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Monday 25th Sep 2017

One of the things I always looked forward to (and still do) is to read different writer’s picks and pans to kind of try to figure out which players are maybe trending upwards and which are heading for the basement. While we all know what opinions are like, it’s still quite interesting to me to read different people’s perspectives about who they like and who they don’t like. As far as I’m concerned, you can never have too much information or differing points of view. Someone’s bound to be right about a certain player and I like to try to figure out who it is. So I’m going to throw my two cents worth out there and give my opinion on NL picks this week.

Pedro Alvarez – At 6’3” and 235 pounds, the Pittsburgh hot corner man is a big boy to say the least. What Alvarez does best is what you’d think big boys would do and that is hit the ball a long way. After hitting 30 home runs in his first full season, he followed it up with 36 in 2013 to tie for the league lead.  Yeah, I know he struck out 186 times and only batted .233 and can’t hit lefties, but I’m not drafting him for that. He can still hit home runs and there are not many players who could hit more than he could from a position I want to get a lot of power from. While the rest of the league is chasing David Wright, Aramis Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman, I’ll take Alvarez and make up the batting average elsewhere. Plus, this is his magical age-27 year, if you put any stock in that.

Allen Craig – The St. Louis Cardinals 1B/OF isn’t your consummate power hitting first baseman, but he can hit for a very good average. While some may pooh-pooh his .454 mark with runners in scoring position, he still hits nearly .400 for his career in those circumstances. Keep in mind he still had 97 RBI despite missing most of the last month of the season after hurting his foot. In a draft where I don’t get any of the big players at first base, I’ll gladly take the diminished power from Craig to match up as a good compliment to Alvarez across the diamond. In an auction, I might toss him out early while many other players are waiting for the big guns at the position to come up and try to sneak a bit of a bargain in. Oh, the dual eligibility at outfield would be nice as well.

Evan Gattis – In a one-catcher league, I’d rather have someone else. But in a two-catcher league, sign me up for Gattis as my second backstop. With the departure of Brian McCann to the Big Apple, the 28-year-old catcher stands to get more time behind the plate. While an average in the .240 to .245 range isn’t ideal, you could do worse, and I want him for his pop; he led all NL catchers with 21 home runs in 2013 along with Wilin Rosario.

Paul Goldschmidt – You might think that’s an obvious choice buckaroo, but this is a list of picks, not sleepers. Everything about his 2013 is legitimate – 36 home runs, 125 RBI, 103 runs scored. While I think he might lose a bit from his .302 average, it won’t be much – pencil him in for .290 plus. And 15 stolen bases from a first baseman with his other credentials? Sign me up! But, realize that the cost is going to be steep.

Jedd Gyorko – Although he is coming off his rookie season, Gyorko is 26 entering his sophomore year. So while you might think he’s not as young as you’d like a rookie to be, I think you can say he has a leg up in the maturity department as a result. Evidence his move from third base to a brand new position last year without taking his less than stellar defensive game to the plate with him. The second-round 2010 draft pick led all rookies with 23 home runs – the majority of which came in no-so-little Petco Park – and that’s including missing a month to injury. I look for him to improve some on last year’s .249 average. But the selling point is the 25 or so home runs you’ll get – where else are you going to find that at the keystone position?

Ben Revere – Even I like stolen base specialists under the right circumstances – and I think the 25-year-old Revere fits that bill. The Philadelphia outfielder will hit for a very respectable average and can steal in the mid to upper 30’s bases. Given his injury and the fact he’s not as shiny as Billy Hamilton, Everth Cabrera or Jean Segura in the base stealing department, he could fly a little under the radar, and that’s fine with me.

Andrew Cashner – The 28-year-old started 2013 in the bullpen but was soon put into the starting rotation and responded very well in the second half of the season when he put up a 2.14 ERA. His strikeout rate increased while he also allowed fewer bases on balls during this period. Cashner allowed more fly balls than he used to but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in Petco Park – actually helping his BAA if they stay in the yard.

Alex Wood – It always seems like the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves do a great job producing frontline starting pitchers, and I believe Alex Wood fits perfectly into this category. He’s still young and developing but I believe this will be the last year you can get the 23-year-old southpaw at any sort of a discount. A ground ball pitcher that can also strike out batters is a great asset to have – in real baseball or fantasy.

Next week, I’ll list some pans.

This is always a favorite time of year for me. Winter is winding down (or is it?) and the light of spring can be seen at the end of the tunnel. So what makes this so special? Two things – the start of baseball and golf seasons (not necessarily in that order). Especially after the winter we’ve had this year, I’m ready for the warmth and to hit a little white ball and hear the sounds of a ballpark. To that end, my buddy Tony and I already have our tickets for our first game of the year – Yankees vs. Red Sox in Fenway Park April 20.

But until then, there’s still a lot to do as far as getting prepared for the fantasy season. I, like so many others, have one draft already under my belt (the CBS NL Analyst League) and am working through a NFBC 50-round slow draft in which 38 rounds are in the books. Still to come are two more mixed league auctions to round out my portfolio for the year at four leagues. A manageable number for me at this point but a drop in the bucket for many other players I realize as I remember my own years of a dozen or more leagues.

Even though my other two leagues don’t have their auction until the last weekend before the regular season starts (as do many a fantasy player), there doesn’t seem to be enough time to complete preparation. There are spreadsheets to build, games to watch, information to absorb and many a stat to pore over.

