C70 At The Bat

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Miami Marlins
79-82, third in NL East
Last year’s Pepper

We’ve been there and it’s a terrible place.

We know what it’s like to see a young, talented player cut down in his prime.  It may even be worse for the Marlins, who got to see just how good Jose Fernandez was before he was taken much too soon.  Trying to come back from that is a difficult thing, even with an offseason in between.

The game doesn’t stop, though, and the Marlins have to try to put out their best effort here in 2017.  To talk about what their outlook is like, we’ve got Sean Millerick, a writer at Marlin Maniac, to give us some answers.  Give him a follow at the site’s Twitter handle, MarlinManiac.

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

MM: Grading the Marlins offseason this year is really a matter of perspective. They needed to replace a player that was arguably one of the three best pitchers in baseball, and obviously didn’t do that. But doing that was also impossible- Edinson Volquez might have actually been the best free agent pitcher available, and pounce on him the Marlins did. They offered huge money to the elite closers, and ended up signing multiple good relievers instead, creating what could be one of the game’s top bullpens in 2017. There are more good players on the team going into 2017 than there were in 2016, but ultimately the Marlins are counting on better health and luck carrying them forward than anything else. Picking one move I wish they’d made that they didn’t, I fail to see why Jason Hammel wasn’t worth the money once he’d been hung out to dry as long as he had. That’s been the kind of situation the organization has jumped on in the past, and I was genuinely surprised when he signed for as little as he did elsewhere.  

C70: What’s the major strength of this team?

MM: The bullpen is the easy answer, as that’s what gotten all the buzz. It was good in 2016, the only members not returning are the two that weren’t that good, and the bulk of the Marlins offseason was spent adding to it anyway. But I’m going to go with the offense here. The club was fourth in all of baseball in batting average last season, no small feat. Marcell Ozuna made his first All-Star Game, but strong arguments could be made that as many as three position player teammates not named Giancarlo Stanton deserved the honor more. Scoring was a problem to be sure, but three regulars all missed significant time due to either injury (Justin Bour, Stanton) or suspension (Dee Gordon). It would seem impossible for the team to have the same degree of bad luck they did last year, suggesting a spike in offense would be forthcoming even without a promised renewed focus on analytics and film study. If health holds, I’m excited to see what this offense can do. 

C70: Can and will Giancarlo Stanton stay healthy for an entire year?

MM: No and no. Can’t claim he’ll do it until he does it at this point. That being said, last year’s groin pull was one of his first “normal” injuries in years. Getting hit in the face or the hand by a baseball doesn’t necessarily warrant being branded as injury prone, and that was what did in baseball’s biggest power threat in 2014 and 2015. If it ever does happen, he’ll lead the league in HRs. But time is running out for him to prove he can. I’m just hoping he’s healthy for the Home Run Derby. 

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

MM: No prospects really worth commenting on, but I’ll go with Derek Dietrich. He spent about half of 2016 batting .300, and came up huge for the organization when they needed a fill in for Gordon for those eighty games. An infielder that can play the outfield, he’s kind of the club’s secret weapon. While my fingers are crossed for health, nothing in Marlins history has caused me to uniformly expect it. If a significant injury (or suspension) happens, at any position besides catcher, expect Dietrich to receive a heavy workload. He’s well worth watching- if nothing else, his name will be a popular trade topic in July if the Fish fall out of it. 

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

MM: Last year I predicted an 80-82 finish, and that still feels right to me. Some holes were filled, some weren’t; combined with an increasingly competitive NL East, I just can’t predict the winning season I desperately want them to have. But I do expect improvement offensively. I’m just not expecting health, or for the plan of masking not having a true No. 1 or No. 2 pitcher with the bullpen all season long to work all season long. I’ll say fourth in the East, well ahead of the Phillies and just behind a Braves team that is going to be the surprise of the National League. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Marlin and why?

MM: Wow, tough sorting “kid feels” from “adult feels” here. Jose Fernandez climbed steadily up the charts every game he pitched; only Miguel Cabrera comes close for matching Jose in terms of the extent to which you expected to see something amazing every time they took the field. And I’m not sure who’s ahead of who there. Jeff Conine is way up there for me as well, but half his career is understandably fuzzy. Ultimately, I’ll go with Dan Uggla. Much like Conine and Mike Lowell, he was the consummate grinder. What separates Uggla for me could be a product of contrast as much as fondly remembering him tying the record for consecutive 30 HR seasons by a second baseman. He spent his whole Marlins career as the double-play partner for the unquestionably more talented but much less committed Hanley Ramirez. Hanley was the star, but Uggla always seemed to be much more of a leader for those 2006-2010 models of the Marlins. While it ultimately ended up being a good move, as far as not paying him anyway, it remains the most I’ve been hurt by a trade. 

My thanks to Sean for taking the time to talk Marlins with us today.  Here’s hoping that this can be a season of healing for the Marlins and their fans.

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Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Los Angeles Dodgers
91-71, first in NL West, lost in NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

The Dodgers would just like a year where they didn’t have to play the NL Central representative.  After losing a number of times to the Cardinals in postseason play, the Dodgers found themselves in October without their Redbird bedevilers, only to run into the history-making buzzsaw that was the Chicago Cubs.  Los Angeles is spending a lot of time in the playoffs, but they’ve still not made it to the World Series since 1988.

Is this the year their drought ends?  We’ve seen the Cubs and the Royals find their way through the wilderness, so why not LA?  These great bloggers below will fill us in not only on the offseason but also what it’ll be like in the first season without a legend.

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

DD: It was a relatively quiet offseason for the Dodgers, but in many ways that was a good thing. Instead of making any big flashy trades or signings, they retained important key free agent players Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill. Despite having the resources, they weren’t expected to make the $192 million investment and re-sign all three. The front office also addressed the void at second base by trading pitching prospect Jose De Leon to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Logan Forsythe. Forsythe will leadoff for the Dodgers and hopefully help out against left-handed pitching, an Achilles’ heel of the 2016 team. They bolstered the bullpen by signing Sergio Romo, re-signed Chase Utley on a one-year deal and signed Franklin Gutierrez in order to provide depth in the outfield. I like all the moves (and non-moves) the Dodgers made this off-season and am optimistic going into Spring Training.

LAD: I guess you could say it was a good offseason for the Dodgers, only because they did do what they needed to do. And what they needed to do was resign two of their star free agents; elite super closer Kenley Jansen, and slugging third baseman Justin Turner. JT was the one I feel like they really couldn’t do without. Turner and Corey Seager are the two hitters that are the most important in that lineup. Those guys make the offense go and without them they would truly be screwed. I was surprised that the front office did their due diligence and resigned them considering their history of not offering long term contracts to anyone.

However both players wanted to remain with the Dodgers and turned down other offers to do so. The club also resigned starting pitcher Rich Hill along with trading top pitching prospect Jose De Leon to the Rays for second baseman Logan Forsythe. They just recently signed former Giant reliever Sergio Romo, veteran infielder Chase Utley (who is beloved in the clubhouse), and outfielder Franklin Gutierrez.

The one move I had wished would have been made was the acquisition of second baseman Brian Dozier. I feel like the front office did not do enough to strengthen the lineup and fix some of the hitting woes the Dodgers had for most of 2016. Dozier is clearly a superior player than Forsythe. He’s a game changer, as his power, and base running are better than Forsythe. In the end I feel like Forsythe was the more reasonable choice. There is still part of me that wishes they had kept Howie Kendrick so they didn’t have to part with De Leon. Either way I think Forsythe will be a solid addition and Romo should have a reliable season in the bullpen. 

CRF: Overall, it’s hard not to think that this was an excellent offseason for the Dodgers. They came two wins away from the World Series last year despite having one of the most injury-filled seasons imaginable. They retained the key pieces and upgraded at second base, all while keeping a very deep and talented farm system intact. They should have more than six regular season starts from Rich Hill, hopefully a full season of Clayton Kershaw, and should be better against lefties with Logan Forsythe in the mix. The only move I wish they would have made would be to get a more proven eighth inning guy. Joe Blanton was great last season (minus two hanging sliders), but he’s in Washington now. Sergio Romo should prove effective against righties, but his splits concern me against tough lefties. Grant Dayton may very well be the best reliever on the team not named Jansen, so a setup-by-committee should work fine. However, seeing the contract Greg Holland got in Colorado, that would have been lovely in LA.

DBH: It’s hard to imagine the Dodgers having a better winter than they did. Not only did they re-sign their top free agents, but they also found out how desirable they’ve become to play for. Both Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen signed below market contracts to continue playing in LA. On top of that, the Dodgers relief staff was bolstered by the signing of a free agent reliever Sergio Romo, and he took less to play for the team.

As for the rest of the lineup they filled a big hole when they traded for second baseman Logan Forsythe. It might have been better to get Brian Dozier from Minnesota instead, but I think Logan will fit in just fine. The starting rotation was rounded out by the re-signing of Rich Hill.

For the first time in a long time the Dodgers appear to have filled all of their needs.

C70: This will be the first season in Los Angeles history without Vin Scully behind the mic. How strange is it going to be without that golden voice?

DD: I still haven’t completely come to terms with Vin Scully’s retirement. I think it will hit me once Opening Day comes, and Vin isn’t there to share it with us. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to listen to Vin my entire life, and my daughters also had time with Vin as well. His absence from the broadcast booth will still be felt in my heart. Vin added a special layer to each Dodger game, and it will be like attending a game alone for the first time after a long-time friend isn’t there to enjoy the ballpark with you anymore.

LAD: It’s not only strange but totally depressing. We’ve all feared this day would come, but you know Vin can’t do it forever. Dodger baseball will never be the same again in much the same way that Lakers basketball was never the same after Chick Hearn left us.

The games go on though, and every Dodger fan must deal with this in their own way. I am glad that Scully went out on his own terms and is now able to spend time with his family. He deserves that. I’ve met Scully in passing a couple of years ago, but recently my Mother ran into him at a restaurant in Thousand Oaks. While eating lunch she spotted him and ran after him. (My mother is never scared to approach anybody especially celebrities.)  Anyways, she asked if he was relieved about his career coming to an end and the year-long tribute to him. He told my Mom that he was, and I understand considering how humble he is. He never wanted all of the attention as he has said before that he doesn’t think he is bigger than the game. We will never forget his beautiful dulcet voice. He is truly the greatest sports broadcaster in sports history.

CRF: Not to justify the Sportsnet LA fiasco that has left half of LA unable to watch the Dodgers, but if there’s one positive to take from it, it’s that it has prepared me for life after Vin. I found my ways to watch games over the last couple years, but a lot of the city has already been without Scully. Add in the fact that he’s called fewer and fewer games over the last couple seasons, and it shouldn’t be too strange. He’ll definitely be missed by all, but he went out in a nearly perfect way and the Dodgers did well to bring in an incredible talent in Joe Davis. It will take some getting used to early on, but hopefully Davis can stick around for 60 years as well.

DBH: It truly is an end of an era. There was something always comforting about hearing Vin call a game, so not having him around will feel weird. Fortunately, it isn’t entirely foreign. Vin Scully hadn’t broadcasted away games for quite a few years, so fans have had plenty of time to get used to him not being behind the mic. Nevertheless, I’ll miss the way he spinned his yarn and painted his picture.  

C70: Yasiel Puig always draws the headlines, but he’s struggled a bit the last couple of years. Can he recapture the force he was when he first got into the league?

DD: Yasiel Puig certainly has the talent to return to the superstar status level he was playing at when he made his extraordinary MLB debut in 2013. Unfortunately his offensive numbers have declined since, and he has not been able to perform to expectations. Transitioning to the US from Cuba has posed some issues for the young outfielder, and it was evident last season that he had regressed to some of his old ways when he was demoted to Triple-A Oklahoma City for a month. Coming into Spring Training, Puig has stated that he wants to be a starter again (whether for the Dodgers or anywhere else), and he is continuing to work on being a better person on and off the field. We have heard that all before. I’m hopeful he can recapture that force that makes him such a fun player to watch and one of my favorites.

LAD: He’s always grabbing the headlines. That’s just the type of player that he is. He has a larger than life persona. I’ve had a sinking feeling that he may never recapture that all-star form he displayed when he first broke into the majors with the Dodgers. I think the league adjusted to him and he was never able to make that counter adjustment that separates the good players from the great. A great player is able to adjust as the season goes along. Puig has not been able to do that. Perhaps it is a mental issue with him, but I have noticed a small change in his batting stance last year. In his first couple of years he always stood so far off the plate and it amazed me. I couldn’t believe it and I often wondered how he would ever be able to reach those outside pitches that caught the corner of the plate. But the inside was his wheelhouse and it seemed to work for him. In 2016 he seemed to be closer to the plate and a little more closed off than before. It’ll be interesting to see if he returns to his original stance on the far edge of the batter’s box. He’s got one heck of an arm though. If nothing else he is sure to be entertaining as he always is.

CRF: Puig is such a divisive player, but I think the key will be for fans to temper expectations with him. He came up and set the world on fire, but the league has caught up to him. In his last two seasons, Puig has carried a .260/.323/.425 slash with 26 doubles. 22 homers and 83 RBIs. Because of injuries, that’s come in 679 plate appearances, which could be one full-season’s worth of plate appearances. If he can put together that season this year, along with his excellent defense and breathtaking arm in right field, that’s a very solid player. His $8.2 million salary this season is below average for outfielders (spottrac has average outfielder salary at $8.7M). He’s not getting paid like a star, and while he should show glimpses of being a star, on this team he just needs to be a consistent solid player with good defense, which he can be. So I’ll say no, he won’t ever be the player he was when he first came up, but that’s OK. 

DBH: Yasiel Puig has been an enigma, and I think it’s fair to say that if he can ever turn it around he’ll be a force in the game. I know the Dodgers feel that way. They are no doubt banking on Puig returning to his former self. So far this spring he’s been below the radar (save the recent news about a home burglary), so that’s good news. He seems more focused on the game rather than the fame that comes from being him. If he can remain focused then there’s a good chance we’ll see a little bit of what we first saw in 2013. If not, he’ll likely not be wearing Dodger Blue for long. I am hoping for the best.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

DD: Left-handed relief pitcher Grant Dayton is a Dodger to keep an eye out on this season. He has an elite four-seam fastball, and his 38.6 percent strikeout rate last season was the sixth-highest among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched. Kenley Jansen comes to mind first when you think of incredible Dodger relievers, and Sergio Romo is also now in the mix for late-inning work. Yet the 29-year old shouldn’t be overlooked. Although he has only has only pitched in 26 1/3 Major-League innings, he is good enough to set-up Jansen if his success from his rookie season continues into 2017.

LAD: That would probably be catcher Yasmani Grandal. He’s really a very good catcher. He hit 27 home runs last year and is one of the top pitch-framers in all of MLB. If he stays healthy he’ll be a huge weapon offensively and does a great job with the pitching staff. Zack Greinke once said he was the best catcher he had ever worked with. Not a bad return for Matt Kemp to be honest.

CRF: I’m not sure that I’d call Logan Forsythe “unheralded” as he’s the main piece the Dodgers added, but he should be an extremely solid player. He’s not a star, but he should be the best second baseman the Dodgers have had since Jeff Kent. He checks off all the holes the Dodgers had (second base, leadoff, good against lefties), and is just overall really solid. There’s not really one thing he’s great at, but there’s no weaknesses in his game. Given the price, I was firmly in the “I’d rather have Forsythe than Brian Dozier” camp all offseason, so I was ecstatic that the Dodgers went that route rather than overpay for a much more streaky player (albeit with much more upside and power).

I also feel that Dayton is underappreciated. It’s tough to gauge reliever value (especially for a non-closer), but there is a ton of promise with Dayton. Fangraphs wrote about it in January and while it’s more than fair to be skeptical about a 28-year-old first-time major leaguer, he could be a giant piece in the bullpen this season.

