Friday, July 25, 2014

Why Justin Verlander is the Key to the Tigers' Playoff Run

Poised to win the American League Central for the fourth consecutive year, the Detroit Tigers' fortunes this October will rest squarely on the right arm of one Justin Brooks Verlander.  Admittedly, that's a bold statement, especially when you consider that Detroit's $164 million roster includes the likes of 2012-13 MVP Miguel Cabrera, 2013 Cy Young Max Scherzer, 2013 A.L. ERA leader Annibal Sanchez, and 5-time All Star Victor Martinez.  But Verlander is the Tigers' #1 starter.  Their Big Dawg.  Their hombre. Their bouncer.  Their ace.  And to win in October you need an ace.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, Verlander has done everything this season but pitch like an ace.  In fact, his 4.84 ERA this season is more than a full run higher than any of the Tigers' other starters, and his WHIP of 1.45 also ranks as the worst among his rotation mates.   Definitely not results the Tigers' front office envisioned when it gave Verlander a 7-year/$180 million extension last year in the hope that he would be the horse that the organization could ride to its first world championship since 1984.

It's imperative that Verlander right the ship before the start of the playoffs for three reasons.  First, the rest of the Tigers' rotation does not eat enough innings to compensate for the team's weak, overworked bullpen, which will leave Detroit vulnerable in the late innings against playoff-caliber offenses like the A's, Angels and Orioles. 

In Scherzer, Sanchez, and Rick Porcello (we'll assume that #5 starter Drew Smyly will head to the bullpen in the playoffs), manager Brad Ausmus has three capable starters, but they've averaged only 6.1 innings per start since the beginning of last season.  This means that Ausmus will be relying on the bullpen to get eight highly-leveraged outs in what will likely be razor-tight pitching duels where one misplaced fastball or hanging curve could have disastrous results.

Let's look at Detroit's bullpen for a second.  Closer Joe Nathan has enjoyed s stellar career with 360 saves and a 2.89 ERA, but this year he's already blown five saves in just 25 attempts and his ERA is a bloated 5.89. 

Setup man Joba Chamberlain has had an excellent season, but he's just two years removed from Tommy John surgery and on pace to equal his personal best of 73 appearances in a season. 

Right hander Al Albuquerque has also posted good numbers this season, however, his heavy workload may already be affecting his dynamite stuff.  His FIP of 4.19 suggests that his current ERA of 3.31 will rise and his K/9 of 10.2 is his worst mark by almost two full strikeouts.   

Finally, left-handed specialists Ian Krol and Phil Coke's aggregate ERA and WHIP of 4.70 and 1.60, respectively, have caused Ausmus to reach for the Rolaids on more than one occasion this season.

Newly-acquired Joakim Soria is a stud, but even after his arrival from Texas  Detroit's bullpen will still be a little short.  This is where Verlander comes in.  Vintage Verlander--assume the 2012 model when he had a 2.64 ERA to go along with a 1.06 WHIP and averaged 7.1 innings per start--would give his manager  the luxury of saving his beleaguered bullpen for other games when an 8-out effort will be necessary to achieve a win.

The second reason why Detroit needs Verlander to return to form is that he and his fellow starters must mask an inconsistent offense.  Although Detroit's 468 runs scored ranks third in the A.L., and its OPS of .773 paces the junior circuit, the Tigers' offense has gone in the tank for extended stretches this season and has been particularly susceptible to power pitching.  For example, during a 9-17 stretch from May 19th-June 18th, Detroit faced hard throwers like Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Drew Hutchison and Chris Sale and hit only .258, or 20 points below their full-season average.

It will only get tougher in October, when the Tigers will probably have to face the likes of Gray (remember his eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the AL Division Series last year?), Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija, Felix Hernandez, and Garrett Richards multiple times in a series.  Detroit will need their starters to bring their "A" games for such matchups, meaning Verlander pitching like he has for most of this year simply won't cut it.