While doing this, it’s very important to keep your head on straight and not get caught up in the moment. You might say “what do you mean by that?” It’s easy to become enamored with a player’s spring performance but remember to keep things in perspective – the biggest part of which is, it’s only spring training.

I’ve seen many players over drafted because of a hot spring only to be disappointing during the regular season. For every Ryan Howard of 2010, who swatted ten spring home runs in 75 at-bats in leading the league, there’s a Craig Monroe. The Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder was second the same year and had eight home runs of his own in 71 at-bats but only hit three home runs in 79 regular season at-bats that year and was out of baseball by June 16.  There’s Rickie Weeks, who batted .429 during the 2011 spring season but all he could manage was a .269 mark during the regular season. Weeks had never hit above .279 in any major league season but there was more than a few people talking about a year that Weeks would put everything together.

On the pitching side, who can forget the 2010 spring Russ Ortiz of the Los Angeles Dodgers put together with a 0.96 ERA and 22 strikeouts in 18.2 innings only to throw seven innings for Los Angeles that year with a 10.29 ERA? Keep in mind Ortiz had only one year in 11 previous big league seasons with an ERA lower than 3.61. Yet he was drafted in places as if he’d all of a sudden become the next coming of Sandy Koufax.

So how do we approach spring training and analyze player performance? For one thing, many pitchers tend to use the spring as a testing ground. They may be testing a new pitch or tinkering with their delivery or a different arm slot. There are more than a few times this testing and tinkering leads to inflated stats for a hitter who is going up there to rip away and impress the manager (and fans) with their gaudy statistics while trying to win a full-time gig. If a pitcher has good and improving results with a new offering over the course of the spring, they may add it to their repertoire for the regular season to give them a different weapon to use in certain instances.  If the results don’t show any promise, they dump the trial pitch and go with their normal arsenal. But spring is where they do their experimenting and it’s important to keep that in mind when it comes to statistics watching. Inevitably, what a pitcher does also affects the hitters – either positively or negatively.

Another thing to keep in mind is spring training is a small sample size and anything can happen when you’re looking at statistics in bite-sized pieces. Most starting pitchers stay under 30 innings during the spring, which is about four games worth during the regular season. Pitchers are always having four-game stretches of good or bad performances during the regular season. Hitters are getting at most about 80 at-bats and they’re not always seeing the better pitchers. Those 80 at-bats are less than a month's worth during the regular season and hitters are always having hot and cold months.

So instead of looking at just statistics, which can be very jaded, it’s better to look at position battles, players coming off injury and how minor league players are seeming to fit into the big picture. So I’m keeping an eye on players like Brandon Beachy of the Atlanta Braves, who is coming off shoulder surgery and threw three hitless innings, albeit with only one strikeout. Or San Diego’s Josh Johnson, who tossed two innings without allowing a hit and striking out two in his spring debut after elbow surgery. Or the New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard, who pitched two scoreless innings while striking out two with his fastball topping out at 98 mph. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Carl Crawford strained a quad – and has a history of leg injuries - and has only had five at-bats thus far. It’s obviously still very early, but these are the types of players and performances to take note of.

So the moral of the story is keep your eyes and ears open during spring training but don’t necessarily look at just surface statistics and spring at them blindly. And, enjoy the fact that baseball (and golf) is back.

One of the age old questions among fans of the national pastime is whether the American or National is the superior league in Major League Baseball. Over the years, there has been many a disagreement – to put it politely – regarding this between friends and family members. I have even heard of friendships that were severed because of how fanatical some have gotten defending whichever league is their favorite.

When looking at this objectively, the question invariably comes up, “What is the definitive way to get an answer to which league is the best?” Some are quick to point to World Series results as the proof. When we look at this, you could possibly say that the American League has been the superior league since 1990, having won 13 of 20 (with none being played in 1994 due to the strike). I would think that comparing only the two teams to make it to the Fall Classic is a poor way to render a sound judgment on the question; especially considering anything can happen in a short series of seven games. I would think Todd Zola as a scientist would concur that drawing any kind of conclusion from an experiment only run seven times would not amount to a credible basis of fact.

Others want to point to the All-Star game, believing that since it takes in players from every team, it is a much more reliable barometer of the quality of both leagues. I personally feel that could have been pretty accurate in the period from 1963–1987 when the NL won 22 of these games compared to three for the American League – certainly an embarrassing record for the junior circuit. I think that because, speaking purely in anecdotal terms, it seemed like the players on both sides really had a much stronger desire to win the game. Now, even with the league winner getting home-field advantage for the World Series, it doesn’t seem to me like that desire to win is near as strong as a few decades ago. Strictly speaking as a viewer (and yes, it might be because I need new glasses), there isn’t the hustle or strong emotion over this game like there used to be, so I don’t think it’s a good decider of which league is better even though the American League has won 19 of the 26 games (one tie) since 1988. Going back to Todd and his experiments, if seven times doesn’t amount to a without a doubt statement of fact, how possibly could one?

So where could we find an answer to the question of which league is better? Well thankfully (or regrettably if you’re a baseball "purist" and like the way things used to be), Bud Selig provided us with a vehicle for this when he introduced interleague play in 1997. It started with 214 games between the two leagues in the first year then jumped to 224, 251 and then 252 in 2001 and stayed that number until 2013, when it jumped to 300 games. Since it was instituted, there have been a total of 4,264 games played with the American League victorious in 2,235, good for a .524 winning percentage. The AL has won the season series in 13 of the 17 years. You might think with the Houston Astros moving from the NL to the AL starting last year, the gap would have closed, and it did with the lowest winning percentage (.513) since 2004 even though the American League actually equaled the most number of wins they ever had with 154 for the year thanks to the additional 48 games. The large number of games played over this period is certainly a much better quantifier as to the American League being the better of the two.

