Tampa Bay's unheralded stars.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Ever since the Tampa Bay Rays became a contending team back in 2008, they have had a reputation as a pitching-and-defense team. It's a reputation that was never more apparent than last season, when the team finished third in pitching WAR.
This season though, Tampa, which moved up two spots this week to No. 11 in the ESPN Power Rankings, showed that it has plenty of thunder on offense as well, and it might be time to rethink that reputation.
It seems as if the Rays have gone from Internet darlings to fairly passé recently, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the person of Evan Longoria. He has long been one of the best players in the game, but injuries kept him from amassing bulk stats last season. He was still productive when he played, as his .378 wOBA can attest, but it was in only 74 games. This season, he has already played 85 games and has matched the 17 homers he hit last season.
In fact, his .289/.366/.525 line, which is again good for a .378 wOBA, is one of the best in the game. Couple that with his usual stellar defense, and Longoria has been one of the five most valuable players in the game. Yet neither the fans, his peers nor Tigers manager Jim Leyland saw fit to put Longoria on the American League All-Star team. That's a shame, and hopefully an error that will be corrected once players start backing out due to injury. But it does beautifully illustrate how Tampa's offense has operated outside of the spotlight.
Longoria is driving the bus, but the rest of the Rays have not been mere spectators. The team entered Sunday with a 112 wRC+ (when removing pitchers' plate appearances), which was third in the AL and fourth in all of baseball. On the flip side, they rank just 16th in ERA and 12th in FIP.
The Rays have been doing everything well on offense. Focusing just on the AL, we can see that they entered Sunday in the top five in runs, home runs, walk and strikeout rate, batting average and on-base percentage. And their .159 ISO was also within a whisker of the top five.
Best of all, it's been a total team effort. Of the players currently on the active roster, the only ones who aren't at least decent hitters are Yunel Escobar, Jose Molina and Sean Rodriguez -- none of whom are full-time starters. The team has the potential to trot out a good hitter at essentially every position on the diamond.
Mark LoMoglio/Icon SMI
After a slow start for Ben Zobrist, his numbers have improved each month.
One of the more surprising players this season has been at first base. When the Rays signed James Loney, it was almost an afterthought. After being imported to the AL last year, Loney hit .230/.264/.310 for the Red Sox down the stretch. Now, perhaps some of that poor performance can be attributed to the seemingly poisonous atmosphere in the Boston clubhouse last season, but you'd have to squint a lot to give clubhouse chemistry the credit for boosting Loney's performance to his current .317/.370/.473.
Always a good contact hitter, Loney has been walking more this season, and stinging the ball when he does put it in play. Entering Sunday, his 29.2 percent line drive rate was tops in the game among qualified hitters.
Also coming on has been Matt Joyce. He had a rough first month -- at the end of April he was hitting just .225/.286/.451. Since, he has hit .250/.343/.460, good for a 66-point jump in his OPS.
Another Ray who had a slow start was Ben Zobrist. He posted a .309 wOBA in April, but saw that number jump to .328 in May and .367 in June. Normally a jack-of-all-gloves, Zobrist has mainly manned second base this year, and having his bat there is a huge plus for Tampa. One of the biggest reasons Zobrist is seeing less and less outfield time as the season progresses is the ascendance of Wil Myers.
Called up on June 18, Myers hit safely in 16 of the first 20 games of his big league career. He had just one hit in most of those, and he hasn't shown much of a batting eye yet, so he is definitely a work in progress. The patience should come once he adjusts. He posted a double-digit walk rate at every full-season stop in the minors.
Still, with home runs like the one he cranked in his Tropicana Field debut, he has displayed the effortless power that made him a top-10 prospect two years running. He has just an 86 wRC+ now, but if he progresses as expected, he should be a valuable weapon down the stretch for Tampa.
