Archive for April 2018

Knuckleheads

April 28, 2018

One thing every baseball blogger needs is something to get exercised about.  Knucklehead ballplayers are a great source for vituperative writing.

For that reason, I kind of miss the end of the professional careers of Milton Bradley and Sidney Ponson.  They provided countless opportunities for my digital venting.

Now, if a player is kind of a jerk, but really, really good, everyone in the baseball world kind of puts up with him, at least so long as he remains at the top his game.  Think Barry Bonds.  But the moment the player begins to slip, then everyone is quick to jump in and get their digs.

With that in mind, I’ve kept my eyes open for a knucklehead worthy of Bradley and Ponson.  Some players are just so bad, they’re disgusting and quickly out of the game like Aaron Hernandez.  Other promising contenders like Matt Bush end up (apparently) learning something and turning their lives around .

What you need is a guy who is just bad enough that he hangs around so you can be righteously indignant every time a team that should know better signs him anyway.

A guy I’ve got my eye on is former marginal MLB pitcher Josh Lueke (pronounced like loogie with a k).  You may or may not remember Lueke for an incident that happened back in 2010 when he was a throw-in prospect who went to the Mariners in the deal that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers.

The Mariners at the time were taking a leading role in MLB in speaking out against violence against women.  However, the Mariners traded for Lueke, who had spent most of the previous summer in the Bakersfield, California jail after being accused of sexually assaulting a young woman he brought home from a bar, which even a cursory internet search would have revealed (which I well know: I was one of the first to report Lueke’s legal problem which I had discovered through a cursory internet search when the trade was announced).  The allegations were pretty disgusting, but there was a lot of alcohol involved, and ultimately Lueke got off relatively easy in all respects except for his reputation.

The M’s understandably caught a lot of flack for the move, and they eventually traded him off to Tampa Bay, although not until after he had gotten lit up for a 6.06 ERA in 25 major league relief appearances for them in 2011.  Lueke has a major league arm, but after unsuccessful major league stints with the Rays in each of 2012 through 2014, he ended up in the Mexican League in 2015, presumably because at age 30, he was no longer worth the baggage that came with him.

Lueke not surprisingly had a big year in the Mexican League — he’s got a major league arm — and was signed by the Yakult Swallows in 2016 for an estimated $330,000.  He had a good year, posting a 3.06 ERA and 60 Ks in 64.2 relief innings pitched, and the Swallows brought him back in 2017 for an estimated $687,000, a hefty raise and MLB money anyway you slice it.

Lueke was even better in 2017, recording a 2.97 ERA, 22 holds and seven saves, while striking out 70 in only 60.2 innings pitched.  Lueke had made a success of himself in a league that would pay him major league money and where few likely knew much if anything about his past.

Alas, the knucklehead in him struck again.  The Swallows are a small-market NPB team, and apparently their offer for the 2018 season wasn’t to Lueke’s liking, because he skipped a team practice on October 2, 2017, the day before the Swallows’ last game in a season in which they finished dead last 29.5 games out of the play-offs (team practices in these circumstances are not usual in NPB — it’s a Japanese thing — fighting spirit and all that).  The Swallows suspended him for the last game, didn’t bring him back in 2018 and no other NPB team did either.

As an American (and a knucklehead), you can’t necessarily expect Lueke to understand how important it is in Japanese baseball for players to show respect and for the team to save face.  Still, that’s usually one the first things players from the Americas are told by the foreigners already there, and Lueke had been in the league two seasons.

Anyway, in 2018, Lueke is back in the Mexican League as the league’s best closer.  Now aged 33, MLB teams apparently decided he was too old for his baggage to offer him a minor league no matter how well he had pitched in NPB the year before.

So, Lueke has apparently worn out his welcome in both MLB and NPB, and he’s presumably making somewhere between $8,000 (the official league cap) and $15,000 (more likely if the rumors are to be believed) a month to pitch in Mexico, but in any event far, far less than the $800K or $900K the Swallows almost certainly would have been willing to pay him if he hadn’t stepped on his dick.

