Archive for July 2017

Kenta Maeda — Every 10th Day Starter?

July 21, 2017

I’ve been a fan of the Dodgers’ Kenta Maeda for a long time.  I followed his career closely in Japan, where he was a great pitcher at the top of the class just behind Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka.  I definitely thought he was good enough to be a successful major league pitcher.

I also liked Maeda because he was a small right-hander, and I was a small right-handed player in my playing days, now oh so long ago.  Like Tim Lincecum, Maeda was small, but he could pitch, and I felt there ought to be a place his talents in MLB.

From the beginning MLB teams were suspicious of Meda because of his size.  The Dodgers signed him on a deal that guaranteed him only $25 million over eight years, but was chock full of incentives if he could prove he could be a successful MLB starter.

Last season, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts decided pretty quickly that Maeda’s innings had to be strictly limited.  While at the time I thought that this might reflect some latent MLB prejudice against small right-handers, on further analysis, I was probably wrong.

Roberts is literally the product of an American Marine and a Japanese woman his father met while serving in Japan.  (I, and probably lots of other baseball afficionados, had assumed that the Dodgers’ manager was the son of Panamanian ball player Dave Roberts, who was playing in Japan the year and the year before the now manager was born.)  The Dodgers’ manager was a below average sized major leaguer in his own day.

Instead, Roberts decided quickly and probably accurately that it would be tough for a pitcher Maeda’s size to start every fifth game.  In fact, this has been a problem for all Japanese pitchers moving to MLB, including those with MLB-sized bodies like Darvish, Tanaka and Hisashi Iwakuma (it’s been a problem for a lot of American-born pitchers too.)  In Japan, starters typically start only once a week, because so many games are washed out during the wet Japanese summer months.

This season, Maeda has been the victim of the new home run trend, and he’s been in and out of the Dodgers’ talent-packed starting rotation.  He’s become basically a spot starter (and spot reliever), starting when the team doesn’t have an extra game off to rest the other starters.

Maeda has been remarkably successful in this role.  Through June 9, pitching as part of the regular five-man rotation, Maeda had a 4.95 ERA.  Since then he’s made five starts on average eight days apart, and he’s allowed more than one run in a start only once, on a day when he had only four full days’ rest since his previous start.

I’ve been following MLB since 1978, which is pretty much the entire era of five-man pitching staffs.  Many is the time I’ve seen teams try to use 4+-man rotations, basically skipping the fifth man every time there was an extra day off that allowed the other four starters their normal rest.

This strategy has almost never worked.  The fifth starter was routinely skipped because he really wasn’t an adequate starter at all.  The fifth starter, who wasn’t any good to begin with, tended to be even worse when he didn’t pitch regularly.  Also, one of the other four adequate or better starters tended to get hurt at some point in the season, which rendered the strategy completely ineffective.

This season, the Dodgers are so deep with talent that they have the starters, the bullpen, and the pitcher in Maeda to make this strategy work well for the first time I can remember.  Maeda is a veteran pitcher who can be still be effective starting every eight to 12 games, plus the occasional one or so inning relief appearance in between, who may well benefit from starting half as often as the typical MLB starter.

Maeda has also been willing to give the team whatever it needs, even though the infrequent starts hit him directly in the pocketbook because of his incentive-laden contract.  Apparently, Maeda is mature enough to realize that he’s making more in the U.S. than he would have made if he’d stayed in Japan.  Plus, the reasonable likelihood of a World Series check and ring probably do a great deal to assuage any hurt feelings Maeda might otherwise have.

I’m a strong believer that managers need to be extremely flexible in terms of using the actual players they have on their rosters, with their specific skill sets and specific weaknesses, in order to tease out as many regular season wins as they possibly can in any given season. Managers’ jobs are too tenuous not to do every single thing within their power to win ball games.

Managers often aren’t flexible in large part because the players demand consistency in their roles (and the players are now well better paid than the managers), and because there are certain well-established notions about how managers should use their players, built up over generations, and known to the sportswriters who cover the games like professionals.  It’s the reason that teams without great closers generally do not elect to use bullpens-by-committee based on match-ups, even though this would make a great deal of sense if you don’t have a true closer.

