Chris Shaw and Jae-Gyun Hwang Update

Posted June 27, 2017 by Burly
Categories: San Francisco Giants, Minor Leagues

Chris Shaw was the San Francisco Giants’ second 1st round pick in the 2015 draft, selected 31st overall.  He got off to a hot start at AA Richmond this year, slashing .301/.390/.511 in 37 games, and earned a quick promotion to AAA Sacramento.

He got off to a slow start in AAA ball, but has hit in his last 10 games, bringing his AAA OPS up to .729.  He’s 23 this year and is on track to force the Giants to make some decisions this off-season.

The Giants are trying to teach Shaw to play left field this season.  He’s played 42 games there, all this season, and the numbers aren’t pretty.  He hasn’t made any errors, but he doesn’t appear to have much range or much of a throwing arm.

The 23 year old Shaw’s long-term future looks to be at first base, where the Giants already have Brandon Belt signed through 2021.  It’s certainly possible the Giants could trade Belt this July or next off-season, but right now it would probably be hard to get full value for Belt in trade since he’s only batting .229, even though his other numbers are still fairly good.

Belt is almost certainly a better defensive 1Bman than Shaw, and that’s important when you’re taking about playing home games at AT&T Park, a yard that reduces left-handed power hitting.  Belt is also very popular in SF, although that won’t necessarily bar a trade if the Giants can get sufficient value in return, as they try to rebuild from this disastrous season.

Meanwhile, AAA 3Bman Jae-Gyu Hwang has let it be known that he intends to opt out of his contract if the Giants do not promote him to the majors by July 1st.  After playing well, but not great, at AAA for most of the first half, Hwang has lifted his OPS up to .810.

Hwang has split time between 1B and 3B this season, and his third base defense doesn’t look great — adequate range but a .937 fielding percentage in 267.1 innings played.  He does appear to turn the double play well, however.  Hwang has also played two games in left field, where he’s recorded six outs, so he could play a number of positions in SF.

I can’t imagine the Giants won’t at least give him a look in the majors after bringing him over from South Korea this past off-season.  To do so, though, the Giants will have to clear a space on their 40-man roster, which means someone will have to be released or exposed to waivers, most likely Conor Gillaspie.

Will the Economic Collapse in Venezuela Impact Its Ballplayer Pipeline to MLB?

Posted June 26, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad

Everyone who has been following major league baseball for the last 20 years knows that Venezuelan players have become an integral part of the game, now matching or even surpassing the Dominican Republic as the Latin American country producing the most major league players and superstars.  I wonder what effect the slow motion collapse of Venezuela’s economy will have on the country as a continuing source of major league talent.

Obviously, even very poor countries can produce major league stars.  Until very recently, a majority of major league stars came from poor or relatively poor backgrounds, as baseball and other professional sports were avenues for the most talented and driven poor young athletes to strike it rich.  The first generation of Puerto Rican, Venezuelan and Dominican players who came up in the 1950’s and 1960’s were coming from much poorer places than those countries are today.

However, Venezuela has reached a point where a majority of the population no longer has enough to eat (Venezuelans call it the “Maduro Diet”), and it’s hard to build large numbers of strong young athletes in a country experiencing severe food shortages.

For those of you who haven’t followed Venezuelan affairs over the last twenty years, here is a quick primer on what’s happening there.

In 1998, former military man and left-wing demagogue Hugo Chavez was elected president of Venezuela on a platform to improve the lot of the poor majority in the country.  Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, or very close to the world’s largest, but it was a typical third world country where most of the wealth was controlled by a small, politically connected capitalist elite.

Chavez imposed what he called “Bolivarian Socialism” on Venezuela, fixing the prices of basic food stuffs and commodities and over time nationalizing many of the countries largest companies and industries.  As long as oil prices were reasonably high, Chavez was able to finance his policies at home and grab attention and allies throughout Latin America with below market oil shipments.

Chavez’s policies did improve the lot of the poor majority in Venezuela, and this made it virtually impossible for any other politician or political party to beat him at the ballot box.  Unfortunately, Chavez, who first became involved in Venezuelan politics in 1992 when he led a failed coup attempt, had no real commitment to or belief in either democratic values or institutions.  Over time Chavez used nationalizations of industry to disenfranchise financially his political opponents, and he handed control over these industries to cronies, who were selected for loyalty to the regime, rather than because of competence or honesty.

This was the case even at the state oil company, PDVSA, with predictable results.  Profits were skimmed, and production levels have steadily fallen over the last 20 years because of lack of competence and investment, even though oil revenues were the key to Chavez’ project.