If, in fact, no NPB team can or will bring Lueke back to Japan, then his opportunities for better future pay-days are extremely limited.  KBO and CPBL teams only sign starting pitchers, and Lueke hasn’t started a game in his professional career.  A relief pitcher of Lueke’s abilities who wears out his welcome in both MLB and NPB is certainly a worthy candidate for Knucklehead of the moment.

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Too Soon for Orioles to Trade Manny Machado?

April 27, 2018

Only 25 games into the 2018 season and the O’s are already 13.5 games back.  Is it too soon for the Orioles to trade Manny Machado to the Yankees for Miguel Andujar and two or three more prospects?

The Red Sox look for real, and the Yankees are currently a strong second.  Andujar at age 23 is a legitimate prospect, but he’s no Manny with the glove at third base, and he’s at the beginning of his major league learning curve as a hitter.

It’s no secret that the Yankees are going to be players for Manny’s free agent services next off-season, and it would obviously make sense to bring him in now so Manny can see if he likes playing in New York during a pennant race.  Equally obvious is the fact that the sooner the Yankees were to trade for Machado, the more he’d be able to help them this season.

It probably comes down to how quickly the O’s are willing to throw in the towel on the 2018 season, and how willing the Yankees are to blow up their chances of staying under the salary cap in order to bring in Manny this year.  The latter is probably the more important factor, because if it isn’t already obvious that the O’s are going nowhere this year, it will be soon enough.  Once that decision is made, then it’s all about maximizing the return for trading Manny.

If the Yankees are willing to take on Manny’s contract, then negotiations should start immediately, even if no final agreement is reached until much closer to the trade deadline.  It’s always struck me as kind of counter-intuitive that player trade values rise as the trade deadline approaches.  Five months of Manny Machado’s performance is obviously worth a hell of a lot more than two months.

Today Was a Big Day for the Atlanta Braves’ Future

April 27, 2018

In his second major league game, 20 year old Ronald Acuna hit a home run and a double.  21 year old Ozzie Albies also hit a home run and a double.  The tender-aged pair combined for five RBIs in a 7-4 victory.

Meanwhile, 24 year old lefty and former 1st round pick Sean Newcomb threw six innings.

Obviously, these are the guys who Braves’ fans have their hopes on as the team tries to become a perennial contender again.  You definitely hope to build your team around 1st round draft picks and youngsters good enough to start their major league careers at the age of 20.  Braves fans should have fun watching these likely future superstars develop.  There’s nothing like hope.

 

Mac Williamson Is Mashing at AAA Sacramento

April 20, 2018

About a dozen games into the 2018 Pacific Coast League season, Mac Williamson is crushing the ball.  He has six home runs and a .487/.600/1.026 slash line.  Needless to say, he’s leading the PCL in OPS (or Production, as they like to call it in Japan) as I write this.

Williamson was reported to have worked on his swing this past off-season, and it has surely paid off.  He hit a ton in Spring Training and now in the PCL.

The River Cats’ second best hitter so far is Austin Slater, who looked so good in the Show last year before getting hurt.  He’s currently slashing .423/.516/.731 for Sacramento.

Unfortunately for Williamson and Slater, there aren’t currently any openings in San Francisco.  Giants’ back-ups Gorkys Hernandez and Gregor Blanco have both hit well so far.

Hunter Pence and Austin Jackson have both pretty awful at the plate, particularly Pence who is slashing .172/.197/.190 after 17 games.  However, Pence is guaranteed $18.5 million this year and Jackson $6 million over the next two, so they are going to get a lot more opportunities to fail before the team takes the drastic action of releasing them to bring up Williamson or Slater.

Jackson is also one of only two true center fielders on the major league roster.  While Blanco can still play center in a pinch, it does not appear that he has the range for the position any longer.

Other Giants’ prospects off to fast starts this April are shortstop Ryan Howard, starters Shawn Anderson and Jordan Johnson and reliever Ray Black at AA Richmond;  2B Jalen Miller and starter Connor Menez at A+ San Jose; and outfielder Malique Ziegler and starters John Gavin and Jason Bahr at Class A Augusta.

In somewhat related news, it appears that three weeks after the Giants released Jarrett Parker on March 30th (because he wasn’t going to make the major league team and is out of options), Parker still hasn’t signed with another MLB organization.  It’s been reported that Parker wants a major league job, which at present he apparently hasn’t been able to find.

