May 2016

Chicago-The Current Center Of The Baseball World

May 5, 2016 was an unusual day in the city of Chicago. On that date, all four first place teams at the time were playing games in the city. The Red Sox were visiting the White Sox on the south side. The Nationals were being hosted by the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
We may not see that again for a while. Especially since the two Chicago teams are rarely home at the same time.

During the month of April and into May so far, the White Sox and Cubs have been resting comfortably atop their respective division’s standings. It really isn’t a coincidence. Both teams have been constructed to compete this year. These are not teams in transition. These are not teams rebuilding. Both the White Sox and Cubs are poised to win this year.

WHITE SOX

The White Sox offer a starting pitcher every game who gives his team a chance to win.
Few pitchers in the game can match the tenacity and the results of left-handed string bean Chris Sale. Standing tall at 6-foot-6 and weighing only 180 pounds, analysts have been waiting for Sale’s arm to fall off. Instead, he offers solid mechanics that lead to strikeouts in bunches and a collection of wins. He’s unbeaten this season at 7-0 with a beyond sparkling ERA of 1.79. His WHIP is a minuscule 0.77. Those are amazing numbers. But then again, he’s an amazing pitcher. A true ace.

The pitcher that still remains under the radar and the pitcher that doesn’t get his share of accolades is lefty Jose Quintana. He isn’t a strikeout artist like Sale. Rather, he brings a repertoire that keeps hitters off balance and changes their eye level from pitch to pitch. So far, Quintana has a 5-1 record, a 1.38 ERA and a WHIP of 0.99.

That’s not too shabby a combination of lefties at the top of the rotation. And the third quality lefty, Carlos Rodon could join them in a discussion of elite starting pitchers in the next year or two. He’s still ironing out some wrinkles. But he has all the stuff to be a star. Keep your eye on Rodon. All the ingredients are there-he just needs to refine the overall recipe.

The real surprise among the starters has to be undefeated Mat Latos. Who knew? While he once was seen as having issues with other teams, Latos seems to have found a home as a 5-0 pitcher so far for the White Sox. If he retains his mastery of American League hitters, Latos could be the real spark that gives the White Sox a long postseason life.

Credit White Sox management with a great call in cutting ties with John Danks early enough in the season to salvage growth and potential for the fifth starter’s role.
Danks departed with a record of 0-4. an ERA of 7.25 and a 1.75 WHIP. Yikes!
Eric Johnson takes the fifth starter job…for now. His first start did not do much to make White Sox fans forget Danks.

The White Sox bullpen may be the glue that holds the team together for the season.
Mat Albers, Nate Jones and David Robertson own ERA’s under 1.0. Lefties Zack Duke and Dan Jennings provide quality service against southpaw hitters. And the credible Zach Putnam adds to the strength of the pen.

The offense? A dash of big time credit has to go to Todd Frazier. No, he isn’t hitting for average. But he provides a tremendous presence in the middle of the lineup. He offers the pitcher a huge power bat to contend with in addition to Jose Abreu. Frazier has smoked eight home runs, the most on the team. He has driven in 21 runs, tied with Abreu for the team lead. Melky Cabrera is contributing. So are Adam Eaton and Brett Lawrie.

Very solid defensive play has helped the pitcher achieve terrific results. Newcomers Lawrie, Jimmy Rollins and Frazier have been very solid in helping to stabilize the infield.
Jose Abreu is sound at first base. The same goes for newcomer Austin Jackson in center. The White Sox defense is not giving the opposition extra outs. They are playing very good, sound and solid defense.

Question: Can the White Sox maintain their pace?

I don’t see a prolonged losing streak with Sale and Quintana at the top of the rotation. They are proven winners. The bullpen has depth from both the left and ride sides. I do not see pitching as a problem. And I do think Rodon will turn the page and be closer to the pitcher he will ultimately become later this season.

I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface on the offensive damage Frazier and Abreu will inflict. When the weather heats up, they can be All Star hitters.
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Issues to Address?

My answer: I think they need more outfield depth. In an ideal world they would have one more loud bat to compliment those in place. I also think they will have to find a reliable fifth starter to go deep in games. Is that Eric Johnson? I don’t really think so.
Will Mat Latos be the Mat Latos of April and May in July, August and September? I don’t think so. But they’ll have enough pitching to survive.