Venezuela once had no problem producing enough food for its citizens.  However, government mandated prices enforced by credible threats of nationalization to farmers who protested they couldn’t make a profit, led inevitably to farmers simply going out of business.

Chavez died suddenly of cancer in early 2013 at age 58.  He was replaced by Nicolas Maduro, a loyal Chavista who lacked Chavez’ charisma.  However, the Venezuelan economy was still operating fairly well in 2013, and Maduro won a close election to become the next president based on Chavez’ continued popularity with a majority of Venezuelans.  In 2014, the price of oil crashed and has yet to recover (and probably won’t any time soon due to ready availability of American shale oil and Canadian tar sands oil).

By 2015, the consequences of Chavista economic policy had come home to roost, and with the oil money spigot cut off, Venezuela’s economy tanked and continues to tank.  A majority of Venezuela’s population quickly realized that Chavez’s policies were no longer sustainable and that changes needed to be made.  In 2015, congressional elections were held, and the opposition appeared to win a tight two-thirds majority that could overturn the Chavez/Maduro policies.  However, after 17 years in power the Chavistas had successfully packed the courts and filled the army with regime royalists.  Venezuela’s National Assemby was ultimately divested of power by the country’s supreme court, and Maduro now rules by decree.

There still is oil money coming into the state’s coffers, which has had the effect of making the economic collapse one long, slow-motion train wreck.  The government is effectively in control of the food supply, since Venezuelan farmers are no longer producing for anyone but their own families, and most food must be imported using oil money.  This leaves the state largely in charge of distribution, and there have been allegations that regime loyalists are first in line for the limited supplies.  Further, the government has refused to accept foreign aid to make up for the food and medicine shortages, because to do so would be to admit the abject failure of Bolivarian Socialism.

Maduro sounds progressively more and more like an out of touch dictator than a democratically elected head of state, but he has that oil money, the military and the organs of the state at his disposal, until he elects to give up power or there is a civil war.  Very little suggests that Maduro will give up power voluntarily, and I for one kind of expect that one day in the near or distant future he’ll end up swinging from the roof of a gas station like Mussolini.

To get back to the topic of baseball, it does not look like Venezuela’s problems are going to be fixed any time soon, unless a large enough portion of the Venezuelan military elects all at once to dump Maduro and allow for real change.  Until then, an awful lot of Venezuelans are going to continue to go hungry.  It’s entirely possible that at some time in the future we will see a band of Venezuelan children of a certain age who have largely had their physical and mental development stunted by their countries’ lack of accessible and affordable food and medicine.  I think it is entirely possible that at some time in the future, there will be a period of two or three years where the number of young ballplayers coming out of Venezuela drops sharply compared to other Latin American baseball powers as a result of the problems in Venezuela now.

Milwaukee Brewers Make Nice Little Move Claiming Stephen Vogt

Posted June 25, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A's

The Brewers were the only team to put a waiver claim in on Stephen Vogt, so it looks like they will get their man.  Vogt has about $1.5 million more coming to him on his $2.95 million 2017 contract, so it’s a very affordable half season rental for the first place Brewers, with what amounts to two salary arbitration options for 2018 and 2019.

Vogt may very well start hitting again playing his home games in Milwaukee in the heat of the summer, rather than in Oakland.

I love seeing small market teams doing more with less.  I strongly suspect that a lot of teams don’t scan the waiver wire carefully or regularly unless they are actively looking for an upgrade somewhere.  In Vogt’s case, the A’s decision to designate him for assignment was national news because Vogt made the All-Star team the last two seasons and had a very affordable contract.

If no one had claimed Vogt on waivers, Vogt would almost certainly have exercised his right to free agency.  Then, any team could have signed him for the pro-rated major league minimum.  Essentially, the Brewers committed $1.25 million by claiming Vogt in order to guarantee that they’d be the team to get him after he left the A’s.

By claiming Vogt and sending Jet Bandy back to AAA, the Brewers get a true platoon at catcher, and since Bandy still had an option left, the Brewers lose nothing by taking a chance on Vogt except the $1.5 million remaining on Vogt’s contract.  That sure seems like a small price for a player who could be a valuable piece as the Brewers try to make their first post-season since 2011.  Well done, Milwaukee!

Austin Bibens-Dirkx Shuts Down New York Yankees

Posted June 25, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, Washington Senators

32 year old rookie pitcher Austin Bibens-Dirkx frustrated the Yankees in Yankee Stadium to improve his record to 3-0.  What a great name and what a tremendous story!