So what does this mean for the National League? Is it forever doomed to the fate of being second fiddle to their younger brethren, the AL? Absolutely not. Anyone who has followed or knows about the history of baseball (and many things in life, in general) realizes that things have a tendency to run in cycles and even out over time. It just so happens the present time seems to be tilted to the side of the American League.

But there could be some evidence of a change on the horizon if we look towards the minor leagues. Looking at the ratings of various outlets, the top-10 minor league systems are pretty evenly split 50/50 between the two leagues. When you expand that to the top-15 or top-20 systems, the National League has the advantage roughly 60 percent of the time.

To be certain, while that’s not a sure thing in this day of trades, free agency and the more often than not fickle science of projecting minor league players, it’s certainly better to have the higher consensus of minor league rankings. At least it’s something National League fans can hang their hat on, and especially because of trades and free agency, the pendulum could certainly start to swing back to the NL side sooner rather than later. Until then, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” with your best argument for your favorite league, even if it is anecdotal and not scientific.

In some regards, the National League West was the easiest division in the Senior Circuit. There was only one team that played over .500 ball and one team at the break even mark. Every other team was at least ten games below.

Three different teams have won the division in the past three years and 2013 was the Los Angeles Dodgers' turn, as they captured the top spot for the first time since 2009. However, with their record, they would have only come in second in the East and third in the Central. The team decided not to pick up the mutual option on Chris Capuano, lost Ted Lilly to retirement and Ricky Nolasco to the Minnesota Twins on a four-year deal. Gone also are Nick Punto and Skip Schumaker, who went to the Oakland A’s and Cincinnati Reds respectively. Los Angeles did manage to hang onto Juan Uribe, I’m assuming since nobody else wanted the aging hot corner man. The biggest additions for the Dodgers were the signing of Paul Maholm and Dan Haren to one-year deals – not exactly addition by addition. Los Angeles was below the league average in home runs and just barely at league average in runs batted in and runs scored. They were also second in team ERA and strikeouts but none of their off-season moves figure to help with any of this.

The Arizona Diamondbacks finished a distant second to the Dodgers with 81 wins and 81 losses – 11 games out of first place. It was the second year in a row that Arizona went 81-81, this after winning the division in 2011. Willie Bloomquist departed for a two-year contract with the Seattle Mariners.  Outfielder Adam Eaton was traded to the Chicago White Sox and starting pitcher Tyler Skaggs went to the Los Angeles Angels in return for Mark Trumbo. Arizona was busy with trades as they also acquired closer Addison Reed from the White Sox to replace Heath Bell, who was sent packing to the Tampa Bay Rays. The Diamondbacks also signed starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo to a two-year contract.

After finishing 26 games over .500 and winning the division in 2012, the San Francisco Giants came in third place last year – losing ten more games than they won and ending 16 games behind league-leading Los Angeles. The Giants were second to last in the National League in home runs with 107 on the year – a paltry amount. The team was also below league average in runs scored. So I guess it makes sense the only offensive move of note San Francisco made was to bring in left fielder Michael Morse, who hit 13 home runs between the Seattle Mariners and Baltimore Orioles last year. The team also declined the option on outfielder Andres Torres. On the pitching side, the Giants were fourth best in the league in strikeouts and third from the bottom in team ERA. Tim Lincecum was re-signed to a two-year contract and, while he’ll help them with striking out opponents, his Cy Young days are a distant memory. Tim Hudson was lured from the Atlanta Braves with a two-year deal but he’s certainly not the pitcher he once was either. San Francisco finally broke ties with Barry Zito and his awful contract by not picking up his option. By the way, Zito finished his Giants career with a record of 53-80 along with a 1.44 WHIP and 4.62 ERA. Not bad for $126 million!

The San Diego Padres finished 2013 with an identical record as San Francisco. The team was the third worst in strikeouts in the league and just barely had an ERA lower than 4.00. Josh Johnson was brought in on a one-year contract to try to bolster the pitching staff. Luke Gregerson was traded and Joaquin Benoit was signed to a two-year deal with a vesting option for a third year to be the setup man/closer in waiting in case anything goes wrong with Huston Street. At the plate, Seth Smith was acquired for Gregerson but he figures in only as a backup. There haven’t been any other additions of note for a team that struggled offensively in 2013.

Bringing up the rear (like they did in 2012 as well) were the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies led the league in batting average and were second behind the St. Louis Cardinals in runs scored. They were even the fifth best National League team in swatting home runs. But offense was never really the bugaboo for Colorado. Even so, they added first baseman Justin Morneau, hoping he could regain some of the luster from his earlier years. Colorado also acquired Drew Stubbs from the Cleveland Indians. Stubbs figures to at least split the left field duties. Dexter Fowler was sent packing, which brings us to the pitching. Jordan Lyles was acquired in the Fowler deal and Brett Anderson was obtained in a trade with the Oakland A’s in which Drew Pomeranz left the mile high city. Jorge De La Rosa had his option picked up and will headline the starting rotation, which tells you something about the state of affairs there. Rafael Betancourt won’t be back as closer, being replaced by LaTroy Hawkins with Rex Brothers still in the mix. Boone Logan was brought in as a free agent to solidify the bullpen.