The Tigers' poor defense is the final reason why Verlander will need to regain his old magic once the leaves start to change color.  Although second baseman Ian Kinsler and rookie shortstop Eugenio Suarez make a solid double play combination, Cabrera and Nick Castellanos offer below average range at the corners.  And Torii Hunter and JD Martinez, who has earned a starting job because of his hot bat, are among the A.L.'s worst outfielder's according to UZR rankings.

Simply put, Detroit's starters will need as many strikeouts as possible to negate the team's porous defense.  While Scherzer, with 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings, has maintained his pace from last season, Porcello, Sanchez, and Verlander's K/9 are down significantly.  Verlander's drop--from 8.9 in 2012 to a pedestrian 6.7 this year--is particularly alarming and will have to be improved.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Random Thoughts: Shortstops galore and a great Friday for the Mets

With the emergence of Eugenio Suarez, it's safe to say that the Tigers will not be in the market for a starting shortstop as the trade deadline nears.  Suarez has put up a strong .274/.355/.442 slash line in 111 plate appearances while paying stellar defense.  The 22-year-old Venezuelan is yet another example of the Tigers' tremendous Latin scouting operations.

Speaking of the Tigers' Latin pipeline, keep an eye on 18-year-old shortstop Willy Adames at Low A West Michigan.  In just his first season stateside, the 6-01, 180 pound Dominican, who is three-and-a-half years younger than the average Midwest Leaguer, has a healthy .810 OPS with 12 (that's right, TWELVE) triples.  Still inconsistent at times on defense, Adames has more than enough of arm and range to stay at the position.

The Yankees' recent signing of ninth rounder Vince Conde, a shortstop from Vanderbilt, paves the way for rising junior Dansby Swanson to shift back to his original position, where his exceptional range should wow scouts.  However, Swanson is more than just a one-trick pony -- since arriving in Nashville he's demonstrated remarkable improvement at the plate and currently profiles as an ideal #2 hitter with enough pop to belt 12-15 home runs annually.  Expect Swanson to be a top 15 pick in next June's draft.

And last but not least, Friday was the best day the Mets have had in a long time.  Although not a shortstop, the signing of first round pick Michael Conforto will finally give the organization an element it sorely lacks: a bona fide left-handed power hitter with excellent pitch recognition skills.  Conforto, a left fielder from PAC-12 power Oregon State, profiles as "rich man's" Geoff Jenkins -- a guy with legit 30-home run power who might also walk 100 times.  Though he'll make his professional debut for the Brooklyn Cyclones in Short Season A-Ball, he's expected to move fast and could be in the majors by Opening Day 2016.

The 2015 Draft: An Early Look at the top 10 High School Players

Earlier this week we gave you a sneak peak at the top 10 college players for an early look at next year's draft.  Today, we'll give you the inside scoop on these 10 best high school prospects:

1) Daz Cameron, OF, Florida State commitment -- Mike's son has been on the scouting radar for two years and is an explosive five-tool talent.

2) Brendan Rodgers, SS, Florida State commitment -- A true shortstop who will be able to stay at the position, he has a better hit tool and power than Nick Gordon, the fifth overall selection this past June.

3) Justin Hooper, LHP, UCLA commitment -- Physical 6-06 southpaw with three above average pitches, including an electric fastball he already throws in the mid-90's.

4) Beau Burrows, RHP, Texas A&M commitment -- Complements a low-to-mid-90's fastball that he commands well with two excellent breaking pitches.

5)  Chris Betts, C, Tennessee commitment -- Tremendous raw power from the left side and has improved his catching enough to give him a decent shot to remain behind the plate as he advances.

6) Mike Nikorak, RHP, Alabama commitment -- The Pennsylvania native wasn't as high profile as some of the other 2015 draft eligibles, but that all changed early in the showcase season when he hit 97 mph with his heater.

7) Greg Pickett, OF, Mississippi State commitment -- Another guy who has really helped his stock this summer.  Put on a laser light show at a Perfect Game tournament in Georgia last week and now has many scouts believing he may have the best power/hit tool package in the entire 2015 draft class.

