Look out for Red Sox’s next wave of infielders
Some of the Red Sox’s early struggles could be attributed to their incorporation of younger players such as shortstop Xander Bogaerts, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and third baseman Will Middlebrooks.
Championship teams rarely embark upon such an extensive transition, but this is only the beginning for Boston. The amount of infield talent in their farm system, in particular, is stunning, and eventually will force club officials to make a number of fascinating decisions.
In the Red Sox’s view, Double-A shortstop Deven Merrero is an elite defender who is showing improved offensive capability. Triple-A third baseman Garin Cecchini is a terrific hitter with off-the-charts makeup and instincts. And Double-A second baseman Mookie Betts … wow.
Betts, 21, has batted “only” .317 with a .794 OPS in his last 10 games, dropping his overall numbers to .396 and 1.055. One scout who saw him in a recent series said, “He centered every ball. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a kid in a series on everything the way he was in that series.”
Betts obviously is not going to play second for the Red Sox, not with Dustin Pedroia signed through 2021. But he takes fly balls in the outfield during batting practice, and one club official said, “He looks so good out there our staff doesn’t feel he would need much time to get ready if needed.”
The left side of the infield, meanwhile, could become even more crowded; the Sox will not have room to accommodate Bogaerts, Marrero, Middlebrooks and Cecchini. Middlebrooks might be the least assured of sticking long term. Cecchini or even Bogaerts potentially could move to left field.
Cecchini is 6-foot-3, 220 pounds but stole 51 bases in the South Atlantic League in 2012. He’s a something of a character, too, in the mold of Pedroia. Before his first at-bat in major-league spring training, he shook the plate umpire’s hand.
THE EVOLUTION OF PUIG
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, in citing Yasiel Puig’s improved plate discipline, told the FOX broadcasters last Saturday that Adrian Gonzalez has started a contest with Puig to see who gets on base the most in each series.
Puig is still seeing about the same number of pitches per plate appearance — 3.57 last season, 3.62 this season, both below the league average. But he has improved his walk rate from one every 12 plate appearances to one every 9.06.
“It’s his biggest jump forward, especially with men in scoring position,” Mattingly said. “You’ll still see him get excited, but he gets it back together.”
Puig’s OBP with none on: .349.
With runners on: .478.
With runners in scoring position: .491.
With runners in scoring position and two outs: .571.
He has 83 plate appearances with none on, 71 with runners on, 58 with runners in scoring position and 28 with runners in scoring position and two outs.
SPEAKING OF PUIG …
He now has a streak of two consecutive bat flips without angering opponents — an encouraging sign.
Puig, you might have noticed, isn’t the game’s only demonstrative player. After his dustup with Madison Bumgarner last Friday night, some Dodgers noted that Giants center fielder Angel Pagan often makes exaggerated gestures on the field and no one takes offense.
Puig’s bat flip and slow trot after his home run were mild by his standards. He flipped his bat again after home runs on Sunday and Monday. But his victim Sunday, Tim Hudson, said he didn’t mind: “He hit the piss out of it, so I probably would have flipped it, too.”
Though Bumgarner was upset over losing his shutout, players need to stop bristling at every show of emotion. It’s not 1965. Such displays — as long as they do not show up the opponent — are good entertainment and good for the game.
That report was not entirely accurate.
The actual offer, according to major-league sources, was four years, $7.6 million guaranteed, with the chance for Springer to make $23 million if the Astros exercised three club options.
The distinction is significant — a team will exercise an option only when a player is worth its dollar value or more, and decline an option when a player is worth less.
In any case, Springer’s rejection of the deal hardly qualifies as a surprise, even though at the time he had yet to reach the majors.
Springer, 24, already had received a $2.52 million signing bonus as the 11th pick of the 2011 draft. He will earn much more than the Astros offered if he becomes a quality major leaguer.
Clubs are increasing their efforts to sign pre-arbitration players and even top minor leaguers long-term, agents say. But the trend is still so new, teams and players are struggling to determine proper contract values.
The Pirates, meanwhile, did not complete a deal with Triple-A outfielder Gregory Polanco, who rejected six- and seven-year guarantees in the $20 million to $25 million range, sources say.
The length and value of Polanco’s contract would have hinged on whether he compiled enough service time to qualify for an extra year of arbitration. His offer also included three club options that would have increased the total value to more than $50 million, sources say.
