Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Don't Blame Wainwright

      By Ross Newhan

      I'll join the chorus:

     Adam Wainwright did nothing wrong.

    He threw a fastball to Derek Jeter, participating in the celebration of a moment after taking his glove off and putting it on the mound with the baseball, clapping for Jeter as he led off the All-Star, All-Jeter game.

    The fastball that Wainwright then threw was still 90 plus and Jeter still had to hit it.

    The problem was, is, that the Commissioner has turned this annual exhibition--in this case celebration of a wonderful player in his final year--into something that counts, and we have seen repeatedly how home field advantage in the World Series DOES count.

     The bottom line: This was a fun game inside a fine tribute, but the All-Star game should count for nothing but league pride, if that still existis in an era in which league boundaries have been diluted by those nightly interleague games and players switching leagues with the drop of a dollar.

 . The Commissioner overreacted to the 2002 tie, and there was Wainwright, paying his respects by, perhaps, taking a little something off his fastball and trying to keep it semi-straight, while forgetting that this exhibition isn't just an exhibition any more.

    Who can blame him--in that emotional moment-- if confused as to what it is or should be?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A's, Angels Stir Up AL West: Baseball's Best?

              By Ross Newhan

              With the two best records in the American League entering play Saturday, and a third West Division team, Seattle, tied for the fourth best, both Oakland and the Angels have been doing more than watching fireworks on the holiday weekend.

              The A's--operating from what General Manager Billy Beane has always maintained is a narrow financial window (''there are no five year plans in Oakland," he is fond of saying)--produced their own fireworks with the blockbuster trade with the Chicago Cubs, landing two starting pitchers for top prospects.

              The Angels snuck in at a less explosive level, sending two lower level prospects to Arizona for a veteran left handed reliever, Joe Thatcher, in an ongoing attempt (following the acquisition of Jason Grilli and departure of Ernesto Frieri) to stabilize their bullpen.

              The A's transaction, in particular, set the stage for what might be a wild month ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and underscored Beane's belief that his team has to go for it when the opportunity is there. The A's have reached the playoffs seven times in his 16 years as GM but never the World Series, and the trade with Chicago represents another defining juncture for two teams at distinctly different places on the competitive road.

              Already boasting the AL's best rotation ERA, the A's acquired starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, who boast the 10th and 15th ranked ERAs in the National League and who significantly improve Oakland's depth. Hammel can become a free agent at the end of the current season while Samardzija can leave at the end of the 2015 season, but this is now and that is then, and there was concern in Oakland about the club's ability to hold off the Angels with a rotation led by right hander Sonny Gray, in his first full major league season, and lefty Scott Kazmir, who hasn't pitched more than 158 innings in a season since 2007.

             The center piece of the trade from the Cubs standpoint was 20 year old shortstop Addison Russell, who was the A's top draft pick two years ago and was perceived to be Oakland's potential shortstop as soon as next year if Jed Lowrie leaves as a free agent at the end of the current year. Again, however, that is then and this is now, and prospects are prospects until they are something more. Beane has never backed away from trading prospects, having now traded five of his last nine top picks, including outfielder Billy McKinney, who was the 24th overall selection in the 2013 draft and who was sent to the Cubs with the very highly touted Russell.

            How the latter fits into the Cubs long range shortstop picture isn't clear considering incumbent Starlin Castro, 24, is signed for five years and $44 million after this season, and Javier Baez, another highly regarded prospect at 21, is in the wings. Nevertheless, as a scout for an American League team told me in regard to Russell, "if this kid doesn't become a big league star I don't know my business."

            The Angels, by contrast, added an important bullpen piece in southpaw Thatcher, who had a 2.63 ERA for Arizona in 37 appearances, primarily at the expense of outfielder Zach Borenstein, who was their 2013 Minor League Player of the Year but only their ninth rated prospect according to Baseball America.