LONG TERM OUTLOOK:

I think the White Sox will hang in the AL Central race until the end. Will they win? It all depends on the rotation behind Sale and Quintana.

CHICAGO CUBS

In my pre-sesaon predictions on this blog I cautioned about Cubs fans not getting too excited about all the media hype surrounding the 2016 edition of the team. I didn’t want to be the guy pulling my friend off a ledge in a Wrigleyville or Uptown apartment.

The Cubs are very, very good. The Cubs are very, very balanced. And you know what frightens me? They haven’t played to their capabilities yet. I mean that.

Let me get this out of the way early. We are beginning to see the damage Javier Baez can do with his bat. He only has two home runs so far. He has only driven in five. That will be a drop in the bucket compared to what he will likely have at the end of the season.

Jorge Soler has been a .181 hitter. He strikes out too much. He may strike out a lot more. But when that big body of his heats up in the summer—boom. The man can be a huge source of power, and that’s putting it mildly. And Matt Szczur can play. He offers some insurance to the club.

Kris Bryant hasn’t unloaded the damage he will be doing when things get totally on track for him. And there’s no Kyle Schwarber in the lineup.

Anthony Rizzo? Watch him hit. Watch him play first base. Watch the way he carries himself. I think he’s among the top, top players in the game right now. And we’ll see even more from him. I think he and Paul Goldschmidt are the gold standard at first base. But teams don’t pitch to Goldschmidt. They don’t have to. Teams do have to pitch to Rizzo with a lineup that begins with Dexter Fowler and then goes to Jason Heyward, and Kris Bryant. And Ben Zobrist follows Rizzo. It’s very solid. Heyward hasn’t found his spark totally as yet, either. Then mix Baez and Soler in there as well. Watch out. This team can hit.

The pitching? Of course it begins with Jake Arrieta. He’s already won six without a loss. He boasts a 1.13 ERA, a WHIP of 0.88 and a no-hitter. There may be more no-hitters.. He also threw one last year. He’s the real deal. The guy that found a new life pitching for the Cubs. The guy Chris Bosio turned into a pitcher. An All Star pitcher. Arrieta sets the pace for the Cubs rotation.

The Cubs ERA is 2.48 as I write this. The best in baseball. The White Sox are second at 2.78. There in a nutshell tells the focal point of both team’s success stories. They can pitch.

Jason Hammel has a 1.65 ERA and hasn’t lost. He’s 4-0. Jon Lester has a record of 3-1 and an ERA of 1.58 with a WHIP of 1.09. Lester won’t have to worry about throwing over to first base if there isn’t anyone there. Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey have provided solid pitching in their 11 starts—-and especially Hendricks. The Cubs starting pitching staff has kept their team in games and have eaten innings. All good.

When the starters turn the game over to the bullpen, the pen has responded. Consider that Trevor Cahill-the same Trevor Cahill that left the Dbacks a broken pitcher with no hope of a future is throwing well for the Cubs. Very well as a matter of fact. He’s been in 11 games and has thrown 12 1/3 innings with less than a 3.00 ERA. Who knew that could happen? I admit it. Not me.

Hector Rodon, Pedro Strop and Justin Grimm have formed a solid back end of the bullpen. Adam Warren may have been a steal coming over from the Yankees. He can be a spot starter if needed and is very credible out of the pen. Lefty Travis Wood has had some very good moments.

Questions to address? Can the Cubs sustain their lead and enter the postseason? My answer? Yes. Especially when Bryant, Baez, Soler, etc. etc. etc. get hot. They have very good defensive play at shortstop with Addison Russell. He is the glue in the infield, along with Rizzo at first. They have good solid hitting, good starting pitching and overall depth.

Issues to address? I think the Cubs need more help in the bullpen. I think they can use a shut down lefty and another solid mid-reliever. They may be able to fetch that help with prospect bats like Dan Vogelbach and/or Albert Almora to offer in trade.

And yes, they have to have another starter on ice just in case.

LONG TERM OUTLOOK:

While I don’t see them continuing the pace they have registered the first month and half, I think the Cubs will win the NL Central. They still may be fighting the Nationals and the Mets for a World Series appearance. But one thing at a time. This Cubs team is good. Very good.

