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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!

San Diego Padres
68-94, fifth in NL West
Last year’s Pepper

It’s been a rough recent road in San Diego.  No matter what path they take, they tend to wind up as a sub-.500 club.  In eight of the last nine years, the Friars have wound up with more losses than wins, plus there’s been some off-the-field drama as well.  Whether it’s starting to name a plaza after Bud Selig (before changing their mind) or some questionable ethics when it comes to medical records, it feels like nothing goes right for the boys in brown.  (Wait, they aren’t even in brown anymore!)

To see if the club is on the upward swing, we’ve got three great Padres bloggers to go over the Pepper Six.  Some great content with these guys so check them out!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Scott Dunsmore Ghost of Ray Kroc GhostofRAK
Richard Dorsha East Village Times outsidepaint
Geoff Hancock Left Coast Bias LeftCoastBias

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?

GRK: Depends on how you define good. A.J. Preller seems to have a plan that ownership has gotten on board with. I know it’s going to be a few years before this team has a chance to be competitive, but I’ve seen others who are not so understanding. Some fans are confused and wondering why they haven’t signed a big-time free agent pitcher or something.

I think the Padres haven’t done a good job of explaining to the average fan what their plan is. Especially after they “won” the 2014-15 offseason by trading for Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, & Justin Upton and signing James Shields as a free-agent. They then turned around and sent all of those players packing — with the exception of Myers — for prospects. I know what they were trying to do and what they’re trying to get to, but I’m not sure the average fan gets it.

The Myers extension was a good thing this offseason, but otherwise, they just filled roster spots with lukewarm bodies. Jhoulys Chacin isn’t my idea of upgrading anything, especially a pitching rotation. We have a few years before some of these prospects might be ready for the Majors, and it’s going to be a lot of roster filling in the meantime.

The one thing that I wish the Padres did would be to sign Jake Peavy. He’s only 9 wins from breaking Eric Show’s Padres career record of 100 [insert laugh track]. The reason given, allegedly, was that Peavy wouldn’t sell tickets. Really? And Jered Weaver will? Okay.

EVT: If you consider the offseason as starting when the team gave up on 2016, then… absolutely! Padres fans know the team spent 2016 ridding itself of payroll to create capital to invest during the international signing period and the draft.

Now, if you’re referencing the true offseason then the answer is still yes. The team is not trying to contend in 2017. It will tread water until all the kids are ready. So, this past offseason the team picked up a bunch of reclamation projects hoping at least some of them stick. If/when the cast-offs perform the team will flip them for prospects. If/when they fizzle out the team will let them go and think nothing of it.

I wish they would have signed Jake Peavy, but that is only for sentimental value. They did exactly what I wanted: save resources so they can make a run at contending in a year or two.

LCB: All three of these questions are somewhat dependent on what the goal of the 2017 season is. I, for one, am all in on playing for the future and thus have little expectation for the 2017 season. To that end, this offseason was a good one in that the long term plan was not derailed for short term gain, or rather, perceived gain. The most notable offseason move was the extension of Wil Myers, a move I wholeheartedly agree with. Myers is (knocking on every piece of wood I can find) the cornerstone of this team and will be the catalyst when they are competitive again (2019? Fingers crossed). Myers was locked up through 3 arbitration years and 3 free agency years. He’s still only 26 and I think (hope) that 2016 was more of the Wil Myers that people saw when he was a prospect with Kansas City and Tampa Bay. I for one am a believer. So, did they do what needed to be done? They did, by locking up Myers and not spending money otherwise. For 2017, that’s fine by me. 

A quick aside as to a move I wish they had made. I would have said signing Jake Peavy as that seemed a very realistic chance considering both sides 2017 outlook. Jake Peavy is on my Padres Mt. Rushmore and I would have loved to hear some Sweet Home Alabama pumping through Petco Park. Sadly, Peavy’s personal life has taken a pretty rough turn and baseball is not, and can not, be his priority now. I wish him the best and look forward to rooting for him when and if he comes back to baseball.

C70: Will the fact that the Padres are now the only professional game in town, as it were, be a good thing or a bad thing for the club?

GRK: At first glance, you would think it would be a good thing. You would assume fans of the Team Formerly Known as the Local NFL Team* would then refocus their fandom on the Padres. But I’ve found that NFL fans are a cut from a different cloth than baseball fans. Yeah, there’s a lot who are fans of both, but I’m not concerned with them.

*I refused to call them by their real name, even before they left. I haven’t been a fan since the Spanos family bought the team in the late 1980’s.

Kyle Glaser of Baseball America wrote a piece in February in which he quoted the executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, David Carter:

“There’s a potentially very important business development part of this. Now that (the Padres) have the market to themselves, it will really help them with gaining advertisers and sponsors trying to reach sports fans and consumers. An NFL fan is not exactly the same as a baseball fan, but any time you have fewer competitors in the marketplace, the better opportunity for you to move the needle in terms of advertising or sponsorship, whether that’s radio or selling suites and signage in venue.

“That, and they now have the ability to capture some of that disposable income fans were spending on the Chargers and divert some of that through some great marketing and other campaigns. Even if it’s just a little bit, it can be a boon for the Padres.”

However, with the Padres now being the “only game in town” (we do have San Diego State football and basketball, the AHL Gulls, and Sockers, which is at least an option), the fans can’t help but have a little piece of our brains whispering, “Now they don’t have a reason to do anything for the fans.” A great example of this possibility is the promotional schedule, which is underwhelming and — like the 2017 uniforms — boring and uninspired. Padres’ chairman Ron Fowler talked about this in the Union-Tribune in January:

“We’re probably not going to be as edgy or creative,” he said, “because we want ones that people said they liked and the ones that demonstrated significant attendance regardless of which team we were playing that night.”

Those of us who follow such things as promotions and giveaways just shook our heads after we looked at that promotional schedule and then Fowler’s comments. There’s a real fear that, now that they have no real competition for fans’ dollars, they don’t even have to try anymore. Granted, the promotions were probably decided upon before the NFL bolted,** but it definitely isn’t a good look.

**I had to. Sorry.

Don’t get me started on the Padres stubbornness on bringing back the brown, because I want to keep this at a reasonable length, and I’ve nearly gone off the rails as it is.

Then again, the Padres organized and hosted the Celebrate San Diego rally — in which pretty much every team left in San Diego, professional and college was represented — and it drew more than 10,000 people. It was deemed so successful that there are calls to make it an annual event.

In summary, beats me. Only time will tell.

EVT: It probably won’t matter very much. The football fans and baseball fans in this town are different groups of people with very little bleed-over. The Padres might be able to grab a few extra corporate sponsors who can’t advertise at football games any longer, but fans won’t really notice. Some football fans may try out Petco Park but they won’t measurably affect the team’s bottom line.

LCB: That really depends on how they leverage this new spotlight. The Padres management has been pretty hit and miss when it comes to fan interaction. While I’m not a die hard Bring Back the Brown person, it doesn’t take a focus group to see what the majority of fans are wearing to games, and what sells better. It’s a rough patch to try and gain new fans as I anticipate some lean years ahead so, timing wise, it’s not ideal. I guess I’d say, the jury is still out on whether this is a good or bad thing. 

C70: What’s the strength of this team going to be?

GRK: Outfield defense? Austin Hedges’ defense? Wil Myers’ overall game? The bullpen?

That’s a really tough question to answer, given how this team looks on paper. We know the starting pitching is going to be serviceable, at best. Unwatchable, at worst. Fowler keeps referring to the 2010 season and how everyone had the Padres stinking. But then he follows it up with not believing in lightning in a bottle, which is what that 2010 team was.

EVT: Team defense. The team rid itself of the lumbering oafs in the outfield and one behind the plate. There are some studs in their place. Austin Hedges has a chance to be Yadier Molina good behind the plate. Manny Margot can be elite in centerfield, Hunter Renfroe has a cannon in right and a natural center fielder, Travis Jankowski, will spend most of the time in left. The Padres outfield will be where extra-base hits go to die. Wil Myers is also better than most people know at first base. Yangervis Solarte is pretty good at third. The only questions are up the middle, mostly because I have no clue who will get the lion’s share of innings at those positions.  

LCB: There are a ton of young players that are unproven that, while maybe not a strength, at least will be entertaining. With young players comes a lot of unknowns but they will be names that Padres fans have heard a lot about. Hunter Renfroe, Austin Hedges, Travis Jankowski, these guys have had cups of coffee but now they get real playing time. I think they are still a few years away, but with a lot of well regarded, yet unproven, talent, you just never know. 

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

GRK: Unheralded? You might have to clarify. Nearly the entire roster qualifies, if that’s the one requirement.

I want to say Hunter Renfroe, but that’s probably too much pressure to put on a rookie. I’m instead going to say Cory Spangenberg, who missed the entire 2016 season to injury and effectively lost his starting 2B job to Schimpf. If he can win the 2B job back this spring, that is.

EVT: If he can even be average with the bat, Austin Hedges will post one of the best WAR numbers in the National League based on the defense alone. Granted, the bat is a mad-sized “if”, but no one outside of San Diego knows how good this guy is defensively. He is a big reason why Yazmani Grandal is in Los Angeles. I’m encouraged by his season in AAA last year, but it remains to be seen if he can duplicate his offensive production at the next level. If he can, he is going to turn heads and will be a Gold Glove candidate in year one.  

LCB: LOL, I feel like the entire team is unheralded. I’ll say Yangervis Solarte has been a pleasant surprise since coming over in the Headley trade and I think he has the potential to continue to grow as a player. Plus, the prospect of Christian Bethancourt attempting to pitch could be really fun. I wouldn’t call Austin Hedges unheralded, but if he has figured out how to hit big league pitching, he could be REALLY fun to watch this year. 

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

GRK: Oh, dead last. And I’m perfectly okay with this. Preferably dead last in the Major Leagues. Gotta crack some eggs to make an omelette. Granted, the Padres history with top-5 overall draft picks is shady, at best. But I believe they finally have a baseball operations staff that can reverse that trend.

At least, I sure hope so.

EVT: The Padres will not lose 100 games, as many are saying. Don’t get me wrong, I know this is a team full of question marks. I’ve read the over/under anywhere from 64 up to 70 and most pundits say it will be under those already small numbers. I’ll probably sound like the world’s biggest homer for my team but I will certainly take the over on the 64 and I might even take the over on the 70 number. The Padres have at least 8 legitimate contenders for the starting rotation. A few of them will be pretty good because that always happens. The Padres always seem to find gold in someone else’s garbage. The team will play great defense, the team has speed through-out the roster and the line-up can’t be much worse than some of the dreck it rolled out last year. If I had to pick a win total, 70-75 sounds pretty good.

LCB: I’ll say 70-92 and 4th place is looking about right. 

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

GRK: Tony Gwynn. Duh. Any self-respecting Padres fan is answering with that. And that’s a boring read, because it’s almost always the same no matter who you talk to. Yeah, sure, you might have that rebel who throws out Randy Jones or Trevor Hoffman as an answer. But we all know their favorite is Tony, as it should be.

Rather, let me tell you about my 2nd favorite player, Mark Loretta, and why that is.

Back when I used to play fantasy baseball (I stopped a few years ago because it stopped being fun to me), for a couple of years I picked up Loretta because he was playing ¾ of the infield spots and he was putting up good numbers doing it. Next thing I know, I’m winning in all of leagues that I had Loretta in. This was all while he still a Milwaukee Brewer.

Cut to a couple of years later, and Loretta is the starting 2B for the Padres. And he’s still qualified at multiple spots and putting up good numbers. It could be argued he was the best player on those early-Petco Park Padres teams. You know, back when they actually were doing things like winning the division (and getting swept out of the Divisional Series by the Cardinals. But, uh… [clears throat]).

EVT: It is a total cliche, but there really isn’t another answer other than Tony Gwynn. Padre fans do not adore the guy for his greatness. 8 batting titles speak for themselves. Padre fans love Tony because he was not the best baseball player, at first. He worked for everything he achieved. He had a terrible arm, but he ended up playing right field. Tony’s solution wasn’t to demand a change to left. Tony got to the field early, every day, and threw over and over again to make himself better. Tony wasn’t the best hitter coming out of college. He literally got better in the big leagues because he worked harder than everyone else, whether it was batting practice or watching video. Other fans may not know that Tony was sort of a pioneer when it comes to video swing analysis. He requested the Padres organization invest in the equipment he needed to watch himself on video. This was during the mid-1980’s when video equipment required VHS tapes.

In addition to the work ethic, I loved Tony’s smile, his laugh, his accessibility. He was always on Padres pre and post game TV and radio broadcasts. Put it in perspective: in a year and a half, Matt Kemp did the radio post-game show twice. Tony did that each and every week. The team sucked and he never complained. I watch old Tony Gwynn interviews and videos on Youtube at least a few times a month. It was obvious he loved baseball, he appreciated his fans and he loved the city of San Diego. I should also add he took a lower salary here than he could have collected somewhere else.
I’m probably writing too much but I could fill page after page writing about Tony. I still miss him.

LCB: I cannot imagine anyone answering this question any other way than to say Tony Gwynn. Nor can I think of a better player for a kid in Oceanside and Tucson, AZ to look up to in the 90’s. He was quiet, he was a professional, he studied and practiced and didn’t just rely on natural talent and he did so with such grace and humility. I’m still in shock he’s no longer with us. 

My thanks to Scott, Richard, and Geoff for their time and efforts in letting us get a little smarter about the Padres.  They might be an interesting team to watch on MLB.tv after some Cardinal games this season!

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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!

Pittsburgh Pirates
78-83, third in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper

Over the past few years, as Cardinal fans we’ve had a front row seat as the Pirates not only threw off their stretch of sub-.500 baseball but became a significant challenger to St. Louis’s rule of the NL Central.  Last year, the Cubs snuck by both teams as the Pirates again finished with less than 81 wins.  To determine if that’s a bump in the road or an ominous trend, we’ve got five Pirates bloggers here to give us the lowdown on the black and gold.  (Please note: As an actual employee of MLB, Michael Clair recused himself from question three.)