Rounding out the group of players that started slowly but has heated up recently is Desmond Jennings. The 26-year-old center fielder hit just .227/.303/.392 through April, but he's been hot of late, hitting .414/.500/.621 in his first 34 plate appearances of July. Obviously that's a small sample, but looking at the season overall Jennings has been well above average. He's one of just 11 players to have already posted double digits in both homers and steals, and assuming he stays healthy, he should cross the 20-20 threshold by season's end.
The Rays have a good complement of hitters and are led by a true superstar in Longoria. Their pitching isn't exactly bad this season, but their hitters are leading the way. As we move into the second half, it's time to stop thinking of Tampa as a pitching-and-defense-only squad.
All-Star roster surprises and snubs.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
This year's All-Star rosters are surprisingly good. In most years, this exercise is hard to finish because there are so many dubious selections and glaring omissions, but this year, there are only a few of each, and most of the problems either come from an obsession with relievers or from glaring shortages at specific positions.
My philosophy on the All-Star Game is simple: The point of the game is to showcase the game's stars, not the best performers for the first 70-80 games of the current season. It's a single night to market the sport and the league around the world in an event that casual fans will watch. They expect to see some names they recognize, and most of the game's most talented players. We shouldn't give them Jack Armstrong just because he got a bunch of wins in the first half. We should give them the best the majors have to offer, because that's how we'll convince them to be more than just casual fans in the future.
The big omission here is Evan Longoria, who is one of the best all-around players in the league when healthy, which he is this year. The roster has just two third basemen, Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado, but Longoria's a better choice than Machado, who could also sub in at shortstop, which is the AL's weakest position right now, allowing us to get all three players in the game (the ideal solution).
The other omission that people are buzzing about is Oakland's Josh Donaldson, currently sixth in the league in FanGraphs' version of WAR and fifth in wOBA. Players who have huge first halves -- really, huge April-May periods -- are selected for the game more often than not, even though that wasn't the original purpose of the game and does little to help promote the sport the way selecting the actual stars would. Donaldson has no résumé whatsoever to support his case beyond 2013, with a .241/.289/.398 line in 2012, his only other significant chunk of playing time in the big leagues, and there's no way I would take him over the three third basemen I cited above.
Orioles fans stuffed the ballot box to get three players into the starting lineup, with Chris Davis a deserving chioce and J.J. Hardy qualifying almost by default -- the AL shortstop crop isn't strong this year, with the best all-around player, Elvis Andrus, in the midst of a miserable season. I would have given the nod to Jhonny Peralta, a strong hitter and mediocre defender, but Hardy's not a bad option.
Adam Jones would have been an adequate bench choice, although I don't think he's one of the top six outfielders in the league, and the fact that his OBP ranks him eighth from the bottom among AL outfielders should count heavily against him. Jacoby Ellsbury and Austin Jackson would have been better choices for that spot -- and for the one taken by Torii Hunter, who ranks 24th among AL outfielders in Fangraphs' WAR this year and whose reputation has exceeded his performance for most of his career.
But by far the worst aspect of the AL roster is the inclusion of five short relievers -- not that long relievers exist any more, other than Arizona's Josh Collmenter -- among the 14 pitchers on the AL's roster. (Do you think that's enough, guys? Why don't you just invite every pitcher in the league, just to be safe?) Mariano Rivera was a no-brainer, on career record and because it's his final season, and Joe Nathan has a long track record and is in the midst of a strong season as well. But Jesse Crain, who has never had a year like this in his career? Or Brett Cecil, who was nearly designated for assignment out of spring training, and had a 5.72 ERA last year?
Including those guys over very good starters who have been more valuable this year, like Kansas City's James Shields (please ignore his won-lost record ... and everyone else's, while we're at it) or the Yankees' Hiroki Kuroda, perverts the original purpose of the game while also recognizing the wrong guys. And if we're all reliever-happy, why exclude Royals reliever Greg Holland, who boasts the league's best strikeout rate and has pitched at a very high level since the start of 2011?
Of course, the AL's "final vote" ballot includes ... five more relievers. We should all write in "a pack of Marlboros," which is likely to be more useful to manager Jim Leyland than another reliever, anyway.
