The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies “Future” Lineup

For the last several months, people have been playing the role of Phillies General Manager, trading players right and left without the burdening restrictions of having to negotiate with another team.  They’ve theorized about trading Cole Hamels for three future MVPs while swapping Ryan Howard and Jonathon Papelbon for a pair of Cy Young award winners.  However, until we get to mid-June, it is EXTREMELY rare for a major deal—no matter how optimistic you are–to actually come to fruition.

Now that we are entering the legitimate trading season, one can start seriously examining potential trade candidates as the Phillies look to move its higher-priced veterans.  The Phillies have holes in multiple areas, so, much like with the NFL or NBA Draft, they must look to acquire and stockpile talent, and not necessarily key in on a specific position.  But before checking out other teams’ prospects or reviewing this year’s MLB draft too closely, let’s take a look at what the Phils could look like in the near future.

As far as timetable, I’m looking at late 2016 (for the optimists), or more probably 2017.  This is an “as-is” lineup—looking only at the players currently in their system.  Keep in mind, this is assuming Philadelphia is able to unload ALL of its veterans.  This is unlikely, if, for no other reason than the Phillies are trying (struggling?) to get equal value in return.  Also, while I’ve been huge fans of Darin Ruf and Cody Asche, I have to admit that having both of them as everyday players on a team that (hopefully) will be successful may be a bit of a stretch and perhaps a platoon situation could eventually develop between the two of them.  With that, let’s pencil in a look into the Phillies’ future (stats are MLB-level, unless indicated otherwise).

Starting Lineup
CF                   Roman Quinn (.302 BA, .351 OBP, 27 for 36 in SB attempts in double-A )
SS                    J. P. Crawford (recently promoted to double-A after hitting .392 in 20 games in single-A Clearwater)
RF                   TBD
3rd Base           Maikel Franco (a team-high slugging percentage (.529); 2nd in home runs (6) despite only playing 22 games)
LF                   Cody Asche (.237 / .277 / .331, 2 HR, 6-RBI in 39 games)
1st Base            Darin Ruf (3 HR, 10-RBI when he does get a chance to play)
2nd Base           Odubel Herrera / Freddy Galvis / Caser Hernandez
Catcher            Jason Knapp / Deivi Grullon (ONLY assuming a gigantic, progressive leap ahead of their development schedule)

Starting Rotation
Ace                  TBD
#2                    TBD
#3                    Aaron Nola
#4                    Zach Eflin
#5                    Ben Lively / Tom Windle / Matt Imhof / Jesse Biddle
Closer            Ken Giles

Now for some explanations…

  • I don’t think there is a legitimate #3 hitter currently in the organization:  a clutch player you want up to bat with the game on the line, and someone who can hit for power and average on a consistent level.  I have a hard time banking on anyone currently in the farm system for this role.  Franco might be that guy, and I’ve seen flashes of plate-patience needed for this spot, but I would really like for them to try to look for a guy to fill this spot in the batting order.  Keep an eye on this week’s MLB draft.  While there are seemingly more top pitching options than hitters available (the Phillies first selection overall is #10), a shrewd big bat pick-up, if one’s available, could go a long way in solving the issue.  For more on this week’s draft and insights on prospects, you can check out last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” On-Demand featuring ESPN Draft Analyst Eric Longenhagen.
  • Who’s your Right Fielder?  In my opinion, they might not have a “true” right fielder outside of Aaron Altherr or even Kelly Dugan anywhere on their “top 20 prospects” chart.  I was optimistic Cam Perkins could be the guy but he took a major step backwards after struggling at Triple-A last season (for the record, he was just named Eastern League Player of the Week in double-A).  Asche, Ruf, Brown, Revere and probably Herrera (assuming Quinn takes his spot in center field) are all better suited to playing left and would not be an everyday option to play right.  Take current Phillie Jeff Francour’s ability to patrol right field and slap it on any of the others’ offensive potential and you might have something.  But as a guy who thinks this team still needs to make strides defensively, I think one of their targets needs to be a regular right field option.
  • The organization is still in desperate need of receivers.  I placed Knapp (more offensive minded) and Grullon (more of a defensive presence) here but neither really is expected to reach Philly before 2018.  Any significant blue-chip offensive weapons would be welcome, but it would be A LOT easier to buy into a sooner-rather-than-later turnaround if they could pick up a legit top prospect behind the dish.  I did get a chance to see Gabe Lino play at Lehigh Valley last week and he does showcase a strong arm.  Lino has thrown out 45 of 101 attempted base-stealers over the last year-and-a-half at single-A and double-A.
  • Dominic Brown is not on this list.  There is no way the Phillies could convince me they don’t have serious reservations about his future with the ball club.  The organization has brought up Franco and transformed Asche into an outfielder before they’ve contemplated bringing Brown up to the Big Club…the fact he’s still in Triple-A despite an improved swing is further evidence of this.  Unless he makes a dramatic improvement in his overall game, I really don’t think he’ll be more than a role player on any Phillies team beyond this season.
  • In addition to a number-three hole hitter, I’m not enamored with the idea of Asche or Ruf hitting behind the clean-up hitter.  On top of all the other position player-needs, they could probably use another RBI-type bat to come from…somewhere?
  • People are clamoring for Nolan, Eflin, Lively, et al due to their success at Reading, and I, too, am anxious to see them perform in Philadelphia…at some point.  Remember, however, Nola is their number-one pitching prospect, yet still is projected as just a number-three/middle-of-the-rotation hurler.  Even if he continues his success at the higher levels, the Phillies will need at some point to add one, or two, stalwarts to their starting staff.  Oh, if they only had a player the caliber of Cole Hamels on board….

