September 2014

The Lights Get Brighter-National League Postseason

I admit I was surprised when the Pirates elected to start Gerrit Cole in Sunday’s final game against the Reds. While that was a crucial game, I thought for sure he would start the Wild Card game. That won’t happen now. It is likely veteran right-hander Edinson Volquez will get the start in the game that determines the final playoff spot. That’s a great deal of pressure for the improving Volquez. While I like what he has done lately, I don’t think he can match the dominance of the Giants Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner has a way of getting in rhythm and mowing down the opposition. The key is rhythm. I have seen times when he has struggled to find that flow. taking an inning or two to find the command of all his pitches. Bumgarner will likely use his fastball/cutter combination to keep the Pirates hitters off balance. He has a complete repertoire, and those two pitches help set up the curve and change up. Volquez has relied upon his sinking two-seam fastball as well as his compete arsenal of a four-seamer, a curve and a change up to improve his overall results. He’s using the change up a bit more and changing the balance and eye levels of hitters is the focal point of his outings. I think Francisco Liriano would have been an excellent starter for the game against the Giants. If he does start, I think the game is far more even. Maybe more of a tossup. But it does look like Volquez in one of the biggest assignments of his career.

For me, the Pirates key rests in slowing the bats of Hunter Pence (rather cold lately) and Pablo Sandoval. I think it is almost a given that Buster Posey is in a groove and has the ability to inflict some damage. But managing to control Pence and Sandoval will go a long way to raising the Jolly Roger. The Giants will miss Angel Pagan, their spark. They just play so much better when Pagan is in the lineup. But he’s hurt. Guys like Brandon Belt will have to be at their best.

Facing the Pirates offense won’t be a walk in the park for Bumgarner. While he’s an elite pitcher, he still has to try to contain Andrew McCutchen, and that’s no easy task. He’s just a great, great player. The lineup is well balanced with Neil Walker being the type of hitter that can surprise with some unexpected pop. The Pirates are very dangerous and are a serious threat to play well into the postseason. Josh Harrison is an underrated player with an ability to get on base and make things happen. Starling Marte has some speed and can hit the gaps. Things may look a bit brighter If they didn’t have to face Bumgarner in a “must win” game.

The winner of the Wild Card game gets to travel to Washington to play the Nationals. For me, they have the most well-rounded, well-balanced club in the postseason. They can pitch, hit, run and play defense. For some, Jordan Zimmerman (Sunday’s no-hitter) and Stephen Strasburg are co-aces. They are both capable of being in control on the mound and taking over a game. Then, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark round out a solid rotation without any real weaknesses. Their bullpen is very solid with Drew Storen, and Rafael Soriano among many high powered arms with good control and command.

I’m a huge fan and believer in Anthony Rendon. I think he remains underrated as a complete player with a big bat and superb defensive ability. Add the likes of Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman along with the rest of the starting eight and the opposing pitcher has a tough task in navigating through such a complete and solid lineup. Catcher Wilson Ramos could surprise. He can hit.

The St. Louis Cardinals are not to be taken lightly. Ever. If it’s September/October, look in the standings and you’ll find the Cardinals involved in the postseason. That isn’t due to an accident. It comes as a result of preparation. Planning. Institutional goal setting and teaching the Cardinals way of playing baseball. They don’t make many mistakes.
Everything on the mound will begin with the poise, confidence and incredible arsenal of Adam Wainwright. Four-seam fastball, sinking two-seamer, change up, cutter, slider and an amazing curveball. It’s among the best. He’s among the best. What’s coming next? And he can throw any of those pitches at any count. For strikes. He induces ground balls with great sink on the ball and stays out of the big inning. The rest of the rotation pales in comparison to Wainwright. Where pitching was always a strength of the Cardinals, there has to be some concern about Michael Wacha following his return from injury. Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and John Lackey are solid. They’re good, but perhaps not what we have come to expect. Trevor Rosenthal has had some hiccups as the closer. The Cardinals pitching is just not as dominant as in the past.

Offensively, the team needs big efforts from Matt Holliday and Matt Adams. Last World Series against the Red Sox, the Cardinals offense was dormant. Matt Carpenter has to start things off by getting on base. Then clutch hitters like Jhonny Peralta and Yadier Molina have to come through along with Holliday and Adams. Runs will be hard to come by against the Los Angeles Dodgers pitching. I look for some small ball from the Cards in the first series. Anything to score.

