid HR/9 rates.

In short Justin Verlander throughout his career had been pretty darn good. Just not amazing, until last year. Viewed in context of his career marks, there is very little wrong with his performance in 2010. His strikeout and walk rates are off a little bit. His FB rate continues to increase, and his BABIP is a bit high. But it appears that most of his struggles have simply come by an inordinately large number of base runners coming around to score.

As with all things regression related, that will even out.

Tigers fans were spoiled last year when they got to watch Justin Verlander consistently mowing down opponents, and based on pure stuff, there is little to suggest that his talent has diminished. Verlander still has all the tools.

There will be two things that will determine whether or not Justin Verlander will regain his form in 2009.

1) His command. As you can see by the charts and data, the pure stuff hasn't diminished at all. If anything, it may be a tick better. But if he can't pound the zone the way he did in 2009, he wont give hitters the same incentive to swing. As a result he wont strike out as many, nor get as deep into games.

2) Regaining some of his ground ball capabilities. Verlander doesn't have a standout outfield defense to work with, and as he becomes more and more fly-ball prone, more and more of those balls will begin falling in for hits. He needs to find ways to induce more ground balls and gives his standout left-side infield defense a chance to convert more outs for him.

Justin Verlander isn't done for. He just might be more like the guy he's been throughout the rest of his career than he was in 2009, and that's not an entirely bad thing. I think it's safe to say that Tigers fans can lower their anxiety level.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nick Blackburn Lit Up Again

Nick Blackburn is of to the worst start of his career - a career control and ground ball pitcher who allowed six home runs and six walks in his first three games. After his last start, a five inning, five run, two home run allowed effort that Blackburn was forced out of after just 69 pitches due to elbow pain, the Twins gave him an extra day off.

Apparently the extra rest didn't help as Blackburn came out against the Royals with decreased velocity, and no breaking ball to speak of at all. He left his start today after just four and a third innings, having allowed 10 hits - five for extra bases - and two more walks.

After the game, Manager Ron Gardenhire was adamant that Blackburn's elbow wasn't bothering him and that he 'just didn't have it tonight.' Yeah, right. At this point it isn't a question of whether or not Blackburn is going to wind up on the disabled list, it's just an issue of how long the Twins will wait before having the MRI and sitting him down.

If I'm right on this, and I really think I will be, that means the Twins would likely promote reliever Brian Duensing to the rotation, who did a great job in a starters role late in the season last year.  The next question becomes who takes his place on the active roster. Glen Perkins?

Perkins of course had an off season flap with the Twins when he filed a grievance against the team claiming he was sent down to prevent him from gaining service time. The grievance was eventually retracted, but the damage was done. There were a lot of reports during the off season about the Twins trying to move Perkins, but they could find no takers.

Since then, Perkins has done nothing to help his cause. At 27, Perkins needs somewhere to pitch because he isn't getting any younger, and given the Twins depth at starter, it isn't likely to be with them. But after a miserable spring training and a terrible start to his season at AAA, he's not giving another team any reason to want him.

When Blackburn eventually ends up on the DL, this could be his last chance to stick as a Major Leaguer.

The Twins do have other options though, and probably better options in either Jeff Manship or Anthony Swarzak. It'll be interesting to see how the Twins play it.

Is It Time For Panic With Jake Peavy?

When the White Sox traded for an injured Jake Peavy last year, they did so knowing that he'd have some obstacles to overcome to have success in the American League. First of all, the injury. Second of all the transition to the American League which in a general sense isn't nearly as forgiving as the National League.

After watching him throw 20 innings of three run baseball at the end of the year last season, many of those concerns should've been allayed. The innings were good at just under seven per start and the ancillary stats: 18K, 6BB, 1HR were strong as well.

This season the results have been much worse, and I'm concerned that it isn't going to get better any time soon. First, the numbers;

4GS / 22.1 IP / 26H / 15BB / 15K / 3HBP / 3HR

The numbers aren't off in just one area, they're off everywhere. All the good numbers, strikeouts, innings pitched, are down. And the bad ones, walks, home runs, hit batters, are way up.

Generally speaking you write off early season performances because the sample sizes are too small to matter. But just watching him the past couple games, he look different than he did when I watched him a couple seasons ago. However, knowing that you can't usually trust your eyes, I decided to take a look at his PitchFX data to see if he was actually doing anything differently.

I'll be looking at the data from his last start (4/22/10) vs a start where he was going well back in 2009 (4/6/09 vs the Dodgers), before he torn the tendon in his ankle.

Well put the charts next to each other so you can see what Good Peavy and Bad Peavy look like side by side.

Notice the significantly tighter release groupings in this image.

These are the results of an inconsistent release point. Pitches that don't end up where you want them. Small, almost imperceptible differences out of the hand lead to very noticeable differences by the time the ball reaches home plate.

Here it might appear pitches are missing too. But a close look reveals that they're 'missing,' where they're supposed to. The slider is missing middle of the plate, down and away. The only pitch that is consistently 'off' is the fastball which he's locating to set up other pitches.

 For the most part, all the pitches are pretty flat. Which is a big reason why hitters are making contact with over 84% of his pitches they swing at this season, vs around 75% for his career.

Here you can see how much better the movement of Peavy's pitches was. Particularly with his slider which faded hard from the swing of left-handers, and the slider which dove from right-handers. Those out pitches were keys for him, and this year, they just aren't there.

So there you have it. Jake Peavy is out of whack.

His command is being affected by his inability to find consistent release points, and his movement is nowhere to be found.

You can see the results in the stats, the increased fly ball and walk rates, the decreased strikeout rates. But the charts confirm that it's not just early season bad luck. Jake Peavy is a noticeably different pitcher than he is when he's on and it's likely going to take more than just a little tinkering for him to get back on track.

That's bad news for the White Sox who were going to be relying on him heavily in 2010 to contend.

Nick Punto to 15-Day DL

Twins opening day third baseman and utility man Nick Punto is headed to the 15-day disabled list with a strained hip-flexor/groin. The stint will be retroactive to the 16th, the first day he missed due to the injury.