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?

PB: It was a weird offseason for the Pirates; on one hand they did re-sign Ivan Nova to a deal well-below market value, which was a MUST for their 2017 rotation. On the other, they were hotly engaged in a couple of big-time trades that did not pan out. They failed to deal Andrew McCutchen after engaging with the Nationals and other “mystery teams.” They also did not land White Sox left-hander Jose Quintana, after being the strongest team linked to him over the hot stove. GM Neal Huntington has gone on record as saying the price for Quintana was exorbitant and that the club did not feel pressured to deal McCutchen, but the lack of a Quintana trade in particular – one I wish they would have done – has left a bad taste in many fans’ mouths.

PP: No, not really, it was not a good offseason. The perennially PR-challenged Pirates botched the whole situation with the McCutchen trade talks. They were shopping him at his lowest possible value, expecting a return commensurate with an MVP-caliber player, and shocked by the chasm between the two. I wished they would have done whatever it took to get Jose Quintana from the White Sox. I would have been fine with emptying 3 top tier prospects for him, as prospects have high bust/disappointment rates and Quintana is an established #2 starter. It would have deepened the whole rotation and put them on par with the elite staffs in the NL.

643: It was a reasonable off season. The big need was starting pitching and they partially addressed the by re-signing Ivan Nova. There were plenty of rumors about a trade for Chicago’s Jose Quintana, but apparently the Sox want a deal comparable to what they got for Chris Sale and they Bucs just aren’t going to give up THAT much. I would have been fine sending a package built on Tyler Glasnow but not not Josh Bell and Austin Meadows. Another need that wasn’t addressed is for a 4th outfielder. Pittsburgh is on the list of rumored destinations for Angel Pagan. Signing Daniel Hudson gives the bullpen a lot of depth.

C4: It was an interesting offseason, to say the least. While some will dream of the cache of golden prospects that could have been acquired had they dealt Andrew McCutchen, and others will wish the team unloaded the farm for Jose Quintana, it ended up being pretty quiet.

Personally, I wouldn’t have been upset had the team gone all in on Quintana. Even though the superpowered and terrifying Cubs look to have the NL Central on lock for quite some time, the Pirates roster is about as good as it could be without tearing the whole thing apart and trying to build from the bottom again. (And with caps on international spending and in the draft, there is no guarantee they would be able to do so as quickly as the Astros have.)

The signing of Ivan Nova looks to be a good one — especially for the amount of money he was brought in on — but the concerning issue is what happened last July when the team acquired Drew Hutchison, giving up two prospects and Francisco Liriano in what appeared to be a salary dump.

If Hutchison makes the roster and proves to be an adequate mid-rotation stalwart, then fine, I’ll never bring it up again. But if the players they gave up just to offload Liriano were still in the system, could the team have made a run at a frontline starter like Quintana? That thought will plague me until Opening Day.

WHYG: I guess it was sort of a neutral off-season for the Pirates, in the way that most of their off-seasons are neutral. They didn’t do anything huge, but they didn’t fail to accomplish any basic necessary task, either. The signing of Ivan Nova was an excellent deal for them, in that it’s for a reasonable sum of money ($26 million plus incentives over three years), and Nova really took to Ray Searage’s coaching almost immediately with anabsolutely bananas walk rate after he was traded to the Pirates (3 BBs in 64 2/3 innings). The Pirates needed to add some sort of pitching depth this winter, with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon’s injury histories, the demise of Francisco Liriano’s Pirate career, the slow development of Tyler Glasnow, etc. etc. I would argue that the Pirates should’ve gone a bit further and tried to pick up some kind of starting pitching project in the Tyson Ross mold, and the Pirates certainly had pitching eyeballed in the proposed Andrew McCutchen deals (more on this in a bit), but Nova adds some stability and if Taillon and Cole stay healthy (IF! IF! IF!), they’re more than halfway to a full rotation with plenty of young internal options to at least give auditions to (all across the talent spectrum from Tyler Glasnow to the Chad Kuhl/Steven Brault/Trevor Williams tier down to the Drew Hutchison type options). 

C70: It was surprising to me to hear Andrew McCutchen’s name bandied about in trade talks. Did that makes sense to you and will McCutchen get moved this year?

PB: It made total sense. The guy is about to turn 30, had a down year but was still an attractive piece at a bargain price with two years of control left. I would expect that Huntington will field MANY calls at this year’s trade deadline, but he’d have to be blown away by an offer. If the team is in contention, true contention, McCutchen would not be available until next offseason.

PP: (Ed. note: See above for general McCutchen comments.) If the Pirates are out of it in July, they’ll try and move him.  Otherwise, in the offseason they’ll pick up his option for 2018 and move him then.

643: It made perfect sense from every logical perspective. Which doesn’t mean I liked it one bit. Barring the proverbial offer-you-can’t-refuse, Cutch only gets traded during the season if he’s having a good year and the team is out of contention. Once the off season comes around again I’d put the odds that he gets traded at around 80%.

C4: For a franchise like the Pirates, it is just a sad reality that players like McCutchen will continue to be brought up in trade discussions. Though a contract extension doesn’t seem to be a realistic possibility, his current contract is team friendly enough that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s kept through the end of it in 2018.

So, if the Pirates are truly in the playoff discussion and McCutchen has bounced back, I’d imagine he’s with the team all year. Otherwise — including a year in which the Pirates could, maybe, if-you-squint make a run a the second Wild Card — I’d expect they’ll try to unload him for a near-Major League ready-talent and not the kind of high-risk, high-reward players in the lower Minors.

Because this is a team that has 80-ish win talent, I’d imagine they are going to keep rolling the dice until both die have been lost under the table and everyone agrees it’s time to give up and go home.

WHYG: It is the unfortunate reality of small market baseball that these things happen and it seemed to me like a sure thing that the Pirates would shop McCutchen after they cut and run on Liriano’s extremely manageable deal at the deadline. McCutchen spent small stretches of 2015 and huge swaths of 2016 not looking like his old MVP-type self, and with the Pirates’ extreme outfield depth (Austin Meadows is a very promising outfield prospect knocking on the door behind the already excellent Starling Marte and the blooming Gregory Polanco), trading McCutchen was a reasonable channel to explore for the endless search for pitching. I will admit that I’m surprised the Pirates didn’t dump him off for a less-than-expected return after the rumored Nationals’ deal fell through, and I’m happy to see that they were apparently only willing to consider the deal if it was going to improve the team.

I have no idea if he gets moved this year; the easy logic is that they won’t trade him if they’re in contention, but they did trade Mark Melancon to the Nats at least year’s deadline despite being in the thick of the wild card race. The answer is probably that if McCutchen is mediocre again and Meadows is knocking hard on the door at AAA, a Nomar Garciaparra type deal is not entirely out of the question even if the Pirates are in the thick of a playoff race. If he falls off even further, I don’t know what his value is on the open market, though I’m sure the Pirates will find a way to move him rather than lose him for nothing. This all comes with the caveat that I suspect that McCutchen has been nursing a number of injuries the last few years and while there’s no guarantee of health at this point in his career, if he is healthy and producing at his old levels and the Pirates are contending, then I’m sure the Pirates will defer a decision on his future (he has an ~$18 million player option for 2018, so there’s a decision coming either way) to the off-season.

C70: There have been some legal problems with Jung Ho Kang this offseason. Is he expected to face any punishment from the team or MLB?

PB: He is expected to face some kind of suspension from MLB, and the Pirates acquired a depth piece in UT Phil Gosselin to guard against this.

PP: With regards to Kang, it’s now my personal belief that he misses a large portion of the season (if not the whole season) due to issues securing a work visa, due to his record and still-unresolved sex assault case here in the United States.

643: Jung ho Kang was sentenced to an eight month suspended sentence for his third DUI in Korea. Basically it means he was placed on probation and as long as he meets the terms he will not serve any time. However, even having a suspended sentence makes if much more difficult for him get get a visa to return to the United States. Kang is currently trying to get the sentence reduced to a fine so he can return sooner. I doubt the Pirates will place any punishment on him beyond some sort of mandatory counseling, and MLB has never before come down on any player for drunk driving. Due to the unknown length of time it will take for Kang to make his return, the Pirates placed him on the restricted list so he will not count against the 25 man or 40 man rosters. Speculation: Kang will be required to enter a substance abuse counseling program and may receive a short suspension of no more than 10 days.

C4: (omitted)

WHYG: Neither the Pirates nor MLB have indicated either way whether Kang will be disciplined for what turned out to be his third DUI in recent years, as I believe it’s league and team policy to defer discipline until the court process finished up. Given that that didn’t end until late February and Kang has yet to obtain a work visa to re-enter the US, he’s still well in limbo. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s still under investigation for an alleged sexual assault in Chicago during the season last year, though the last news update I can find there was in September of last year and it indicated that the accuser was not cooperating with the investigation.

I have no idea what the answer to this situation is; I’ll say that I’ll be disappointed if the Pirates don’t suspend him, given the repetitive nature of his DUIs in South Korea, but if he misses the season’s first six weeks due to his visa issues, I don’t know how likely it is that they’ll add a suspension onto him on top of that (he’s currently on the restricted list due to his visa issues). I can, as a fan, speculate that the Pirates probably anticipated some issues with Kang given that their extension of David Freese last summer felt pretty uncharacteristic in a vacuum, though there will never be any way to find an answer to that question. The Pirates will miss Kang’s pop for as long as he’s out, but between Freese, Adam Frazier, Josh Harrison, Alen Hanson, and Phil Gosselin, they can probably find some kind of rotation that fills third base out reasonably, and I think that’s the best we can hope for at this point.

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

PB: Keep your eye on Adam Frazier. He’s a bench bat who can play both corner outfield spots as well as second and third base. He was solid but unspectacular as a rookie, but has potential to be one of the best part-time players in baseball thanks to his plate discipline and approach.

PP: I think Felipe Rivero, the main component received from the Nationals in the Mark Melancon trade last July, is a stud closer in the making. He’ll be in 7th/8th duty to start the year, but his role could evolve throughout the year.

643: Chad Kuhl had a perfectly cromulent rookie season. He doesn’t rack up the strikeouts but limits walks and hits enough to be a successful mid-rotation starter.

C4: The entire back of the rotation will be interesting to watch. Can Nova prove that his second-half was for real, when he simply stopped walking batters was for real? Will Chad Kuhl’s sinker make him an effective innings eater? What will become of Tyler Glasnow’s command?

The other option is Adam Frazier. The new super utility man, Frazier rode some excellent contact abilities and some batted ball luck to a fantastic .301/.356/.411 line in 2016. He hasn’t hurt his cause by blasting the ball in Spring Training and, while the numbers most certainly don’t matter, it’s hard to see his 1.146 OPS at the time of this writing and not get excited. While some fans liken him to the new Josh Harrison, and would prefer to see Frazier take the starting role due to his patience at the plate, I’m not ready to go there. Yet. After all, Josh Harrison and Freddy Sanchez each started their Pittsburgh careers on the bench.

WHYG: I think that in general the players that will come into focus for the Pirates this season will be pretty heralded; Tyler Glasow’s rough edges showed quite a bit last year and still occasionally jut out in spring training, but any competitive Pirate team is probably going to require a big contribution from him. Gregory Polanco made a big leap forward last year, but I think there’s still plenty of room for him to grow. I guess I’ll go with Felipe Rivero, the main return from the Nats in the Melancon trade. Rivero throws an easy 98-100 as a lefty and put up some ridiculous strikeout numbers in black and gold in August and September. If they reign his control in some, he’ll be ready to close basically on the spot. He’ll probably need to, too, since Tony Watson’s awful spring training resembles his shaky close to 2016, and in doing so has opened the door for someone like Rivero to step in.

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

PB: Tough to say. This is a GOOD team. But their ceiling is low thanks to a shaky back end of the rotation. I would expect 85-88 wins, good enough for second in the NL Central, but playoffs may be asking a lot.

PP: I think they’ll get around 85-86 wins. That’s probably a 3rd place finish behind Cubs/Cards.

643: This year’s Pirates are a talented team with some holes. I see them getting 85 or so wins and battling for 2nd with the Cards.

C4: I don’t know if I’m clouded with delusion and dreams of wild success, but I believe in this team and think sweet Lady Luck will finally smile upon them. (those two Wild Card game losses means they’re due, right? )

87 wins, a Wild Card and … a Division Series loss.

WHYG: My hunch is that this is a .500ish team. Cole looks good this spring, but he’s dealt with arm-related problems in two of the last three seasons and I’m concerned about his ability to pitch a full season. The same basically goes for Taillon, though he’s been mostly healthy since his post-Tommy John hernia in 2015. That means there’s a good chance the Pirates are forced to lean pretty heavily on Glasnow, who I’m not convinced is ready, and guys like Kuhl, Brault, Williams, and Hutchison, who I’m not convinced are much better than the guys they previously had to lean on when the chips were down. I do think the ceiling is there for 85 or 90 or, on the upper end of the bell curve, a return to the 95+ wins of 2015, though that’s almost entirely dependent on (in order of importance) Cole’s health, McCutchen returning somewhat to form, Taillon’s continued health, and Glasnow’s emergence (the tail exists in the other direction, too, of course). Most likely, I’d say that the Pirates will probably find themselves in another wild card race without truly being able to threaten the Cubs, but I guess nothing’s impossible. 

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

PB: This is very tough; I gravitate towards pitchers in general so I think I might just say Steve Blass. He was on the World Series winning club in 1971 before somehow catching the yips and completely forgetting how to throw strikes. He does not dwell on that, however, and loves to talk baseball in his current position as a Pirates broadcaster. His love for the game shines through every time he winds up to talk about some random story from the 70s. He also had two holes in one in one round of golf, which is incredible.

PP: That’s hard to say, because I’ve had favorite Pirates at different checkpoints of my life for differing reasons. I’d say Doug Drabek is right up there. We used to get our hair cut at the same place by the same lady, so I would pester him about his pitch usage of fastball/curve/slider and he probably thought, “I’m going to punch this 14 year old kid in the face.”  