Then we come to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And Clayton Kershaw. And Zack Greinke. And if healthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu. If needed, Dan Haren can pitch in big games. I think the Cardinals will have trouble with the very strong top of the Dodgers rotation. I love seeing Wainwright face Kershaw. Low scoring. Every hit will count. The game will be won on someone’s mistake or mistakes. It could be classic.

The Dodgers lineup can hurt any pitcher, even the best. If they are in sync and on their games, think of having to face Adrian Gonzalez, a hot Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig. And without a doubt, Juan Uribe can come up huge in big games. The offense would give nightmares to Cy Young himself. So, even if Wainwright can beat Kershaw, the other starters get the pleasure of facing mayhem in the other games. And it does seem like some of those Dodgers hitters are just waiting for this stage.

I’m not crazy about either the Cardinals or the Dodgers bullpens. I see some opportunity in the late innings before either Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) or Trevor Rosenthal (Cardinals) enter the game.

When it’s all said and done, even with Kershaw and Greinke, I like the Nationals to represent the National League in the World Series. I really can’t find a flaw in their roster. And that’s rare. I really admire manager Matt Williams and I think Mike Rizzo has done a masterful job putting together depth at every position. Especially on the mound, where it counts most in a short series.

Here’s my quick analysis of the playoff clubs:

Pirates-Volquez, Liriano and Cole are solid starters, mediocre offense, very good pen
Giants-mediocre rotation behind Bumgarner, mediocre offense, good bullpen
Nationals-great rotation with Strasburg, Zimmerman, Fister and more, excellent offense, excellent bullpen
Dodgers-superb rotation with Kershaw, Greinke and Ryu, superb offense, adequate bullpen
Cardinals-mediocre rotation behind Wainwright, mediocre offense, good bullpen

Tigers and Nationals in a classic World Series.

Please follow my next blogs during the postseason. And we’ll take a look at things as the games progress.

Thanks for following me @BerniePleskoff and for reading my work on MLBPipeline.com.

That’s it. I’m done.

 

Now The Fun Begins-American League

The postseason. What a beautiful time of year. We watched our teams for six months, hoping they would be playing baseball in October. Thanks to expanded playoffs, a couple more cities are involved in baseball when the leaves turn colors. There really isn’t anything more exciting than watching your favorite team battle in the playoffs.

I feel sorry for the fans of the Brewers and Mariners in particular. Each club gave more than hints of being solid enough to make it to the end. But, it wasn’t meant to be. The Brewers never really got a full season from Ryan Braun (.266). What’s his future? Much depends upon his ability to swing the bat without pain and keep the rest of his body in shape. He didn’t drive the ball as he has in the past. That can be traced to injury. Jean Segura went into the tank until the very end of the season (.246) But Braun wasn’t the only problem. The pitching faltered. Matt Garza and Yovani Gallardo didn’t pitch as expected. But they had great years from Jonathan Lucroy (.301) and guys like Scooter Gennett, and Carlos Gomez. Aramis Ramirez hit only 15 homers in hitter-friendly Miller Park. I looked for more. Look for big changes in the Brewers organization over the next couple months.

The Mariners had a very good year. They hit a bit better than the past, thanks to Robbie Cano (.314). But they still need that knock out punch in the middle of the order. One more bat. The pitching was fine with King Felix winning 15 games and throwing to a 2.14 ERA. I’m a huge believer in Hisashi Iwakuma (15 wins, 1.05 WHIP.) Frankly, I’ve never been on the James Paxton bandwagon, but he had a fine year and will likely get even better. The future has to rest in those pitching arms and the addition of Taijuan Walker as a permanent addition to the rotation. I like his stuff. One more bat and the full time deployment of Walker should help.

And now on to some thoughts about those teams that did succeed and are ready to move to the postseason. I’ll elaborate more in other blogs as the tourney continues.

I am writing this before Jon Lester takes the mound for the Athletics against James Shields. But in all reality, this one game (the play-in game) between Oakland and Kansas City is what the Lester and Shields trades were all about. Both teams gave up plenty to get to this point. Now-what happens? Can Jon Lester justify losing Yoenis Cespedes? Can James Shields compensate for the loss of Wil Myers? Frankly, the resurgence of Wade Davis certainly skews that deal in favor of the Royals up to this point. Davis has made a tremendous difference in the Royals pen-helping to make it one of the best in baseball. Myers got hurt this year and hasn’t shown the type of upside many feel he has. Time will tell. For now-advantage Kansas City in that deal.