While Punto and the Twins were hopeful that the issue would take care of itself in a few days, that hasn't been the case. Punto will fly to Minnesota to have an MRI to make sure there isn't anything else wrong structurally.

In the meantime the Twins will have Brendan Harris fill in as the regular starter at third base. To take Harris' place will be AAA infielder/outfielder Luke Hughes. Hughes has hit decently so far this season, batting .271 with a .771 OPS while playing primarily second base.

Kerry Wood's Return Delayed?

Indians closer Kerry Wood has been talking a lot lately about feeling like he is nearly ready to go. However, his performance in his simulated bullpen session yesterday apparently didn't go so well.

Wood was initially expected to miss 6-8 weeks, with a return prior to mid-May being unlikely. However it has certainly appeared as though Wood has thought he could return quite a bit sooner. The discomfort he felt yesterday however will probably make him and the teams trainers slow the pace a bit.

While it shouldn't be looked at as a set-back - he wasn't initially expected back for another 2-3 weeks after all - it's something to monitor. The Indians bullpen hasn't been particularly strong so far this season, and getting Wood back healthy should help some.

Furthermore, it would help if Wood could get back on the mound and show a contender that he's healthy and could contribute to a playoff push should the Indians fall from contention.

Tigers Send Carlos Guillen To 15-Day DL

The Tigers, already thin on offense just lost one of their key cogs as Carlos Guillen, who spend about a third of 2008 and about a half of 2009 on the disabled list with a variety of ailments, went down with a pulled hamstring. He's was immediately placed on the fifteen day disabled list and the Tigers have brought up outfielder Brennan Boesch to take his place.

The Tigers we're a thin team offensively coming into 2010 with Johnny Damon, Magglio Ordonez, and Miguel Cabrera being the only consistently above-average offensive options on the team. Without Guillen, they're left in an even worse position. While rookie Austin Jackson has helped ease some of that burden, there are a couple big issues that portend tougher days ahead for the youngster. More on that later.

For now, the Tigers simply need Guillen to try and get better. The problem is that hamstring injuries have a way of persisting throughout a season. The Tigers are hoping that enough rest will take care of the issue, but I'm not so optimistic, and that could be a doubly bad thing for the Tigers.

Any time you lose a guy who is hitting .311 and has an OPS of .834, it's going to be a bad thing. This is especially true on a team where offense is hard to come by. It's even more true when that offense is nearly the only thing keeping pitchers from throwing to the one guy who can really, really hurt them. 

Now generally speaking, I'm not big on the idea of protection in a lineup. There have been plenty of studies done to show that it has minimal (if any) effect on the output of the player being "protected." But given how Miguel Cabrera is currently treating American League pitchers much the same way that a cat might treat a trapped mouse - tormenting, pouncing, devouring - this might be one of the few times it's a legitimate issue.

Cabrera has pummeled opposing pitchers, batting .365 while walking more than he strikes out, and blasting eleven extra-base hits in just 73 at-bats while driving in 19 runs. Right now Cabrera might very well be the most imposing figure in the batters box in the entire American League. The Tigers are going to need whoever occupies Guillen's spot for the next couple weeks to hit and give the opposition some reason to not simply intentionally walk Cabrera every time he steps to the plate.

Given the lineup for game one, that task will, at least for now, fall to the young man who is replacing Guillen, 25 year old Brennan Boesche. Boesche has hammered away at AAA pitchers so far this year, hitting .379 while posting an OPS of 1.075. Boesche however struck out in 24.1% of his at-bats at AA in 2009 while hitting 28 home runs and 61 total extra base hits.  So far has struck out in 29.3% of his AAA at-bats while hitting three home runs and seven total extra base hits. That's an admittedly small sample size from this year, but not surprising given his strikeout rate in AA.

Boesche will certainly hit the ball for some power, but he's also going to strike out a ton, at least for now, and because of that, isn't likely to hit for sustainable average. He's also had issues taking a walk which may be more disturbing than the strikeouts because it suggests he's willing to expand his strike-zone to swing at anything. That's precisely the sort of weakness Major League pitchers tend to exploit without regard.

Thankfully to say, this will be a very short-term situation. Hopefully. Because Boesche probably isn't going to hit well enough, consistently enough, to make opposing pitchers fear pitching around Cabrera. And that could mean bad things for the Tigers offense on a longer-term basis.

Twins Nearly Traded For Heath Bell?

But were scared off by character issues?

So says Scott Miller of CBS.

"The Twins, according to sources, had what they viewed as a workable deal to acquire Padres closer Heath Bell after Joe Nathan was hurt this spring but veered away because they were nervous over character issues. Bell's outspoken manner at times can grate on teammates."

First of all, what is a 'workable deal?' And if those character issues are enough to steer them away from Bell, what made them so intent on trading for Delmon Young who didn't exactly come with a sterling reputation? I know Matt Garza had his own issues, and I believe that Delmon gets an overly bad rap for his bat throwing incident. But at the same time, the guy threw a bat at an ump. There is also the issue of Torii Hunter, who's vocal style occasionally grated his teammates the wrong way.

No, the Twins aren't big on bringing in "character issue" guys, but who is? The Twins have/had a serious need at a position that most people (yours truly not included) view as awfully important and difficult to fill. How bad must Bell's issues have been to keep the Twins from pulling the trigger? My guess would be significant.

But despite Bell's vocal style, I can't recall ever once hearing his teammates grouse about his style. He certainly never threw a punch at anyone in the clubhouse as far as I know. And I know he hasn't pulled one of these.

I guess the whole idea of a deal falling apart on makeup just doesn't strike me as very believable.

Royals Bullpen Getting Bombed

The Royals bullpen has been bombed so far this year as reliever after reliever struggles to record outs. Coming into tonight they had posted a 6.95 ERA in their 44 innings of work. That's including closer Joakim Soria, who has allowed just one run in his six innings of work. Remove those six very good innings of work, and the ERA balloons to 7.82. They allowed four more runs tonight that aren't figured into that equation.

