Archive for January 2018

Yomiuri Giants Sign Taylor Jungmann

January 16, 2018

It was announced today that the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s NPB have signed former Milwaukee Brewer Taylor Jungmann for $750,000 for 2018.  What is weird about this deal is that the Giants already have four foreign stars filling up their major league roster limit: Scott Mathieson, Arquimedes Carminero, Casey McGehee and Alex Guerrero.

The Giants have the money to afford to carry spare foreign players at the minor league level, even relatively expensive ones like Jungmann.  However, I am surprised that Jungmann would elect to leave MLB without a guarantee that he would be in the Giants’ rotation to start the 2018 season.

Jungmann was the 12th player selected in the 2011 amateur Draft.  He had a strong rookie season in 2015 at the age of 25, but has regressed badly since then.  However, he pitched extremely well in 15 starts at AAA Colorado Springs, a tough, tough place to pitch, in 2017.

When I first heard the Brewers had released Jungmann to join an unnamed NPB team, I thought the move made a lot of sense.  Jungmann was a great candidate to resurrect his career in Japan, with the possibility that if he succeeded greatly enough there, he could return to MLB in a year or two, as Miles Mikolas has done this off-season.

Yomiuri clearly thinks that with McGehee at age 35, Mathieson 34 and Guererro and Caminero both at 31, there are going to be injuries.  My guess is that Jungmann will bouncing back and forth between the NPB major and minor leagues like a ping pong ball, as the Giants’ roster needs of the moment govern.

I’m not sure why Jungmann would agree to this situation, except for the fact that the Brewers weren’t willing to offer him a major league contract (and probably wouldn’t have agreed to pay him more than $550,000 for major league service time).  Still, one would think that Jungmann could have found another NPB or KBO team that would have paid him more in 2018 and guaranteed him a spot in their rotation entering the 2018 season.  It’s likely that Yomiuri guaranteed his contract, however.

Needless to say, the four foreign player roster rule that NPB employs is subject to what amounts to cheating, as the wealthiest three clubs can stock highly paid foreigners at the minor league level waiting for someone in the majors to get hurt or become in effective.  Maybe it’s time to change the rules to allow for more foreigners at the major league level.

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San Francisco Giants Acquire Andrew McCutchen

January 16, 2018

The Giants today traded youngsters Kyle Crick and Bryan Reynolds and $500,000 worth of international bonus pool money to the Pittsburgh Pirates for veteran Andrew McCutchen.  The Giants get McCutchen for his age 31 season, after which he becomes a free agent.

Once again, the Giants make a move that is firmly committed to 2018 and the future be damned.  McCutchen gives the Giants some more right-handed power, although he doesn’t solve the Giants’ outfield defense problem, unless he ends up making a majority of his 2018 starts in left field or right field.

If I were Gorkys Hernandez, I’d feel good about this trade, because Hernandez is still the best defensive center fielder on the roster.  It’s good to have an obvious role to fill when your a 30 year old ballplayer who hits like a back-up center fielder.

It looks like Kyle Crick’s major league role is going to be in the bullpen, and I still think he’ll need to improve his command to be more than a middle reliever. Obviously, entering his age 25 season, he’s still young enough to find the command that has eluded him so far in his professional career.

Bryan Reynolds is a 22 year old, former 2nd draft pick who looks like he can play major league defense in right field.  His .826 OPS at A+ San Jose in 2017 means he could potentially be a future major league starter in right field if he keeps hitting as he moves into the high minors.

The Giants sure better make the post-season in 2018, because at some point in the not too distant future the current squad is going to be just too old, and the farm system has been drained to the dregs.

The Ten Best Players from Curacao and Aruba in MLB History

January 3, 2018

The islands of Curacao and Aruba have replaced St. Croix and St. Thomas as the tiny Caribbean islands that produce an oversized share of major league baseball players.  I have decided to combine players from Curacao and Aruba, because while both are governed more or less independently, both are part of the greater Netherlands, and they are part of the same island group, the Leeward Antilles.  Besides, it makes for a better list.

Curacao has produced at least 16 major league players, and Aruba has produced at least five.  To my knowledge, the third island in the group, Bonaire, has produced no major league players yet.  Almost all of these players have played recently so I’ll keep my comments relatively brief.

The first player from Curacao to play in the majors was Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens in 1989.  He didn’t have a great deal of success in the U.S. major leagues, but he had some strong seasons in Japan’s NPB, and also played professionally in South Korea and Mexico.  After his playing career, he became a batting coach, most recently for the San Francisco Giants.