All in all, the Arizona Diamondbacks did well to improve themselves in the off-season while none of the other teams managed anything more than a drip, never mind a big splash. In fact, most of the marquee acquisitions this off-season came from American League teams as the NL apparently decided to sit this one out.

The toughest division in the National League in 2013 was the Central. In fact, the NL Central arguably could have been the toughest division in all of baseball (at least at the top) with three teams winning at least 90 games.

Leading the division was the St. Louis Cardinals with 97 victories, tied for most in MLB with the Boston Red Sox – the same team that beat them in six games to win the 2013 World Series. The Cardinals will be doing battle in 2014 without closer Edward Mujica, who opted to go to the Red Sox to be a setup man after losing his closer role to Trevor Rosenthal. 2012 closer Jason Motte will be back from Tommy John surgery and will be lurking if Rosenthal falters. Gone also is switch-hitter Carlos Beltran, who will be taking his left-handed swing to the comfortable confines of Yankee Stadium. New to St. Louis will be Jhonny Peralta, fresh off his 50-game suspension in the Biogenesis PED scandal. The Redbirds also completed a trade with the Los Angeles Angels that sent Fernando Salas and David Freese to the west coast in return for centerfielder Peter Bourjos, who missed much of 2013 with injuries. At this point, the Cardinals will be hard pressed to repeat their offensive performance from last year.

Just three games behind the Cardinals was the most improved team in the National League, the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were 15 games better than they were the previous year. The biggest loss for the Pirates undoubtedly is starting pitcher A.J. Burnett, who signed a one-year contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. All Burnett did was win 26 games over the past two seasons for the Bucs. Even though he had fewer wins in 2013 than the previous year, he arguably pitched better last year with a lower ERA and WHIP and better than a strikeout per inning for the first time since 2008. Gone also is first baseman Garrett Jones, who went from the high-flying Pirates to the lowly Miami Marlins for 2014. Justin Morneau was brought in from the Minnesota Twins in August in the hopes he would regain some of his earlier career form. He didn’t and now he, also, is gone. As far as additions, there haven’t been many, with the biggest one being the signing of Edinson Volquez to a one-year contract. Not much to write home about.

Following the Pirates was the Cincinnati Reds, who despite dropping seven games from 2012 to 2013, still managed to win 90 games. Catcher Ryan Hanigan was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, clearing the way for prospect Devin Mesoraco behind the plate. Cincinnati also lost right-handed starter Bronson Arroyo to the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the biggest impact difference is the loss of Shin-Soo Choo, who signed a big contract with the Texas Rangers after only one season in Cincinnati. Skip Schumacher was also brought in as a reserve outfielder and second baseman. All in all, not a good off-season for the Reds so far.

The Milwaukee Brewers were a distant fourth in the NL Central last year, seven games below .500 and 23 games behind the first-place Cardinals.  Milwaukee parted ways with leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki, who stole 20 bases in 2013 but otherwise had an empty batting average with only eight home runs and 37 RBI. Gone also is Corey Hart, who signed a one-year deal with the Seattle Mariners. Although he didn’t even have a single at-bat in 2013 due to injuries, the 31-year-old first baseman/DH still had five seasons of at least 20 home runs for the Brew Crew. Milwaukee did add starting pitcher Matt Garza, who they signed to a four-year contract. With the Brewers on the wrong side of the league average in many pitching categories, they’re hoping they get the 2013 Chicago Cubs version of the 30-year-old Garza as opposed to the 2013 Texas Rangers version.

In the cellar of the Central Division in 2013 was the Chicago Cubs, who would have been there in 2012 also if not for the Houston Astros. With only 66 wins on the season, Chicago was only four games better than the lowly Miami Marlins and finished a whopping 31 games behind division winning St. Louis. The problem with the Cubs can be summed up in the biggest off-season acquisition being Justin Ruggiano in exchange for Brian Bogusevic.  This certainly isn’t a recipe for success for the bottom dwelling Cubbies.

Overall, the Cubs have to be the big off-season losers so far in that they had to make a whole lot of good moves to improve their lot in the division but didn’t. As far as winners, I’d have to say the Cardinals, not so much for positive moves but since they were the division winners, other teams would have to do that much more to knock them off, and they didn’t.

Next up, the NL West.

With the Super Bowl now history and the city of Seattle and their 12th man fans celebrating, the eyes of sports fans can now turn in earnest to the upcoming baseball season. The Hot Stove has been stoked up for a while now but many people weren’t paying close attention as the football playoffs built to their climax. Spring training opens next week and teams are trying to put the final puzzle pieces in place as fantasy commissioners are looking to fill any open spots in their league – something I personally am trying to do as well.

The Atlanta Braves finished in the top spot of the NL East in 2013 with a record of 96 wins and 66 losses but lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers three games to one in the first round of the playoffs. In the regular season, the Braves led the league in home runs but were almost 100 runs scored behind the St. Louis Cardinals. This can be traced in part to a team batting average of .249, which was below the league average of .251. Having both a B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla on your team would tend to do that. In off-season moves, Atlanta lost free agent Tim Hudson to the San Francisco Giants and added Gavin Floyd, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and may miss up to half the season. Paul Maholm is also gone, which leaves Kris Medlen as their senior starting pitcher at 28 years old. Gone also is All-Star catcher Brian McCann, who signed a five-year deal with the New York Yankees. McCann, who had eight consecutive seasons of at least 20 home runs, now leaves Evan Gattis as his heir.