What do you think of this Phillies lineup of the future?  Am I missing an in-house prospect who could realistically crack the starting lineup in the next 12-18 months?  Is there a young player out there you think the Phillies need to make a real push to acquire?  Email me your thoughts to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we might read/respond to your comments on an upcoming addition of “RCN SportsTalk” on RCN-TV.  Be sure to mark your calendars and set your TiVO schedules: on July 2nd, our special guest will be Associated Press’s MLB writer Rob Maaddi to discuss the Phillies, Nationals and other sports issues.

The SportsTalk Shop: Three Phillies Issues

Last week we took a look at the Nationals’ first 30 games of the season, analyzing their first six weeks and previewing the road ahead.  Clearly, the Phillies have a different set of priorities and goals for this season.  There has  been some positive news…and the next few months still could be very interesting as we watch the franchise’s “future” unfold.

Here are three observations about the Phillies season:

  • Despite the record, there is reason for optimism, among both young and older players!  First, the play of Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Odubel Herrera has given fans hope that examples of a future winning ball club is not years off in the distance in the prospects currently in the lower-to-middle minor league levels.  Galvis, Hernadez and Herrera all found themselves entering spring training in various “play-well-or-go-home” modes.  Galvis struggled mightily offensively last year—even struggling at the plate when he was sent down to Triple-A.  Yet he has not only proved he can hit at the Big League level (currently leading the team by far with a .816 OPS), he’s become one of the most productive shortstops in the league (his batting average and on-base percentage currently lead all National League shortstops).  Hernandez was out of options and was one of the last players assured a spot on the Opening Day roster.  So far, I’m been impressed with his working counts (his .390 OBP is second on the team) and he’s hitting a very respectable .270 despite not getting regular at-bats.  Herrera was a Rule 5 pick who had never played above Double-A and has to remain on the roster all season or be returned.  Even though he’s learning to play a new position at the toughest level, he has a great looking swing and has been able to handle Major League pitching so far.  All three players have made the most of their opportunities and should warrant more playing time for at least the rest of this season.

There’s also been quality performances on the mound by young Ken Giles, Luis Garcia, Justin DeFratus and Elvis Araujo.  All four look to be key pieces of the bullpen going forward and the first three have weathered pitching in higher-pressure situations.  While a slow start by southpaw Jake Diekman has been disappointing, the Phillies feel he can bounce back and strengthen an already strong—and young—core of relievers.

  • The fireworks may not be far off.  The play of veterans Cole Hamels, Aaron Harang, Jonathan Papelbon, Ben Revere and even Ryan Howard have not only helped the Phillies win games this season, but more importantly has enhanced each player’s trade value, which potentially could fetch more young prospects as we move closer to the trade deadline.  We’ve already seen the Phillies make some minor moves, optioning Dom Brown, David Buchanan and Cody Asche (although Cody was sent down to learn a new position) to shake things up a bit.  If Asche transitions successfully to left field—as I believe he will—it will make for an ultra-crowded outfield, and the Phillies will have to start making some more significant decisions.

