December 2013

Yes-The Game Has Changed

I don’t think there’s any doubt that the baseball games we watch today are vastly different than those ten years ago. Well, maybe a bit longer. The point is that the game has changed.

I enjoy it even more now than I did then. And believe me, I loved it then.

How and why has the game changed?

There are countless reasons. I’ll share a few that I think are pertinent. You will likely have many more. But for me, these are the most obvious reasons things have changed in the game we love.

For me, one of the most prominent changes has been the increase in use of the “cutter.” The cut fastball, used by pitchers to get late life on a pitch from the pitcher’s glove side has made a tremendous difference in the way in which a pitcher approaches a hitter. The cutter comes on fastball counts. It comes at any count. And it has that late bite that differentiates it from a slider or a fastball. It’s an awesome pitch. Thank you Mariano Rivera for making it an art form.

Teams employ many more individuals charged with keeping players healthy. More trainers. More specialists. Nutritionists. Mental health experts. Motivational personnel. Each plays a part in keeping a player on the field. And healthy. Fitness and core conditioning are crucial. More today than in the past.

Research and the availability of data has changed the way teams deploy and obtain their players. Especially on defense. “The shift” has taken away common hitting zones for many guys with consistent tendencies. Defensive shifts will increase. They will continue to be impactful.

Research guides teams to players that fit the team’s goals and objectives. Every possible statistic is available instantly. Advance scouting is as simplified as pulling up a computer screen. Knowledge is power. Teams have knowledge.

Showcase and travel team events have exposed players at an earlier age and for a longer period of time than in the past. It is not unusual for a player to be involved in 120 games a year if the player is serious about his future and is on the radar of professional scouts. Marginal players can increase their skills markedly by being involved in games and leagues beyond those available on their high school team’s schedule.

By the time a pitcher is selected in the First Year Player Draft he may have an untold number of innings on his shoulder and elbow. That may be good in some cases. Very bad in others. There is no way to get the toothpaste back in the tube. That is not going to change. Pitchers will come to professional baseball with loads of innings pitched. It’s actually scary. And perhaps why we see so many pitcher injuries.

On the positive side, hitters come to the game having had many, many more at-bats than in the past. Repetition is crucial. Repetition and seeing live pitching refines hitters.

While we have always had good coaches, we have coaches now that are much more aware of the components required to become a good baseball player. Sure, there are bad coaches. But for the most part, ask a professional player about the baseball influences in their lives. “My dad and coach…….” Baseball dads know the game. Coaches know the game. Believe it or not, they may be even more involved today than in the past. And yes, they were involved in the past. But today-playing games in junior high school and high school trumps eating for some families.

Conditioning. Nutrition. Awareness. Most good athletes know what is going in their body from a nutritional standpoint. The research, information and availability of natural foods has helped young athletes mature in a stronger and healthier manner.

Social networking, the internet, and sharing of information between and among peers and coaches has never been as important or more prominent. That won’t change. Sharing of information and learning from one another is here to stay.

Finally- back where I began. Pitching. Relief pitchers throw in the high, high 90’s. In the past, only a few could do that. Most power pitchers were starters. Today, we have power pitchers in the pen that blow hitters away with fastballs in the high 90’s and then throw in the cutter or slider along the way. They have awesome arms.

And yes, it seems to me that pitchers are getting even bigger and stronger. Bigger, stronger and with better command and control. Tougher to hit. Big guys are hitting fewer home runs.

Yes-I agree. Many of these components existed before. But it is the depth and intensity and commitment that I believe has changed our game. For the good. And oh yes, don’t forget the cutter.

Follow me on MLBPipeline.com and MLB.com as well as on twitter @BerniePleskoff.
And as always, thanks for reading my work.

That’s it. I’m done. And please, please have a healthy and Happy New Year.

Roster Reality Is Lurking In The Shadows

Like most sports, baseball is a game of momentum.

The Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates are four teams that captured some momentum last season after time spent in previous season trying to be competitive.

Perhaps the stars aligned for them. But more probably, astute business and baseball related decisions put each of those four clubs in the mainstream of baseball conversation. Their fans were energized and renewed. Their front offices were rewarded for making good decisions in most cases. Not all, but most. Money was spent. Tough decisions were made.

Now, fast forward a year. Those same four teams seem to be challenged once again.

Each of those renewed franchises seems to be running in place while their division opposition sprints towards the starting blocks of a new season.