G Fiume/Getty Images
Stephen Strasburg (2.24 ERA) was an odd omission from the National League roster.National League
The NL squad is better all around -- a better team on paper, and better representative of the league's best players. I would have liked to have seen Carlos Gomez, quietly emerging as one of the NL's top outfielders over the last 12 months, starting over Carlos Beltran, but at least Gomez is on the team.
I would have taken Dexter Fowler, a better all-around player, rather than Michael Cuddyer, whose 2013 performance is fluky and who is a brutal defender, with Shin-Soo Choo also deserving a spot thanks to his very high OBP. (I also think MLB has, or should have, some interest in maximizing the diversity of the rosters too; including a deserving player of Korean origin would likely help boost ratings and interest in the game in South Korea.)
I was surprised to see Russell Martin omitted -- both he and Brian McCann are deserving, but the NL roster currently has just two catchers on it, although a spot may open up if Yadier Molina's knee injury is serious enough to cause him to skip the game.
The most questionable decision on the position-player side was the players' choice of Pedro Alvarez, a poor defender at third whose high homer total obscures that .306 OBP, over longtime star Ryan Zimmerman, whose massive throwing problems this year shouldn't mask his superior hitting ability and better range.
I've said before that I think including half-season outliers like Matt Carpenter goes against the purpose of the game, but the second base crop in the NL is so weak that excluding him (as well as Marco Scutaro) just on principle would leave the team with no good options at the position, and Carpenter could fill in at third base if needed.
The pitching staff is also solid, with a few omissions of note but nothing too glaring. Seeing neither Homer Bailey nor Mat Latos is something of a surprise, and the same is true for Shelby Miller.
I don't know if the Nationals discouraged Bruce Bochy and the league from taking Stephen Strasburg -- who belongs on merit, and on star power -- because they'd rather have him rest for those three days. I'd take any of those four pitchers over Jeff Locke, whose 2.12 ERA is bursting with good fortune, from the league's third-lowest BABIP to its highest strand rate, and who has never pitched like this before and is unlikely to do so in the second half. The same could be said of Travis Wood, who isn't even the most deserving starter on his own staff.
As for the question of the week, I come down in favor of including Yasiel Puig in the All-Star Game, despite his scant time in the majors. The purpose of this event is to market the sport to a wider audience, and I've argued for a long time that doing so should mean including one or two young/rising stars in each league who may not qualify until we take their age or potential into consideration.
Even if you think Jose Fernandez is a bit of a reach this year, he's a strong choice because he's a rising star, just 20 years old and one of the top 15-20 starters in the league already. Puig won't hit .400 the rest of the year, of course, but he's showing a ton of ability, he's an exciting player, and he's already got all of baseball -- including the casual fans MLB is trying to hook further through this game -- talking about him.
Adding Puig to the NL roster to join Fernandez while putting a top rookie, such as Oswaldo Arcia (hitting .283/.347/.451 at age 22 this year for Minnesota), on the AL roster alongside emerging star Machado would help broaden the game's interest while showcasing part of the next generation of MLB superstars. After all, it only counts if people watch.
10 under-the-radar 'All-Stars'.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The argument this past weekend has been about whether Josh Donaldson should have been part of the American League All-Stars, and whether Jay Bruce -- who might finish the year with 50 doubles, 30 homers and more than 100 RBI -- should’ve been picked for the National League team.
But beyond those guys are a whole bunch of players who were not really considered for the All-Star team -- and that’s OK -- but are playing effectively this year. Ten performers flying under deep cover beneath the radar in 2013, among others:
1. Ervin Santana, Royals
There were some evaluators who believed that Santana’s best seasons were behind him and there was nothing but regression ahead. But not only has Santana pitched effectively, he has soaked up innings and been as steady as a plow horse for Ned Yost. Santana has not failed to pitch at least six innings in each of his 17 starts.
By the way: He’s a free agent in the fall, and if the Royals ever decide to sell, he’ll join Matt Garza as one of the most popular pitchers on the market.