643: I came of age as a fan around 1988, and Andy Van Slyke was my guy. Who wouldn’t love a wise-cracking, All-Star, Gold Glove center fielder?

C4: Somehow, I fell in love with this team in 2005. Looking at that roster, it’s hard to see why, but I did. Jason Bay, Craig Wilson, Zach Duke, Jack Wilson … these are my dream Bucs. While it’s hard not to say Andrew McCutchen, the answer is none other than Jose Castillo.

At the time I fell in love with the team, Castillo was the subject of nightly defensive highlights. He would range deep into the hole, dive and make magic happen. Add in Jack Wilson at shortstop and the middle infield was turning some of the prettiest double plays. (Of course, they were helped by the number of baserunners and balls in play that the pitching staff allowed…)

Castillo was young and it looked like he would be set for a long career of 20-plus home run seasons with a half-dozen or so Gold Gloves in his cabinet. That unfortunately did not happen. His plate vision never improved and he quickly grew thicker, ending the days of endless highlights and moving him to third and then to other teams.

I still remember the promise I felt while watching him and will think back quite fondly on highlights like this one whenever I wonder, “Why did I love a player with negative rWAR so much?” And I’ll remember.

WHYG: I guess given the blog name and online moniker everyone expects me to say Andy Van Slyke, but honestly, it’s McCutchen. He existed for so long as this shining idea that the Pirates could be better someday, and then he arrived and was actually better than anyone could’ve anticipated. There hasn’t been a more important Pirate in my life and I’m not sure that there will be. I’ll be sad when he’s gone, and what I want more than anything for 2017 is for his Pirate career to be properly sent off so that we can remember it for what it was, and not how it ended. 

Good stuff here about one of our division rivals.  My thanks to everyone that contributed and look forward to a lot of great Cards/Pirates games this season!

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!

Philadelphia Phillies
71-91, fourth in NL East
Last year’s Pepper

We’ve seen the Phillies go from World Champions down the slope to an also-ran team.  Are we about to see them start the upward climb?  After all, they won eight more games and moved out of the basement last year with some young and intriguing players.  There could be some hope here, which is what every fan wants to have.

The four bloggers below were willing to give their thoughts about where the club is and what we might see in 2017.  Check them out and read on!  (A note: Eric announced today he was leaving Crashburn Alley and heading over the MLB’s Cut 4 site, so you’ll find him there going forward.)

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Matt Veasey Matt Veasey matthewveasey
Eric Chesterton Crashburn Alley CF_Larue
Rich Baxter Fightin' Phillies FightinPhillies Phillies Talk Podcast
Scott Butler Phils Baseball PhilsBball

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?

MV: It’s difficult for me to characterize the moves this offseason as either “good” or “bad”. The Phils are entering a very interesting period in their program of building back to contention. What they did this winter was add a few age 30+ veterans to buy more time.  The last two seasons have seen the influx of talented kids into the lineup, rotation and bullpen, players who the team hopes will be around for the long run: Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph, Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff, Jake Thompson, and Hector Neris.

This off-season the club added Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders, expected to see most of the time in the corner outfield slots. They also added
Clay Buchholz to the rotation mix, and both Joaquin Benoit and Pat Neshek to the bullpen mix. These additions should allow a little more time for players such as outfielders Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, and Dylan Cozens to develop further. Same for the bevy of young pitchers that the club has who have already debuted, and who are still pushing from the minors.

Some fans wanted to see them make a bigger splash in free agency, especially since there is plenty of money available. But for me, throwing big bucks
at a fading, one-dimensional hitter like Jose Bautista simply didn’t make sense from the Phillies current perspective.

CA: Even without a loud move like last year’s Ken Giles trade, General Manager Matt Klentak quietly put together a solid offseason. There’s been addition by subtraction with the departures of Ryan Howard, Cody Asche, Jimmy Paredes, and your old friend Peter Bourjos as well as addition by addition with trades for Howie Kendrick (for Darin Ruf, another addition by subtraction guy), Clay Buchholz, and Pat Neshek and signing Michael Saunders and Joaquin Benoit. None of those players move the needle all that much, but, taken together, we could be looking like something close to a double-digit improvement.

The only move I openly lobbied for was the signing of Michael Saunders, and they did that, so I’m happy. This is picking nits for a team that is going to lose 85-90 games in 2017, but they could have looked a little harder for a left-handed reliever either in free agency or trade. As it stands, Joely Rodriguez is the only major-league ready lefty reliever on the 40-man roster. Unless NRIs Sean Burnett or Cesar Ramos revive their careers, or Pat Venditte proves to be a bit more effective than he has thus far in his career, this could be a source of trouble.

The Phillies are at a stage in the rebuild where there really isn’t much for them to do in any particular offseason, especially one without a ton of alluring free agents. The success of the rebuild, at least in the next two years, will be based on internal improvement and player development rather than a big offseason splash. So, boring, like the 2016-17 offseason, is good.

FP: The Phillies added a couple of veterans (Howie Kendrick from LA and Michael Saunders from Toronto in the offseason for the outfield. Some trouble with that is, they also have a couple of younger players (Brock Stassi – OF and 1B) and Aaron Altherr (OF) who has shown some great prospect for this Phillies team. Will these players get their chance?

They also inked Jeremy Hellickson to a 1-year qualifying offer for $17.5M to solidify their pitching. The Phils added Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox.

GM Matt Klentak went out and added some players who are all on 1-year deals, the team seems poised to get a bigger, longer termed free agent after this season. Will that help the Phils this year?

PB: I absolutely love what this front office has been doing. They are a bit boring and this long rebuild is getting old, but it’s the way it has to be. Dare I say, Trust the Process? From John Middleton to Andy MacPhail to Matt Klentak, the Phillies have a plan and the patience to follow through with it.

They needed to improve their outfield and they did that with the additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. I would have been hesitant to sign both of those players because it blocks any outfield prospect from starting, but Aaron Altherr will get his chances, Roman Quinn can certainly benefit from some time at triple-A, and Nick Williams wasn’t going to start the season in the bigs. If things go well, there will be two openings later in the season anyway. I especially like the Kendrick signing because the Phillies desperately needed a professional bat, some veteran to show these young guys the ropes.

Clay Buchholz was another nice addition. The move creates a logjam of young starters, but he gives the team another trade chip and stabilizes the rotation. With injury questions for both Nola and Velasquez, it’s not a bad insurance policy, either.  They also signed Odubel Herrera to a team friendly deal, which could pay off big in the next few years.

C70: Odubel Herrera had a very nice season last year. Will he be able to build on that for 2017?

MV: That is a huge question for me. The Phillies are quite obviously convinced, because they handed him a contract that takes him through the next 5-7 years.  However it is a very team-friendly deal at just $30.5 million guaranteed.  ‘El Torito’ as he is known (“little bull”), has put together two solid seasons in his first two MLB years. He plays the full 2017 season at age 25, so theoretically he still has a couple of years before entering his prime.

I would love to see him continue his defensive development in center field. At the plate, he has the ability to become a consistent 20+ homers and 30+ steals guy.

CA: The Phillies certainly think so, having locked him up on a five-year, $30.5 million dollar extension with team options that could bring it to seven years. While his 2016 slash line was essentially a carbon copy of his 2015, there were multiple positive underlying developments that suggest even bigger things could be in store–which is something for a player who has produced, respectively, 4.0 and 3.8 fWAR in his first two seasons.

In 2016, Odubel nearly doubled his walk rate, cut his strikeout rate, hit for more power, and stole more bases at a more efficient rate. He’s only entering his age-25 season and his third season above AA. I don’t see any reason to doubt that he will continue to get better.

FP: Odubel Herrera got a 5-year deal from the Phils in the offseason, and I was surprised they signed him for that long. Yes, it may have been for a bargain price ($30.5M) in reference to other contracts, but the length of time is concerning to me. I’d like to see him get more RBIs in 2017 and I’d like to see him blossom into a player that is better than last year.

PB: I think he will. Herrera had a brutal few weeks after the All-Star game and you had to wonder if the success got to his head or the league finally caught up to him, or both. But just like he did in his rookie season, he finished nicely. Overall, his batting average dropped in his second season, but his walk rate nearly doubled and his strikeout and home run rates both improved. Herrera is not yet a finished product and his best years might be still in front of him. 

C70: What’s the starting rotation going to be to open the year?

MV: The hope is that the rotation will be: Jeremy Hellickson, Clay Buchholz, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Aaron Nola.  Alec Asher is likely going to get the first opportunity if any openings, as long as he is healthy and effective this spring.  Further openings would see Jake Thompson, Zach Eflin, Adam Morgan, Ben Lively, and Nick Pivetta battling this spring.

CA: This is the easiest question here. Barring injury, the starting rotation is set. Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Vince Velasquez, and Clay Buchholz. The order there is a little trickier. With potential injury concerns for Aaron Nola–shut down in 2016 with an elbow injury–and Velasquez’s difficulty consistently pitching deep into games, they might want to avoid them going back-to-back for the sake of the bullpen. 

FP: It’s Vince Velasquez, Clay Buchholz, Aaron Nola, Jered Eickhoff, and Jeremy Hellickson. Right now, Velasquez seems like he may emerge to me to be the best early on, Hellickson will probably get the Opening Day start though.

PB: Jeremy Hellickson, Jerad Eickhoff, Clay Buchholz, Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez.

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

MV: Last year my guy for this question was Eickhoff, and he had a solid season. This year that guy is Ben Lively for me. He is never very highly rated by prospect evaluation lists, and yet all he does is produce when he takes the mound. I like guys who get it done.

Early in the spring, non-roster invitee Brock Stassi has been on fire. He has been the darling of the media. My comment has been that I’ll let you know
what I think of him if he does it all of March, not just for a couple weeks.

Among position players, Roman Quinn is the guy to watch for me. He has game-changing speed, tons of confidence and personality, and can play defense in the outfield. He has had major problems staying healthy. If he can final do so, he will push the Kendrick/Saunders combo out of a job at some point.

CA: Tommy Joseph is, to me, the easy answer here. He was probably the best prospect the Phillies got back years ago when they traded Hunter Pence to the Giants when he was a catcher with a well-regarded hit tool. Concussions moved him off catching, which most assumed meant the realistic end of his chances of becoming an impact player in the major leagues. That he even played in the majors last year is a huge accomplishment. That he hit 21 home runs there and locked up the opening day job for 2017 would have been unimaginable a year ago. As the year went on, he consistently improved, particularly against right-handed pitching (he hits right-handed) and was an above-average hitter against both lefties and righties by season’s end. A full season of playing time could vault him to whatever tier of NL first basement sits just below Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt

FP: Well, there are a couple early on, if they make the team that is. Brock Stassi and Scott Kingery have done really well in Spring, it will be interesting to see what happens if they should make this team going North after Spring Training.

PB: I’m not sure if he qualifies as unheralded considering how well he played last year, but Cesar Hernandez is worthy of your attention this season. I don’t think his 2016 campaign was a fluke. Hernandez always seemed to have a natural ability to hit the baseball and he finally showed it. Confidence is a big thing with Cesar and I think he finally believes in himself. One swift kick from Larry Bowa seemed to send the message and Hernandez really took off. Hernandez earned the chance to be the leadoff hitter with this team for the entire season and it will be fun to see if he can replicate what he did last season. If that happens, it will be fascinating to see what the Phillies do at second base with Scott Kingery and Jesmuel Valentin lurking in the minors.

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

MV: This is a toughie for a “glass half-full” guy like myself. But then again, I’ve been able to stay realistic since the .500 finish of 2012. Many around town think that the club can push for that .500 mark once again. I am not in that crowd, for a few reasons.

First, I think that when the Phillies again challenge for .500 and even beyond, it will be with their own best prospects on board, supplemented by a couple of real, difference-making free agents.  Second, I believe that the NL East will be even tougher this year. The Nationals are still the team to beat, and they look like a World Series contender to me.  The Mets still have scary pitching, and re-signed Cespedes, which was huge for them. Even with the Jose Fernandez tragedy, the Marlins still have a bunch of good, young talent, including one of the better looking young outfield groups in the game. And the Braves veteran additions, combined with the enthusiasm generated with their new ballpark, will be better – they already showed it over the 2016 season’s final six weeks.

I will be rooting very hard each game to be proven wrong on this one, but I see the Phillies treading water in the standings this year. Call it a 74-88 finish. However, if the month of September finds J.P. Crawford at shortstop, Quinn in the outfield, and all of Franco, Joseph, and Herrera producing then the table will be set for real improvement in 2018.

CA: Once again, the Phillies and the Braves will be battling it out for last place in the NL East and I think the Phillies beat them out for the second year in a row. As far as a record, they’ve done enough this offseason to cover up last year’s weaknesses, that they’ll certainly improve substantially. I’ll put them at 77-85, a six-game improvement over 2016.

FP: I’d like to be optimistic, I think they will be a 85 win team this year, they’ll probably be a 4th place club, maybe even 3rd if the Marlins fade.

PB: I’m going to put them exactly where they were last year record-wise and in the standings: fourth place (ahead of the Marlins) with 91 losses. The Phillies played way above their heads last season – they were tied for first in May for crying out loud – and their Pythagorean win/loss percentage gave them 100 losses last year. Another 91-loss season would be an improvement and the 2017 Phillies should be a better team.

The Phillies had the worst offense in baseball last year and if you are only as good as your weakest link, they made a huge improvement by adding Kendrick and Saunders in the outfield. While neither player is all that special, they are a huge upgrade considering the Phillies left fielders and right fielders combined to hit .223 with 21 homers in 2016. And let’s be real here, it will be nice to have Ryan Howard’s bat out of the cleanup spot. The offense will be bad once again, but they shouldn’t be the worst.

On the pitching side, the Phillies have a solid starting staff with a ton of depth. Regardless of what they do with the bats, a reliable pitching staff will keep them in most ballgames.