DBH: Watch out for left-handed reliever Grant Dayton. He’s a 29 year-old pitcher with limited experience in the Major Leagues. Steamer projects a 1.5 WAR for him next season – even though he was faced only 119 batters in 26.1 innings pitched. He throws a low to mid 90’s fastball with lots of movement, and a changeup that he uses as an out pitch or when behind in the count.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

DD: Given that the Dodgers have retained their core players, re-signed free agents, filled in roster holes by making sensible trades and preserved their collection of talented prospects, I feel that they will be one of the top teams in the National League in 2017. They should win their fifth consecutive NL West title with my projection of a 94-68 record.

LAD: I think they’ll finish about the same as they did last year. There’s not much competition in the division. The NL West has been weak for years and I see the Dodgers winning 90 games again and probably winning the west crown for the fifth consecutive season. The Giants should give them some trouble, but I still think the Dodgers are the favorites. The big question is can they break that nasty World Series drought that mars the franchise. 

CRF: This team is going to be excellent. They have the top-end talent and there’s not really any injury scenario in which I think this team would be screwed. Losing Corey Seager, Joc Pederson, Justin Turner or Clayton Kershaw for any extended period of time would hurt the most, but the Dodgers have an abundance of depth at every other position and proved last year they can overcome a lot. Last year, everything that could have gone wrong for the Dodgers went wrong and they still won 91 games. This year, with a full year of Hill, hopefully better health and an upgrade at second, I’ll put the Dodgers at 95-67 and a first place finish, eight games ahead of the Giants.

DBH: Considering their successful offseason there’s no reason the Dodgers couldn’t repeat as division champions. I don’t think 95 wins is out of the question.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Dodger and why?

DD: Mike Scioscia has been my all-time favorite Dodger since I was a kid. I remember being fascinated by his plate-blocking skills and tenacity as a catcher. I discovered he was a wonderful human being as well. Being a naive little girl and not knowing the unlikelihood that my childhood hero would respond, I wrote a letter to his manager declaring my adoration for him and the Dodgers. Perhaps my words were precursors of my later baseball musings as an adult, because it worked. My family was invited to Dodger Stadium to meet Scioscia. That was the first time I stepped foot in the Dodger dugout, and paradoxically not my last. It forever cemented my loyalty to the team and to Mike. He will always be my favorite player even if he now is adorned in a halo.

LAD: I always loved Mike Piazza, but my favorite is Orel Hershiser. I idolized him as a kid because he gave hope to guys like me. He wasn’t a big bruiser type. He was kind of thin and was a thinking man’s pitcher. Tommy Lasorda once said that he looked like an accountant. I could relate to him. I had all of his cards and posters of him all over my wall when I was a kid. He was my hero. I loved him.

So when I was able to finally meet him in the Dodger dugout before covering a game one day I was beyond thrilled. He asked me about my blog at the time and remembered meeting my sister. He told me he would follow me on twitter. I met him again during a taping of the Dodgers pregame show at the Sportsnetla studio in El Segundo. That was probably the coolest moment of my life as I watched a Dodger game with him and Nomar Garciaparra. We talked about pitching, sabermetrics, looked up Nomar’s stats, and “greenies”. He is just as friendly, down to Earth and forthright as I always thought he would be. He is a wonderful man. My only regret was forgetting to bring my World Series championship 1988 Dodgers publication magazine for him to autograph. Oh well. One of these days I’ll get his signature on it. 

CRF: I feel like I can’t really count any Dodgers I wasn’t alive to see. Growing up, Mike Piazza was my favorite Dodger. However, that breakup and Piazza’s subsequent statements about the Dodgers and Vin Scully have soured him to me. I don’t think I really liked a player to that level until Matt Kemp. I still will only wear my old Kemp shirts to Dodger games. I wore a Clayton Kershaw shirt to a game once, Game One of the 2014 NLDS in which Kershaw gave up six runs in the eighth inning (eight total in the game) and Matt Carpenter solidified himself as Satan incarnate. Kershaw is my favorite Dodger at the moment, but I will never wear his shirt again. So I’ll still call Kemp my favorite Dodger of all-time. 

DBH: This might seem like an obvious answer, but my favorite All-Time Dodger is Jackie Robinson — for obvious reasons. He’s a figure worth studying and a man I admire. 

Appreciate these guys (and lady) filling us in on the Dodger outlook.  Perhaps another October meeting is in the cards?

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Sprinting Through Spring

It’s hard to believe that the Cardinals have been playing games for over a week and a half already, isn’t it?  Three weeks from Sunday will be Opening Day, meaning that spring training is more than half over.  Time waits for no one, it seems.

Colin from The Redbird Daily posed the question yesterday in the ongoing UCB roundtable asking how our thoughts and feelings about the 2017 Cardinals might have changed through this run of spring training games, which finds the St. Louis squad sitting at 9-3-1 and tied with Pittsburgh for the best record in the spring.  I’ll leave most of that for when he publishes the transcript later today, but I do think there’s probably a little less angst now than there might have been when the club started the spring.  Things were a little rough around the Alex Reyes injury and there were (and, frankly, still are) legitimate questions around this team.  However, so far in the spring, the answers to those questions have been answered in the affirmative.  We’ll see if that carries over to when the games really count.

For instance, we saw another good outing from Michael Wacha yesterday.  Wacha threw three scoreless innings yesterday against the Nationals and still has a 0.00 ERA this spring.  The Post-Dispatch headline says that he’s “answering all the questions,” but I (and a number of people on Twitter) don’t believe that is the case.  Because the biggest question is “how long can this last?”

If Wacha came to spring and was having physical issues and was struggling, there’d rightly be a lot of concern because after an offseason of rest and work, he should be doing well.  As Zach Gifford reiterated on Twitter yesterday, Wacha’s usually had more velocity after significant layoffs.  The fact that he’s strong and able now does not mean that he can be relied on for the entire season, which is the biggest question folks had about him coming into the spring.

Again, let’s not take anything away from the good start, because it is much, much better than the alternative.  We expected Wacha to be good after the rest, though.  We’ll see how long he can keep it up during the season.  That said, the longer he can go with good results, the later any replacement needs to be considered, which allows people like Marco Gonzales to recover from injury and some of the lower level prospects to maybe make some noise at Springfield and get into the conversation.  I think most folks would say that if Wacha’s still healthy and effective after the All-Star Break, that’s a definitive positive answer to all the questions.

Speaking of Reyes (as we briefly were above), he says he’s going to take this year of rehab as an opportunity to grow mentally, which is an amazingly mature approach to take to this enforced time off.  We’ve worried in the past about what this injury means to Reyes’s future, whether he’ll be able to have all the pitches and the movement and the velocity that he had when he made his debut last year.  I don’t think many of us have really considered the mental side of things.  If Reyes really can pick people’s brains while not having to focus on preparing for his starts and all that goes with that, it really can be a great learning experience.  You still wouldn’t want to go through it, but it’s possible that this year could be what gets Reyes to become a fully developed pitcher, which is a remarkable thing to think about.

Matt Carpenter isn’t going to play for at least another week with this back problem that he’s having.  While he seems to be making slow progress, the team isn’t going to rush him because they don’t want to risk another oblique issue.  It remains to be seen how missing a good chunk of spring will affect his preparation and his timing going into the season.  We know that Carpenter struggled after having that oblique last year, hitting .229/.316/.410 in the second half of 2016.  (He did hit a little bit better in his last 15 games, the furthest away from the injury, but that was still .245/.344/.415.)  If he can heal completely from the back injury, perhaps he can be more like the Matt Carpenter we are used to.  However, if it lingers in any form, I’m a little concerned that we’re going to see some struggles from the guy that will be written in as the third hitter every day no matter what.

Back to the pitching.  I know we’ve hammered in the point that you don’t worry about spring training results and you don’t get too excited about them either, but it was very nice to see Adam Wainwright throw some scoreless frames Tuesday.  Wainwright’s first inning this spring, you’ll remember, was a three-run, two-homer affair.  He threw a scoreless inning after that, then the work on Tuesday.  It would give credence to the hope that Wainwright will be more in line with what we expect Wainwright to be this year if he can keep that up.  We’ll see how his next outing goes before getting our hopes up on that, though.

Seung-hwan Oh is on his way back to the Cardinals after the Korean team was eliminated from the World Baseball Classic, which was probably not exactly what Oh expected.  I think many people would have pencilled in the Korean squad to at least the next round, but there were some surprises in that pool play.  Oh did well (at least, from what I saw) in the WBC and it’ll be good to get him back on the Cardinals to get that one appearance (where he allowed two homers) out of our minds.

It’s nice to see some veterans having good springs.  The idea that Aledmys Diaz would be a one-hit wonder is tempered by his .474 spring average.  Dexter Fowler has been exactly as advertised, hitting .462 but still having more walks (seven) than hits (six).  Jedd Gyorko is hitting .375, but Jhonny Peralta is hitting .294 with three extra base hits.  So far, it seems like everything is clicking and it’s been a good camp.  While you shouldn’t expect the Cardinals to become this juggernaut because they are playing .750 ball in the spring, it gives some hope for the season, which is what spring is all about.

I’ve had a chance to talk with Jamie Pogue for our yearly chat and that Conversations should be up in the next day or so.  As always, for podcast information, be sure to check out our site that will give you all the links you need to stay an informed Cardinal fan.  We’ll play Pepper with the Dodgers today, so be sure to check back in for that!

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Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Los Angeles Angels
74-88, fourth in AL West
Last year’s Pepper

It was another devilish year for the Angels.  The club finished 14 games under .500 and had to have an 8-2 final kick to get that high.  Albert Pujols and Mike Trout combined for 60 homers and 229 RBI, but the pitching staff struggled to help them out, with long-time Angels Jered Weaver turning in his worst performance in what turned out to be his last season wearing the halo.  From a distance, it seems like the outlook for this team isn’t exactly sunshine and roses.

To see if the picture is different, we’ve got four Angels bloggers to fill us in today.  Give them all a follow and stay tuned as they take their cuts at the Pepper 6.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Rahul Setty Halo Heaven RahulSettyHH
Robert Cunningham Angels Win ettinone
Nate Aderhold nate_ader
Alex Alarcon Halo Headquarters AlexAlarcon49

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

HHv: The Angels have had a solid offseason by being opportunistic in the trade and free agent market. They have essentially replaced below-replacement level players at 2b and LF for around league average production in Cameron Maybin/Ben Revere and Danny Espinosa, added a 5th starter in Jesse Chavez, and an bevy of bench, relief, and minor league depth that was sorely lacking. This is all without giving up any prospects of value or taking on bad long-term contracts, meaning the players mentioned above can be flipped at the deadline to boost the farm system.

The one questionable move is the Jett Bandy for Martin Maldonado trade, largely because Bandy has so many more years of control, but it’s understandable given the shift to pitch framing within the game.

AW: Yes, Billy Eppler did an excellent job, working within the confines of available payroll, to improve the team both offensively and defensively and dealing with the legacy of prior team moves (Hamilton and the weak farm system being the two big ones). He was able to add above average regulars to LF, 2B, 1B, and C and reinforce the rotation, primarily, and the bullpen to a lesser degree all without incurring significant long-term payroll obligations which was perhaps the most impressive part of his offseason moves.

If I had to give Eppler a grade it would be an A-minus because although he built some tremendous depth team-wide there are still some lingering question marks in the rotation and bullpen. The organization as a whole gets a B or generously a B+. Did they do what they needed to do? Yes they did for the most part. The Angels needed to find solutions in LF, 2B, C, SP, and RP and they were able to do that successfully without sacrificing any draft picks in the process. Maybin in LF could prove to be one of Eppler’s savviest moves pre-season, while picking up the defensively-gifted Espinosa to play 2B (after Billy struck out in the 2B trade market), trading for the well-regarded pitch framer Maldonado, and bringing in a slew of rotation and bullpen candidates via trade, waiver claims, and free agent signings has created a pool of risky, upside talent that could, potentially, make a difference if at least one or two of those players breaks out in a big way (there are a lot of former 1st round picks in that pool). Eppler was able to improve defensively up-the-middle (the Angels should be a Top 5 defensive team), incrementally improve the offense (which was ranked 10th overall in wRC+ last season), shore up the rotation through greatly improved depth (and relying to a degree on injured players recovering), and finally adding options to the bullpen to create not only competition in Spring Training but to also add depth.

It had been my hope that the Angels would solve their 2B situation long-term by acquiring a 2B such as Cesar Hernandez (as originally floated by the Orange County Register’s Jeff Fletcher), Kolten Wong, Greg Garcia, T.J. Rivera, Jonathan Villar, or another defensively-gifted 2B. However it is my impression that the trade market was too expensive in terms of prospect currency that the Angels just really did not have or want to give at this time. If the Angels are out of the Division race in mid-July they could potentially target a MLB-ready player or prospect if they sell off or they could simply wait until next offseason to re-engage some of the same or other teams for some of the names listed above.

FS: Given the constraints laid on the Angels front office the last few seasons, all courtesy of ownership, they’ve done a great job of filling out the roster this winter. There was a bit more financial wiggle room this year than last with C.J. Wilson ($20M) and Jered Weaver ($20M) departing, but it’s clear there was still a hard limit on how much GM Billy Eppler could dole out to free agents. (Since Josh Hamilton‘s ill-fated $125M deal in the 2012 offseason, no free agent has inked a deal with the Halos for more than $15M total.)

The biggest holes entering the winter were in left field (59 OPS+ in ’16), at second base (62 OPS+), and at catcher (83 OPS+). For the cost of three fringe pitching prospects, a back-up catcher, and just $16M in salary for 2017, the Angels upgraded those three positions both offensively and defensively with Cameron Maybin (120 OPS+ in ’16), Danny Espinosa (81 OPS+), and Martin Maldonado (82 OPS+). They then added some legitimate MLB depth by bringing Ben Revere and Luis Valbuena on, at long last abandoning the practice of using the bench as a revolving door for Quad-A players like Ji-Man Choi, Gregorio Petit, Efren Navarro, etc.

I do wish they’d taken a flyer on someone like Ivan Nova or Jason Hammel to bolster the club’s razor-thin and injury-prone rotation, but I sense they view Jesse Chavez’s one-year deal as addressing that issue. Not sure I agree.

HHQ: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim did a lot this offseason, but they did not do anything too special. First, let’s start with the improvement of the pitching staff. The Angels re-signed Andrew Bailey to a one year deal worth $1m. Last season he pitched in twelve games with a overall 2.38 ERA. A great signing indeed. The Halo’s also signed RHP Jesse Chavez to a one year deal worth $4.75m. Chavez won’t blow away the Angels, but they got him for a steal. However the big “news” came with the signing of Ben Revere and the trade for OF Cameron Maybin. The Angels needed a Left Fielder, and got two average ones. Once again nothing special. What I really like about Maybin and Revere is they can be a duo the Angels need in LF. Together they could form one of the strongest platoons in baseball. It’s hard to see either guy as a solid option for 162 games. However if the Angels can flip flop between games with them, they may succeed with the added rest. The Angels did what they needed to do, but it was nothing fancy. I wish the Angels could have made a bigger move once again for the LF issue, but maybe Eppler is saving for next years free agency….

C70: Even with the best player in the game, at times this team feels like an afterthought. Can this team be in the national conversation in 2017 and, if not, when can they be?

HHv: The narrative that the “Angels suck, trade Trout” is simply untrue and most baseball writers have written this because 1) it’s easy clickbait 2) they are incentivized to see Trout on an East Coast team so they can watch him every night. The reality is that the Angels have won 98 games in 2014 and were 1 game away from the playoffs in 2015, and their 2016 run differential was -10, suggesting they should really be 80-82. They were the most unlucky team in 2016, by both injury impact and run differential.

