Notes: The history behind why Tanaka, Abreu count as rookies

Jose Abreu may not hit like a rookie, but there's plenty of precedent saying he is one.

Tom Szczerbowski / Getty Images North America

Yes, they are rookies - Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu and any other experienced foreigner playing in his first major-league season.

Doesn’t matter that Abreu is 27 and Tanaka 25. Doesn’t matter that both have competed in international competition as well as professional leagues in their native lands. Historical precedent dictates that they should be eligible for the American League Rookie of the Year award. So does simple fairness.

The rationale for classifying foreign-born players as rookies actually dates to the first award in 1947, won by Jackie Robinson. According to Jack O’Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), baseball’s position on Negro Leagues veterans was that they were considered rookies if they were in their first season in the majors.

Robinson fell into that category. So did five straight NL winners from 1949 to ’53 - Don Newcombe, Sam Jethroe, Willie Mays, Joe Black and Junior Gilliam.

In 1995, Hideo Nomo’s first season with the Dodgers, O’Connell said he contacted the commissioner’s office to request a clarification on the pitcher’s status. He was told that Nomo was a rookie, and voters elected Nomo the NL winner. Two other Japanese players, Kaz Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki, later won the AL award.

Seems a little odd, even now, but baseball’s original ruling on Negro Leagues players indeed is applicable to the present. The cultural and professional transitions that foreign players face are more difficult than the transitions that traditional rookies face in their jumps from Double-A and Triple-A.

Consider the adjustments that Tanaka is dealing with coming from Japan. Harder mounds. Bigger, less sticky baseballs. Smaller strike zones. Deeper lineups. Less rest between starts.

Abreu, coming from Cuba, is crossing an even greater cultural bridge than Tanaka, and his professional adjustment is not easy, either. He has never seen this many hard throwers from inning to inning, game to game.

Major League Baseball is the best baseball in the world. Sure, Tanaka and Abreu possess certain advantages over, say, Royals rookie Yordano Ventura, a Dominican pitcher who followed a conventional path through the minors. But the foreign veterans face disadvantages, too.

They’re rookies, all right. History is on their side.

ASTROS’ AIKEN: WHAT’S THE DEAL?

According to reports, high school left-hander Brady Aiken arrived in Houston last Monday, indicating that he and the Astros were close to an agreement.

A week later, however, the team has yet to announce a deal with Aiken, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft. And neither side is saying why.

The holdup bears a resemblance to the delays that occasionally occur in free agency when players fail physicals and teams try to rework deals.

If indeed Aiken failed his physical, the Astros would have the right to offer him 40 percent of his signing bonus value, according to the new draft rules that were negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement in 2011.

The signing bonus value for the No. 1 overall pick is $7,922,100. Forty percent of that would be $3,168,840. (The Astros, according to MLB.com's Jim Callis, have agreed to a $6.5 million bonus for Aiken).

If the Astros failed to make the adjusted offer, Aiken would become a free agent. If they made the offer and Aiken rejected it, he could re-enter the draft in 2015 or enroll in a four-year college and become draft-eligible again after his junior year.

Again, only the parties involved know if Aiken actually failed his physical. The best guess is that he will still join the Astros.

The deadline for him to sign is July 18.

PHILLIES: OPEN FOR BUSINESS?

The Phillies, after losing four straight at home to the Braves over the weekend, are now in last place in the NL East, 10 games under .500 and eight games out of first.

 

 

As if there was any doubt, the Phils are going to sell. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. already has said that the team is willing to include cash in deals in order to get better prospects in return.

Closer Jonathan Papelbon is perhaps the Phillies’ most obvious candidate to be traded. Left-hander Cliff Lee is another, though he might be more of an August possibility depending upon when he returns from a strained elbow.

Lefty Cole Hamels?

He falls into a gray area.

“We’re not going to be in a five-year plan, be really bad for five years. I don’t believe we’re in the market to do that, and where we have to do that,” Amaro said.