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

MV: Now THAT is a real toughie. Only because I have been following the Phillies closely since Veteran’s Stadium opened in my South Philly neighborhood when I was just nine years old.  All of the players from 1980, 1993, and 2008 will always be special to me. That especially means Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Steve Carlton, Tug McGraw, John Kruk, Darren Daulton, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, and Jimmy Rollins. My first-ever favorite Phillies player was a little second baseman named Denny Doyle. He played the position for the first three years that I followed the club.

But if you twisted my arm, I would say that my personal favorite player was Scott Rolen. I saw Schmidt’s entire career, and honestly believe that Rolen was at least Schmidt’s rival as a defensive player at the hot corner. He played here for the first seven years of his career, winning the 1997 NL Rookie of the Year Award and the first three of his eight career Gold Glove Awards. Besides being an elite, athletic defender, Rolen had power, knew how to get on base, and ran the bases well.

It was a real shame, the way he left town. Especially because of my affection for him. He could have been a veteran cornerstone with the team as built to that 2007-11 contention. Rolen is a Phillies Wall of Fame nominee this year. I think he loses out to Pete Rose. But he deserves a place there.

CA: Cliff Lee. Not only did he come at the 2009 trade deadline and help lead the team to its second consecutive World Series appearance, but, less than two years later, he turned down more money from the Yankees to play in Philadelphia. On the field, he captured a lot of what Philadelphia is about. Despite lacking the quality of stuff of his rotation-mates like Cole Hamels and Roy Halladay, Lee was just as good due, in part, to his refusal to walk batters. He also worked incredibly quickly, something both I and Rob Manfred appreciate in a pitcher. 

FP: My favorite all-time Phillie is tie between Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, they were clutch performers who never really got a lot of accolades for what they did. Of course both are Hall of Famers but there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of fuss made of them even now. I really liked Pete Rose too when he was on the Phillies, I was a youngster when he played for the Phils, but I still remember the ‘hustle’ attitude and that made an impact on me as a young teenager watching his style of play. 

PB: I was shocked to realize I did not have an immediate answer to that question. As much as I want to say Chase Utley or Jimmy Rollins or Mike Schmidt, I am going to go back about 50 years and pick Robin Roberts. He wore a Phillies uniform for 14 seasons, he is the club leader in games and innings, and tossed a ridiculous 272 complete games. Robbie was a true baller who took the baseball with no questions asked and finished what he started. He openly said he would not throw at a batter, but he was never afraid to challenge a hitter. One thing I think is pretty cool is that no matter who the batter was, he had only two locations: up and in and down and away.

Ask me ten years from now and my answer might be Odubel Herrera. He is one of the most entertaining players – dude flips the bat for walks! – and he works the count, makes contact, and just has an overall skillset that is fun to watch.

My thanks to the guys from Philly (either literally or spiritually) who brought the heat in this one.  We’ll see if the team can do the same!

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!

Oakland Athletics
69-93, fifth in AL West
Last year’s Pepper

It has to be tough to be an A’s fan.  They can redefine the game but they can’t get over the hump in the playoffs and then tend to wind up destined for another cycle of rebuilding.  Trades send players out for younger versions, who often then wind up developing and getting traded for more prospects, as the front office tries to thread the needle between being good and being good on a budget.

It’s probably not too surprising that Oakland is one of the teams I have the toughest time getting contributors for.  However, as he did last year, Jason Leary came to my rescue to make sure the Green and Gold was represented in the series.  You can find Jason on Twitter at JasonALeary and his writing over at Junk Ball, so check him out!

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?

JB: Overall, it was an unspectacular offseason for the Oakland A’s in the wake of a forgettable 2016 season that saw them finish in last place in the AL West for the second consecutive year. There were no big trades or splashy free-agent signings this winter as the A’s focused on leaving the door open for their young players to develop.

Stopgap free agents Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis, Trevor Plouffe and Santiago Casilla were brought in on short-term deals to provide some veteran leadership and solid play while Oakland’s prospects round into form.

The biggest news for the A’s this winter had nothing to do with players coming or going via trade or free agency. The real news is the team’s reinvigorated push for a new ballpark in Oakland. With the franchise’s revenue sharing checks set to run out in a few seasons thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement, the club appointed a new team president, Dave Kaval, to spearhead the search for a new stadium.

Kaval says the A’s will announce a site for a new ballpark in Oakland with a timeline drawn out from that point to the venue’s first Opening Day.

With the A’s coming off a couple of down years, a wave of young players coming up and revenues set to decline for a few seasons it’s understandable that the team basically decided to tread water in the offseason.

C70: What is the strength of this team?

JB: Right now the strongest part of the 2017 A’s is the franchise’s pitching depth.

Ace Sonny Gray will start the season on the disabled list but once healthy, he’ll be looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2016. Youngsters Sean Manaea and Jharel Cotton will look to build on promising rookie seasons. Kendall Graveman, just 26 years old, established himself as a solid workhorse in 2016 and Jesse Hahn, 27, will try to re-establish himself as a promising starting pitcher after stumbling the past couple of years.

Beyond that there’s a logjam of intriguing pitchers such as Andrew Triggs, Daniel Mengden and Raul Alcantara who will probably spend most of the season vying for their shot in the big league rotation.

Down on the farm, fireballing Frankie Montas will be worth keeping an eye on along with a slew of live-armed youngsters such as A.J. Puk.

C70: There was talk about teams being interested in Sonny Gray. Do you think the club moves him sometimes this season?

JB: If you wear green and gold, you’re trade bait so of course Gray could end up packing his bags and going where the trade winds take him.

If Gray can shake off the lat strain he recently suffered and regain his All-Star form it’s easy to imagine the A’s selling him to the highest bidder at the All-Star break.

With revenue sharing tapering off over the next few seasons and a new ballpark hopefully coming into play around the same time, it would make sense for the A’s to deal Gray for prospects who are more likely to be part of a winning team in a new venue than Gray is.

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

JB: Among the position players, minor league outfielder Jaycob Brugman could be someone worth keeping an eye on. He’s no blue-chip prospect but he’s been a solid all-around performer throughout his minor league career (slashing .285/.347/.438 least season in Triple-A Nashville) and with short-term veteran rentals Davis and Joyce manning Oakland’s outfield Brugman may have an opportunity to play himself into a big league role.

As for the pitchers, I believe Hahn has a great opportunity to grab the fifth spot in the rotation and run with it. Hahn could emerge as a post-hype sleeper if he can turn his fastball-curveball combo into a weapon again. Of course, I said that last year and Hahn promptly went out and posted a 6.02 ERA in a lost season.

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

JB: The A’s could improve by 10 games and still finish in last place with a sub-.500 record which is about what I expect from them. Pencil me in for 79-83 with a pie-in-the-sky dream that they can catch lightning in a bottle like they did in 2012 when they came out of nowhere to win the AL West on the last day of the season.

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

JB: That’s easy: Rickey Henderson. Greatest leadoff hitter of all time, an Oakland native, a Hall of Famer, a member of Oakland’s 1989 World Series winner, speed, power, a big personality. Rickey was always fun to follow whether he was leading off with a home run, driving opposing pitchers and catchers crazy with has baserunning, making a snatch catch or delivering a memorable quote.

As always, I appreciate Jason’s thoughts on the team in Oakland.  There’s always a story out there!

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!

New York Yankees
84-78, fourth in AL East
Last year’s Pepper

Talk about a tough crowd.  Usually when you finish six games over .500, you are going to wind up a little bit better than next-to-last in the division.  However, both wild cards came out of the same division and so the Yankees, who actually sold off some pieces at the trade deadline, missed out by a handful of games.

The Yankees have to be encouraged by how the season finished up, though, and we’ve got a handful of Bronx Bomber Bloggers to take us through the ins and outs of the club.  Settle in and enjoy! (A note, the answers from Bleeding Yankee Blue came from the entire staff, so the author’s name is at the end.)

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?

PP: The offseason was mediocre. Nothing special, but nothing awful either. I liked the Matt Holliday signing. I think he’s got something left in the tank and stands to benefit from not playing the field now that he’s transitioning to designated hitter. I’m not a huge fan of the Brian McCann trade. While I understand the rationale behind trading him (Gary Sanchez being ready), I had thought they’d get more especially after kicking in some cash. I guess I’m not as bullish on the headliner prospect they received, Albert Abreu. Though he has great stuff, it sounds like he may wind up in the bullpen given his control issues. I didn’t like the Chapman signing at all. The obvious reason is because of his domestic violence allegations, but I also don’t understand the on-field aspect to this move. The Yankees aren’t ready to be serious contenders in 2017 (and perhaps 2018), quite possibly Chapman’s last two prime years.

I would have liked them to add another starting pitcher for the back-end of the rotation and one more left-handed bat with some power to add some lineup balance. The rotation is full of question marks after Masahiro Tanaka and the lineup’s run-producers are predominantly right-handed hitters. They don’t have the traditional lefty slugger that thrives in Yankee Stadium, though it seems that they’re counting on Greg Bird to recover from shoulder surgery and be that guy.

BYB: It was a good off season from what I can tell. We picked up a potential bat in Matt Holliday, we signed the fast-pitching Aroldis Chapman and I am hopeful that the Baby Bombers will elevate our level of competition and endurance particularly in the later summer months. I would have liked another starting pitcher but not at the expense of our farm. We need to tend our farm and let it pay off big dividends in years to come. I wish that Dellin Betances was strong enough to take on the closing role. But today’s closer is too valuable to leave in the hands of someone who is simply not ready and may not ever be ready. I wished we didn’t have to sign Chapman and could have gone for a strong starter, but I know we had to do what we needed to do. (Suzie Pinstripe)

YGY: Offseason was marked by the addition of Matt Holiday, but generally, GM Brian Cashman maintained a “let’s see that we have in Spring Training mode”, which for most fans is judged as wise.

LATB: In terms of their general plan to groom their prospects to play, as Yankees, on the Major League level (something unheard of in recent years), the team did have a good off-season. However, I don’t think they did enough to replace the left-handed power they lost when they failed to re-sign OF Carlos Beltran and traded away C Brian McCann. Based on what he has done in spring training so far, 1B Greg Bird appears to have completely recovered from the shoulder injury that kept him out for all of 2016,so he could replace some of that power. Also, though RF Aaron Judge is a right-handed hitter, he is strong enough to hit the ball out in right field. It remains to be seen, though, if Judge will make the Opening Day roster.

The Yankees have two open rotation spots this spring, another thing unheard of in recent years. I was hoping that they would have, at least, signed one pitcher during the off-season, since the guys holding down the first three spots (Tanaka: health, Pineda: ineffectiveness, and Sabathia: age and ineffectiveness) are so questionable. There are five guys vying for those two open spots, including Luis Severino, who failed miserably as a starter in 2016 after bursting upon the scene in the second half of 2015. So far the competition has gone well, but I’m worried about what might happen once the season starts.

SNY: The Yankees had a good offseason because they did exactly what they felt they needed to do. They traded Brian McCann in order to shed some more payroll after the summer purge, knowing he would merely be a backup to Gary Sanchez. They wanted another veteran presence and needed a DH, so they signed Matt Holliday to a one-year deal. Finally, they coveted Aroldis Chapman because he exhibits a “star quality” and desired a closer despite already having Dellin Betances. The area I thought they might invest in a front line starting pitcher via trade. They had feelers out, but the caveat that the player was controllable for at least a few seasons limited options. For a time the Yankees were interested in Jose Quintana, and that seemed to be the right fit. They might circle back to Quintana if the price comes down.

PA: It was an okay offseason. There weren’t as many big trades as the Yankees have made in past years, but it was a good decision to move Brian McCann. The Yankees really wanted Aroldis Chapman back, and they got their guy. Whether that contract will work out for them remains to be seen, but adding Chapman obviously strengthened the bullpen for the time being. I think it was smart to bring in Matt Holliday and Chris Carter. I do wish that the Yankees could have found a way to improve the rotation, but there really weren’t many options out there. 

BPB: I thought it was a perfectly acceptable offseason. No matter what the front office says, they’re not really trying to contend this year. It’s all about the future. I didn’t like the re-signing Chapman but that’s all I’ll say about that particular subject. My feelings about him seem to get me into trouble.

SS: The Yankees are out of the blockbuster move business for the next few years. Given that, I was fine with their winter. Trading Brian McCann made sense, given the rise of Gary Sanchez. Nobody will miss Nathan Eovaldi. Giving Matt Holliday a one-year deal made sense, even though I don’t think he’s worth $13 million at this point.

My personal favorite player move was them signing Jon Niese because I would like nothing more than for him to do well and stick it to my Met fan blogging partner. (It’s good for our blog. So sue me!)

The thing I am also interested in seeing is how the Yankee Stadium renovations and enhancements are going to be. The one good thing about the team being in decline in recent years is that the lack of attendance and interest has forced the franchise to be a little more fan-friendly than they have been.

If they can’t compete with the Mets as far as what they put on the field, the least they can do is make the fan experience better. I have said since the two new ballparks opened that Citi Field was a better ballpark and had great food and drinks. I am looking forward to see what the Yankees implement next year to compete with that.

C70: What’s the one thing that has to go right for the Yankees to contend in (or win) the AL East?

PP: To be honest, I don’t think any one thing would put them ahead of Boston. They’re too far behind them at this point. If I had to choose one, perhaps a second starting pitcher to step up and perform similar to Tanaka. They’ve long hoped that Michael Pineda would be that guy, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen.

BYB: In order for the Yankees to contend in the AL East they will need to overachieve. There will be new rookies on the team that will need be productive and contribute in addition to the veterans. The pitching and hitting both need to come together and do more than what everyone expects. A lot of people have written the Yankees off, but there is a lot of potential on the team and if they play good fundamental baseball, I think they will surprise a lot of the doubters. (Jeana Bellezza)

YGY: Their starting pitching has to be better. Sabathia is another year older and Michael Pineda needs to step it up. Tanaka is Tanaka, so barring injuries, he should compete for the Cy Young again. There’s a wealth of talent in the minors that could easily be promoted if any of the five fail. On the offense side, the Yankees need to improve on their situational hitting in order to score more runs. Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, and Aaron Judge figure to help with that.