Beyond Soria, who is probably the most under-rated closer in baseball and a truly special pitcher, the only other two reliable arms have been left-handed specialist John Parrish and hard throwing righting Josh Rupe who have combined to give the Royals 10.1 innings of 2 run baseball.

Parrish has made a nice career as a lefty specialist and in the long-term, that's all he should be used as. But with the Royals struggles Trey Hillman has continued to move him into higher leverage situations. I wont imagine that his success in that role will last long however. Over Parrish's 10 seasons in the Majors he's posted a 4.47 ERA and was out of the Majors altogether least season. Not the sort of career line that inspires confidence.

Rupe is spending his first year outside of the Rangers organization and has uninspiring peripherals with a strikeout rate under six and a walk rate over four. But Rupe does have a live arm and he's throwing the ball harder this year than he ever has before. The long term projections on him aren't great either, but as of right now, he might be their best option.

To try and fix this problem, the Royals are getting aggressive. Kind of. They don't appear to be playing the market for a solid option from outside of the organization, and at this point in the season, such options probably aren't available anyways. But they certainly are working flights between AAA and the bigs hard in an effort to throw everything available at the wall in the hopes that something sticks.

Earlier this season they purchased the contract of another Rangers scrap-heap reliever, Luis Mendoza, however after watching him pitch an uninspiring four innings where he allowed ten earned runs, they designated him for assignment.

Also getting the boot was Juan Cruz. Cruz was a fairly hot free agent a couple seasons ago when the Royals made an aggressive play for him. He was coming off a dominant season as a setup man for the Diamondbacks where he posted strikeout rates over 12 for two straight seasons.

Yes, he had issues with command and yes he was switching to the more difficult American League, but everyone assumed the ability to miss bats would translate. It hasn't. In his two seasons with the Royals the walks went up, the strikeouts went down, and the Royals front office watched their investment collapse.

Cruz certainly hadn't been good for the Royals so far this season, allowing 13 base runners in just 5.1 innings. But I would've assumed that the Royals would've stuck with him longer, tried to rebuild some value, and traded him for at least a middling prospect of some sort. That they released him outright suggests that they may have tried and found no market what-so-ever for him, though I find that difficult to believe.

While Cruz is certainly damaged goods, his ability to miss bats hasn't deteriorated to the point where no one would give him a chance. It'll be interesting to see which team picks him up. There are certainly enough teams that would be interested in a guy with his stuff as at least a low-leverage guy.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Andruw Jones Destorying Opposition

I have held off on posting this piece for as long as possible but after this, I'm no longer able to hold back.

Andruw Jones was left for dead. For good reason too, his career had taken a serious nose-dive over the past three seasons with his OPS plummeting from .894 in 2006 to .724 in 2007, his final with the Braves. Scott Boras somehow got the Dodgers to sink 36.2m into him.

For their 36 million dollars the Dodgers got 209 at-bats of a .505 OPS during 2008. Not quite what they had been hoping for. In 2009, they released him, eating the remainder of his contract and the Rangers signed him to a minor league deal. He had a solid season for them, hitting .85 at the friendly confines of the Ballpark in Arlington. He wasn't nearly as good away from home however, posting an OPS of just .705.

The Rangers obviously weren't impressed enough with him to ring him back, instead choosing to sign free agent Vladimir Guerrero. That's worked out extremely well for them so far. But what many in the national media seem to be missing, is just how phenomenally well it's worked out for Jones.

The trade of Jim Thome last season to, surprising, the Dodgers, opened a hole at DH for the White Sox. They decided to go with a committee approach, bringing in Mark Kotsay to split at-bats with Jones. The early season returns with Kotsay have been, um, underwhelming. But that's ok I suppose because Jones has been amazing. In just 41 at-bats Jones has lashed out a .293 average and six home runs for a 1.164 OPS. The latest blow being a bottom of the 9th blast to left that let the White Sox walk off against the visiting Mariners. Did I mention it was his birthday?

For a team in desperate need of offense - the White Sox have scored the 5th fewest runs in all of baseball before tonight game - Andruw has been a god send. The question that begs asking of course, is can it continue? Jones got off to a similarly hot start last year for the Rangers, posting an OPS of 1.304 in April before falling off in May and June, and then having a strong July. He then faded for the remainder of the season.

So has Jones turned a corner? Or is this simply another blip on the radar? It's tough to tell. Clearly some of the talent that made him such a star for so long still exists. But there have been issues for years with his legs and back, and their ability to hold up. If Jones can stay healthy, I'm tempted to say that he could continue to produce at a solid level for the White Sox. Not a 1.000 OPS+ level, but a .800 one perhaps.

Either way, the White Sox desperately need his bat right now to continue to try and tread water until their pitching gets back on track. The Sox aren't going to win because of Jones' bat, in 2009, but he can help to keep them from losing too.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Russell Branyan Joins Indians, Michael Brantley to AAA

This off season the Indians made a savvy play to pick up Russell Branyan late in the game to help shore up their rotation at first base and designated hitter. The Indians got Branyan, who led the Mariners in home runs in 2009 with 31, and OPS with .867 for the bargain basement price of two million. Considering that the Twins will be paying Justin Morneau, who provided similar production 14.0m for the next four years, that's an incredible deal.

Branyan missed most of spring training with a herniated disk and was placed on the 15-day disabled list to open the season. The Indians have struggled mightily for offense, and the presence of Branyan in the middle of the lineup should go a long way to fixing that.

To make room on the roster for Branyan, the Indians will be sending top prospect Michael Brantley who was acquired in the C.C. Sabathia trade back to AAA. Brantley struggled mightily with the big club, posting an OPS under .416 in 36 plate appearances while striking out in 28.1% of his at-bats. At 23 Brantley is still young even for AAA, so he's got plenty of time to iron out his offensive game, and being at AAA should help.