“Guys like Cole, Chase and some of the others can help make the transition faster. Having them be part of the transition would probably be more beneficial to us unless we can get two, three or four pieces that we know can be part of our core going forward.

“In this day and age, how many teams have that? Very few. And how many teams are going to give that up?”

The question was rhetorical.

The answer: Not many.

On the other hand, Amaro said that because Hamels is under contract for four years and $90 million after this season, he has “great value to long-term teams and short-teams ... the interest in him is much broader.”

Translation: The Phillies will listen on him, if they aren’t listening already.

AND WHAT ABOUT A.J.?

Don’t forget right-hander A.J. Burnett when thinking about Phillies who might get moved. But as with every other Philadelphia veteran, things get a little complicated.

Burnett, 37, has the same no-trade protection as Lee, Hamels and other Phillies vets – he can block deals to 21 teams. The Phillies still owe him $6.5 million of his signing bonus, plus about $3.75 million in salary this season. And then comes 2015.

Burnett’s contract includes a $15 million mutual option or a player option that could be worth as much as $12.75 million. Sounds like a lot, and before approving a deal, Burnett might require a team on his no-trade list to guarantee the $15 million.

Then again, the qualifying offer for free agents this offseason is expected to be at least that figure, making Burnett a potential bargain on a one-year deal.

THE REDS: BETTER THAN THE CARDINALS?

The Reds’ 14-4 surge and electrifying four-game sweep of the Giants at AT&T Park came as no surprise to one NL general manager, who considers the Reds as talented as the Cardinals, if not more.

The two teams are now tied for second in the NL Central, 6½ games behind the Brewers. The Reds have a slightly better run differental, plus-22 to the Cardinals’ plus-18.

So, was the GM correct?

Well, the Cardinals’ rotation is first in the NL in opponents’ OPS, the Reds’ second. The Cardinals hold a greater edge in the bullpen, but that largely is due to the struggles of the Reds’ middle-inning relievers; their back-end duo of righty Jonathan Broxton and lefty Aroldis Chapman has been brilliant.

Going position by position, the Reds are getting a higher OPS at first base (even with Joey Votto missing three weeks with a hamstring injury and performing below his usual standards). They also rank ahead of the Cardinals at catcher, second, third, center and right fields.

Defensively, the teams are close – the Reds rank third in converting balls in play into outs, the Cardinals fourth. Put it all together, and the only surprise is that it took this long for the Reds to gel.

Now the question is whether the Reds, Cardinals or Pirates can chase down the Brewers.

THE PECKING ORDER IN ARIZONA

Outfielder Gerardo Parra might be among the least likely Diamondbacks to be traded.

Parra, 27, is a fan favorite in Arizona, and A.J. Pollock and Mark Trumbo remain on the disabled list, leaving the club short on experienced outfielders.

Another question with Parra is how much he would even bring back in a trade.

He’s earning $4.85 million in his second year of arbitration, yet is in his third straight year of offensive decline. He also amounts to little more than a platoon player, given his career .586 OPS against left-handers.

Third baseman Martin Prado, earning $11 million per season through 2016, is another player the D-Backs might prefer to keep.

Prado, 30, has been an offensive disappointment in his two seasons with the D-Backs, but club officials believe he puts too much pressure on himself and value his intangible qualities.

Second baseman Aaron Hill, 32, is the most expendable of the D-Backs’ position players, given the team’s surplus of middle infielders.

SAVE THEM, MOOKIE

As noted by Alex Speier of WEEI.com, Mookie Betts is the first Red Sox player to reach the majors three years after being drafted out of high school since Phil Plantier in 1990.

Betts, 21, was a career .312 hitter with an .869 OPS in the minors, and had roughly the same number of plate appearances (1,206) that Dustin Pedroia (1,216) and Jacoby Ellsbury (1,155) did when they joined the Red Sox.