Bibens-Dirkx used the Independent-A Leagues twice to keep his professional career going.  In 2009 after washing out of the Mariners’ system, he pitched in the now defunct Golden Baseball League and earned another shot in the Cubs’ system.  He started last year in the Atlantic League before being picked up by the Rangers.  Bibens-Dirkx  has also pitched in the Latin American winter leagues for years as another way to hone his game and catch the attention of major league organizations.

The only chink in Bibens-Dirkx’s armor yesterday was a long home run to Aaron Judge, which thankfully for the Rangers came with the bases empty.  [For what it’s worth, the player Aaron Judge reminds me most of is Frank Howard, another enormous right-handed slugger who could launch baseballs a country mile.  The main difference between them is that there are lot more players of this size now than there were in Howard’s day.]

The reality is that there is a very good chance that last night’s game will be the pinnacle of Bibens-Dirkx’ professional career.  He only made it to MLB at age 32 for a reason.  While he can obviously pitch, his numbers so far suggest that his stuff is well below major league average, and that once MLB’s hitters become more familiar with him, he’ll be a marginal major leaguer at best.  He’s going to have to keep his walks totals low and have good defense behind him to succeed.

Still, nothing can take away from his accomplishment last night or the fact that eleven years struggling through the minors has finally paid off, both financially and emotionally.  Guys like a Bibens-Dirkx give everyone in baseball and those who follow baseball hope that the luck will finally turn for you if you just keep at it and trust that your efforts will one day be rewarded.

Cubans Impacting Japanese Game

Posted June 24, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Baseball Abroad, Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Mariners

I was remiss in my last post for failing to mention that two Cubans, Alex Guerrero and Alfredo Despaigne, are presently leading their respective NPB leagues in home runs.  Guerrero is leading the Central League with 19, and Despaigne is tied for the Pacific League lead with Yuki Yanagita at 18.

Despaigne is in the running for the world’s best position player who will likely never play in MLB.  His family has connections with the Communist government in Cuba, so he hasn’t been willing to defect.  The Cuban government worked out a deal with NPB a couple of years ago to allow some of its best players to play in Japan to prevent their defections.

I don’t know what cut the Cuban government gets of the money Despaigne earns, but they are probably both benefiting greatly by the arrangement since Despaigne’s 2017 salary is a reported 400 million yen ($3.59 million).  Even a small fraction of that would go a long way in Cuba, where because of heavily state subsidized prices, $1000 a month in hard currency income would allow a family to live like royalty.

I would compare Despaigne to South Korea’s Dae-ho Lee, who proved last year that he is an MLB-level hitter.  Despaigne and Lee are both thickly built right-handed hitting sluggers, with Lee being physically bigger and Despaigne being a few years younger.

Guerrero signed a big deal with the Dodgers a few years ago and quickly washed out due mainly to his inability or unwillingness to take a walk. (Several media reports also suggested he wasn’t too bright.)  In Japan, his power and raw talent make up for the fact that his on-base percentages are poor, at least so far.

I can’t imagine Cuban players not becoming every bit as important to Japanese baseball as they’ve become to MLB in recent years.  There are a lot of defecting Cuban players who are just a little too old and/or a not quite talented enough to become MLB stars, but who would be great bets to become stars in Japan.

If Guerrero and Despaigne finish one-two in home runs at the end of the NPB season, the desire to sign the next Cuban slugger will be high indeed throughout NPB.

Japanese Baseball News

Posted June 23, 2017 by Burly
Categories: American League, Baseball Abroad, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Minor Leagues, Oakland A's, Pittsburg Pirates

Tad Iguchi, now age 42, has announced that this will be his last professional season.  It has been quite a career, as he has combined to date for more than 2,200 hits, 294 HRs and 224 stolen bases between MLB and Japan’s NPB.  Lusty numbers indeed for a career 2Bman.

On June 14th, Shun Yamaguchi, Scott Mathieson and Arquimedes Caminero combined for a no-hitter for the Yomiuri Giants against the SoftBank Hawks.  It was Yamaguchi’s first start or appearance of the 2017 NPB season.

A few years ago, Yamaguchi was definitely an MLB prospect, but it’s now looking like he’ll stay in Japan for his career.  Does anyone remember the first time two pitchers combined for a no-hitter in MLB?  (Answer at bottom.)

Chris Marrero, whom I wrote about in my last post on the 2017 NPB season about a month ago, appeared to hit his first NPB home run on June 9th.  But he missed home plate!  The catcher went over and tagged Marrero, and the umpire called him out.