2. A.J. Ellis, Dodgers
You had better get used to the idea that he isn’t Joe Mauer, Buster Posey or Yadier Molina. But what he does, he does very well.
Like, draw walks: He’s got a .360 on-base percentage, and is again among the MLB leaders in pitches per plate appearance, at 4.40.
He throws out runners: Some of the Dodgers’ pitchers do a nice job of holding runners, but Ellis has cut down 20 of the 37 baserunners who have tried to steal against him.
He got a big hit against the Giants Sunday, as Henry Schulman writes.
3. Brad Ziegler, Diamondbacks
Arizona has had trouble figuring out what to do at the back end of the bullpen, but manager Kirk Gibson has one thing figured out: He can give the ball to Ziegler, who has appeared in 46 games, matching a major league high.
The right-hander has been used as more of a matchup guy this year, and averages less than an inning per outing, but he’s fared OK against lefties, too, holding them to a .655 OPS, with no homers in 51 at-bats.
4. Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay Rays
Right now, the outfielder is on pace to score 104 runs and accumulate 65 extra-base hits and 24 stolen bases. For a 26-year-old early in his career, those numbers are more than acceptable.
5. Luis Avilan, Braves
He doesn’t have Jonny Venters' explosive two-seamer, nor the experience of Eric O'Flaherty. But he has stepped in admirably and stabilized the Braves’ setup situation. Avilan has an 0.95 WHIP, and the left-hander hasn’t allowed a home run in the 121 at-bats against him this season.
6. Ichiro Suzuki, Yankees
He is not the same player he used to be, and he may not even be worth the two-year, $13 million deal he signed last winter. But he is a good defender with a respectable arm, still scores well in defensive metrics, and contributes a little something every day.
Ichiro had a reputation for being something of a distant teammate at times in Seattle, not fully invested, but that is not the case with the Yankees. Manager Joe Girardi has found Ichiro, at age 39, to be something like a poor man’s Tommy Henrich, who was known as Old Reliable.
Curtis Granderson has suffered a couple of freak injuries, Mark Teixeira’s season is over, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are trying to come back. But through all of the stretching he does, all of the daily preparation, he’s always ready to play.
7. Robbie Ross, Rangers
Ross was laughed at a lot in Arlington last season because he was the rookie who was given the cowboy hat and the kiddie backpack and was required by veteran pitchers to carry provisions to the bullpen every game. But he has become an important member of the Texas bullpen, and this season, the left-hander is doing well against right-handed hitters, holding them to a .533 OPS -- including no homers in 99 at-bats.
8. Drew Smyly, Tigers
He’s caught in between the rotation he can’t crack and the bullpen that keeps cracking, and he just goes about the business of thriving. Left-handed hitters are batting just .143 against Smyly this season, with no extra-base hits in 70 at-bats.
9. Matt Adams, Cardinals
It’s not his time yet, and probably won’t be until the Cardinals find another place for Allen Craig to play so that Adams can be installed as the regular first baseman. But every time Adams plays, he hits as if he came out of the womb mashing line drives.
He’ll sit three, four, five days or more, and it doesn’t seem to affect him. Adams is hitting .319 with seven homers in his first 113 at-bats. What a luxury.
10. Chris Johnson, Braves
He came into spring training this year fighting Juan Francisco for playing time, and Johnson played so well that Francisco was pushed off the Atlanta roster.
He’s got a .375 on-base percentage, is hitting .332, and amid the likes of the left-handed hitting Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann, he’s provided some right-handed balance, wrecking left-handed pitching; he’s got a .951 OPS against lefties.
For the readers: What other players would you pick for this category?
Around the league
• Oakland is calling up Grant Green from the minors.
• Jered Weaver was masterful against the Red Sox -- albeit in twilight -- with velocity much better than at the outset of this season, perhaps because of his new pitching mechanics.
• Red Sox manager John Farrell before Sunday night's game, about Dustin Pedroia's leadership role on his club: “He’s the straw that stirs the drink.” David Ortiz tells a funny story about how Pedroia threatened him on today’s podcast.