The Washington Nationals were runners up in the East, ten games behind the Braves. It was a tale of two seasons for Dan Haren, who had a 6.15 ERA in his first 15 starts and a 3.29 ERA in his last 15 starts, but he has departed via free agency to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Nationals completed a trade with the Detroit Tigers which brought Doug Fister to the nation’s capital. The 30-year-old right-hander could benefit from the National League with a sub-3.50 ERA and a few more strikeouts. The other transaction of note was the signing of Nate McLouth to a two-year contract, but he will be stuck as the fourth outfielder. Gone are the 20 home run seasons but the 32-year-old outfielder can still steal 20 bases if the conditions are right.

The New York Mets finished in third place in the division (a surprise to me) with a 74-88 record. With the signing of Bartolo Colon, the Metropolitans have a new arm at the top of their starting rotation. Even though he’s not known as the most dedicated to conditioning and health, Colon could provide a voice of experience to some of New York’s younger pitchers. He’ll be OK with his new team and the move to the National League should help, but don’t expect anything near 2013’s 18 wins and 2.65 ERA. The other marquee move by the Mets was the signing of outfielder Curtis Granderson to a four-year contract after spending four years with the crosstown rival Yankees. Another move of significance is the team seems to be ready to give Travis d’Arnaud the starting catcher spot.

The Philadelphia Phillies finished 2013 one game behind the Mets in fourth place. The biggest news for the Phillies so far was the announced retirement of pitching ace Roy Halladay, who had a tough year in 2013, finishing with a very un-doc-like 6.82 ERA. The Phillies will now have to suffer with only two aces on their staff in Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. The biggest addition for the Phils so far has been the addition of outfielder Marlon Byrd, who will man right field. Even though hitting 24 home runs for the Mets and Pirates in 2013 was a surprise, the 36-year-old Byrd could come close to repeating that in the bandbox known as Citizens Bank Park.

The basement of the National League East Division was, once again, occupied by the Miami Marlins, who either win the World Series or are one of the worst teams in baseball. The 2013 version of the Marlins managed to lose an even 100 games, which was surpassed only by the Houston Astros’ 111 losses for most in the major leagues. Miami seems destined for another lousy season after their moves so far.  Gone are the likes of Matt Diaz, Austin Kearns, Casey Kotchman, Logan Morrison, Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco. In their place will be Brian Bogusevic, Carter Capps, Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Certainly not a recipe for success.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the NL Central.

“Uncle Charlie”, “the hook”, “the number two”, “public enemy number one.” No matter what you call it, the curveball has given hitters fits for over a century – whether you think it was invented by Phonney Martin in 1869 or Fred Goldsmith or Candy Cummings in the early 1870’s. Most major league hitters can handle a pretty good fastball but there aren’t many – if any at all – that are completely comfortable with a good twelve to six curveball. More than any other pitch type in history; the curveball has made more hitters look helpless, hopeless, hapless and downright silly at times.

While I never played organized baseball, I played my fair share of pickup games at a local ball field when I was considerably younger with neighborhood kids. Many times there was someone in these games who could snap off a curveball and buckle the knees of most everyone who strode into the batter’s box. I was one of those boys – always thought the pitch would hit me square in the chest and was bailing out only to have it descend over the plate for a strike. Or thought it would be straight down the middle and take a huge hack only to have it go by well out of the strike zone. I loathed the curveball and don’t think I ever got more than enough contact to foul it off – rarely.

Fast forward to June 21, 2013. Although it has been many years since those childhood games, I still haven’t mastered the art of hitting a curveball, and at my age it didn’t bode well that would ever change. On that date, I was sitting in my doctor’s office with my partner Kathy and he proceeded to snap off the biggest Uncle Charlie I could ever imagine – “You have cancer.” I felt everything drain from my body just like my knees did when a curveball started at my head. After those three words, I don’t remember much of what he said about treatment options and prognosis. Good thing she was there to comprehend it all and drive the hour home. It was the longest and quietest hour of my life.

After the shock of it wore off a bit, Kathy and I discussed what my options were and, more importantly, how we would break the news to her two daughters, my son, and the rest of our families. I decided on an oncologist and we went for the consultation for my course of action. We decided on a plan that consisted of daily treatments that would last nine weeks and made the appropriate arrangements for everything to start the second week of July. Both of us knew this summer was going to be vastly different from any of the previous and would be the first we didn’t take a family vacation.

On a personal level, I knew the things I most enjoy doing – going to baseball games and playing golf – would be put on the back burner the rest of the year. I always endeavor to play as many rounds of golf as I can and usually mutter to myself the words most associated with the start of a baseball game – play ball – while standing on the first tee.

Baseball season would usually find me attending a few games with my buddy Tony. We’ve gone to Camden Yards, Citizens Bank Park and at least one trip to Fenway Park each year even though both of us are diehard Yankee fans. We should go more often because we have never seen the Red Sox win a game there in person. Including a 20-11 Yankee victory in 2009 and an 8-5 Baltimore Orioles win in which the Orioles scored five runs in the top of the ninth inning on an April 2013 night.

The big thing about the Orioles game last year was it was the first time we were able to score Green Monster seats. The night was extremely cold and rainy and the game did, in fact, have a rain delay. It didn’t matter; the experience was fantastic and was one of those "pinch me" moments. I never thought we’d have the opportunity to actually watch a game from the Monster seats but maybe God somehow arranged it knowing what would transpire just a few months later – even though I had been questioning my faith.