Parker’s failure to sign quickly with another MLB organization is strange, because the talent is obviously there (great tools and a career major league slash line of .257/.335/.456 in 382 plate appearances) and he’s still only 29 years old.  The problem is that if you aren’t playing once the regular season begins, you start to fall behind everyone who is playing whether at AAA or the majors.

Maybe Parker is hoping an Asian team will come calling.  He’d certainly be a great prospect, given his tools, for the KBO or NPB.  However, it’s early in the season for Asian teams to be looking for replacements on the foreigners they started the 2018 season with.

If Parker is amenable to playing in Asia, he should still sign a minor league deal with an MLB organization, possibly containing an opt-out that allows him to leave June or July 1st if he hasn’t spent at least 15 days on a major league roster.  Parker is simply too young and too close to being an major league player for him to keep practicing on his own while everyone else is playing regular season games, let alone throw up his hands and walk away from the game because he can’t find a major league job.

Lee Dae-ho Elects to Rest on His Laurels

April 13, 2018

AKA Dae-Ho Lee is looking like a guy who has finally decided to just stop fighting it.

After signing a record 4-year $12.9 million KBO deal and giving the Lotte Giants one fine season in 2017, it sure looks like Lee has decided there’s no point for the Big Boy to fight the Pig Tiger anymore, with an emphasis on the former animal.  The photo reminds me of Japhet Amador  in the Mexican League, only older and more beer gut, and I’m certainly old enough to know.

After an O.K. start this season in the first half dozen games, Lee’s current .623 OPS after 16 games and conditioning suggest that in his age 36 season, he’s going to enjoy his time until the weight catches up with him and he gets hurt.

When it was a question of him establishing himself as a World Class player entitled to World Class salaries, Lee was willing to work on the conditioning.  Five years can be a long time in a baseball career, and now Lee is through pushing himself away from the dinner table.  Hell, he’s got nearly three full years left on his guaranteed contract.

For a massive 1B/DH type, he’s put in plenty through age 35.  I’m kind of surprised he lasted this long.

Arenado Charges Perdomo

April 12, 2018

Nolan Arenado charged Luis Perdomo today after Luis threw a fastball behind Nolan’s back.  Then, it wasn’t just young men enjoying a game of baseball anymore.

I don’t know if I’ve gotten meaner as I get older, I have no problem with Arenado going after Perdomo.  Perhaps I always felt this way.  I still think Arenado should get the standard suspension, but Perdomo has to know there are consequences for throwing a high pitch Arenado had to think was intended to hit him.

Perdomo wimpily threw his mitt and was able to mostly toreador Arenado’s first assault.  Arenado went after Perdomo again and caught him, but only just as the scrum collapsed upon them.  I hope Perdomo gets at least a five-game suspension, for whatever Arenado ends up getting.

A not-too-long suspension and Arenado and the Rockies may have no regrets.  Arenado has just sent a message throughout MLB that he won’t tolerate pitches like that above the waste.

With Arenado as the team’s best player, if I were a Rockies fan, I’d be glad Arenado went after him.  It might fire up the team, and Arenado needs to protect himself.

That reminds me of a Giants’ story.  Mike Krukow was one of the team’s enforcers when it came to not letting the other team get away with anything.  In this game, I think it was this one,  Krukow plunked Braves pitcher Kevin Coffman after the young and wild Coffman threw too many pitches at or behind Giants’ hitters.

Coffman wasn’t trying to hit the batters, and he didn’t actually any of them, his pitches looked like attempted curveballs that didn’t break.  It was probably Duane Kuiper, who was already doing TV announcing in 1988, who suggested that Krukow’s pitch, which hit Coffman squarely in the center of the back and looked like it hurt based on location and the way Coffman winced even though it didn’t look like Krukow threw it as hard as he could, was intended as a message that the young Braves pitcher find his command around the Giants hitters.

It made sense to me at the time.  However, if I have the right game, Coffman went on to score in a game the Giants ended up losing 5-4.

I also remember Krukow getting hurt later against the Cardinals when leading the charge in one of these situations, inside the eye of the scrum as I recall it.  It might have been a leg injury, like a thigh bruise, but I seem to remember him losing time because of the injury.  I can’t find the game, so maybe I’m mis-remembering it.

