Tagged: East

Heyward Makes the Cut

It’s now official that Spring Training sensation Jason Heyward, an Atlanta Braves outfielder, will make the Opening Day roster for the big club.  Manager Bobby Cox further said that Heyward will be playing regularly as the team’s everyday right fielder against lefties or righties.  It’s no surprise that the phenom is getting his shot, but the way he’s taken the Grapefruit League by storm this spring is impressive.

After a 2009 during which he rocketed from Class A all the way to AAA and was subsequently named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, Heyward was expected to continue his growth.  The shows he’s put on in Florida, however, have exceeded expectations.  His 450+ foot shot earlier this spring is already legendary and the Braves organization hasn’t shied away from questions about his ability and potential the way most clubs do to protect their young stars.

His organization, his manager, and his teammates are impressed and they’re expecting him to give them some pop in his first look at the big leagues.  Heyward, by all accounts, is handling the attention, the incredible comparisons, and the mounting expectations quite well.  He’s a well-grounded kid with a great demeanor, excellent work ethic, and a quiet confidence that he’ll adapt and find his comfort zone quickly at the next level.

Heyward has all the tools for success and coming up through the Braves organization should only help him.  Booby Cox is one of the most successful skippers in Major League history and veterans like Chipper Jones should be able to help Heyward make the adjustments to life in the show. 

One must remember, though, that Heyward won’t turn 21 until August and he still will face the challenges of any young player seeing Major League arms day after day.  He’s ripped the cover off the ball at every level, but this is an entirely different animal.  The NL East doesn’t have the greatest collection of arms, but he will see Roy Halladay several times as well as nasty lefties Cole Hamels and Johan Santana (if he’s healthy).

It’ll be interesting to see how he fares early on and how quickly pitchers can find ways to get him out.  He’ll be a hot pick for Rookie of the Year coming out of the gate, but I expect the typical development curve with his share of droughts and tough stretches.  However, with his physical (6’4″ , 245 lbs) and athletic tools he will punish any mistakes he sees and will get plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.

If he does have a regular season similar to what he’s done this spring, he will give the Braves a much-needed boost in their attempt to regain the NL East crown and he’ll provide plenty of fireworks and excitement for the always apathetic fans of Atlanta.

Matt Wieters Gets the Call

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So Friday is officially the day the Next Big Thing arrives
in Baltimore.  Matt Wieters, Baseball America’s
top prospect officially arrives in the Show against Detroit
on Friday.  We’ll see whether that’s the
day he actually makes his debut, but I wouldn’t bet against it with Andy
MacPhail saying the team is not bringing Wieters up to sit and watch.  He’ll likely quickly be inserted as the
regular starting catcher and the team is going to let him see what he can do at
the top level.  He’s been great at each
stop along the Minor League ladder and now the Orioles are ready to introduce him
to the world.  Through May 27 he’s
hitting .305 with 5 HR and 30 RBI at Triple-A Norfolk.  Clearly this kid looks like everything he’s
cracked up to be. 

 

He dominated two levels of Minor League baseball last year
and with a 4-for-4, 4 RBI Tuesday night he showed that the imminent call up
hasn’t fazed him yet.  He’ll spend the
next few days staying healthy while the clubbies with the Big Club get
everything ready for what everyone hopes will be a permanent stop at Camden.

 

As someone who personally picked Wieters as the AL Rookie of
the Year, I’m expecting big things from him. 
However, I think Wieters is similar to Stephen Strasburg in that even a successful
rookie campaign may not live up to the gargantuan expectations.  A scout was quoted earlier this spring saying
that Wieters is “Joe Mauer with power.” 
(This was before Joe Mauer returned to lay claim to the title of “Joe
Mauer With Power”) 

 

Never mind that Joe Mauer has already won two batting
titles, two Silver Sluggers, a Gold Glove, and is a two-time All-Star.  Mauer is currently hitting .429 with 11 HR, 31
RBI, .881 SLG, and 1.400 OPS.  He could
be on his way to a first MVP and his best season ever.  Wieters is being compared to, perhaps, the
best catcher in the last 25 years, a guy who is both an offensive and defensive
prodigy.  Even if Wieters plays
reasonably well and is a contributor some will think he’s a bust if he doesn’t
start earning hardware immediately.