They absolutely can be relevant in September and October, but it’s all going to hinge on the health of the pitching staff. Among their position players the Halos have assembled position players galore but among the pitching (Garrett Richards, Tyler Skaggs specifically) it could get dicey. Overall, realize that the addition of the 2nd wild card creates parity that the league has never seen before, and the bar for ‘contention’ has never been lower. At present, I would put the Angels over/under at 86 wins, Fangraphs has them at 84-78, and they’re not done adding pieces. Though there’s major risk here because of the pitching, you can see how they have a path in a pretty competitive AL West with two largely open wild cards.

AW: I sincerely believe that this team is capable of competing in the A.L. West and making a playoff run in 2017. Other than perhaps the Astros, the parity of this Division is in a fairly tight band which will create opportunities for the Angels to win games if they can execute well defensively and keep the games close. All it really takes is for some players like Garrett Richards, Cameron Maybin, C.J. Cron (if he is not traded), Matt Shoemaker, Cam Bedrosian, Tyler Skaggs, and Huston Street to either regain their full form or take it up another level in performance for this team to excel and consistently win games and series, particularly early in the season. The floor of this team is high enough to put them in the discussion for the Division race and if some players breakout they will be part of the National discussion too. There is some variability in total team performance that will ultimately decide the fate of the 2017 Angels squad.

FS: So long as Mike Trout manning center field, there’s always a chance the Angels can be a bigger part of the national conversation. (Sam Miller once estimated that placing Trout on any random team would instantly give them at least 60% playoff odds.) What continues to stand in the club’s way is their inability to build even an average roster around Trout.

Much of this is caused by the financial constraints mentioned above, which is how you get two straight years of an abysmal LF platoon when far more attractive options were available. But it is also the result of the organization’s barren farm system—ranked in the bottom five each of the last three seasons—and their nonexistence on the international market. With no money to add quality players in free agency, no options coming up the pipeline, and no resources spent on international players, the window in which the front office can operate becomes extremely narrow and limits the talent pool available to them.

I do think the roster compiled around Trout this winter has significantly more upside than either of the past two iterations, but I’m not convinced it’s the one to put them back on the national stage. Still feels like they’re one big arm away from contention.

HHQ: Mike Trout is the greatest player in baseball right now, and needs to become a thought in the playoffs. The only way the Angels can become in the national conversation in 2017 is if the pitching stays healthy. Last season it was a disaster, as the Angels fell apart early and never looked back. If Richards, Shoemaker can continue to lead that is great, however the pressure falls on the rest of the rotation. Which includes Ricky Nolasco, Jesse Chavez, and Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs is coming back from Tommy John which is always skeptical and Nolasco and Chavez have shown spurts of good traits. If The Angels can have a better than average performance from their starting five, the Angels offense can finish off the deal. 

C70: What is the strength of this team, besides Mike Trout?

HHv: Defense, defense, defense. Andrelton Simmons, Danny Espinosa, and Mike Trout is a pretty darn good place to start. Add in Kole Calhoun, a rangy Cameron Maybin/Ben Revere, and improving CJ Cron and you’ve got yourself (arguably) the best defense in the league. Baserunning is also much improved, but defense is going to be the identity of this team. 

AW: Team defense will be the Halos signature in 2017. This team will almost certainly be in the Top 5 defensively and perhaps could even be the best period. Having great defense will also help a rotation and bullpen that were decimated by injuries last year by helping to shorten innings via routine outs and double plays turned. One other strength this year will be team depth which has significantly improved across the board in every area which was another big reason why the Angels were so bad last year because they could not replace the production lost to the disabled list.

FS: Defense. Andrelton Simmons and Danny Espinosa up the middle are already being lauded as potentially the best double-play combination since Vizquel and Alomar dazzled in Cleveland. Kole Calhoun brings Gold Glove defense in right field, Maybin and Revere boast plus gloves in left, and Trout is Trout in center. Martin Maldonado is one of the better pitch framers in a league now full of them, and he and Carlos Perez both control the running game at an elite level.

The only defensive liabilities are on the infield corners. Albert Pujols can still pick it when he’s healthy, but he’s not. C.J. Cron and Yunel Escobar can’t field well on their best days, but should get some relief late in games in the way of Valbuena and Cliff Pennington.

HHQ: Besides Mike Trout, the Angels may have one of the best defenses in the MLB. If there’s one area the Angels absolutely, unequivocally improved this season, it’s their defense. Newcomers Cameron Maybin, Ben Revere, Danny Espinosa, Luis Valbuena, and Martin Maldonado are all plus defenders, and instantly upgrade the Angels’ defense. They’ll join Gold Glove winners Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun, and Albert Pujols, (although he’s not expected to play a lot in the field this season,) and Gold Glove finalists Carlos Perez and Mike Trout. Even C.J. Cron showed a bit of improvement at first base last season, and third baseman Yunel Escobar is capable of making at least one fantastic play for every five times he botches a routine play.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

HHv: CJ Cron, Tyler Skaggs, and Alex Meyer are all guys who can turn the corner, get red hot, and carry the team for stretches at a time if/when it all comes together. Watch out for Keynan Middleton and his high-90s fastball as he makes his MLB debut this year in the bullpen as well. Many people have made the mistake of sleeping on Kole Calhoun and they’ve all been wrong…so yeah, don’t do that either.

AW: Unheralded implies that the player has been under the radar for a while and with all of the new faces coming in it would be disrespectful to not focus on the players who have been with the team for a longer period of time so I will give you an example of a new guy and an established Angels player from the position players, rotation, and bullpen that may not be immediately obvious and why they should be watched.

For the position players I would point to our new LF Cameron Maybin and from the old guard I would select the reliable, and recently extended, RF Kole Calhoun. The former had a career season in 2016 and it appears to be related primarily to a mechanical fix in his swing from 2015 which the Angels now hope will translate to Anaheim so if Maybin can bring his above average defense along with his 2016 offensive production it could be quite an impact. Calhoun is not flashy but he is just an all-around solid player who will give you a great at-bat and does all of the little things that a good ballplayer should do which is why the team locked him up for another three years plus an option recently.

On the rotation side keep an eye on new-guy Vicente Campos who is recovering from a 2nd ulnar fracture but was once a highly regarded prospect that could touch the mid-90’s. If he can return to a semblance of his former self the Angels will have found a clean peanut that could significantly impact their season. Looking at the old timers keep an eye on former top prospect Tyler Skaggs. At one point in time he had one of the most
wicked curve balls in the game and if he comes back strong after his Tommy John Surgery watch out because he has front-of-the-rotation potential and could become a dominant member of the 2017 pitching staff. Finally in terms of the bullpen the often-waived Blake Parker has been pretty much lights-out over the last 4 years in the Minors for the Cubs and Mariners and now he will start the year in Salt Lake City for the Angels AAA affiliate but he will almost assuredly wind up in Anaheim at some point if he continues to throw up the gaudy numbers from recent seasons. From the old Angels side I am going to go out on a limb and catch some flak for highlighting the above average performance of Jose Alvarez. Jose has always been great against left-handed hitters but this year he also improved his peripherals against right-handed hitters as well. If not for some unusually high BABIP numbers he may have turned in an even greater performance. Alvarez has a career K%-BB% of 15% versus lefties and has started putting the ball on the ground more against right-handed hitters which, with Simmons playing behind him, should result in better numbers in 2017.

FS: Keynan Middleton. Former third-round pick got knocked around in his first three professional seasons—5.97 ERA in 221.2 IP over 47 starts—but immediately turned things around on converting to full-time relief in 2016. He flashed triple-digit heat and an improved slider out of the bullpen, compiling a 3.41 ERA and 32% K% across three levels, ending the year at Triple-A.

He’s still pretty raw, but if his 2017 starts off anything like the previous one he could force his way into Anaheim’s bullpen. Given the team’s lack of pitching depth, it shouldn’t take much for the team to at least give the 23-year-old a shot.

HHQ: He won’t be on the opening day roster, but soon will be joining the Angels bullpen and will make a sudden splash. Keynan Middleton. With a fastball that can touch triple digits and a wipe-out slider, Middleton has the raw talent to become one of the best relievers in all of baseball, a lofty high that seemed impossible not too long ago. Middleton has all the makings of an elite reliever, as he struck out eighty-eight batters in only sixty-six innings, an insane strikeout ratio. 

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

HHv: 86-76, good for the second wild card because of the Mariners. Again, depends on pitching health but if it doesn’t all implode, then this is a pretty fair assessment and it could go even higher if they make more improvements to the club which they are. 

AW: As noted above the Angels floor is high enough that it should take them into the 83-86 win range. What will determine their improvement or diminishment from that range lies primarily in the return to form of some of their key cogs such as Richards, Shoemaker, Skaggs, and Street among others. That variability in performance from those key players will play a large part in whether or not the Angels win or lose the Division this year.

FS: 84–78, good for third in the AL West.

HHQ: Last season, I made a prediction on your website, that the Angels would go 84 wins and 78 Losses. The Angels finished last season with a 74 and 88 record which makes my prediction from last year look a bit sour. However, times have changed and I’m ready to give it another go. The team will be asking a lot from each player this season, especially the pitching. The defense improved for the Angels, however the hitting (besides Mike Trout) and pitching stayed neutral. The AL West improved a lot this season, and it’s hard to see the Angels making a huge stride from last season. The Angels will finish the 2017 season with 81 wins and 81 losses, good for 4th in the league. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Angel and why?

HHv: Is this even a question? Mike Trout, hands down. He’s a legend already and it feels like he’s only getting started. 

AW: Trout is the easy answer to this one, he is an incredible athlete and baseball player and the things he can do on both sides of the ball is simply jaw-dropping to watch on a daily basis. We really are in the presence of a Hall of Fame talent and it is a real treat to watch.

Outside of that modern day answer I personally loved Brian Downing. He took what appeared to be an average baseball skill set and worked hard to be the best player he could be and for a period of time he was a dominant force for the Angels. Besides who doesn’t like a nerdy looking guy with glasses and a really cool batting stance crushing home runs out of Angels Stadium?

FS: All-time favorite Angel is Tim Salmon. I started following the team with gusto in 1993, his Rookie of the Year season, and was immediately taken in. I had a signed poster of him above my bed for years, and I still hold a grudge against Reggie Willits for popping out in the bottom of the 10th on October 1, 2006, which resulted in Salmon’s career literally ending in the on-deck circle.

HHQ: Tim Salmon: If you wanna talk about a clutch player, look no more further than “Mr. Angel” What I liked about Salmon first, was his dedication to the Angels. Salmon would spend all of his 14 seasons with the greatest team on this planet right? The Halos! Salmon would make his name known fast as he was awarded AL Rookie of the Year in 1993. However my greatest memory would be when he launched key home-runs in the World Series. Tim Salmon launched a two-run Home-Run in Game 2 to lead the Angels to victory. Tim Salmon was an all-around outstanding player and friend. 

Thanks to all these guys for giving us a little West Coast knowledge.  We’ll see how well 2017 treats their club!

0 comments

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Kansas City Royals
81-81, third in AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

It’s not like most Royals fans really worried about last season.  After all, they were coming off their first World Series title in 30 years.  It was going to be too hard to get worked up about things if the Royals failed to be as good as they’d been the last couple of years.  Which is good, because Kansas City never really got on track in 2016, sitting around .500 for a lot of the year and already on the fringes of the division race by the All-Star Break.

So what about this year?  The afterglow is over.  And while Royals fans may be used to being afterthoughts, that doesn’t mean that they want to go back to that sort of world.  We’ve got a couple of fine bloggers here, both long-time veterans of this series, to tell us just exactly what Year 2 After World Series is going to be like.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Bill Ivie I70 Baseball poisonwilliam
Josh Duggan Royals Review oldmanduggan RoyalsReview

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

I70: I think it was a mediocre offseason for the team. In my opinion, the team needs to decide if it can build as it goes or if it needs to rebuild now for the next few years. Decisions on guys like Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain need to be made. Either make offers to retain one or two of them and show that they are the core of this team or trade them for the prospects to rebound in 2018. Treading water never sits well with me in this game and that’s what it feels like the Royals are doing.

RR: Well, losing a potential franchise cornerstone made it a decidedly terrible offseason. Moving past the tragic death of Yordano Ventura, they did fairly well if contention for 2017 with an eye to the future is the goal. Ideologically, one could quibble with this modus operandi. The window is likely closing after this season, the acquisitions of this past offseason are probably unlikely to yield a true contender, and there are four pieces hurtling toward free agency that could have probably accelerated the rebuild that seems a probability. The desire to try to win one last time with this core is understandable though. To that end, the moves of this offseason would probably get somewhere in the neighborhood of a B grade, especially considering the financial constraints imposed of Dayton Moore and the front office by ownership. The only move that is regrettable is shipping off the criminally underused Jarrod Dyson, who was the Royals’ most valuable position player last year by both measures of WAR. The four years of club control of Nate Karns is nice, and objectively probably a decent return, but it’s going to suck not seeing Dyson on the field in a Royals uniform.

C70: Does it feel like the window is closing on this team or are they able to make another run?

I70: I think the window is closed, if they don’t make an effort to improve. They have a solid core of talent, but it’s going to take more to make another run. Given the recent tragic loss of Yordano Ventura, the pitching staff is not ready for a deep run at all.

RR: As a realist (though some would deem me an eternal pessimist), it sure seems like the window is just barely ajar. With a lot of breaks where returns to the performances of 2014 and 2015 are seen and Jorge Soler finally breaks out, it’s not difficult to squint and see a return to contender status for the club. But that comes with little margin for error. Past this season though, it’s hard to see how the major-league club can replace the near-certain departures of a slew of their core with this depleted farm system. Many say the farm is in this state because they went for it in 2014 and 2015, but that conveniently ignores almost entirely whiffing in the draft since 2010. The projections, which systematically underrated the Royals by wide margins throughout their postseason runs, don’t like the Royals’ chances, and I’d have to side with the projections, though maybe not in their severity. 

C70: What is the strength of this team currently?

I70: I’d say their defense is still one of the best in the league. They have Gold Glove defense at catcher, first, short, third, left and center field. That’s impressive.

RRTheir defensive coaching. That’s the best answer I’ve got because their previous strengths took a hit as the team moved to a slightly more powerful lineup. There are basically a bunch of question marks in every area. The rotation might be the deepest that Moore has assembled, though without Ventura’s upside, it’s Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, and a bunch of back-of-the-rotation arms. The pen appears weaker than in years past, especially down a Cyborg, but Moore seems to have a penchant for finding impact bullpen arms on the scrap heap, so it’s got to be a question mark at this point, not necessarily a weakness.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

I70: I feel like I say this almost every year, but Mike Moustakas can be an impact player on this team. His approach has greatly improved. His play has improved. Now, he just needs to stay on the field.

RR: A couple weeks back, I lobbied for Christian Colón to get a shot at second. He’s gotten jerked around quite a bit and hasn’t ever gotten consistent playing time at the big-league level. I think the ceiling is relatively low, but there seem to be a lot of people who like Whit Merrifield way too much (his BABIP was aberrant compared to his minor-league career mark). If Nate Karns doesn’t make the rotation out of spring training, he’s got the stuff to be a killer set-up man. Other than that, there isn’t a lot of talent close to the majors that is likely to make an impact or surprise. I mean Kyle Zimmer’s injury history has taken away all of the heralds, but should anyone keep an eye on him when looking at him lands him on the DL?

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

I70: I’m never very good at these, but I’d project a 86-76 record, good enough for second place in the division but not for a spot in October.

RR: Honestly I have no idea how they will finish. I suspect they’ll have a slightly better record than last year, but the range of potential outcomes seems really wide with this club. I’ll guess 83 wins, good for third in the division behind the overwhelming favorites to win the Central, Cleveland, and Detroit. This is a club that could eke its way into the playoffs or finish with 75 wins. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Royal and why?