A lot less entertaining to watch than the Arenado Show was Jordan Zimmerman getting hit in the face with a line-drive off that bat of Jason Kipnes.  It was scorched, and Zimmerman couldn’t get up his glove hand in time.  Zimmerman was down for awhile but it looks like he escaped major injury.  He reportedly has a bruised, not broken, jaw, and passed the concussion protocol tests.

It serves to remind you that baseball players do risk something when they go out on the field.  That’s part of the reason they get the big money.

Is It Too Soon to Call Shohei Ohtani the Best Hitting Pitcher in Major League Baseball?

April 11, 2018

Every year just before or just after the regular season starts I write a post of the best hitting pitchers in MLB.  These articles are some of the most popular I’ve written, so I do it pretty religiously every year until now.

This year, I don’t know what to do about Shohei Ohtani.  He’s hit home runs in three consecutive games, including one that traveled nearly 450 feet, but he has had only 19 major league plate appearances.

I have generally tried to limit my list to pitchers with at least 100 major league at-bats in order to weed out great one-season fluke performances.  But no one has come along like Ohtani in several generations, a true two-way player who can’t really be compared with anyone I’ve seen play in MLB since I became a fan in 1978.

Ohtani also has an established track record in Japan’s major leagues.  How much credit do you give him for that?  On a scale from 1 to 10 with the MLB AAA a 1 and the MLB majors, I would rank NPB’s majors as a 4.  NPB is a good league, but it’s not the MLB majors.

There is no doubt even with a limited sample size that Ohtani is an elite MLB rookie prospect on both sides of the ball.  It still remains to be seen on the hitting side how quickly he will adjust once MLB pitchers, scouts and analytics guys find the holes in his swing.  (As a pitching prospect, Ohtani has a less of a problem — unfamiliarity is a pitcher’s friend, and as long as he can continue to command his pitches, it could well be 2019 before major league hitters figure out how to attack his exceptional stuff.)

As such, I’m going to hold off on my annual article until I feel more confident that Ohtani’s performance is for real.  With Ohtani DHing three times a week, that shouldn’t be too long.

The thing that excites me even more than Ohtani’s exceptional MLB performance so far, is that his breakthrough has the possibility of effecting a paradygm shift in MLB.

For the last generation at least, MLB teams have a made a decision when they draft or sign an amateur player that they will develop that player either as a hitter/position player or as a pitcher.  Most of the time MLB teams make the right decision, but once in a while you get a two-way player on whom the team makes the wrong decision.

For example, I think the odds are high in hindsight that Micah Owings would have had a more successful major league career if the DiamondBacks had elected to develop him as a hitter, rather than as a pitcher.  Owings was a real prospect on both sides of the ball out of college, but under the old regime, the D’Backs made a decision that he was going to be a pitcher and stuck with it until he hurt his arm and couldn’t be a pitcher any longer.

With early first round 2017 picks Brendan McKay and Hunter Greene, the Rays and Reds have made at least some effort to develop them as two-way players, at least while they are still in the low minors.  I strongly suspect that Shohei’s performance in Japan had something to do with decisions to try to so develop McKay and Greene at least a little bit as two-way players, because everyone in MLB knew well by the time of the 2017 amateur draft what Ohtani was doing in Japan at a level of play too high to be an aberration.

Obviously, there won’t be a whole lot of players so good on both sides of the ball that MLB teams will try to develop them as two-way players.  However, there was always be a few top amateur prospects who can do everything on a baseball field.

In today’s game, two-players could be extremely valuable, at least enough to give these prospects a chance to try both in the low minors and see how it goes.  The American League has the DH, which is ideal for taking advantage of a two-way player, but the NL still needs pinch-hitters and there are fewer roster spots for them now that all teams are carrying more relief pitchers.

In 2003-2004, Brooks Kieschnick had some value as a relief pitcher/pinch hitter/emergency left-fielder for the Brewers. (Kieschnick had been developed as a hitter, and only turned to pitching when his MLB career as a position player didn’t pan out — he’d been an effective college pitcher but it wasn’t a close call when he was drafted as a hitter.) Why not give at least a few two-way prospects two-way training in the minors leagues to try to develop a more valuable major league player down the line?