 

Think of the enormous task in front of this kid who,
remember, just turned 23 six days ago. 
Not only is he going to be dealing with the pressure and nerves of his
first Major League action, but he’s expected to step in as a regular starter at
the most demanding position in baseball. 
He’ll be trying to learn the pitches, tendencies, and demeanor of an
entire staff, many of whom he’s never caught, while simultaneously learning the
scouting reports of every hitter on every team he faces and figuring out how to
get them out.  While that’s happening he’s
expected to continue hitting at the torrid pace he’s set in the Minor Leagues,
even though he’ll be facing better pitchers who he’s never seen before and
trying to learn the scouting reports on them as well.  Oh, and also he’s expected to be the savior
of a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since he was playing Little
League.

 

Wieters has enjoyed almost immediate success his entire
life, but even if he gets off to a quick start, he’ll still have to prove
himself everyday.  A young catcher in the
National League is struggling mightily this year and he’s already been in the
league for a full season.  Last year’s NL
Rookie of the Year, Geovany Soto of the Cubs, is currently hitting just .214
with 1 HR thus far after last year’s incredible season in which he hit .285
with 86 RBI and 23 HR.  Soto has failed
to make adjustments early on and has been put into a semi-platoon with Koyie
Hill after starting the season with a terrible April.  Soto’s success came as a big surprise last
year, but now the league is on to him and he’ll have to show that he can stay
one step ahead and find the stroke that made him so valuable last year.  Wieters notoriety as a top prospect and the
media buzz that will surround him won’t give him the chance to surprise anyone.
 Opposing pitchers will know about him
and will have detailed scouting reports immediately available.

 

Being a Major League catcher is a demanding enough position
physically, what with crouching a couple hundred times each day, taking foul
tips off the mask, shins, and chest, blocking pitches, throwing out runners, and
toss in an occasional collision at home plate. 
When you add the mental strain that Wieters will be under as he tries to
acclimate himself to his teammates, coaching staff, the media, fans, and
opposition, it’s almost impossible to imagine him being able to maintain
anything close to what he’s done so far. 
The fact that the Orioles are bringing him up shows their tremendous
belief in his abilities both on the field and between his ears.  Wieters will have several things in his favor
that may ease the transition.

 

First, he’s clearly a unique talent.  Not just anyone can be compared favorably to
Joe Mauer and obviously Wieters has shown that he can dominate at any level he’s
seen.  Also, the Orioles are still bad enough
that his performance won’t affect their season either way, so there’s no
additional pressure of playoff contention. 
It will be at least next year before Baltimore
can look at moving into the top three in their own division, let alone contend
for bigger things.  Another big help will
be all the young stars surrounding Wieters in the Baltimore
clubhouse that I wrote about last week. 
He should find it easy to fit in with guys who’ve come up not much more
recently than himself and their ability to immediately contribute may rub off
on him.  Comfort can play a big role in a
young player’s ability to adapt.  Wieters
should find a welcoming atmosphere as his teammates are as eager to see him
(with the possible exceptions of Gregg Zaun and Chad Moeller) as the fans
are. 

 

Once Wieters gets settled and finds some normalcy in his new
routine people around baseball will expect big things from him.  I hope we’ve got another bright young talent
to watch, but I expect it will be some time before we see just what this kid
can do on the big stage.  If the reports
are true, the other teams in the AL East might want to savor whatever length of
time it takes him to get comfortable.

 

Keeping up with the Joneses, and the Markakises

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The Baltimore Orioles are languishing in last place in the
AL East, a position that’s become far too familiar for this franchise that has
such a proud history and tradition.  They’re
already eight games back of the surprising Blue Jays and they look like they’re
well on the way to another long, losing summer in beautiful Camden Yards.  However, the light may be starting to appear
at the end of the tunnel for this team. 
They have promising talent just over the horizon in the minor leagues,
including Baseball America’s
(and most everyone else’s) top overall prospect, catcher Matt Wieters. 