Roberts may well end up sending in Maeda for every fifth start if somebody else in the starting rotation gets hurt.  I’m just trying to point out that using Maeda on a less regular basis seems to be working very well for the Dodgers and that Maeda might be exactly the pitcher to make such a strategy work.  The 2017 Dodgers are currently on a pace to win 113 games.  It’s hard to find fault with that.

Maybe Chris Shaw Is the Trade Chip

July 20, 2017

The Giants need to be sellers this trade deadline, but they don’t have a lot to sell.  One player who could get them real value in return is 1Bman Brandon Belt, particularly because the organization has 23 year old Chris Shaw knocking at the door.

From everything I’ve read, though, Giants management sees Belt as part of the core of the team around which they wish to “reload” rather than “rebuild.”  Maybe the answer is including Chris Shaw in a deadline trade, rather than Belt.

Shaw, a former late 1st round draft pick, is currently batting .302 with an .871 OPS after 47 games at AAA Sacramento.  He’s very close to being ready, at least with the bat.

However, left-handed hitting 1Bman playing their home games at AT&T Park have to be able to play defense, because the ballpark robs them of much of their power.  Brandon Belt can pick it.  Chris Shaw’s raw minor league numbers suggest that he would be a major league liability on defense, whether at 1B or LF, where he has played exclusively at the latter since his promotion to AAA.

The Giants have a lot of starters (Johnny Cueto, Jeff Samardzija and Matt Moore) who might draw some interest, but who probably wouldn’t command much in return based on their 2017 performances and/or contract situations.  Perhaps packaged with Shaw, who is a legitimate A-level prospect to an American League team who could use him as a 1B/DH, the Giants could trade one of their pitchers and get real value in return.

If the Giants plan to keep Belt, then trading away youngster Shaw, as part of a package that brings the Gints more young talent, would make a lot of sense.

San Francisco Giants Bringing Back Pablo Sandoval

July 20, 2017

The Giants are bringing Pablo back!  It’s a move born of desperation on both sides, but as a Giants’ fan, of course I love it.

I’m doubtful Pablo has a lot left.  His inability to push himself away from the dinner table has taken its tole on his body.  But, on a minor league deal it’s a no-lose proposition.

Still, the Giants know Pablo, and Pablo knows the Giants.  Maybe the Giants will expend $75,000 for a year on a full-time personal trainer who can whip Pablo back into shape.  From what I’ve read, Pablo will work hard in the gym and eat healthy so long as he has someone working with him consistently (constantly).

Then, who knows?  The raw baseball skills have always been there.

I like this move for reasons beyond the obvious.  The Giants in the Sabean ERA have consistently rewarded the players who they developed and played well for them.  I strongly believe this faithfulness has more often than not brought out the best in their players and helped them break the San Francisco curse, not once but three times in five seasons.  Obviously, scouting and trading for the right players has helped too.

Fans in Sacramento will enjoy seeing Pablo suit up for the River Cats.  I also believe that having your minor league clubs within reasonable driving distance for fans to be able to at least see the major league squad a few times a season is good for the organization and the box office at all levels.

It doesn’t hurt to have the minor league squads pay for themselves.  The River Cats have the third best per game attendance despite having the 14th best record (out of 16) in this year’s Pacific Coast League.

As a final note, teams should be more willing either to pay for personal trainers or require the player as part of his contract to hire a personal trainer, at least in situations like Pablo’s.  Traditionally, teams have left it up to the players to get themselves in elite condition, since the player ultimately has more to gain or lose by the seriousness with which he takes his own conditioning.

Sometimes, though, you have a player like Pablo, with exceptional talent, but less than exceptional maturity and discipline, who needs a helping hand.  Personal trainers cost pennies to the dollars invested in elite players, so why not find a way to get them involved, at least so long as the player will work hard if he someone pushing him during his professional down time.

In Pablo’s case, it might have made, and might yet make, a real difference.

Lastings Milledge Sighting

July 19, 2017

When is the last time you heard this great baseball name?  Lastings Milledge hasn’t played in the majors since 2011, but if you thought his pro baseball career was over, you would be wrong.

Milledge is attempting a comeback this year at age 32 in the Independent-A Atlantic League.  He’s hitting .294, which is currently the league’s ninth best batting average, but he’s hit with no power and drawn few walks, so his OPS is below .700.  The odds are slim indeed that an MLB organization will give him another chance.