LATB: It’s safe to say that the Yankees will not win the AL East, but they can contend if their starting pitching goes right. That is the biggest question mark with this team. Tanaka must stay healthy. Pineda must become the pitcher he was as a rookie with the Mariners. Sabathia must expand on what he learned last season: how to be a finesse pitcher. Severino must perfect and continue to use his change-up. If most of these things happen, the Yankees have a chance. If they don’t, it will be a long season in the Bronx.

SNY: One thing? Haha! The Yankees need a few things to go right, but in my opinion, the main aspect pertains to the youth movement. Each of the Yankees highly touted young players — Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino has to meet or exceed their perceived upsides. Without that type of production, it will be tough for the Yankees to contend for the division title.

PA: The bullpen has a handful of great relievers and the lineup has arguably improved. However, the rotation is filled with question marks. Aside from Masahiro Tanaka, it seems unwise to expect a great deal from Michael Pineda or CC Sabathia. The final two spots are expected to be filled by some combination of Luis Severino, Adam Warren, Bryan Mitchell, Chad Green, and Luis Cessa. The rotation really needs to come together and exceed expectations for the Yankees to have any chance of making the playoffs.

BPB: Nearly every other team in the division has to bomb in order for the Yankees to win the AL East. I can see them doing what they did last season: not get officially eliminated until real late in the season even though you know deep down they don’t really have a chance of making the playoffs.

SS: I think it’s more than one thing. It’s everything. They will need not just every rookie they are starting to compete, but they’ll need Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia to pitch like aces, and Michael Pineda to finally put it together. The bullpen is the one thing without question marks.

C70: CC Sabathia was a bit better last year. What’s the thinking on how his season will go?

PP: I’m not sure what to make of CC Sabathia in 2017. Obviously, I was pleasantly surprised to see his success last year, but I have a hard time expecting him to repeat such a performance as a 36 year-old with a lot of mileage on his arm. Hopefully a league-averagish performance isn’t out of the question for him.

BYB: Sabathia is out to prove that he still has something in the tank and last season he was able to find it. I think this season he can probably get us 13 wins. Remember, he wants to keep pitching so after this season he’ll be hoping to get picked up somewhere. Overall, the guys a gamer. I see good things. He is a true leader in that clubhouse. (Robert)

YGY: CC is a big man and his knees have taken a pounding over the years. He’s gritty, though, and he’s made and is still making adjustments in becoming a “pitcher”, not just a thrower. He’ll be fine, but he’s not able to lead the staff at this juncture in his career.

LATB: I think Sabathia can build on what he did last year. I believe he knows what he is at this point in his career, has accepted it and is ready to contribute in the only way he can at this point: as a back of the rotation veteran who can provide valuable advice to the Yankees’ up-and-coming arms.

SNY: The consensus of fans seems to ask whether he can do it again. I believe he can. The transformation last season came only because he bought into it. Sabathia has finally embraced the pitcher he had to become years ago. Gone are the days in which Sabathia will take a team on his back and carry them, but at this stage in his career, that type of production is not necessary. Sabathia simply needs to log innings and keep the team in the games he starts, just as he managed to do last season.

PA: I’m choosing to remain optimistic on this one (despite what I just said about it being unwise to expect too much from him). I think that after a few years of struggling, CC Sabathia has finally figured out how to get by with decreased velocity. He also seems to have found the right knee brace to help him get through the season with a degenerative knee condition. I’m hopeful that he will finish his last season with the Yankees on a high note. 

BPB: It would be nice if he could have a season that’s similar to last season. The days of CC Sabathia the ace are long gone but the days of CC Sabathia crafty lefty are upon us and I’m here for it. 

SS: Hard to say. It all depends on him being healthy. I don’t think he’ll go out in his last year (or at least his last year as a Yankee) with a 20-win season the way Mike Mussina did, but you never know.

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

PP: I don’t know if it’s fair to call Aaron Judge unheralded because of his historical prospect status, but he’s caught a lot of flack for his propensity to strike out during his debut last year. Reports have indicated that he’s been working on his swing this offseason to improve contact, which is unsurprising. But what I think is also important to note is that Judge has had a history of needing some time to adjust at each minor league level. For instance, in his first trip through Triple-A in 2015, he hit .224/.308/.373 with a 28.5% strikeout rate. His second stint at the level in 2016: .270/.366/.489 and a 23.9% strikeout rate. He’s always going to strike out at a high clip, but I don’t think it’s fair to doubt him just yet. Not after only 95 plate appearances in the big leagues.

BYB: As pretty much everyone knows, the Yankees are in transition and they have many unheralded players coming into the season. An argument could be made for many including Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin or Greg Bird in his return from injury to name a few. For me though, one guy who is lesser known that I will be following closely is LHP Jordan Montgomery. In just his third professional season, and second full season, Montgomery made the jump to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre in 2016 where, between Double-A Trenton and Scranton, Montgomery compiled a 14-5 record with a 2.13 ERA, 134 strikeouts and just 45 walks while allowing 122 hits over 139.1 innings. In six starts at Triple-A, Montgomery held opponents to a 0.97 ERA, posted a 5-1 record and averaged over six innings per start.

Montgomery may not have the highest ceiling of any Yankees pitching prospect, but I expect the former fourth rounder to be a contributor in the Bronx in some way in 2017. He’s a strike throwing southpaw who has proven his worth at every level and whether he earns a roster spot out of spring training (which I’m routing for) or makes his debut mid-summer, Montgomery is someone I’ll be keeping tabs on this season. (Dan Lucia)

YGY: Absolutely. Didi Gregorius had a breakout season in 2016 and he has all the makings of a player who is just getting started. He has surprising power (20 HR’s last year) and his defense reminds of Derek Jeter – steady, not flashy – he just makes all the routine plays with no lapses in the field.

LATB: Billy McKinney is probably that guy for the Yankees. McKinney, a 22 year-old outfielder, was a throw-in in the Aroldis Chapman deal, which brought the Yankees Top-5 MLB prospect Gleyber Torres. Plagued by injuries over the past couple of years, no one gave much thought to McKinney when he arrived last year, but he has opened many eyes during spring training. He has not played higher than AA, but if he continues to impress, he could receive a September call-up in 2017.

SNY: I’ll go to the minor leagues for my pick — Dustin Fowler. He torched Double-A pitching in 2016 (57 extra-base hits in 574 plate appearances) and he’s had an impressive spring with the big league club as of my submission to Playing Pepper. Fowler should start the season at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but it’s easy to believe he will continue to play above his level. I’ll suggest by midseason, Fowler will be viewed as the first person to be called up if either Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury go down with an injury.

PA: This is a tough one. Luis Cessa surrendered a ton of home runs during his brief stint in the majors last year, but he has potential if he can get that in check. The Yankees seem to like his repertoire so it will be interesting to see if he earns a spot in the rotation. 

BPB: I’m not sure if he’s unheralded but I expect Matt Holliday to be better than people think he’s going to be this season. I really like him as the righty DH. I thought that was a nice move by the front office.

SS: I’d like to see Tyler Austin get another chance when he’s healthy again. (I’m Facebook friends with his mom!)

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

PP: 81 wins, 3rd place. No Wild Card.

BYB: 90 wins 72 losses and we will finish second behind the Red Sox. I think we will get to the Wild Card and depending on our longevity and injuries, could make it to the ALDS. Remaining hopeful. (Suzie)

YGY: The Yankees are the wild card in the AL East. Their young talent can take them a long way. Boston is the obvious favorite, but the Yankees can give them fits. The rest of the division is overrated. The Yanks can win 85-87 games and have an outside chance for a Wild Card spot.

LATB: If all goes well (meaning, if the pitching steps up, the kids play well and everyone stays healthy), the Yankees can contend for a Wild Card. However, things do go wrong, so I don’t see them finishing higher than the middle of the pack in the division. This is a transition year for the Yankees. Things should really get moving in 2018.

SNY: The Yankees have recently outperformed their preseason projections and I suspect 2017 will bring the same result. However, and admittedly, I’m forever the optimist. With that in mind, I believe the Yankees can reach 87 wins this season. That mark might be enough to sneak them into a wild card spot.

PA: The Yankees will probably finish the season right around where they were in 2016. I could see them ending the season in the middle of the pack in the division with an 82-80 record.  

BPB: I predicted 84-78 in 2014 and I was right on the nose so I’m going with that record again. They’ll probably finish third or fourth in the division. I don’t really see them fighting for a playoff spot. 

SS: I’m going to say 79-83 and that they finish in fourth place.

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

PP: A-Rod! Underappreciated for how great of a player he was and his performance in the 2009 playoffs.

BYB: Without exception my favorite all-time Yankee is The Warrior, Paul O’Neill. He was the ‘rev’ of the Yankee engine that drove the Dynasty years in the Bronx. Paulie played the game like a US Marine takes a beach head. He was intense and focused every time he stepped between the lines in the pinstripes or road grey. O’Neill was one of a kind. (Mike O’Hara)

YGY: Hands down, Derek Jeter. Time after time he delivered in the clutch and his demeanor both on and off the field made him the perfect Yankee. And all those hits…..

LATB: My all-time favorite Yankee is Don Mattingly. He began his Major League career around the same time I really started to understand the game. Before that, I was more of a superficial fan. Mattingly is one the best hitters I have ever seen. He struck out so rarely, that it caught me off guard when it happened. It’s such a shame that his back betrayed him and he was never able to be a part of the Yankees late ’90s dynasty. I always root for his team, except when they play the Yankees!

SNY: I’ve been fortunate to be able to watch many great Yankees — Reggie, Winfield, Mattingly, Rivera and Jeter among them — but I would say Paul O’Neill was my favorite. I enjoyed watching O’Neill during his time with the club because I could relate to his determination to excel and his reactions to failure. For some, the tantrums became annoying, but for me it showed he was busting it each time he stepped on the field. O’Neill was never the best player on the team, but he expected to be and it was evident to fans how much he cared about his performance. That’s really all a fan can ask for.

PA: My most recent favorite has been Mark Teixeira, but my all-time favorite has to be Mariano Rivera. He was such a talented player, had a very likable personality, and it was fun to watch him pitch.

BPB: Don Mattingly is my all-time favorite Yankee because I grew up in the 1980s and he was the man. He was the guy who made a whole bunch of us rabid Yankee fans during a time when the team could never make the playoffs. He was the best.

SS: I will only call somebody an all-time favorite if I actually got to see them play. So Reggie Jackson would be at the top of the list. After him, Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte. (And I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Alex will be joining them in Monument Park one day.)

My appreciation to the ladies and gentlemen that let us know about the players in pinstripes.  And hey, take care of Matty for us, will ya?

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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!

New York Mets
87-75, second in NL East, lost in Wild Card Game
Last year’s Pepper

While it’s not like their heyday in the mid-’80s, the last couple of years haven’t been too bad for the Mets faithful.  They won the National League and were very close to a championship in 2015 and then last year they again reached the playoffs, albeit very briefly.  The Nationals are still the powerhouse in the East, but the Mets have to like their chances to be quite competitive overall.

To that end, we have a slew of New York bloggers to give us all the information about the Metropolitans.  Check out their sites, follow them on Twitter, and then settle in for a lot of Mets talk!  (You can also find Matthew’s answers here, beautifully illustrated with some current Mets baseball cards.)

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: The offseason is still in play.

If you ask 100 Mets fans how the offseason has gone, 95 would tell you that the Mets have done nothing to improve the team, but, at the same time, they signed one of the top five ‘bats’ in the game, that also was a free agent… outfielder Yoenes Cespedes.  Cespedes opted out of his deal with the Mets and was on the free agent market, but Sandy Alderson knew that he would have no chance to return to the World Series without this guy.

The problem with the off-season is the inability to trade outfielder Jay Bruce so they can clear this salary. The trade was also supposed to target receiving either a quality reliever or a couple of blue chip prospect.  Nobody seems to want Bruce and reports now out of the Mets camp is that he will start the season as the rightfielder.

MP: This offseason was very interesting, only because it was fairly uneventful. The only major transactions that were made were re-signings. (Cespedes, Neil Walker, Jerry Blevins, Rene Rivera, Fernando Salas, etc.) And, for the most part, I believe they did what was necessary. There are no gaping holes in the roster, and there is a good amount of depth. I am a little worried, however, that players like Jay Bruce that come with a hefty price tag and little production in Queens will hold up the development of younger players like Brandon Nimmo or Michael Conforto

FFF: Resigning Yoenis Cespedes was most of what they needed to do and they did that at the end of November. Once they did that, there was nothing
to complain about, an odd situation for a Mets fan in winter. Really what had to happen, besides Cespedes, was recovery from injuries for those who missed significant time in 2016. Other than David Wright experiencing a shoulder impingement, thus far everybody seems to be on his way back, knock wood, cross fingers, don’t experience stiffness crossing fingers or get splinters knocking wood.

PRBS: The Mets had a solid offseason. They kept the core of a team that went to the playoffs together, and they should be in very good shape if they can keep their starting rotation off the DL. I would have liked to see them rework the outfield and acquire a better defensive centerfielder than Curtis Granderson, but upgrading the outfield defense might not have resulted in a stronger overall team.

CTM: The Mets basically brought back a team that made it to the postseason after a ton of injuries, so all they really need to do is get healthy. The jury’s still out on that one. Getting rid of Jay Bruce is the obvious move they didn’t make, but there were some little things they could have done to improve like bringing back Kelly Johnson (who will be on the team by August regardless…) and improving the bullpen. It’s a good starting point though, we’ll just have to wait and see how things go wrong from here.

MPR: If I had to describe the Mets offseason this year, I would use the term reassuring. Yoenis Cespedes professed his love for New York by signing a four-year deal to stay in Queens, GM Sandy Alderson shored up the bullpen by resigning lefty Jerry Blevins and by bringing back right-hander Fernando Salas, and youngsters Michael Conforto and Travis d’Arnaud are slowly gaining confidence as they try to live up to their expectations.  