But the pressure rests on the shoulders of Jon Lester. Most of the pressure, really. More than on Kansas City. Sure, the Royals have a good team and were expected to do better this season. But it may have been more acceptable for them not to have made the playoffs. it would simply not have been acceptable for the Athletics to be on the outside looking in. And they almost were. Oakland’s bats went in to the deep freeze. It happened almost at the same time Cespedes left the lineup. I am a huge believer in lineup protection. It was the way I was taught and I still believe that lengthening a lineup and protecting the heart of the order with strong hitters is the key to an offense. Without good hitters, the best hitter may not see more than one pitch to hit an at-bat, if that. The loss of Cespedes takes that potential power hitter out of the equation. Big loss. But guys other than Lester and Shields have to do their part for their team to win. It isn’t all on them. Hitters like Hosmer and Butler have to hit. Same for Donaldson and Reddick, etc. Score quick and get Lester or Shields out of the game. Then take your chances with the bullpens. But both pens are solid. Especially the Royals in my opinion.
Nothing against the A’s pen, but that Royals pen can be the difference.

True, the Orioles just don’t have the same type of panache, pizzazz, or pedigree as the Tigers in their first round. But as I’ve been saying since I was a scout with the Mariners, I’ll take Chris Tillman any time. He’s a darn good pitcher. Is he an ace? Probably not. But very close to it. And that’s where the problem occurs. Can he beat David Price or Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander? Everything will have to break right for him. That includes umpire calls, good defense and some timely hitting from robust bats like Adams Jones and Nelson Cruz. If the Orioles can jump out to an early lead, it will help. The key will be getting in to the Tigers bullpen as early as possible. That will be a must. While the past postseason hasn’t been the best for Tigers hitters, the Orioles pitching will have to at least slow down Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. Hard to do. But the rest of the lineup is tough as well. Great matchup, but the Tigers have the three best pitchers. While I like Tillman, the Orioles rotation thins out with Gausman, Chen, Norris and Gonzalez in whatever order they are used. But make no mistake-they are far from chopped liver. I like them. Not as much as Scherzer, Price and Verlander.

The winner of Kansas City-Oakland gets to take on the Los Angeles Angels.
I wish it would have been the Angels with Garrett Richards and even Tyler Skaggs. I wish Matt Shoemaker was 100% healthy. Ditto for Josh Hamilton. I feel like the Angels task is similar to a prizefighter entering the ring with one arm behind his back. Yes, injuries are part of the game. Every team has injuries. Anibal Sanchez has been hurt for the Tigers, true. Same for Jarrod Parker and A J Griffin for the Athletics. But Garrett Richards is special. He can dominate a game. Watching him perform against the best Kansas City or Oakland can throw at the Angels would have been a treat. But it isn’t meant to be. The Angels have hung tough without him. Can Jered Weaver, C. J. Wilson and Hector Santiago carry the series? The Angels will have to score runs with Mike Trout, Howie Kendrick, and Albert Pujols leading the charge. The offense is built with complimentary parts. Each partner has to show up, from Eric Aybar to Kole Calhoun.
The Angels can win if their starters can go five or six and then turn it over to the high quality, revamped bullpen for which general manager Jerry Dipoto gets my accolades. He did a fabulous job realizing his weak starting pitching depth can be augmented with a solid and reliable pen. But those starters have to keep the Angels in the game.

So, what we have are flawed teams. Each of them. But they are darn good.
Here’s what I see:

Oakland-deep and quality rotation, weak offense, solid, solid bullpen
Kansas City-shallow but effective rotation, mediocre offense, tremendous bullpen
Detroit-the best top 3 starters, power in the middle, weak bullpen
Baltimore-mediocre starting pitching, good offensive balance, solid enough bullpen
Anaheim-weak starting pitching, solid offense, very good bullpen

Ultimately, I feel the Detroit Tigers will come out of the American League and enter the World Series. That prediction is based on five names; Price, Scherzer, Verlander, Cabrera and Martinez. They would have been even stronger in my opinion with Doug Fister and a more reliable bullpen. But I think they have enough to fend off the rest of the pack. And that’s saying something. If you’ve been following me, you know I have loved the Orioles since I saw them in Spring Training. But for me, the addition of David Price makes this Detroit’s year.

Thank you for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff and for reading my work on MLBPipeline.com. Tomorrow-my thoughts on the National League playoffs.

That’s it. I’m done.

 

“Don’t Look Back-Something Might Be Gaining On You”

“Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.” The great Satchel Paige said that among a number of other poignant words of wisdom from the man with the ageless arm. Man, is that quotation true today.