To make room on the playing field, Matt LaPorta will be moving from first base into left field, where he'll be taking the spot that Brantley vacated. Like Brantley, LaPorta has struggled greatly on offense so far in 2010. However, given his production on offense in 2009 (.750 OPS) and his fantastic minor league numbers, I'd imagine LaPorta will be just fine long-term.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Nick Blackburn Dealing With Shoulder Pain

After exiting yesterday's 6-5 Twins win in the 5th inning with the score tied and just 76 pitches thrown, Twins starter Nick Blackburn told pitching coach Rick Anderson that his shoulder was hurting too much to go out again. Blackburn missed time this spring with knee soreness issues that he's been battling for the past couple seasons.

The Twins faced a litany of injuries to their starting staff in 2009 with Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins, and Francisco Liriano all missing a fair number of starts. Losing Blackburn who has been a rotation stalwart would certainly hurt. While the Twins could move Brian Duensing into the rotation if Blackburn indeed did need a trip to the DL, it would further exaserbate the issues their bullpen is currently facing.

Just today the Twins officially placed Jose Mijares on the 15 day disabled list where he'll join Clay Condrey and Joe Nathan. Pat Neshek could be headed there soon as well if the cortisone shot he received can't stop the pain in his middle finger. The Twins played with just five relievers today, but rookie Alex Burnett should be up by today to add depth. Burnett was demoted just a couple days ago after a pair of strong outings.

According to Star Tribune reporter Kelsie Smith;

"The starter said he deals with this particular shoulder pain often, that it comes and goes and that team doctors told him it is not concerning."

I've certainly never heard of it, and I don't recall it ever knocking him out of a game in the past. So saying that he deals with it all the time strikes me as disingenuous at best. Clearly this is something beyond the norm and could account for why Blackburn, a ground ball pitcher throughout his career has already given up six home runs in just three outings.

It's not quite time to push the panic button in Minnesota yet, but if Blackburn misses any serious amount of time, it might be. They're certainly having their depth tested early.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Alex Gordon Returns to Royals Roster

Alex Gordon hadn't had an at-bat against live pitching since breaking his right thumb in early spring training. But that didn't stop manager Trey Hillman from throwing him into the fire with his team down a run in the 9th to the Twins. There would be no heroics for Gordon on this day, but he didn't manage to work a walk.

How Gordon performed in this early season plate appearance of course isn't really the point. The point is that the Royals have their regular third baseman back. Gordon of course was supposed to become the franchise player for the Royals after being drafted in the first round and tearing up the minor leagues.

The Majors haven't been so kind to Gordon. While Gordon has struggled to the tune of a career triple slash of .250/.331/.415. Those aren't terrible numbers for a young player, but they certainly aren't what was envisioned. Much of Gordon's inability to develop into the player many thought he could be can be attributed to the litany of injuries he's suffered.

But what really matters at this point, is what Gordon can contribute going forward. Judging by his minor league performances the past few seasons, the abilities that intoxicated scouts and fans alike still seems to be there. Haunting Gordon are very high strikeout rates. I've written about how high strikeout rates can turn great Minor League hitters into Major League cannon fodder at length. But Gordon's MiLB strikeout rates, while high weren't high enough to convince me he could succeed at the next level.

Which isn't to say he hasn't been plagued by the issue. It's difficult to be a great hitter at this level when you aren't able to put the ball in play in 25% of your at-bats, and Gordon has learned this the hard way. All the same, Gordon still possess very good power, and an ability to draw walks (which helps offset his strikeout numbers). It's unlikely that Gordon will ever hit for average, but if he can play solid defense - he has a career UZR of 1.4, so right around league average - hit for power and draw walks, he retains the ability to be a well above average player.

The question is how much of all that talent remains? We'll have to wait for that answer.

In the meantime, the return of Gordon will allow the Royals to move Alberto Callaspo back to his natural position of second base. That brings the Royals just one step away from what I view as their ideal middle infield, with Mike Aviles eventually returning to shortstop once hi arm strength is back to an acceptable level.

While horrendous bullpen performances have ruined much of the early season for the Royals, the starting pitching has been surprisingly effective, and the offense has hit a lot. It's unlikely those two trends are anything more than mirages, but it's encouraging all the same.

AL Central's Top Trade Chips

MLB Trade Rumors has posted it's "Top Trade Chips" article for the AL Central.

Some thoughts:

- Axisa speculates that the Indians might try and trade Jake Westbrook for prospects. Could they really get anything legitimate in return? And who would take his 11m salary? I'm sure the Indians would LOVE to be able to dump his contract and get players back, but I don't know if thats really a possibility. Prior to his injury, Westbrook was a consistent sub 4.00 xFIP pitcher but he missed all of 2009 and has really struggled so far this year.

- The speculation that the Royals could look to deal - well, essentially their entire outfield - sounds about right. If Jose Guillen continues to hit, I'm sure the Royals would jump at the chance to move his contract. If Rick Ankiel proves healthy and effective with the bat, he too could be moved with Mitch Maier taking over in center. And of course, I already touched on a possible David DeJesus trade.

- Speculation about the Twins moving Wilson Ramos and Glen Perkins seems just about right. Many have speculated that the Twins would deal him for a closer. I doubt that. High end catching prospects should be able to yield a much larger return than that. Maybe not by himself, but in a package, he should be used to return either an elite third baseman or starting pitcher. Perkins has fallen out of favor with management, and the Twins would love to trade him, but the way he's pitched lately, I don't know who would want him or why.

- As for the White Sox, Axisa names Tyler Flowers and Daniel Hudson as his two best, most advanced prospects, and he's right. But he's also right in the sense that you never have any clue what Kenny Williams is going to do. The White Sox could use some offensive help, but it's probably too early to begin speculation.

The Tigers and the Angels Sittin' In A Tree...

Talking T.RA.D.E.