Their potential outfield would then consist of Asche, Revere, Herrera, Brown, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur and Darin Ruf.  Clearly, not all of these players will be on the roster throughout the summer, and I’m not sure if more than two or three of these names have a future in the organization.  With one of the few outfield prospects doing well in Double-A (Roman Quinn) and a promotion to Triple-A probably looming before too long, it’s obvious that the team will look to move one of their outfielders before season’s endif not sooner.  Revere is the most likely candidate to go, as he’ll command the most in return.  Between Revere, Hamels, Harang, Papelbon and perhaps one or two others, there could be some trades made over the coming weeks—and a chance for the team to pick up another young piece (or pieces, if you deal Hamels) of the puzzle for future seasons.

  • The “Chase” may be coming to an end.  I truly am not saying this just in passing or to be in vogue with what others are now saying.  In fact, in all my years as a sports journalist, I probably got more angry messages over a minor criticism I made about Chase Utley several years ago, and I’m sure I’ll take a hit again this time.  But unless he starts swinging the bat with more success—and soon—it does NO ONE good to see him continue to play every day…and that includes Utley himself. 

The biggest issue for the current team is that he is blocking the road of young talent.  Is Hernandez the Phillies second basemen of the future? Probably not, but we have no way of knowing until he gets a chance to play at least 75% of the time, something they can’t do with Utley playing five nights a week.  The questions remain about Brown, Ruf and a few other players that right now look like role players but do you really want to give up an extended look at these players, and possibly lose them at season’s end, to have them go somewhere else and have success (and haven’t we seen too much of that over the last several years?).  Furthermore, continuing to play Utley every day with his batting average light-years below the Mendoza line is a disservice to Chase himself.  There is no way he’s going to take himself out of the lineup—he has too much pride.  Heck, he’d probably fight to stay on the roster even with a torn ACL.  But someone – Ryne Sandberg, Ruben Amaro Jr., Pat Gillick – anyone in charge of this franchise, is seriously going to have to take time very soon and have a chat with this greatest second baseman to ever wear a Phillies uniform.  Right now, his legacy is taking a beating, and if things don’t improve over the next few series, his mighty image might be weathered for a longer period than it should be.

Here’s a look at the upcoming schedule for Philadelphia, with a few additional important dates that are really more significant to the team’s future than who their opponents will be.

May 18-21       at Rockies
May 22-24       at Nationals
May 25-27       at Mets
May 29-31       vs. Rockies
June 2 – 4        vs. Reds
June 5-7           vs. Giants
June 8-10         MLB DRAFT*
July 2               International Free-Agent Signing Period Begins
July 31             Non-waiver Trade Deadline
Aug. 31            Final Trade Deadline

*Programming Note: We’ll have a preview of the MLB Draft on the June 4th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” (Thursdays, live, 7-8 pm), which will include an ESPN analyst breaking down the top draftees, along with insights on what both the Phillies and Nationals will do in this year’s draft.

Which Phillies players have you been impressed with so far?  Which do you feel will be the first ones to be traded?  Email you sports opinions to us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com at any time.  We’ll continue to provide updates on both the Washington and Philadelphia franchises throughout the summer here at the “SportsTalk Shop” and on our weekly “SportsTalk” program.
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A quick reminder, be sure to come out to see “RCN SportsTalk” as we broadcast live from Buffalo Wild Wings on Grape Street in Whitehall, PA, this Thursday from 7-8pm.  This will be the first of several live shows we’ll broadcast from Buffalo Wild Wings this summer.   Keep checking the RCN-TV website for updates on these special programs as SportsTalk “goes wild” this summer!

The SportsTalk Shop: Harry Kalas, Charlie Slowes & the Nationals

We are right at the 1/5-th mark of the Major League Baseball season.  While that might not seem like an impressive number, it is a key time in a team’s season.  Once you pass the“30-games” mark, the excuse “well, it’s still early” starts to wear thin and teams start having to take some long looks at players’ abilities.  It’s also the time that teams have to start realizing that early season surprises, whether positive or negative, may just be for real.

