Monday, April 25, 2011

Two Major One Minor 042511

This is my weekly segment where I'll cover two Major League players and one in the minors. Since this is the second week in a row it is now officially a weekly segment. The three players I'll cover this week are Justin Masterson, Kyle Lohse and Liam Hendriks. We'll see if I continue to alternate weeks with batters and pitchers.

I've liked Justin Masterson since he was a right-handed prospect in the Red Sox system and he showed promise as a starter. Masterson is a 6-6, 250 horse and shows glimpses of greatness on the mound. With the Red Sox he got spot starts his initial year then found himself in the bullpen behind a logjam of talented starters. It appeared that his career got a jolt with a trade to Cleveland and they eventually settled on him as a starter after giving him time at both. I had seen his potential as he teased with stretches of brilliance only to be coupled with stretches of frustration when he has trouble keeping the ball down. While I had held him on my teams a few times in the past I did not get him this year and he was drafted in the later rounds for a dollar. It appears my rival got a bargain as Masterson has shown the ability to keep the ball down so far while getting off to a red hot 4-0 start with an 1.71 ERA and 15 strikeouts versus 9 walks and 21 hits over 26 innings. I think he might have finally figured it out and should have the first of many stellar seasons.

Kyle Lohse has the trifecta going for him as a starting pitcher: he is showing he can dominate now, he has a history of doing it in the past, and he has an awesome hitting corps to pick him up. Although he has had some down years the right-handed Lohse has had a few solid ones by going 13-8 and 14-11 with the Twins in 2003 and 2004 and very good 15-8 season with the Cardinals in 2008. When healthy Lohse has shown he can eat innings as he has gone over 180 five times in his career with twice hitting the 200 mark. This season he is off to a great start going 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA and 22 strikeouts versus only four walks and 19 hits over 31 innings. While his career has shown it is unlikely he can maintain that sort of control he still has the foundation of a career year going.

Liam Hendriks came on my radar last season when I noticed his name among the leaders for WHIP and ERA. He is a right-handed starting pitcher in the Twins organization and was selected to play in the Futures game last summer when he was sidelined with appendicitis. Hendriks has shown himself to be a great control pitcher with the ability to strikeout batters in in the mold of Greg Maddux and more recently Jeremy Hellickson. In his 2010 season Hendriks went 8-4 with 1.74 ERA and 105 strikeouts versus only 12 walks and 79 hits over 108 innings. This season he has started at Double A and they are starting him off slow with two relief appearances before his first start where he struggled a little. It is early but his numbers so far are 0-1 with an 5.87 ERA and eight strikeouts versus zero walks and six hits over 7.2 innings. I fully expect those numbers to continue to improve. Plus the Twins expect good things out of him as indicated by their tabbing him to the Futures game. Some expect Hendriks to eventually be a middle rotation starter for the Twins. I believe he has a very bright future.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Anthony Rendon--Injury or New Bat?

Anthony Rendon of Rice was the odds on favorite to be the first overall draft pick in the 2011 MLB draft based on his 2010 season. Then in July while playing for Team USA he suffered a severe injury to his right ankle when his right foot was caught under him in a rundown while playing South Korea. His ankle and foot had several fractures and the ankle was also dislocated. It was the same ankle that had to be surgically repaired when he injured it in the 2009 Super Regional but returned to play the entire next season. The initial question was how well would Rendon perform after the second injury and would it affect his draft status?

Comparing this season to his stellar 2010 campaign there does appear to be a drop off in production. His batting average is down over 40 points from .394 in 63 games in 2010 to .348 through 41 games this season. The decline in his home run and slugging percentage numbers are glaring with 26 home runs and .801 in 2010 and only 3 home runs and .530 so far this year. He appears to still have a good eye with 59 walks and 21 strikeouts so far this season compared to 65 walks and 22 strikeouts in 2010. Rendon has spent the majority of this season  at DH to lessen his time on the ankle. Just looking at these stats in would appear that the injury has affected his production.

Another important factor to consider is that the NCAA again changed the specs on the bats with the goal to make them similar to wood bats. Some claimed that the change would reduce the flight of the ball 20 to 25 feet but many others believe the new bats have deadened the ball too much and there is no longer a sweet spot on the bat. If it would just be a matter of distance affected I would expect a drop in home runs but an increase in doubles. With Rendon the home runs have obviously dropped off to the extreme but the doubles have only increased slightly. In 2010 he hit 12 while he has hit 11 through two-thirds of this season.