LOOK! AN IMPERFECTION WITH TROUT
It’s difficult to find fault with the Angels’ Mike Trout, but his strikeout rate has risen from one every 5.26 plate appearances last season to one every 3.62 through his first 37 games — the 22nd-highest rate in the majors, according to STATS LLC.
Trout said in spring training that he would try to be more aggressive early in counts, but he continues to rarely swing at first pitches — his rate of 12.4 percent is the same as last season, and the 13th lowest in the majors.
Meanwhile, Trout has been in two-strike counts in 60 percent of his plate appearances, far above the major-league average of 50.4 percent. During a recent MLB on FOX broadcast, I asked his father, Jeff, what Mike could do to improve his game.
“He’s got to learn to cut down on his strikeouts a little bit. I’d like to see him do that,” said Jeff, who was an infielder in the Twins’ system from 1983 to ’86.
BETTER SIDEWAYS THAN STRAIGHT AHEAD
Rockies defensive whiz Nolan Arenado is slowing down a bit — he has made three errors in his last nine games, seven overall. Still, he is tied for second in defensive runs saved at third base, according to BillJamesOnline. Arenado and the Reds’ Todd Frazier have saved six runs, the Athletics’ Josh Donaldson nine.
The amazing thing about Arenado, in the view of one scout, is that though he is a below-average runner, his lateral agility comparable to that of Scott Rolen, one of the best defensive third baseman in major-league history.
Rolen was a better athlete and had greater reach, but Arenado’s ability to make the backhand play and jump throw is almost unparalleled, the scout said. Yet, the scout rates Arenado a “20” runner, at the bottom of the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
The average running time to first base for a right-handed hitter is 4.3 seconds. Arenado is 4.5 to 4.6, and unlike most players, barely lifts his knees while running, the scout said.
THE PANDA: FUTURE UNCERTAIN
As I reported on Saturday’s pregame show on FOX Sports 1, the Giants aren’t ruling out keeping third baseman Pablo Sandoval, even though the team’s contract negotiations with him currently are on hold.
Sandoval, 27, is a gifted if inconsistent hitter. The Giants have a long history of retaining their own players. But the club is obligated to at least consider other alternatives, no?
The other potential free agents at third base include the Padres’ Chase Headley, Marlins’ Casey McGehee and the Brewers’ Aramis Ramirez, if he declines his end of a $14 million mutual option.
It’s not a spectacular group — Headley has gone backward after his breakout in 2012, McGehee is re-establishing himself after spending last year in Japan and Ramirez will turn 37 next season.
But the Giants, following the lead of the Athletics and other clubs, also could try to piece together the position if they cannot find the right player at the right price.
Joaquin Arias, off to a slow start, is under contract for next season. Adam Duvall, who has 12 home runs in 148 at-bats at Triple-A, could be another possibility. Surely, other names will surface, too.
If anything, the Giants might be emboldened by their success at replacing the injured Marco Scutaro thus far. Their primary second baseman is Brandon Hicks, whom they signed as a minor-league free agent last Nov. 27.
Hicks is batting only .204, but he also has hit seven home runs, elevating his OPS to a healthy .781. He also has impressed manager Bruce Bochy with his toughness and has proven adept at turning the double play.
THE ROYALS: WHO ARE THESE GUYS?
A rival scout made a great point on the Royals, saying that their offensive players are so inconsistent that he struggles to assign them values on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.
“Who is Hosmer?” the scout asked. “Who is Gordon?”
First baseman Eric Hosmer originally projected to be a “70,” or perennial All-Star, but instead might be only a “60,” an above-average player. Left fielder Alex Gordon looked like a “60” in 2011 and ’12, but no more.
Only two Royals regulars — Hosmer and catcher Salvador Perez — currently are above league average in OPS-plus, which is OPS normalized to a player’s league and ballpark.
“Hard to believe,” one rival executive said.
NATIONALS’ ROARK: A TRIUMPH OF SCOUTING
So, I’m checking out right-hander Tanner Roark’s latest impressive start for the Nationals, thinking, “How did the Nats get this guy, anyway?”
Turns out they absolutely stole right-hander him from the Rangers for infielder Cristian Guzman.
The trade — Guzman and cash for Roark and right-hander Ryan Tatusko — occurred on July 30, 2010. The Nats were looking to move as much of the remainder of Guzman’s $8 million salary as possible. The Rangers needed infield help because Ian Kinsler had just gone on the DL with a strained left groin.