I70: Frank White. I grew up in a household where baseball was more important then anything else. That said, defense was the most important part of baseball. The way the man played the game at second base was amazing.

RR: Zack Greinke. There was no single player as much fun to watch as Greinke was in his Cy Young campaign of 2009, and his bluntness in interviews was fun to watch. Bo Jackson was super cool for adolescent Josh, and I really loved watching Jarrod Dyson play, but Greinke’s number one with a bullet. That said, the involuntary cackle that would burrow its way out of me when Dyson would get on base and he’d steal a base was pretty sweet. I’m gonna miss that dude.

My appreciation to both Bill and Josh for their thoughts on the team on the other side of the state.  It’d be nice to see them make one more run!

0 comments

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Houston Astros
84-78, third in AL West
Last year’s Pepper

Houston took a bit of a step back last year.  This team that scraped bottom for so long before climbing into contention didn’t play in October last year after going 3-7 over their last 10 to fall out of any wildcard contention.  That doesn’t mean that the process is flawed, of course, just that there might be some concern about when it’s all going to ultimately pay off, if it ever really does.

To talk about that, I got three Houston bloggers to share their knowledge and I didn’t have to fork over $2 million or two draft picks to get it, either.  (Though I do think James’s password is BiggioHOF15.)  Also, I want to confess that I’d forgotten Carlos Beltran was just barely in Houston when I wrote these questions.  He beat the Cardinals so much that it felt like forever.  Lots of good information here about the former rivals to the Cards that we don’t get to see much anymore, so enjoy!

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

AC: Yeah, it was a pretty good offseason for the Astros. I guess. Could have been better. Could have used Manfred to grow some and hand down his punishment of That Team From East Missouri before they gave away their top pick for Dexter Fowler

Yet I digress. The move that I wish the Astros had made involved Chris Sale or Jose Quintana or Chris Archer or…someone other than Charlie Morton. But the Astros have some talent in the upper reaches of the farm system, like Francis Martes, (who they got almost as a throw-in from the Marlins in the Jarred Cosart trade. And I think we can both agree that the Marlins are trash.) that may prove to be a difference-maker this season. But the Astros did turn Colby Rasmus into Carlos Beltran, Jason Castro into Brian McCann, and Jake Marisnick into Josh Reddick. So they upgraded the lineup, and maybe the price for one of the aforementioned pitchers was too high, given that pitchers have a little more wiggle room with run support.

WTHB: I would rate the offseason moves as a solid B. The front office definitely accomplished a couple of things that were needed, mostly adding some veteran depth to a very young organization. The Carlos Beltran signing, in particular, is already making a lot of impact in the clubhouse on Carlos Correa and some of the Astros’ other young studs. Even if Beltran has an off-year offensively, I really think he will still contribute a great deal to the overall team dynamic and the growth of the younger players. Similarly, the Astros had a need at catcher that was filled by trading off a couple of pitchers who, though intriguing, weren’t going to be helping out the Astros anytime soon. Brian McCann should provide a bit more offensive consistency than Jason Castro did while the Astros figure out what the best way forward at that position may be.

The biggest downside for the offseason is that the Astros didn’t pick up a top of the rotation starter who could help put this team over the top. I’m not terribly concerned about that at this point, though, and I’m really glad that they didn’t mortgage the future by overpaying for someone. Charlie Morton looks to provide some extra stability to the rotation, but he’s not going to be blowing anybody away. But if Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers are healthy; Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers can build on some of their past success; and either Joe Musgrove or Michael Feliz (or both) can take a step forward, those factors will go a long way toward helping this team be successful. And if there are injuries and other setbacks, I don’t think the Astros will be shy at the trade deadline this year. They will certainly have plenty of good players to offer to a re-building team with a languishing ace on its staff.

CTH: Well, that depends on who you talk to. I would say, anyone unhappy with the Astros offseason probably isn’t unhappy with the moves they actually made as much as they’re disappointed with moves that weren’t made. As most of your readers likely know, the Astros were “supposed” to go get a big-time “ace” pitcher.

The likes of Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, and several others were rumored to be targeted by Jeff Luhnow in trade talks. Unfortunately for the Astros, when other teams started making deals the price for premium talent went to stratospheric levels pretty fast. Some wanted Luhnow to pay whatever the cost while others are temporarily pleased with his restraint. Who knows which path is ultimately the right one, but we do know the price tag for those “aces” sounded pretty steep.

Now, let’s talk about the moves that were made. The Astros 2016 lineup had it’s issues but showed improvement when Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel arrived and helped provide some balance. Even with that help, the Astros still received below average production from the DH, Catcher, and the 2 OF positions not featuring George Springer. McCann and Gattis will handle catching and DH responsibilities, Beltran will play some in the OF as well as DH, and Josh Reddick should provide additional consistency in the other OF corner. Not to mention Nori Aoki, a full season of the aforementioned Bregman and Gurriel. Luhnow didn’t go get that “ace” pitcher everyone was clamoring for but the Astros rotation wasn’t bad last season and McCullers and Keuchel are healthy again (fingers crossed). Lets not forget that they should still have one of the better bullpens in baseball and now feature a very deep and well-balanced lineup that should put up a lot of runs. So, was it a good offseason? Well, they got better than they were, didn’t lose any key contributors, and maintained flexibility (financial as well as prospects) in the foreseeable future. I’ll take that. 

C70: Famously, Sports Illustrated anointed the Astros the 2017 World Champs. Is the process still working well enough to make that realistic?

AC: Oh jeez I hope so. The lineup has been built up without having to sacrifice Altuve, Correa, Springer, or Bregman. They added Yulieski Gurriel last season. It’s going to depend on how well the “Don’t trade the farm for an ace pitcher” strategy works out. 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel absolutely has to have a bounce back year after being injured and missing the last six weeks of the 2016 season. Lance McCullers absolutely has to pitch a full year, rather than half of one due to some arm injury. Collin McHugh needs to be more like 2015 and not 2016. A few things are going to have to break the Astros’ way – like figuring out the black magic the Ramgers (sic) have put on the Astros over the last two seasons.

Seriously. The Astros are 170-154 over the last two seasons, including going 10-28 against our red-headed stepchildren to the north, and finished 2.0 GB of South Oklahoma in 2015, and 11.0 GB in 2016. That has to change.

WTHB: I do think that an Astros 2017 World Series championship is totally realistic this year. Last year, I really felt that there were too many holes and too much youth and inexperience on the team. The Astros are one year older and wiser, have added a couple of much-needed pieces and, if they stay healthy (which is always a big if), they should be in the thick of things all season long. They are going to have to figure out how to beat the Rangers this season because those Lone Star Series games have been pathetically lopsided. But I predict that the 2017 lineup is going to crush the very spirit of a few pitching staffs out there!

CTH: Sports Illustrated is never, ever wrong with a prediction, right? I mean the Cubs won it all in 2004 and 2008, right? Kosuke Fukudome was the man that got them over the hump in ’08 right? They’ll be right this time though! SI or not, the Astros should be considered a legitimate contender in the AL.

They have a solid core of young talent, they added some solid veteran bats, will return a very good bullpen, and hope to improve on a rotation that was much better than a lot of people remember. In order to make SI look smart for once, it has to start with beating the Rangers; something that’s been a bit of a bugaboo the last two seasons. Did I mention that they’re going to score a lot of runs? Even though they don’t have have the big-time “ace” the sports writers wanted, the rotation should be good enough to compete with the Rangers. If Keuchel can fall somewhere between his 2014 & 2015 seasons, McCullers can stay healthy and continue his progression, McHugh is a reliable #3, and the rest of the rotation has the potential to be solid. Charlie Morton, when healthy, is a ground ball pitcher that should excel with a good defense behind him and we haven’t even mentioned the young arms the Astros can run out there this season. Joe Musgrove will likely get a rotation spot out of camp, but don’t be surprised to see top prospect Francis Martes before the summer is over. The rotation doesn’t have to be “elite” for the Astros to be a legitimate contender. It makes things easier, sure…but they aren’t done. We know Luhnow can make deals during the season too. He’s done it before and I would expect that he’s going to be active this summer as well. They have the cash and talent needed to go and get things done if necessary. 

C70: How nostalgic does it make you feel to have Carlos Beltran back in the orange?

AC: I don’t know that “nostalgia” is the right word. Beltran wasn’t in Houston very long in 2004, but of course he was lights out. We as fans have had to fight the urge to boo him for going to the Mets in every single one of his plate appearances for 12 years. So I’m less nostalgic and in more of a “finish the job this time” mindset. But I am excited he’s with the Astros.

WTHB: Ha! It really doesn’t make me feel nostalgic at all. Beltran was great in 2004, but he was a rental player and the Astros couldn’t get him to re-sign. The 2004 post-season was a lot of fun and Beltran was a big part of why it was so much fun, but I generally save my warm-fuzzy nostalgia for long-time Astros.

CTH: Not to nitpick, but Beltran was never actually in the orange and blue. He was forced to wear that terrible brick and sand pinstripe getup, those uni’s were so terrible, but that’s not what you were asking. I wouldn’t say “nostalgic” as much as a little angry. I think most longtime Astros fans probably recognize that Beltran wanted to, and should have, re-signed here in 2005. Had that happened the Astros likely would have had enough offense to win the ’05 World Series. Not that any of us are bitter about it, but If I were Drayton McClane I’d avoid any dark alleys around Minute Maid Park for a while. I mean, most of us should probably avoid dark alleys, but that’s neither here nor there.

As far as 2017 is concerned, it’s safe to say that the excitement level is high. There were rumors that the Astros were trying to acquire Beltran at the deadline last summer and that dredged up all of the painful memories of the 2004-2005 offseason, so Astros fans have had a while to kind of work through it all. That said, there are still some that blame Beltran for holding the Astros hostage and taking the Mets offer, but as more details from that contract negotiation came to light it was pretty clear that most of the fault was at the feet of Astros owner, Drayton McClane. I really hope he’s able to get off to a good start and the fans embrace him, because his presence is about so much more than his on-field production. As far as an on-field perspective, he will give the Astros something they’ve not had since being an AL team: a competent DH! Wild, I know, but as I understand it, the Designated Hitter is supposed to actually be kind of good. It took a few years, but they’ve finally figured out how that’s supposed to work. I mean, cut them some slack, they were in the NL for a really long time.

Soon after signing his deal, Beltran wrote a piece for The Player’s Tribune (which I highly recommend reading) about why he chose Houston and it highlighted how important a guy with his experience can be to the young players on this team. He talked about how ready he was to pass down his experience to Altuve, Correa, and the other Latin players. As an Astros fan, that is very exciting. So, nostalgic, optimistic, excited…whichever…I’m just ready to see them on the field!  

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

AC: I would pick Chris Devenski, but he is getting more heralded by the week, given his accomplishments last season (2.16 ERA / 0.91 WHIP, 104K in 108.3 IP). So if I had to pick someone who has had zero herald attached to their name, I’ll go with, hmmm, Alex Bregman. Good glove, showed he could hit last season after a disastrous start to his career. I think he’ll be extremely heralded this season.

WTHB: Actually, there are a few. In looking at the current 40-man roster, what stands out to me are all of the bullpen arms that could really be big difference makers in 2017. I am a huge fan of The Dragon (Chris Devenski). He was (shockingly to me) left unprotected by the Astros in the Rule 5 draft in 2015 and they are very lucky that no one claimed him after the terrific season he had that year. Both Devo and the more well known Feliz could find themselves in the rotation before the end of the season. Both RHP Jandel Gustave and LHP Reymin Guduan have the potential to be dominating relievers. And James Hoyt could be a big part of the 2017 bullpen as well. Hoyt has a terrific back-story and has already had some decent early success in his short time with the Astros.

CTH: Others will probably talk about guys like Ramon Laureano or Francis Martes…or maybe even the “comeback” of AJ Reed, and those guys are definitely worthy of attention. For me though, I say Marwin. Many outside of Houston may not fully appreciate what he brings to the table, but I can assure you Astros fans do. In fact, he has a bit of a cult following here. Marwin Gonzalez is that quintessential “glue” guy every successful team needs. He’s a super-utility player that can do a little bit of everything and he does most of it pretty effectively. He’s the type of player every great team needs to have in order to win. He’s a fantastic piece to have coming off the bench: a very capable fielder at pretty much every defensive position and a dangerous hitter. When he’s in the lineup every day, he tends to get exposed a bit, but when he’s used in spots he’s magic. By all accounts he’s a solid clubhouse guy too. So, it’s hard to say exactly how much playing time Marwin will get, but he will absolutely find a way to make a positive impact for the 2017 Houston Astros. 

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

AC: I mean, I’m biased of course, but they won 84 games last season, even running Carlos Gomez out to look like he won a contest to play Major League Baseball, and the rest of the lineup behind him wasn’t very good last year, either. So I think 92 wins is reasonable, finishing 1st in the AL West. 

WTHB: I am woefully awful with this stuff, but honestly, even the experts are often wrong because of injuries and plain old luck (both good and bad). But, with that said, here goes … I’m saying 90 and 72, first in the division. If the Astros had won roughly half of their games with the Rangers last year, the Astros would have been right at 90 and 72. 

CTH: Exact records are tough, but I think this is a 90-win team. Here’s why I say that… The last two seasons, the Astros have shown themselves to be susceptible to streaky play. They started 2015 like a team on fire but started 2016 like a team that had been horribly burned by an out of control warehouse fire. That said, they turned that terrible start around and played like the best team in baseball for two months. If they have any designs on a postseason appearance, it all starts with the division. More specifically it starts with beating their in-state rivals: the Rangers.

Over the past two seasons, the Astros have been an impressive 69-45 (.605 WL%) vs. the rest of the AL West and looked like a really good baseball team. In head-to-head match-ups with the Rangers, however they’ve looked overmatched and have an embarrassing 10-28 record (.263 WL%) vs. them since 2015. If the Astros can replicate their success elsewhere and just play the Rangers even, they’ll be at or above 90 wins. The Rangers owe the Astros each of the last two AL West Titles, so without that lopsided record the division would have been much closer each of the last two seasons. Enter, Beltran, McCann, and Reddick. Veteran players that will help steady the ship if/ when things start to go south on them. No matter how talented your team is, baseball is hard and the season is very long. Every team will have have slumps. The great teams are just better at avoiding the long slumps and somehow find ways to extend the hot streaks a little longer. So, I say 90-72 because at some point they have to play better against the Rangers…also I’m not so great at math and that record was pretty easy to figure. 

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Astro and why?

AC: It’s tough. My Dickie Thon avi started off kind of as a joke, but the more I looked into his career, I was blown away. I wrote A Thing about how promising his career was before it was derailed by a fastball to the eye. He’s probably my actual favorite player…weird, huh? 

WTHB: That’s like asking a person who their favorite child is! I love Jose Cruz because he was the most likeable, friendliest ambassador to the game that the Astros ever had. I love the dominance of pitchers like J.R. Richard, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott. Biggio and Bagwell are inseparable in my mind and heart and will now be inseparable in the Hall of Fame. The 1986 team cemented my love for baseball; everyone from Bill Doran, Kevin Bass and Billy Hatcher to Charlie Kerfeld and Larry Anderson are a permanent part of my psyche. It lit up my soul to watch Roy Oswalt pitch and Adam Everett field, and it still lights up my soul to watch Jose Altuve hit. I was (and probably still am) in love with Brad Ausmus. And there is a very special place in my heart for really great bench players from Denny Walling in the 80’s to Marwin Gonzalez right now.

But 20 years from now, when you ask me that question, I’m sure that my answer will be one of those players I’ve gotten to know personally through my MiLB writing and interviews. It will be a Dallas Keuchel or a Carlos Correa or a George Springer or one of the dozens of other players I’ve had the fantastic opportunity to watch up close and personally. I may not even have met him yet.