Another way to gauge the drop in production would be a comparison to some of Rendon's fellow home run leaders from last year. Dan Paolini of Siena batted .368 with 26 home runs, 13 doubles and a .816 slugging percentage in 52 games in 2010 compared to hitting .353 with 13 home runs,  seven doubles and a .691 slugging percentage through 37 games this season. Alex Dickerson of Indiana batted .419 with 24 home runs, 19 doubles and a .805 slugging percentage in 55 games in 2010 compared to hitting .364 with five home runs, six doubles and a .510 slugging percentage through 36 games this season. Jordan Ribera of Fresno State batted .343 with 27 home runs, 20 doubles and a .761 slugging percentage in 2010 compared to hitting .205 with two home runs, 11 doubles and a slugging percentage of .368 through 31 games this season. CJ Cron of Utah batted .431 with 20 home runs, 16 doubles and a slugging percentage of .817 in 49 games in 2010 compared to hitting .470 with eight home runs, 14 doubles and a slugging percentage .795 through 29 games this season. The numbers for all the leaders from last season are down although some are having more trouble adjusting to the new bats than others. 

The Scenic West Athletic Conference is a JUCO league that uses wood bats and the home runs leaders in that conference are similar to the drop seen by the hitters above. One player has seven and two others have hit six home runs. Of course you would expect the best players in Division I to put up better numbers than JUCO players. A few players seem to like the new bats with Victor Roache of Georgia Southern, Jake Lowery of James Madison, Brandon Miller of Samford, and Casey Kalenkosky of Texas State topping the Division I home run leader board with 18, 17, 15 and 14 home runs respectively. It also highlights how the 31 home runs put up by Bryce Harper last year in the SWAC were so impressive.

It would appear that the new bats may be affecting Rendon more than the injury. He still has about twenty games to add to his totals and finish the season strong. In two months we'll see what conclusions the MLB scouts and executives reach by where Rendon lands in the draft. I predict he will fall out of that top spot.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Two Major One Minor 041811

I'm going to start a segment during the season that I hope to do at least once a week where I go over a couple Major League players and a minor league player to keep an eye on. The two guys in the Majors this week are Jonny Gomes and Jed Lowrie. The minor leaguer in the spotlight will be Paul Goldschmidt.

Gomes is off to a hot start with six homeruns in his first 14 games for the Reds. Gomes has shown glimpses in the past but had been too much of a free swinger behind the plate. Funny thing he is currently leading the majors with 15 walks which is almost half his total for the entire previous year. Gomes has admitted that the fact that he has been promised more playing time has prompted him to let some balls go by that he would have taken a hack at in previous seasons. Now that Gomes has the luxury of being more patient with a regular home in left he can be more selective and that has resulted in more walks and homeruns. He might be on the cusp of having a breakout season. That would make me very happy since I picked him up for a buck in a trade last season and kept him this year.

Lowrie is another guy that has shown plenty of promise and may be having his breakout season. After his four for five performance today he has a gaudy .516 average in 11 games. After spending half his rookie season in 2008 in the majors the injury bug limited him to 83 games total the next two seasons. The question mark certainly is whether he can stay healthy and this season should be telling. Over the last few seasons Lowrie has spent time enticing me and my friend Joe as he spent time of each of our rosters multiple times. Joe knows talent because he has won our league four years running now. He had Lowrie on his roster this season yet again but when he dropped him in favor of another player I was quick to pounce. Now it appears that Lowrie  will let me reap the rewards of his meteoric rise as he is on the verge of becoming the Red Sox regular shortstop.

One young minor leaguer that caught my eye last season was first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt in the Diamondbacks organization. He challenged for the homerun title with 35 falling one short of Mike Moustakas and Mark Trumbo. Goldschmidt is up a level to Double A now and on a tear with six homeruns and a .364 average through 10 games. He has shown he can hit average too by hitting .334 and .314 in his previous two seasons respectively. Looking back in college he set career school records for homeruns (36) and RBI (178).   The 87 RBI he had in 2009 led all of Division 1. Right now he is at the top of my 2011 watch list.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Which young Ranger?

The Texas Rangers are blessed with three talented young pitchers that are starting the season on fire. Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando are each 2-0 with a combined 1.15 ERA. If you could add one of them to your rotation who would it be?

Ogando is quickly establishing himself as a favorite as he transitions from reliever to starter. The Rangers had great success with CJ Wilson as he made the same change the year before so Ogando has a mentor on the same staff. He doesn't have a great body of work to reference as the 41 innings he pitched in 2010 surpassed any season he had in the minors. The righthander has shown to be a good strikeout pitcher with fairly good control. The big question mark is how durable he can be over the season because he has thrown so few innings in his pro career.