SS: The main thing the Mets needed to do was to bring Yoenis Cespedes back and they re-signed Cespedes to a four-year deal. They also needed to bring back Jerry Blevins or find another lefthanded reliever and they brought back Blevins. With Neil Walker becoming a free agent, the Mets needed to replace the player who had the second-highest OPS (.823) after Cespedes among Mets regulars last year, and Walker ended up accepting the Mets’ qualifying offer.

The Mets, however, failed in their attempt to trade Jay Bruce. Bruce hit just .219 in 50 games as a Met, though he at least finished strong, hitting .500 in the last week of the season with 3 HR and 7 RBI. So Bruce could end up being more valuable to the Mets than generally expected, meaning that they were wise not to trade him if it just would have been a salary dump. But keeping Bruce means that Michael Conforto could be the odd man out in the crowded outfield. Conforto, who had such a promising debut in 2015 before a lost season last year, is off to a good start this spring and needs to be in the lineup.

AA: To some Mets fans, this offseason wasn’t good enough, even though the team made one of its biggest moves in recent history when it brought back Yoenis Cespedes on a four-year deal. That was the anchor of the offseason for sure, and bringing back Neil Walker on the qualifying offer that he accepted should prove to be a good move, too. Bartolo Colon will be missed, but my biggest wish from the offseason was that they bring in more help for the bullpen. With a Jeurys Familia suspension looming, things look a bit shaky after you get past Addison Reed out in the bullpen.

DS: I am very happy with the team as currently constituted, although I would have been a bit more aggressive at addressing the bullpen. Bringing Yoenis Cespedes back was obviously huge, and retaining Neil Walker, Jerry Blevins and Fernando Salas was important, but I would’ve liked another arm. The Nationals got Joe Blanton for cheap. He was a guy I wish the Mets were in on.

C70: What are the expectations for Matt Harvey, both in when he will return and how effective he’ll be when he does?

MM: I don’t think the average Mets fan has much expectations for him right now.  Harvey has caught a lot of flak for his attitude, the fact that he has Scott Boras for an agent, and the average Mets fan just know in their heart that this guy is just playing the string out until free agency rolls around.

I believe he will be effective because he always has been. With all the ups and downs, he has a 2.94/1.08, 9.09-K/9 stat line in the four seasons he has been a Met.  My guess is the Mets brain trust will start the season off with a 6-man rotation and limit the innings for Harvey and the other pitchers coming off surgery (Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler).

The hope here is that Harvey stays healthy and puts up killer numbers before the All-Star break so the Mets can put together a deal for 2/3 quality players/prospects for his service.

MP: I’ve never been a huge Matt Harvey fan. I believe his persona isn’t a perfect match with the Mets, and I’ve said the best thing about him is his trade value. Unfortunately, with his injury and lack of production last year, he will need to put up some numbers this year to improve that value. I think Harvey will put up decent numbers, but won’t come in handy as much as Noah Syndergaard or even Jacob deGrom will. 

FFF: Matt Harvey is operating not exactly below radar but out of the primary glare of the spotlight. Because Noah Syndergaard has so
blossomed, Harvey is being allowed, to a certain extent, to forge his comeback in a safe and sane manner. Expectations that he will pitch at
his 2013 All-Star level have diminished. If he exceeds 2016, he will make a lot of people happy, I among them.

PRBS: I expect Matt Harvey to start the year in the rotation for the Mets, but I don’t know how effective he will be. The good news is that Harvey doesn’t have to be the Mets’ ace. Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom have both shown they can handle that role. If Harvey is even up to the standards he set in 2015, the Mets will have one of the best rotations in baseball.

CTM: What did I say two years ago? That. We’ve been down this road before, move along…

MPR: As Harvey works his way back from another offseason mired in major surgery, Mets fans will be asked to muster up their enthusiasm when and if he takes the mound. Assuming he’s ready for Opening Day, fans are hoping to experience more Dark Knight than Bruce Wayne. Matt has a lot riding on this season as he looks to get his baseball life back on track and become the dominant figure Mets fans witnessed early in his career.  

SS: After a largely successful return from Tommy John surgery in 2015, Harvey had a disastrous 2016, going 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA, 1.47 WHIP and 76 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings pitched. In his three previous seasons, his highest ERA was 2.73. Harvey’s season ended in July when he underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.

Coming back from Tommy John surgery is hard enough (just ask Zack Wheeler), but many pitchers have successfully done so. However, the track record is not as good for pitchers returning from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, which often involves removing a rib. Harvey, now 28, struggled in his first spring start, topping out at 94 MPH (in his first game back from Tommy John surgery, his fastball hit 99 MPH) and complaining of a sore neck. He did better in his second start, but his velocity remained lower.

The hope is that Harvey can stay healthy and be productive, but a return to his Dark Knight heyday may be wishful thinking.

AA: Every indication has been that Harvey will begin the season on time. We’ll see how things go for him as he ramps up for his return, but nothing has happened thus far that wouldn’t have him taking a turn in the Mets’ first time through the rotation. Given the history of pitchers returning from surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, I’d say expectations are a bit lower than they would be for him otherwise, but don’t be shocked if he turns out better than people expect.

DS: That’s the million dollar question. Harvey has consistently sat around 92-93 MPH during his spring starts, and that may be the new normal for him. Can he win like that? For sure. But you don’t get as many mistakes to get away with when you’re not throwing 97-98. Harvey may have to find a new way to get guys out, because the old Matt Harvey may be an idea of the past. For the Mets and my fantasy team’s sake, I sure hope I’m wrong.

C70: What’s the biggest weakness for this team?

MM: In my opinion, the pen.  As of today, there are only three quality relievers under contract. One (Jenrry Mejia) is serving out his second lifetime ban for drugs and won’t be available until (baseball’s definition of “lifetime”) the 2018 season.  The second is all-star closer Jeurys Familia, who will start the season on the suspension list after smacking his wife around.  And the last is Addison Reed, who can’t do everything.

Familia will probably be back by the end of April, and future star Hansel Robles is expected to step into the 7th inning role, but one more ++ reliever would sure make a difference on this team.

MP: The biggest variable that will prevent the Mets from getting back to the Postseason will be their health. The Mets always seem to have issues with injuries, and keeping the rotation on the field throughout the year will be the key. Unfortunately, seeing players drop like flies the last few years has not given me much confidence, and has spotlighted the importance in having depth at each position. 

FFF: Until proven otherwise, catching. A year ago, I’m pretty sure I told you Travis d’Arnaud was going to be an All-Star. What I think I meant
was he might watch the All-Stars on TV. He has looked very good in spring games thus far, but he has never fully avoided the DL or, as a
result, spent an entire season on the active major league roster. René Rivera is a dynamite defensive catcher but barely hits. Kevin Plawecki
has been a quiet disappointment in several phases of the game. Best I can say for the catching is they can’t be much worse as a unit than
they were last year, and they made the playoffs anyway.

PRBS: Defense. With Curtis Granderson projected as the regular centerfielder and Jay Bruce likely to start the season in right, there will be a lot of balls that fall in because no one was able to get to them. Good defensive positioning may be able to overcome lack of range in both the infield and the outfield to some degree, but the decision to prioritize offense will let opponents put some extra runs on the board.

CTM: Development of young non-pitching talent at the major league level. We’ve seen it before with Juan Lagares and Wilmer Flores, but Michael Conforto may be the most talented position player yet to be blocked from regular playing time with the Mets (most recently by “star” Jay Bruce). Everyone seems to agree that he needs to be playing just about every day, and yet that doesn’t seem to happen. This is especially troubling when you consider that the next two big prospects to debut will be position players. They’ve gotten helping pitchers make that last big step down to a science, hopefully they start to recognize a need for a similar approach with position players.

MPR: You could say that having a rotation where four-fifths of the starters are returning from either rehab, or surgery, or a combination of both, is a weakness. However, if the ‘Fab Five’ of Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, and the all-powerful Noah Syndergaard remain upright for the majority of the season, it could be seen as their biggest strength. The Mets were hampered last season with a dreadful batting average with runners in scoring position, so the offense needs to do more in that department to keep their young starters from pitching in too many high-pressured situations.  

SS: The Mets have trouble scoring runs without hitting homers. They hit a franchise-record 218 longballs in 2016, fifth-best in MLB. But their 671 runs scored tied for 25th best. The Mets finished 25th in batting average and 28th in steals.

The Mets did finish 10th in runs after the All-Star break, and it was probably not a coincidence that they had Jose Reyes back as their leadoff hitter for much of the second half. His 60-steal seasons may be well in the past, but the Mets went 35-25 in games started by Reyes, and 52-50 in their other games.  But Reyes, injury-prone as a younger player, turns 34 in June. In his brief stint with the Mets last season, he managed to find his way to the disabled list yet again.

The Mets have only two starters under 31 – the inconsistent and injury-prone Travis d’Arnaud (28) and Bruce (29). A younger lineup could conceivably be better able to manufacture runs without the home run, making it that much more frustrating if the 24-year-old Conforto starts the season on the bench or in the minors.

AA: Right now, it’s the bullpen. The starting pitching depth behind the excellent major league rotation would be suspect if there’s a need to rely on it heavily. The lineup looks pretty solid at every position, but it’s the fifth, sixth, and seventh guys in the bullpen that concern me most at the moment.

DS: Catcher, but I can’t wait for Travis D’Arnaud to shut us all up. I was very surprised the Mets didn’t at least bring a guy in to compete, but this is a make-or-break year for him. Despite what Kevin Long says, Spring Training only means so much. He needs a strong start for his confidence. I may be in the minority, but I’d give Derek Norris a minor league deal as insurance, although he’ll most definitely get a better offer than that elsewhere.

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

MM: This season, no.  There are three ‘nobodies’ that should continue to carry their weight on this team… SPs Robert Gsellman and Seth Lugo, and utility infielder T.J. Rivera, but the ‘A’ rated prospects won’t begin to arrive until September when the minors shut down.

One long shot… watch for pitcher P.J. Conlon, who was the Mets minor league player of the year and had the lowest ERA last season in all of minor league baseball. Word is the lefty may be converted from a starter and fast tracked from AA-Binghamton to the Mets pen in Queens.

MP: I was genuinely impressed with T.J Rivera last summer, and while he will probably start the season at Triple-A or on the Major League bench, I think he might surprise a lot of people during the 2017 campaign. 

FFF: I harbor an unhealthy adoration of former Cardinal farmhand Ty Kelly, who was dropped from the 40-man roster, but I’m convinced he’ll be
back and contributing off the bench before long. T.J. Rivera showed a very lively bat last year when he filled in for an injured Neil Walker
and I wouldn’t be surprised if he hits his way into playing more than currently projected.

PRBS: I think Jerry Blevins could transition from the lefty specialist role he’s been used in during his first two seasons with the Mets to become a key late-inning reliever. If Major League Baseball suspends Jeurys Familia and Addison Reed is forced into the closer’s role, Blevins could take over the eighth inning. While he’s been great against left-handed batters, Blevins is also effective against righties. He limited them to a .243 / .332 /.387 line during his career.

CTM: No. We’re at the point where we’re wondering whether most of these guys can return to form and/or realize their full potential. We know what they all could be, so it’s hard to call any of them unheralded. You would have to dig down into the minors to dredge up any names that would fit here, probably guys like Paul Sewald and Tomas Nido who will open the season in the upper minors and could be called on if there’s an opening for a backup role at some point down the road.

MPR: Tim Tebow? He’s as unheralded in terms of baseball acumen as they come. Seriously though, names you’ll want to keep in your back pocket; outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who has shown patience at the plate, and could land himself a spot on the bench and pitcher Rafael Montero. Although he’s been a disappointment in the past, the right-hander has been generating some buzz lately in Mets camp with better command of his pitches.

SS: In 2014, Jacob deGrom came up during the season as an unheralded injury replacement and ended up as the National League Rookie of the Year. Last season, Robert Gsellman came up in August as an unheralded injury replacement. In eight games, Gsellman had a 2.42 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 42 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings. In six September starts, Gsellman’s ERA was 2.06.

With Zack Wheeler likely to begin the season in extended spring training, Gsellman could break camp as the fifth starter, and with so many injury questions surrounding the Met rotation, the 23-year-old has the chance to stick around for a while and give the Mets yet another long-haired starter.

AA: Travis d’Arnaud isn’t exactly unheralded in general, but he was awful at the plate last year. People seem to have lost confidence in him, but if he can stay healthy—a challenge thus far in his career—and hit nearly as well as he did in 2015, he’d be a major asset to this team. I’m expecting good things.

DS: Lucas Duda. It’s hard to point out a guy who’s hit more than 25 homers twice, but he’s the guy. For some reason, a lot of Mets’ fans are down on him, and I think he’s got a lot left to prove and a lot left in the tank. Although he’s streaky, his power bat makes the Mets’ lineup that much deeper. If he struggles, he’ll lose at bats, as he may already do so to Wilmer Flores against tough lefties.

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

MM: If everyone stays healthy (especially the rotation) I see 86-76 as a target, but Washington will easily win the division and Atlanta has done loads to improve their team.  My prediction: Third place behind the Nats and Braves.

MP: If the Mets stay healthy, and play to their ability, they are definitely the best team in the National League East. However, like I said before, it’s one of those things that’s easier said than done. If I had to guess today, which I never really like to do, I’d guess 92 wins and a NL East Championship, but a lot of things will have to be done to get to that point, so there is a huge asterisk next to that prediction. 

FFF: The Nationals will scare me until they don’t. One among the Phillies, Braves and Marlins are is bound to step up and surprise a little. That
said, the Mets are a very sound club and I can see them winning the East or at least pushing Washington. Let me say they’ll make the postseason one way or the other and exceed their 87 wins from 2016.

PRBS: I expect the Mets to finish right around 90 wins, which might not be enough to win the division but should give them a shot at the title as well as a wild card spot. 

CTM: Last year I said 89-73 and second place, so let’s go with that. Theoretically, they should be able to pad their record a bit with all those games against the non-Nationals segment of the division, but that didn’t work out so well last year.