If you are a general manager in the game of baseball, you can’t look back. It would be easy to say, “what if.” What if the Tigers had not traded Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for Ian Krol, Steve Lombardozzi and Robbie Ray in early December? That was a trade I didn’t understand then and I don’t understand now. Fister was a reliable starter for the Tigers since he came over from the Seattle Mariners. He fit nicely among the rotation of Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. As a five-man rotation, they were tough to beat. They pitched their hearts out in last year’s postseason but didn’t get any offensive help. As a result, they were on the outside looking in. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was born in 1929. He wants to win a championship with his beloved Tigers. He has made resources available and has been a fantastic owner in a city that loves the sports teams Ilitch owns. General manager Dave Dombrowski has a reputation as one of the best in the game. He wants to deliver that championship to Mr. Ilitch.

Pressure. General managers are under pressure to do what it takes to win. The Seattle Mariners thought they were a pitcher away from a title in 2008. I was a scout for the Mariners at the time when general manager Billy Bavasi made a deal with the Baltimore Orioles for starting lefty Erik Bedard. The cost for Bedard? Pitchers Kam Mickolio, George Sherrill and Tony Butler along with a promising prospect outfielder named Adam Jones and a fresh prospect right-handed pitcher named Chris Tillman. Don’t look back. But. Bedard was hurt for most of his tenure in Seattle. Tillman and Jones are helping to lead the Orioles to the postseason as core fixtures of the team’s present and future. Pressure. The Mariners brass felt Bedard could take the team over the top. He didn’t. The rest is history.

In Dombrowski’s trade with Washington, Detroit received two young left-handed pitchers still in development. Krol is only 23. He is pitching out of the Tigers bullpen where he has a 4.96 ERA as I write this. He has yielded six home runs and 13 walks in 32 2/3 innings. Those numbers jump out at me. He carries a 1.66 WHIP. But he’s still very young, has a strong arm and upside remains. But he really isn’t a fully developed pitcher, in my opinion. Not yet, anyway.

Robbie Ray is only 22. He has thrown 27 2/3 innings for Detroit so far this year with a 7.16 ERA and a 1.80 WHIP. He’s scuffled against big league pitching, no doubt about it. He needs more seasoning and like Krol, has work to do on command and control. He, too, has upside.

The Tigers have turned to another lefty, 25-year old Kyle Lobstein to help get them to the postseason as part of their rotation. Maybe that was designed to be a role for Ray when the season began.

Pressure. The Tigers were reeling when Dombrowski made every effort to shore up a leaking late inning bullpen by bringing Joakim Soria over from the Texas Rangers in a deal for pitchers Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel. Both Thompson and Knebel are solid pitchers for the future. However, the key word is future. The Tigers needed to strengthen the bullpen now. Soria, who had an injury filled past couple years, was injured again this year and returned to the club on September 9. He hasn’t provided the magic potion the team was seeking. But time remains and he may yet provide a needed spark for the pen.

Realizing his pitching options were getting thin, Dombrowski struck again. This time he may just have saved his team’s season. He may be able to deliver a Championship trophy to Mr. Illich after all. He made a huge stealth strike to get prized lefty David Price from the Rays. The cost? His starting center fielder Austin Jackson, starting pitcher Drew Smiley and “under the radar” infield prospect Willy Adames.

Dombrowski didn’t look back. Sure, he probably would have loved to have Doug Fister in the rotation somewhere along the line. But Price fills a huge hole. With an injured Sanchez and inconsistent performances from his rotation, Dombrowski can sleep at night knowing that David Price is available to take the ball in the playoffs. The bullpen? Soria has returned and could help.

Dombrowski made a huge move by trading Price Fielder early in the off-season. It was a surprise to most of the baseball world. The Tigers can still hit-even without Fielder. Ian Kinsler has provided some good and not so good moments for the Tigers. Fielder has been hurt all year for the Rangers, the team he was supposed to put on his back and carry to the promised land. But that’s another story. It’ll have to wait. Along with my thoughts on the Oakland Athletics. I’ll be discussing both those teams later this week in my next blog.

For now-if you’re Dave Dombrowski you can’t look back. You did what you had to do to fulfill a dream of everyone associated with the Tigers franchise—the fans, the players, the front office, the working staff, and most of all, the owner.

Thanks for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff and for reading my work on MLBPipeline.com. Much appreciated.
I’ll return later this week with thoughts on the Rangers and A’s. Thanks for your support.

That’s it. I’m Done.