I wrote about Milledge a couple of years ago as one of the more disappointing baseball careers in recent memory.  There isn’t much reason to revise that opinion as of this writing.  At least he’s still trying, even if finances may be a key motivator.

James Loney Going to South Korea

July 18, 2017

James Loney has signed a contract with the LG Twins of South Korea’s KBO on a deal that will pay him $350,000 for the remainder of the 2017 season.  Loney is a relatively high profile signing for the KBO, and $350,000 is a relatively high salary for a player signing this late in the KBO season.

It’s worth noting, though, that the money Loney is being paid is probably not his primary motivation in going to South Korea to play.  Loney has made more than $37 million in his pro career to date, so he probably doesn’t need the extra $350,000 that much.  Instead, Loney just wants to keep playing, since at age 33, he’s not especially old for a player of his past career accomplishments.

I have no idea whether Loney’s got much left in the tank.  He played relatively well in 2016, but was pretty awful in trials totaling only 18 games with the Tigers’ and Braves’ AAA teams earlier this season (.218 batting average and .608 OPS in 70 plate appearances).  The LG Twins will surely find out if he can still compete at the KBO level.

I’ve been following Taiwan’s CPBL closely this season.  It’s a league that, like the KBO a few years ago, signs almost exclusively pitchers for its three foreign player roster spots per team.  These pitchers pretty much all come to the CPBL after great performances in the Mexican League (summer), the independent-A Atlantic League or the Latin American winter leagues or after washing out of AAA, the KBO or Japan’s NPB.  One or two great seasons in the CPBL, and these pitchers generally move up to the KBO, NPB or back to AAA.

The CPBL pays well better than the Mexican or Atlantic Leagues, roughly the same or a little more per month than the Latin American winter leagues (but for a much longer summer season) and considerably less than the KBO or NPB.

The competition for talent across the three Asian major leagues is fierce and largely defined by each league’s salary structure.  NPB is far wealthier than the KBO, but has more roster spaces available for foreign players; and many NPB teams stash additional foreign players on their minor league clubs so that they can quickly fill an available roster space if a foreign player on the major league roster gets hurt or is ineffective.

NPB and the KBO compete for the 4-A players who aren’t quite good enough to play with any regularity in MLB.  The KBO is now offering as much or more to rookie foreign players as NPB teams are, although success in NPB (which is harder to achieve than in the KBO, since it is a better league) can ultimately mean annual salaries three times what KBO teams can or will pay its best foreign veterans.

Also, KBO and CPBL teams no longer sign foreign relief pitchers, because their salary scales are such that they want more valuable starting pitchers for the money required to sign foreigners and to fill the restricted number of roster spaces.  NPB, which is considerably wealthier and which finds it more difficult to find 4-A players good enough to succeed in NPB (the world’s best leagues after MLB), routinely sign foreign relievers.  In fact, this has been an extremely successful strategy for NPB, with several NPB teams sporting foreigners as both their closers and top set-up men this season.

The most money ever offered to foreigners in the CPBL is the $60,000 per month the EDA Rhinos offered Manny Ramirez to remain in Taiwan for the second half of the 2013 season (which Manny turned down), and the $56,000 per month ($6,000 of which was performance incentives) to Freddy Garcia in 2014.  Manny had a huge impact on attendance and merchandise sales during his half-season in Taiwan, leading to the relatively huge second half offer (he was paid only $25,000 per month for the half season he actually played), and almost certainly being responsible for the huge offer Garcia, another big-name former MLB star, received the next season.

However, although Garcia’s first start drew about three times the typical CPBL game attendance, Garcia pitched well but was not completely dominant after that, and no CPBL team has signed a foreign player with Garcia’s MLB credentials since 2014.  It’s worth noting that while both Ramirez and Garcia played well in Taiwan, neither one was head and shoulders above the other top players in the league in their respective seasons.  The CPBL has apparently decided that for the time being, it can find pitchers who are good enough from the sources I mention above, who do not command the kind of salaries former major league stars command.