This week, we’ll take a look at the Nationals season to date (we’ll next look at the Phillies’ issues and question marks in an upcoming blog entry).

To help us break down Washington’s first 30-games, I had a chance to speak with Nationals Play-by-Play Voice Charlie Slowes about their outstanding starting rotation, an extremely wild game against the Braves and their upcoming schedule.  A few weeks back marked six years since the passing of the late, great broadcaster Harry Kalas, and Charlie gave us some unique perspectives on the legendary announcer.

A couple additional notes about the Nats.

All things considered, the team’s slow start (the Nats lost 15 of their first 23 games) hasn’t really hurt the team.  Considering the injuries to hit the bullpen and to their lineups, they’ve survived most of those “bumps” and have bounced back strong.  Both Jayson Werth and Denard Span—two keys on offense and defensively in the outfield—came back earlier than some had expected.  Span has not missed a beat since his return, flirting with an impressive slash line (.305/.354/.525 heading into this past weekend).  While Anthony Rendon’s oblique injury continues to linger, Bryce Harper, with (finally) an injury-free season to date, has blossomed into the star the team expected him to be.

The bullpen, led by closer Drew Storen and his nine saves, is beginning to flesh out its respective roles following the loss of Craig Stammen to a season-ending injury.  Tanner Roark has made a successful transition back to a reliever’s role, with three holds heading into the Atlanta series.  Aaron Barrett has been solid from the right side, holding opponent’s batting averages under .200 (and a WHIP under 1), and southpaw Matt Thornton having success so far against both right and left-handed hitters.  Sammy Solis also looked impressive holding the eighth-inning lead in the series finale against the Braves.

Also, despite an incredibly hot start by the Mets, Washington is still playing in an incredibly weak division this year, and they should be able to beat up on their divisional opponents quite a bit, even if Rendon continues on the disabled list.  When the Nats’ offense—which has shown a propensity to be streaky—goes through another lull, they should be able to avoid any long losing stretches thanks to their starting pitching depth as they look to move up in the standings over the next few weeks.  Here is a look at their upcoming series:

May 11-13 :         at Arizona
May 14 – 17:       at San Diego
May 19-20:          vs. Yankees
May 22-24:          vs. Philadelphia
May 25-27:          at Chicago
May 29-31:         at Cincinnati

The Nationals still have many more games coming up against NL East teams, and I can’t imagine Washington not compiling a better-than-500 record against them going forward.

As the 2011 Phillies found out, it’s not how many you win during the regular season.  The big key is for Washington to continue to play well, stay near or at the top of the division, and try to keep everyone healthy through the summer.  Hopefully Rendon comes back with enough time to find his stroke and the lethargic start to the season becomes a distant, if not forgotten, memory.

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Special programming note.  Mark your calendars and be sure to come out to see “RCN SportsTalk” as we broadcast live from Buffalo Wild Wings on Grape Street in Whitehall, PA.  This will be the first of several shows we’ll be broadcasting on location this summer.   Keep checking back to the RCN-TV website for updates on these special programs as SportsTalk “goes wild” this summer!

The SportsTalk Shop: Ways to Fix the Phillies

Last week I gave my trimester grades on a season-gone-wrong for the Phillies through the first two months of the season. Today we take a look at how the team should proceed from here:

1) Trade AT LEAST one of the core players
I know this will be extremely painful to the Phillies front office to part ways with one of their most marketable players, but it has to happen. The Phillies have to change the mentality and the look of this franchise and show everyone – the fans, the community and the players themselves – that no one is untouchable. The debate over trading Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Marlon Byrd and others is gaining the momentum of a runaway freight train. The Phillies should be open to seeing which of these players would bring you the greatest return value for next year and pull the trigger on a deal. You need to improve this team in multiple ways, and with very few minor league options on the horizon, the only way to start accomplishing this is by dealing a major piece NOW.