            It isn't clear if General Manager Jerry DiPoto is done working on the bullpen, or done improving his pitching overall, but this much does seem clear:

            Between the A's, Angels and swiftly improving Mariners, the West has become the AL's strongest division--maybe MLB's strongest--and it's conceivable that all of those three will have more to say before the trade deadline as they set the stage for a furious second half in which the division title is the obvious prize.

           No wants to face the heat and uncertainty of a one game wild card play-in.



Thursday, July 3, 2014

Lucroy and Trout First Half MVPs

                     By Ross Newhan

                     Every membership in the BBWAA is accompanied by the notarized promise that the new card holder will write an annual, mid-season awards column.

                     Just kidding, of course, but it does seem to be part of the DNA, and so here is mine:


                    American: 1. Angels center fielder Mike Trout. 2/3. Tie between Toronto first baseman Edwin Encarnacion and outfielder Jose Bautista.
                    Comment: Barring injury, neither Miguel Carbrera nor anyone else should deprive Trout of the 2014 MVP. The heart and soul of his contending team continues to reach new heights, on a seemingly nightly basis, achieving metrics no one has ever achieved at 22.

                    National: 1. Milwaukee catcher Jonathon Lucroy. 2. Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutcheon. 3. Miami right fielder Giancarlo Stanton.
                    Comment: It would be easy enough to reward Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki for his eye-popping, Coors Field enhanced stats (check his splits), but the Rockies are heading south again while Lucroy has provided baseball's best first half team with a two way foundation--behind the plate and in the batters box (.911 OPS and .331 batting average). Lucroy and catchers historically have a tendency to wear down in the second half, which is why only three (Joe Mauer, Ernie Lombardi and Bubbles Hargrave) have ever won a batting title, but Lucroy doesn't have to catch Tulowitzki (.351) to be MVP.

                                                      CY YOUNG

                   American: 1. Felix Hernandez, Seattle. 2. Masahiro Tanaka, New York. 3. David Price, Tampa Bay.
                   Comment: Hernandez and Tanaka share the ERA lead, but King Felix leads in just about every other category. It's a race within a race, and all those teams which failed to enter the Tanaka bidding, including the luxury tax obsessed Angels, or dismissed him as only a middle of the rotation possibility, including the Dodgers, should be shamefully reevaluating.

                   National: 1. Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati. 2. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers. 3. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis.
                   Comment: I wasn't sleeping during Kershaw's fabulous June. Just saying he missed a sizeable chunk of the first half, doesn't have enough innings yet to qualify for the ERA title, and Cueto leads in just about every NL pitching category. Let's see how it plays out. The lithe Cueto has pitched 200 innings only once while Kershaw keeps building steam.

                                                 ROOKIES OF THE YEAR

                   American: Tanaka. National: Cincinnati center fielder Billy Hamilton.
                   Comment: The Yankee ace is proving it wasn't all hype, and Hamilton is proving he can do more than run--most importantly filling the Shin-Soo Choo leadoff and OBP role for about $129.5 million less.

                                              MANAGERS OF THE YEAR        
                     American: John Gibbons, Toronto. National: Ron Roenicke, Brewers.
                     Comment: The Blue Jays have a variety of holes, but Gibbons has contained his sometimes volatility in directing his team to an unexpected lead in the weakened AL East. Similarly, no one anticipated that Roenicke's Brewers would have the best, mid-season record in baseball, turning the NL Central into a blue state rather than Cardinal red.

                                               ALL-STAR STARTERS
                                         (Based on first half performance)

                      American: 1B, Encarnacion, Toronto. 2B, Jose Altuve, Houston. SS, Erick Aybar, Angels. 3B, Josh Donaldson, Oakland. OF, Michael Brantley, Cleveland; Trout, Angels; Bautista, Toronto. DH, Victor Martinez, Detroit. Catcher, Salvador Perez, Kansas City.

                       National: 1B, Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona. 2B, Chase Utley, Philadelphia. SS, Tulowitzki, Colorado. 3B, Todd Frazier, Cincinnati. OF, Justin Upton, Atlanta; McCutchen, Pittsburgh; Stanton, Miami. C, Lucroy, Milwaukee.