Consider that the American League East Yankees now boast a lineup featuring former Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury. Not to mention the addition of catcher Brian McCann and the outstanding Carlos Beltran.

In the American League Central, the Tigers have lost Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta and pitcher Doug Fister, but they made some significant additions to fill unmet needs. They now have premiere closer Joe Nathan to lock the door in the 9th inning. Ian Kinsler can set the table for Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who all remain. Rajai Davis has joined the club as a possible platoon in left field with Andy Dirks. We need not feel sorry for the Tigers.

In the National League East, virtually every club will be impacted by the already strong St. Louis Cardinals adding Peralta as their shortstop and Peter Bourjos in center. I do feel the defense of Bourjos coupled with the offense offered by Peralta will make an almost perfectly balanced Cardinals attack even stronger. Not to mention that Randal Grichuck could be a real sleeper in the deal with the Angels.

My point? At least one, if not more teams in the AL East, Al Central, and NL Central where the Orioles, Indians, Royals and Pirates hang out got significantly better. All while the four clubs in question decided to play the hands they have been dealt.

We are not in the privacy of the conference rooms. We haven’t heard the discussions with ownership. We can only surmise that each general manager has made a case to knock the door down now while the opportunity exists. We can also surmise the payroll money was not made available or the team’s philosophy didn’t agree with the requests.

It’s not our money.

However, the game has changed. Even the greatest of front offices can only come up with so many rabbits in their hats before the bigger, badder and more prosperous teams in the same competitive environment, playing under the same rules, come and lick the platter clean of the best available players.

General managers in markets that do not choose to spend freely are fortunate when they make a great decision on one “outlier” type player. But more than one per season? That’s a real stretch. There are just so many Scott Kazmir rebounds available. Just so many Jason Grilli type closers to be discovered hanging around. And then those reclamation projects get pricey. But someone else pays that price. Always.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes a bit more with each new free agent signing or great trade made by an opponent.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes a bit more when a Justin Masterson hits free agency and may go the way of C C Sabathia, Cliff Lee, or Victor Martinez.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes when realization hits that a Chris Davis/Matt Wieters combination in the future may cost the club so much of their payroll that signing them long term is deemed an unacceptable option. No Joe Mauer situation for the Orioles. I don’t see that coming at all.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes when a club realizes that a brief rental of Ervin Santana helped a pitching staff bolstered by the acquisition of James Shields, but now must return to “hope” instead of confidence. Santana lengthened the rotation. I’m not sure Jason Vargas will have the same impact. But maybe.

And so it is. The teams on the cusp of hoisting a championship trophy next fall continue to remain competitive and strive to improve. The teams that saw their candle brighten for a season or two may well be looking at a mere flicker as December turns to January which turns to February and ultimately turns to March. And then reality arrives.

Where did the off season go? What happened to our window of opportunity? Why didn’t we slam in the door and play with the big guys?

There are still free agent pitchers and players available to help many, many clubs. So, we wait. We wait to find out. Will those four stand pat?

So alas, dear friends. The off season isn’t over. Hope remains. One thing is certain, however. Reality is lurking in the shadows. Roster construction is just a few months away. And that’s when roster reality becomes, well….roster reality.

Follow me on MLBPipeline.com, MLB.com and on twitter @BerniePleskoff. As as always, thank you.

 

Leaving Orlando-Final Thoughts

I didn’t file a blog yesterday just to find out who’s paying attention and who isn’t. I hope you missed me.

Anyway-here I am again. The final day in Orlando. But there are some crumbs remaining from yesterday that still must be swept.

The Seattle Mariners have been feeling great pressure to change their fortunes. And they are spending a fortune to make those changes.

After signing Robbie Cano, the Mariners have picked up both Logan Morrison from the Marlins and Corey Hart from the Brewers. Both are slated to play in the outfield, leaving Justin Smoak to continue playing 1B. Of course, that may change during Spring Training.

Morrison cost the Mariners promising right-handed reliever Carter Capps.

I am a fan of the hard-throwing Capps. I think he has upside as a late inning reliever. If he refines his command, he might even become a closer one day. He’s only 23, but he struggled on the big league stage last season. He needs more time to develop.

Morrison is a big guy at 6-foot-4, 235-pounds. He hits left-handed.

