Angels score big with Frieri
The July 31 non-waiver deadline is still five weeks away. But it’s quite possible that the best deal of the 2012 season already has been made.
I’m not talking about Sunday’s trade of Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox to the White Sox — though the White Sox, at the very least, will get a highly motivated player.
No, I’m talking about the Angels’ acquisition of right-hander Ernesto Frieri from the Padres on May 3 — a move that transformed the Angels’ bullpen and helped turn around their season.
Frieri, who turns 27 on July 19, has gone from a reliever who was used mostly in low-leverage situations in San Diego to a closer who is dominating in Anaheim.
He was at it again in the Angels’ 5-3 victory over the Dodgers on Sunday, pitching 1 1/3 scoreless innings for his ninth save in nine opportunities.
Angels GM Jerry Dipoto, take a bow.
Frieri, in 22 innings since joining the Angels, has yet to allow a run. In fact, he has allowed only four hits.
Of Frieri’s 66 outs, 38 are by strikeout. His 15.55 strikeouts per nine innings lead all AL relievers. The one negative? His 5.7 walks per nine innings, the second highest rate in the league.
The Padres were concerned that Frieri didn’t throw enough strikes, and they dealt from strength in their bullpen to acquire infielder Alexi Amarista, who is now their utility man, and right-hander Donn Roach, who is a combined 10-1 with a 1.87 ERA at Single A and Double A.
Some rival executives grumble that the Padres didn’t shop Frieri more aggressively to other teams, but few clubs were as desperate as the Angels were for relief help in early May. In fact, the Angels are still looking for late-inning help, and outfielder Peter Bourjos could be a useful chip.
Relievers are notoriously volatile. Frieri surely won’t sustain his current performance. But talk about a steal: Frieri isn’t eligible for arbitration until after 2013 and free agency until after ’16.
For $489,100, he will end up providing greater value than any other player who changes teams before July 31.
Heck, he already has.
THEY LIKE IKE
The way the Mets stuck with first baseman Ike Davis says a lot about Davis, about manager Terry Collins and about the cohesiveness of the club.
Collins told the FOX broadcasters Saturday that the Mets strongly considered demoting Davis, who on May 22 was batting .156 with a .503 OPS.
Why didn’t they make a move?
“The feeling in that clubhouse was that Ike Davis should be here,” Collins said.
Players normally don’t make personnel decisions, and technically didn’t make this one, either. But Collins says he is more attentive to the pulse of his club than he was in his previous stints with the Astros and Angels. And he could sense the fondness that his players had for Davis, how badly they wanted him to succeed.
When Davis fouled off a pitch during a game in Pittsburgh on May 23, Collins said he looked down his bench and saw David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner yelling encouragement, “You’re on it! That’s better!” Another night, Wright lingered in the clubhouse, waiting for Davis to emerge from a post-game meeting with Collins.
The players told Collins, “We need him. We need his power.” Davis also is an excellent defender, and the Mets didn’t see much value in him going to Triple A when he ultimately needed to prove himself in the majors.
Consider Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who was batting .197 with a .539 OPS when the team demoted him on May 19. Sanchez mashed at Triple A, but resumed slumping upon returning to the majors. The Blue Jays’ Adam Lind, who returns from Triple A on Monday, will face the same challenge.
Davis, on the other hand, lost some playing time, but gradually revived. He has produced a .788 OPS in his last 96 plate appearances, and has hit three of his eight total homers in his last 10 starts.
The Mets’ loyalty to him – both from his manager and teammates – is being rewarded.
“I’ve been in clubhouses where guys are rooting against each other, where someone else wants to play,” Collins said, sitting in his office. “That’s not the mood in there.”
CESPEDES MAKING AN IMPACT
I wasn’t alone in thinking that the Athletics’ signing of Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million contract was a major gamble.
Athletics GM Billy Beane knew he was taking a risk, considering that Cespedes had never played an inning in the U.S. But so far, it’s difficult to argue with the decision.
Cespedes, despite missing time with a strained left hamstring and strained muscle in his left hand, is batting .270 with an .814 OPS and seven homers in 152 at-bats.
The A’s are 23-18 when he is in the lineup, 12-20 without him.