Thanks for reading my scouting reports at TodaysKunckleball.com. And thanks for following me on twitter @BerniePleskoff.

That’s It. I’m Done. For Now.

 

Three Teams Visit Phoenix-My Take On Each Club

The Arizona Diamondbacks just completed a home stand that included visits from the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Colorado Rockies.

The home stand provided me with a chance to get a much better feel for each of these clubs a month into the season. Here are my thoughts:

PITTSBURGH PIRATES:

There are a few hidden gems on this team that really don’t get enough attention. At least we don’t hear enough about them on the west coast. I begin with Starling Marte.
Marte can do everything well. He looks bigger than his listed 6-foot-1 185 pounds. There is no denying his first-step quickness and his overall base stealing speed. He stole 30 bases last year and I think he can exceed that. What I like most about Marte is his ability to take a pitch where it is thrown and pound the gaps with loud line drives. This is a guy who smoked 30 doubles along with his 19 home runs. He also had two triples.
A great fantasy option because of his ability to drive the ball, Marte does have his issues. He strikes out with an aggressive approach. But even with that, he is a very solid hitter for the top part of the Pirates lineup.

For me the real sleeper on the team is Gregory Polanco. Like Marte, he is a player we don’t hear enough about. He has a bigger than life 6-foot-5 230 pound frame and swings from the left side of the plate. He has awesome pull power. When he gets those huge legs and strong arms under a ball. fuggetaboudit. He has a big arm and moves swiftly in the outfield for a man his size. Even with that size, Polanco stole 27 bases last year, almost as many as Marte. He also hit 23 homers, three triples and 35 doubles. Polanco hasn’t even scratched the surface of his ability. I think he’ll get better and better and become a huge star. He struck out 121 times last year-but the production was enormous. I love watching this guy hit. He’s scary good. And scary huge.

Of course the Pirates still have the outstanding Andrew McCutchen playing center field. He was scuffling some while playing at Chase Field, as he was chasing sliders outside the strike zone When he left Phoenix, he hit some of his trademark home runs. I don’t think he is the Cutch we have been used to, but he’s still a great player and really fun to watch. He’s the leader they need. He sets a great example and a great tone.

The under the radar guy is Sean Rodriguez. He can hit. What I really like is his ability to play all over the field. He’s not a star, but he’s a good, solid role player. He has had some clutch hits and is in the right place at the right time. He’s a valuable guy.

They can stand to upgrade their starting pitching. I like Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. I think we’ll see big things from Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. Once those guys are making regular starts in the Pirates rotation things will be more settled.
Juan Nicasio and Jon Niese don’t appear to be the long-term solutions. Taillon and Glasnow do.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

I have to say upfront this is not the typical Cardinals team I am used to seeing. The decline and difference in this team from the past is a bit shocking. The defense is a major concern. Yes, Jhonny Peralta is hurt and Aledmys Diaz has done a nice job of filling in. But there are issues at second base, first base and in the outfield. Matt Carpenter hits regardless of where he plays. He’s an outstanding player. However, they lose defense with Matt Adams or Brandon Moss at first. Randal Grichuk is not a good center fielder-he’s average in my opinion. I think he fits better in right. He played center in Phoenix. Rookie Jeremy Hazelbaker is average at best on defense. It just doesn’t seem like the same type of Cardinals team as in the past. Those teams never beat themselves.

When it comes to hitting, Steven Piscotty is the cream of the crop. He is a solid hitter for average and his power will emerge. Still young, Piscotty makes terrific contact and is a very solid leadoff or number two hitter in the lineup. He uses a short, measured stroke and doesn’t get cheated at the plate.

Where is the Adam Wainwright of the past? I think injuries and a great number of pitches on his arm have taken a toll. He just isn’t the same. As an opposite to Wainwright, Carlos Martinez is really emerging. He pitched a terrific game against the Diamondbacks. As did Jaime Garcia. I think the Cardinals will have to find another starter or two sooner than later. Yes, when healthy Michael Wacha is fine. I’m not a Mike Leake fan. I think he’s way too inconsistent for my tastes.

