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It’s hard to believe that spring training is over and that the season kicks off on Monday.  Before you settle in for the 162 games, I’m providing the following for you to be able to catch up on any Pepper entries you might have missed.  Find out about the rivals, look toward some October matchups, and just generally find some great baseball folks to interact with.  My thanks to all of these bloggers for helping me out this year and I look forward to doing it all again in 2018!

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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!

St. Louis Cardinals
86-76, second in NL Central
Last year’s Pepper

One game.  Just one game.

OK, technically it was just one game to force a tie and extend the season a day.  If they’d won that game they’d have had to play the Giants, then the Mets, then the Cubs in a whirlwind stretch of three games in four days, I believe.  It’s probably for the best that didn’t happen, but still, missing the playoffs will gnaw at a Cardinal fan, a feeling made even worse by the once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) Series championship by the North Siders.

An offseason has come and gone.  The Cards have Dexter Fowler, they’ve lost Alex Reyes.  How is 2017 going to look?  While most often in this Pepper series I’m talking with other bloggers, we do that all the time thanks to the UCB.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have some internet friendships with three guys that have national prominence but don’t always get to talk about the Cardinals (though Will somehow finds a way at times) and one legend in the Cardinal blogosphere.  You know these guys, you follow these guys, but it’s a real honor to have them all here talking about the team we love.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Will Leitch Sports On Earth williamfleitch The Will Leitch Experience
Larry Borowsky Viva El Birdos founder
Dayn Perry Eye on Baseball daynperry
Drew Silva Rotoworld drewsilv Rotoworld Podcast

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?

Will: I think they made the move they had to make – Dexter Fowler – and didn’t make any potentially crippling mistakes, something they hardly ever do and something we don’t always appreciate. That said: I think when you see what Edwin Encarnacion got from Cleveland, well, I think that would have been well worth a flyer. I still think the Cardinals look like gathering of fantastic complementary parts that still are looking for their centerpiece. I’m not sure Encarnacion was that guy, but he’d have been a handy fit at three years while we go look for him. (I’m very obviously talking about Manny Machado right now, and I have an Orioles fan friend who is very sick of me constantly salivating over his impending free agency.) I just the Cardinals are only short one thing, and it turns out it’s the biggest thing: A superstar.

Larry: I’m not a fan of Dexter Fowler’s contract. Nothing against him as a player—he broke in out here in Denver (where I live) and I’ve always thought he was underappreciated. But the Cards have over-appreciated the guy. They’re suddenly awash in ripening outfield talent—Harrison Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Adolis Garcia—and it’s going to get awkward in a couple of years (if not sooner) when the Cards are overpaying an aging Fowler to deny those players at-bats. He’ll help them in the very near term, but not enough to close the gap between the Cards and Cubs. And over the full five years, I think the contract is gonna be a net liability. Bigly.

Given the prohibitively high cost of trade acquisitions this off-season, their best option would have been to leave Randal Grichuk in center and take their chances with an ad hoc solution in left field until midseason, then promote Bader (or whoever else is ready) or make a trade as the standings dictate.

Dayn: I’m generally fond of their work this offseason. I like the Fowler signing because they obviously needed a true center fielder, and I really like moving Matt Carpenter‘s power down in the order. Fowler’s an OBP guy with some speed, and even if his defensive rebound was driven by positioning, that’s transferrable, I would think. I think he’s also a good influence for a roster and a clubhouse that may have gotten a little strained and stodgy. Elsewhere, I like Brett Cecil in the near-term, but I’m not generally fond of four-year deals for relievers.

I was an advocate of pursuing Justin Turner, but that obviously didn’t happen. I like his power and glove at third, and I see pushing Carpenter across the diamond as a good thing. I wouldn’t want Turner if it meant no Fowler, so if it’s an either-or proposition then I like the way Mozeliak played it. If they were to make a heavier investment in this season, then I like the idea of Turner.

Drew: If the goal for the offseason was to catch up with the Cubs, the Cardinals failed. But if the goal was to simply improve a roster that finished one game out of the National League Wild Card race in 2016, the Cardinals probably succeeded. Dexter Fowler is a great fit at the top of the lineup and will improve the outfield defense, with Randal Grichuk taking over in left field for new Yankees designated hitter Matt Holliday. And the signing of left-handed reliever Brett Cecil turned a pretty good bullpen into a really good bullpen. I would have liked to have seen the addition of a middle-order slugger to feast on the high OBP that should come from the top, but Edwin Encarnacion and Justin Turner apparently didn’t read too well on the Cardinals’ internal evaluations.

C70: Mike Matheny takes a lot of heat. How much of it is deserved?

Will: Much of it. Not all of it. But much of it. It’s not just the strategic issues, though those are certainly there. (At least he’s not bunting as much anymore.) It’s the stubborn refusal to change from a guy who, I thought, was here in the first place because he was young and of the “new school” and wouldn’t just toss out Mark Ellis and Jonathan Broxton all the time because they’re “veterans” and he trusts them. I think you can trace much of Randal Grichuk’s and (especially) Kolten Wong’s problems back to him and his inability to just leave them alone. And look: LaRussa had problems with young players too. But LaRussa (mostly) had the strategy stuff down. And even when he made mistakes, it was obvious they were processed by a constantly active mind. Would you classify Mike Matheny as having a “constantly active mind?” I mean, the question is ridiculous on its face. It must be frustrating for Mozeliak to have to always work the roster around his own manager’s biases and blind spots, but hey, he’s the one who just gave him the extension.

Larry: First let’s give him his due: He inherited a 90-win team that had just lost Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, and Chris Carpenter, and he’s led them to an average of 91 wins a year with four postseason series victories. Those achievements shouldn’t be taken for granted. But Matheny still has a lot to prove this year. He was hired with the understanding that he’d master in-game strategy, roster management, etc. on the job. Nobody expected him to excel at first, but there was an expectation he’d improve over time. That hasn’t happened, and the costs are accruing. He needs to do better this year.

Dayn: I think he’s tactically challenged when it comes to running the bullpen. That’s a pretty major part of a manager’s job, it should be noted. Early in his tenure, Matheny showed some growth when it comes to laying off run-one strategies, but the bullpen thing has been a concern for a while. I also think he’s a little stuffy and overly serious in his demeanor. All that said, Matheny isn’t without his merits. He’s good with players on a one-to-one basis and with an eye toward development, and even though he’s had strong teams, he’s won. In the end, though, I think he was a strange choice given where the Cardinals were at the time of his hire, and it’s entirely possible they would’ve reached greater heights with someone else in the dugout. That Terry Francona interviewed for the job and didn’t get it still pains me. 

Drew: Matheny might not be so sound tactically, but we can’t place a value on his ability to guide a group of self-interested millionaires through the grind of a 162-182 game baseball season. Well, that was the canned response for the first four years of Matheny’s managerial tenure anyway. The problem is we can now poke holes through the positive spin. Randal Grichuk acknowledged this spring that there have “been some cliques in the past few years and definitely some distance between players and different players.” Yadier Molina, the on-field leader of the Cardinals, has provided multiple veiled criticisms of Matheny on Instagram over the last calendar year. Kolten Wong recently voiced his displeasure with Matheny’s communication methods to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Matheny is probably very close with some guys on this roster — your Adam Wainwrights and Matt Carpenters and Stephen Piscotties — but it has become quite apparent that not everybody feels the same or is treated the same. Baseball is a business, not a family, but great leaders of men thrive in the gray areas of life and Matheny doesn’t seem to know how to navigate in troubled waters. If he isn’t good at baseball strategy and isn’t good at clubhouse leadership, what exactly is he good at? Yes, the heat is deserved.

C70: It’s tough living in a world where the Cubs are World Champions. How close to you think the Cards can get to dethroning them in 2017?

Will: I think the Cardinals have as good a shot as anyone in the NL at the wild-card, so while I don’t think the Cubs can be caught in the division this year – though people should really be a lot more worried about the Cubs’ rotation than they are – any series is a crapshoot. (In Alt-Earth 2, the Indians carried Francisco Lindor out of the Progressive Field after a walkoff homer against Aroldis Chapman’s dead-arm slider in Game Seven. That should have happened.) I will take Carlos Martinez in a wild-card game playoff, and our odds against anyone else – even the Cubs – in a five-game series. All you gotta do is get in.

Larry: I’m not focusing on the Cubs in 2017. As long as the Cards are playing meaningful games and making progress toward developing the next batch of core players, I’ll be entertained. To answer the question, I’d give our side maybe a one in five chance to knock off the Cubs and win the division this year.

Dayn: The Cubs are better, barring the unexpected. However, the Cardinals are very much in the mix for a wild card berth, and a division title is within the range of possibilities. Get to October, maybe avoid the Cubs in the Division Series, and hope things don’t break the Cubs’ way. October weirdness is never to be dismissed, and lest we forget the best team in the regular season going on to win the World Series is actually a bit of a rarity. 

Drew: If you compare the two rosters right now, leading into Opening Day, the Cubs are leaps ahead. Maybe some injuries will even the playing field a bit — there are some red flags in the Cubs’ pitching staff — but even then it would take a big swing of the luck pendulum for the Cardinals to have a chance at the National League Central title this season.

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

Will: I can totally see John Gant being a surprisingly important part of the team, like what Matt Bowman did last year but maybe with some spot starts thrown in. Prediction I might regret: He has a better year than Jaime Garcia.

Larry: I was glad to hear Greg Garcia declare himself a contender for everyday duty. If the Cards really wanted to change the dynamic of the team from last year—tighten up the defense, lengthen the offense, become more multi-dimensional and more athletic—they’d put Garcia at third base over the two slow-footed, quasi-power hitters who are currently vying for that job. Matheny doesn’t have that sort of an imagination, but I do think it’s possible Garcia will end up forcing his way into a semi-regular role (a la Jedd Gyorko last year), picking up four or five starts a week all over the infield. Sans the Fowler signing, he might have been part of that ad hoc left-field solution I spoke of above (along with Tommy Pham and Jose Martinez). 

Dayn: I’m interested to see what Grichuk can do with lessened defensive responsibilities and if permitted to swing free and hard. The OBP won’t be there, but I’m bullish on his potential power outputs. 

Drew: Since this is the Cardinals edition of Playing Pepper and it’s going to be posted on a Cardinals blog, probably not. But let me take the time to #GiveLanceChants. Lance Lynn is pitching for the next $100-plus million free agent contract as an established 29-year-old starter entering his walk year. He owns a 3.37 ERA and 8.6 K/9 in 791 1/3 career major league innings. If he can improve those numbers or keep them about the same, the big boy will get paid.

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

Will: I think they win 87 games, finish second and host the wild-card game against Colorado.

Larry: Second place, 90 wins.

Dayn: 89-73, 2nd place, hosts NL wild card game.

Drew: 88 wins, second place in the National League Central.

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

Will: They are all tied for first. I love all my children equally.