• Andrew Miller said he felt right away that something was wrong in his foot, that it gave way, and this is why he hobbled around the Boston clubhouse in a walking boot Sunday, preparing to catch a flight back home for MRIs. Miller’s hope -- and that of his employer -- is that this was just some sort of a minor sprain.
But they’ll know more in the next 24 hours, and if Miller’s injury is severe, the Red Sox will have more reason to dig around for a left-hander in what is a weak market for relievers. The Cubs’ James Russell would be expensive because he doesn’t have a lot of service time and he’s cheap (in salary), and Matt Thornton of the White Sox would be cheap to acquire because he’s making big bucks, at $5.5 million this year, with a $1 million buyout of a 2014 option. Rival scouts have expressed concern with Thornton’s ability to consistently get left-handers out, who are 8-for-49, but with three homers, this year.
• The Cubs continue to be at the center of the trade market: They moved outfielder Scott Hairston after moving Scott Feldman last week. Currently in the trade pipeline with 23 days to go before the deadline: Kevin Gregg, Matt Garza, and either David DeJesus or Nate Schierholtz (in all likelihood).
• David Price is back at full force, and the Rays are climbing.
• There is good news and bad news for Yadier Molina: His knee is OK, but he needs rest.
And he’s been the most durable catcher in the game.
• Some Braves are critical of the All-Star selection process, and us. Meanwhile: Brandon Beachy is set to start in Triple-A on Tuesday.
• It was a rough weekend all the way around for the Rockies: They were swept in Arizona, and Roy Oswalt and Carlos Gonzalez were hurt.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. At a time when the Nationals are in the market looking for starting pitching, they placed a member of their rotation on the disabled list, writes James Wagner.
2. Lucas Harrell is not happy about being dropped out of the Houston rotation.
3. The Giants activated Chad Gaudin.
4. Colorado is in the hunt for starting pitching.
Dings and dents
1. Ryan Braun could be back this week.
2. A couple of Rangers wound up on the DL. Lance Berkman told a friend that his situation in 2013 reminds him of the story of the old miner who kept digging for gold, despite warning signs that the mountain was going to cave -- and eventually, it did, before he got out. Berkman could’ve retired, but he stayed in.
3. Yasmani Grandal is going to be out for a long, long time.
4. Neil Walker is going to have an MRI.
New clubhouse vibe key for Red Sox.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- When the Red Sox decision-makers sat last winter to evaluate players -- their own and those who might be available -- some form of this question was asked repeatedly: What type of person is he?
In other words: How tough is he? How will he fare in an intense atmosphere like Boston? How will he react to the intermittent failure that is inherent in baseball? How will this player -- pitcher or hitter -- fight through each at-bat?
The question had been asked in past winters, as one of those in the room noted, but there was a much greater emphasis on this following the debacle of 2012, when the Red Sox -- unhappy with manager Bobby Valentine -- seemed to just surrender on some days. Nobody wanted to see this happen again, so the Red Sox worked to stock the team with players seen as strong character guys.
Through the first half of the season, Boston has the best record in baseball because it has gotten strong starting pitching from Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Felix Doubront. They are getting All-Star-caliber seasons out of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury.
But the Red Sox team that seemed to hate coming to work in 2012 now appears to relish each day -- to do all of the necessary preparation and work, to embrace the struggle of each pitch and each at-bat, to hang out and live and work and breathe baseball. Ortiz clasped his two hands together in the visitors dugout Saturday evening, interlocked his fingers and said, "This team is like THIS! This team is like THIS!"
The change started last winter with that question that was asked in the Red Sox meeting. It started with Dustin Pedroia working with Jose Iglesias -- not only on his swing, but on his mind, challenging him to work to a higher standard. It started with Lackey recommitting himself to baseball, getting in so much better condition that when John Farrell first saw him in December, his first words -- said in astonishment -- were, "What happened?"