Beginning the second week of July, however, all that was the norm became the exception or non-existent at all. There would be no more going to baseball games, vacations or golf for the next few months. Replacing those things would be travelling two hours round trip for daily treatments, physical side effects, extreme fatigue as well as a non-stop ride on a mental and emotional roller coaster. The fatigue was the most prevalent of these and me falling asleep in my chair at my nephew’s wedding reception was ample evidence of this.

Treatments finished the end of August but the side effects remained and, even worse, I had to wait until the middle of January for the first follow up with my oncologist. Days stretched into weeks and weeks into months and during this time my mind wandered more than a few times to negative news. I went for my first post-treatment testing and, the following week, was walking into the oncologist’s office for the results on January 16. As I sat down, that curveball that was thrown many months ago was just approaching home plate. As he started to talk, I swung from my heels and with the only words that mattered – “You’re cured” – that curveball was sent sailing out of the park. The first time I ever hit one.

I took the next couple weeks to let the news sink in for myself and my son, Kathy and her daughters, and both our families as well as friends. I sent an e-mail off to Todd and Lawr. Todd’s response was to the point, “Pardon the French but f---ing aye yeah!” Lawr’s was more pragmatic and in part said congratulations and “Feel free to write a return when you like and write about your experience if you want. Good catharsis!” He was right.

I could never have gotten through this experience without the support and understanding of so many, including Todd and Lawr, who wished me well and told me to do what I had to do to take care of myself. So now I look forward to getting my life back to normal, including planning a vacation for this summer, going to Fenway Park, playing as much golf as possible and getting back into contributing to Mastersball.

F---ing aye yeah!

Play ball!!!

The 2013 version of the mid-summer classic is in the books and the National League didn’t fare too well in the festivities. First, the American League won the home run derby Monday night behind the power of the Oakland A’s Yoenis Cespedes, who defeated the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper in the finals. It was entertaining and there were some impressive home runs hit but it was getting a bit tedious listening to Chris Berman’s call. While watching, I couldn’t help but cringe each time a fly failed to leave the yard and a bunch of those kids running around the outfield came together with their gloves up and the baseball zipped past all of them on its way to the ground. Thankfully, none of them caught it square in the nose.

Then Tuesday night came and it was time for the main event. The Senior Circuit had won the past three All-Star contests and held a 43-38-2 edge in the series going into the game. The 45,186 fans attending were the most ever to see a game at Citi Field and watched hometown favorites Matt Harvey and David Wright perform. Harvey started the game and pitched two effective innings in holding the AL to just one base hit while striking out three. Wright had one hit in three trips to the plate. The American League stars scratched out single runs against Patrick Corbin, Cliff Lee and Craig Kimbrel in returning the favor of last year by shutting out the NL 3-0.

In winning the game, the AL secured home-field advantage in this year’s World Series, which I think is a ridiculous way to determine the home team for the Fall Classic. By doing so, it downplays the performance of a club over the entire season for a single exhibition game that Bud Selig is vainly trying to deem as relevant.

The Most Valuable Player for the game was New York Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera, who was given a lengthy reception by the fans as he came in to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning. Bringing him in at this point was a good move by Jim Leyland, who promised Mo he would get him into the game to pitch. His teammates further honored him by lining up in front of the dugout instead of taking the field as he and Kansas City Royals' catcher Salvador Perez were the only players on the diamond. As much a Yankee fan as I am and as deserving of all the accolades Rivera has earned, I don’t believe MVP of this All-Star game was one of them. It was more of a sentimental move during his swan song season for a tremendous career which included nine All-Star innings without allowing an earned run. But I’m happy for him as there might not be a more deserving human being in baseball.

Enough of the All-Star game; now a look at some players I like for the second half of the regular season.

Adam Eaton of the Arizona Diamondbacks was projected to be in the running for the NL Rookie of the Year in 2013 before injuring his elbow. He avoided Tommy John surgery and rehabbed himself back into the lineup. If the elbow cooperates, he could be a good source of batting average, runs and stolen bases.

The New York Mets acquired Eric Young Jr. from the Colorado Rockies in mid-June. He has hit over .300 the past month with 17 runs scored and eight stolen bases. The Mets should give him plenty of time and I’m betting he doesn’t let them down. As a bonus, he might already have second base eligibility in leagues with liberal qualification rules.

Hanley Ramirez should be plenty rested going into the second half as he’s already missed well over half the games in the first half with injuries. Hanley is hitting .386 in the games he’s played this year, including .427 over the last month. In 39 games, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ shortstop has eight home runs and four stolen bases and has looked better than he has in a couple years.

Part of the success of the Pittsburgh Pirates has been the play of Starling Marte. The 24-year-old outfielder is hitting .291 on the year with nine home runs and 28 stolen bases. The last month has seen him bat .308 with three home runs and seven stolen bags. I don’t think the Pirates will collapse this year like they did last and I like the young left fielder to continue his strong season.

Tom Gorzelanny hasn’t had many starts in 2013 but should see more in the second half as he’s pitched well in the games he has started. His 1.88 ERA won’t hold up but something in the lower 3.00 range with close to a strikeout per inning would help many a fantasy team.

The Atlanta Braves have a key reinforcement coming in the name of Brandon Beachy, who has missed the entire first half of the season after Tommy John surgery in 2012. While a 0.96 WHIP and 2.00 ERA is highly doubtful, he should have useful ratios with a good strikeout per nine for those who are pitching starved, especially in NL-only leagues.