The first player from Aruba to play in the major leagues was Gene Kingsale, when he entered a game as a defensive replacement on September 3, 1996.  Five days later Calvin Maduro became the first Aruban to pitch in the major leagues.

1. Andruw Jones (1996-2012).  The big knock on Jones is that he was one of the early 2000’s steriods boys, and when the Vitamin-S spigot got turned off, his game dropped off sharply almost overnight.  Still he hit 434 major league home runs, plus another 50 in Japan.  He’ll likely remain the best player from Curacao or Aruba until Andrelton Simmons and Xander Bogaerts approach the ends of their respective major league careers.

2.  Andrelton Simmons (2012 to present).  Operating under the assumption that each generation of major league baseball players is a little better than the one that preceded it, it is possible to argue that Simmons may be the best defensive shortstop that major league baseball has yet seen.  He also had his best year with the bat in 2017, although it was his age 27 season.

3.  Kenley Jansen (2010 to present).  Through his age 29 season, Jansen has a career 2.08 ERA and 230 saves.  ‘Nuff said.

4.  Xander Bogaerts (2013 to present)  Bogaerts is no Andrelton Simmons with the glove, but he’s a better hitter, and he’s three years younger.  His bat may be what keeps him in the game long enough to pass Andruw Jones.  He’s the first Aruban on my list.

5.  Didi Gregorius (2012 to present).  Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, where his father was playing baseball professionally in the Dutch League and also working as a carpenter (the Dutch League only plays a 42 game schedule, so even with international play for the Dutch National Team, ball players need to have another job).  Gregorius’ grandfather was a great pitcher in Curacao in the mid-20th Century.  Didi and his family moved back to Curacao when he was five.  Needless to say, both the Dutch pro league and the national team are disproportionately made up of players from Curacao and Aruba.

The only other two players of any note born in Holland, Bert Blyleven and Jack Lelivelt, have perhaps even less claim to being Dutch than Gregorius, as both moved with their respective families to the New World at the age of 2.

6.  Jonathan Schoop (2013 to present).  It is little short of amazing that so many great players have come from such a tiny place (Curacao’s current population is about 150,000) all at about the same time.  Schoop is a 2Bman who hits for power and turns the double play extremely well.  That’s a combination made in heaven for a 2Bman.

7.  Sidney Ponson (1998-2009).  When I first started this blog in 2009, Sidney Ponson, along with Milton Bradley, was one of my favorite whipping boys.  It had a lot to do with his arrest in Aruba during the 2004 off-season for punching out a Judge in a dispute over Ponson’s operation of a motor boat or jet skis, and even more to do with the two DUIs he picked up in the U.S. in 2005.  Ponson had a world of talent, but he ate and drank his way out of taking full advantage of it.

Nevertheless, Ponson hung around long enough to go 91-113 with a career 5.03 ERA.  I once wrote that when Ponson retires “he will become the poster boy for talent wasted.”  I stick by this assessment, but 91 major league wins is 91 major league wins.

8.  Jair Jurrjens (2007-2014).  Arm problems did in Jurrjens’ major league career, but he’s pitching professionally.  He pitched in Taiwan’s CPBL in 2016, pitched for the Dodgers’ AAA team in Omaha in 2017 until he was hit with an 80 game suspension for testing positive for exogenous testosterone.  He’s currently pitching effectively in the Dominican Winter League as I write this.  However, his chances of returning to the major leagues in the future seem slim, particularly if he still needs to serve out any portion of the 80-game PED suspension. Jurrjens went 53-38 with a career 3.72 ERA.

9.  Ozzie Albies (2017 to present).  Albies has had only 244 major league plate appearances, but he makes my list because he was only 20 years old last summer and slashed .286/.354/.456 in those 244 plate appearances.  Unless something really awful happens to him, he’s going to be a good one.

10.  Randall Simon (1997-2006).  Randall Simon could hit, batting .303 with 19 home runs for the Tigers in 2002.  However, he walked less than 5% of this plate appearances and that’s a problem for 1Bman.

Simon famously got in trouble during the Milwaukee Brewers’ “Sausage Race” on July 9, 2003.  He hit the Italian Sausage mascot with a bat hard enough to knock the female college student inside the costume down.  He was fined by the local authorities $432.10 for “disorderly conduct” and fined by his team (the Pirates) $2,000.  Simon later apologized to the young woman and gave her an autographed bat. Even better, the Curacao Tourism Board gave her a complimentary trip to the island for two.  The next time Simon played in Milwaukee, now as a Cub, he purchased italian sausages for an entire section of fans and during that day’s race, his teammates playfully held him back while manager Dusty Baker guarded the bat rack.