The change continues now, in moments like this: Daniel Nava walked up to bullpen catcher Brian Abraham three hours before Saturday's game and asked very specific and detailed questions about Jerome Williams' curveball: How much does he use it? When does he use it? And Abraham answered immediately.
It continues in moments like the Red Sox had on Friday night, when Iglesias was at the plate and took a poor swing. He glanced over in the Red Sox dugout and Ortiz and others were slamming two fists together, one on top of the other in the way you hold a bat, with a clear message: Let's go! Step it up! When Iglesias returned to the dugout, he thanked the others for helping to get him into the proper mindset.
Ortiz raved about the toughness of Jonny Gomes and others, right up until the end of Boston's batting practice, and as he walked back to the clubhouse, Pedroia walked past, carrying a bat and a glove, in full uniform, ready to go.
The game wasn't scheduled to start for another 45 minutes.
"Do you think the [another team Ortiz named] have a guy in the dugout now, before a game?" he asked loudly.
Ortiz was fully into speech mode now. "No way! No [expletive] way!"
Probably somewhere else, there are players who are ready to go very early, and other teams have players who were chosen carefully by their respective organizations and have a lot of mental toughness.
But the Red Sox are having so much fun now, invested in the game, invested in each other. You can hear it in Ortiz's voice, and in the words of others, in the actions of all of them. In 2013, they love to come to work, and yes, that is very different.
The Red Sox will need to fall back on that toughness today, because on Saturday night, the Angels came back from a four-run deficit with two outs in the ninth, and then walked off in extra innings, with Josh Hamilton mashing a two-run homer off Craig Breslow. Hamilton has 16 hits -- including five for extra bases -- in his past 40 at-bats.
From the Elias Sports Bureau: It was the first time the Angels won a game when down by four-plus runs with two outs in the ninth since Aug. 18, 2000, versus the Yankees. It was also the first such comeback in MLB this season. The last was Sept. 2 of last season, when the Braves came back against the Phillies.
Andrew Miller got hurt, and his foot required X-rays.
• One of the most important players in baseball may be hurt: Yadier Molina has a knee problem -- the same knee for which he had surgery six years ago, Bernie Miklasz writes. Johnny Bench calls him the most dangerous guy on the team, Derrick Goold writes.
• Ortiz needs to occasionally rest his foot, Nick Cafardo writes.
• Other clubs view the Red Sox as a lurking presence in the negotiations for Matt Garza, because of the depth he would provide in their rotation and his history of success in the AL East. But as of now, Boston is not seriously engaged in the Garza discussions and probably won't be unless something changes dramatically -- an injury in their rotation, for example.
And they almost certainly will not pursue Jonathan Papelbon even if he's made available, because of his massive salary -- $13 million this year, next year and in 2015, along with a $13 million vesting option in 2016.
Boston's greater focus is on its bullpen, and the Red Sox will weigh options at third base in the trade market.
• Sources say the Nationals are looking hard for starting pitching depth, and they are among the teams that have shown interest in Garza, writes Adam Kilgore. It would be a really expensive acquisition for Washington.
• A few weeks ago, when the Giants were in Atlanta, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy looked at me in his office and said, "Hey, can you pick the All-Star team for me?"
He was joking, of course. But you wouldn't blame any All-Star Game manager for trying to slide away from the task of choosing 34 players, because it's impossible. There is no perfect team, you cannot possibly please everybody, and inevitably, the bigger story is about who got snubbed than who made the club. But that's the way it goes.
The two biggest surprises for me were that Oakland's Josh Donaldson and Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria are both not on the team.
Look, I know third base is an impossible position in the AL this year because you've got Miguel Cabrera, who is the best hitter on the planet, and Manny Machado, who is arguably the best young player on the planet. But I thought that either Donaldson or Longoria would be added, given their production.
Donaldson has a .317 batting average and .533 slugging percentage and is the best player on one of the best teams in the AL West. Longoria ranks fourth in WAR, and is hitting .292.
• Ben Zobrist was shocked that he was selected.