Larry: Can’t narrow it down to one guy. As a kid in the 1970s I worshipped Lou Brock — incredibly exciting player, same initials as me, left-handed like me. My favorite during the Whiteyball era was Terry Pendleton, because of his intelligence and steady demeanor. Brian Jordan was loads of fun to watch, and I admired the hell out of Darryl Kile — don’t think he gets enough credit for the role he played in establishing a winning culture that persists to this day. Albert Pujols is without question the best Cardinal player I’ve ever seen.

Dayn: Ozzie Smith. He was the guy I grew up on. I grew up in Mississippi, so going to Cardinals games was a one-series-a-year event for me. Seeing him come out and do the backflip was a true delight for me. He’s also my height, which is obviously endearing. I also appreciate how he seemed to will himself into a competent hitter. If I try, I can still get ticked at La Russa for shoving him aside in favor of Royce Clayton.

Drew: Albert Pujols, for giving the Cardinals the best 11-year stretch of offensive production in baseball history at a ridiculously team-friendly price point.

As always, it’s truly an honor to have these guys stop by the site.  It’s wonderful to think we are less than a weekend away from finding out just what the real answers to our questions about 2017 are going to be!

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!

Washington Nationals
95-67, first in NL East, lost in NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

Unlike in years of old, this Washington team has become a consistent winner.  In the last five years, they’ve finished either first or second in the division and the three times that they’ve taken home the divisional title, they’ve won at least 95 games doing it.  Yet they’ve never been able to get past the first round of the playoffs (hello, Pete Kozma!) and with Bryce Harper getting closer and closer to free agency, that window has to at least feel like it’s starting to close.

We’ve got a couple of bloggers to talk about the Nationals and what they chances are they can break through this year.  Dave’s an old hand (and recently got a job covering the Mariners for The Spokesman-Review, so the blog link is where he’d been writing) and Justin’s a welcome newcomer to the annual tradition.  Give them a look!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Dave Nichols Federal Baseball DNicholsSR
Justin Howard Half Street Heart Attack HalfStreetHeart

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?

FB: The Nats had a decent offseason, picking up CF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters as the main additions. They didn’t acquire a “proven closer,” instead rolling with a combination of Shawn Kelley as the veteran, Blake Treinen as the unproven and Koda Glover as the hard-throwing heir apparent. Adam Lind was signed as Ryan Zimmerman/Jayson Werth health insurance.

HSHA: It was a weird offseason. Closer was biggest hole on the roster–everyone expected the Nats to sign someone–and they did nothing. Now the Nats are toying with different possibilities and we’re still not sure what the back end of the bullpen will look like. It’s almost like they deferred the closer decision to midseason, when more trade options might be available.

Almost everyone in baseball panned the Adam Eaton trade, thinking the Nats overpaid. It’s hard to disagree. Lucas Giolito was considered
the biggest prospect in baseball a year ago. Had they sold high, Giolito might have been able to get Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman. It just seems like a missed opportunity.

I would have loved to see the Nats sign Harper to a long term deal this past offseason. Now that he’s two years away from free agency, it’s less likely to happen now. Never say never–Strasburg’s extension was a huge surprise–but it’s likely the Nats’ window has closed.

C70: Is there more of an urgency to win in the next couple of years, given the statements this offseason regarding Bryce Harper and, if so, how will that manifest itself?

FB: Simply: Yes. Harper will test free agency regardless of Nats’ success. He becomes a free agent a year after Werth’s contract clears and the year before Zimmerman’s is up though, so if he re-ups it’ll come then. We’ve already seen Mike Rizzo give up the Nats’ two top pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez) to obtain his everyday center fielder (Eaton), so if he feels he needs to trade for a closer he will.

HSHA: None, whatsoever. This team has already started to plan for life after Bryce Harper. Adam Eaton was acquired because he has 5 years
left on his contract. OF Victor Robles, one of the top prospects in baseball, was mostly untouchable in trade talks this past offseason. No, you can’t really replace a player like Harper, but the Nats will have a plan. The money they budgeted for Harper’s extension will be redistributed elsewhere. Bryce will leave a lot of talent in DC when/if he signs somewhere else.

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

FB: We’ve mentioned the lack of proven closer a few times already. Another weakness is position depth. There are no position prospects pushing for playing time now that Trea Turner is locked in at short. When (not if) Zimmerman and Werth go down, the Nats will have to rely on Lind and players like Chris Heisey and Clint Robinson.

HSHA: Bullpen, obviously, could be a problem. I also worry about middle infield defense. Murphy is not a plus defender and Trea Turner is untested at SS. But the biggest weakness on this team is durability. Werth, Zimmerman, Rendon, and Strasburg have all missed significant time over the past few seasons. Assuming Harper was hurt last year (I think he was), he’s had 1 healthy season in 4 since his rookie year. There are just way too many key contributors on this team who always seem one play away from a month-long DL stint.

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

FB: This is a veteran team, outside of Turner – and he’s getting plenty of attention after his second place NL rookie of the year campaign last season. Perennially overlooked Tanner Roark is probably the most anonymous two-time 15-game winner in the bigs. Maybe Treinen or Glover if one emerges as the closer?

HSHA: Honestly, Bryce Harper takes so much oxygen out of the room, I feel like every quality player on this roster is unheralded. Tanner Roark
was one of the most consistent and reliable starters in the league last season (13 games with 7 inn or more & 1 ER or less). Daniel Murphy is well known from his Mets playoff heroics, but he legitimately put up an MVP-quality season last year (he finished second in voting). Trea Turner’s rookie season was so spectacular I started calling like Mike Trout-lite, and I wasn’t entirely joking. SP Joe Ross is another name fans should know and watch this season.

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

FB: First place, 93 wins. Again, Nats will get to feast on building Atlanta, Philadelphia and Miami to boost the win total.

HSHA: A lot of things broke right last season (Murphy, Ramos, Scherzer), so it’s not hard to imagine a slight regression in 2017. On the other hand, if Bryce Harper becomes Bryce Harper again and Trea Turner repeats his 2016 second half over a full season, this team could win 100 games. I think the Phillies and Braves improve, giving the Nats fewer easy victories, and this team grabs the NL East with 91 wins.

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

FB: Tough one. I have a lot of respect for John Lannan, two-time opening day pitcher who toiled on some really, REALLY bad teams and took the ball every fifth day and usually kept them in game. I loved John Patterson’s curveball, shame he couldn’t stay healthy. For fun factor, Adam Dunn trudging around the outfield. And Ryan Zimmerman for being the team’s first “face” and all-star.

HSHA: I’m going to answer your question very literally. Walter Johnson. That’s right, there was professional baseball in Washington D.C. prior
to 2005. The Washington Nationals (commonly referred to as Senators) were one of the original 8 American League franchises. They won a World Series title in 1924, when Walter Johnson pitched 4 scoreless innings in a 12 inning Game 7. Johnson had 417 wins and 110 shutouts. He was likely the greatest pitcher of all time, and he played his entire career in Washington D.C.

Thanks to Dave and Justin for their thoughts on the club in the nation’s capital.  This may be the year that first-round exit bit is broken!

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!

Toronto Blue Jays
89-73, second (tie) in AL East
Last year’s Pepper

Even though you’ll see the Blue Jays listed third in the AL East divisional standings, they made a strong October run before being caught up in the buzzsaw that was the Cleveland Indians.  Even though Toronto lost four games to one, all of the games were close and they could have easily appeared in their first World Series since 1993.

That said, you wonder when the window is going to close for the Blue Jays.  The East isn’t getting any easier and they’ll have to make another attack run without the services of Edwin Encarnacion.  There’s no short of people interested in this club and we have eight bloggers–on par with the teams from New York in number–to talk all about them.  Give these folks a follow then settle in for a good read!

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?

BJH: I guess that depends on who you ask. Overall, I think the Blue Jays’ fan base kind of views this winter as a failed offseason. They didn’t follow their offseason mandate, which was to get more left-handed, younger and more agile. Admittedly, the market was incredibly weird this offseason, and the Blue Jays probably couldn’t re-signed Edwin Encarnacion had they waited a little longer.

Outside of bringing back Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays really didn’t make very many “sexy” offseason moves, but several of them were necessary. They still need to address the bullpen with additional relievers, and getting a left-handed reliever with experience is paramount for the Blue Jays right now. In retrospect, I might’ve liked them to be a little more aggressive in their pursuit of Dexter Fowler; he checked off a lot of boxes for the Blue Jays, but ultimately he opted to go to St. Louis.

Overall, I guess I’d give the front office a “C” grade for their offseason moves thus far. Not the best, but not the worst.

EB: It was definitely one of the more eventful off-seasons the Blue Jays have had in some time. Especially with both Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting free agency. For the most part, I think it’s been a pretty good off-season for Toronto. They addressed their needs in the bullpen by signing J.P. Howell and Joe Smith, which for me was a wonderful thing because for years now the front office has really neglected the bullpen, especially when compared to the offense and starting rotation. Obviously it would have been great to re-sign Encarnacion, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I don’t blame the team though, they extended a fair offer to Encarnacion.

BB: I think most Blue Jays fans, including myself, would classify the offseason as an alright one although it left a bit to be desired. It began with a lot of optimism as it was expected that the team would make a serious run at re-signing one of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. After offering Encarnacion around $80 million in early November, the Blue Jays gave him some time to mull it over before moving on to looking for a replacement. That search led to Kendrys Morales, who they signed in mid-November for three years and $33 million. This was a signal to most fans that Encarnacion likely wouldn’t be returning, although of course the front office said a reunion was still possible. Then in early December the team added another free agent infielder in Steve Pearce, which really slammed the door shut on fan-favorite Encarnacion returning.

After that saga was over the front office very slowly pivoted to taking another shot at Jose Bautista, as his market was a lot cooler than everyone expected. According to most reports, he wasn’t coveted all that much by the team’s brass but it would have been hard to face the fans in 2017 if they were outbid on the two legends of recent Jays history. This led to a one-year contract with a few options tied in, which seems to be mutually beneficial for both sides. The Jays save face and Jose gets a chance to re-build his value for another run at free agency.

In terms of doing what they needed to do, the Jays seem to have checked off almost everything on their shopping list. That certainly doesn’t mean they were all slam dunk acquisitions though. After the ALCS run in 2016, the team had a few obvious needs in the outfield along with first base and the front-end of the bullpen. To patch these gaps, the team signed the previously-mentioned Morales, Pearce, and Bautista along with veteran relievers J.P. Howell and Joe Smith. The problem is that only one of Morales or Pearce was probably necessary as the roster also features the strikeout-prone Justin Smoak, who most fans feel should have never been extended during last season. Bringing back Bautista compounded this logjam as the 36-year-old Dominican right fielder would be better served spending the majority of his time in the DH position or even first base. I don’t think too many people have any qualms with the reliever additions, although fans are obviously disappointed to have lost lefty Brett Cecil to the Cardinals in free agency on a big deal.

At the end of the day I’d give the Jays offseason a “B”, as they’re returning most of their roster from last season which took them to within a few games of the World Series. Jays fans have definitely had worse winters in the last few decades.