The Tigers are off to a good start, going 6-3 against the Royals and Cleveland. But one huge, glaring issue has been production behind the plate. And not just offensively. The Tigers catching tandem of Gerald Laird and Alex Avila have combined for just five hits in thirty five at-bats. There is little hope of a significant change either. Laird at his best is a league average offensive catcher, and he hasn't been that for the past couple seasons. Avila is strictly a platoon player at this point as he struggles mightily against left-handed pitching.

Perhaps more discouraging, they've been abysmal defensively. This is particularly astounding given Laird's great defensive reputation. But after failing to make a play on a runner coming home in the final game of the Royals series, throwing a ball into right field on a sacrifice bunt against the Mariners, and throwing out just two of nine base stealers, well, things aren't going well.

While it's generally far too early to be talking about potential trades, the situation in Anaheim is as hot now as it's going to be. The Angels have an out of options catcher in Bobby Wilson that they know wont clear waivers, yet have no need to carry three catchers on the big league squad. Wilson's minor league production has been good, but not great and he projects as perhaps a slightly above average offensive catcher. But what Wilson does do well by all accounts, is play defense. He is a legitimate standout defender. However, with defensive stalwart Jeff Mathis already on the roster, the Angels don't really have a place for him.

The Angels one would assume, would be totally amenable to trading Wilson. He's a superfluous piece that doesn't add anything to the roster. yet he holds value around the league because solid catchers simply aren't easy to come by. The question Tigers GM Dave Dombrowksi would have to ask himself is, "will acquiring Bobby Wilson be worth the price to do so, if Laird can simply start playing his regular Gold Glove caliber defense?"

That's not an easy question to answer, but I'm leaning toward no. That's not because I believe Laird is an exceptional overall player (though he's far better than many give him credit for) but rather because the cost to acquire Wilson won't be mere pennies in all likelihood. There are simply too many teams in need of a solid catcher. The Red Sox spring to mind. But given the extreme degree of cost control with Wilson, he's a player all 29 other teams could make a play for.

The bigger, sexier trade possibility is for the Tigers to attempt to acquire Mike Napoli.

If you were to ask a collection of 100 baseball fans who the top three offensive catchers in baseball are, I doubt more than a half dozen would say Mike Napoli. But the simple facts are that the guy rakes. He hits, and he hits a lot. The WORST OPS Napoli has posted since 2006 was .794, and he posted a gaudy .960 in 2008. Yet Napoli has been largely relegated to back-up duty and yesterday he voiced his frustrations. For their part, the Angels seem willing to listen to offers.

The one thing holding Napoli back from elite status is his defense. He's a serious liability behind the plate, throwing out an average of just 23% of attempted base thieves.

I'm not prepared to speculate on what sort of package the Angels would be looking for in return, perhaps I'll revisit that at a later date when/if this goes anywhere and once I get an idea of exactly what the market looks like. Or at least, a batter idea. But simply looking at the Angels roster, you'd expect they'd be looking for help at third base, and in the rotation.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Twins relief corps could take two more hits.

First the Twins star closer, Joe Nathan succumbed to Tommy John surgery and will miss all of 2010. Then newly signed middle reliever Clay Condrey went down with a sore shoulder.

Now it appears that two more Twins relievers could be headed for the DL. First, Pat Neshek who is on the comeback trail as is, and who has been perfect so far this year, could be headed to the DL with a strained flexor tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand. Neshek reported the injury after pitching two innings of shut out baseball in relief of Kevin Slowey during the Twins Wednesday loss to the Red Sox.

Second, Jose Mijares could be headed to the DL with a, 'sore elbow.' Followers of this site know that I tend to equate, 'sore elbow,' with, 'will be having season ending Tommy John surgery.' While Mijares has been a train wreck so far this year (something the injury certainly may account for) he was an integral part of the Twins bullpen in 2009.

With Nathan lost for the season, the Twins were relying on Neshek, who for a year and a half was a dominant setup man, and Mijares, who pitched very well last year, to add much needed depth to the bullpen. While Neshek's injury should be relatively short-term, you worry about it affecting his breaking ball. Mijares' situation of course could be far worse and if so, it would serve as a second major blow to the Twins bullpen.

Thankfully to say, the Twins have a trio of solid arms to call upon in the meantime should they be needed. Alex Burnett was recently sent down for veteran Ron Mahay, who was called up after a brief minor league stint and Manager Ron Gardenhire had high praise for him as he left. Also available are Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama. Slama in particular had a very impressive spring training.

Resigning Shin-Soo Choo

Shin-Soo Choo is the best AL Central player the rest of baseball doesn't know about. If he played in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, he'd be the sort of player the national media couldn't stop talking about. They'd brand him with all sorts of absurd labels, 'gamer,' 'a pros pro,' 'gritty,' whatever...

The truth is, the guy is just a stud.

Right field is a position where offense looms large. No position in baseball, save for first base, produced as much offense as right field, where the average player posted an OPS of .791.  The only two players with enough at-bats to qualify who posted better OPS numbers? J.D. Drew (.914) and Brad Hawpe (.903). That's it, that's the entire list. Drew led baseball with his mark, and Choo's .883 fell short by just 31 points. That's not an insignificant number,  but given that Drew is 34 and declining, and Choo just entering his prime at 27, I think we know how that trend is likely to go.

Bottom line, if Choo continues to hit the way he has the past two seasons, with minimal improvements, he will almost certainly be baseball's best right fielder in short order (yes, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward may have something to say about that...)

The Indians of course, realize this. GM Mark Shapiro wants to extend Choo, but is faced with the difficult task of negotiating with Scott Boras. The agent is notorious for advising his players t go through the arbitration process year-to-year to maximize their earnings potential instead of signing off on what are almost always team friendly extensions that give the player security through those years, and teams a sometimes sizable discount. Boras of course, is telling his client to avoid doing just that.

The Indians can afford to go year-to-year with Choo of course, but that's not an ideal situation necessarily. Choo is one of the Indians key building blocks, and arguably their best offensive player - and I don't mean that as a slight to Grady Sizemore who is an offensive force in his own right. But there simply aren't a whole lot of players who are going to give you above average defense, steal twenty bases, and have .900 OPS potential with the bat.