CTH: For me, it’s Jeff Bagwell. I could (and have) written entire articles extolling the baseball virtues of one Jeffrey Robert Bagwell. When Baggy was doing his thing, I was growing up and playing baseball with my friends. So, when we would play, I was doing his stance. When I played first base, I tried to do it like him. When I got to pick my number, I wore #5 just like him. He was my guy. Sure, I liked Biggio and Alou and the other guys but Bagwell was my favorite. I appreciate players who do the little things, and Bagwell was great at executing those little things. Sneaking in a stolen base when you’re a power hitter, going from first to third on a weak single into right field, charging in on a bunt, or making a perfect throw to start a 3-6-3 double play. He usually made the right baseball decision and that was so much fun to watch…and he was our guy! He was the best player on my favorite team! What more could I ask for? I can remember when the Astros clinched the 2005 NL Pennant, I was of course happy for the city, happy for myself as well as other long-suffering fans, but I was so happy for Baggy. The way his teammates talked about him, the way he carried himself, and the way you knew his playoff failures had eaten at him…I was just so happy that he and Biggio would have a chance to go to the World Series. Now, if they had Beltran there…but I digress.  

I appreciate all of the above spending a little time talking about the Astros with us.  If Houston does win the Series in 2017, well, at least it’s not the Cubs!

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As most of you know, in the month of February I asked for your opinions on various players, media types, and other Cardinal-related things as part of our regular spring project known as the Cardinal Approval Ratings.  In most years, I dole these out in posts throughout the spring, but I know I tend to forget them or run out of time when writing a post, so I thought this year I could do three big posts covering the major sections.  Let’s kick it off with the one everyone is most interested in, the players on the field.

Matt Carpenter

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 3
Prior year number: 86.3%
Average before 2017: 87.2%

Carpenter’s one of the pillars of the team right now and it’s not surprising that he’s always polled fairly high.  I mean, what are you going to complain about, really?  He’s not Albert Pujols?  That’s going to be a high bar for pretty much any player.  Carp’s done a fine job and this year’s mark reflects the consistency we tend to associate with him.

2017 score: Up 0.9% to 87.2%
Highest score: 100
Lowest score: 60
Most common score: 90

Randal Grichuk

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 1
Prior year number: N/A
Average before 2017: N/A

It’s always interesting to see where a first time guy shows up on the list.  Does he have a groundswell of support?  How are people going to view him?  Especially in the case of Grichuk, where the production has been inconsistent but there’s a lot of room for growth.  Do you vote for the now or do you vote for a possible future?  It’s not too surprising to see Grichuk fairly close to what I recommended as a starting baseline with all those uncertainties in the mix.  A strong year, though, and this might shoot up next season.

2017 score: 72.4%
Highest score: 95
Lowest score: 40
Most common score: 80

Lance Lynn

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 5
Prior year number: 66.4%
Average before 2017: 75.6%

Lynn’s been up and down the board, as high as 85 two years ago before plummeting last year.  Of course, the last impressions most had of Lynn were of his struggles before we found out that he had to have surgery.  Did absence make the heart grow fonder?  Was Lynn able to bounce back from that floor even while not pitching?  Not so much, though that’s probably to be expected.

2017 score: Up 0.8% to 67.2%
Highest score: 90
Lowest score: 0
Most common score: 75

Carlos Martinez

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 2
Prior year number: 85.4%
Average before 2017: 85.4%

Martinez had a high level to start with last year, but as one of the only reliable pitchers on the staff last season, it seemed unlikely he’d take a hit.  The emerging ace also mixed in some personality, what with his hairstyle, home run splashes, and cup stacking, which only would endear him more to many Cardinal fans.  Martinez rocketed past last year’s score and looks to be one of the high scorers for years to come.

2017 score: Up 5.9% to 91.3%
Highest score: 100
Lowest score: 55
Most common score: 90

Yadier Molina

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 9
Prior year number: 80.7%
Average before 2017: 90.0%

It says something when you can average a 90% over almost a decade, doesn’t it?  Molina is the piece of the core that’s been around the longest and all you have to do is read almost any article about his extension talks to know how Cardinal fans feel about him.  Last year’s mark was the lowest of his career as he had battled injuries in 2015.  With a strong second half in 2016, seeing his score bounce back to where he normally is was not unexpected.

2017 score: Up 6.7% to 87.4%
Highest score: 100
Lowest score: 45
Most common score: 90

Trevor Rosenthal

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 3
Prior year number: 81.8%
Average before 2017: 79.0%

You had to figure this one was going to be ugly after a terrible season for Rosenthal in 2016.  While there were some glimmers of hope at the end and you could put a lot of it on the injury that apparently he was dealing with almost all year long, the simple fact is that when your results are so bad people not only expect you out of the closer role (which happened) but back to Memphis (which didn’t), the ratings next year are going to reflect that.  We’ll see how things look if he has a return to form in 2017.

2017 score: Down 16.7% to 65.1%
Highest score: 85
Lowest score: 20
Most common score: 75

Michael Wacha

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 4
Prior year number: 75.3%
Average before 2017: 78.7%

Wacha’s numbers have matched his on-field career as well, starting off strong the first time he was on the ballot and dropping off drastically after that.  (In fairness, most people on this list have their ratings tied to their production.)  We still don’t know what we’ll see from Wacha in 2017, but after another injury-plagued year, he’s a long, long way from that 87% he started out with in 2014.

2017 score: Down 13.1% to 62.2%
Highest score: 100
Lowest score: 22
Most common score: 70

Adam Wainwright

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 8
Prior year number: 82.2%
Average before 2017: 91.0%

We’ve watched as Wainwright has gone from young gun who temporarily (and memorably) filled a closer role to staff ace to now, perhaps, sliding that title on to the next generation.  Through it all, Wainwright’s typically had good humor and good relations with the fans, which is why his marks have always been fairly high.  With a rough year on the field, though, it was interesting to see where this year’s tally might wind up.  Does the past buoy you up when the present is a little choppy?

2017 score: Down 4.0% to 78.2%
Highest score: 100
Lowest score: 50
Most common score: 80

Kolten Wong

Number of years polled (counting 2017): 1
Prior year number: N/A
Average before 2017: N/A

Here’s our second newbie to the player side of the ratings.  Wong’s a guy that really seems to polarize the fan base.  Either you think he should have produced and kept his spot or you blame the manager for not giving him a fair chance.  If he’s healthy and he gets to play regularly in 2017, there’s a good chance this number will be very different next season.

2017 score: 67.0%
Highest score: 95
Lowest score: 25
Most common score: 75

There’s the first third of the ratings.  We’ll take a look at the media next time out.  If you want to see how these guys stack up overall and some past players that aren’t polled any longer, scroll to the bottom of our links page!

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Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Colorado Rockies
75-87, third in NL West
Last year’s Pepper

Colorado has always been that fairly unique team ever since it joined the league in 1993.  Even with the different measures the team has put in place, the different approaches to building a squad, they are still thought of a offense-first, pitching-iffy club.  That’s still got a lot of truth in it, but it’s possible they’ve gotten enough talent to overcome some of the Coors Field effect and upgrade that “iffy” part.

Perhaps a day late but never a dollar short, we’ve got Richard Bergstrom joining us today to talk about the purple and black.  Richard was at Rockies Zingers last year but now contributes to the Purple Row site.  You’ll find him on Twitter still under the RockiesZingers handle, however.  Let’s see what he has to say about the Mile High crew!

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

PR: Compared to Rockies offseasons of the past, this was the equivalent of waking up early on Friday morning for a Black Friday doorbuster special with cash in hand. They needed quality bullpen depth and a starting first baseman. As hard as it can be to attract pitchers, both Holland and to a lesser extent Dunn have some upside. On the first baseman side, I’d like to think they should’ve gotten a first baseman who actually had played first base, especially in an offseason market flooded with them, but they didn’t. However, things can get weird in Colorado and there’s some value in having a guy who can theoretically play multiple positions in Desmond in case of injury or *gasp* a fire sale if the Rockies contending hopes don’t work out. With a front-loaded contract, Desmond can still provide some decent value even if he’s a bench player by the end of it. Let’s also not forget that acquiring Bud Black meant he got to pick his bench player, Alexa Amarista, who is particularly redundant on the Rockies roster in terms of positional flexibility (i.e. both Rafael Ynoa and Christian Adames can do his job). Even with the flurry of activity, if you don’t count the $25 million still owed to Jose Reyes in 2017, the overall payroll didn’t change all that much between 2016 and 2017. But hey, if we were going to make a first baseman, I would’ve preferred it if they taught Tom Murphy to play first base, then carried a third catcher which would allow Murphy to play first on occasion and Tony Wolters to double switch with an infield position.

C70: Is Jon Gray still considered the future head of the pitching staff? What does 2017 have in store for him?

PR: Gray’s not the future head of the pitching staff. He’s current head of the pitching staff. Though Tyler Anderson had a better year statistically, there are injury concerns and it’s much harder to see Anderson put together a complete game, 16 strikeout game at Coors Field like Gray did in 2016. Gray was much more efficient with pitches in 2016, going deeper into games, but ran into some bad BABIP luck later on in the 2016 season. Expect him to continue to gain stamina and knowledge as he may usurp Ubaldo Jimenez as the best pitcher in Rockies history as early as this year.

C70: Trevor Story was quite the…there’s no avoiding the story pun, is there? Will the thumb injury be fully healed and what do you expect out of him?

PR: He should be well past the thumb injury, but he’ll never be past the Story puns. Story surpassed a lot of expectations in 2016. Sure, he had a historic opening week which fueled a great April to the tune of a 1.019 OPS, but he struggled in May to the tune of a .769 OPS. The bad month was actually a good thing because he apparently made adjustments to achieve success in June and July. Story’s bugaboo in the minors is it often took him a full calendar year at a minor league level before he figured things out. It appears he did so quicker. I’d say .260/.320/520 with 30-35 home runs would be the midline in his performance. Also, he does have the range and arm to be an elite defensive shortstop. If bats win Gold Gloves, there’s a chance his bat can help his glove out.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

PR: Unheralded’s kind of a tricky question. Is Charlie Blackmon unheralded because he hasn’t made an All-Star team since 2014 though he’s gotten progressively better each year? Is Tony Wolters unheralded even though multiple articles have been written about his defensive skills? Are all hitters unheralded because people dismiss their Coors Field numbers while all the pitchers numbers get trashed by that same Coors Field? I might go with Carlos Gonzalez whose glove in right field has quietly gotten better and just needs that one massive hot streak for people to notice his ability to hit for average and power again.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

PR: The Rockies are kind of in the danger of getting caught in the middle, where they have a decent team but just not enough to pop the Wild Card bubble and quite a bit short of the Dodgers in the race of the NL West. In 2016, a lot of their position players and members of their rotation had career years, but a bad bullpen and lack of bench depth really hurt. They should get some of those wins back with their offseason spending spree and there’s a pretty good chance Bud Black will be an improvement over Walt Weiss. I’d think 86 wins, which would still be an 11 game improvement, is a good possibility. If a few things break right for them, and wrong for the Dodgers or the rest of the NL Cards, the playoffs are possible.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Rockie and why?

PR:  My all-time favorite Rockie is Darryl Kile who was heralded as a free agent signing but couldn’t quite figure out Coors Field. Nonetheless, he kept plugging on through it, didn’t make excuses, and tried other things such as hitting to try to help out. He was a fan of saying “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” He was a tough guy.

You are never going to go wrong referencing DK on a Cardinals site, for sure.  My thanks to Richard for letting us know a little more about a team that could surprise some folks out West this year!

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Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Detroit Tigers
86-75, second in AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

(Editor’s Note: If you are able to alphabetize your Major League Baseball teams, you know that Detroit doesn’t come immediately after Cleveland.  However, our Colorado blogger needed a little extra time, so I’m going to (hopefully) just swap those two and get back in line with Houston on Monday.)

There’s been a lot of success over the past decade or so in the Motor City.  The Tigers have found themselves in the World Series twice (2006, 2012) and been in the playoffs or at least contention a number of times.  However, they’ve been unable to completely break through and take the crown, even with some highly talented (and highly paid) players on the roster.  The AL Central looks like it’s getting a bit softer, so what does that mean for the team from the Motor City?

To solve that problem, we’ve got three of Detroit’s finest to answer the Pepper questions this year.  You probably remember Jennifer and Kristen from past years and Neil joins the group to broaden the horizons even more.  Their information is below and their insights follow!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Kristen Bentley Motor City Bengals kris10bentley
Neil Weinberg New English D NeilWeinberg44
Jennifer Cosey Old English D VivaTigres

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

MCB: The Tigers did not make many moves in the offseason. They traded Cameron Maybin for a minor league pitcher. They re-signed Alex Avila, but as a backup catcher. They also signed Mikie Mahtook who will battle with Tyler Collins and JaCoby Jones for CF. Otherwise, the team stayed together, which is a good thing – hopefully. I wish they would’ve signed a more established CFer, but the Tigers are looking to cut payroll in the next few years.

NED: I don’t think it was a particularly good offseason for the Tigers, but they were in a pretty tough spot. Their only major addition was signing former-Tiger Alex Avila to split time at catcher. They signed a lot of minor league free agents, which is a strategy I strongly support, but they really didn’t do much to move themselves more firmly into contention. It’s hard to fault them too much, however, because there simply weren’t a ton of great options for them.There wasn’t a great catcher or center fielder on the market and they didn’t have a ton of extra money to spend. I would have been interested in Dexter Fowler given the contract he received, but most of the good and available players were cornermen and the Tigers are set at LF, RF, DH, and 1B. 

OED: This was a very blasé offseason for the Tigers. They traded Cameron Maybin to the Angels, and are now left with a four-way competition for CF in Tyler Collins, Anthony Gose, JaCoby Jones, and Mikie Mahtook. Yawn. The Tigers warned of a payroll shed prior to the beginning of the offseason, but players such as Ian Kinsler and JD Martinez, who were prime candidates to be traded, are thankfully still with the club. The Tigers did not make any offseason acquisitions that constitute a significant upgrade. Hopes for making the postseason will rest on staying extremely healthy, and having a number of unlikely players over-achieve.

C70: If there’s a misconception about the Tigers, what is it and why is it wrong?

MCB: The misconception is that the team is old. Yes, there are some veterans on the team, but much of the team is actually under 30 – or just turning 30 in 2017.

NED: The things you hear about the Tigers are generally true. It’s an organization that has generally favored a stars and scrubs model. Their core is getting older and at some point they’re going to need to take a couple years off to restock. I think the only misconception might be that they’re locked into a lot of terrible contracts forever. Sure, Cabrera and Verlander are going to be overpaid in the near future, but if Upton opts out after 2017 and Verlander’s 2020 option doesn’t kick in, you’re really not looking at some unreasonable situation. They will need to rebuild at some point, but whenever that moment comes, they won’t be in worse shape than any generic team that needs to start over.

OED: I think a couple of the major conceptions about the Tigers are spot on: they are slow on the base-paths, and the bullpen has been a major weakness over the past few seasons. Mark Lowe pitched so poorly last season that I considered it a major victory if he didn’t give up a home run in an outing. The Tigers hit into more double plays per game than 22 other teams. Ugly.

C70: Is there hope that the club will get more out of Justin Upton or is his 2016 line about what to expect going forward?

MCB: Yes. Justin Upton finished the season on a high note, hitting numerous home runs. He seemed comfortable at TigerFest and the fans seemed happy to see him. When someone is comfortable at the job, they often perform better – so now that Upton knows the team and the fans, he will be better. Upton’s turn around happened after he had his chat with David Ortiz last year – whatever Big Papi said seemed to make a big difference and it is safe to say those words are still sticking around in Upton’s head.