True, Betts had far fewer plate appearances in Double-A and Triple-A than Pedroia and Ellsbury, but Sox officials considered the overall comparison when making their decision.

Of course, desperate times lead to desperate measures, too.

The Sox led the majors in runs last season, averaging 5.27 per game. This season they’re down nearly a run-and-a-half per game. Entering Sunday, they ranked 26th in runs - and 26th (gasp) in slugging percentage.

According to the team’s internal projections, only one hitter is performing above expectations – Brock Holt. That either means that many of their hitters are bound to recover to their career norms, or that the team is just not very good.

 

 

Something else to consider: One former member of the Red Sox said recently of second baseman Dustin Pedroia, “I think he is hurt and won’t say it. He can’t catch up with the fastball. That’s not him.”

Pedroia insists that he is healthy, and most with the Red Sox believe that he simply is trying too hard to carry the team. Still, Pedroia is not hitting the fastball the way he once did, a trend that coincides with his decline in OPS in recent seasons.

According to STATS LLC, here are Pedroia’s numbers against the fastball since 2011 (at-bats that ended in fastball).


2011: .350
2012: .322
2013: .284
2014: .283

Pedroia was at .274 entering the weekend, but went 3 for 5 on fastballs against the Yankees. Overall, he was 6 for 7 in the final two games.

THE MAGIC TOUCH . . . GONE

The Red Sox seemingly did no wrong during the 2012-13 offseason, hitting on virtually every move, from Shane Victorino to Mike Napoli to David Ross, Ryan Dempster to Jonny Gomes to Stephen Drew.

This past offseason was far less fruitful, and not simply because the team lost Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and, for the first two months, Stephen Drew.

Here is the tally sheet, thus far:


Grady Sizemore: Released.
Chris Capuano: Designated for assignment.
Jonathan Herrera: .295 on-base percentage.
A.J. Pierzynski: .278 on-base percentage.
Edward Mujica: 5.86 ERA.
Burke Badenhop: 1.73 ERA.

Pierzynski, 37, has been a lightning rod in Boston, in large part because he’s not doing the one thing that the team signed him to do – hit.

The Sox knew that Pierzynski would occasionally box balls defensively. They knew he might not be the most popular teammate. But quality left-handed hitting catchers are difficult to find, and Pierzynski had a long track record of offensive success.

His struggles eventually could lead the team to part with him and go with Christian Vazquez, an elite defensive prospect who currently is batting .274 with a .711 OPS at Triple A.

EQUIPPED TO HANDLE THE LOAD?

The Yankees’ Dellin Betances and Adam Warren  rank second and seventh in the AL, respectively, in relief innings pitched, but club officials aren’t especially concerned.

First off, Betances and Warren can carry heavier workloads because they previously were starters. Second, manager Joe Girardi is quite careful with his relievers, and usually gives Betances and Warren multiple days off after longer outings.

Some scouts fear that Betances is a “slinger” who is bound to get injured, but Girardi said the pitcher’s mechanics actually have improved now that he is using only two pitches, reducing his number of release points.

All that said, the Yankees will seek to add another reliever to increase their depth and reduce the burdens on Betances and Warren.

SABERMETRIC DEBATE I: DEFENSIVE METRICS

Two weeks ago, in a larger column that touched on how the Nationals will re-incorporate Bryce Harper, I wrote about the possibility of trading or benching center fielder Denard Span.

My exact words were these:

“Several Nationals veterans scoffed when I broached the idea to them last weekend, saying that Span was one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. The advanced metrics, while not always reliable in rating defense, do not support their contention.”

The following week, on our Braves-Nationals broadcast, I mentioned the same thing in shorter form, saying that Span’s defense is not as good as it was during his days with the Twins, without specifically referring to the numbers.

After the game, a Nationals official approached me and asked which metrics I was using, saying that the team’s internal measures still rated Span very highly.