• With the voting, Cabrera gets his due.
• Suspensions are not likely to occur before the All-Star break in the Biogenesis case, writes Tom Haudricourt, who reports that Ryan Braun likely already has been interviewed.
There is no blueprint, no precedent for a case like this: Major League Baseball is investigating the actions of more than a dozen players, and each case is different, with different evidence, different corroborating information, different circumstances. I don't know exactly what they have and when they'll be ready to move, but I'd be shocked if this doesn't drag into the offseason -- and there is a strong argument to be made for MLB to wait until after all of the appeals are completed before announcing the suspensions.
Imagine if Oakland's Bartolo Colon had his appeal expedited and was suspended in early September, and the Rangers' Nelson Cruz was not suspended simply because his case was heard after Colon's? This sort of serendipity could help determine the outcome of pennant races.
• Alex Rodriguez was roundly booed Saturday night.
• As expected, the Marlins dumped Ricky Nolasco, and as expected, the Dodgers got him, without giving up much. The volume of players acquired dresses up the deal nicely for the Marlins, but they didn't get any high-end prospects in return. On the other hand, they are saving a lot of money.
Scouting Eastern League prospects.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Some notes on a pair of Eastern League (Double-A) games I saw in the past week, featuring prospects from the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles.
• Phillies third base prospect Maikel Franco has broken out with his performance this year, building on the strong second half he had in low Class A Lakewood in 2012 to earn a promotion to Double-A in mid-June, where he's continued to hit for average and power, with a .423/.431/.718 line through his first 17 games at that level. (Reading's a good place to hit, especially for power, although Franco's hitting on the road so far, as well.) He homered in his first at-bat on Saturday night, showing very easy power, but overall there are some major deficiencies in his game, and only a few of them can improve with experience.
Franco is a right-handed hitter who gets his hands very high and deep at the plate, nearly locking his right elbow right before he brings his hands forward, and his above-average bat speed can only go so far in getting the bat head to the zone in time. He's very strong and when he gets his hips started early enough he's got 65 or 70 raw power (on the 20-80 scouting scale), although the timing of his hip rotation varies from pitch to pitch.
His approach, however, is a disaster right now -- not only does he struggle to recognize off-speed stuff, especially changeups, but he's only interested in pitches he can crush, making no adjustments to where the pitch is located or to its type. If you signal that you're just trying to murder fastballs, you're not going to see many fastballs in the zone. That approach shows up in his lack of patience, with just one walk in Reading, on June 23, but it will show up soon enough in his batting average, as well.
At third, he's a below-average defender, with heavy feet and slow reactions to go with a plus arm, better than he was when he first came into the system but unlikely to ever be a neutral (average) defender at that position. He's a below-average runner who didn't run out any ground balls on Saturday night -- that's not critical, but it's nice to see a prospect who puts in 100 percent effort in case a fielder boots a routine play.
Phillies fans have asked me if Franco is a top-50 prospect, but the answer is that he's clearly not, even with the performance this year; even top 100 might be a stretch, because he's not a good athlete and the value in his bat will be held back by his approach. He's definitely behind lefty Jesse Biddle, whom I should see in Wednesday's Eastern League All-Star Game and in Sunday's MLB Futures Game, within the organization, and Lakewood shortstop Roman Quinn has the higher ceiling even with the seemingly inevitable move to center field in his future.
• Reading outfielder Kelly Dugan was the Phillies' first pick in the 2009 draft, a year in which they lost their first-round pick to give Raul Ibanez a three-year deal, and has started to emerge as a potential regular with a boost in his power output so far in 2013.
Dugan's tools are pretty average across the board -- he's a 45-50 runner with a 55 arm and might be a 55 glove in right -- but he's got a good feel to hit thanks to fast wrists that allow him to accelerate his bat very quickly. A left-handed hitter, Dugan has no stride, just raising and lowering his front leg, and crouches more than you'd like to see, but with good hip rotation and solid results so far I wouldn't argue for reducing any of the noise in his swing until it becomes a problem.