Harrison was deemed a dark horse a couple seasons ago to have the best future of the young arms in the organization. He has shown flashes of brilliance each of the previous seasons but had been unable to sustain it over a season.  His rookie season was good start at 9-3 but he fell off to 4-5 and 3-2 the following two seasons with most of 2010 spent in relief. This lefthander isn't overpowering and has thrown almost as many walks as strikeouts in each of the previous three seasons.

Holland is the most heralded of the three and the fire-balling lefty has shown he can dominate in the minors. He endured a baptism by fire rookie season in 2009 going 8-13 and had his 2010 season sidetracked with a rotator cuff injury. When healthy Holland rehabbed much of the second half of the season at Triple A and honed his craft going 6-2 with a 1.89 ERA with 51 strikeouts over 62 innings. 

Given the choice of these three I would choose Holland. He has a better strikeout ability than Harrison and will likely be more durable than Ogando as the season progresses. It will be interesting to see how long each of them can maintain the hot start.

On another quick topic I think the injury to Ranger Josh Hamilton was unnecessary and stupid. Who tries to score on a pop up in the infield? The GM may have lauded the third base coach for being aggressive but how successful can that play be? Hamilton said he was just following orders but he was setting himself up for injury by going into a situation he was not comfortable with. Hamilton has to know his limitations but he may depend on the guidance of others due to his past off the field issues. It was a high risk situation that has put one of the best players of the game out for several weeks. The Rangers are saying six to eight weeks but it is the medical opinion of Stephania Bell of ESPN that the rehab may take several more weeks. We shall see.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Logan Ehlers: NCAA Political Prisoner

Logan Ehlers was finally released from his NCAA imposed exile today. He was placed there by the NCAA because he was said to have violated an out dated by-law when a representative had contact with the Toronto Blue Jays on his behalf. The punishment was extremely excessive for an action they admit will soon be under review and likely revised in their rule book.

Ehlers had already signed his letter of intent to play baseball for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln when he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the eighth round of the 2010 MLB draft. Ehlers went into the draft with a number in mind that would be needed to alter his plans to play for the Huskers. He and his family consulted with an advisor on the matter. The Blue Jays made an offer of $800,000 and the advisor called Ehlers to confirm whether he changed his mind about his number. The advisor passed that info along in one thirty second phone call with a Blue Jays official and that was deemed enough to violate the "no agent" rule.

The NCAA expects a high school student and their family to enter negotiations with a multi-million dollar organization without guidance or assistance. The irony is that the NCAA is also a multi-million dollar organization which claims to make decisions with the student-athletes' interests in mind yet it is the NCAA which makes financial gains. One example is the lack of a playoff system for Division I football under the guise it would be too hard for the students. Yet the other divisions manage to have the same playoffs with no such qualms. Another example is the March madness cash cow where Division I basketball plays the same tournament the NCAA claims won't work for football while raking in millions from television rights and numerous sponsors. 

The NCAA is inconsistent in how it applies and enforces its own rules. Former Oklahoma State pitcher Andy Oliver won a lawsuit over the same ruling as Ehlers but he then took a settlement which led the ruling to be thrown out. Dennis Poppe is the NCAA vice president of baseball and football and he said that the issue will be reexamined and a new approach will be taken in the future. Little good that did Ehlers as he had to sit out 60 percent of this season. It is likely that Poppe devotes the majority his time governing over the money sport football. The lax approach taken by the NCAA in doling out punishment for secondary violations in football is laughable as it was revealed Ohio State had over forty secondary violations per season before being finally caught for something that warranted actual suspensions. Another odd anomaly is that numerous players that attempted professional baseball careers and failed have been allowed to have another start in college football. 

Ehlers finally saw the field today with a start against Kansas in the final game of a three game weekend series. He only lasted into the fifth inning as he gave up eight runs although only three were earned. The fact that Nebraska coach Mike Anderson decided to start Ehlers immediately on his first eligible game rather than let him get ramped up a game by coming out of the bullpen might point towards speculation that he might be on the hot seat. It will be interesting to see if Ehlers settles in as the third spot in the rotation that pitches on Sunday.

The damage is done and his career is now under way at the collegiate level.  Hopefully Ehlers can advance along the learning curve and still perform well this nearly lost season. He is a talented lefthander with a promising future and can finally enjoy what he wanted to do in college.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lincoln to KC

Lincoln to Kansas City with stops in Wichita, Omaha and Northwest Arkansas sounds like the start of a country song but I'm talking about the start of Alex Gordon's career. Gordon was a superstar on the fast track only to encounter speed bumps in the form of injuries and sub par performance. This season is the third attempt to jumpstart his pro career and live up to the original expectations.