The second half should prove to be as interesting and hold as many surprises as the first half. Now is the time to take stock of where our fantasy teams are and make the moves necessary for a strong second half push. These are some of the players I have my eye on going forward.

Certainly one of, if not the most, interesting parts of the season for fantasy players is draft day. Everyone has the projections and the plan for constructing the winning team and hope is high all around. It’s at this time that all teams are tied at the top of the standings. But before long, things loosen up and some squads rise to the top while others sink to the bottom and owners start to realize they don’t have the best players at many positions. So who are the best fantasy players at their position so far?

C – This is a very interesting and difficult choice between two players, Yadier Molina and Buster Posey. On the one hand is the 30-year-old Molina, who is leading the league in hitting with a .343 batting average along with six home runs and three stolen bases. On the other hand is Posey, who at 26 years old is the reigning National League MVP and is hitting .316 at this point with 13 home runs and one stolen base. The at-bats are virtually equal between both players so the decision comes down to roughly double the home runs with fewer (albeit only two) stolen bases and about 30 fewer points in average.  It’s not an easy choice but I’ll go with Yadier’s advantage in batting average and a few more stolen bases as a bonus and make up the half dozen or so dingers elsewhere.

1B – Again, this is a battle between two players in my mind. First, there is Joey Votto, who is sporting a .318 average with 15 home runs and three stolen bases. That certainly deserves consideration but it pales in comparison to Paul Goldschmidt’s .309 average with 21 home runs and eight swipes. The 25- year-old from the Arizona Diamondbacks gets the nod here and the lower home run output at the catcher position is made up.

2B – There are some interesting choices here as well, with Daniel Murphy’s .269 batting average, six home runs, and nine stolen bases; Matt Carpenter’s .322 average, nine home runs, and one stolen base; Brandon Phillips’ 12 home runs, one steal, and .264 average, and Dan Uggla’s 16 round trippers that come with a .203 average and zero steals. But I’m going with a resurgent Chase Utley, who is hitting .275 with 11 home runs and six stolen bases – more of an all-around choice.

3B – Proving that last year wasn’t a fluke in the power comeback department, Pedro Alvarez has 23 so far this season with a .250 batting average and one stolen base. Not bad, but the choice here is David Wright, who has ten fewer home runs at 13 but also has 14 stolen bases with a .308 average,  although I wouldn’t mind pairing Alvarez with Molina.

SS – There’s certainly something to be said for Troy Tulowitzki and his 16 home runs and .347 batting average, but that comes with about 130 fewer at- bats from the oft-injured Rockies’ star. Everth Cabrera gets some nods for his 32 stolen bases (which could have been much closer to 40 if he hadn’t gotten injured), four home runs and .296 average. Then there is the 15 home runs, ten stolen bases and .280 batting average of Ian Desmond. But this hasn’t been a normal year at the shortstop position, and the winner here is Jean Segura, who is hitting .319 with 11 home runs and 27 steals.

OF – There are some very worthy players in the outfield but the top three choices here are Carlos Gonzalez, who is batting .302 with 24 home runs and 15 stolen bases, Dominic Brown and his 23 home runs, .278 average and eight stolen bases, and Carlos Gomez, who has 13 home runs and 21 steals and is defying logic with a .303 batting average. The top dog in the outfield has to be Gonzalez.

SP – Where to start? Jordan Zimmermann is tied for the league lead with 12 wins. Clayton Kershaw leads the NL with a 0.90 WHIP and 1.89 ERA. Jeff Locke has been a huge surprise with a 2.15 ERA and an 8-2 record. Matt Harvey leads all NL pitchers with 147 strikeouts and has a 2.35 ERA to go along with it. Patrick Corbin has ten victories against only one loss and a not too shabby 2.40 ERA. Cliff Lee has produced ten wins with 125 strikeouts. All of them have been great producers the first half, but the king of the hill has to be Adam Wainwright, who has produced across the board with 12 wins, a 0.99 WHIP, 2.30 ERA and 126 strikeouts.

RP – There are six closers with at least 20 saves. Four have a sub-1.00 WHIP. Five have an ERA under 2.25. Six have at least 15 saves and also have struck out better than a batter per inning. The best of all of them has been Jason Grilli, who leads the National League with 28 saves while only blowing one, is second with a 0.88 WHIP and has a 2.09 ERA to go along with 61 strikeouts in 38.2 innings.

A team comprised of Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, Chase Utley, David Wright, Jean Segura, Carlos Gonzalez, Adam Wainwright and Jason Grilli would undoubtedly be at or near the top of the standings. This is just one example of an all-first half fantasy team. There is sure to be some disagreement with my choices and, I’m certain, many other iterations. But that’s a big part of the fun of this game.

There are a lot of unexplained phenomena in our world. The lack of definitive proof of the existence of Sasquatch, Bigfoot, Yeti, etc despite a multitude of eyewitness accounts; UFO’s and what really happened at Area 51; near death experiences and the light at the end of the tunnel, just to name a few. These things usually pop up out of nowhere and come as a complete surprise to those who experience them.

We usually get the same kind of phenomena in baseball from time to time in the form of player performances that come out of nowhere and are relatively or completely unexpected. There’s Albert Pujols of 2001, Tim Lincecum of 2008 and Ian Kennedy of 2011. Those are the extremes. They don’t happen each and every year but nearly every year there are some performances that at least raise an eyebrow or two.