As for what move they could have made, this is a tough question as there’s always a few signings you see from other teams during the offseason that you wish your team made instead. I guess I’ll defer to the obvious one which is bringing back Edwin Encarnacion on the three-year deal at $60 million (plus an option) that Cleveland gave him. Looking back at last year’s post in this series, I said that Encarnacion would come back to the Jays on a four-year $80 million contract (the Jays rumored offer a few months ago), so maybe I’m especially sour that my prediction was so close to being correct.

To be clear, I don’t blame the front office at all for the way they handled the situation back in November. They gave the slugger their best offer early on in the process and allowed him a week to think about it before moving on to alternatives. I think a good portion of the blame lies at the feet of Encarnacion’s agent as he completely misread the market and cost his client (and himself) a boatload of cash.

I think if both parties could redo that situation, Edwin would be back in blue next year and the team would never have had to sign lesser players in Morales and Pearce during free agency. Jays fans can only hope that they don’t come to regret losing Encarnacion too much over the course of the next few seasons.

JFTC: The offseason was in interesting one if you’re a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. It was a roller coaster of emotions with Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hitting free agency. But, not only was management expected to replace those two, they were also losing Brett Cecil, a major part of their bullpen and R.A. Dickey from the rotation.

That said, they did a good job in bringing in JP Howell and Joe Smith to shore up the ‘pen and their rotation could sustain the loss of the knuckleballer thanks to having Francisco Liriano already in the fold.

The real focus of the offseason was on the departure of Encarnacion. Many feel the team rushed into signing Kendrys Morales, who would be a poor substitute for Encarnacion’s production. Though, closer inspection yields some solace. Morales could benefit nicely from playing in not just the Rogers Center in Toronto, but the entire AL East for the majority of his time. He could have a year that will make fans forget all about Edwin.

The real steal of the offseason could end up being Steve Pearce. The club inked him to a 2 yr deal even though he had just had shoulder surgery. But, they are banking on the defensive versatility he provides, as well as a reasonable bat. He’ll start the year chipping in at first base, but when fully healthy, he can be used in LF as well.

Overall, the Blue Jays had an offseason that appears underwhelming, but they went about the business of building depth and versatility – to raise their talent floor – in an attempt to repeat, and hopefully improve upon, their ALCS appearances of the last two seasons. It wasn’t a sexy offseason, but could end up paying huge dividends.

BPT: Good seems like a stretch, but it wasn’t bad by any definition that I know. Ross Atkins solidified the bullpen, brought back the greatest player in franchise history, and did a pretty bang up job of replacing Edwin Encarnacion. Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales cost less than Encarnacion, and have the potential to make fans forget about his departure. I think bringing in Dexter Fowler would have been great for this team given its current construction, but I don’t think it’s a non-move that will hurt them that much in the long run.

500: It was decent. Not great, but decent. The obvious move that I wish they would have made was re-signing Edwin Encarnacion. He will be missed. But I think Kendrys Morales is a decent replacement (at least offensively), and I like the small moves they made to the bullpen. I think LF and 1B are still a bit of soft spot, so more work probably should have been done there.

JJ: The Toronto Blue Jays will be without the likes of slugger Edwin Encarnacion, Michael Saunders, Brett Cecil, Joaquin Benoit and R.A. Dickey who all signed free-agent contracts with other teams during the offseason. The Jays brain-trust has plugged the holes with Kendrys Morales, Steve Pearce, J.P. Howell and Joe Smith in an attempt to replace the lost production.  The Jays upper echelon had aspirations of getting younger and faster this past offseason however those goals were not met due to the unpredictability of the free agent market. The Jays made a play for outfielder Dexter Fowler before re-upping with Jose Bautista.

The Achilles heel of this team is first baseman Justin Smoak or left-fielder Melvin Upton. Both players are above average defenders but their inability to make consistent contact jeopardizes their value and they are instant rally killers anywhere in the lineup.  The Jays can use Steve Pearce at one of the two positions if completely healthy. The rumors of Angel Pagan have resurfaced after his decent showing at the World Baseball Classic; Pagan could oversee left-field while Pearce would slide over to first base and relegate both Smoak and Upton to bench roles.

ACB: I believe it was a mediocre offseason for the team. They did what they needed to do, no more no less. They added some depth to the bullpen by adding both Joe Smith and J.P. Howell to the mix. They also picked up a good utility player in Steve Pearce, a former Blue Jays crusher. I’d say the best acquisition of the offseason was Kendrys Morales (in replace of Edwin Encarnacion… more on that later). There were many rumours throughout the offseason for the Jays, related to Dexter Fowler and Andrew McCutchen. Obviously, Dexter Fowler would have been a fantastic acquisition because of his speed and hitting, but someone like Devin Travis can pick up those pieces over time. I felt myself waiting for a block buster trade to happen, or for a big name player to be signed, but that never happened, which made the offseason go by slowly. There was also quite a bit of disappointment when Encarnacion left to join Cleveland, and said “….but I made the decision to come here because here I have the opportunity to win the World Series.” I think that the Toronto Blue Jays front office did an OK job handling this past offseason, but we will have to wait until the next off season begins to evaluate it, after we see how the season unfolds.

C70: What are the expectations for Marcus Stroman this year? Will he be the staff ace?

BJH: 2016 was an up-an-down year for Marcus Stroman. He started the year as the Opening Day starter and ended it as the Blue Jays’ fourth best starting pitcher. I think he’s poised for a bounceback 2017, as his second-half peripherals looked a lot better (his ERA was over a run better after the All-Star Break).

I would say that Aaron Sanchez is the de facto “ace” of the Blue Jays right now and Marcus Stroman has a long way to go to usurp Sanchez, but he should make his way back up the ranks as the Blue Jays’ number two or three starter in the near future.

EB: I don’t see Stroman being the team ace, not now after what Aaron Sanchez has shown he’s capable of doing over a full season as a starter. Stroman needs to be more consistent and get back to what he was doing in 2014. I see him having a solid season…he has a lot to prove, to both himself and the league, that last season was just a minor setback in his development towards being a solid number 2 starter.

BB: This is a hot topic in Toronto these days as people were fairly disappointed in Marcus last year despite putting up a respectable 4.37 ERA in his first full season in the major leagues. The pessimism over Stroman’s performance isn’t entirely unfounded though as it’s looking more and more likely that the Duke product isn’t going to be the possible Cy Young winner that a lot of fans hoped for when he was making his way through the system in 2014. The strong-willed righty has struggled to consistently miss bats during his time with the Jays although an ERA in the 3.60-4.00 range is still a reasonable expectation. This coming season will be a big one for Stroman as he has to prove he can be a dependable rotation piece for a full year at the big league level. He hasn’t done that as of yet.

Stroman’s numbers may make him a staff ace on some teams, but the presence of Aaron Sanchez on the Jays roster means Toronto is not one of those squads. The lanky righty came up with Stroman through the minor leagues and in one season of starting, has already surpassed him for the crown of most exciting Jays pitcher. There’s another level to this story as the two young studs used to be extremely close friends and even roommates, but this offseason they had a falling out which made a lot of headlines up here in what has otherwise been a fairly slow winter for Jays news.

Obviously their personal relationship isn’t all that relevant to the on-field action, but it adds another layer to the ongoing competition for the top spot in the team’s rotation. It’s certainly something to watch as the regular season begins in a few weeks.

JFTC: Marcus Stroman came back from his ACL tear at the end of the 2015 season and was amazing. So, when 2016 was all said and done, you can’t blame a section of baseball fans for calling his season a disappointment.

But that is a tad short sighted. Stroman has the arsenal of a small army. He features a mix of 4-seam, 2-seam, cutter, curveball, slider and change, all of which he uses to maintain a groundball rate of 60%. He lives in the bottom half of the zone and has success there.

But, does that make him an ace? Likely not. He will likely see an ERA of 3.50-4, but will get his 200 innings in. The real issue with calling him the team’s ace is that he shares the mound with Aaron Sanchez, who many expect to take his game to the next level. Though, if there is anything that can get Stroman to follow suit it is people doubting him.

BPT: Expectations might be pretty low for Stroman just because he had a couple of rough months last year and he is surrounded by four fantastic pitchers, but that doesn’t mean he won’t exceed his expectations in 2017. As for being the staff ace, it’ll be hard to top Aaron Sanchez and Marco Estrada, and for that matter J.A. Happ and Francisco Liriano, but he definitely has the talent to do it.

500: I don’t think he will be the staff ace and I think that will actually help him have a much better year. He pitched better than his number last season, but now that you can slot him behind Sanchez, and maybe even Happ and Estrada, it really takes the pressure off. He just finished up dominating the World Baseball Classic, so that bodes well. I expect a big season.

JJ: Marcus Stroman showed the world what he is capable on the International stage at the World Baseball Classic. The “Stro-Show” loves the spotlight and thrives on pitching in big games, he was also on the bump for the Blue Jays wild-card victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Stroman will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 2016 campaign where he boasted an inflated 4.37 earned run average in 204 innings of work. If Stroman can live up to the hype he solidifies this rotation into one of the very best in the majors.

While I am confident Stroman will reassert himself as a top notch arm this year, my pick to click as the ace of the staff is Francisco Liriano. The veteran has had an incredible spring and a full season with his old Pirates battery mate will pay huge dividends. Liriano not Stroman or Sanchez will be this year’s staff ace.

ACB: After his latest WBC performance (aka a no hitter into the seventh inning, leaving the game with only one hit in the WBC championship game AND becoming the WBC MVP), I’d say the expectations are pretty high. Every Jays fan who appreciates not only his pitching but also his social media presence and attitude, hopes that Marcus Stroman will have a bounce back season after last year’s mediocre performance. Obviously, the Jays have the pitchers that can pick up where he leaves off if he has a bad start, but I think that Stroman is going to be great this season. As I have said in my own blog posts, I don’t really think there is an ace of the pitching staff… they all could be aces! This is probably one of the strongest pitching rotations the Blue Jays have had in their team history, so I think that the overall pitching will be exceptional (as it was last season).

C70: Who picks up the slack from the loss of Edwin Encarnacion or does anyone have to?

BJH: The clear comparison is going to be Kendrys Morales. At onset, swapping out Encarnacion for Morales looks like a downgrade, but combined with a healthy Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays should be able to make up the difference. Many believe that moving Morales to a hitter-friendly park like the Rogers Centre can only do wonders for his numbers; you can probably pencil him in for 30 home runs and 100 RBI’s. 

EB: Someone will have to pick-up the slack, the offense can’t be carried solely by Donaldson and Bautista. What made the Blue Jays offense so formidable back in 2015 when they won the division was that they had Donaldson, Bautista, and Encarnacion hitting 2, 3, 4 in the order, and all three of them were on top of their game. That part of the line-up proved almost impossible to get through without being touched up, and if Toronto wants to regain that form, they’re definitely going to need Kendrys Morales to step-in and fill the offensive void left with the departure of Encarnacion. I think Morales (like any big leaguer) has a lot of pride, and the thought of him being Encarnacion’s replacement will be a good challenge for him. I feel he’s more than capable of being a great fit in the clean-up spot for Toronto.  

