Potential Difference Makers for the Stretch—National League

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Yesterday I talked about players who could make a difference to contenders down the stretch from the American League. Now let’s look at the National League.

Jason Bay, LF—New York Mets

I know he’s been about as bad as bad can possibly be and is owed $19 million next year, but if someone gets him out of New Yor…I’m sorry. I thought I could get through it and make myself sound convincing. But I can’t.

It was worth a try.

Francisco Rodriguez, RHP—Milwaukee Brewers

K-Rod was awful after he took over for John Axford as Brewers’ closer and it was his poor performances against the Phillies in helping blow two games that led to the Brewers tossing in the towel on the season and trading Zack Greinke. But he’s a veteran who’s got post-season experience and is a free agent at the end of the season. A contending team could get him for nothing. I’ve thought for awhile that he’d wind up back with the Angels and it’s still a fit.

Alfonso Soriano, LF—Chicago Cubs

The speculation has already started up again that the Giants would be a landing spot for Soriano now that Melky Cabrera has been suspended for 50 games for using a banned substance. Soriano can still hit the ball out of the park and the change to a new venue and a contending team could wake him up. Soriano’s owed $36 million in 2013-2014, so the Cubs would have to pay a chunk of it. They probably would to get him out of town and get a decent prospect or two.

Wesley Wright, LHP—Houston Astros

He’s a lefty specialist who’s held lefty bats to a .221/.295/.314 slash line with 30 strikeouts in 96 plate appearances. I can’t see the Astros being too demanding in trading him.

J.J. Putz, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks are 5 ½ games out of first place in the NL West behind both the Giants and Dodgers; they can forget about the Wild Card with the Braves rolling the way they are and the Pirates, Cardinals and one of the two teams in their division still fighting for one of the two extra playoff spots. Putz has a $6.5 million club option with a $1.5 million buyout. David Hernandez will be closing for the D-Backs next year and they’re not going to pick up Putz’s option. It makes sense to trade him and save that buyout money while getting a prospect or two from a contender, which they are not.

Luke Gregerson, RHP—San Diego Padres

The Padres aren’t selling. In fact, they’ve signed several players who might’ve been available—Huston Street, Carlos Quentin, Mark Kotsay (?)—to contract extensions; but they reportedly offered Gregerson to the Mets for Daniel Murphy. I’ve always liked Gregerson and if he’s available, he can help someone. I doubt they’re trading him though. He’s under team control for two more seasons.

Rafael Betancourt, RHP—Colorado Rockies

Betancourt could help multiple teams a great deal as a set-up man, but the Rockies haven’t shown the willingness to make any trades of their veterans and with the change in the power structure from Dan O’Dowd as the GM to Bill Geivett taking charge of the big league operation, it’s still unclear as to what’s going on in Colorado. I doubt they’ll do anything significant until the season’s over. Betancourt is signed for 2013 with a reasonable option for 2014 and unless an interested team gets crazy with an offer, they’re not moving him.

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Ken Kendrick Channels His Inner Steinbrenner

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Part of being the best and highest paid player on a team is taking the brunt when the team isn’t playing well. It’s with that in mind that Justin Upton can’t complain when Diamondbacks’ managing general partner Ken Kendrick calls him out on his slow start—Arizona Republic Story.

Upton has MVP potential and at 24, he should be putting up better numbers than a .243/.340/.365 slash line with 5 homers. It’s June. The Diamondbacks had high hopes for 2012 after a stunning 2011 NL West title and near miss of going to the NLCS. They traded for Trevor Cahill and signed Jason Kubel. These moves were made for a World Series run.

Of course it was absurd to expect Ryan Roberts to repeat his 2011 breakout/career season; Paul Goldschmidt isn’t fully established at first base; and Chris Young was injured after a hot start. Although he’s pitched better of late, if anyone needs to be called out for performance, it’s closer J.J. Putz.

