Take a guess: Which player has the highest OPS of any second baseman in the American League?
Not Robinson Cano. Not Dustin Pedroia. Not Howie Kendrick or Ian Kinsler.
Nope, the leader is Jason Kipnis of the Indians — the surprising Indians, who on Sunday tied the Tigers for first place in the AL Central.
Kipnis, 26, stands almost no chance of overtaking Cano in the All-Star fan balloting. He might not make the team at all, considering Pedroia’s all-around brilliance and Kendrick’s scorching performance in June.
Pedroia rates as easily the best defender of the group, according to John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings on BillJames.com. But Kipnis also leads in stolen bases, with 19 successes in 24 attempts.
Whether Kipnis makes the AL team or not, he is becoming a star — not that you would have viewed him that way in April, when he batted .200 with a .555 OPS.
“The thing that most impressed me is how he struggled in spring training and struggled at the start of the season, but took it in stride, stuck to his approach and continued with the same routine,” teammate Mike Aviles says.
“He knew what worked for him. You don’t see that a lot with a younger player. He could have hit the panic button in a hurry, and it could have been all downhill. But he knew he was a good player. He knew he was going to get out of it.”
Said Kipnis: “I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself. You get up here, you learn how long the season is, how ups and downs are part of the game. It’s just going to happen.
“Especially early on in your career, you want to stay away from thinking, ‘I don’t know if I belong up there. This is too tough.’ ”
It’s not too tough for Kipnis, a left-handed hitter who had a big first half last season before slumping in the second. So far this season, he is the game’s best hitter for average at going to the opposite field.
Kipnis is 37 for 69 going the other way, a .536 average. His .957 slugging percentage to the opposite field ranks third in the majors, behind only Yasiel Puig and Chris Davis, both of whom are at 1.086.
Is Kipnis an All-Star? Sure looks like it.
“I got close last year,” Kipnis said. “But you want to talk about a hard position to crack — with AL second base, there are some guys who need to be in there every single year, and deservedly so. Cano, Pedroia, all of them. But every player would love to be in the All-Star Game. It’s a dream of everyone’s. Hopefully, it comes true this year. If not, we try again next year."
Issues, issues (Seattle edition)
Some rival executives are critical of the Mariners for calling up their top prospects in recent weeks, saying that the team is needlessly burning the service time of those players and clearing spots for them by bumping assets off their 40-man roster.
“All they’re doing is rushing prospects to the majors before they’re ready,” one exec said.
Well, Nick Franklin is succeeding at second base, and shortstop Brad Miller hit well enough at Double-A and Triple-A to warrant a look (though one exec cracked that Miller was at Triple-A for “12 minutes,” it actually was 26 games).
The bigger question involves catcher Mike Zunino, who was the third overall pick of the 2012 draft and had a batting average/on-base/slugging line of .238/.303/.503 with 59 strikeouts in 185 at-bats at Triple-A.
Zunino joined the team on June 12, and could qualify for four years of arbitration instead of three depending upon when the “Super Two” cutoff date falls. He likely would have benefited from more seasoning, yet the Mariners did not wait.
An opposing manager told me that the Mariners are doing the right thing, using a lost season to find out about their youngsters. But some rival execs suspect that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is trying to demonstrate to ownership that his rebuilding program is working — and that he deserves to keep his job.
Zduriencik, referring specifically to Zunino, said that the team simply wanted the catcher to complete his development at the major league level. The M’s went so far as to sign veteran Henry Blanco, one of the game’s top catching mentors, to assist in that process.
“We planned all along to get Mike to Seattle at some point in July,” Zduriencik said. “He is the catcher of the future, and we all recognize that. We are pleased with his performance defensively, game calling. He wasn’t expected to be a big contributor offensively if it was now, July, September . . . but he has held his own, and what he is receiving now will set him up for 2014 and beyond.
“He has been an upgrade defensively. The [service] clock was not a concern. What was important was him gaining the necessary experience going forward. We believe that he and the organization is best served by him being here.”
Zduriencik added, “There is no one in the decision-making process here in Seattle that disagreed with this decision.”
Zunino, in 46 plate appearances, is batting .227 with a .602 OPS.
Issues, issues (Milwaukee edition)
About a month ago, CBSSports.com’s Jon Heyman quoted a scout as saying that the Brewers did not appear to be putting out maximum effort. Owner Mark Attanasio told Heyman that the team’s effort was not an issue and that manager Ron Roenicke was not an issue, either.