BB: The eventual answer to this question may also provide insight into how the Blue Jays season progresses in 2017. The loss of Encarnacion is a massive blow to the team’s offense and without a suitable replacement, the team will definitely struggle to score as many runs in 2017 as they did last year. As I mentioned earlier, some combination of Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce is expected to pick up the slack but they are not Edwin Encarnacion by any stretch.

That being said, I don’t think anyone has to individually pick up the slack on their own, but all the players will have to meet expectations if the team wants to have any chance of making the playoffs for a third straight season. This includes the aging Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Bautista along with Russell Martin behind the plate.

JFTC: As mentioned previously, folks should expect Kendrys Morales to fill those shoes quite nicely. Moving from the expanses of Kansas City and the AL Central to Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Rogers Centre will fit quite nicely for the switch hitting slugger. Let’s also remember that Encarnacion is as streaky as they come, where Morales tends to be a tad more consistent.

That said, the Blue Jays will need to hope that age related regression doesn’t hit them heavily with guys like Russell Martin and Troy Tulowitzki. As well, they’ll also need Devon Travis to stay on the field for a full season, where his quality bat can actually help them. And, if Kevin Pillar can take his game to the next level by, say, only swinging at pitches in his zip code, this lineup is that much better.

BPT: I think everybody is expecting Kendrys Morales to have a bit of an offensive pick up with the move to the hitter friendly AL East from Kansas City, but it’ll be hard to do it all himself. The Blue Jays front office seems to believe there is offense somewhere deep inside Justin Smoak waiting to come out, so he can have a big role to play, as well as Steve Pearce if he is healthy.

500: It will have to be Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. The Jays run totals fell pretty significantly from 2015 to 2016 so somebody will need to at least somewhat replace Edwin’s production. The real strength of the team is the pitching staff, so as long as ¾ of Edwin’s numbers are replaced Toronto should be OK. (should, of course, in italics)

JJ: Initially, Blue Jays nation were poised to jump off the proverbial bandwagon after the loss of fan favorite Encarnacion and his home run induced imaginary parrot. However, Kendrys Morales has had a great spring and a healthy motivated Jose Bautista will fill the power void and then some this season. Morales is going to benefit from playing his home games at the homer-friendly Rogers Centre and other AL East parks.

ACB: I assume that the player who would pick up Edwin Encarnacion’s slack would be Kendrys Morales, and that’s the main reason why the Jays acquired him. Personally, I am not a big fan of pinpointing a certain player to pick up the pieces for a former one. The Jays will have to come together as one team to pick up the slack of a player that added a lot of versatility (hitting wise) to this lineup, and I am unsure if that will be a problem for them or not. I do think that Kendrys Morales will have a great season with the Jays. Hitting 30 home run in Kauffman Stadium last season (with the Kansas City Royals) is a harder task than most fans would assume, and because of that I think he will be a monster hitter for the Jays this season.

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

BJH: I’ll give you two names to keep your eye on: Devon Travis and Francisco Liriano. If healthy, a full season worth of Devon Travis can play a huge part of setting the table for the Blue Jays lineup. And I say Francisco Liriano because he seems like an under-the-radar candidate to put forth a solid 2016 season. He projects as the Blue Jays’ fifth starter, but on any other team, he might be their number three starter.

EB: Devon Travis. This team is getting old and they need one of the younger guys to step-up and play a key-role with the offense. The big thing for Travis is whether he can stay healthy. He’s had a couple of fluky injuries the past two seasons and it’ll be great to see what he can do at the plate if he can manage to stay healthy for a full season. 

BB: Most of the Blue Jays roster is well-known by now, but the one unheralded player who is receiving a lot of buzz this offseason is hometown kid Dalton Pompey. The former highly-rated prospect has been stuffed in the minors for a few seasons but may finally get a chance in left field this year to break into the major league team. Currently a sub-optimal platoon of Melvin Upton and Ezequiel Carrera is expected to see most of the time out in left, but the speedy Pompey will be waiting in the wings for any chance to show he can provide more value, which shouldn’t be too difficult to be fair.

With Upton and Carrera both unlikely to be starting for the Blue Jays in 2018, a lot of fans are expecting Pompey to be given an extended shot at some point in the year to show what he has to offer. If the Canadian puts it all together, you will definitely be hearing his name a lot more south of the border.

JFTC: Aside from Steve Pearce? Sure. Watch out for Pillar. He has been putting in a lot of work on his approach at the plate. He has also altered his swing (by eliminating his leg kick). The idea is to avoid swinging at balls and to get on base at a higher, more consistent rate. It is paying off early this spring. So, if he can improve his bat, maintain his speed on the basepaths AND continue to play stellar defense in CF, this could be a rather nice season for him.

BPT: Kevin Pillar, usually just known around the baseball world for his defense, has always been a good hitter, but never a good offensive player. He’s been working on his plate discipline in Spring Training, and if the early results carry over to the regular season, he’ll be in the conversation for being one of the better outfielders in baseball.

500: Not sure he still qualifies as unheralded, but Devon Travis. If he can stay healthy he could become one of the top second basemen in the AL.

JJ: Kevin Pillar seems to have recognized his offensive deficiencies from last season and has implemented a new approach that has paid dividends so far this spring. Pillar is my position player to keep an eye on. I already let the cat out of the bag with my Liriano prediction as far as pitchers go.

ACB: As I had mentioned in a blog post last week, I think that Francisco Liriano is the player that Jays fans should watch this season. He was a spectacular acquisition for the Jays in the trade deadline, and was a fantastic pitcher for them during the second half of the season (the entire time he played for the Jays). The Pittsburgh Pirates did not have a good season last year, and barely gave Liriano any run support, which led to him having a 5.46 ERA for the first half of the season. Once he arrived in Toronto, he only had a 2.92 ERA, thanks to the run support that was given to him and the quality of his pitches. I honestly think that Liriano is overlooked and underappreciated by most fans because of the fantastic starting rotation he is a part of. He is going to be a huge weapon for the Jays, and I am looking forward to seeing how he will play for the Jays during an entire season.

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

BJH: The AL East looks to be a dogfight once again, but I think the Blue Jays should be able to grab one of the Wild Card spots with a record somewhere similar to where they finished last year: 89-73. 

EB: It’s going to be tough to take the division. Even with Boston losing David Ortiz to retirement, they still gained Chris Sale and that team is scary good. That being said, Toronto still has the potential of being a 90-92 win team. For that to happen though, they need a lot of good things to take place. Bautista needs to remain healthy and have a bounce back season, the rotation needs to pitch every bit as well as they did in 2016, and most importantly the team needs to come together like they did in the final two months of the 2015 season when they ended up going 40-16 after the trade deadline. Something was off with last year’s team…far too many players were swinging for the fences and striking out, and if it wasn’t for the solid starting pitching, last year’s team wouldn’t have won 80 games. 

BB: Last year in this post I predicted the Jays to win 87 games, two less than they actually did. Entering this season I feel just about the same about the team’s chances and therefore will predict 87 wins again. Boston will need to have a lot of misfortune to lose the division meaning the rest of the AL East is chasing down a Wild Card spot. The Yankees are probably the Blue Jays closest competition for second place and it should be an exciting race to keep an eye on throughout the season. I think it could come down to the slimmest of margins so I’ll summarize my prediction by saying the Blue Jays will finish either second or third in the AL East in 2017 behind the mighty Red Sox. Another deep playoff run from the Wild Card spot certainly would be fine with me.

JFTC: This is a tough call. With the Boston Red Sox having “won the offseason” the Blue Jays look to have an uphill battle in an already tough division. Even though Boston seems to have the injury bug working its way through their pitching staff, they’ll be tough again this season. Heck, every team in this division has a chance to compete every night. Even the Rays seem to find a way to give Toronto trouble.

That said, look for the Blue Jays to finish 2nd in the division, in a Wild Card spot at right around 87-90 wins.

BPT: 91-71. First place. David Price’s arm will sink the Red Sox.

500: I’m not as down on the Jays as many. Yes a lot needs to go right (health of the rotation, rebound years from a few guys), but I think they can still reach 90 wins and secure 2nd place and a wild card spot.

JJ: I personally think the Blue Jays will be better in 2017 with a healthy Jose Bautista ready to prove all his doubters wrong. Joey Bats has been locked and loaded since the first pitch of Grapefruit League action. The flexibility Steve Pearce affords John Gibbons as a first baseman or an outfielder will be extremely valuable with the question marks surrounding those positions.  The starting staff is second to none now that Liriano replaces Dickey and the bullpen is no worse than last season.  Devon Travis needs to find a way to remain healthy as he could be an integral part of the offence getting things started in the leadoff spot for the big guns.  If the Blue Jays are healthy they win the American League East with the Red Sox a close second.

ACB: I honestly think that the Jays have the chance to win the American League East, but only if they meet certain requirements. Something that destroyed the Jays last season was all of the injuries the 25-man roster players experienced/had. Whether it was Jose Bautista’s freak accidents, Josh Donaldson’s calf, or Devon Travis’s knee, there were always major injuries that hurt the Blue Jays. If they can somehow limit injuries (possibly by monitoring everyone’s health very closely, or telling them to make smart plays, no “show-boating”), the Jays will be in the first place race during the majority of the season. They also have to “show up to play” in April and September. April is the “first impression” phase in baseball, and the Jays need to prove that they are major postseason contenders at the very beginning of the season. For a team that has postseason expectations, it is important for them to win as many games as possible in September, if the 2016 Jays would have won more games in September, they would have surely beaten the Boston Red Sox for first place. Therefore, they need to keep the offence and motivation alive, as well as supporting the pitching staff. If the Jays can limit injuries and play to their expectations for every month of the season, they can win the American League East.

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

BJH: This is so difficult and it’s incredibly hard to narrow it down to just one player. I could probably give you four different players from four different eras: Dave Stieb, Roberto Alomar, Roy Halladay, Jose Bautista. Each of them were instrumental to the Blue Jays, but all four were distinctly different. Stieb was a bit of a curmudgeon off the field, but he was the consummate perfectionist on the field. Alomar was arguably one of the most dynamic overall baseball players of the 90’s. Halladay approached pitching with a robot-like efficiency. And Bautista is not only a polarizing figure, but he’s incredibly talented.

EB: Devon White. I grew up playing center field and for me White was the best. The fact that he played for the Blue Jays made it that much better. He was so graceful as an outfielder and seemed to run down everything. The funny thing about White is that he rarely had to dive to make a catch, his speed and range was so great, that even the hardest of catches he’d just end up catching on shoelaces.

BB: I think my all-time favorite Blue Jay would have to be middle infielder Aaron Hill who played for the team from 2005-2011. Although the team didn’t do much when he was around, the 1st round pick of the Jays in the 2003 draft always played extremely hard and seemed to be a quality person off the field as well. I think the reason he’s my favorite player is that he made his debut for the team around the time I was starting to get into the sport as a child and his triple to center field during that first game is one of my earliest memories of baseball that has stuck with me.

After his time in Toronto, Hill went on to the Diamondbacks where he hit for the cycle twice in one season. Then he split the 2016 season between the Brewers and the Red Sox (ew). Last I read he was fighting for a spot this spring with the Giants as a utility infielder.