I referred the official to John Dewan’s defensive runs saved and to Fangraphs’ defensive metric for the  2014 season. And the official, after examining the numbers himself, responded that perhaps my sample was too small, that Span’s rating on Fangraphs over 2013-14, his tenure with the Nationals, was quite good.

From there, I consulted with Fox Sports’ Rob Neyer, whose expertise on sabermetrics is far superior to mine. Rob said that because Span was so good in his previous seasons, these last few months probably shouldn’t change our opinion much.

Fair enough – and Span in the past week has made several spectacular plays, reinforcing the notion that he remains quite gifted defensively.

I look forward to Major League Baseball Advanced Media’s tracking technology giving us more reliable measures of defensive performance.

We’re not there yet.

SABERMETRIC DEBATE II: THE ART OF THE RBI

Many sabermetricians downplay the value of RBI, pointing out that the statistic hinges on opportunity and preferring instead to focus on rate stats such as on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

The Yankees’ Joe Girardi, a manager well-versed in metrics, takes more of an old-school view on this particular topic. Girardi describes Mark Teixeira as “a true RBI” guy, adding there is an “art” to driving in runs.

Teixeira, Girardi said, reacts differently to different situations, and his success at times stems from not trying to do too much. If a sacrifice fly is required, Teixeira will settle for a sacrifice fly, the sure RBI.

Sabermetricians long have debated whether clutch hitting is an actual skill, or even exists at all. No question, certain hitters get far more chances than others with runners in scoring position, helping produce a greater number of RBI. But Girardi’s explanation makes sense, too.

AROUND THE HORN

• At this point, it would be an upset if the Dodgers traded an outfielder. Carl Crawford remains on the disabled list with a sprained left ankle. Joc Pederson is on the minor-league DL with a separated shoulder. And Andre Ethier also has been dealing with assorted aches and pains.

All three are left-handed hitters, and Matt Kemp's right-handed power is only growing in importance with shortstop Hanley Ramirez facing his own injury issues. Kemp, batting .320 with a .905 OPS in June, finally is looking like the player he was in 2011 – too good to move.

Think about it: If the Dodgers traded Kemp and lost Ramirez as a free agent, their lineup would become sharply imbalanced at a time when right-handed power is in short supply. Both of the team's top offensive prospects, Pederson and infielder Corey Seager, bat left-handed.

• Yankees second baseman Brian Roberts is batting only .233 with a .309 OBP, but drawing raves from his teammates and coaches nonetheless. Roberts' .267 batting average on balls in play indicates that he is hitting into poor luck. He has hit the ball consistently hard, to the point where teammates ask, "When is this guy going to catch a break?"

Roberts works counts – he's second on the team in pitches per plate appearance, third in walk rate. Defensively he is above-average according to the advanced metrics, and particularly adept at turning double plays.

• The Tigers refrained from re-signing free-agent right-hander Joaquin Benoit last offseason because they didn't want to pay him closer money. But Benoit, who is holding opponents to a .203 batting average and .449 OPS with the Padres, still makes sense for his former team.

The Tigers know Benoit, who pitched for them from 2011 to '13. He could provide them with additional setup help. And, if the Tigers wanted, he could replace closer Joe Nathan, who has a 10.38 ERA in his last 13 innings.

Benoit, who turns 37 on July 26, is owed about $3 million this season and $8 million next season with an $8 million team option or $1.5 million buyout for 2016.

• A scout texted me last week and said, "I am watching the best pitcher on the Cubs – Jake Arrieta!" The scout wasn't exaggerating; Arrieta's stuff probably is the best of any Cubs starter right now - he’s throwing 95 to 96 mph with a 91-mph cutter.

Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel are the more likely Cubs right-handers to be traded; Arrieta is under club control through 2017, while Hammel hits free agency after this season and Samardzija after next.

Left-hander Travis Wood, under club control through '16, could be a candidate for an extension once the Cubs get through their annual rotation selloff. Take away two poor starts (out of 16), and Wood's ERA is 3.34. He is 27, Arrieta 28.

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