NED: Yeah, I would bet on a better line for Upton in 2017. Upton’s a streaky player and he had a bad stretch to start 2016, but from May 15 forward he had a 125 wRC+. In other words, from that point forward he was essentially the Justin Upton the Tigers were expecting. He was just so bad in April that the final numbers didn’t look great. 

OED: Justin Upton’s 2016 was a tale of two seasons. His first half was a miserable train-wreck of a slump, while he went on some torrid tears in the second half. I am expecting a better overall season from Upton, while knowing he can be a streaky hitter.

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

MCB: James McCann on offense. He is incredibly physically fit and his bat is due to get hot.

NED: I don’t know if unheralded is the right word because everyone knows who he is, but Ian Kinsler’s overall value to the team is right up there with Cabrera, Martinez, Verlander, etc. You just don’t hear as much about him because he has an all-around game rather than one or two elite tools.

OED: Joe Jimenez is a young relief pitcher to keep an eye on. He will surely begin the season in the minors, but may contribute this season at the big-league level. Catcher James McCann was impressed with Jimenez’ change up and demeanor in his first spring bullpen.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

MCB: It’s going to be tough with the upgrades to the Indians. If the Tigers can stay healthy, they should finish 1st or 2nd. I’m going to predict 90 wins.

NED: I’m just starting to get into my season preview series, which always ends with me wrestling with this question in late March. At the moment, I think they’ll wind up in the same place they did last year. Around 85 wins, with Cleveland finishing them off in the division in mid-September.

OED: Many sighs. I despise predictions. They are so often exercises in futility. I frequently appear foolish after making them. I predicted that James McCann would have a good sophomore season at the plate last year. Hahahahahaha. If I must commit, I will say that the team will finish with a record of 87-75, second in the division.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Tiger and why?

MCB: My all-time favorite Tiger is Alan Trammell – I loved watching him play back in the 80s. I also got a chance to sit in on an interview with him and he is one incredibly kind man. He really believes in the Tigers and seems at home working with the young players. On the current team – I’m a Justin Verlander and Ian Kinsler fan. I love the attitude that JV brings to the team. When JV is on the mound, you know the show is going to be good. And Kinsler is absolutely ageless. He plays like he’s still trying to make the team. When he literally rubbed dirt on his injury, he showed how much he truly loves to be out there. These two guys are tough and they push themselves every time they are on the diamond.

NED: Tough question. The all-time greats were before my time. I was just becoming baseball-conscious at the very end of Alan Trammell’s career, so I obviously missed Kaline too. Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez were great. I also have a strong affinity for utility players, so I was always a big Brandon Inge and Don Kelly guy, but I’ll say Max Scherzer. Not only was Scherzer great for the Tigers, but it was a real joy to watch him grow into an ace. When the Tigers traded for him, he was really raw and all over the place and by the time he left he was one of the five best pitchers in the league. He’s also a cerebral and introspective kind of person, which I appreciate. I’m really happy for the success he’s had since leaving.

OED: This is a very difficult question to answer. My first favorite was Kirk Gibson, with whom I fell in love in 1983. His blast off Gossage in the ’84 Series cemented forever his place in my personal baseball Hall. Gibson’s fiery temperament didn’t always endear himself to fans personally, but his clutch hitting never failed to bring them back around. He will always be my Tiger.

Magglio Ordoñez is the other player that inspires particular devotion. Watching him hit brought pure joy to the baseball lover. His 2007 season was breath-taking. Batting .363, Magglio won the batting title, and came in second in MVP voting to Alex Rodriguez. I remember watching the last game of the season (on the road in Chicago), and the Venezuelan announcers’ feed was piped into the Tigers broadcast. It was glorious hearing them call “linia!” for several base hits. Of course, the iconic blast in the 2006 ALCS will forever reign in Tigers fans’ hearts. Magglio, too, will always be my Tiger.

My thanks to all that participated in this, giving us a little idea of what’s going on around the Tigers!

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Accumulating Data Points

There’s a lot of great things about spring training.  However, the drawback to spring training games is that they are on during the day and, given that this is my busy time at work, it’s hard to monitor them even from a distance.  Seeing how people are throwing or how they are hitting is well nigh impossible, even given the expanded coverage that KMOX, FSMW, and now even the Cardinals official site has brought to Jupiter over the past few years.

So, as in days of old, I have to rely somewhat on the reporting from camp by Derrick Goold, Jenifer Langosch, and the others.  It’s spring, of course, so you take everything with a shaker of salt and realize that it’s rare to not read glowing reports after months away from baseball, but the general tone of the coverage is that things are going pretty well for the Redbirds.  The pitching has been fairly good, the games have been wins for the most part, and apparently even the play has been crisper.

Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, and Mike Leake have all had a turn this week and all of them have done delightfully well.  Goold notes that the foursome has allowed one run in 10 combined innings.  Again, it’s the first week of spring and those guys aren’t facing an entire A team when they are out there, but as starters they are usually seeing at least some of the opposite side’s regular hitters.  It’s a good feeling to have them getting out guys no matter who they are.

Wacha especially has been encouraging.  We kinda expect good things out of the others–Leake’s got to have some defense behind him and the only question with Lynn really is stamina after coming off Tommy John surgery–but going into the spring we really didn’t know what we were going to see out of Wacha.

It’s only one start, of course, but the results were encouraging.  It sounds like all of his pitches were working and, most importantly, there doesn’t seem to have been any sort of flareup on that stress reaction.  Now, that probably is something that would take some time and repetition to come back, so not seeing it in his first spring start should be expected, but it’s still good to know.   If Wacha can throw all of his pitches well, he’s going to be very effective.  I felt like he couldn’t get the changeup in the strike zone last year, so batters knew better than to offer at it.  Goold says something similar in a different way, saying the fastball was high so hitters knew the changeup was low and sinking.  Bringing the fastball to the same level as the changeup will be huge.

Trevor Rosenthal also looked good in his first spring outing.  I’ve been a bit hesitant to jump on the Rosenthal bandwagon, but two strong innings with a good mix of pitches is definitely a strong point in his favor.  I still don’t think he’s going to be a starter, especially not if Wacha is going well, but having a longer guy in the bullpen isn’t a bad fallback option.  The bullpen is going to be pretty interesting this year and we’ll see how it gets used.  There will be a lot of strong arms down there.

If there is a cause for concern, it’s in this paragraph by Goold:

The Cardinals have had a couple of pratfalls on the bases, including a first inning in which they lost three runners Tuesday. But Matheny said he liked the aggressiveness he’d seen.

We all know what “aggressiveness”, with this batch of guys, has been worth in the past.  There are players that I want to see be aggressive on the basepaths, sure–Dexter Fowler, Tommy Pham, even Kolten Wong with his speed.  That doesn’t give a green light to everyone, though.  We went through this last year, when guys were thrown out by the bushel on the bases trying to stretch or make something happen.  Maybe controlled aggressiveness is the answer?  I hope that, even though Mike Matheny is using the same term, there’s some variation from last year in what they are doing.

Also, Matt Adams isn’t doing himself any favors, sitting 0-12 with seven strikeouts.  While that’s not necessarily indicative of major problems and with Matt Carpenter going to the World Baseball Classic soon he’ll still get plenty of chances to straighten things out, but for a guy that needed a strong spring to make an argument for regular playing time, this has to be disappointing.  Maybe the weight loss is making him redesign his approach, maybe it’s just a bad slump.  Whatever the case, Adams needs to figure it out very soon or he won’t have to worry about playing much more than one AB a game.

Adams is also possibly affected by the fact that Jose Martinez is also learning how to cover first.  The club seems to be very high on Martinez for reasons I’ve never quite gotten, keeping him on the roster while they were trying to free up 40-man spots this winter.  Martinez also got two homers against the Red Sox (though spring homers are always going to be viewed a little less than regular homers) and Matheny thinks he “can flat swing it”, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice.  We’ll see if it continues and how the club used Martinez this year, assuming he makes the club.  If he does, that’s just less time for Adams to show what he can do.

Adam Wainwright goes today against the Braves, which you can hear on KMOX and on the official site.  Always good when it’s Waino day, right?

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Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Cleveland Indians
94-67, first in AL Central, lost in World Series
Last year’s Pepper

So, SO close.

A 3-1 lead in the World Series, with Corey Kluber available for a final game.  An eighth-inning rally in Game 7 that tied things up.  So many chances for Cleveland to end their own long championship drought and keep Chicago’s ticking along.  (And a TON of Cardinal fans rooting desperately that they would.)  Instead, the Indians replace the Cubs as the team that has gone the longest since it last held the trophy.

Shaking off last year has to be tough, but we’ve got a couple of veteran bloggers to talk about 2017 and how it can hopefully end the same way Chicago’s did last year–with a weight off everyone’s shoulders.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Steven Kubitza Wahoo's On First StevenKubitza
Nino Colla The Tribe Daily SnarkyNino

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

WOF: This may be one of the most memorable offseasons in a long time, although we won’t know how great it really was until the season is over. But on paper, and based on hype, it was amazing. The addition of Edwin Encarnacion stands out as the best move, as the Indians finally opened up the funds to land a star. Adding him meant the loss of Mike Napoli, but getting Encarnacion should serve as a major upgrade.

The other great move was signing Boone Logan, who should be able to alleviate some of the stress off Andrew Miller. Miller is no longer the only dominant lefty in the bullpen, and Logan can even be used in situations where only one batter needs retired.

There wasn’t one move not made that stands out, as the Indians got a right-handed power bat and a left-handed reliever. These were two major needs, and both were accomplished before the season.

TD: Ha yeah, I’d say so. I always think it’s a good offseason though because the Indians are never big spenders and don’t need to be. They always seem to fly under the radar and make sly pick-ups and work within their blueprint and financial climate. This offseason though? Coming off a run that took them to Game 7 of the World Series, with a feeling that this team can perhaps do it all again and this time win it for the next few years, Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff got the go-ahead to spend a little more. So they did, and that’s half of how Edwin Encarnacion was able to happen. Encarnacion helps fill the 1B/DH combo with Carlos Santana, but what I think he really is is Michael Brantley insurance. There’s an air of uncertainty surrounding Brantley’s season with no one really knowing what to expect from him and if they can even count on him to be healthy, let alone a productive bat. The Indians could have just brought back Mike Napoli and been fine if Brantley was going to be around, but without that certainty, I think it pushed them to go in on Edwin and if Brantley is ready to go, it’s all a bonus. Thing is though, with Encarnacion, it really is a “go for it all” move because the Indians are not really in a position to spend that kind of money at all, let alone on one person. They really need it to pay off and result in some much needed fan support, or else it could hurt them down the road financially.

So yeah, I think they generally needed to do what was called for. They also added another lefty in the bullpen in Boone Logan and to have another option if Brantley can’t go, they picked up buy-low candidate Austin Jackson. That by all means isn’t a solution, but rather much needed depth just in case. The ultimate slam dunk move would have been acquiring a full-time center fielder, but the team must feel good about Tyler Naquin figuring out his issue with fastballs and tightening up his defense to pair with Abraham Almonte (who has now served all his suspension time, postseason included). This was a pretty solid offseason for a team that didn’t need to make many moves and didn’t.

C70: Has it been tough thinking about how close the team came last year?

WOF: Oh, it is painful to think about it at times. But Cleveland Indians fans are used to these types of feelings, and the hopes of a return to the World Series are keeping spirits high in 2017. Cleveland sports fans are great with moving on from particularly tough events, and there really isn’t too much to be sad about when it comes to last season. The team made it farther than expected, and nearly won a World Series without a star player in Michael Brantley and two starting pitchers in Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar.

While losing hurt, there are still so many great moments to look back on and smile. I frequently watch Rajai Davis‘ Game 7-tying home run, and it is hard not to get goosebumps. Just knowing that this team improved in the offseason and should provide more magical moments helps keep the negative emotions in check for now.

TD: ​I think about it every day. I still hurt. ​This is my team, really the only team I live and die with. Walking back to my car after Game 7 in Cleveland was a memory I’ll never forget, but I want to. It is that painful as a sports fan. What provides some sunshine through the clouds though is that this team is really really good and they’re getting back a cavalcade of important pieces that were missing or went missing during that improbable run last October. Danny Salazar, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes, Almonte, and potentially Michael Brantley were not factors last year in the playoffs. So that makes it a little bit better thinking about the team that went on that run being joined by those guys, in addition to Encarnacion. Half the battle is getting to the postseason and once you get there, as the Indians showed last year, variance can work in your favor and you gotta have some luck. This team has the ability to get there and the odds are supremely in their favor, so, as hurtful as it is to think of last year, I just try and focus all my thoughts to the positivity of doing it all again this year, only a little bit differently. 

C70: Corey Kluber was a force in the playoffs. Is there any concern that those extra innings are going to affect him in the coming year?

WOF: I don’t think so. He’s been a number one guy in the rotation for several years, frequently making it late into games. Given he took care of his body in the offseason, and got some rest, this should be a non-issue in 2017. I think there is often worries of these types expressed by fans, but professional athletes know their bodies well. And MLB pitchers have the most watched after arms in the world. So no one should worry about Kluber.

TD: Absolutely, which is why the Indians and Kluber have decided to take it easy this spring. He worked a ton of innings and a lot of high-leverage pressure situations. He was absolutely gassed by Game 7. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Indians even backed off early in the year with him a little. With as deep as their rotation is and how many options they have with a few guys like Mike Clevinger and Ryan Merritt now being relegated back to supportive pieces rather than rotation fixtures, you’ll probably see Tito opt not to skip his fifth starter. With Kluber, and really the entire rotation, it’s about being healthy and ready to go for the final stretch and any avenue they can take to make sure both he and the rest of that full-rotation make it there, the Indians will likely explore. Again, no Salazar, no Carrasco, and a finger-maimed Trevor Bauer forced the Indians into a position of dire straights after being in a favorable position of depth. We may be talking about a different outcome if just one of those guys was around in the World Series and that obviously needs to be the goal this year.​

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

WOF: He is not unheralded to Indians fans, but Brandon Guyer is a player who could have a major impact on the team’s success in 2017. He came to Cleveland after the All-Star break last season, and helped fill in the vacancy in the outfield left by the absent Brantley, and the suspended Marlon Byrd.

Guyer is known for his dominance against left-handed pitching, which was made evident when he roped a double off Aroldis Chapman before Rajai Davis hit that memorable home run. And with Michael Brantley’s return still in question, Guyer may be seeing regular time in left field to begin the season.

The loss of both Coco Crisp and Davis open up some more room in the outfield, and Guyer proved in his short time with the team last season that he is more than capable of being a regular fixture in the lineup.

TD: Okay so, last year, in a similar question​ I just gushed about Jose Ramirez and I’m so happy to have seen that come to fruition. He is that unheralded player that you better continue to watch. The GOAT filled in last year in left field when he had no prior experience and the Indians were thinned out in the outfield with Brantley out and Almonte suspended. He filled that utility role and then became the starting third baseman. Ramirez will likely be the regular third baseman again because he needs to play every day, but he is the team’s swagger. If Francisco Lindor is the spark plug, Ramirez is their engine. He makes it all go and it was really Ramirez’s offense that made up for the lack of Michael Brantley offensively.

But enough gushing, because there’s another guy who won’t get a lot of pub that deserves it. Everyone talks about Andrew Miller being the ace acquisition at the trade deadline last year and because of his big hits, Coco Crisp also got a lot of attention. But perhaps the most cunning move the Indians made was to grab lefty-crasher Brandon Guyer. There’s talk that Guyer could see some time in center if need be, but he’s been the much needed starter against left-handed pitching to match Lonnie Chisenhall in right field. He also had some big hits last season and is just a really solid hand. The Indians notched an extension with him, really like him and may even feature him a little more this season than just against lefties. He’s quietly one of the important pieces this team has.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

WOF: The Indians are going to go 100-62 and win the division. This is not solely based on my homer views, but on the fact that the rest of the AL Central has seemed to take steps backward while the Indians moved forward. They are also the defending AL champions, so there is no reason why the team can’t repeat their success in 2017, especially with everyone healthy. This team should be the favorite to at least make to the World Series, if not to win it all.