JFTC: This is an easy one. I’ve always been a sucker for bats. The Blue Jays have a long history of sluggers. My childhood was full of favorites like George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby. But, my all time favorite is Carlos Delgado. That guy had such a pretty swing from the left side. He made power look so easy. And, he had such a contagious smile.

He still leads the Blue Jays organization in just about every offensive category, even though he hasn’t played there since 2004. He was a one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot, which I still decry as a travesty. He finished with 473 HR, 1512 RBI, he was a career .280 hitter with a total 44+ WAR. His numbers mightn’t have been HoF worthy, but to me, he was.

BPT: We spell it f-a-v-o-u-r-i-t-e in Canada, and it would have to be Jose Bautista. He’s not just a good ballplayer, but he is a fantastic entertainer, and a very decent human being. He cemented his legacy in hearts of Canadians everywhere with his home run and subsequent bat flip in 2015, and returning to Toronto for at least one more season will allow him to create even more memories with the team for us to cherish him with in the future.

500: Tony Fernandez, by a mile. Always loved the way he played SS, especially the little underhand flip throw he made from deep in the hole. 

JJ: My favorite Blue Jays would be Past- Reed Johnson and Present- Russell Martin. I really appreciate the body of work from those gritty, gamer type players who would run through a wall to make an out.

ACB: My all time favourite Blue Jay has to be José Bautista. I was born after the back-to-back 1992-1993 World Series wins, therefore José Bautista is my generation’s version of Joe Carter and/or Roberto Alomar. I always have “current favourite players”, and ever since last season I have been a big fan of Jason Grilli. Not only is he a great pitcher, but he seems to be a great teammate. Grilli’s energy and love of the game are infectious!

Lots of great stuff there from our Blue Jay friends!  Should be another exciting year north of the border!

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!

Texas Rangers
95-67, first in AL West, lost in LDS
Last year’s Pepper

It’s been a good run for the Texas Rangers.  Save the 2014 aberration, the club has been first or second every year since 2008 and last year won the second-most regular season games in that span, just short of the 96 put up by the 2011 squad that went to the World Series.  However, since Nelson Cruz was unable to catch David Freese‘s drive, October hasn’t been kind to the club.  They’ve lost a Wild Card Game and two LDS, including being swept by the Blue Jays last year.

We’ve got four bloggers to talk about this interesting squad.  Jamey and Chris are old hands at this, but we welcome in Alex and Brandon and their perspective on the club.  Follow them all on Twitter for some great Rangers content!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Jamey Newberg The Newberg Report NewbergReport Spitballin'
Alex Al-Kazzaz Nolan Writin' BearManofTX
Chris Fox The Texas Rangers Blog TTRBTweets
Brandon Land One Strike Away onestrikeaway

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?

NR: It was unrealistic to expect Texas to pony up for Chris Sale (in trade) or Edwin Encarnacion or Ian Desmond (in dollars), but I was hopeful that the club would find a way to trade for Chris Archer or Jose Quintana, and sign Mike Napoli and Carlos Gomez. They got the latter two moves done, and while they didn’t add someone to the top of the rotation to join Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish (notably, no team met Tampa Bay’s or Chicago’s price on Archer or Quintana), the prospect of Tyson Ross returning to health and to form on a pillow deal is intriguing. I’m a little less bullish on Andrew Cashner but open-minded given that his production — mostly for underachieving teams — has seemingly fallen short of his upside.

Another thing that is frequently overlooked with this club is that its July moves are often designed not only to boost that season’s pennant run, but also to address roster needs for the following season. As in 2015, when Texas added Hamels, Sam Dyson, and Jake Diekman before the trade deadline and had multiple years of control of all three after that summer, the Rangers added Jonathan Lucroy and Jeremy Jeffress last summer with more than just 2016 in mind. (Gomez and Carlos Beltran were on expiring deals, but of course they re-upped with Gomez.) So when judging the Rangers’ winter, it’s only fair to dial back to the trade deadline to see who was acquired a few months — and an extra pennant race — early. Adding Lucroy, Gomez, Napoli, Ross, Cashner, and Jeffress is a pretty solid haul.

NW: I think it was a decent off-season for the Texas Rangers. After a heart-breaking early exit from the playoffs last season, it was going to be a long and tough off-season. But that’s in the past and this team needs to focus on the future. They did do what they needed to do. They brought back some needed players, as well as sign some players. To me, Arlington is the land of opportunity! Well, for baseball players, anyway. Because this off-season and many prior off-seasons, they signed some players with derailing careers. Texas brought them in and gave the chance. That’s a good way of building a roster. Bring guys in, give them a chance, and boom. Well, I would have loved for Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Trumbo to sign with Texas. There were rumors that it maybe JUST maybe it would happen, but truth be told, I knew Texas wasn’t going to risk it due to their very high payroll. I think Texas did the right thing by not giving big contracts to free agents. In my opinion, Texas is planning to save up to re-sign Yu Darvish, and extend Rougned Odor, Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and Nomar Mazara. It’s wiser to keep young guys rather than aging guys. Keep in mind, a franchise needs players with FUTURES and not PASTS. 

TRB: The offseason was typical for the Rangers. I never really expect them to make a splash, because they don’t typically go after any of the big names. I think they filled the holes they needed to with the highest value players they thought they could get. The starting pitching usually makes me nervous going into the year, and everyone in the outfield played very well at times, but showed inconsistency. It was tough to watch Ian Desmond leave, but they were never going to pay him that kind of money. He was a leader in the clubhouse, and seemed to come up with some huge hits last year for a team that needed a lot of late inning heroics. I would have loved for them to pick up somebody like Cespedes, who could hit a ton at The Ballpark, but that’s not realistic, given they don’t spend big money in free agency right now.

Forget everything I just said. This was a very successful offseason because they didn’t even entertain the idea of offering Jose Bautista a contract.

OSA: It’s unclear just yet how good or bad the offseason was for Texas. The front office, still led by Jon Daniels, appears to have taken a low-risk high-reward approach. That is, they signed a number of reclamation projects in hopes that even a few of them will stick and provide excess value. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner are both pitchers that are coming off of disappointing seasons — Ross due to injury, Cashner due to underperformance — but the organization seems to think there might be something there to tap into.

Beyond that, the Rangers were able to bring Carlos Gomez back on a one-year deal. The hope will be that he’s closer to the player he was in the second half of 2016 rather than the first half while he was in Houston. If so, center field looks really good for Texas in 2017.

C70: How exciting was it to see Ivan Rodriguez enter the Hall of Fame on his first ballot?

NR: More exciting for me than I expected it would be (as I spelled out in this story). I’m not a big awards guy, and knew Pudge would eventually be in Cooperstown, but the fact that it happened on his first ballot did fire me up . . . unexpectedly.

NW: When I heard that Ivan was going to be inducted, I was filled with joy. I said to myself, “It’s about time!” He’s one of the greatest players in history. Truth be told, he may be the greatest catcher in history. I was beyond excited. The news broke out on my birthday, so that added a lot of happiness. Ivan truly deserves it. I am very happy for him. 

TRB: It was amazing. There aren’t enough Rangers hats in the Hall of Fame. He was incredible to watch, because there really wasn’t anything he couldn’t do, an amazing catcher who could hit 30 HR’s and steal bases. One of the best things I read about him around his induction was that his career base stealing percentage was higher than the players that tried to run against him. And he came up in the system. To me, he was still a Ranger after he left, and it was no surprise that he retired that way.

OSA: Seeing Ivan Rodriguez make it into the Hall of Fame was a pretty neat moment for me. As a child, Pudge was the first player I ever idolized, and it was because of him that I played catcher for many years growing up. Back in 1996, my family and I inadvertently stood in line for a Pudge autograph session because we thought it was the line just to get into the gift shop at the ballpark. Turns out, Pudge was my first autograph.

C70: What one thing has to go right for this to be a successful season?

NR: It’s always health. But if you’re asking for a specific key for the club, I’d say it’s going to be for Hamels to pitch like he did in the first half last season and for Darvish, in his contract year, to take his game to another level that we all know is in there. If those two pitch to capability, there should be enough offense and bullpen depth to overcome questions in the back half of the rotation — and Texas is always prepared to boost the club at trade time in July.

NW: The key for the Rangers to have a successful season is to STAY positive. They need to stay healthy and focused. If they can do so, they can win series after series, which prevents negativity from invading. The Rangers have got plenty of talent. The type of talent capable of going to the World Series and bringing the title to Arlington.

TRB: The one thing they have to do is fix their run differential. I think they ended last year at +8, and it would be incredibly difficult to see them duplicate that stat and win 95 games again. They certainly got blown out a handful of times, which skews that stat, but it’s mainly a factor of winning something like 36 one-run games. As exciting as last year was, if we rely on it playing out like that again, I think we’ll be disappointed.

OSA: The one thing that needs to go right for the season to end up as a successful one is the starting pitching. Health in the rotation would obviously be the first indicator of that, but beyond health concerns, Texas will need contributions from the back-end of the rotation. Yes, the Rangers were historically good in one-run games in 2016. However, that’s not exactly a repeatable skill that you can hang your hat on as a baseball club. The offense is going to score. Run prevention will be the key for the 2017 club.

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

NR: While many eyes are on Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar to see whether both can restore the elite status they had as prospects and fulfill their promise, Ryan Rua is a player who could sneak up on folks and put up the kind of unexpected production that helps good teams get where they want to be. Rua punishes left-handed pitching, is versatile defensively, and will likely be counted on heavily.

NW: Matt Bush. A few years ago, Bush was serving a prison sentence. When he was released, the Texas Rangers gave him a shot, and it worked out very well. Now he’s performing at the Major-League level and he’s doing great. He’s come a long way from being the #1 overall pick in the 2004 MLB Draft, to being a convicted felon, to now making his way to becoming a star for the Texas Rangers. 

TRB: I almost use this as my answer for #3, because I think they need one more really good starting pitcher. I think Tyson Ross could very well be that man if he can stay healthy. Going into last year, he was a dark horse Cy Young candidate for a lot of people. His season was completely derailed when he got injured in the 1st game; he never made it back last season. There still isn’t a lot known about recovering from thoracic outlet surgery, but if he can get, and stay, healthy, he could be a great #3 for the Rangers. Martin Perez might still get there, but last season wasn’t encouraging. and the rest of the potential staff is uninspiring. AJ Griffin was a feel good story last year, but he gives up far too many home runs. And Andrew Cashner has shown flashes in his career, but if he’s a starter, he’ll be injured for much of the year. So, I’m keeping my eyes on Ross.

OSA: Given the front office strategy I mentioned previously, it’s hard to pick any one player as “the guy to watch”. But if you’re putting a gun to my head, I would probably go with Mike Hauschild. Hauschild is a right-handed starting pitcher that Texas picked up from Houston in the Rule 5 draft. He pitched at Triple-A last season, and while there, but up fairly solid numbers. His stuff isn’t overpowering, but he posted up a solid K/BB ratio, and if he can do more of the same, he just might have a spot in the Texas rotation at some point, if not directly out of Spring Training.