MPR: I have high expectations for this season and wouldn’t be surprised if the Mets gave the Nationals a run for their money and win the NL East. With a combination of a top tier starting rotation, a strong veteran bullpen, and an offense with a high propensity to hit the ball out of the ballpark, there’s no reason why the Mets shouldn’t be expected to make a deep run in the postseason.  

SS: 89-73 2nd place to Washington.  The Mets won 87 games last year while being wracked with injuries and are bringing back largely the same team (alas, no Bartolo Colon, who actually led the team in wins last year with 15). But enough health concerns remain that it’s hard to project them to do too much better than they did in 2016.

AA: I’ll go with 93-69, National League East champions.

DS: I think this is the Mets’ year to win the NL East. I think they’ll make a mid-season trade for either a 3B or bullpen arm (or both if Jose Reyes gets hurt). I will go 90 wins. I think that’s enough to win the NL East. 

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

MM: For me, this is an easy choice.  I grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and worshiped Gil Hodges.  I danced in the streets when he became a New York Met and I cried quietly in my bedroom when he passed.

Many would answer this question with the name Mike Piazza. Others would say it was ‘The Captain’, David Wright.  For me, it will always be Number 14.

MP: Considering I’m only 17 years old, I’ll limit myself to players I’ve actually watched play, and, while he’s currently an enemy, Daniel Murphy would be the guy that I would consider my favorite Met I watched. He was fun, enjoyable to watch (at times), great in the community and was a huge team player. Of course, David Wright possess all of those qualities as well, but the fact that Daniel Murphy did this without being the fan favorite like Wright has been is the reason I’ll pick Murphy. 

FFF: Tom Seaver was my first favorite Met when I was a kid and has yet to be unseated. He was Tom Terrific from the moment I discovered him and
never stopped being so. The excellence, the professionalism, the articulate nature of what he had to say, the perfect motion, never taking losing well…nobody has filled the role of “pitcher,” let alone “ace” the way Tom has in my eyes.

PRBS: Gary Carter. When the Mets traded for Carter, he was the last big piece they needed to turn a pretty good team with talented young players into a World Series champion. He was one of the best catchers to ever play the game, and he did it with a smile on his face.

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with Carter years later when he briefly managed the Long Island Ducks. He always made time to greet fans, take photos and sign autographs. While many players grow to resent autograph seekers over time, Carter found a way to use his fame to benefit a cause that mattered to him. He’d sign any Ducks merchandise for free, but he asked for a small donation in support of leukemia research.

CTM: There’s only about a thousand to choose from, so… There were lots of better and more popular players who spent time with the team, but every time I think about this I keep coming back to Ed Kranepool. Kranepool was a September call-up as a teenager in 1962 and played all of his 1853 games with the Mets. Though he played almost all of those games before my lifetime, he has been active in the Mets community throughout the decades since his retirement. I first met him in the early ’90s when he was doing signings at small card shows frequented by many of the ’69 Mets, back when I was a kid who knew next to nothing about that team or the pre-’80s Mets in general. More recently, I had the opportunity to chat with him for a few minutes and he still remembered the details of that show, right down to the location and the promoter’s name, more than 20 years later. He has been a great ambassador for the team, helping to link current fans to the team’s history in a much more personal way than the team’s afterthought of a museum at Citi Field ever could.

MPR: It’s pretty hard to pinpoint an all-time favorite. I have such affinity for that ’86 team, anyone of those players could be at the top of the list. But, if I had to choose, I would lean toward Doc Gooden. Now, I know, he’s had plenty of chances yet continues to battle his inner demons. But as a kid watching him pitch, seeing how downright electric he was — it’s just something you don’t forget quickly.  

SS: Decades after his retirement, Tom Seaver remains “The Franchise.” When Seaver joined the team in 1967, the Mets were a national joke. Two years later, Seaver won 25 games and the Cy Young Award and the Mets were one of the most unlikely World Series champions in baseball history.

Seaver won a total of three Cy Youngs as a Met and also helped lead the Mets to the 1973 World Series. Of his 311 career wins, 198 came as a Met.

Seaver is the only player in the baseball Hall of Fame who achieved most of his success as a Met. Before Mike Piazza last year, Seaver was the only player in the Hall of Fame with a Met cap on his plaque.

AA: It changes, and it’s tough not to say Carlos Beltran here. But at this point, it’s David Wright. He’s clearly the best position player in team history, and it’s been tough to watch him deal with major injuries that have sidelined him for the majority of the past two seasons. Watching him hit a home run in the World Series in person is a top-five Mets moment for me and probably always will be.

DS: Well it used to be Bobby Bonilla, and then Todd Hundley, but that’s all before Mike Piazza’s time. Nobody can touch Piazza, as far as I am concerned. I have been part of so many magical moments in Queens with him, and he forever will be my favorite player. From the first game after Sept. 11 to the 10-run eighth inning on Fireworks Night, Mike Piazza will always be my number one. 

Plenty of informative and interesting info here on the National League squad from the Big Apple.  Thanks to all of these guys for the insight!

2 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!

Minnesota Twins
59-103, fifth in AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

Well, that was a bit of a turnaround, wasn’t it?  In 2015 the Twins finished second in the division, albeit 12 games out.  Looking through the Pepper answers last year, I can tell our contributors didn’t necessarily expect things to improve, but they didn’t think the bottom would fall out either.  It did, though, which means it’s time to sort through the rubble and start building back up toward contention.

The rough year didn’t run off the Twins bloggers and I’m very glad to have them return (or, in the case of Maija, make their debut) to talk about this club 30 years after our teams met in the Fall Classic.  (Please note, all entries were submitted before this weekend’s news about Trevor May, which may color some things.)

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?

TIS: Not really. It looks like Falvey and Levine are looking at 2017 as an assessment season vs. as a rebuilding season. They kept pretty much all of the front office, minor league managers, coaches and player development personnel, as well as most of the MLB-team intact, including the manager and coaches. I wish they were more aggressive, but I can see why they want to see more of what they have and whether the old dogs can learn new tricks. Good luck. On the other hand, as far as players go, not selling high on Dozier, E. Santana, and a bunch of the veterans makes zero sense for a rebuilding team.

NDTF: I don’t think you are going to find many Twins fans that are overly excited with the team’s offseason. Minnesota made a big switch to their baseball operations department by hiring Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to try and turn around the organization. Jason Castro was the only major free agent addition for the club and not many fans are going to be bouncing off the walls for a defensive minded catcher. Pitching was the team’s biggest weakness a year ago and the team only made minimal bullpen additions. Many Twins fans were disappointed that the team couldn’t work out a trade that included Brian Dozier. There were plenty of rumors swirling about a potential Dodgers deal but the Twins were never going to send Dozier away for one player.

TD: The Twins offseason started off fast, but it was probably slower overall than most Twins fans would have anticipated. Obviously it started with the announcement of Derek Falvey taking over as the Twins Chief Baseball Officer. Soon after, they announced that Thad Levine was the new General Manager. and then they went out and improved their catcher position very quickly by signing Jason Castro before the end of November. And then things got quiet.

It appears that the new leadership has decided to use the same strategy for players that they are for much of the front office. They are going to take their time and evaluate the current options. The Twins have a lot of young talent that they need to let play, so I don’t think I expected them to do a ton. Late they signed reliever Matt Belisle (MLB contract) and Craig Breslow (MILB contract) to help out in the bullpen. Not exciting names but guys that could certainly help.

TT: It wasn’t a terrible off-season for the Twins, but it wasn’t great either. I think the team was obviously hindered by the bad free agent market, and lack of trading partners for Brian Dozier. Dozier was the Twins’ biggest trade chip, and they tried to trade him, but there weren’t many second baseman suitors out there with young pitching to give in return. It was basically only the Dodgers, who only wanted to trade Jose De Leon for Brian Dozier in a one-on-one deal, and I’m glad the Twins didn’t do that.

The Twins did go out and get catcher Jason Castro, pitch framer extraordinaire, in a creative attempt to help pitching in a thin market. That was cool, I guess. We’ll see how it works.

It was also a weird off-season because the entire front office was transitioning power. There was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on that I’m sure took a lot of the new Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey’s time, and new GM Thad Levine’s time. The fact Falvey’s previous team–the Indians–made a deep, deep playoff run also delayed the reorganization of the front office, because he couldn’t officially accept the job until after the Indians’ season was over.

10KT: It was an interesting offseason to say the least. The Twins began a new era by bringing in Derek Falvey as President of Baseball Operations and Thad Levine as General Manager replacing longtime GM Terry Ryan. The working theory for most is that the Falvey-Levine combo are sitting back and seeing what they have before making any major moves. The big move of the offseason was bringing in catcher Jason Castro, at least that’s how everyone has been framing it. It would’ve been nice if the Twins could’ve added some more pitching before the season, but I understand the waiting and seeing game that Falvey and Levine are playing.

C70: What’s the feeling on Byron Buxton? Is the fanbase still patient with him or a little disappointed about how his career has started?

TIS: Yes to all of the above 🙂 Unfortunately Terry Ryan rushed Buxton who has had a serious problem with breaking pitches all his minor league career. It seems that he turned the corner after his mid-season demotion and his September call up. Still very young and still tons of potential. Not part of the problem.

NDTF: There have been some frustrations with Buxton but he began to show marketable improvements near the end of last season. During the season’s final month, he hit .287/.357/.653 with nine home runs, six doubles, and three triples. Add these numbers to his tremendous defensive ability and fans should be excited about what the future could hold. Unfortunately, many fans weren’t paying attention to a 100-loss team in September so Buxton will need to prove himself again this season.  

TD: It’s a mixed bag, I’m sure, for Twins fans on what to expect from Byron Buxton. there would be a lot more concern if not for his remarkable September when he showed off not only his incredible defensive ability, but also hit and showed off the type of power that he possesses. That month gives people a lot of hope that he can continue it and start 2017 strong. I think most Twins fans know that he can be a Gold Glover at worst, but if he can be a guy who gets on 34% of the time and hit 15-20 homers and a bunch of doubles and triples, he has All Star ability.

TT: Most Twins fans are excited about Buxton and think he’ll have a good year. I would not be surprised at all if he is the best player for the Twins in 2017. He took a big step forward in September of last year, and we’re all hoping it carries over. There are some parts of the casual/less informed/complain-y fan base that likes to call him “BUST-on”, but basically everyone who actually watches and is more informed is pretty excited. He literally just turned 23 years old in late December, and most fans are aware of his youth. Plus, his incredible speed is undeniable.

10KT: I believe that people are still excited for Byron Buxton. On Wednesday night, the Twins played Team USA and Buxton made another remarkable catch in centerfield. Buxton started playing quite well in the last month of the season so there have been flashes of what his potential could be. Twins folks are peddling a good idea about being patient on Buxton. Both Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter didn’t breakout into being a very legitimate MLB player until their age 25 season, 2017 will be Buxton’s age 23 season. There’s plenty of time for Buxton to live up to the hype.

C70: How long before the Twins contend for the AL Central title?

TIS: Contend is a scary word, because it means so many things to so many people 🙂 I suspect they “contended” in 2015, but they did not really contended. I think that they are a couple of top of the rotation pitchers away from contending and if everything works out well for them, it will be 2019 or so. They have the bats for sure. For me contending means building a team that year in and year out will be in the top 2 positions of the division and has the potential to go deep in the post-season. The Twins have not done that since 1991…

NDTF: Cleveland seems to have a hold on the division at this point. The Royals are not that far removed from a World Series title. Chicago is rebuilding. With a young core, the Twins will need to get back in contention over the next two-three years before Buxton and Sano reach free agency. There’s a small window and the new front office needs to attack it. 

TD: l don’t think the Twins are as far off as a lot of people do. However, Cleveland is going to (or at least should) run away with the division in 2017, and they should be strong again in 2018 and maybe even longer. I think the Twins can jump from 59 wins to 75-78 wins in 2017. So I think that they could contend for a playoff spot as early as 2018. 

TT: They will win the division in two years.

10KT: The Twins are much closer to the 2015 team that barely missed the playoffs than the 100-plus loss team of 2016. Nothing would really surprise me for when this team would contend, but that just might be my Twins-colored glasses talking. I’d say the Twins could start contending in 2017, after Falvey and Levine make some moves, and might really, really start contending in 2018. I think they are close. 

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

TIS: Jorge Polanco. Pretty much written off as a shortstop, I expect him to turn into an two way All-Star caliber player, and 2017 will be his season.

NDTF: The Twins front office is very high on Max Kepler. He showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie campaign but the team is looking for him to take a big step in 2017. There are some that think more highly of him than Buxton and that is putting him in some elite company. 

TD: Everyone knows (and talks about) Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Jose Berrios, but one young player that doesn’t get talked about as much is Jorge Polanco. A year ago, he was near the bottom of some Top 100 lists. He has the ability to take quality plate appearances most times up. The question with him will be if he can improve (dramatically) and become just an average defensive shortstop. If he can do that, it would be huge for the Twins. 

TT: Most of the Twins players are either bad or super young, so it’s hard to say. Not that I expect them to be good, but the most curious cases to me are starting pitcher Phil Hughes, who is coming back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery (the rib removal thing), and Korean Slugger Byung Ho Park, who was removed from the 40-man roster but could very well still make the club. Park started off well last year, but suffered multiple wrist injuries that I think contributed to his decline. He’s looked pretty good so far in spring training and has been working hard. Everyone seems to love him.

10KT: I feel like Max Kepler isn’t as heralded as he should be. Kepler has been overshadowed by the coming of Buxton, Miguel Sano and Jose Berrios. There’s a good chance that Kepler will be an American League All-Star and a fighting chance that he might make it there before the other three. I’d keep my eye on Kepler.

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

TIS: I do not make my prediction of record before I see them play every Spring Training and the roster is close to being set, so my official prediction will come at the end of March. As far as finish goes, they better finish ahead of the White Sox, winning 75+ games. They might even challenge the Royals. Too early to tell.

NDTF: 77-85, third place in the AL Central

TD: I think that the Twins will go 77-85, and if they do, Twins fans should be happy and excited for 2018. I would think that would be good for third in the AL Central. 