But Upton is the main main in Arizona, so he has to take the hits for his teammates. That’s how it works. Publicly Upton put up a brave front in response to the Kendrick comments. Whether or not he’s upset or insulted by them privately is irrelevant. There’s a simple solution: start hitting.

As for the Kendrick negativity heaped on Stephen Drew, it’s illogical to think that Drew doesn’t want to play even though that same criticism was often levied against his brother J.D. Drew. Is it possible that Stephen Drew is thinking about the future and looking to other venues when he becomes a free agent? Yes. Is it the family history and that he’s represented by Scott Boras that adds to the perception? Yes. But he’s got a contract option with the Diamondbacks for 2013 at $10 million. If he’s looking forward to free agency or wants a contract extension, wouldn’t it make more sense that he get out and play well rather than sit on the sidelines and wait for the Diamondbacks to decline his option after this season, which they’re obviously going to do? No one’s paying him big money after this year. In fact, as a free agent he’ll get a Major League contract, but it will be incentive-laden and short-term.

Kendrick’s frustration is not an excuse for these comments. It’s irresponsible and foolish for any front office person to question a player’s commitment when he’s returning from injury. There’s a difference between being injured and being a malingerer and Drew’s ankle was seriously injured. It’s hard to believe he’s sitting out purposefully.

Kendrick and many observers were expecting more than 27-30 and 9 games out of first place from these Diamondbacks; but it may be that the team had very high hopes and isn’t good enough to achieve them. If that’s the case, castigating the players isn’t going to help Kendrick or anyone in the organization. In fact, it’s probably going to make things worse.

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Believe It Or Don’t—The Bad (National League)

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In recent days, I’ve looked at teams that were either underachieving or overachieving based on expectations. Let’s check the National League underachievers (or achievers as the case may be).

  • Miami Marlins

What they’re doing.

The Marlins are 23-19 and in 3rd place in the NL East, 2 1/2 games behind the Braves.

How they’re doing it.

Their starting pitching has helped them overcome Heath Bell’s rancid first two months, a shaky overall bullpen and struggling lineup.

Bell’s been better in his last several outings, but no one, nowhere in Miami is going to feel comfortable with him closing an important late season game against any contender.

The lineup, which was supposed to be a strength, is 13th in the NL in runs scored. Jose Reyes hasn’t been the sparkplug they thought they were getting and his defense is drastically declining. Emilio Bonifacio is on the disabled list; John Buck and Gaby Sanchez are both hitting under .200 with Sanchez just having been sent to the minors; Logan Morrison has 2 homers; most glaringly and concerning (not counting last night’s game), Hanley Ramirez has played in a combined 133 games in 2011-2012 and hit 17 homers with a slash line of .259/.323/.412.

Then there’s the Ozzie Guillen-Fidel Castro controversy that, luckily for the Marlins, died down.

In addition to all of that, there’s the new ballpark and newly remodeled club and a still-underwhelming attendance that’s 8th in the National League.

Believe it or don’t?

I’d be very worried about Ramirez. With their starting pitching and Josh Johnson finding his form, they’ll have enough to loiter around contention, but their hitting and bullpen are so problematic that being barely over .500 is pretty much it for the Marlins.

Believe it.

  • Philadelphia Phillies

What they’re doing.

The Phillies are 21-22, in last place in the NL East and 5 games behind the Braves.

How they’re doing it.

They’re without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard; Jimmy Rollins is hitting around .230; they’re carrying hitters like Freddy Galvis who’s not ready for the big leagues; and playing role players Ty Wigginton and John Mayberry Jr. regularly.

Roy Halladay hasn’t been his normal, machine-like self. Cliff Lee was on the disabled list and Vance Worley is on the disabled list. Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton have picked up the slack and helped the Phillies stay competitive through their injuries and offensive malaise.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it and don’t listen to Jim Bowden/schlocky websites/trolling columnists when they suggest that the Phillies are going to be sellers at the trading deadline. They’re not selling anything unless they’re 20 games under .500, and that’s not going to happen.

The Phillies will be back at or near the top of the NL East by the time the season is over.