 

Orioles fans don’t just have to look at box scores from AAA
Norfolk to find hope, though.  They can
see the future of their franchise blossoming before their eyes at the Major
League level every night.  They have two
talented young outfielders that are turning in stellar seasons thus far and
appear to be turning the corner toward true stardom.  Adam Jones doesn’t even turn 24 until the
first day of August and Nick Markakis will be 25 for the entire season, but these
two have been putting up very impressive offensive numbers and because of their
team’s lack of success, they’ve been able to do so in relative obscurity.

 

Adam Jones not only shares a name with one of America’s most
notorious felons, errr football stars, he’s also in the Top 10 in the AL in eight
of nine major categories and he’s in the Top 5 in six.  Markakis isn’t just a second fiddle
either.  He’s rapping out hits and
scoring runs at an All-Star pace as well. 
Take a look at what they’ve posted so far this season, with AL
rankings in parenthesis. 

 

 

 

Jones

Markakis

AVG

.363 (4)

.349 (8)

OBP

.420 (7)

.429 (5)

SLG

.669 (3)

.579 (12)

OPS

1.090 (4)

1.008 (t-6)

Hits

45 (5)

44 (t-7)

2B

12 (t-5)

11 (t-10)

HR

8 (t-10)

6 (t-22)

RBI

25 (t-11)

30 (t-6)

Runs

35 (1)

33 (2)

 

 

  Jones and Markakis
lead all of MLB in runs scored even though the Orioles as a team have only
scored the ninth most runs overall. 
Their 68 runs account for 40% of the team’s runs and they also have a
third of the team’s hits and doubles.  It
remains to be seen whether either will get a sniff of an All-Star invitation,
but certainly there’s no more dynamic pair in one outfield this season. 

 

This doesn’t look like an early season fluke either.  Markakis is in his fourth full season and is
a career .303 hitter.  He averaged 20 HR,
38 doubles, and 87 RBI his first three years. 
He’s on pace to obliterate those numbers this year and he can only stay
under the radar for so long.  Jones meanwhile
played parts of two year with Seattle
before getting his first full season last year with Baltimore.  In 132 games he hit .270 with 21 doubles, seven
triples, and nine HR.  His speed is a
huge weapon both offensively and defensively, though he hasn’t yet developed
into much of a threat to steal on the bases. 
Adding that aspect will only make him more dangerous.  Regular at bats have given him a new comfort
level and allowed him to unleash his raw talent and physical tools.  We’ll see if he can maintain his torrid pace,
but it appears this is his breakout season. 
Both players are likely to see their slugging and power numbers slide a
little, but neither is a true power hitter, so as long as they’re getting hits
and scoring runs the Orioles will be more than happy with their production.

 

Jones and Markakis are two solid young pieces that could
become mainstays in the Baltimore outfield
for the next decade.  If Felix Pie can
ever deliver on the promise that made him a top prospect in the Cubs’ system,
the Orioles could put together one of the fastest and most dangerous young outfields
in a long time.  Brian Roberts should be
able to maintain his status as team leader for several more years and if
Wieters and other prospects develop as expected, this team could become a
contender quickly and quietly in the star-packed AL East. 

 

The Rays made a complete turnaround and magical run last
season based on only a couple key young players having tremendous seasons.  The Orioles need some pitching (currently 12th
in the AL and 27th in MLB with a 5.37 ERA) to go with their lineup,
but if they can develop or acquire 2 or 3 solid starters within a few years,
this young lineup will make enough noise to drastically improve both the win
total and the morale in Baltimore.

Halladay Dominates…also, Sun Rises in East

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On Thursday night Roy Halladay scattered eight hits, walked
none, and gave up only one run against the Twins to move to 3-0 on the year and
8-0 against the Twins in his career.  The
Twins shouldn’t feel bad, though, because Halladay has been treating just about
every team he faces the same way since he came to the big leagues in 1998.  Halladay is always considered a front runner
for the Cy Young Award each spring, and he’s lived up to those expectations
almost without fail in his ten full seasons, but it seems like he so automatic
and so consistent that many are missing out on just what an incredible player
he has become. 