Basically, I would say the Cardinals team I saw last week can’t play with the Cubs or even the Pirates in their division. I think they may scuffle all year. Even when Peralta returns. Yes, Grichuk is a nice young power bat. But age is an issue with Matt Holiday’s health and both Matt Adams and Brandon Moss are too “feast or famine” type hitters for me. Their inconsistency can kill a rally or break open a game. That’s why I like Matt Carpenter and Stephen Piscotty so much. They are very good hitters. They hit consistently. They make excellent contact and they both make things happen. But Grichuk, Carpenter and Piscotty aren’t enough this year to keep the boat afloat.

COLORADO ROCKIES

Regular readers of my work know that I love watching the Rockies hit. There are few teams that can pound the ball like the Rocks. Nolan Arenado is All World for me. He is a slugger, a hitter for average, and probably the best third baseman I’ve seen. Yes, even better than Brooks Robinson. And yes, probably better than Manny Machado. I marvel at his reactions. His footwork. His timing. His trowing arm. He’s amazing.

For me D J LeMahieu remains underrated. He, too, can hit. He, too, is a great defender. So with Arenado at third and LeMahieu at second, the Rockies have two terrific defensive infielders. And Trevor Story is playing a much more solid shortstop than most had imagined. He’s very steady. Improving daily.

When Carlos Gonzalez heats up he can carry an offense. But he won’t have to. They have Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story along to put up some outstanding offensive numbers. Gerardo Parra is a stabilizing player in the clubhouse, bringing people together and adding life and joy to a generally happy and highly motivated team.

I was shocked at how well former Indians infielder/catcher and now Rockies catcher Tony Wolters handled the pitching staff. He does a fine job calling the games, blocking balls in the dirt and being the workhorse behind the plate once or twice a week to spell Nick Hundley. I’m not sure Wolters has a big future there because the Rockies have some solid catching talent, but Wolters exceeded my expectations.

The pitching? I really think Chad Bettis can win in any park. He’s got good stuff. Coors may bite him, but he can pitch. We’ll see about Eddie Butler and Jon Gray. They were good as prospects, but now they have to work in Coors for half their games.

The Rockies are exciting and great fun to watch. Man, can they pound the ball.

ABOUT THE DIAMONDBACKS

The way the ball is flying out of Chase Field, I think the Diamondbacks should use the humidor. Just like they do in Colorado. I don’t think it will negatively impact power-hitting Paul Goldschmidt. It may help the Dbacks pitching staff. What’s there to lose?

I was told by people I trust with Arizona that Socrates Brito looks lost at the plate. Even at Triple-A Reno. He has lost his swing. He is once again a work in progress.

Dbacks Peter O’Brien is hitting over .300 and has seven homers at Reno. Why isn’t he playing for Arizona? Where would he play? They already have defensive challenges with Yasmany Tomas in left and Chris Owings learning how to play center. Where would you hide the defensively challenged O’Brien? He probably has to be traded to the American League where he can serve as a designated hitter. The sooner the better.

The Diamondbacks have a revolving door at middle reliever. It isn’t good for the franchise. It isn’t good for the morale of the pitchers who are on the major league/minor league shuttle. It shows instability and yes, panic to some degree.

Finally-knowing A J Pollack was coming off an elbow problem and having traded Ender Inciarte to Atlanta, why in the world weren’t the Diamondbacks prepared in the spring with a backup outfielder? Better yet-why did they trade Inciarte? They had all spring to find help in the outfield. But over a few years they have traded several viable outfielders. They didn’t find options and are now left with Chris Owings learning the position at the big league level. Owings looks out of position. He’s a good athlete. He is learning how to make the correct reads. But he has made some bad reads off the bat. He doesn’t have a strong center field arm. But he is trying hard and making progress. Was Brito the spring answer for center field? Or was it Peralta in center and Brito in right? How bad can Brito be hitting that they are keeping Owings in center field? Brito must look pretty bad.

The Diamondbacks have to right the ship quickly. That means Shelby Miller as well as the inconsistent offense. Miller looked totally worn out in yesterday’s start. He didn’t go five innings and he looked spent. I would be concerned if I’m the Dbacks. I think they are. How do you right that ship? Maybe you send him to the pen for a while to regain his confidence. Can you say Trevor Bauer?

That’s it for me. Thanks for reading my scouting reports at TodaysKnuckleball.com. Much appreciated.

That’s it. I’m done. For now.

Follow me on twitter @BerniePleskoff.