“From the day we got him, he’s improved from at-bat to at-bat, not month to month,” Beane said.
“I was pretty concerned. It’s a huge jump for this kid. He came in the middle of spring training. I thought there would be more pain than gain. But the thing that helps him is that he’s mentally tough.
“He can look bad on one swing and it will have nothing to do with the swing after. The following swing, he’ll completely forget about it and make an adjustment.”
HELP FOR THE NATS?
For some time now, the Nationals have been poking for a right-handed hitting corner infielder – someone who could fill the role intended for Mark DeRosa, who has struggled with declining performance and injury.
The Nats’ problem during their search has been two-fold – a lack of available hitters, plus a fear that the team would be unable to create enough at-bats for the player they acquired.
It will be interesting to see whether third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s troublesome right shoulder forces the Nats to intensify their pursuit. Zimmerman received a cortisone shot Sunday and plans to play through his injury. But at the very least, he might need occasional rest.
Something else to watch with the Nats: The continued improvement of left-hander John Lannan, who has allowed one earned run in four of his last five starts at Triple A.
Lannan gives the Nats protection if any of their starters is injured, or if they want to back off right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who is on a limit of 160 to 165 innings, according to club officials.
Lannan also is increasing his value as a trade candidate, and the Nats continue to push him in conversations with other clubs. By July 31, his remaining salary will be about $1.7 million.
MIKE TROUT STAT OF THE WEEK
For all of Mike Trout’s offensive prowess, his defense in center field for the Angels has been just as impressive – maybe even more impressive.
Trout, according to John Dewan’s plus-minus ratings at Bill James Online, leads all center fielders at plus-20 – this, despite making only 35 starts at the position (Phillies center fielder Shane Victorino, by contrast, has made 72 starts).
A player’s plus-minus rating represents the number of plays that he made above or below the number that an average fielder would make, according to the video scouts at Baseball Info Solutions.
Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie is the overall major-league leader at plus-36. The Jays also have two other players who are first at their positions – shortstop Yunel Escobar at plus-21 and left fielder Rajai Davis at plus-11.
A TREND THAT WILL NOT LAST
The scary thing about the Yankees is that they still can improve; they’re not going to hit .219 with runners in scoring position all season.
The major-league average with RISP is .252. The Yankees’ average last season was .273.
Seriously, it’s difficult to believe that the Yankees will make history with their futility in the clutch. Consider the lowest averages with RISP since 1974 in the following categories of success, according to STATS LLC.
World Series champion: 2010 Giants, .248.
League champion: 1981 Yankees, .243.
90-win team: 1983 Dodgers, .222.
Even if the Yankees only get to .243, it means they will hit quite well with runners in scoring position the rest of the way.
GUTHRIE NOT YET ON THE GO
The Rockies have cooled on the idea of trading right-hander Jeremy Guthrie – at least for the moment – figuring he could thrive in their new pitching system.
The team is using four starters, limiting each to 75 pitches, but wants to deploy as many as seven depending upon matchups, viewing the pitchers as interchangeable parts.
Guthrie is durable and bounces back quickly, so the Rockies’ current position is that they will trade him only if a team offers them talent or salary relief; Guthrie still is owed more than $4.5 million.
Of course, the Rockies can’t get either until Guthrie rebuilds his value. Could happen: Guthrie, who had a 7.02 ERA as a starter, has worked 6 1/3 scoreless innings in his first two relief appearances.
PITTSBURGH AGREES WITH HIM
Say what you want about Pirates right-hander A.J. Burnett, but right now the pitcher looks like a strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.
Burnett allowed 12 runs against the Cardinals on May 2, but in his other 11 starts he is – ahem – 8-1 with a 1.87 ERA.
He might not make the All-Star team – center fielder Andrew McCutchen and right-hander James McDonald are more worthy Pirates – but what a find for Pittsburgh.
The Yankees paid $18 million of the $31 million that Burnett was owed on the final two years of his contract. Club officials said they traded Burnett in part to clear salary for the signings of Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez.
STAY HEALTHY, BOYS
Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum looked better in his last start, and the team needs both him and left-hander Barry Zito even more than you might imagine.
Rotation depth is not the Giants’ strong suit.