The lack of tools is a little bit of a concern, but his plan at the plate is better than Franco's and he's a good enough athlete to stay in right and perhaps end up above average there, making him a potential everyday guy in a system that could use a few more of them.
• Trenton had two of the Yanks' top prospects in its lineup, outfielders Slade Heathcott and Tyler Austin, neither of whom is performing up to expectations this year.
Austin looked awful, with a very slow bat and indifferent approach, as if he were either exhausted or dealing with a nagging injury. Heathcott looked better physically, but he's changed his weight transfer from last fall -- in the Arizona Fall League, he had a strong stride where he started his forward momentum, but now he's striding while keeping his weight back and ends up drifting forward during his swing, producing a less consistent path and sometimes letting his front leg go “soft” (turning outwards through contact). He's in the midst of a small hitting streak, mostly singles, but the power might be bottled up until he gets back to the way he was swinging last October.
• On Tuesday, I headed to Bowie to see Orioles prospect Eduardo Rodriguez make his Double-A debut. My No. 100 prospect heading into the year, the lefty showed very good stuff but had some early jitters that led to 2-0 counts to the first three hitters.
Rodriguez was 91-94, starting the game with 14 straight fastballs (another problem), and flashed two above-average off-speed pitches: A 82-84 mph slider, which he'd throw to right-handers as a backdoor strikeout pitch and at their back feet, along with a hard changeup at 85-88 with good arm speed and sharp fading action. His arm swing is sound, although he's not consistent off the rubber, staying over it on some pitches and drifting forward on others, with more effort in his delivery when he drifts.
The raw material is that of a No. 2 starter, although he hasn't missed a lot of bats yet -- just seven strikeouts per nine innings at high Class A -- and I'd like to see Baltimore slow him down until he shows the command and confidence to do so.
L.A. gets Nolasco without giving up much.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
By acquiring Ricky Nolasco from the Miami Marlins for minor league pitchers Steven Ames, Josh Wall and Angel Sanchez, the Dodgers got the starter they desperately needed, while the Marlins got to remind local taxpayers that it was a very bad idea to trust Jeff Loria.
Nolasco, known to Marlins ownership as "the pitcher who makes the money," has settled in as a durable fourth starter type, someone who consistently underperforms his peripherals because he misses bats without power stuff. His fastball is just average without much life; he commands it well enough to get ahead in the count but not so well that he can keep hitters from squaring it up too often, so it plays out as his worst pitch.
His slider has overtaken his curveball as his main swing-and-miss pitch, but both are above-average offerings. Subbing for any of the replacement-level fodder at the back of the Dodgers' rotation -- Stephen Fife or Chris Capuano, primarily -- he could be worth two extra wins the rest of the way. The Dodgers will reportedly pay nearly all of Nolasco's salary for the remainder of the season, which is how they could get away with trading precisely none of their top prospects.
In exchange, the Marlins get to save some money, add some relief prospects and save some money. The righty Wall has a big arm and can ramp up to 97 mph with an average slider, but hitters teed off on the fastball in his brief major league tenure, and he couldn't get to the breaking ball.
Ames, the brother of onetime Tampa Bay first-rounder Jeff Ames, has less velocity with the fastball -- sitting at 92 and touching 94 -- but throws more strikes with it. Until reaching the pitchers' hell of Triple-A Albuquerque this season, he had never failed to strike out a man per inning in pro ball. Both are clear relievers in the majors, while right-hander Sanchez at least has the potential to start.
He was demoted this season back to low Class A, at which he broke out in 2011 with a 90-95 mph fastball and an above-average changeup, though he isn't throwing as hard anymore. His command hasn't advanced at all, and he's still giving up too much hard contact given his stuff, with right-handed hitters doing more damage because his slider is a 45 at best on the 20-80 scouting scale.
The Marlins can afford to take their time with him by keeping him in high Class A and letting him start once they finish counting their savings, although without an average breaking ball, I'm skeptical Sanchez can be more than a reliever in the majors.