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

NR: I checked to see how I answered this last year. Back then I said: “I hate predicting records in March, but this feels like an 89-win team — and there’s always a strong possibility with this club that an impact player or two is added in July, and that could boost the win projection further.” They then went out and won 95 games, most in the AL.

I think I’d issue the same prediction this year — 89 wins, and probably a couple more if the club is playing well enough in July to invest prospects in a trade deadline deal or two.

NW: Hard to say. They’ve certainly got the talent to win a third consecutive A.L. West title, there’s no doubt about it. I can’t predict a record, but I predict they win more than 90 games, win the A.L. West again, and this time, they’ll get past the first round again. 

TRB: I think there’s going to be some regression this year. Their infield is great, and if the outfield can be the better versions of themselves from last year, then the team could score more runs this year. The pitching obviously leaves me feeling less certain. I’ll put them at 87 wins, which I think puts them neck and neck with the Astros, and a few games ahead of the Mariners. I’m going to say it ends up with the Rangers on top, but it will be incredibly close, and if the Astros add anymore pitching, this could change.

OSA: Projecting the team’s record is where it gets a little tough. I truly believe that this year’s club will actually be improved from the one a season ago, but I’m not sure that translates as well in the W-L column. Houston is improved, and it’s virtually impossible that they finish as poorly against Texas as their 4-15 record in 2016 would indicate. That alone could swing much of the momentum in favor of Houston. Seattle also figures to be, at the very least, a tough team in 2017. I’ll go with 88 wins and a 2nd-place finish for the Texas Rangers, with a high probability of playing in the Wild Card game.

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

NR: Adrian Beltre.

I feel like to explain why would take either a thousand words, or none.

I’ll go with the latter.

NW: My favorite Ranger of all-time is Michael Young. My top 5 favorite Rangers: Michael Young, Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Nolan Ryan, and Rusty Greer. Young is my favorite because I grew up watching him. When I was 11, I won an essay contest at school. My reward? Two tickets to a Ranger game. I went with my Dad. Texas won the game. At that time, Young was playing shortstop, and in that game, he went 3-5 and scored two runs. That game was my very first Ranger game and when I saw how great of a player Young was, he became my favorite. And one day, I really hope to meet him. 

TRB: So, this is probably based solely upon my childhood, but it’s probably Ruben Sierra. He was the man when I started becoming more aware about baseball. I had just started collecting baseball cards, and I tried to emulate his swing when I was playing ball with friends. I still love Nolan, and wish he were still part of the team, and there were quite a few other obvious choices, but it’s Sierra for me.  

OSB: This one actually isn’t terribly difficult. Adrian Beltre. The man just has fun and keeps producing at a level well beyond what any of us could have expected at his age. He’s a real treasure, and the day he retires will be a sad one for baseball.

Appreciate all these guys letting us have a little more knowledge about the Rangers.  Should be another hot season down in Texas!

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!

Tampa Bay Rays
68-94, fifth in AL East
Last year’s Pepper

For whatever reason, it seems like the Rays have slipped a bit from the collective consciousness of the baseball scene.  Whether it’s due to Joe Maddon moving on to some other team we don’t need to talk about or three straight sub-.500 years taking a bit of the bloom off the rose, Tampa Bay is now a bit of an afterthought, especially in what is a powerhouse AL East.

There’s still good things going on in Tampa, though, and we’ve got some bloggers here to prove it.  We’ve got a mix of Pepper veterans and a newcomer to talk about the Rays for 2017, so check out their stuff and read on!

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Althea Pashman Rays Colored Glasses TBSportExaminer
Mat Germain D Rays Bay MatGermain76
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex

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?

RCG: So far, it looks to be an outstanding offseason, though they made numerous trades, and signed a few free agents, which included trading starter Drew Smyly and second baseman Logan Forsythe, the return will not only help in 2017 but for the future as well. So far, they have done just about everything they have needed to do – first landing a catcher in Wilson Ramos, adding a defensive centerfielder in Mallex Smith along with a power bat in Colby Rasmus. However, they are still looking for a right-handed bat/1B/DH type of player and another arm for the bullpen.  

A move that I wished they had done was trade Tim Beckham. Nothing against him personally, but the Rays have treated him since day one with respect and class as a person and player, and given him every opportunity – and so far he has done nothing in return. I hope that his time in the doghouse last fall was a wakeup call.

DRB: In a sense, it was a typical offseason for the Rays this offseason in that they dealt away some salary and acquired depth of talent in return. However, the feel this year has more of a “going for it” feel than in previous years. It may not seem like much, but the free agent signings of Wilson Ramos, Colby Rasmus, Shawn Tolleson, and Nathan Eovaldi all point to buy low options that the Rays hope will break out and provide the kind of talent the Rays can’t normally afford on the FA market. Between them, we’ve got a gold-glove caliber C (for the first time in Rays history one that balances the bat and the glove), an outfielder who can man LF at a gold-glove caliber (combined with KK in CF it should have a major impact on pitchers), a potential setup man who has closing experience, and a potential late year pen addition that will certainly help the club in 2018.

They absolutely did what they needed to do. They not only added to their weak spots, but they got a potential middle to top of the order arm in Jose De Leon for a 2B that was going to be replaced by a cheaper option anyhow and had likely reached his peak in both performance and affordability for the Rays. They added a LHP that some believe will be the same kind of pitcher as the one he was acquired for (Drew Smyly) and also added speed and OF depth in Mallex Smith, something that was lacking in 2016 when they only managed 60 SB. The Rays needed to be able to win games in different ways than just the long ball (surprisingly in top 6 in both ISO and HRs last season), and that should help address it. Not only did they acquire those two great options that could help in 2017, but they also acquired a high ceiling SS/3B in Carlos Vargas that they wanted to grab in the international market but couldn’t due to a $300K restriction. Along with up-and-coming Adrian Rondon and Kevin Padlo, he’ll compete to eventually replace Evan Longoria in TB.

There are two moves they could have made that stand out to me over any other, and they’re tied together position wise. Logan Morrison was a huge disappointment in 2016 and is nowhere near the defensive player that Mitch Moreland is. With Moreland at 1B, the Rays would have added yet another GG caliber defender, and they likely would have received a better offensive performance, all for a small increase in costs (approx $3M). Take away the $2M they’re spending on Eovaldi’s healing period – during which they’ll receive nothing at all, and it’s a mere $1M difference. That was a big miss imo. As for Morrison, I would have rather the Rays use Miller at 1B and kept 2B a battle between Franklin and Beckham than to spend money on someone I view as a lesser option than Casey Gillaspie.

XRS: I would call it a decent offseason. The Rays made some good moves, like the acquisitions of Wilson Ramos and Colby Rasmus – which shore the defense behind the plate and in the outfield – as well as the re-inking of Logan Morrison. In kind, the addition of Mallex Smith, who is a Gold Glove caliber outfielder at all three spots, adds to the Rays superb outfield.

However, they lost fan favorite Logan Forsythe in the trade with the Dodgers for Jose De Leon, which set them back in certain terms. Tampa Bay could use another left-handed relief pitcher, an outfielder and/or bench depth, and someone who could increase the on base percentage numbers of this lineup.

C70: Evan Longoria seemed to have a bit of a bounce-back year last season. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 31. What are the expectations for him this year?

RCG: Longo had an outstanding 2016 and there is no reason why 2017 will be any different. Kiermaier (#2) and Miller (#4) will likely sandwich Longo (#3), plus doubles hitter Matt Duffy and Steven Souza Jr. in the 5th and 6th hole adds plenty of protection.

DRB: In truth, I’m a massive supporter of Longoria and he has been playing through injuries of late, something that hurt his performances. Just
as with Adrian Beltre in Texas, he’s the rock of the infield and deserves more credit than he’s received for managing the highest WAR rating among 3B (47.1 to Beltre’s 46.1) since he broke into MLB in 2008. As to what to expect in 2017, he apparently was upset about the loss of Logan Forsythe, but we believe that once he sees Willy Adames play, he’ll understand why the move was made. I expect that if healthy, a similar season to 2016 should be expected with a chance to improve on the number of runs driven in as he gets more support in the lineup late in the season from Ramos, Adames, and possibly Casey Gillaspie.

XRS: Regression happens, and Longoria will likely regress from last season’s campaign. How much will he regress is the question.

The ZiPS projection system has Longoria slashing .266 BA/.318 OBB/.485 SLG/.803 OPS/.336 wOBA/113 wRC+ with 30 homers, 79 runs, 88 RBI and a 3.5 fWAR – down from last season, yet not terrible by any stretch of the imagination. ZiPS also projects a 12% drop in ISO (from .248 to .219), however, his exit velocity and improved launch angle suggests that might be a tad pessimistic.

C70: What kind of job competition will go on during spring training?

RCG: The biggest competition during spring training will be for second base if the Rays decide to fill the position internally, which will come between Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham. However, I have a feeling the Rays will move Brad Miller, because of his athleticism over to second as they make way for their right-handed bat/1B/DH.

DRB: That was a major focus of the front office this offseason. In 2016, for example, there was no player pushing Steven Souza or Corey Dickerson for playing time. Their jobs were fairly secure. The front office wanted to create a competitive environment, so they brought in Rasmus and Smith, giving them 4 outfielders fighting for 2 spots. The same can be said in the infield, where both Nick Franklin and Tim Beckham will get to fight it out with Brad Miller for the 2B position, while Morrison and Dickerson fight it out with those players for the DH role when not on the field. Then we have MLB ready players like Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames ready to step in when needed. But by far, the biggest battle for the Rays in 2017 is the fight for the 5th spot in the rotation. I recently wrote a piece noting how deep the Rays rotation is and how many MLB ready arms they have to use. It’s incredible, really, particularly when contrasted to the shallow rotations in Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore.

XRS: There is competition at the catching position with three players – Curt Casali, Luke Maile and Jesus Sucre – vying for two roster spots. This, of course, is while the Rays await the return of Wilson Ramos, who is recovering from knee surgery.

On the infield, with Matt Duffy’s slow recovery from offseason heel surgery, INF Daniel Robertson — who’s looked better at the plate, and in the field, since the start of Spring Training — could make the team as a utility infielder behind Tim Beckham, given their newfound need for a right-handed bat. That, however, depends on whether the Rays add a right-handed hitting outfielder. Robertson is also competing against Michael McKenry and Nick Franklin for a spot on the Opening Day roster.

As for the bullpen, Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno are certainties, as are Brad Boxberger, Shawn Tolleson and Erasmo Ramirez. Beyond that, Danny Farquhar, Ryan Garton, Ryne Stanek and Jose Alvarado are battling for spots.

There have been trade rumors swirling around Ramirez, which would open a roster spot, while Boxberger is expected to start the season on the DL, which will open another.

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

RCG: Matt Duffy – I truly believe that if he stays healthy the Rays will see the Duffy of 2015 when he came in 2nd for the NL Rookie of the year, batting .295 with 12 home runs and 77 RBIs. These numbers are match-able.