That’s no way to make an impression on your new team in a foreign country.  However, the man on base ahead of Marrero still scored, and Marrero has continued to hit with power in what appears to be a platoon role.

The Rakuten Golden Eagles signed American Josh Corrales recently.  What is interesting about this move is that Corrales was signed out of the BC League, Japan’s independent-A league.  He’s not the first player from the Americas to be signed by an NPB organization out of the BC League.

Corrales had an interesting year in the full season A League Midwest League at age 22, posting a 4.09 ERA and striking out 54 batters in 55 innings pitched but also walking 40.  After he was apparently released, he must have somehow decided that his chances of one day reaching NPB were better than reaching MLB, because he has no record of pitching in any of the more stable American Indy-A Leagues.  He’s only 27 years old, so an NPB big payday is still possible!

The first time two pitchers combined for a no-hitter in MLB history was when Babe Ruth and Ernie Shore did it on June 23, 2017.  The Babe, who was then one of the Junior Circuit’s aces, walked the first batter of the game and was promptly thrown out of the game for arguing about it with the umpire.  Shore came in, the runner on first was thrown out trying to steal second, and Shore retired the next 26 batters consecutively for what has widely, but not unanimously, been recognized as a perfect game, sort of like Harvey Haddix‘s 12-inning perfect effort in 1959.

The first time in MLB history three or more pitchers combined for a no-hitter was September 28, 1975, when Vida Blue, Glenn Abbott, Paul Lindblad and Rollie Fingers accomplished the feat.  The A’s had already clinched a play-off birth and decided it was wise not to overwork their ace Vida “True” Blue (a little joke there for Charlie Finley fans).  Seems kind of ho-hum today, but it was a big deal in the 1970’s.

Side-Arming Relief Prospect Tyler Rogers

Posted June 22, 2017 by Burly
Categories: Minnesota Twins, Minor Leagues, San Francisco Giants

A San Francisco Giants’ prospect I am becoming increasingly intrigued with is Tyler Rogers.  He’s a low side-arm pitcher who throws pretty much nothing but ground balls.  Specifically, he has allowed only seven home runs in 315 career minor league innings pitched, and none this year in 42 innings pitched at AAA Sacramento.

Like most extreme ground ball pitchers, Rogers isn’t likely to stike out a lot of batters at the major league level, and he’s likely to need good and rangy infield defense behind him to be a success at the highest level.  Also, he is already 26 years old.

However, extreme ground ball pitchers often develop relatively late, as they learn to command their stuff consistently low in the strike zone, and Rogers’ current 2.36 ERA is extremely impressive pitching in the Pacific Coast League, an extreme hitters’ league.  Rogers currently leads River Cats’ pitchers in ERA among those who have pitched at least 15 innings so far this season.

Rogers’ minor league progression strongly suggests that he needs time to adjust as he moves up the professional ladder: he pitched poorly in his first brief stints at AA in 2015 and AAA last year, but improved dramatically the next season once he had adjusted to the higher level of play.  This would be a good year for the going-nowhere Giants to get Rogers 20 to 40 innings pitched at the major league level, if only to maximize the possibility that he could help the team in future seasons.

On the subject of San Francisco Giants’ ground ball throwing prospects, the team has another one who also looks almost ready.  D.J. Snelton (he’s 25 this season) started the year at AA Richmond, where he made 15 relief appearances with a 1.66 ERA and earned himself a quick promotion to AAA Sacramento.  After ten relief appearances for the River Cats, he’s got a 1.88 ERA in 14.1 IP.

Snelton has allowed 12 HRs in 325.2 career minor league IP to date, with only two dingers in 36 IP this season.  Not quite as impressive as Rogers, but Snelton looks like he’ll be more of a strikeout pitcher when and if he reaches the major league level.

As major league teams and hitters become ever more enamored with launch angles and home run hitting, and as major league defense continues its inexorable improvement over time, pitchers who can keep the ball in the yard and give their defenders a chance to make a play are becoming more and more valuable.  Snelton was a 9th round draft pick, and Rogers was a 10th round draft pick, because teams are almost always going to draft for stuff first.  Even so, teams are going to draft more extreme ground ball pitchers in the future and draft them higher than they have in the past.

It’s also worth noting that Tyler Rogers’ twin brother Taylor Rogers is already a major league pitcher for the Minnesota Twins.  How appropriate is that?  Although they look an awful lot alike, I’m guessing they are fraternal twins, because Taylor is a lefty, while Tyler throws right.  Also, Tyler is listed as two inches taller.  I will be rooting for both of them going forward.