Fangraphs pegged Choo's 2009 season as being worth 22.9m on the open market. While there is little chance of Choo getting Mauer money on the free agent market on a long term deal, that doesn't mean he doesn't have considerable financial value.

So how much is Choo worth then? It can be a bit tough to peg, but I think he's likely worth something in the neighborhood of 16-20m over his three arbitration years. Typically teams then also want another year or two in team options. Given that those would be free agent years, Choo would likely get something much closer to true market value. Is it unreasonable to say he's worth 13-15m per year on the open market? Maybe a tad. It'll all depend on how he ages. If his legs hold up, sure he's probably worth that. If not, it could be a major mistake.

Therein lies the difficulty. That and that Boras guy.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Royals Offense Batters Tigers Pitching

In a three game set at Comerica Park, last years AL Central cellar team, the Royals, took it to Tigers pitching. In three games the Royals amassed 45 hits - an average of 15 per game. That's an astounding number when you really think about it. For the series, the Royals hit .357 while drawing an additional 8 walks for an OBP of .396.

No single series, especially early in the season, can be taken too seriously. In many ways, hitters are still finding their timing, and pitchers are still honing their command. But for both clubs, this has to mean something, no matter how minute.

For the Royals, who's poo-poo platter of a lineup includes all of two players to post an OPS over .800 last year, it's a sign that even though they aren't going to hit many home runs, they can put runs on the board when they have everyone contributing. Especially promising has been the early season performance of Jose Guillen, who has been all but invisible the past two seasons. While it's early enough in the season that I need to remind people, "it's very early in the season," he could be for real. I'll elaborate more in a later post.

Overall, there is little hope for the Royals offense. They're running out below average hitters at at least six of the nine positions, and there isn't much immediate help on the way in the minors. If the Royals are going to hit this season, they'll need continued improvement from star first baseman Billy Butler, second baseman Alberto Callaspo, a strong bounce back season from Alex Gordon (if he ever gets healthy), solid production from David DeJesus, and the return of Mike Aviles circa 2008.

Even then, with everyone hitting on all cylinders, that offense isn't particularly good.

With all that being said, there is no way the Tigers are going to succeed this season if they can't get consistently strong starting pitching. In particular, they need their starters to get deeper into games to prevent their bullpen, which isn't particularly deep, from having to throw too many innings. While you can almost certainly count on ace Justin Verlander to get back on track, young guns Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer need to do so as well.

I've spoken about how essential it is that Detroit's starting pitching remain healthy given their lack of depth Well, now I'm compelled to state that it's every bit as essential that their top three starters be very effective. I'm confident that both Scherzer and Porcello, who were amongst the games best first year starters last season, will resume their strong pitching, but it is absolutely essential that they do.

A Case of the Davids.

David Lough doesn't carry a high profile - if you asked anyone but the most die-hard Royals fans who he is, it's doubtful they could tell you. But you should know who David Lough is. Not because he's the best prospect in the Royals system, not even close, but because he might be the closest to Major League ready, and because is development could allow the Royals to trade David DeJesus.

At 23 years of age, Lough experienced a breakout year in 2009 at AA, batting .331 with 24 extra base hits, including nine home runs. Lough focused primarily on his football career while in college, but his skills on the baseball field are developing quickly. Lough can steal a few bases, though he wont be a standout base stealer at the Major League level. By all accounts he plays an above average left field.

In his limited time so far at AAA Lough is performing ok, though not as well as he did in his AA stint. Of course it's extremely early in the season, far too early to be drawing any conclusions from his effort at this level. The one area that stands out for Lough to improve at the plate is in his discipline. It should seem obvious that this would be an area where he would struggle given that he didn't commit himself to baseball until just a couple years ago, but with 8 strikes outs and just one walk in 28 AAA at-bats, it's the one skill holding him back. That being said, I'm confident Lough can cut down on the strikes outs and with a little improvement in what has been a poor walk percentage throughout his career, become a league average bat.

All of which brings us back to the other David, the one you already know. Royals left fielder David DeJesus. The best left fielder no one cares about... Well, that last sentence isn't probably very accurate, I'm guessing there are actually quite a few contenders that DO care about David DeJesus and would like to see him in left field for them. If his development could make DeJesus, who isn't getting any younger, or more affordable into a legitimate trade chip, that could help the team acquire more much needed young pitching to add to the talented core the team is building up.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Knock-knock. Whos there? Carlos Santana!

The Indians have gotten off to a sluggish 2-5 start in 2010, and there are a bevy of reasons why. More reasons for sure, than any one player could be blamed for. More reasons than any one player can fix. The starting pitching has been mediocre at best. The relief pitching has been terrible, the defense questionable, and the management... well, you get the idea.

At catcher, rookie Lou Marson has struggled both with the bat (1 hit in 15 at-bats) and in the field as there have been a number of wild pitches that probably should've been blocked, and inexcusable passed balls. Simply put, he's struggling, and his inability to knock down pitches in the dirt is hurting the confidence of the pitching staff to be able to throw their breaking stuff.

If his struggles behind the plate continue, it's going to force the Indians front office to consider making a decision they don't really want to. Namely, going to the minor leagues for help. That's because 'help,' in this case would be super-prospect Carlos Santana, and they don't want to start his arbitration clock yet, as it would set in motion the ability for Santana to reach super-two status.

Often when a prospect wants to get called up, he'll politely, "knock on the door." He'll hit well, field his position, show coachability... all good things. What Santana is doing isn't quite the same thing. No, what he's doing is taking a 34 ounce sledge hammer to the door and pounding it to smithereens.

So far in his first taste of AAA, Santana has bashed 4 home runs in just 20 at-bats, with a pair of doubles and three singles mixed in for good measure. His triple slash right now stands at .450/.500/.1.150. It's just a 20 at-bat sample size, but given his performance last year, it's obviously no fluke, and at 24, it's going to be his time very soon. The question is, how long can the Indians management continue to look the other way?