  • Milwaukee Brewers

What they’re doing.

The Brewers are 17-25 and 6 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central.

How they’re doing it.

Losing Prince Fielder was bad enough, but his designated kindasorta replacement in the lineup, Aramis Ramirez, is hitting .218 with 3 homers; his actual replacement at first base, Mat Gamel, blew out his knee; and for good (or bad) measure, shortstop Alex Gonzalez blew his knee out as well.

The starting pitching has been good and the bullpen hasn’t.

Ryan Braun has picked up where he left off from his MVP season in 2011 and—presumably—he’s not going to be stupid enough to do anything that might cause a failed PED test.

Believe it or don’t?

This team is flawed and short-handed offensively. They have the pitching to get back within striking distance of a playoff spot, but unless they hit, they’re a .500 team at best.

Believe it.

  • San Francisco Giants

What they’re doing.

The Giants are 22-20, 7 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

They’ve lost closer Brian Wilson for the season, but their bullpen is still deep enough even without their horse. Starting pitching is carrying them and that’s with Tim Lincecum carting around an ERA over six.

Their hitting has been better than the popgun it was in the past, but pitching is what carries the Giants.

Believe it or don’t?

Don’t believe it. The Giants are better than a .500 team and once Lincecum gets straightened out and Pablo Sandoval is back healthy, they’ll be in the thick of the playoff race.

  • Arizona Diamondbacks

What they’re doing.

The Diamondbacks are 19-24 and 10 1/2 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West.

How they’re doing it.

A lot went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011, especially in the bullpen. The lineup has black spots. Chris Young is just off the disabled list and they’re waiting for Stephen Drew.

Paul Goldschmidt and Ryan Roberts have a combined 4 homers. You can’t win with Willie Bloomquist playing every day and your first and third basemen not hitting the ball out of the park.

Trevor Cahill is 2-4 and that’s with a .262 BAbip. Imagine if he wasn’t as lucky as he’s been. Ian Kennedy has an ERA of nearly 4.5 and is leading the National League in hits allowed.

J.J. Putz has been a calamity as the closer.

Believe it or don’t?

Believe it. Their luck from 2011 has abandoned them and they’re plainly and simply not that good.

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National League Fantasy Sleepers

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Let’s look at some fantasy sleepers in the National League.

Mike Minor, LHP—Atlanta Braves

He got a lot of grief for what was perceived to be a “play me or trade me” demand that he start the season in the big leagues in the Braves’ starting rotation.

It wasn’t that kind of demand at all, but that’s how it was taken.

Putting that aside, with Tim Hudson recovering from back surgery Minor is going to have to start the season in the big leagues. He’ll want to get off to a good start to stake his claim in the rotation and validate his assertion that he belongs.

He racks up the strikeouts, hits hits/innings pitched ratio is great and he doesn’t allow a lot of home runs or walks.

John Mayberry Jr., OF/1B—Philadelphia Phillies

Mayberry has never gotten the chance to play regularly from the start of the season onward, but will in 2012.

With Ryan Howard’s return date increasingly uncertain after the procedure to clean up the infection in his surgical wound, there’s even more reason to pick up Mayberry. The Phillies’ situation in left field is in flux and he’ll also play some first base.

He has 25-30 homer potential.

Chase Utley, 2B—Philadelphia Phillies

Looking at his basic stats, it appears as if he’s on the decline due to age and injury.

It’s nonsense.

Utley has hit in notoriously bad luck in the past two seasons. His BAbip was .288 in 2010, .269 in 2011. He stole 14 bases without getting caught after returning from his knee injury. His power numbers were right in line with what he normally produces.

Utley’s going to have a big comeback year.

Chris Coghlan, INF/OF—Miami Marlins

He may have worn out his welcome with the newly star-studded Marlins, as injuries and bickering with the front office have diminished the former NL Rookie of the Year to a forgotten man.