 

I don’t mean for this to be a copy of my Joe Mauer post,
with only the names and stats changed.  But
this is another case where a historically dominant player seems to fly
partially under the radar because he pitches in Canada
and every night he goes eight and gives up one, well that’s what he’s supposed
to do.  In the AL East it’s hard to get
love after the Red Sox with Beckett and Daisuke and the Yankees with CC and
A.J., before them Wang, and once upon a time Clemens and Pettitte.

 

The fact is that Roy Halladay can put up a case that he’s as
good as or better than any of those guys. 
He receives his fair share of respect, including the 2003 AL Cy Young,
but he doesn’t seem to garner the same mania that other dominant pitchers of
this decade have.  He simply does his
work, dominates every fifth day, and then gets ready to do it again.

 

Since 2000, when he went through growing pains as a 23 year-old
phenom, he has averaged just under 15 wins and 197 IP each year.  He’s a workhorse who fights to stay in games
and has posted seasons of seven CG and of nine CG twice.  In an era of “quality starts” and the
setup/closer philosophy those numbers are incredible. 

In May of 2007 Roy turned 30 years old,
typically a turning point in a starting pitcher’s career.  Many guys must find new ways to compete as
they get older and start to lose some of their stamina and MPH.  In 2007-2008 Roy compiled a stat line of 64
starts, 36-18, 471.1 IP, 3.23 ERA, 345 K, and 87 BB (that’s 4K/BB).  This year, as he’s about to turn 32, he’s off
to a 3-0 start with 3.00 ERA, 7 IP per start, and 17 K to only 3 BB. 

 

The guy isn’t about to start fading, and when he does begin
to lose the ability to go deep into games (if he allows his manager to take him
out), I wouldn’t expect to see his numbers slip.  He’s as smart a pitcher as there is in the
game and his repertoire isn’t based solely on the ability to overpower guys.  Though he’s capable of blowing some doors
off, the guy can pitch more than just throw. 
He has a nasty cutter and sinker that allow him to keep the ball on the
ground and in the park.

 

After last night’s dominating performance he has exactly 200
career decisions and a nifty record of 134-66. That’s a .670 winning percentage
and obviously the guy isn’t slowing down at all.  In fact, from 2004-2008 his win totals are 8,
12, 16, 16, and 20.  He’s becoming a
better pitcher and winning more, even though the Blue Jays have averaged only 81.4
wins in his ten years.  The team is
essentially a .500 club, yet he wins two out of every three starts. 

 

If he can get to 15 wins this year (he could have 5 before
April ends) and can average that over an additional five years, followed by 10
a year until he’s 40 he will be at 251 career wins.  That puts him in the neighborhood of Bob
Gibson (251) and Jack Morris (254).  A
few more seasons of 18-20 wins and he’ll approach 270.  If he keeps his win percentage where it
currently sits he is among the ranks of Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Lefty
Grove, with only Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana as contemporaries in the same
group.

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Roy is
appreciated and respected because of his toughness, reliability, and
willingness to take the ball and not let it go until the job is done.  That reliability, however, has led to a bit
of a ho-hum nature about his dominance. 
CC Sabathia was beatified for “putting his career on the line” when he
went deep into games start after start last September, willing the Brewers into
the playoffs.  Such a Herculean effort
must be unmatched in modern day baseball, right?  Let’s see.

 

2008

Starts

CG

IP

IP per start

W-L

ERA

CC (Cle/Mil)

35

10

253

≈7.1

17-10

2.70

Halladay

33

9

246

≈7.2

20-11

2.78

 

Halladay did finish second in Cy Young voting, thanks to a
stellar year from Cliff Lee.  His team
also wasn’t in a playoff race, which perhaps speaks more about Halladay’s
willingness to do his job even when there’s nothing on the line.  He wasn’t pitching for a $160M paycheck, or to
get his team into the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.  He was simply pitching because that’s his
job.  He does it as well as anyone on the
planet and he takes great pride in his ability to shoulder the load and as my
Dad says, “carry the mail” for his team. 
I hope he remains durable enough to compile enough wins so that he’ll be
the no-brainer Hall of Famer that he should be, but also so that we get more
chances to watch such an incredible craftsman work on the mound.

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