Hart is the big prize in my opinion. The Brewers really wanted him back. He suffered from injuries to both knees and will be working hard to regain his prior form as an impact right-handed power hitter. He can be a game-changing bat in the middle of the lineup. But he will be faced with a vast home field that doesn’t play well for power hitters.

Incidentally, Morrison also had two knee surgeries himself.

So in a very short time, the Mariners have added some impact bats to their arsenal. Both coming off bum knee issues and both looking for a fresh start.

The deal is not yet official.

The Hart deal sends the Brewers back to the drawing board to find their first baseman. It could very well be former Rays hitter James Loney, himself a free agent.

For me, the three new Mariners represent an upgrade on the overall roster, but it also leaves roster questions. Who goes or loses a job when Morrison and Hart are added?
With Morrison and Hart at the corners, does Dustin Ackley stay in center? That might not be the best defensive outfield we’ll see this coming season. I’m trying to be kind here. Do they try to re-sign the fine fielding Franklin Gutierrez to patrol center? Can he stay healthy? He’s been put on the shelf in winter baseball due to illness. What happens to Nick Franklin? Is he now just a spare part infielder? Or do they trade some of the guys on the edges?

Yesterday there was a luncheon with managers. I sat at Kirk Gibson’s table with three Dbacks public relations guys and 4 other writers. It was fascinating to watch Gibson get the opinion of those at the table without giving much information in return. I came away convinced the club is still chasing a top notch starter, but it may not happen here at the Winter Meetings or this week. I think they want Matt Garza.

The afternoon was highlighted by a Scout Of The Year reception. 4 awards are given, spread throughout the country. I was thrilled that my mentor from my time with Seattle, 92-year-old Bill Kearns won an award. He’s a wonderful man and he taught me a great deal. I have never-and I mean never-heard Kearns say a bad word about anyone.

They had some nice food at the reception. But for some reason, I haven’t been hungry. I nibbled on turkey and had a great chocolate chip cookie. Actually, I’m hungry right now. Haven’t eaten yet today.

They served the same meal at the manager’s lunch that I had the day before at the MLB Awards lunch. Some type of pasta with tomato sauce and frayed chicken. Yikes! The rolls were great because they had sunflower seeds on them. I just nibbled at the pasta. Generally, I love pasta. But not this type.

Last night the boss took us to a great Cuban restaurant in Celebration. It was more food than I can eat. But the stories of our MLB.com veteran reporters were legendary. I just sat there and listened and laughed. Believe me when I tell you these guys could stay up all night and reflect on their days on the beat. Just great, great writers. And wonderful guys.

I drove to the restaurant. It took me 15 minutes to find my rental car here in the hotel. I was embarrassed, but finally found it. Thanks to Siri we found the restaurant.

This morning was the Rule 5 Draft. Not much action. And most players don’t stick that are selected in Rule 5. But it’s fun to watch. It’s like a lightning round on a game show. Blink and you’ll miss a selection.

I leave this afternoon for my home in Phoenix.

It’s been a great four days here at the Winter Meetings. I’ll continue to write the blog and post scouting profiles on MLBPipeline.com and MLB.com until Spring Training. Then-I’m off to Florida as well as watching spring games at home in the Valley of the Sun.

So keep up with he. And as always, thanks. And I hope you’ll follow me @BerniePleskoff on twitter.

That’s it. I’m done.

 

Day Two-General Managers Step Up

Day two of the Winter Meetings featured a blockbuster deal between the White Sox, the Angels and the Diamondbacks.

I invite you to read my take on the deal on MLB.com.

For now-here are my comments that I didn’t have room for in the article.

Almost to a person, my twitter followers don’t like the deal for the Dbacks. They feel Trumbo strikes out too much and has a very poor on-base percentage. They think giving up Skaggs and Eaton was a hefty price to pay.

White Sox fans don’t like the deal because they are looking for more than Adam Eaton to solve their woes.

Angels fans have really not come forward either for or against the trade. Maybe I don’t have lots of Angels followers.

Chase Field is a hitter’s paradise. If a hitter can hit a pitcher’s mistake (cookie down the middle or high fastball, for example) the ball will fly out of the park. Think of Trumbo with Prado, Parra or someone else on base. Then Goldschmidt following him. It could be 90 homers between Trumbo and Goldy.