Hello Sergio Santos

This isn't going to be news to White Sox fans, but to the rest of the world, it certainly should be. Way back in 2002, the Sergio Santos story began as a minor league middle infielder with the Toronto Blue Jays. He had some success as a shortstop, once belting 20 home tuns as a 23 year old in AA. However by 2008 Santos was entering his 7th minor league season and he wasn't hitting at AAA for the Twins after being picked up on waivers.

Then one day he told the Twins relievers there that he could throw 95 off a mound. They laughed. 'Yeah sure, prove it,' they said. They gave him ten pitches to hit 95. On the 3rd, he hit 97. The Twins kept him at shortstop however, and chose not to try to resign him after the season.

In 2009, Santos signed on with the White Sox and made the transition to reliever. Dropping all the way back down to Low-A. From there he steam-rolled the minor leagues, making stops at High-A, AA, and AAA.

Now in 2010, he's made the big club out of spring training. An incredible feat in-and-of-itself, to say nothing of not having pitched professionally until a year ago.

I had the privilage of watching Santos pitch a couple nights ago in a game against the Twins, and wow. The right-handed Santos features three quality pitches, a 95-97 mph fastball with good life, a very sharp 88mph slider that can eat up even quality left-handed hitting, and a circle change that flashes plus.

The last thing the White Sox, a team with abundant pitching talent, needed was another hard-throwing, swing and miss reliever. But this is clearly a case of the rich getting richer. In three innings of work, Santos has struck out four, and allowed zero hits or walks. Eventually, Santos' lack of experience will likely show itself in the form of some bouts of wildness, but for now, the results have all been positive.

With a standout relief corps featuring Scott Linebrink, Matt Thornton, and Bobby Jenks, the White Sox will likely use Santos exclusively in the 7th inning. That group of four reliever will really help augment an already great starting pitching staff and ensure that the White Sox can shorten games, maximizing their limited offensive capabilities.

Mike Aviles Optioned to AAA

Coming back from reconstructive elbow surgery, the Royals have been hesitant to use Mike Aviles at shortstop in an effort to avoid putting too much stress on his arm, and on Saturday optioned him to AAA Omaha to get regular playing time.

Aviles was a late bloomer as he didn't show much potential at the plate until posting a 1.001 OPS at AAA as a 27 year old repeating his third season at the level in 2008. That performance earned him a mid-season call up and he continued to hit well, posting a .833 OPS in 441 Major League at-bats. Aviles also flashed well above average with the glove during his Major League stint according to UZR.

He got off to a rough start in 2009, finally admitting to the Royals staff that he had a "sore forearm," that later required the reconstructive surgery. So he gets a pass for the poor performance at that level. But it also means that he hasn't performed at the Major League levl in over a year and it's apparent that he wont be ready to do so at his primary position, shortstop, for some time.

Currently, the Royals are going with Yuniesky Betancourt as their everyday shortstop. Betancourt was acquired from the Mariners last season in the wake of the Aviles injury. He has performed precisely as he did in his time with Seattle - as a mediocre to below average defender with one of the worst every day bats in baseball. In 2009, Betancourt posted a -2.2 WAR, putting him firmly in the race for the coveted title of, "worst every day player in baseball." Thus far, 2010 has been more of the same, with Betancourt post an OPS of just .644.

When healthy, Aviles has shown the ability to be well above average on both sides of the diamond. The Royals desperately need for Aviles to be able to return to being the player he was back in 2008. His bat would greatly upgrade their production at a position of need. His glove would also help prevent dozens of hits from getting through, helping the entire rotation.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Closer Dilemma?

It appears that a certain AL Central team might be looking for a new closer if a recent run of struggles continues much longer - just not the one that everyone was talking about a couple weeks ago. No, we're talking about the Indians who are waiting for regular closer Kerry Wood to return from a strained shoulder. I'm not going to say the Indians are going to make a change, or that at this point they're even considering it, but I love to play, 'the what-if game.'

Acquired last year in the trade of Mark DeRosa, Chris Perez has stepped into the closer's role in Woods' stead. He was the pitcher who many expected would take over as the long-term answer at closer for the Indians once Wood departed. Perez, who has always battled with command issues has phenomenal swing-and-miss stuff, striking out 10.74 batters per nine innings last season while walking 4.26.

In some ways, I actually looked at the injury to Wood as a fantastic opportunity for Perez to audition for the job a bit early. If he could take the job and run with it as everyone in the Cleveland organization was hoping he would, it would give them the leeway to dangle Wood on the trade market to a contender with concerns at the back-end. This would further enable the team to continue to build on it's young core and augment the rebuilding process while shedding some late-season payroll.

However, with Perez having collapsed in a huge way on Sunday, and again today, that may be in doubt. In Sunday's loss to the Tigers Perez came into the game with a two run lead and two outs in the eighth. Perez escaped the eighth, barely, allowing a single and a deep liner to center that was caught for the third out. Perez' ninth inning went like this:

Raburn: Groundout
Ordonez: Single
Cabrera: Walk
Guillen: Line drive double deep down the RF line, Ordonez scores, 8-7 Indians.
Inge: Groundout
Santiago: Walk
PH Damon: Bases loaded, four pitch walk, game tied at 8.
Sizemore: First pitch wild pitch. Ball game.

Then this evening, with the Indians in a 2-2 game, Perez took over for starter Fausto Carmona who pitched 8 brilliant innings - we'll get to that in a another post - and couldn't record an out, giving up a single and a walk before being lifted for Tony Sipp.

The problem for the Indians is where would they go from Perez? Internally, the options aren't fantastic. Jensen Lewis can miss bats, but gives up a ton of home runs. Rafael Perez doesn't have prototypical closer velocity and had control issues in 2009 but had a great season in 2008. Sipp is mostly a lefty specialist.