Gordon is a native of Lincoln, Nebraska who became a hometown hero by reaching All-American status twice playing third base for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He started his Nebraska career by earning Freshman All-America honors by hitting .319 with seven home runs, 48 RBI, and 45 runs over 62 games. His All-American sophomore season displayed an impressive .365 average with 18 home runs, 75 RBI, and 64 runs over 59 games. He continued to raise his performance as a junior hitting .372 with 19 home runs, 66 RBI and 79 runs over 72 games as the team won a school record 57 games that included Nebraska's first CWS win.

With such a stellar college resume the Kansas City Royals jumped at the chance to claim him second overall in the 2005 MLB draft. They started his pro career in 2006 with Double A Wichita where he lived up to expectations when he hit .325 with 29 home runs, 101 RBI, 111 runs, and 22 steals over 130 games. That great season led to Gordon being named Baseball America's minor league player of the year. 

2007 had the Royals wanting to capitalize on their uber-prospect by starting the season in Kansas City with only one season of minor league experience. The term seasoning seems appropriate. Did Gordon make the jump from Double A to the big league without seeing enough pro pitching? 

The numbers Gordon put up in 2007 and 2008 were deemed by many as disappointing because he did not live up to his draft and prospect status. In 2007 he hit .247 with 15 home runs, 60 RBI, 60 runs and 14 steals over 151 games. His 2008 season showed some improvement when he produced a .260 average with 16 home runs, 59 RBI, 72 runs and nine steals over 134 games. Gordon also missed 18 games in 2008 due to a torn quadriceps muscle on his right leg.

His 2009 season was derailed in April when he tore cartilage in his right hip sliding into second base. It was an injury that would have ended his career three decades earlier but with advancements in surgery and rehab he was able to return that same year. In the 49 games Gordon did play that season he hit .232 with six home runs, 22 RBI, 28 runs and 5 steals. 

2010 was seen as a make or break season for Gordon only to be derailed by injury again when he broke the thumb on his right hand sliding head first into second base. That darned second base! His stats that season with the Royals show he was struggling with his .215 average with 8 home runs, 20 RBI, 34 runs and only 1 stolen base over 74 games. It was that season that the Royals organization decided to move Gordon to the outfield and he spent most of that transition time with the Omaha Royals. While in Omaha he did hone his hitters eye hitting .315 with 14 home runs, 44 RBI, 59 runs and seven steals over 68 games.

What will 2011 bring? Gordon signed a one year contract in the off season and the Royals and their fans hope this is the year he kicks it into the next gear. In spring training Gordon appeared to be getting his hitter's eye back as he managed to hit .343 with six home runs, 23 RBI, 19 runs, and 4 steals in 24 games. While hitless his first game of the season he just missed an oh-so-close home run in the ninth that hooked foul which could could have produced a walk off 5-4 win instead of a 4-2 loss. But in a career of what ifs Gordon has done better the next few games with two multi hit games including a 4 for 6 performance today. A hot start may be just what Gordon needs.

Now a quick look at the teams of Gordon's past and present.

Nebraska is a puzzling team that has shown flashes of brilliance such as winning a series against UCLA and their high powered pitching staff. Kash Kalkowski, Kurt Farmer, and Cody Ashe lead the offensive attack batting .389, .356 and .333 respectively. The pitching staff is lead by Matt Freeman and Tyler Niederklein although the most promising Logan Ehlers has yet to see the field due to a questionable ruling by the NCAA. (That might be a future rant.) So far the Huskers have an 18-11 record in 2011.

The Royals minor league system is touted as the best this season and Double A Northwest Arkansas and Triple A Omaha have four of the top 100 prospects each according to Baseball America. The highest four prospects on Northwest Arkansas' roster are outfielder Wil Myers, shortstop Christian Colon and pitchers John Lamb and Chris Dwyer. Plus I've long had a soft spot for infielder Jeff Bianchi who was drafted in the second round behind Gordon in 2005 and has also had some injury issues. The four top prospects on the Omaha roster are1B Eric Hosmer, 3B Mike Moustakas, and pitchers Mike Montgomery and Danny Duffy. Both teams actually played each other in a exhibition game yesterday in Kansas City and the fans present were given a glimpse of the future.

Until the uber prospects arrive in KC over the next couple seasons GM Dayton Moore has duct taped a roster together with the lowest budget in the MLB at $36 million. Besides Gordon the other big names on the roster are infielder Billy Butler and closer Joakim Soria. Historically the Royals haven't had many home run hitters but hopefully rookie first baseman Kila Ka'aihue starts to change that. Luke Hochevar and Jeff Francis show the most promise on the pitching staff. Many of the current roster are just place holders until the calvary starts to arrive next year but the may surprise some people. Ned Yost is a good manager and could get results. If Gordon leads this team and starts to perform as promised he may still be with the team when the next wave of uber prospects arrives. Here's to hoping he gets it done!