Right-hander Brad Penny, pitching at Triple A, could be a fallback, but recently had shoulder trouble and is more likely to pitch in relief.
Lefty Eric Surkamp has yet to pitch this season due to an elbow injury. Right-hander Eric Hacker is 10-3 with a 4.04 ERA at Triple A, while righty Chris Heston is 6-2 with a 1.36 ERA at Double A. Hacker, 29, is a minor-league veteran. Heston was not ranked among the Giants’ Top 30 prospects by Baseball America prior to the season.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Diamondbacks, next-to-last in the NL in OPS at third base, backed off Youkilis in part because they feared how he would perform defensively on the hard, fast infield at Chase Field.
D-backs officials remain confident in their club overall, and not simply because the team has won 14 of 20 games and ranks third in the league in OPS and fourth in runs per game.
The expected return of shortstop Stephen Drew on Wednesday will give the D-Backs power at every position, and the club is 31-14 when it hits a home run.
• The Angels also had no interest in Youkilis, even though they rank 12th in the AL in OPS at third. Alberto Callaspo is showing offensive improvement, batting .298 with an .841 OPS in June.
The trade for Frieri filled perhaps the Angels’ biggest need. But like most clubs, they remain on the prowl for relievers, possibly a left-on-left type who would be an upgrade over Hisanori Takahashi.
The Angels have sought to add rotation depth since the start of spring training, but more for Triple A depth than anything. Most teams would love to have a No. 6 starter as good as right-hander Garrett Richards, who is 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA in four starts.
• People always talk about how much money the Yankees spend, but assistant GM Billy Eppler and his pro scouting staff deserve credit for two low-budget finds – lefty Clay Rapada, who signed a minor-league deal at the start of spring training, and righty Cody Eppley, who was claimed on waivers from the Rangers just before Opening Day.
Left-handed hitters are batting .135 off Rapada, right-handed hitters .200 off Eppley. Righty Cory Wade was another such addition last season, and the Yankees can take such fliers in part because manager Joe Girardi is so good at handling his bullpen.
• Remember in 2010, when the Reds were swept by the Phillies in the Division Series in part because they lacked dominant starting pitching?
The current Reds, with right-handers Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos at the top of their rotation, could be better suited for the postseason – if Latos becomes more consistent.
The Reds, though, still would need to find a No. 3 starter from a group consisting of righties Bronson Arroyo, Mike Leake and Homer Bailey, all of whom have ERAs of 4.19 or above. The NL average is 3.95.
• Talk of Tigers right-hander Rick Porcello as a trade candidate makes sense – Porcello, a groundball pitcher, is ill-suited to succeed on a team with poor infield defense.
Porcello, though, is getting expensive – he’s earning $3.1 million this season and has two more years of arbitration remaining. For all his talent, his career ERA-plus is 92, and 100 is considered average.
• The Braves will be a team to watch at the deadline, particularly now that right-hander Brandon Beachy is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Might the Braves pursue a reliever as well as a starter, given the recent struggles of lefty Jonny Venters? Maybe not, but several veterans thought the team needed relief help at this time last season, and that bullpen was performing better than this one.
While the players welcomed the addition of center fielder Michael Bourn, they had the same concern as many outside observers – that manager Fredi Gonzalez was leaning heavily on Venters, lefty Erik O’Flaherty and right-handed closer Craig Kimbrel.
• Center fielder Alejando De Aza is one of the White Sox’s quiet success stories, providing a .368 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot.
White Sox people credit Joe McEwing, De Aza’s manager at Triple A last season, and Tim Laker, the Triple A hitting coach, with helping the 6-foot, 190-pound De Aza grasp that he needed to play more of a small man’s game.
McEwing is now the White Sox’s third base coach. The White Sox claimed De Aza on waivers from the Marlins on Oct. 21, 2009.
• And finally, here’s Mets catcher Josh Thole on what he would say to any catcher who gets paired with right-handed knuckle-baller R.A. Dickey at the All-Star Game:
“The only advice I can give is that you’re not catching a 60-mph knuckler,” Thole said. “Wake (Tim Wakefield) threw 65. If you knocked it down, you knew it would be right in front of you.
“If you knock a ball down from R.A. and it goes off your glove, it’s going. It’s not landing at your feet, typically.”