Well, I heard the same damning criticism of the Brewers from a scout who recently told me, “There’s a lot of quit on that team.” And the Brewers, at 32-48, now have the second-worst record in the National League, ahead of only the Marlins.
It isn’t Roenicke’s fault that the team is next-to-last in the NL with a 4.18 ERA, or that last season’s 3-4-5 hitters — Ryan Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart — have combined for only 14 homers after producing 98 last season. (Hart will miss the entire season with a knee injury, and Braun has been out since June 15 with a right thumb contusion.)
One Brewers official, who said the team is playing hard, attributed some of the club’s problems with fundamentals to certain defenders playing out of position. Still, the scout’s criticism could be an ominous sign for Roenicke, who is signed through 2014 with option for ’15.
Issues, issues (Yankees edition)
I’ve written about the Cardinals’ farm system and how the team is bursting with options at seemingly every position. The Yankees are at the other extreme, and their lack of major league-ready position prospects is one reason their current lineups are so thin.
True, outfielder Zoilo Almonte has provided a nice boost of late. True, two of the Yankees’ younger homegrown players, infielder Eduardo Nunez and catcher Francisco Cervelli, are injured — and a third such player, catcher Jesus Montero, was traded in January 2012 for righty Michael Pineda, who has yet to pitch for the Yankees while recovering from shoulder problems.
Indeed, the Yankees’ injuries seem almost endless.
Manager Joe Girardi, in his meeting with the FOX broadcasters on Saturday, noted that that a number of potential replacements in the minors also were hurt. Girardi wasn’t complaining — he has been remarkably calm and positive during the team’s trying season. He just seemed sort of stunned by the entire turn of events.
Triple-A outfielders Brennan Boesch and Melky Mesa and infielder Corban Joseph are among those currently injured, Girardi said. So is third baseman/outfielder Ronnier Mustelier, who is suffering from — get this — two pulled groin muscles.
“Was he doing splits?” Girardi asked, trying to bring levity to the situation.
As Girardi spoke, outfielder Ramon Flores was the only healthy position player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster who was not with the major league club. (outfielder Thomas Neal, recently demoted, could not be recalled for 10 days.)
Neal, Boesch, Mesa — all are in their upper 20s, and the Yankees’ best position prospects are all in the low minors.
True, the team has had only one first-round pick in the top 20 since 1996, limiting its ability to select premium talent. Still, the Cardinals’ draft positions haven’t been much better — and their system is teeming with prospects.
Yankees fire sale! (Not really)
The following is not going to happen, so don’t start lighting up Twitter with these so-called possibilities. They’re not possibilities. But just as a fun exercise, imagine if the Yankees became sellers.
No club has more potential free agents, right?
Think about it: Closer Mariano Rivera could go to the Tigers, lefty Andy Pettitte to the Rangers, righty Hiroki Kuroda back to the West Coast.
Problem is, all three of those pitchers have no-trade clauses — and the Yankees aren’t about to sell, other than perhaps moving righties Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain and, if healthy, outfielder Curtis Granderson.
Overbay on Goldschmidt
Yankees first baseman Lyle Overbay was a mentor to Paul Goldschmidt during their time together in Arizona, and Overbay still marvels at the advanced approach that Goldschmidt displayed even as a rookie in 2011.
Specifically, Overbay recalls a sequence from Aug. 25, 2011, when Goldschmidt hit a two-run homer off Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning of a game the D-backs won 8-1.
Overbay said he told Goldschmidt, “You will get a good pitch, a fastball or a changeup. It’s hard to see the difference (in arm speed). You almost have to sit on one, or else you’ll get caught in between and foul pitches off.”
So, what happened?
“He took two fastballs, and at least one was right down the middle,” Overbay said. “I had a feeling he was sitting on a change. But I kind of saw Gibby (manager Kirk Gibson) out of the corner of my eye. I could see him getting a little mad at him taking those fastballs.
“I thought, ‘I hope he gets a changeup and hits it really far. If he doesn’t, he’ll be called into the office.’ Well, he hit a home run. He sat on it. He didn’t panic. The confidence he has in his game plan is pretty good.”
Markakis on Machado
When I asked the Orioles’ Nick Markakis what impressed him most about teammate Manny Machado, the right fielder replied, “His swing.”
Markakis said he gets a good view of right-handed hitters’ swings from right field, and he said that Machado’s bat path through the zone — flat, quick, straight to the ball — is one of the best he has seen.
Hitters such as the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera and Orioles’ Chris Davis are strong enough to pull the ball with topspin and still get distance. Markakis said that Machado hits the ball with backspin to all fields.
“It’s hard to teach — very hard to teach,” Markakis said.