The Marlins don’t have a prototypical centerfielder on the roster (they’re intent on going with Emilio Bonifacio), Coghlan can play the position defensively and his bat can rebound. He’ll get one last shot with the Marlins; otherwise he’s trade bait and is worth the risk in the hopes of a return to what he once was.

Frank Francisco, RHP—New York Mets

He’s not a great closer, but he strikes out over a batter an inning. If you need someone to get you some saves and don’t want to pay for them, he’s going to be cheap.

These are the Mets and fantasy mirrors reality.

Or reality mirrors fantasy.

Or both reflect a nightmare. Or circumstances.

Or all of the above.

Jonathan Lucroy, C—Milwaukee Brewers

Lucroy has a career minor league OPS of .838 and an OBP of .379. He’s hit 20 homers in a season in the minors and hit 12 in the big leagues last season.

He’ll be cheap and there’s major room for improvement.

Alex Presley, OF—Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates’ outfield situation flanking Andrew McCutchen isn’t set. Presley can run and had an .804 OPS in 231 plate appearances in the big leagues last season.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP—Chicago Cubs

The Cubs are going to trade Carlos Marmol at some point and someone—either Samardzija or Kerry Wood—will have to take over as closer. It makes no sense to use Wood at this stage of his career.

Samardzija overcame his control issues for the most part and struck out 87 in 88 innings last season.

Bud Norris, RHP—Houston Astros

Norris isn’t going to win many games for the Astros, but he strikes out close to a batter per inning and has had excellent hits/innings pitched ratios at every level.

David Hernandez, RHP—Arizona Diamondbacks

I don’t trust J.J. Putz to stay healthy and Hernandez saved 11 games in Putz’s absence last season.

Hernandez struck out 77 in 69 innings and allowed 49 hits.

Cory Luebke, LHP—San Diego Padres

Luebke struck out 154 in 139 innings last season and allowed 105 hits.

He began 2011 in the bullpen, but moved to the starting rotation in the second half. He’ll be a full-time starter in 2012.

Jerry Sands, OF—Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers circumstances in left and right field aren’t settled. Juan Rivera is slated to start in left and Andre Ethier is a free agent at the end of the season and is a good bet to be traded.

Sands has posted huge power numbers in the minors—stats—and has the speed to steal 15-20 bases.

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The Jose Reyes Free Agency Profile

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Name: Jose Reyes


Position: Shortstop.

Vital Statistics: Age-28; Height-6’1″; Weight-200; signed by the New York Mets as an undrafted free agent in 1999.

Agent: Peter Greenberg.

Might he return to the Mets? Yes.

Teams that could use and pay him: New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Atlanta Braves; Florida Marlins; St. Louis Cardinals; Milwaukee Brewers; Cincinnati Reds; Chicago Cubs; San Francisco Giants; Los Angeles Dodgers; Boston Red Sox; Detroit Tigers; Kansas City Royals; Minnesota Twins; Los Angeles Angels; Seattle Mariners.

Positives:

Reyes is unstoppable when he’s healthy. He can hit for average and some power; he provides extra base hits and loads of triples; he can steal 70-80 bases; is a superior defensive shortstop with a cannon for an arm; and he’s a switch-hitter.

His personality is infectious; he excites people by his mere presence; he’s intelligent, well-spoken and charming.

As he showed with his display during the first half of the season, when Reyes is sufficiently motivated, he’s one of the most dynamic players in baseball. Any club will be better with him at the top of their lineup and in the field. His pricetag won’t be as heavy now as it looked like it was going to be in July; while it sounds strange that a team could get an MVP candidate and Gold Glover at a discount even if they’re paying as much as $130 million, that will be the case if he’s physically sound.

Negatives:

His frequent hamstring injuries are a big concern. He doesn’t walk. And once his speed begins to decline, it’s reasonable to wonder whether a team will be paying $20 million annually for a singles and doubles hitter who’ll hit 10 homers a year and is losing several steps defensively.

It must be understood that there’s always the potential for a pulled or torn hamstring that will keep him out for months or possibly an entire season.