DRB: It’s funny, we just had that discussion recently and the truth is that the Rays are extremely dangerous because so many of their players could break out. Souza, for example, was on pace for a career year and 30+ HR before he sustained a hip injury. Look at his stats the first two months of 2016, and it tells the tale. Both Franklin and Beckham finished the year on a tear and will be asked to do more this season, and Corey Dickerson finished the year with a .323/.356/.594 line through his last 100 PA. There’s a lot to look forward to at the plate.

XRS: That’s a tough question, but I have to go with Mallex Smith if only for the amount of work he puts into perfecting the art of bunting.

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

RCG: I truly believe that the Rays will have a chance for the post-season in 2017 especially if they remain healthy and get solid pitching performances from Archer, Odorizzi, Snell, Cobb and De Leon and as well, a repeat season of offensive production from Longoria, Miller plus further development from Steven Souza. New hitting Chad Mottola has his work cut out, but he has done wonders and fans should see a remarkable difference in the hitters approach under his direction. Where will the Rays finish… third place at 89-73 behind the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles.

DRB: As we already saw this offseason with Eduardo Rodriguez‘ knee issues and Chris Tillman receiving a PRP shot in the shoulder, pitching is a fragile thing and depth will be required. It’s not an if, it’s a when. So, with that in mind, the improvement I expect to see at the plate, the major improvement expected from Ramos and Adames, and the pending addition of Jose De Leon as the 5th starter, I expect the Rays to be above .500 this year. How far will depend on how the other teams in the AL East hold up. If either David Price or Chris Sale were to falter, for instance, it significantly changes the landscape. For now, as a wild shot, I’ll but the Rays at 86 wins with a chance to win 90 if the lack of depth on their AL East rivals impacts them. Overall, they should be in the fight for a wild card.

XRS: If only I could see into a crystal ball. Instead, I will defer to analytics and computers.

Bouncing back from a 68 win season is no easy task, yet the PECOTA projection system likes the Rays’ off-season moves and is forecasting Tampa Bay as the sixth best team in the American League, and second best team in the AL East with a mean average of 84 wins to 78 losses. A lot of things will have to go right for the Rays to end the season as contenders.

An interesting side to the projection, PECOTA pegs Tampa Bay’s defense to save 27.0 fielding runs above average (FRAA) — tied for fourth best in the AL. When compared with the other teams in the AL East, the Rays (tied with Toronto) the others by a fairly negligible margin…unless you’re the Baltimore Orioles and are projected for a -4.3 FRAA.

Overall, the Rays are projected for a total WAR of 32.6 (12.1 pitching and 20.5 non-pitching) — second best in the AL East behind Boston (39.4).

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

RCB: My favorite Ray is Rocco Baldelli and you ask why? To see a player with such athleticism and baseball abilities have his career cut short due to a debilitating muscular disorder (Mitochondrial Channelopathy) at age 29, and never give up hope that it ain’t over, till it’s over is remarkable. He learned to overcome his baseball struggles as a hitter and quickly rose through the Rays organization and if not for Mitochondrial Channelopathy, which is a cell disorder that causes muscle fatigue, a promising career that would have turned into something really special.

DRB: Evan Longoria, and it’s not even close. The character is off the charts, the performances is above all others at the hot corner since he’s been in MLB, and to me he’s the first clear cut HOF player the Rays will send into Cooperstown unless things get seriously derailed between now and the time he hangs up the spikes. Just to put it into perspective, with 4 more seasons at 25+ HR and 3 more seasons at 20+ HRs, he’ll be above 400 HRs. Only 28 players in the HOF have more than 400 HRs. He sits at 806 RBI and if we avg his next 7 years at 75 RBI, he reaches 1325 which puts him in the vicinity of recent inductees Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez and well above the AVG HOFer which is 1221. Longoria has a .834 OPS so far, which puts him ahead of guys like Paul Molitor, Barry Larkin, and Andrew Dawson and ties him with Roberto Clemente. And finally, with an average of 150 hits through the next 7 seasons and a few more at 100, he’ll exceed 2500 hits, which puts him ahead of the average HOFer and in the range of Frank Thomas. In short, he should be everyone’s favourite Rays player ever, because he’s been the absolute best and has been nothing but determined to win throughout his tenure in TB.

XRS: Hands down, Ben Zobrist. The former Ray, in my opinion, exemplifies what it means to be a solid ball player and an all-around good human being. And while he may be regressing – growing older has an effect on all of us – Zobrist still works hard and his reputation precedes him.

I met BenZo a few years back when I taught at a different elementary school. A student had won a promotional contest in which his class got the opportunity to meet him. Knowing my love of the Rays, the school’s community coordinator went out of her way to let me meet Zobrist privately. And while it was like talking to Springsteen, in that I geeked out really hard, Zobrist’s character and everyman demeanor shined through and put me at ease. Being the nerd that I am, I will always cherish the baseball he autographed for me.

My thanks to these gentlemen and lady for their thoughts on the Rays.  It’ll be interesting to see if they can bounce back into the heart of that tough divisional race!

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!

Seattle Mariners
86-76, second in AL West
Last year’s Pepper

Seattle was in a pretty similar position to the Cardinals last year.  They both won 86 games, both finished second (but not really a close second) in their division, and both went home after the last game.  Seattle has stars and some young talent, but can they put it all together and get into October this season?  We’ve got a couple of bloggers here who should be able to give us plenty of insight on the team in the Pacific Northwest.  My special appreciation to Tim, who came out of blog retirement to give the Pepper another go.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Zach Sanders Lookout Landing zvsanders Lookout Landing 2.0
Tim Chalberg ex-Seattle Mariners Musings msonmnd24

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?

LL: Jerry Dipoto has become well known for making moves, and for the second offseason in a row he’s largely made the right ones. Sending Taijuan Walker out of town for a (hopefully) high-level shortstop and a starting outfielder was huge. While I wasn’t a huge fan of the trade at the time, it has grown on me as Segura has hit the ball well this spring. Drew Smyly brings upside to the rotation, and Jarrod Dyson improves the outfield defense tremendously.

Jerry made a mistake, however, in acquiring Yovani Gallardo, who simply isn’t a good pitcher anymore. Unless the market for Seth Smith was completely barren and this was literally the only offer, there’s no other explanation for the trade. Moving Smith for literally a bag of balls and then signing Jason Hammel would have been a much better option.

SMM: This was a tremendous offseason for the Mariners. It went from good to great with the Drew Smyly trade. That’s the one that really made all of the moves (and there were so, so many) worth it. Since the Mariners seemed to be involved in every deal this offseason there is certainly no additional one I would have liked to see. It will be interesting to see how all of the trades look in retrospect because Jerry Dipoto put a high premium on lower ceiling prospects close to the majors. No trade epitomizes that more than giving up Alex Jackson for the likes of Rob Whalen and Max Povse.

C70: How are the Mariners going to win most of their games, by pitching or by hitting?

LL: It’s strange, but this team is going to be competitive because of its offense and its defense, not necessarily the pitching. Unless James Paxton continues to step up, there’s no Ace on this staff; Edwin Diaz is a terrific closer, but the rest of the bullpen is made up of role players and questionable assets, not dominant pieces. With Dyson and Segura in the fold, the team can improve the offense while helping the pitching staff in the field.

SMM: Hitting. I’m not sure the M’s have the best offense in baseball but I think it could be the most excited. Jean Segura and Jarrod Dyson add speed to all the extra base hits the middle of the order (Cano, Cruz, Seager) produces. Also, even lesser guys in the lineup like Mike Zunino and Leonys Martin possess individual offensive tools that are exciting to watch.

C70: Robinson Cano had an outstanding year last year. Is there any indication he’s slowing down or is that going to be the normal for a few seasons?

LL: I don’t think Cano can be a six-win player again in 2017. That being said, he’s better than the two-win player he was in 2016. Odds are, his new normal is somewhere in between, with Cano being worth about four wins this year, and then declining from there. He’s still a quality middle of the order hitter, but as he ages the defense is becoming an issue that will be progressively harder to overlook. The last three years of his contract are going to be a disaster, but at least it’s only three years and not five.

SMM: I don’t know. Cano’s bounce back in 2016 was a pleasant surprise to me. I expect the power to diminish simply because of regression to the mean, but by no means will it evaporate. I think Cano has such a broad mix of nice tools that he will age gracefully. Perhaps three years from now he will be a .270 hitter with a .330 OBP and 15 homers and we’ll realize he has decayed but gracefully.

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

LL: All aboard the Shea Simmons train. Simmons was a high-quality reliever with the Braves a couple years ago, but has struggled with injuries. He could be the companion to Diaz over the next few years if all goes well, bringing another big arm into a bullpen that lacked them as recently as 18 months ago.

SMM: Mitch Haniger. He raked in AAA last year and was as key to the Taijuan Walker trade as Jean Segura. Segura is the headliner of that return for the Mariners (and rightly so), but Haniger has a chance to be the everyday right fielder for the Mariners. He’s running with it in spring training so far too. The Mariners also feature a number of players that I think are known but have the potential to blossom and become household names across the sport. James Paxton and Edwin Diaz top that list.

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

LL: The Mariners will win 86 games and finish second in the division, but narrowly miss the wild card spot.

SMM: I predict that the Mariners will go 90-72 and finish second in the division (behind the Astros). However, they are the first wild card and thus break the longest playoff drought in baseball right now.

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

LL: Jay Buhner was my favorite player when I was coming of age as a baseball fan, so I have to go with him. He was, objectively, a very mediocre player, and is now a horrific part-time announcer, but nostalgia is powerful.

SMM: Edgar Martinez for so, so many reasons. He was my favorite player growing up thanks to his poise and balanced approach to hitting. It doesn’t hurt that he authored the greatest hit in franchise history (the double that won the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees), or that he’s a borderline Hall of Famer edging towards enshrinement!

Again, thanks to Zach and Tim for their thoughts on the Mariners.  This also may be the only Seattle preview that doesn’t mention Felix Hernandez as well, which would have been impossible to believe a few years ago.  Look forward to seeing how the club does 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!

San Francisco Giants
87-75, second in NL West, lost in NLDS
Last year’s Pepper

All good things come to an end, it seems.  While the Cardinals were mourning the end of their five-year playoff run, Giants fans saw a playoff series loss for the first time since 2003.  The Even Year Magic, which seemed to always carry San Francisco not only to but through to a title ran out a little early (unfortunately, as that led to a Cubs title).

Cardinal fans have had their issues with the Giants and their faithful over the years, but this is a good group of guys that I’ve rounded up for the Pepper Six today.  Programming note: I’ll be participating in another #ShopTalk over at Craig’s site tomorrow, which is always a lot of fun.

Blogger Blog Twitter Podcast
Michael Saltzman Around the Foghorn CandlestickWill
Richard Dyer The Giants Cove GiantsCove
Craig Vaughn THE San Francisco Giants Blog 1flapdown77

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?

AtF: It was a productive off-season for the team. Bobby Evans has now had two off-seasons and his goal this year was a closer. In true Giants fashion, they went out and spent big on Mark Melancon, spending less than other teams did for other closers, but also not being afraid to overspend to get the right fit. He admitted he was disappointed in himself for not getting Melancon at the deadline, so to see him get his guy now shows he is staying consistent to the type of team the Giants have been in recent years.