2) Acquire a “dirt-baller”
Think Larry Bowa, Pete Rose or more recently, a Randy Ready or an Aaron Rowand. A high-energy guy, perhaps not the greatest talent, but someone who understands the game and will play it the right way. I’m not a big fan of the “WAR” statistic (wins-above-replacement), but those numbers do have some merit. You need to bring people that will help you find ways to win ball games and the Phillies need to find players who at least have a positive number in that category (eg., Ben Revere has a -0.4 WAR as of last week, Cesar Hernandez a -0.6, Tony Gwynn Jr. is a -0.8, Dom Brown is a -1). Each season the St. Louis Cardinals have rosters littered with players who know how to play the game and execute the fundamentals. I’m hard pressed to find very many younger players on the Phillies’ current 25-man roster who have shown the ability to do the same, and someone must be brought in to start doing that.

3) Stop evaluating with rose-collared glasses
John Mayberry, Jr. last year had a WAR of -1.2 and the organization REWARDED him with a near $ 1.1 million raise. He’s had three different seasons to prove himself as a starting outfielder, a platoon outfielder, than a fourth outfielder, a capable pinch-hitter…and has not delivered in any of these roles on a consistent basis (despite a dismal first eight weeks, Mayberry fans would argue he’s deserved more money based on the red-hot June he’s having offensively). The Phillies say Darin Ruf is not an everyday player…fine, then show me a young player who is. Sticking with Revere, Brown and the like when you no longer have reasons to believe in these players is fool’s gold that the team has continued to purchase for three years now.

4) Stop tolerating mental mistakes
Jimmy Rollins made a innocent comment about preseason games being meaningless and he was benched three days IN SPRING TRAINING. If Mayberry can’t shag a fly ball against the fence, then don’t put him out there anymore until he can. If Revere doesn’t remember to tag up on a fly ball with less than two outs or isn’t taking the appropriate lead off a base, then bench ‘em, outright ‘em or option them to Triple-A. Granted, there’s not many major league available players waiting in the wings right now, but giving these guys repeated chances and watching them fail multiple times with mental lapses is not working. I’d rather see Triple-A players Steve Susdorf or Clete Thomas try to fight their way to remain on the big league roster than to see listless players (Brown) not running hard to first base.

There’s another issue to address here: Ruben Amaro, Jr. The current Phillies general manager is pretty much in a no-win scenario, of which he is responsible for creating. If he conducts a massive fire-sale over the next two months, he’s admitting that his five-year plan of sustaining what was a World Series contender has failed miserably, thereby inviting a changing of the guard to take place. If he does nothing, or next to nothing, during the next few weeks, then he could be fired for not being proactive in correcting this out-of-control team. There’s no easy road here and accomplishing the above-listed tasks will not be easily achieved mid-season, but actions must start coming…and soon.

I do believe Amaro’s hands were tied somewhat in trying to rebuild this team a few years ago. Remember that in 2011 Ruben stated that the team needed to take a different direction: produce more runs, work counts, play more fundamentally sound baseball and similar comments. The moves that have transpired since that time are mostly contrary to that belief. Like him or not (and I certainly have not agreed with very many of his decisions over the last three years), Amaro is still an intelligent man with a solid baseball background. I don’t believe he completely gutted this team without outside influence, whether it be pressure to keep popular players in town, bad advice on player evaluations, poor scouting reports, or a combination of all three.

Full disclosure: I backed Amaro when he was making the trades for Lee, Doc Halladay, Hunter Pence, et al, while ravishing what top prospects were a part of the system. I don’t believe I was the only one in the Delaware Valley that enthusiastically bought in to the ‘win now’ mantra and threw caution to the wind when making those deals. I remember the euphoria that ensued when the cash vault was opened and we woke up hearing of Lee’s triumphant return to the Phillies. We all salivated over the “Four Aces” rotation during the thrill ride that garnished 102 regular season wins, and no one back then was worried about Jonathon Singleton, Kyle Drabek and the other prospects exiled to acquire those major chips. I for one was prepared to sacrifice several years of bad baseball for one more World Series championship….a second title that never materialized.

What in-season moves to you think the Phillies should (or will) make this summer? Do you think Amaro will be retained or even make it through the 2014 season? Post a comment below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this year’s Phillies team.

Behind the Mic: Two Weeks of Baseball Instant Replay

 

Instant replay in baseball was first implemented in 2008 for three reasons: 1) to determine if a home run was fair or foul; 2) did a batted ball actually leave the playing field; 3) did a spectator interfere with a batted ball.