TD: Both Chicago with the trade of Chris Sale and Detroit with the trade of Cameron Maybin look to be more on the re-tooling side than the rebuilding side, but both moves signal a little bit of immediate regression for both if you ask me. Kansas City still wants to go full-bore into it, but I’ll maintain they don’t have the horses to keep up with the Tribe pitching wise. And uh, yeah Minnesota is there but, they still need some time to get a little more older. The Tribe is the class of the division. They have to have strong odds in their favor of taking the division. I can’t see them not winning it unless something goes catastrophically wrong or one of those other teams figures out a way to play out of their mind. A full and healthy rotation, a solid lineup top-to-bottom, the necessary pieces for a stout bullpen, and above average defense up the middle is a lot for those other teams to overcome and a lot of safe-measures in place for the Indians to be successful this year.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Indian and why?

WOF: That is a tough question, but I have to go with Manny Ramirez. I know a lot of people got annoyed with him, but I just like his attitude about the game of baseball. It was clear that he had fun playing the game, and his success all over the league made it easy to like him. He obviously only began his career in Cleveland, but his time here made me a lifelong fan.

A close second is Omar Vizquel, as I wore the #13 all throughout my youth sports career. I could never master the jump throw from short to first, but I certainly tried.

TD: Yeah so, I’m going to get laughed at for this, but I’m used to it by now. Little known outfielder and rightful 2003 American League Rookie of the Year Jody Gerut is my favorite all-time Cleveland Indians. Wait a second, you’re probably sitting there like, “Nino, you grew up in the ’90s with Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, and Sandy Alomar Jr. You also have a late 00 run with guys like Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez. Hell, it’s not even a bad thing to go current with budding superstars Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, or a guy like Corey Kluber. And your favorite Indian in their entire history is…Jody Gerut?”

Yep. So, when the Indians tore down that 90’s machine and started to rebuild from the ground up under Mark Shaprio, they had some really bad teams. Like the early 00’s was a real painful experience and it was the time that I started to really become a fan of the team. My dad and I went to multiple games a year because he had season tickets. Everyone left, they were done. The Browns were back and the team had nothing left that anyone cared about. So, we were like, two of 20 fans at some real painful games. And Jody Gerut was my dude. He had two really good years in 2003 and 2004 and after that sort of fell off, got traded, and went around until he retired and became a financial adviser to players. But Gerut was sort of that glimmer of hope as I would sit in right field. He was the beacon of hope that a young fan like me needed as he watched a team rebuild to what we all hoped would be a championship contender. I really enjoyed guys like Hafner and watching a guy like Sizemore give his body up as the team started to turn a corner. But Gerut for me represents a much more grittier time of being an Indians fan. A time when no one wanted to be one. He’s also a really super good guy and the kind of person you like to root for. So there’s that. And that’s why I like Jody Gerut more than Omar Vizquel. Yes, I’m a weirdo.

I appreciate Nino (an old Pepper veteran) and Steven (making his Pepper debut) letting us know a little more about the team that looks to be in the hunt for another World Series in 2017!

0 comments

Back in 2009, I had the idea of doing a season preview of each team by asking bloggers that followed that club questions and posting the answers.  We’re back for the ninth edition of Playing Pepper!  We’ll cover one team a day from now right up until Opening Day (not counting weekends).  This series is brought to you by our new United Cardinal Bloggers podcasts site, where you can find all the info and new episodes you need to enhance your Cardinal fandom.  Now, let’s play some pepper!

Cincinnati Reds
68-94, fifth in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper

There was little pretty about last year’s season in Cincinnati.  There were some highlights, such as Joey Votto‘s second half, but the most flammable bullpen that I can remember in a long while erased a lot of the positives that might have happened from the hitters or some of the starting pitchers not named Alfredo Simon.  The Reds have been in a funk for a bit as they struggle with rebuilding versus contending and it would be surprising if 2017 was the year things clicked.

That being said, there’s hope in Cincy and we’ve got some bloggers to talk about it.  A few notes–originally Brandon, Shawn, and Brian answered question two about Brandon Phillips before he was dealt to the Braves.  I’ve added their additional comments in italics after their original answer.  Secondly, we mourn the closing of Chris Sabo‘s Goggles, one of the more unique takes on the Reds I’ve ever seen.  Brian agreed to give Pepper another spin even as the blog has slipped into history.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Brandon Kraeling Red Reporter themusketeer Red Reporter
Shawn Weaver Cincinnati Reds Blog coweaver
Brian Chris Sabo's Goggles Goggles17
Chad Dotson Redleg Nation redlegnation Redleg Nation Radio
Nick Vorholt Blog Red Machine blogredmachine

C70: Was it a good offseason for the team? Did they do what they needed to do? Is there any move you wished they had made that they didn’t?

RR: So far, I think it’s hard for Reds fans to complain about how this offseason has gone. They were never going to be major players on the trade or free agent market, and they’ve made a couple of shrewd moves to bring in some lottery tickets on minor league deals. The two big league moves they’ve made have both been pretty positive, bringing in Drew Storen to shore up an awful bullpen and cashing in on Dan Straily’s bounce back season.

Truth be told, the Reds didn’t really have a lot to do this offseason. They don’t really have any high-profile trade chips at this point, they’re not even going to try and compete in 2017, so their job is to make room for the young players coming through and figure out what they’ve got in their farm system. They’ve accomplished that so far.

CRB: The Reds have traded most of their tradeable players, so they were limited in offseason moves. They made a good one recently, dealing Dan Straily off a career year to get three prospects, including one in most evaluators’ top 100, Luis Castillo. After shortstop Zack Cozart (hopefully) shows he is healthy in spring training, the Reds will try to make a deal with him.

CSG: The one thing the Reds needed to do this offseason was unload players, not pick up new ones. In order to free up spots for some of the young guys, Cozart and Phillips were the two most important pieces that needed to be moved and it didn’t happen (yet). In the case of Cozart, I blame the Reds for not figuring out a way to get a deal done (it should’ve been done before the All-Star Break last season). In the case of Phillips, the Reds’ hands are kind of tied (more on that in my next answer). I will say that the the Dan Straily deal has the potential to be incredibly lopsided — in the Reds’ favor… for once. 

RN: I guess? This was a strange off-season for the Reds, as the club is at a point in the rebuilding process where they have accumulated a number of assets, and now they need to see where all the pieces fit. For example, the Reds have lots of young options in the infield — Jose Peraza, Dilson Herrera, Eugenio Suarez, Nick Senzel, Arismendy Alcantara, among others — and 2017 will be the season for these guys to prove where (or if) they belong in the club’s long-term plans. The situation with the young pitchers is similar. Over the coming months, the Reds will much more information at their disposal, and they’ll be able to make better decisions about where the roster is still weak.

And that’s the reason the team didn’t do much in the off-season; until they know with a little more certainty what the young guys can do, it didn’t make sense to dip into the free agent market. Cincinnati did sign two pitchers, Drew Storen and Scott Feldman, but — consistent with the goals of the rebuild — signed neither to long-term contracts. Storen will help shore up a bullpen that looks to be much improved over last year’s historically bad version. Feldman is likely a starter to begin the season. He might remain in the rotation all season, but the hope is that the young guys — Cody Reed, Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett — will grab the brass ring and push Feldman to the bullpen.

The Reds made two significant trades in the off-season. First, they traded Dan Straily to the Marlins for three prospects, including two power arms (Luis Castillo and Austin Brice) who could be contributors to the next good Reds team. Straily is a great guy, and no one was excited to see him go, but this was a no-brainer. The Reds grabbed Straily off the waiver wire just before last year’s Opening Day, and he had an unexpectedly good season. But the analytics indicate that he’s exceedingly unlikely to repeat that performance, and Reds GM Dick Williams deserves kudos for selling high on Straily and getting a good return.

The other trade…well, see below.

BRM: This is a difficult question. Mostly the answer is yes. The team is young and it needed to get older. They also needed to keep all of their top prospects.  What the Reds did great this off-season was sign some good non-roster invitees, particularly Bronson Arroyo and Louis Coleman. They also did a nice job scouring the waiver wire.

More than anything else, the trade of starting pitcher Dan Straily was disappointing.  The Reds are going to have to start keeping young veterans sooner or later and Straily was a great opportunity. With him anchoring the back end of the rotation for the next 2-4 years the prospects would have had time to develop. Now Tim Adleman, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson may all be forced into the rotation to start the season.

Signing Drew Storen and Scott Feldman will help the pitching depth, but neither should last the whole season. They should both be flipped when the bullpen is established enough to do without the duo. That the Reds may end up with Feldman in the rotation due to Homer Bailey‘s injury makes the middle of the ball game muddled for the bullpen.  The additions of Nefi Ogando via waivers and Austin Brice in the Straily deal could both be nice moves. Ogando looks like he could develop into a ground ball, mid-inning reliever. Brice looks like he could develop into a closer or a number five starter depending on which way the Reds want to go.

Of course for position players, moving on from Brandon Phillips was the highlight of the off-season. The Reds began the rebuild prior to the 2014 season when they got rid of Dusty Baker, Ryan Hanigan, and Arroyo. Phillips should have been traded that off-season too.  The two players that will benefit the most from the move are Jose Peraza and Jesse Winker. Peraza will be able to settle in as the everyday second baseman and bat somewhere in the top half of the order to start the season. Winker now has a chance to stay up with the big league team because he can back-up all three outfield positions with Peraza at second.

The hole that the Reds still have is at everyday catcher. Optimistically, Mesoraco will play in 115 games. That means they still need 80-100 games from another catcher between pinch running and defensive replacements. Tucker Barnhart may be capable of that, but there are the best case scenarios.  If either one of them falls short, there will be a huge hole behind the plate. The move to pick up Stephen Turner in the Rule 5 Draft was good. He may end up being the everyday catcher if he can hit at the big league level.

Not getting a better catching option than Rob Brantly as insurance for Devin Mesoraco and Tucker Barnhart leaves the Reds vulnerable both offensively and on their pitching staff. They really needed to solidify the catching situation. Barnhart is an underrated catcher, overall, but he has proven himself unready to be an everyday catcher. Most alarming for Reds’ fans is his CERA from last year. Not only did Barnhart have the highest CERA in all of baseball last year for a regular but he had a positive differential. In other words, the Reds allowed more earned runs per nine inning with Barnhart behind the plate than on average. Usually, that is the stat of a back-up catcher.

They did move Brandon Phillips which they needed to do desperately. Getting Jose Peraza an everyday position to play should help the Reds offense and Peraza’s defense. The biggest concern on this front is that Peraza ends up being a second baseman defensively rather than a shortstop.
They also added Desmond Jennings and Ryan Raburn late in the off-season to provide some pinch-hitting options. The Reds didn’t need to do that, but is something that was a good idea. They eventually need to get a manager with work experience as a manager from elsewhere, but that wasn’t for this off-season.

On the pitching front the Drew Storen signing is a positive. The Reds needed someone who can be flexible as to his usage after letting Ross Ohlendorf walk away. Ohlendorf may not be a fan favorite, but he did everything that the team asked him to last season.  Ohlendorf had long outings and short outings. He came in late and he came in early. Most importantly, he was the best pitcher in a historically bad bullpen the first half of last season.

I would have brought back Ross Ohlendorf in a heartbeat. He is a veteran of the MLB who changed himself from a starter to a reliever and could have been a great mentor for the prospects. He never got a fair shot last season and the fans should be ashamed.  At the end of the season Ohlendorf’s ERA+ was 92 or the MLB ERA was 92 percent of his final ERA. That means that Ohlendorf was just below average over the length of the season. He also faced more batters in relief than at any previous time in his career.  He was taking one for the team and the Reds’ response was to let him sign a one year deal to play in Japan. Three times last season he came on in the middle of an inning where Tony Cingrani had already blown the save and Ohlendorf took the loss. You take away those three losses and suddenly Ohlendorf is 5-4.  Ohlendorf pitched more big league innings last year than he had since 2010 when he was a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. While carrying this much of a load he maintained a strikeout/walk ratio of 2.13. He also maintained an average of more than a strikeout per inning.

The Reds really needed to prepare for life without Homer Bailey. He cannot seem to stay healthy. With the trade of Dan Straily they didn’t seem prepared for ended up happening with Bailey.  The Reds also need to get better at being honest with the fans. Telling us Bailey is having a great off-season a week before he comes up lame is ridiculous. Cincinnati is a great baseball town and the fans understand the facts of the game.

The relief pitching market was also awfully expensive this season. Reds’ reliever Blake Wood has similar career peripherals to new Saint Louis Cardinal Brett Cecil. Cecil is going to earn more than three times the amount of money this season that Wood will.  Raisel Iglesias is in a similar position. He will be eligible for arbitration following the 2017 season. He is penciled into the primary set-up role supporting Michael Lorenzen as the closer.  Auctioning off Wood and Iglesias would have made more sense than trading Straily. Wood likely won’t be around when the Reds are ready to compete again and Iglesias could be expensive. The Reds need to make deals like these to maintain a good average age and an affordable roster.
The Reds also should have signed a veteran catcher with starting major league experience. Kurt Suzuki was a name tossed about and he is still available. The hotter names were former Red Ryan Hanigan and Chris Iannetta.  Re-signing Ohlendorf, trading away Iglesias and Wood, and signing Suzuki are the three moves that made sense this off-season that didn’t happen. All three are aimed at helping the young pitchers develop. That is the key for this season for the Reds.

C70: Apparently Brandon Phillips blocked a trade to the Braves. Are you glad he’s sticking around (it’s not the first time he’s blocked one) or would you like to move on? (See note above)

RR: As a fan who’s interested in watching this rebuild come to fruition, I think the BP era in Cincinnati should probably be over. The Reds have done everything they can to do right by him and trade him to good situations, and he’s perfectly happy going against their wishes and vetoing any deal.

I’ve enjoyed watching BP have the prime of his career here, and he’ll probably end up in the Reds Hall of Fame. I’ll be cheering for him then. But it’s hard for me to believe that he’s doing anything but sullying that relationship as he finishes his career with the Reds. He’s not the future here, and everyone knows it. I think he knows it. The best situation for the Reds is to give those ABs to someone who isn’t Brandon Phillips.

We’ll see how it goes, it’ll sure be fun to watch.

Addendum: I’m surprised that BP pulled a 180 and agreed to a trade to the Braves. It seems like everyone is happier, including BP himself, so I’m glad that the move materialized and that he changed his mind. For him, he gets a chance to start every day, a situation that might not have happened in Cincinnati. Cincinnati gets to give a season’s worth of 2B at bats to Jose Peraza, who looked great starting 4-5 days a week toward the end of last season. Dilson Herrera will probably benefit as well, as he looked to be the one who would have been awkwardly taking those starts from Phillips, especially as the season wore on. The return wasn’t much, and a large portion of the fan base are upset that the team was willing to trade a fan favorite, but on the field it was absolutely the right move.

CRB: Brandon Phillips has been a great guy to have in Cincinnati for more than a decade, and he is great at interacting with the fans. That said, the Reds need to move on and will certainly not pursue a new contract with him after this season. He might find his playing time decreasing as the season progresses.

Addendum: The trade of Phillips opens up playing time for Jose Peraza, the speedy slap-hitter who was used as a supersub in the second half. If they can deal Zack Cozart, Dilson Herrera is next in line for some time, with Herrera at 2B and Peraza at SS.