That leaves Joe Smith. No, not that Joe Smith... This Smith came to the Indians as part of a huge twelve player, three team deal back in 2008 and was a steady force in the bullpen during the 2009 season. Like most of Cleveland's relief corps he's not going to blow you away with his fastball, but he has solid command, and he misses enough bats to be able to get key strikeouts. What Smith does do well - as well as almost any pitcher in the game - is induce huge amounts of ground balls.

Basically, if the Indians were to make the decision that they wanted to go in another direction with the closers role, at least until Wood returns, Smith should be able to keep the ball in the park, limit the walks, and generally give his defense the chances Perez hasn't the past two games. No, Smith isn't the prototype, but neither is Jon Rauch in Minnesota and so far he's done just fine too.

Indians Roundup: Week One

The Indians got their season off to a fine start with a two games to one series victory over the White Sox as they took the final two games after a miserable start by opening day pitcher starter Jake Westbrook who was hammered by Chicago. Thankfully they managed to get back on track with a pair of nice wins, including a come from behind, extra innings victory in the rubber match.

The second series against the Tigers didn't go nearly as well as they were shut down by two very mediocre pitchers in Dontrelle Willis, and and Jeremy Bonderman., and then blew a huge lead in the final game as they tagged Tigers ace Justin Verlander for 6 runs, only to see the bullpen blow the lead as they allowed nine runs in the final four innings, finally losing on a game tying walk, followed by a game losing wild pitch. Heart breaking stuff.

Offensively, the Tribe really struggled as the only two players to break the .800 OPS mark were second baseman Luis Valbuena (.806) and third baseman Johnny Peralta (.810). Obviously players like Grady Sizemore (.759), and Shin-Soo Choo (.619) aren't going to continue to hit so poorly, and the offense should be better. Actually, with Sizemore, Choo, Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Travis Hafner and top prospects Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, and Carlos Santana, I think the Indians offense will be pretty good in 2011. But as of right now, that future is still a little ways off.

The issue with the Indians on a long-term basis is going to be pitching. They simply don't have much of it. I believe Justin Masterson and Fausto Carmona can be above average arms, and prospects Hector Rondon, and Carlos Carrasco show varying levels of promise, but is that enough? I'm not sold.

Ultimately, the Indians season is going to depend on how quickly the young bats develop. It won't be enough to help them win this year, but it can at least lay the groundwork for 2011 and it'll be a progression we'll be following closely here at AL Central in Focus.

White Sox Roundup: Week One

The White Sox opened their season with a pair of three game set against divisional foes Cleveland and Minnesota, they lost both series two games to one. The common theme was a lack of offense, which was the big concern coming into the season. People knew the White Sox would pitch with a great staff and a deep and talented bullpen, but for a team the struggled to score runs in 2009, how would they cope with the loss of Jim Thome and Jermaine Dye, two players who had long been fixtures in the middle of the White Sox order.

To be succinct, the answer in 'not well.' At least not on the face of it. But the truth as it always seems to be is somewhat more complex. Yes, the White Sox did struggle to score just 21 runs in those six games (3.5R/G) but they also had miserable luck, hitting just .203 with a BABIP of just .200. Clearly that won't always be the case, and as that luck turns - and it always does - the average will rise and the brand of baseball Manager Ozzie Guillen wants to see; high average, speed on the bases, situation hitting... should begin to work out. The two players who did hit, are precisely the guys you'd expect, Paul Konerko (1.229) and Carlos Quentin (1.150). How Quentin fares over the course of the season coming back from injury, and whether or not he can hold up for the whole season, will be vital to the teams success.

On the bump, the White Sox pitching fared every bit as well as the fans could've hoped, allowing just 20 runs (19 earned) in the six contests, for a team ERA of 2.95. Leading the way were the starters with an ERA of just 2.77 with Mark Buehrle, John Danks, Gavin Floyd, and Freddy Garcia all pitched brilliantly.

The offense for the White Sox is going to come around, and as long as their brilliant pitching staff can stay healthy, this is a team that will be a formidable challenge for anyone in baseball as the season wears on.

Twins Roundup: Week One

The Twins opened the season with two challenging road series, a four game set against defending AL West Champion Anaheim, and another against the rival White Sox and their upgraded pitching. All things considered, they did quite well by going 5-2.

The biggest question heading into the 2010 season for the Twins was how they'd hold up without closer Joe Nathan who was lost to season ending, and perhaps career threatening Tommy John Surgery. Into his vacated slid setup man Jon Rauch, and by all accounts, Rauch performed admirably. While he'll never be mistaken for Nathan with his 89-91 mph fastball, Rauch does what the Twins coaching staff wants all their pitchers to do - he pounds the zone. In doing just that he pitched four innings of relief, allowed just one run, and nailed down all four opportunities he was given.

Offensively the Twins battered the Angels pitching staff for 9 home runs in the first four games. In Chicago the much heralded pitching staff largely snuffed out the power, but the Twins continued to find ways to win, eeking out a 2-1 win behind ace Scott Baker on Saturday. The two most surprising, and promising, performances were by left fielder Delmon Young and shortstop J.J. Hardy, both of whom had things to prove for various reasons. Neither could've started much better than they did.

On the mound the Twins pitching certainly wasn't lights out, posting a 1.21 WHIP, but striking out less than 5 batters per inning. That's not a formula that can hold up over the long term, but thing should improve in that category. The most encouraging thing to see was Francisco Liriano, one more season removed from Tommy John Surgery throwing consistently at 94-95mph with the old bite back on his slider. He was a bit wild on opening day, walking five batters, but the old skill set seems to be back. If he can find a way to control it, the Twins could have the true ace they'll need to make a deep push.

Heading into week two, the Twins are going to be opening up brand new Target Field with a three game set against the Boston Red Sox and they'll have tough pitching matchups against Jon Lester and John Lackey to contend with. The Twins are a team that is going to hit, and if Jon Rauch can stabilize the back end of the bullpen enough to protect most leads, and the starting staff can hold up, the Twins will certainly be there at the end of 2010.