Buck on Miggy
It has been two weeks since the Orioles visited Detroit, but manager Buck Showalter is still raving about Cabrera, calling him, “one of the greatest hitters of all time.”
“When he’s whipping your ass, it’s actually an honor to see him whipping your ass,” Showalter said.
Showalter recalls a home run that Cabrera hit on May 31 off righty Miguel Gonzalez at Camden Yards. The pitch might have hit Cabrera in the shoulder, prompting Gonzalez to ask, “Where am I supposed to go?”
The second was an opposite-field single off Freddy Garcia in the ninth inning of a game that the Tigers trailed 13-3 on June 19 — proof that Cabrera never gives up an at-bat.
“This guy can hit .400,” Showalter said. “He has such range with the bat. A man on second, two outs, he knows you’re pitching around him. He can go off the plate and punch the ball to right field.”
The Orioles’ strategy on how to pitch to Cabrera?
“Get the guys in front of him out.”
That wild and crazy Showalter
Has Showalter mellowed over the years? Well, I’m pretty sure that the Orioles are the only team in the majors that have a pool table and pingpong table in the middle of their clubhouse.
Showalter says “it’s hard for me to sit here and hear the clacking of pool balls,” but adds that he wants the players to gather in the clubhouse and enjoy themselves.
Did he encourage such reverie during his previous stops with the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rangers?
“Nobody ever asked,” Showalter says. “Maybe I didn’t position myself as ‘askable.’ ”
Around the horn
• The Rays aren’t looking for a starting pitcher. Left-hander David Price will rejoin their rotation Tuesday, and the team expects right-hander Alex Cobb to return sometime in July or August.
So, what will Tampa Bay do at the deadline? Maybe nothing; the team doesn’t have a clear need. Or maybe something major; the Rays will focus on impact players, regardless of position, and figure out how they fit along the way.
• Is Shin-Soo Choo another Andre Ethier? Choo, the Reds’ center fielder, is batting just .147 with a .490 OPS against left-handers, the seventh lowest in the majors.
The Angels’ Josh Hamilton (.352) and Nationals’ Denard Span (.388) are the worst against lefties, and the Cubs’ Starlin Castro – a right-handed hitter – is the fifth-worst (.468).
Choo entered the season with a .914 career OPS against righties and a .695 OPS against lefties. His splits could affect his market value in free agency.
• Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth has kind words for Pirates GM Neal Huntington, who traded him to the Braves on June 3, 2009 — and acquired two current members of the Pittsburgh rotation, lefty Jeff Locke and righty Charlie Morton, in the deal.
Unsolicited, McLouth said: “I’m happy for Neal Huntington. He’s taken a beating, some of it unfairly. I really respect how he does his job. He’s a good guy, a good person. He has done some different things, but he had to. The way things were being done wasn’t working.
• Evidence of a team that doesn’t know how to win: The Cubs, at minus-10, have a better run differential than the Padres, Nationals, Giants, Phillies and Dodgers — but their 35-45 record is worse than any of those clubs’.
• Speaking of the Cubs, they are all but certain to trade potential free agents such as right-handers Matt Garza, Scott Feldman and Kevin Gregg but aren’t necessarily inclined to move outfielders David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz, both of whom they control for 2014.
Schierholtz can be had for the right piece, sources say, but the Cubs can retain him for next season by offering him a raise on his current $2.25 million salary. DeJesus, currently on the DL, is the rare Cub who gets on base. Club officials also like his makeup, and they hold a $6.5 million option on his for ’14.
• Marlins infield coach Perry Hill says it would be unfair for Gold Glove voters to penalize Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria because of the team’s poor record and his .535 OPS.
“I don’t believe that should be the criteria for the Gold Glove,” Hill says. “The Gold Glove is for the best-fielding shortstop, the best-fielding player at that position.
“You watch his film. You look at his numbers. Do all the research you want. This guy is the best (defensive) shortstop in the National League, bar none.”
The advanced metrics do not support Hill’s assessment, but perhaps we all should take a closer look: Hill is one of the game’s most highly regarded infield instructors.
• There’s always the chance that the Athletics will look for a starting pitcher, but at the moment they’re comfortable with their depth.
Right-hander Jesse Chavez can serve as a spot starter, righty Sonny Gray has a 3.02 ERA at Triple-A and lefty Brett Anderson is recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot.
• And finally, Showalter had an interesting take on sabermetrics, saying that he uses them to verify his gut instincts rather than develop them.
“If players think they’re the only thing you’re evaluating them on, you lose them at ‘hello,’ ” he said.