Reality:

Amid all the criticisms doled out to the Mets for failing to lock Reyes up before this; the rumors that they’re reluctant to keep him at whatever cost or are planning a face-saving offer without intending it to succeed; and the fear of the unknown without him, it’s selectively ignored that the Mets have made the mistake of overpaying to sign, trade for and/or keep players due to fan reaction and desperation.

Does it really matter why the Mets let him leave if they choose to do so?

If it’s financially-related or a cold-blooded analysis that he’s not worth it, isn’t that why they hired Sandy Alderson as GM in the first place—because they’re running the team like a business and not to cater to the fans desires if they’re going to hinder their rebuilding attempts?

References to the Red Sox and Yankees as teams who don’t make such calculations are ridiculous.

It was the Red Sox who traded Nomar Garciaparra and allowed Pedro Martinez and Jason Bay to leave as free agents because, in order, they didn’t like Nomar’s attitude and contractual demands; Pedro’s arm had been judged to have only a year or two left before a full breakdown; and they didn’t want to pay Bay for the full 4-5 years it would’ve taken to keep him.

They were right about the first two; Bay would’ve been fine had he stayed in Boston.

The Yankees let both Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui walk after winning a World Series they wouldn’t have won without them; GM Brian Cashman didn’t want to re-sign Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada and he was right in both cases.

This concept that the Mets are at fault for Reyes’s hamstring problems is as stupid as the Cashman suggestion that the Mets were at fault for his decision to give Pedro Feliciano an $8 million package for what looks like will be nothing. The Yankees “superior” medical staff okayed the deal for Feliciano; the Red Sox misdiagnosed Clay Buchholz‘s back injury this season and Jacoby Ellsbury‘s broken ribs last season.

Teams make medical mistakes—it’s not only the Mets.

You can’t build a team similar to the Red Sox from 2003-2008 without enduring some pain of these brutal, unpopular choices that need to be made. To think that a front office as smart as the one led by Alderson doesn’t have a contingency plan in place to replace Reyes with several lower cost acquisitions or via trade is foolish.

Prior Mets regimes were reactionary and thin-skinned; they allowed the fans and agenda-driven media people (or fans who think they’re the media) to interfere and affect what would’ve been better for the club in the long term. They doled generous severance packages to declining and borderline useless veterans Al Leiter and John Franco and essentially let those two have a significant say in the construction of the club—it was known as the Art Howe era.

That’s also how they wound up with Martinez; Mo Vaughn; Jeromy Burnitz; Johan Santana; Bay; Francisco Rodriguez; J.J. Putz and numerous others.

Do they want to repeat the past mistakes and spend capriciously to keep critics quiet? Or do they want to have a plan, work within a budget and build a sustainable foundation?

Whether the budget is based on lawsuits, financial collapses or creating a streamlined, profitable club is irrelevant—this is where they are and they have to react accordingly.

Say what you want about Alderson—that he’s desperate for credit; that he’s got a massive ego; that he intentionally creates factions in his front office to maintain a power base loyal to him—he’s not concerned about what people say when he makes a decision; it will be rational one way or the other.

If Reyes leaves, so be it.

What he’ll want: 7-years, $150 million.

What he’ll get: From a club other than the Mets, 6-years guaranteed with a mutual option based on games played and health for a 7th year at a total of $140 million if he reaches all incentives.

From the Mets, 5-years guaranteed at $105 million with easily reachable options for two more years based on games played and health to push it to $140 million.

It’s up to him whether money and guaranteed dollars are more important than his supposed desire to stay with the Mets. Players have shunned the chance at extra money in recent years to go to a preferred locale, so it’s not assured that he’s following every penny elsewhere.

Teams that might give it to him: Tigers, Phillies, Nationals, Braves, Cardinals, Marlins, Brewers, Dodgers, Angels, Mariners, Giants, Mets.

Would I sign Reyes if I were a GM: Yes.

Will it be a “bad” signing for the club that does pay him? It might be, but his upside and that he’s a shortstop makes him worthwhile—within reason.

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