Fans wanted a left fielder, and I had some dreams of a Joey Bats home run hitting the glove in left center field, but it wasn’t the right move. Going with Mac Williamson or Jarrett Parker right now is the smart move, with minor league free agents brought in like Michael Morse and Justin Ruggiano in case they struggle and one of the veteran options catches fire in Spring. The Giants know they can always go out and make a trade for a left fielder like J.D. Martinez as the season unfolds and his price tag drops. At the moment, however, it is smarter financially to let two rookies be given a chance. Ultimately, we are talking about the likely 7 slot in the batting order. If the Giants lineup is going to be strong, the production of Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence will be much more important than whoever plays left field.

GC: The San Francisco Giants had a much-publicized bullpen meltdown last season that quickly became dumbed down to “they need a real closer”. And that became the team’s one-dimensional focus this offseason.  But of the bullpen’s 30 blown saves in the 2016 regular season, only 9 occurred in the 9th inning. The real problem was the overall construction and use of the bullpen.

The Giants front office addressed that issue by signing free agent RH reliever Mark Melancon this offseason. Typical of San Francisco’s myopic approach, Melancon will be used the way closers were used in the 1990s: he will only pitch in the 9th inning, and then only when the Giants have a three run lead or less.  At a time in the game when bullpenning is the cutting edge of innovation, the San Francisco Giants shelled out a $62 million four-year deal for one of the better relief weapons in the game but will only use him in the narrowest way possible.

Amazingly, the Giants did not fix their gaping holes in left field or third base. Eduardo Nunez has little power and is below average defensively. Every time the Giants start Conor Gillaspie at third in place of Nunez they weaken their bench.  Left field has been hyped as a “battle” between Mac Williamson (27 this year) and Jarrett Parker (29), two aging rookies who strike out a great deal. Either way, all indications are that the loser in this battle will be the offense.

On a more positive note, it looks like San Francisco may finally put some professional hitters on their bench for the first time in years. Players like C Nick Hundley, IF Aaron Hill, and 3B Conor Gillaspie (re-signed) are capable of scoring runs and winning games in the 8th and 9th innings.

SFGB: They did the bare minimum by adding Melancon but I don’t think they did enough. Their outfield is a joke. Even the most optimistic person can’t look at the platoon in LF and Span and Pence and think that’s an outfield that will stay healthy and be productive over the course of a season. 

C70: Is this going to be another Giants team that’s focused on pitching and hoping to get enough hitting to be successful?

AtF: Yes. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore along with Jeff Samardzija and Matt Cain are an essential part of this team’s success. With much not many new faces in the everyday lineup, there is going to be an emphasis on them doing a little more while the pitching and defense leads them. If they can get slightly more consistent production from each member of the everyday lineup, they can ride their staff and defense to another postseason trip.

GC: Yes, but progressive franchises dumped that model years ago. Today successful MLB teams like Houston, the Cubs, St. Louis, Boston and the Dodgers are built to be balanced offensively and defensively, with quality multi-positional hitters and flexible bullpens.

The Colorado Rockies demonstrate how just having the best offensive in the game is not enough; and the Tampa Bay Rays show how just having above average pitching isn’t enough.

SFGB: Yes. I’m not really *allowed* to argue against the philosophy because of its success but I don’t see the point in actively ignoring your offense. 

C70: What caused last year’s second-half collapse and is there any reason to think it will rear its head again?

AtF: The Giants didn’t seem to have all three phases of the game ever working together in the second half. They seemed to lose 1-0, followed by an 8-7 loss. Some nights the bats were strong and the pitching was awful. Sometimes it was the opposite. The team that always seemed to dig deep in the late innings couldn’t hold leads and couldn’t come back from any deficit. Their performance in games where they were losing after 8 innings was anemic. That can weigh on a team that is struggling. I do think that final game of the season against the Cubs was due in part to the scar tissue of the bullpen’s lack of success throughout the season. It seemed like whoever Bruce Bochy put in the game, they didn’t get the outs they needed. Because every pitcher in their pen had some struggles, it felt like none of them could be counted on. In reality, Santiago Casilla, Hunter Strickland, Derek Law, Will Smith and others had good seasons. However, because of all of the blown saves by every member of the bullpen, Bruce Bochy continually had a quick trigger and it cost them.

With Mark Melancon signed, I do think the Giants will have a more structured bullpen, which will give pitchers more confidence, knowing what situations they will be asked to pitch in. That should help limit the chances of 2016 repeating itself.

GC: The Giants’ 2016 season was actually the reverse. Between the first and second halves of last season, it was the first half that was the false positive.  The schedule up to the All Star break featured a preponderance of weak teams, and San Francisco was able to put up wins. The second half was a much more challenging and the team folded.

Over the past several years the Giants have been constructed as a one-dimensional team with little depth. When key hitters or pitchers are injured (which predictably happens to every team every year) or need rest, San Francisco has no league average replacements to back them up.

As I noted in a recent blog: the Giants’ front office blueprint for 2017 is very familiar– get the fans to buy into the “magic” hype, keep your fingers crossed, and hope for the best.

SFGB: They played over their head in the first half so the *collapse* probably wasn’t as drastic as it looked in the standings. Bochy is famous for sitting around and *waiting* on his guys to perform. He probably did too much of that last summer. As long as he keeps trotting Span out there at leadoff I could see more long stretches of under performing from this team. 

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

AtF: Matt Moore was outstanding for the Giants at the end of the season. His performances against the Dodgers as well as his final outing of the postseason against the Cubs showed that he is right there with Bumgarner and Cueto.

Conor Gillaspie became a household name in San Francisco this year for even the casual fan with his Wild Card performance, but he will still be just a utility player in 2017.

One young player to keep an eye on is Derek Law. He was a possible closer for the Giants before Tommy John surgery a few years ago and he became the most consistent relief pitcher last season. He could end up taking over as the 8th inning guy in front of Melancon. If he can win that job, the Giants bullpen might get a lot shorter and a lot more dangerous.

The other guy to look at is Mac Williamson. The Giants have several left handed hitters, so if Williamson and Parker are even at the start of the year, Williamson might win the LF job. He has all 5 tools, and has shown them in the minor leagues, but he also had Tommy John surgery a couple of years ago. If he can put together a 500 at bat season, the Giants will be in the postseason. They won’t let him play that much unless he wins the job and keeps it.

GC: Because he always seems to be under everyone’s radar I always tout 1B Brandon Belt. Belt has been the team’s #1 offensive weapon for the past three years— more than Buster Posey or (certainly) Hunter Pence.  In 2017 Belt had 104 walks and a .394 OBP. His .868 OPS was 5th among all National League hitters and his 66 XBH was 14th best in the NL.

I think RHP Chris Stratton is a player who could break through this season and I expect 2B Joe Panik to finally play to his impressive potential.

SFGB: He’s gonna have to make the team and then find consistent at bats but I am a big fan of Jae-gyun Hwang who is affectionately known as The Donger at The Flap. His power blossomed nicely in Korea the last couple of years and I had a Flapper in AZ last weekend who said he’s *bigger* than advertised (ie, looks like a MLB player). He’s my guy assuming he’s on the team.

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

AtF: I think this can be a 90 win team. Even with all the injuries over the last couple of years, the Giants have proven they are willing to make trades and go get players if they need to. I do not see the Rockies, Diamondbacks or Padres challenging the Dodgers and Giants for the West, but I do see them each improving. Especially the Rockies. The Dodgers could win the West again with all of their talent, but I don’t see them having the same success if they have all those injuries again. Clayton Kershaw was having the greatest season I have seen from a starting pitcher at the beginning of last year, so he will always make them a contender. Their trade this week for Logan Forsythe makes them even better.

GC: It’s not just that the Dodgers will win the NL West, they also built to go deep into the postseason next October. The question here is can the Giants finish second in the West with just enough wins to again qualify for a Wild Card spot?  The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies may not have enough in the tank to grab a second place finish in the NL West this season, but their days as doormat teams are over.

That translates into 38 games that will be a lot tougher for the Giants (and Dodgers) in 2017.

SFGB: Their pitching will always keep them in the race but I am suspicious of this offense. I’ll say 88 wins and it could be 10 off that if Cueto or Bum get hurt.

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

AtF: Matt Cain. I grew up in the 1980’s and while every 80’s Giants fan loved Will Clark, I loved Kevin Mitchell more. His trade to the Seattle Mariners in 1991 crushed me. Even Barry Bonds replacing him didn’t help much at first. However, with all the great bats and all the great players, the Giants continued to struggle. As I got older, I realized that the 1989 A’s swept the Giants because their pitching was just better. In 2002, the Giants lineup was potent, but the Angels bullpen was stronger and ultimately outpitched the Giants staff.

Cain came up as a 20 year old and he had 2 pitches. He was throwing complete games with a fastball and a curveball. His fearlessness was amazing. What made me forever a fan was when he was our best pitcher in 2007 and 2008. Matt Cain was 22 and was the best pitcher on the staff. Our team was horrible, as Barry Bonds and his fellow retirees were well beyond their prime years. While Bonds was still hitting a few home runs here and there, nobody on that team was any good.

And yet, every fifth day, Cain pitched. He outpitched opponents consistently and then the Giants bullpen would collapse or even worse, we would just lose 1-0. Cain’s record in 2007 and 2008 was 15-30. However in those two seasons, he had a combined 3.71 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 120 ERA+ and a 9.2 WAR over 417.2 innings. To put those numbers in perspective, not pitcher in Giants history has a higher combined WAR in the their Age 22 and 23 seasons in the last 100 years. The only two pitchers who were better were Amos Rusie and Christy Mathewson, who pitched 926 and 734 innings respectively in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

With all of that, he never once publicly complained about a lack of run support. He always said he could have pitched better and that we have to find a way to win together. When the Giants finally built a team around pitching and defense, Cain shined. His 0.00 ERA in the 2010 postseason was overshadowed by Tim Lincecum. In 2012, his best season, he threw a perfect game, started the All-Star game and pitched in every clincher in each round of the post-season.

It kills me that injuries have crippled his Hall of Fame career. From 2005-2012, Cain was on pace to be one of the best pitchers in baseball history to that point. His injury in 2013 has led to four years of injuries and inconsistencies. He will forever be my favorite Giant for helping lead them to the 1st championship in 2010 and the journey of excellence he showed to get there.

GC: Can’t pick one “all-time”. While I appreciate the historic NY and SF Giant icons of the past I really enjoyed watching Angel Pagan play the game. His talent and cool leadership made 2012 a standout season for me.

SFGB: Will Clark is my favorite baseball player of all time and there really isn’t a close second. I loved his swing and his fiery attitude on the field. He made going to games at Candlestick fun again. When he hit that grand slam off Maddux I just about jumped out of my college dorm window. The Thrill is probably the main reason why I love baseball.

Good stuff, as always, from the guys by the bay.  Appreciate their help and look forward to seeing just which Giants team shows up this year!

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!

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!

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!

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!

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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!

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!

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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!

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!

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