Jurickson Profar turns 25 in February and has hit well in the minors, so there’s still a chance he’ll become a major league star.  Wladimir Balentien flopped in the U.S. majors, but he’s become a huge star in Japan, setting the single-season NPB record with 60 home runs in 2013 and belting at least 30 home runs in five other seasons.

Valmy Thomas

January 2, 2018

I want to start this post with a shout-out to Rory Costello, who is the Society for Advanced Baseball Research’s (SABR) co-chairman and chief editor of SABR’s bio project, which has produced hundreds of biographies of retired baseball players which baseballreference.com links to its player pages.  Costello wrote all the biographies for Virgin Islands players, and I relied on heavily in producing my recent post, The Best 10 Players from the U.S. Virgin Islands in MLB History and this post.  I don’t know whether players from the Virgins Islands are great story tellers or whether Costello is simply a great interviewer — probably a little bit of both.

Valmy Thomas was the first player from the Virgin Islands to play in the major leagues, and he had a fascinating career.  He was born in Puerto Rico because his mother thought she’d receive better care there than in the Virgin Islands, and she and the newborn Valmy returned to St. Croix as soon as it was safe for them to travel.

Thomas grew up in the same St. Croix neighborhood as Alfonso “Piggy” Gerard, the first important professional baseball player from the Virgin Islands and the only Virgin Islander who played in the Negro Leagues.  Gerard was about a decade older than Thomas, but they later played professionally together for eight years for the Santurce Cangrejeros (Crabbers) of the Puerto Rican Winter League.

During Thomas’ youth in the Virgin Islands, the most popular sport was cricket, and that is what Thomas’ father and most of the fathers of the Virgin Islands’ first wave of major league players played.  A notable exception is Al McBean‘s father O’Neal McBean,  who was one of the best pitchers in the Islands’ nascent amateur baseball scene.

By the time Thomas was a teenager, there were four amateur baseball teams on St. Croix in which to develop young players.  However, Thomas did not quickly enter professional baseball.  Instead, he enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 or 18 in 1943 and remained in the service through 1949.  He was stationed in the much larger Puerto Rico during this time, where he was able to continue playing amateur baseball at a level better than that available on St. Croix.

One of his most memorable experiences during this period was an amateur competition in which he played for a Puerto Rican team in Cartegena, Columbia.  According to Thomas, while he was playing left field, a couple of what he calls “Indians,” wearing loin clothes and with matted down hair, came to down to observe the game.  The “Indians” thew something over the fence, but Thomas could not see what it was.  When he investigated, it turned out to be a snake, and that was the last time Thomas was willing to play in the outfield that game.

Thomas’ Puerto Rican Winter League career began in the winter of 1949-1950, and Thomas played on five Puerto Rican Champion Crabbers’ teams during his 13 years with the club and thus in five Caribbean Series during those years.  In one game in the 1950-1951 season, he was spiked on the hand by Puerto Rican star Vic Power on a play at the plate (Thomas was by now playing catcher) and a couple of his teammates asked if Thomas thought the spiking was intentional or an accident.  If the former, Thomas claims, the teammates pulled out knives and showed Thomas where they intended to stab Power.

In the summer of 1951, signed to play for St. Jean, a town 20 miles outside of Montreal, in the Class C Provincial League.  St. Jean had a working relationship with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it was common in the early integration era for major league organizations to send newly signed young black and Latino players to play in Canada, where their presence on integrated teams was much less controversial than in the U.S.

Although Thomas played well in Canada, batting .296 and playing all over the field based on the team’s need, he quit after the season because of economic reasons.  According to Thomas, he made $400 a month in 1951, and Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey sent him a contract for 1952 offering only $350 a month.  Thomas “voluntarily retired” in order to protect his future eligibility, but what he actually did was spend the next three summers playing professionally in the Dominican Republic, where he was paid $1,100 a month to play fewer games each week.  Of course, Thomas also continued to play professionally during the winters in Puerto Rico.

Valmy Thomas split catching duties with Harry Chiti on the Santurce Crabbers 1954-1955 team, a team which Don Zimmer has called the greatest Winter League team of all-time.  The club featured Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Bob Thurman in the outfield and contained numerous other major league and former Negro League players.

In the summer of 1955, Thomas returned to St. Jean after the Dominican League switched to a winter schedule.  The Crabbers owner Pedrin Zorilla had a good working relationship with New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham and after playing back in the Pirates organization, the Giants selected Thomas in the Rule 5 Draft that winter.