8) Kyle Molnar, RHP, UCLA commitment -- Athletic righty has an exceptional track record against high profile competition.  Good 91-93 mph fastball and his changeup is his best secondary offering.

9) Ryan Johnson, OF, TCU commitment -- Left-handed slugger could always mash, but has only recently begun to demonstrate more speed and a strong, accurate arm in the outfield.

10) John Aiello, 3B, Wake Forest commitment -- Switch hitter with an advanced approach from both sides of the plate.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The 2015 Draft: An Early Look at the Top 10 College Players

With the various college summer leagues and high school showcases in full swing, it's a good time to give a lightning quick preview of the players already on scouts' radar for next year's draft, which is "only" 330 days away. 

At this early juncture, it appears as if college pitchers and high school position players will dominate the first round.  However, keep in mind how early it is and that we'll probably see a lot of volatility over the next 11 months.

Today we'll feature the top ten college players -- eight of whom are pitchers -- and later in the week you'll be able to check out the top ten guys from the high school ranks.  And tune in to Infield Chatter throughout the summer to receive periodic updates as the summer leagues and showcases continue.

Here are the top ten rising college juniors at the start of the summer:

1) Mike Matuella, RHP, Duke University -- Physical specimen at 6-06, 225 pounds with ace-type stuff, including a 95-97 mph fastball that doesn't lose velocity or movement in the last innings.  Perhaps the best college pitcher since Stephen Strasburg.

2) James Kaprielian, RHP, UCLA -- Big kid with quality four-pitch mix, including a heater than hits 94 mph and two above-average breaking pitches.  Thinking man pitcher who's able to execute his game plan every time out.

3) Kyle Funkhouser, RHP, Louisville -- A near carbon copy of Tigers' ace Max Scherzer at the same stage of development.  Funky delivery, but he can dial his fastball up to 96 mph, and his vicious mid-80's slider makes him nearly unhittable against righties.

4) Carson Fulmer, RHP, Vanderbilt -- The frontman for Vandy's heralded troika going into 2015, his 94-96 mph fastball darts all over the strike zone and is virtually impossible to square up.  He complements his heater with an equally devastating slider that sits 84-87 mph.  His changeup is his weakest offering.

5) Nate Kirby, LHP, Virginia -- Has a picture perfect motion, which results in exceptional command of three above-average pitches, a 91-93 mph fastball, tight curveball, and circle change.  The young southpaw also has an exceptional pick-off move and fields his position well.

6) Alex Bregman, 2B/SS, LSU -- A fine shortstop but could evolve into a Craig Biggio clone on the other side of the keystone.  At the plate, he's got a short, compact swing with enough juice to one day produce a .300 average and 15 home runs.  Also boasts exceptional plate discipline.

7) Jake Lemoine, RHP, Houston -- At 6-05, 220 lbs, hehas a major league body but still needs to work on his stuff.  He can dial his fastball up to 94 mph, but the offering has a lot more movement when it's 90-92.  He can throw his slider in the mid-80's, but the pitch tends to flatten out. 

8) Walker Buehler, RHP, Vanderbilt -- Not a huge guy at 6-01, 170 lbs, but his stuff is electric.  His 92-94 mph fastball has exceptional tailing action, and his 12-to-6 curveball could be the best in college baseball next year.

9) Dansby Swanson, SS-2B, Vanderbilt -- Better known for his fantastic defense when he showed up in Nashville, he's improved his offensive game dramatically and now projects as a bona fide two-hole hitter in the major leagues.  Exceptional range and arm at shortstop.

10) Brett Lilek, LHP, Arizona State -- This projectable lefty has a loose arm and the makings of four quality pitches, including a fastball he can run up to 94 mph.  He displayed a much smoother delivery this past season.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Lessons from the A's-Cubs blockbuster

Friday night's trade in which the Cubs shipped RHPs Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel off to Oakland in exchange for A's prospects SS Addison Russell and OF Billy McKinney and RHP Dan Straily is the first blockbuster of this season and has four fascinating subplots with reverberations that will be felt throughout baseball.