 

San Francisco Giants Sign Free Agent Amateur Jack Conlon

July 18, 2017

In something you don’t hear about too often, the Giants just signed high school pitcher Jack Conlon.  Conlon had been drafted by the Orioles in the fourth round of this year’s draft, but they didn’t like the results of his physical, and didn’t make him an offer in any amount.

If a drafted player does not receive an offer of at least 40% of the slot amount for his selection in the draft, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent when the signing period ends, and the team does not get a compensatory pick in the next year’s draft.

Conlon’s slot amount was $409,000, so the O’s needed to make him an offer of about $164,000 to get a compensatory pick in the 2018 draft.  Apparently, the O’s didn’t think he was worth even the 164K.

Although the number of his contract with the Giants haven’t yet been reported, it seems likely the Giants offered him at least 164K, since he had committed to play for Texas A&M.  A four-year college scholarship has to be worth at least that much today.

Baseball America ranked Conlon at 239th in their list of the top 500 prospects in this year’s draft, which is about the sixth round.  Clearly, the Giants are not as worried about the physical exam results as the Orioles were.

Baseball America suggests he’s something of a project, but he can touch 95 with his fastball and has a body that projects to being able to throw mid-90’s on a regular basis.  Good things are said about his work ethic.

Whether or not Conlon ever amounts to anything, the Giants can use all the extra talent they can get right now.

San Francisco Giants’ Minor League Update Part II

July 15, 2017

San Jose Giants

The Class A+ Giants finished in last place in the California League North at 30-40 in the first start, and are tied for last place at 8-13 in the second half.

24 year old catcher and former 2nd round draft pick Aramis Garcia is slashing .276/,320/.517, and his 14 home runs are tied for third best in the league.  Garcia appears to have a catcher’s arm, having thrown out 102 base stealers in 282 attempts in his professional career.

22 year old 2nd round draft pick Bryan Reynolds is slashing a respectable, but not inspiring, .296/.345/.444 so far.  Hopefully, he picks it up in the second half.  Reynolds doesn’t appear to have a center fielder’s range, but may have a good enough arm to play in right.

Heath Quinn, last year’s third round pick behind Reynolds is hitting O.K., but appears to have missed 35 games to an injury, although he’s healthy enough to play now.  Also 22 year old SS Ryan Howard leads the team with a .351 on-base percentage, which you like to see from a middle infielder.

Not many productive starters at San Jose either.  22 year old Connor Menez has the been the most effective with a 3.74 ERA and 66 Ks in 84.1 IP.  Matt Krook has 73 Ks in 64 IP, showing why he was once a 1st round draft pick, but his 6.19 ERA is ugly.  He has a hard time throwing strikes.

Ryan Halstead pitches so well out of San Jose’s bullpen that he was promoted to AA Richmond, where he’s struggled so far against the better competition. 23 year old Carlos Diaz, who has a 2.74 ERA and 59 Ks in 49.1 IP, looks like the most promising relief prospect still in San Jose.

Class A Augusta GreenJackets

The GreenJackets finished in last place at a league-worst 23-42.  In the second half, they are a middle of the pack 10-11 so far.

20 year old former bonus baby Kelvin Beltre is slashing a respectable .258/.339/.375 in a tough home park to hit in.  Beltre is still listed as a 3Bman, but he’s played exclusively 2B this season.

Jason Heyward‘s younger brother Jacob Heyward (21) isn’t hitting for average, but has a .705 OPS.  Jacob does not appear to share his brother’s skills as an outfield defender, so he better hit.  19 year old Sandro Fabian is not embarrassing himself with a .251 batting average and .631 OPS in Augusta.

Steven Woods (22) has been Augusta’s best starter with a 2.95 ERA with 79 Ks in 76.1 IP, although Garrett Williams (22) also has an argument for that honor.  Domenic Mazza (22) and Melvin Adon (23) have pitched reasonably well as starters.

Patrick Ruotolo (22) has 10 saves, a 1.48 ERA and 42 Ks in 30.1 IP.   He was a 27th round draft pick despite very strong college stats at Connecticut, suggesting that major league organizations see some deep flaw in him as a prospect.  It may have something to do with the fact that he is 5’10” and 218 pounds.  Definitely a prejudice against short right-handers.

22 year old Sandro Cabrera has 49 Ks in 42.1 IP.  He’s often mentioned as a prospect because of his live arm.