Roark was 23 at the time, a 25th round pick in 2008 who was performing unspectacularly at Double-A. But the Nats, according to general manager Mike Rizzo, had a special insight into the pitcher; one of their scouts, Jay Robertson, had previously worked for the Rangers and liked Roark.
Robertson wrote in his report that Roark’s stuff was solid-average and that he had average command, Rizzo recalled. But Robertson praised Roark’s demeanor and said that if he could locate his 91-92-mph fastball, he would stand a chance of helping the Nationals.
Rizzo also credited the Nats’ player development department for encouraging Roark to pitch aggressively and not nibble. Even then, the team required patience. Roark was 6-17 with a 4.39 ERA at Triple-A in 2012. Few would have predicted that he would produce a 2.48 ERA in his first 98 major-league innings.
Tatusko, who has a 2.15 ERA in his first seven starts at Triple-A, still could get to the majors “somehow, somewhere with somebody,” Rizzo said.
He batted .152 with a .378 OPS in only 15 games with the Rangers after the trade, missing time with a strained right quadriceps. He did not play again after that season.
A MATTER OF WEEKS
Might a trade market develop for Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks, who is playing mostly against left-handers in a job-sharing arrangement with Scooter Gennett?
Well, Weeks is making $11 million in the final year of his contract, but he looks better offensively this season, batting .318 with a .739 OPS in 48 plate appearances.
The problem for the Brewers, if they want to move Weeks, will be finding a match.
The Cardinals and Orioles offer perhaps the most logical fits — both clubs struggle against left-handers and get little offense out of second base. But it’s doubtful the Brewers would trade Weeks within the division, and the Orioles’ greater need figures to be pitching.
The Indians, Royals, Mariners and Dodgers are the bottom four clubs in OPS against left-handers, but all are set at second base.
AROUND THE HORN
• A scout from a team with a need at shortstop said he recently went to see the Diamondbacks’ Didi Gregorius at Triple-A, only to find him at second base. Gregorius has played 23 games at second and 15 at short, but there is an explanation.
Nick Ahmed, the D-Backs’ other shortstop at Triple-A, is a gifted defender and would lose value if he started playing different positions. Gregorius, meanwhile, represents insurance in the event of an injury to the D-Backs’ major-league second baseman, Aaron Hill.
Club officials remain in no rush to move Gregorius, except perhaps if they could get a quality young starting pitcher in return. Still, a future middle infield of Gregorius and Chris Owings only will become realistic if the D-Backs trade Hill, who is earning $12 million this season and $12 million in ’15.
• Athletics third baseman Donaldson remains one of the game’s most underrated players. His defensive metrics are stellar, and after starting the season 2 for 22, he is now 20th in the AL with an .813 OPS.
“I love to watch him play,” an AL manager said. “He’s a football player on the field. Adds a lot of dimensions to that team.”
• The Reds’ bullpen, which has thrown a major-league-low 82 1/3 innings, should attain even greater stability now that left-hander Aroldis Chapman is back in the closer’s role.
Right-hander Sam LeCure’s average fastball velocity has dropped from 89.3 mph last season to 86.8 this season, but his results have been excellent. Lefty Sean Marshall, whose stuff has diminished due to shoulder trouble, showed signs in Boston last Wednesday that he soon could return to a prominent role, striking out Mike Carp and Pedroia with the bases loaded.
The Reds need improvement from righties J.J. Hoover and Logan Ondrusek, but they will be in good shape if they can lead up to Chapman with LeCure and Jonathan Broxton from the right side and Marshall and Manny Parra from the left.
*Stephen Drew alert: Though the Tigers are fourth in the AL in OPS against right-handers, the addition of Drew, a left-handed hitter, still would qualify as an offensive and defensive upgrade.
Tigers shortstop Andrew Romine, a switch hitter, has batted .185 with a .470 OPS in 61 plate appearances against righties this season. His career numbers — .229 with a .536 OPS in 192 plate appearances — aren’t much better.
Actually, I’d bet that Yelich turns out even better than Hayes, who had an OPS-plus of 113 in 12 major-league seasons. Hayes made one All-Star team. Yelich, 22, could exceed that.
• A scout on Mariners rookie left-hander Roenis Elias: “There is a lot of effort in his delivery. He’s not a real big guy (6-1, 190). I see him as a fifth starter with a chance to be a ‘4.’ The best thing about him is that he competes. But his command is not good enough.”
Elias produced a 3.50 ERA in his first eight starts but issued 20 walks in 46 1/3 innings.