1) Billy Beane realized the A's lacked the necessary starting pitching to advance deep into October.

Leave it to Beane, long recognized as the game's best GM, to realize that the A's, despite an MLB-best 53-33 record, had major question marks up and down their entire rotation. 

Jarrod Parker was viewed as a rotation mainstay after going 25-16 in 2012-13 but is out for the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, while Drew Pomeranz was a major revelation until he broke his hand. 

Ace Sonny Gray is an emerging superstar but is on pace to eclipse 200 IP for the first time in his young career and could be running on fumes come October. 

Scott Kazmir has proven that last year's comeback with Cleveland was no fluke; however, his injury history remains a concern. 

Then there's Jesse Chavez, who's filled in admirably, but prior to this year he had started only twice in 191 big league appearances.  

In Samardzija, Beane has acquired a legitimate #2 who can eat innings and should enjoy the move from the cozy confines of Wrigley Field to pitcher-friendly Coliseum.  As it is, Samardzija's enjoying a career year -- his 2.83 ERA currently ranks 10th in the National League, while his 8.58 K/9 is eighth-best in the Senior Circuit.  The 29-year-old is not a free agent until after next season.

Though not as talented as Samardzija, Hammel is also in the midst of his best season and should fill in ably as Oakland's #4 behind Gray, Samardzija, and Kazmir.  Hammel's 2.92 ERA and 8.50 K/9 are just a tick behind Samardzija's and, if nothing else, he's a guy who should give Oakland quality innings in bulk.  The 31-year-old veteran is a free agent after this season and will be exempt from the qualifying offer rule because he was traded mid-season.

In one fell swoop, Oakland acquired two horses that have transformed its starting rotation from a patchwork job to one of the best in the league.  It's still early and there are still trades to be made, but if the postseason started tomorrow, Oakland would be the consensus pick to represent the American League in the World Series.

2) David Price just became a lot pricier.

Excuse us, we just couldn't avoid the pun.  But it's true.  With all due respect, Price is a better pitcher than either Samardzija or Hammel will ever be, and, like  Samardzija, his new team will enjoy his services for TWO pennant races because he's not a free agent until after the 2015 season.

With the Cubs receiving one elite prospect (Russell) and one very good one (McKinney) in the deal, the bar is set even higher for what the Rays would be getting back in any Price trade.  In last week's Trade Fair column, we discussed how St. Louis GM John Mozeliak would probably not have to surrender organizational gem, OF OscarTaveras, in any deal for Price.  Well, throw that idea out the window.  Given what the A's paid for Samardzija and Hammel, if the Cardinals want the superior Price, Taveras is a goner.

The same holds true for any other team that is hoping to land Price.  Take the Dodgers, for example, who have been rumored to be in the market for the big left-hander's services.  To land Price, GM Ned Colletti will have to give up either OF Joc Pederson or SS Corey Seager, as both guys are in the same prospect class as Taveras.

3) Does Cubs GM Theo Epstein have a follow-up deal up his sleeve?

This trade will give Chicago an abundance of highly-rated positional prospects.  Reed, 2B Arismendy Alcantara, SS Javier Baez, 3B Kris Bryant , OF Jorge Soler, OF Albert Almora, and C/OF Kyle Schwarber are all consensus Top-100 prospects, while McKinney and a few others are loudly knocking on the door.  However, the Cubs' pitching cupboard is shockingly thin.

Although, prospect-for-prospect deals are extremely rare in baseball, we wouldn't put it past Epstein to swing such a deal to get back a young, talented hurler.  It's tough to gauge which youngster would be on his way out, but our money is on Baez being shown the door.  With Russell, the superior defender, now entrenched at SS, and Alcantara and Bryant ensconced at their respective positions, there may simply not be enough room for Baez, whose poor plate discipline has many scouts questioning what type of hitter he'll be in the majors.

4) The A's must REALLY love Daniel Robertson.