In 1956, Thomas was initially assigned to the Minneapolis Millers, the Giants’ top farm team.  However, it was a cold spring in Minneapolis, and Thomas threatened to quit and return to the Caribbean.  Instead, Thomas was able to convince the Giants to assign him to their Albuquerque club in the lower level Western League.  There Thomas batted .366 with power.

Thomas was apparently offered a September call-up to the Giants, but instead elected to return to Puerto Rico to prepare for winter ball, because Thomas said he didn’t want to sit on the bench in New York.  In the spring of 1957, he came into the Giants’ camp expecting assignment to AAA Minneapolis again.  However, a strong spring performance and injuries to catchers ahead of him on the team’s depth chart enabled Thomas to make the major league squad out of Spring Training.

Ever the sharp businessman, Thomas was irked when Stoneham’s son in law Chub Feeney tried to play a fast one on Thomas’ 1957 contract.  According to Thomas, the team’s major league minimum was $6,000, but a player automatically earned $7,500 if he made the team out of Spring Training.  Feeney represented the additional $1,500 as a “raise” even though Thomas had made the team out of Spring Training and the team was in Thomas’ understanding obligated to pay him the higher figure.  Thomas complained about it Horace Stoneham, and Stoneham offered to raise Thomas’s contract to $8,500.

Thomas was the Giants’ leading catcher during the team’s last season in New York.  He played in 88 games and slashed .249/.296/.390 and played his customary strong defense, throwing out 12 of 28 (43%) attempted base stealers. After the season ended, he returned to the Virgin Islands for a islands-wide Valmy Thomas Day to celebrate him as the first local player to reach and succeed in the major leagues.

However, Thomas was already 31 years old in 1957, and he became the back-up to the younger rookie Bob Schmidt in 1958, the team’s first season in San Francisco.  He played about as well as he had the year before in a more limited role, but he was traded along with Crabbers’ battery mate Ruben Gomez that off-season to the Phillies for Jack Sanford.  Sanford became a star for the Giants, winning 24 games in 1962, but Gomez and Thomas were reaching the end of their major league careers.

Thomas played 66 games for the 1959 Phillies, but only batted .200.  He only sporadically in the majors in 1960 and 1961, and 1962 was his last season in the MLB system.  It was a turbulent season for Thomas indeed.

Future manager Jim Frey was playing in the International League in 1962.  According to him, he was batting in a game in which Eddie Lopat‘s brother Ted was the umpire and was having trouble calling the high strike.  The ump called two pitches above the letters strikes and Frey complained.  Lopat told Frey to get back in the batter’s box and swing at the next pitch, because Lopat was going to call it a strike no matter where it was.  According to Frey, he responded, “If you do, I’ll take this bat and beat you to death with it!”  Valmy Thomas was the catcher while this exchange was going on.

Despite this threat on his life, Lopat did not eject Frey.  Later in the game, Thomas came to bat, and when Lopat called a strike on a questionable pitch, Thomas called Lopat an S.O.B., according to Frey, and was immediately ejected.  Thomas went ballistic, pushed the umpire and then hit him on the chin.

Thomas was sold by his team to a team in Rochester for which he never played, instead winding up on the Atlanta Crackers’ roster shortly thereafter, following a 30-game suspension imposed on Thomas.  Lopat resigned the next day in protest over what he thought was an insufficient punishment.

In Atlanta, Thomas became involved in a love triangle, and on August 21, 1962, the other man, 42 year old musician and mortician Cleveland Lyons, shot Thomas twice in the chest after Lyons climbed in through a window of the building in which the shooting occurred.  Lyons then killed himself.

Despite being critically wounded, Thomas recovered quickly and was even able to play ball successfully back in Puerto Rico that winter.  According to Frey, the next time Thomas saw him, Thomas grabbed Frey by the throat and shouted at him, “You dirty S.O.B., you almost got me killed!”

The winter of 1962-1963 was Thomas’ last season of professional baseball however.  After his career, Thomas returned to St. Croix where he got a job with the Virgin Islands’ government Department of Recreation.  He arranged a Yankees-Red Sox exhibition game in St. Croix and brought down Hank Aaron and Lou Brock to clinics to teach young Virgin Islanders baseball skills.  He also worked as a promoter and brought Muhammad Ali to St. Croix for an exhibition in 1965.  He was also a supporter of horse racing on the islands and ran a sporting goods store there for many years.  He died in 2010, less than a week before his 85th birthday.