TT: I would be happy with 76 wins.

10KT: Every year I say the Twins finish around .500 and I think that’ll be the case again this year. It’s not going to be another 100-loss season, I know that much. The Twins will be right around .500, maybe a little above or below, and will finish third in the division. I’m drinking the Twins Kool-Aid.

C7o: Who is your all-time favorite Twin and why?

TIS: Kirby Puckett. If one has seen him play, the why is obvious. Gave it 100% every day and carried the team to two World Championships (and a few more if La Russa and his cheating A’s were not around.)

NDTF: Kirby Puckett will always be my all-time favorite Twin. From his small demeanor to the championships he brought to the Twin Cities, he is a legend in Twins lore. Other famous Twins like Killebrew, Olivia, and Carew were before my time so Puckett gets the nod. 

TD: Easy choice. I was 8 years old in April of 1984 when Kirby Puckett was called up. I think it was mainly just his name. But as I grew up and got to actually know more and more about baseball, and more games were on TV, my appreciation for Kirby Puckett grew. I always wanted to wear #34. Obviously going through 1987 and 1991 furthered that admiration. I liked the stocky build. I liked the leg kick. I loved that he was smiling all the time. Game 6 of 1991. When he retired, I was devastated, and when he died, I had to leave work. I went to Cooperstown in 2001 to see him inducted into the Hall of Fame. Despite his off field issues that came out starting in 2002, Puckett was my childhood hero. 

TT: Kirby Puckett. Hans down. He made me love baseball.

10KT: It’s hard to pick just one, because the Twins have had so many fun players throughout the history of the franchise. If I had to pick one, I’d have to go with Doug Mientkiewicz. The first Twins game I ever attended, I got a promotional Mientkiewicz jersey and that hooked me. He had a weird name and he had an amazing glove. He’s the reason I wanted to play first base and was one of the main reasons I got hooked on baseball. The potential future manager of the Minnesota Twins is my favorite Twin.

My appreciation to all that brought the knowledge today.  It’ll be interesting to see how the Twins respond to a rough 2016!

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!

Milwaukee Brewers
73-89, fourth in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper

The seasons come and go, but it feels like of late it’s always been a struggle up in The Good Land.  The NL Central always seems to have teams waxing and waning and it could be that the Brewers are about to start back up the ladder.  Whether they’ll do it with their biggest name, Ryan Braun, is a question to be asked.

Hey, that’s what I did!  We’ve got three Milwaukee bloggers to give us information about the club.  I’ll note that soon you’ll find my answers to some Cardinals questions posed by Enrique over at The Brewers Bar, so be on the lookout for that as well as checking out all these guys.  (Kyle and Jaymes still show up on the Disciples of Uecker masthead, but it seems most of their work now is at Brew Crew Ball.)


Blogger, Blog, Twitter, Podcast
Kyle Lesniewski, Brew Crew Ball, brewerfan28,
Enrique Bakemeyer, The Brewers Bar, C_Enrique_B,
Jaymes Langrehr, Brew Crew Ball, JaymesL,

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?

BCBK: This was a pretty good winter for the Brewers. They didn’t really need to do much other than keep the ball rolling on building to the future. I’m a big fan of the Tyler Thornburg deal – if Travis Shaw is a 2 WAR third baseman, he essentially replaces the lost WAR that what we might’ve expected from ~70 innings of Thornburg and comes with two additional years of control. Beyond that, Mauricio Dubon has been praised as an organizational top 10 prospect since coming back in that trade and could provide MLB value in the not-so-distant future, and Josh Pennington is the hard-throwing wild card in the deal.

It doesn’t look like there’s much of a market for Chris Carter, so in hindsight it may have been wise to cut bait rather than pay him some $9 mil in arbitration. The projection systems seem to love Eric Thames, and if he can even be a useful platoon bat at first base he’ll earn his keep on a 3 year, $16 mil deal.

Neftali Feliz was the big bullpen signing and figures to be the closer after the trades of Thornburg, Jeffress, and Will Smith last year. The club seems to think his home run issues last year were a bit of an aberration, so if he pitches well in the first half he’ll likely become a trade candidate. The club has also added some interesting arms on minor league deals, including Joba Chamberlain, Forrest Snow, and Andrew Barbosa. My only real complain about the winter was leaving Miguel Diaz unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft, which allowed the Padres to pick him first overall and add a potential 50-60 OFP arm to their system.

BB: Since the Brewers are in the middle of a rebuild, it would have been tough for them to have a bad offseason. Brewers fans’ expectations are realistic at this point, so we weren’t planning on any splashy free agent signings. We will have to get used to the fact that the few familiar faces still on the club – Ryan Braun, Wily Peralta, Jimmy Nelson, and Matt Garza – could well be traded by mid-season if they aren’t injured or miserably underperforming. Longtime role players like Tyler Thornburg and Martin Maldonado were traded in the offseason, and homerun/strikeout title holder Chris Carter was non-tendered.

But the offseason wasn’t just about guys leaving. The Brewers signed a guy out of Korea named Eric Thames who seems like a low-risk first base option for a non-competitive team. They also picked up reliever Neftali Feliz, who I suspect is a time-server that won’t be part of the future, but he could eventually be tradeable for someone who will be part of the future. One of the players the Brewers got in the Thornburg trade, third baseman Travis Shaw, is expected to see a fair amount of playing time in 2017.

Coming into spring training, principal owner Mark Attanasio said, “This year will inform us as to where we are on the timeline for competing.” Given the position the Brewers are in, it’s hard to be very disappointed or excited about any offseason moves. We’ll see what happens.

BCBJ: It’s hard to tell whether it was a good offseason for the Brewers, mostly because it was such a quiet one. They didn’t do much, outside of a couple of minor free agent additions in Eric Thames and Neftali Feliz. For the most part, they stuck to the minor league free agent pool, trying to replicate the success they found last year when they picked up Junior Guerra out of obscurity and he became one of the best starters in their rotation.

It is a little surprising to still see Ryan Braun wearing a Brewers uniform, but I don’t know if I’d go as far to say I wished they did trade him. He may not be an MVP candidate anymore, but he’s still an extremely good hitter, and since the Brewers’ rebuild has gone so well to this point, they don’t need to trade Braun just for the sake of trading him.

C70: What’s going to be the strong point of this team?

BCBK: The strong point of this team looks like it’ll probably be the offense. It seems apparent that former MVP Ryan Braun will once again anchor the middle of the lineup after posting 30 homers and a .900+ OPS last season. Jonathan Villar broke out last year and will shift to second base in 2017, and both Domingo Santana and Keon Broxton looked like they could be potentially above-average regulars when healthy last year. The club will be counting on positive contributions from new acquisitions Thames and Shaw at the infield corners and both appear to be capable, and hopefully Orlando Arcia can show some improvement on his relatively meager offensive production during his first two months in the big leagues last summer.

BB: Young players who surprise us with their moxie and make the most of their opportunity will be the strong points. Last year, Jonathan Villar emerged as a capable leadoff hitter and led the league in stolen bases. (Villar also led the league in being caught stealing by miles, but hey.) Pitcher Zach Davies had a solid first full season in the majors, and 31-year-old rookie Junior Guerra surprised us all by being the Brewers’ best starter.

There are numerous unproven players who could blow our minds in 2017, such as Orlando Arcia, Yadiel Rivera, Keon Broxton, Domingo Santana, Brett Phillips, Andrew Susac, Lewis Brinson, and Josh Hader, to name a few. Who will step up? Enquiring minds want to know…

BCBJ: I think the lineup could be sneaky dangerous. Jonathan Villar is coming off a breakout season and Keon Broxton is coming off of a ridiculously hot second half of the season after he made some mechanical adjustments in his swing. If both can hit the way they did to close last year, that’s a dangerous 1-2 punch to have hitting in front of Braun. I’m a big fan of Domingo Santana’s power potential, and Travis Shaw’s power should play well at Miller Park, too. If Eric Thames can be a league-average bat, that’s six pretty good hitters in the lineup.

C70: There always seems to be a buzz about Ryan Braun being traded. Is that something that is realistic or just a lot of internet rumor?

BCBK: It doesn’t appear as though Ryan Braun is going anywhere. The best shot may have been last year at the non-waiver deadline, and the trade to the Dodgers that everyone expected coming into this winter never really materialized. There haven’t been any real substantive rumors about Braun all winter, and now that the Dodgers have brought in Logan Forsythe, I’d say it’s a safe bet Braun starts 2017 with Milwaukee. He gains full 10-5 no trade rights at the end of May, so the Brewers may very well have another four years of Braun to look forward to.

BB: Apparently the Brewers were minutes away from trading Braun to the Dodgers in August, so it would seem to be more than rumor. Still, there are a number of things standing in the way of a Braun trade, primarily his no-trade protection on all but six teams. Although it came close to happening a few months ago, it seems unlikely, but you never know. If Braun is traded this year, I have a feeling it will be like the collapse of the Soviet Union – obvious that it was going to happen in hindsight, but it will be surprising at the time.

BCBJ: Braun was reportedly very nearly traded to the Dodgers for Yasiel Puig and Brandon McCarthy at the end of August last year, but the teams couldn’t agree on a final deal before the deadline that would’ve kept Braun eligible for the postseason. Since then, though, there hasn’t been any legitimate rumors that a deal with the Dodgers or anyone else was close. Braun does have a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to all but a handful of teams, and he’ll get his 10-and-5 no-trade rights in May.

Braun says he loves Milwaukee and he’s started a family there now, so he may be reluctant to accept a deal elsewhere. He also likely knows he won’t get the kind of fan support he gets now in Milwaukee anywhere else. If he does end up getting traded, I would expect it to be to a team in California that’s contending for a championship.

C7o: Is there an unheralded player that people should keep an eye on this season?

BCBK: I was ahead of the game last year by predicting Junior Guerra’s breakout (#2016BrewersAce), but there are two rather unheralded guys that have been generating some hype this winter. Zach Davies has been hailed as potentially the next Kyle Hendricks and lead the league in command last year according to Baseball Prospectus’ new CSAA statistic. He posted a 3.92 ERA last year so he’s not exactly coming out of nowhere, but he could improve upon that already solid level of run prevention. The other is Keon Broxton. Everyone in Milwaukee is talking about Lewis Brinson’s impending arrival in the bigs, but he’ll have to get past Broxton first, who hit 9 homers and stole 23 bases in just 75 games last year before breaking his wrist in September. His exit velocity last year was among the best in the big leagues after a midseason mechanical adjustment with his hands, and if he can carry over that success (and keep his K’s in check) it wouldn’t be outrageous to hope for a 100-110 OPS+ with plus defense in center field.

BB: I would think that all Brewers other than Braun are unheralded as far as baseball fans outside of Milwaukee are concerned. That said, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Keon Broxton, who didn’t get a hit until May 21 last year, but improved with regular playing time and is projected to be the Brewers’ starting center fielder in 2017. He’s a fun player to watch, particularly when he’s robbing a homerun from Anthony Rizzo

BCBJ: I mentioned him before, but Keon Broxton has the potential to be a really exciting player. His overall stat line from last season (.242/.354/.430, 9 HR, 23 SB) may not look all that impressive, but after returning from the minors and fixing his swing, he hit .293/.399/.538 in the second half. That’s a .937 OPS from a guy who’s also a great defensive centerfielder and is dangerous on the basepaths. Is he going to put up a .900 OPS over the course of a full season? Probably not. But he still has a chance to be a very valuable player for the Brewers this year and in the future.

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

BCBK: I’ll pick the Brewers to go 77-85 and finish fourth in the division.

BB: I’d prefer not to speculate on the Brewers’ 2017 record except to say I’d be over the moon if they got to .500. I’m hopeful they can finish fourth and avoid ending the season in last place.

BCBJ: Most of the projections seem to have the Brewers in the 75-77 win range, and that probably sounds about right. I will say, though, that there are a lot of young guys in the lineup that have the potential to truly break out this year, which might push them close to 80 if they can get a little lucky. That would put them pretty squarely in third place in the division, in my opinion, but that also depends on a largely unproven pitching staff producing a few surprises.

On the other hand, I could also see the pitching staff bursting into flames — especially the bullpen — and the Brewers finishing worse than their 73-89 mark from last year. There’s a wide range of possibilities for this bunch.

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

BCBK: I’ve always been very partial to Geoff Jenkins, and I do love Ryan Braun. But when I really think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever lived and died with a player as much as I did during Junior Guerra’s 20 starts last year. I’ve got his jersey hanging in my closet, and I hope that when I’m wearing it to Miller Park on April 3rd that it’ll be during a well-earned Opening Day start for the 32 year old. The guy was pitching in Italy a couple year’s ago, for goodness sakes, and he posted a sub-3.00 ERA in over 120 innings last year! How do you not root for a story like that?

BB: Prince Fielder. After losing interest in the Brewers during the 90s and early 00s, I became a fan again in 2007 thanks to a core of young players led by Fielder. I saw plenty of great Fielder moments from 2007-2011, and one that stands out is his 14th inning walk-off homer against the Rockies on May 20, 2011. The Brewers were scuffling in the early part of 2011, and that comeback victory was an emotional turning point in what would end up being an NL Central winning year. Unfortunately, they went on to be knocked out of the playoffs by a team whose name escapes me at the moment…

BCBJ: Ben Sheets. That curveball was incredible, and it’s rare you can see a starting pitcher have that much success with just two pitches. He was really, really good for some really, really bad teams during his career and never complained about it or signed elsewhere. By the time 2008 came and the Brewers were finally making a postseason run, his body gave out. He tore ligaments in his elbow during the last month of the playoff race and still kept pitching (during a contract year, no less!), knowing the Brewers needed every win they could get. He ended up having to miss the playoffs, but he gave up his body — and ultimately his career — to help get the team there. He missed all of 2009, then pitched parts of two seasons after that but was never the same.

Appreciate all the guys helping us out with this NL Central rival.  We’ll get to see these young guys a lot over the coming years!

1 comment

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.

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!

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?

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!

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!

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