I don’t think Eaton helps the White Sox much immediately. He has to get on base to run. He has to take charge in the outfield. He will get better. I think the guy that eventually helps the White Sox is Avisail Garcia. In two years he’ll be a real force. He and Eaton will grow together. I think Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo are both vulnerable. I look for one, or both, to be traded.

The Angels will give Santiago a chance to make the rotation. It will give them Jared Weaver, and C J Wilson, as anchors and then Skaggs, Santiago and maybe Garrett Richards as the back end of the rotation. Not bad. They improved their pitching. But the price was steep. G M Jerry Dipoto indicated Albert Pujols being healthy and Josh Hamilton finding his swing will make a difference this coming season.

Look for Kole Calhoun to be the right fielder.

On another topic, the vendor exhibition hall was crazy busy today. But I did score myself some of those ice cream “dots” in some type of banana flavor. Also picked up some new luggage tags. Why? Because the airline lost my great luggage tag that I got at the 2011 Winter Meetings.

My friend bought a sandwich here today for $21. It didn’t include lettuce. I think there must have been gold leaf on the bread. Me? I scored half a hot dog at the vendor fair. I’m not fooling around here. The guy cut the hot dog in half and split it between me and another guy. I don’t know if I got the better half. I had no time to pick up lunch somewhere. But I was ready to pay….if I had to.

Dinner last night was at a very nice steak house here in the hotel. The entire National MLB.com team was together. We started dinner at 9:30PM. It was really, really loud and my head was pounding from the noise. I like quiet. The room we work in here by day is quiet. Nobody talks. But man—they talked last night. Left there at midnight with a headache.

I can see the Swan and Dolphin statues from my room. The room overlooks a lake. Unique for me because my home is in a desert. My wife is with me and she had a great day riding the water taxi. It must be Lake Buena Vista. Or maybe Lake Buena Vista is just a catchy name.

Drew Pomeranz is still young and has upside remaining. It will do him well to leave Colorado. Tough place to pitch. When I first saw Pomeranz with Cleveland I thought he could be a star. He needs self-confidence and a couple good outings. Oakland is a good landing spot for him. That was the other trade of the day.

I’ll be back in this space tomorrow. And thanks for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff.

That’s it. I’m done.

 

Winter Meetings-Day One Is In The Books

There wasn’t anything earth shaking at today’s Winter Meetings in Orlando.

Let me set the scene for you.

Think of hundreds and hundreds of people walking around talking about one thing. Everywhere. No-not about their unfinished Christmas shopping. But they’re talking baseball. And for a baseball junkie like me, it’s heaven.

The halls are crowded with signs and cameras. Television sets pop up here and there. Guys can be heard talking over one another from radio booth to radio booth.

In the evening, the center of the hotel is loaded with shoulder to shoulder people with beers in their hands. Guys in blue blazers and nice white shirts stand around trying to stand out in the crowd. Why? They’re looking for a job. One can overhear sentences like…”Are you kidding me, they over paid for that stiff.” And so it goes on and on, well into the night. While I’m tucked in bed happy that I can tell a dolphin from a swan and return to the correct hotel after an evening stroll.

The media room is loaded with men and women pounding away at their computers writing the day’s story about their team. Generally, it’s rumors. Like these:

The Indians are hoping to sign Grant Balfour. The Mariners are in on Nelson Cruz. The Yankees aren’t finished. The Tigers will sign Shin-Soo Choo.

And I’ll believe it when I hear it and see it.

Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre are going into the Hall of Fame. Well deserved.

Salty is a Marlin.

My friend Joan McGrath won an award today as the Rawlings Female Executive of the Year. She has been with the Arizona Fall League since the inaugural season.

At MLB.com we have our own work room, right off the main sea of media in the ballroom/turned media location. Our tables are filled with quiet people trying to bring the best and most current news to our readers.

I went downstairs to the mammoth trade show that happens every year. They sell everything from peanut contracts to stadium seating. Of course, they have samples of the peanuts. Even though it’s a circus, there are no elephants. Just clean fun walking around and kicking the tires and meeting people. Happy to report several confided to me that they read my work. Of course I thanked them and then said yes when they offered me a promotional pen or in one case…a harmonica. Yep, a little baby harmonica.

I’m hoping that tomorrow I can share some excitement with you. I’ll tweet it as it happens and then review it in this blog.

Please follow me on twitter @BerniePleskoff and read my articles on MLB.com and MLBPipeline.com. And, as always. Thanks.

That’s it. I’m done.