CSG: You’d be hard-pressed to find a Reds fan who doesn’t like Brandon Phillips. You’ll also have trouble finding a Reds fan who doesn’t wish that he was playing for another team. He’s a lot of fun to watch, and still has many upsides, but he simply can’t help this Reds team — now or in the future — so it’s time for the Reds to get whatever they can in a deal. But no-trade clauses are the player’s right, so if Phillips wants to refuse a trade, that’s his call. My guess is that he’ll be sent to a contender before the All-Star Break.

Addendum: People are saying that Brandon Phillips waived his no-trade clause to play for the Braves, but the truth is, calling this a trade would be a disservice to the word trade. The Reds essentially paid the Braves ($13 million of the $14 million contract) to take Brandon Phillips off their hands. Obligated to do something in return, the Braves sent two players to the Reds who will never make the team. Fine. It opens up a spot on the field for Jose Peraza. Whatever.

Phillips denies ever invoking his no-trade clause back in November for a rumored Braves deal, but of course he’s going to say that. He doesn’t want his new team to think he didn’t want to play there. And the Reds (wisely) chose to stay out of the conversation, choosing not to confirm or deny Phillips’ version of the story.

He’ll be missed — without a doubt — but the Reds can’t continue with their don’t-call-it-a-rebuild-we’re-not-rebuilding with Phillips still on the field, so it’s time to move on and hope the young guys pan out.

RN: Phillips did block a trade (or three), but later reconsidered and he’s now in line to be the starting second baseman for his hometown Atlanta Braves. I wish him the best of luck.

It was time for Phillips to move on. The Reds have a glut of young infielders ready to play in the big leagues, and wasting time on a 36 year-old second baseman — even one who has had such a distinguished career — always seemed like a terrible idea given where the Reds are on the rebuild life-cycle. Peraza and Herrera will be the main beneficiaries of Phillips’ exit, and the Reds really need to find out whether those two kids can play (both were highly-rated prospects at one time). Phillips wasn’t going to be a member of the next good Reds team. Peraza or Herrera might be, but the Reds won’t know until they’re given a shot. They’ll get that shot in 2017.

While it was time for Phillips to move on, however, it’s bittersweet. Phillips was an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner, and he spent 11 good years in a Reds uniform. He’s one of the best second basemen in the franchise’s history, and he’ll have a spot in the team Hall of Fame one day. As noted baseball analyst and historian Billy Shakespeare once said: “Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”

BRM: Oh, Brandon Phillips, he was the most beloved Cincinnati Reds player that didn’t understand when his time was up. Judging him purely on his on the field contributions, no one wanted to see him go. Judging him on his contact with the media, few wanted him to stay.  Fans outside of Cincinnati proper may not realize that Phillips was one of the major contributors to the Reds Community Fund in both action and time. He had a celebrity bowling benefit, he had a commemorative glove made by Wilson to raise funds for the Ronald McDonald House of Atlanta in 2012, and he donated time and money to help build urban baseball fields in greater Cincinnati among many other charitable initiatives. That is the part of Phillips that Cincinnati will miss the most.  In history Phillips will likely go down as the second best second baseman in Reds’ history, after Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

From a baseball vantage point, thank goodness Phillips has moved on. His defense and baserunning both tanked in 2016. He also was blatantly disrespectful about the Reds trying to trade him the past two off-seasons.  Phillips is still an average starting MLB second baseman defensively and offensively, but he is making money like a top ten second baseman. The Reds need second base clear to play Jose Peraza.

Phillips also repeatedly tweeted about his disagreements with the front office without addressing the specifics. The Reds tried to trade him to the reconstructed Arizona Diamondbacks and the Washington Nationals, where his buddy Dusty Baker manages, last off-season. This off-season it took two attempts to trade Phillips to his hometown Atlanta Braves before he finally accepted the deal.

He should be remembered as a great Cincinnati Reds player, but that he is gone is good. He allows Peraza to play every day and may allow the Reds to keep top outfield prospect Jesse Winker around as the back-up outfielder. The hope is that in retrospect Phillips realizes that this is best for his career and him personally. The Reds’ fans are sorry to see him go, but are glad that the drama is over. Now they can focus on Peraza, Winker, and Dilson Herrera who came over in the Jay Bruce deal last year.

C70: Who do you think will be the staff ace by the end of 2017?

RR: I’ll say Anthony DeSclafani. He’s been the most consistent arm for the Reds for the past few years, and I can’t say that we can count on Homer Bailey to stay healthy at this point. The Reds have a ton of young high-ceiling arms outside of that, and one or two of those guys could take that “ace” spot eventually, but I don’t think any of those guys will take a step that big in 2017.

CRB: The top candidate for staff ace is Homer Bailey. Homer struggled some in 2016 during his return from Tommy John surgery, but hopefully another offseason to rehab will put him back in top form. The Reds are paying for his best and need him to reach it and stabilize the rotation. After him will come Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan, and whomever wins the spring training competition. Early guess: Cody Reed and Robert Stephenson.

CSG: By last count, I think there are 38 pitchers currently competing for the Reds’ starting rotation. In theory, Homer Bailey should be the ace, but since I cringed when I typed that, I really don’t know the answer to your question. I feel like every pitcher who’s contending has “if he takes the next step” attached to his name. 2017 is apparently the year that Robert Stephenson finally figures things out, but we’ve been hearing that for five years, and he had a 6.00+ ERA last season, so…

RN: I think it’ll be Anthony DeSclafani. Disco is coming off a very strong 2016 that saw him improve across the board. He’s striking out more batters while walking fewer, and his curveball and slider have each established themselves as huge swing-and-miss weapons (not to mention his outstanding four-seam fastball). The Reds hope that DeSclafani, who will be 27 this season, confirms that he’s the staff’s ace.

Over at FanGraphs, however, Eno Sarris made the bold prediction that Brandon Finnegan could establish himself as the Reds’ ace. There has been debate about whether Finnegan’s future is in the bullpen, but I’ve always been of the opinion that he had good enough stuff — above-average fastball, slider, and changeup — to be an effective starter. Over the last couple of months of last season, Finnegan was mostly brilliant, thanks in part to a new grip on his changeup that was taught to him by none other than Dan Straily.

I wouldn’t be surprised if DeSclafani and Finnegan both looked like solid #2 starters this year. If two of the three big pitching prospects — Reed, Stephenson, Garrett — pan out, by the end of 2017, the Reds could have four guys that are at least mid-rotation talents. (I think Reed and Garrett are poised to have breakout seasons, establishing themselves as solid big league starters.)

BRM: In the starting rotation Anthony DeSclafani is the ace. He was last year and he will be this year. He is the one starter who could throw a shutout any time he takes the ball.  Last year DeSclafani injured his oblique in spring last year and only made 20 starts last year in his second season with the Reds. He came over with catcher Chad Wallach in exchange for Mat Latos and isn’t looking back. He made all 31 of his starts his first year in the Reds’ rotation.

In the bullpen Michael Lorenzen will be the closer and ace if the Reds let him. He has experience as a college closer and was the best reliever on the team last year hands down. When he joined the bullpen, it got dramatically better in very short order.  Last year Lorenzen had 35 appearances registering 10 holds. He had a team leading WHIP of 1.08 and was second in ERA to bullpen mate Raisel Iglesias with an ERA of 2.88. He also surrendered only one home run per ten innings which is impressive with Great American Ballpark as your home field.

Lorenzen will be the ace of the staff for years to come whether as a closer or as a starter. He was a first round draft pick in 2013 and pitches like one. The question is whether the Reds will let his talent lead the way or not. 

C70: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

RR: Can I say Joey Votto? No?

I’m going to go with Scott Schebler. After a walk-off win early in the year, he cooled off and ended up losing ABs to Adam Duvall and spent most of the season in AAA. Without Jay Bruce in the fold, the RF job is Schebler’s to lose, and he excelled at the end of last year, hitting .323/.393/.448 in September. He’s going to have top OF prospect Jesse Winker nipping at his heels, but Schebler showed flashes of potential last year that should make the early season interesting.

CRB: A key will be who emerges out of the young pitchers. There’s a lot of opportunity available. Also, if they can push Phillips aside, Dilson Herrera looks ready to make a breakthrough.

CSG: Amir Garrett is the name we Reds fans hear a lot. I’m not sure what his progression plan is, but from what we’ve heard, he’s the real deal. Luis Castillo, one of the guys the Reds got from the Marlins in the Straily deal, is supposed to be one to watch, too.

RN: Arismendy Alcantara. The Reds claimed Alcantara off waivers from the A’s, and there are signs that this could be a steal. As recently as a couple of years ago, Baseball America rated Alcantara as the 33rd best prospect in baseball, so the pedigree is there. He hasn’t performed in brief trials in the big leagues, but he’s still just 25 and he can play a bunch of different positions. Just after he was signed, I noticed that Alcantara’s career track looks an awful lot like another former top prospect that the Reds once acquired at the age of 25: Brandon Phillips. (Others have noted that we all may be overlooking Alcantara, as well.)

I’m not saying that Alcantara will go on to have the career that Phillips carved out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he won the second base job in Cincinnati at some point this year. At the very least, I expect Alcantara to be a valuable utility guy, capable of hitting a little and playing credible defense at a number of positions.

BRM: There are three players that fans should keep an eye on this season who are unheralded as of yet. For the position players, it is former Tampa Bay Ray Desmond Jennings. On the pitching staff it is Tim Adleman and Nefi Ogando.

Jennings comes over from the Rays as a non-roster invitee. A spot for him on the 25-man roster was opened when the Reds lost Richie Shaffer to the Indians via the waiver wire when they had to clear a spot for free agent signee Scott Feldman. That opened up the primary pinch hitter role and Jennings could take advantage.  With Scott Schebler and potential back-up outfielder Jesse Winker both batting left-handed, Jennings could pinch hit for either in a high leverage situation against a left-handed reliever.

Jennings also would be the only true center fielder on the roster to back up Billy Hamilton. Last year when Hamilton was shut down early, the Reds went through Jose Peraza, Schebler and then finally minor league infielder Hernan Iribarren as his replacement. Tyler Holt spent most of last season as the back-up center fielder, but he was injured too and is no longer with the organization.

On the pitching side Adleman is the often forgotten starter from last season. He saved the Reds by starting 13 games last year in what amounted to Homer Bailey’s spot in the rotation. With Bailey’s elbow injured again, Adleman is projected as the number three starter entering the season.  Scott Feldman wants to be in the rotation, so things could change. Adleman, though, is a number five type pitcher on a contending team. He should show himself as an integral part of the staff, if the Reds give him a chance.

Speaking of Feldman and chances brings us to Ogando. Ogando is in line to make a play for the same role in the bullpen that the Reds initially mentioned Feldman filling. He would make a great low leverage middle inning reliever who could come in mid-inning.  Ogando has been a reliever his entire professional career. He came up for a cup of coffee with the Miami Marlins and impressed last year. He looks like he could be enough of a groundball pitcher to come in when a double play was needed.

Jennings may have the highest hurdle of the three as he isn’t on the roster yet. Adleman and Ogando both have to take advantage of every opportunity they get. On a team looking to be competitive again, these are just three of the players who may not be on fans’ minds right now.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and/or where will they finish in the division?

RR: I think they’ll be a little bit better than they were last year, and go something like 72-90. I’d project them to finish 4th in the NL Central, after the Cubs, Cards, and Buccos, and ahead of the Brew Crew.

CRB: It’s another rebuilding year and the Reds figure to lose about 90 games again.  This should be the last year of that, if the plan works.

CSG: Oh, boy. The Reds‘ bullpen was absolutely dreadful last season (they did improve in the second half, though). Assuming things are somewhat cleared up in that department — and they appear to be — I expect a slightly better season than 2016. The offense should be serviceable, but I have a feeling it will take a while to get the pitching rotation settled. I can see them winning 10 more games, which would put them at 78-84.

RN: I’m more optimistic than most (some would say delusional), but I predict 81-81 and third place. Something like 77-85 is probably more realistic, but I do expect the Reds to make significant gains. The young guys are starting to appear on the horizon, and I really believe the low point in the rebuilding process is behind us.

BRM: 75-87. The Reds are going to better this year and shouldn’t be worried about coming close to 100 losses as they have the past two season.
Last year the Reds couldn’t compete with the Chicago Cubs. That match-up cost the Reds any chance at .500 last season. This year they should be able to compete, but they’re still a few steps behind.

Looking at the pitching staff there are enough decent starting pitchers to get to close to .500. Anthony DeSclafani should be about 15-10. Brandon Finnegan figures to go 10-10 or there about this year. If Tim Adleman stays in the rotation, he should go 12-12. Amir Garrett is the projected number four starter and likely is going to start about 5-10 for his career.  Robert Stephenson is a big question mark. If you pencil him to go 8-12, then the starting staff with go 50-54 with 25-23 left for the bullpen. Given the rebuilt bullpen that sounds to be in the general vicinity.

For the Reds 81-81 would be better than perfect. That just isn’t happening with the Cardinals and Cubs in the same division. 75 wins would be a good sign that the rebuild is working. What matters is how the pitching develops. If they can get to 70 wins and the pitching looks good, everyone will be happy.

C70: Who is your all-time favorite Red and why?

RR: The answer to this question depends a lot on the time period for when you grew up with the team, so my answer here has always been and will always be Barry Larkin. Hometown boy who played for the local team for his entire career, and capped it off with a trip to Cooperstown, and most importantly, hasn’t stuck around to embarrass his city like other local players have.

CRB: Johnny Bench is and was my favorite.  The cleanup hitter of the Big Red Machine was my childhood and forever hero.

CSG: Barry Larkin. It’s incredibly rare for a player to spend his whole career with one team, so getting to see Larkin rise up to become an eventual World Series champ and MVP was pretty special. I made the trip to Cooperstown to see him get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I can’t think of another Reds player (from my time) that I would consider doing that for.*

*Apologies to Corey Patterson

RN: Barry Larkin, mostly because he spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Reds, and his career really took off during my formative years. But I really wanted to answer “Adam Dunn” to this question, because Adam Dunn is probably the greatest player in the history of the Cincinnati Reds. Probably. 

BRM: Hmmm, I think all-time is always hard. It would be easy to say Joey Votto or Adam Dunn because they are the two most likely Reds to be voted to the MLB Hall of Fame next. Neither of them is my all-time favorite.

My all-time favorite is Ken Griffey, Sr., because he lived across the street from me when I was young. People forget that Senior came back to Cincinnati during the off-season even when he played for the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees. He was my first exposure to the MLB.  He was a back-up outfielder/first baseman by this time in his career, but not enough players have position flexibility anymore. His ability to change positions, even just left to first, was something has stayed with me to this day.  He also had a good eye the entire time that I watched him played. Even though he wasn’t as fast as he was in his prime, he was always a good base runner too. Watching him play was a pleasure.  Of course watching his son was fun too. By the time Junior was a Red he was on his way down. He still had an irrepressible smile.

For the enjoyment of watching a player because of his skill is another story. My favorite Red that I saw play was Eric Davis. He was the definitive superstar of the Reds’ 1990 World Series team. He also had 40-40 in his sights until an injury knocked him off.  Much like the Reds current centerfielder, Billy Hamilton. Davis repeatedly injured himself playing an elite center field. 

If we’re going to the legends, only one player resonates with me more than Frank Robinson and he is Ted Kluszewski. The Big Klu as he is fondly known to Reds’ fans. He was a four time All-Star from 1953 through 1956.  He was the National League MVP runner up in 1954 when he led the league in home runs, RBI, and fielding percentage. The Big Klu retired following the 1961 baseball season after bouncing around a bit following his Reds career. He was a member of the Big Red Machine as a coach, though.

So I guess that is my four or five favorite Reds, but they have been around over 125 years. One per 25 isn’t bad. In the end all of the Reds are my favorite.

Lots of great stuff here and my thanks to everyone for contributing.  Hopefully Cincy will be on its way up sooner rather than later!

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