One such surprise so far is Jean Segura of the Milwaukee Brewers. The shortstop had some pretty good years in the minor leagues but none that would lead anyone to think he would be performing at this level in 2013. Probably his best overall year was 2010 in A-ball as a 20-year-old. Playing in the Anaheim Angels' system that year, he hit for a .313 batting average with ten home runs and 50 stolen bases in 60 attempts over 581 plate appearances.  Segura also had a SLG of .464 and an .829 OPS that season. By all standards a pretty darn good season, and Jean had established himself as one of the best Angels' prospects.

Skip ahead to 2012. Milwaukee completes a trade that sent Zack Greinke to the West Coast in a deal that featured Segura as the centerpiece of what they got in return. In 163 plate appearances for the Brewers last year as a 22-year-old, he hit for a .264 average with zero home runs, stole seven bases in eight attempts and managed a .652 OPS. Not a terrible season but certainly nothing to get excited about. Certainly nothing that portended what would happen so far this year.

To be honest, no one drafted the now 23-year-old for his power, as the ten home runs he hit in 2010 was his high water mark. But in 316 plate appearances so far, he has exceeded pretty much anyone’s projections for balls hit out of the park with 11 so far. Jean is fourth in the league with a .334 batting average. This is fueled at least partly by a .353 BABIP, although he does have the speed to leg out many hits. He is second in the league with 23 stolen bases in 25 attempts and has an .895 OPS. Jean Segura has almost certainly turned a profit for his owners already.

Another performance even more of a surprise this year is that of a left-handed starting pitcher. Some might think of Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks (who, at nine wins against no losses with a 2.19 ERA is having a very good season himself), but I’m going in a different direction with Jeff Locke of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The reason I’m going with Locke over fellow second-round pick Corbin is because the latter came with a bit more of a minor league pedigree after being included in the Dan Haren trade. The 25-year-old Locke’s seven victories in eight decisions, while not at the top of the league, are still very good.

The Pirates' starting pitcher has a solid 1.11 WHIP, which is better than that of more established pitchers like Matt Cain, Gio Gonzalez and Ian Kennedy. If he can find a way to issue a few less free passes (3.83 BB/9), that could drop even further. The most impressive stat is his 2.06 ERA, which is second in the league to Matt Harvey’s 2.05. Armed with only a 6.26 K/9, Jeff is mainly getting it done by keeping the ball in the ballpark (only one home run allowed) and keeping the ball on the ground. He has a very low BABIP (.227) and high strand rate (84%), and if either goes in the wrong direction it could spell trouble. But he has a better chance of maintaining that if he keeps up his groundball tendencies. Even though he’s up to 96 innings this year, Jeff pitched a combined 175 innings last year between Triple-A and Pittsburgh, so even a modest increase to 185 innings or so shouldn’t be overly taxing. All in all, Locke has provided a good return on the dollar for his owner’s investment.

There are certainly more players who have surprised to some extent or another this year but these are my top two. Both have been very generous to those who drafted them this spring. All their owners have to do now is decide if they will continue this performance or if they will be better served selling high.

If one were to compare a baseball team’s system to the human body, it might be pretty obvious the front office would be analogous to the brain. Just as some brains might be considered, let’s say, more capable than others, the same could be said for the front office of each team, to the extent there are always fans that have disparaging names for the front office of their favorite team.

The heart of a baseball system is the major league club. It is what the fans mostly come to see and the system is usually as healthy as the big league club. The team is doing well and people are coming to see them, spending the money that provides the nourishment the team needs to continue living.

If the front office is the brains and the major league club is the heart, then the life blood of a baseball system is its minor league system. These teams provide the stream of talent necessary for the big club to operate, whether it is directly by manning the parent team or by being the source of trade fodder to fill a different need. Generally, the healthier or better a minor league system, the better off the team as a whole will be.

That being the case, the team in the National League with the best overall health would be the St. Louis Cardinals. Their front office is generally regarded as doing a very good job making the decisions necessary to remain extremely competitive, and the big league club seems to be in the mix at the end of nearly every season.

As far as the minor league system goes, the Cardinals have one of the best in all of baseball. Current players who have either come up through their system solely or spent a number of years being developed in it include Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, David Freese, Pete Kozma, Shane Robinson, Jon Jay, Trevor Rosenthal, Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller. Not to mention Jaime Garcia and Jason Motte, who are on the 60-day DL and out for the season.

That’s a significant number of players at the major league level who have been in the St. Louis farm system and who are making a large contribution to the Cardinals’ success. And that success is pretty impressive in 2013 – 20 games over .500, the best record in the major leagues, the best run differential in baseball. It seems like every year people look to write the Cardinals off (myself included), but they keep coming back.

But it doesn’t stop there for the Redbirds. Right behind the group of players already up with the team in St. Louis are more players who are refining their wares with their various minor league teams. This includes Oscar Taveras, Carlos Martinez, Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha. The team had two first-round picks in this year’s draft and added pitchers Marco Gonzales and Rob Kaminsky along with second-round pick shortstop Oscar Mercado.  Overall, their draft rated out as pretty good but the way they’ve developed players over the years, the end result could wind up being better than anticipated at this point.

There isn’t a NL team at the moment that wouldn’t want to be in the position of the Cardinals, and there are many fans who wish they had their farm system. Any major league owner looking to improve the fortunes of their team would certainly do well by trying to lure away some of the key decision makers in St. Louis.

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