The A's belief that Russell would one day evolve into a Barry Larkin-type shortstop was no secret.  In fact, last winter many teams reportedly called Beane to ask about Russell's availability only to be turned down.  However, Robertson's emergence this year probably made it easier for the A's brass to part with the precocious Russell.

Robertson, just 20, is having a banner offensive year at High A Stockton, where he's hitting .297/.402/.465 against older competition.  More importantly, however, has been his defensive development.  Drafted out of high school as a shortstop in 2012, Robertson was always viewed as a guy who'd one day shift to third base, where he profiles as a David Wright clone.  That was until he showed up in spring training with much more range and improved glove work. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Trade Fair: For St. Louis the Price is right

Believe it or not, we're already past the mathematical midpoint of the season.  And believe it or not, the Cardinals are 44-39.  A decent record, but one that would leave them out of the playoffs if the season ended on June 30th.

St. Louis' pitching -- more specifically, it's pitching health -- has been its Achilles heel this year.  Despite a sterling 10-4, 2.01 mark, Adam Wainwright has battled elbow inflammation and recently missed a start, while shoulder ailments have forced Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia to join Joe Kelly and his sore hamstring on the disabled list. 

And to make matters worse, Shelby Miller has been plagued by inconsistency after a solid rookie campaign in 2013.

What St. Louis needs is a rotation stalwart, a guy who can take the ball every fifth day and give the bullpen a reprieve by going  seven, eight, or even nine innings while stifling even the toughest opposing lineups.  David Price is that guy.

Has anything gone right for the Rays in 2014? Serious injuries to Matt Moore (Tommy John Surgery), Jeremy Hellickson (arthroscopic elbow surgery), and Alex Cobb (oblique strain), left the pitching staff in tatters for most of the first half, while subpar performances by virtually all key position players have severely weakened the lineup.  The end result has been a 36-49 record, the worst in the American League.

Even Yogi Berra would admit that the Rays' season is essentially over, and, given the Rays' financial constraints, it's time for GM Andrew Friedman to start shedding marketable assets and position the team for the future.  He should start with Price, the organization's most coveted player.

The Trade:  The Rays trade Price to the Cardinals for OF Stephen Piscotty, RHP CarlosMartinez, and LHP Rob Kaminsky.

What the Cardinals are getting:  A stud, plain and simple.  Much has been written about Price's diminished stuff, but according to Fan Graphs, Price's fastball velocity in his last five starts -- a stretch in which he's struck out at least ten hitters in each outing -- is at a two-year high, and the movement on his renowned slider is nearly as good as ever.  Price would serve as the ideal left-handed foil to Wainwright, and, along with the reliable Lance Lynn, would give St. Louis the starting troika necessary to repel all Wild Card challengers and advance deep into October.

Price, who's not a free agent until after the 2015 season, would be available to the Cardinals for two stretch runs, which should substantially increase the Rays' asking price.

What the Rays are getting:  Tampa GM Andrew Friedman will surely ask for hotshot OF prospect Oscar Taveras, a request that Cardinals boss John Mozeliak will certainly rebuke in this era of suppressed offense.  However, a Piscotty/Martinez/Kaminsky package makes for an excellent consolation prize. 

Piscotty, 23, has a skill set similar to the Rays' currently disabled wunderkind Wil Myers, except Piscotty has slightly less power and walks more.  He can play either outfield corner and is hitting .312/.373/.444 at Triple A.

Martinez, who's alternated between starting and relieving at the big league level, is a flamethrower with enough secondary pitches to make it as a #3 starter.  The 22-year-old Dominican has a WHIP of 1.33 and 3.48 ERA in 48 major league innings this season.

Kaminsky, 19, would be much more than just a throw-in.  The southpaw was St. Louis' first round pick last year and is currently eating up Low A hitters to the tune of a 1.26 ERA, 0.900 WHIP, and 47 strikeouts in 50 innings.

In exchange for 1.5 years of Price, the Rays would be getting 17.5 years of control of the three aforementioned prospects.