The use of replay was greatly expanded for this season to include the following:

• Ground-rule doubles
• Fan interference calls
• Boundary calls (managers may not, however, challenge home run or potential home run calls)
• Force plays at all bases, except whether a middle infielder touched second base during the attempt to “turn” a double play
• Tag plays on the base paths—whether a runner was tagged or whether the runner touched a base (an appeal is still required ahead of the latter)
• Fair/foul calls on balls hit into the outfield
• Catch/trap calls on balls hit into the outfield
• Time plays (whether or not a run scored prior to the third out)
• Whether a runner passed a preceding runner
• Scorekeeping issues, including the count, number of outs, score or substitutions

Judgment calls not specified above, including, but not limited to, pitches called ball or strike, obstruction, interference, infield fly rule and check swings are not.

All games are monitored in New York City by a former umpire or umpire supervisor. Much like the NFL, if a replay is warranted, the crew chief at the game will go to a special monitor to view the disputed play. The umpire must see “clear and convincing” evidence to reverse the call. All of this is supposed to happen in 60 to 90 seconds.

So how is it working? The first challenge occurred March 31, when the Cubs disputed a double play call that their player was safe at first. The Cubs lost the challenge. The decision took 100 seconds. That same day, the first successful challenge was made when an initial single call was changed to an out when the Braves challenged. The first umpire-initiated review took place to determine if a catcher unnecessarily blocked the plate on an attempted score.

In the first 14 days of the season, there have been 21 overturned calls out of 64 challenges in 141 games. The average time is two minutes and 14 seconds. Missed calls are rare, but in a Yankees-Boston game this past week, a call was missed even after it was challenged.

So, after two weeks what can we conclude? Umpires make a wrong call every 6.7 games (not bad). For the most part, the right calls are made so the umpires do not adversely affect the outcome. There are many fewer old-fashioned manager-umpire confrontations.

Sounds good, right? Uh, not quite. I used to like the manager-umpire confrontations – dirt kicked on shoes, spit in face, baseball cap turned around for face-to-face jawing, etc. It’s a bit too civil now for my taste!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. One of the great stories (and more interesting ones) to come out of the Masters this past weekend concerned Jeff Knox. You see, Rory McIlroy, one of the favorites to win the Masters when the week started, was dead last after the cut going into Saturday. He was 51st and since players go out in twosomes, Rory needed a marker (normally their professional playing partner) to go around the course with him. Jeff Knox, a club member, was chosen to be the marker and had the option of walking with McIlroy or playing with him. Since Jeff held the course record of 11-under 61, playing from the members’ tees, he decided to tee it up. They were the first ones out, played in three hours and five minutes before a huge gallery. Jeff played very, very well. He finished with a two-under 70 and beat McIlroy by one stroke! Now, that’s cool!

2. Speaking of golf, statistics say that every year, around one million golfers stop playing. The reasons given are that it is too expensive, too hard, and too elitist. I love golf, but I have to say the quitters are right on all three accounts. The lords of golf (primarily rich, white guys) need to find a way to make the game more enjoyable and more affordable to more people.

3. If you need help in your NCAA bracket next year and if Villanova makes the tournament, choose a team that is in the Wildcats’ bracket. In the last 10 years, the NCAA champion beat Villanova five times.

4. Lafayette held their Football Banquet this past Saturday to honor the 2013 Patriot League champions. Each player received a championship ring. I have to mention Mark Ross, a senior wide receiver. Mark caught 198 passes for 2811 yards and 27 TD’s in his career and was the team MVP. In addition, Mark was on the PL Academic Honor Roll, the Dean’s List, and was the PL Football Scholar-Athlete of the Year. He had a perfect 4.0 GPA. He garnered a great deal of well-deserved hardware on Saturday. He is a true scholar-athlete!

5. I hope you did well on your NCAA Frozen Four brackets office pool this year. You mean you didn’t fill out your hockey brackets? Obviously, there is a significant difference in national interest between the basketball and hockey championships. Union College beat the University of Minnesota 7-4 in the final. Union College has NO athletic scholarships and only 2,241 students. Union College is located in Schenectady, New York….but you probably knew that.

 

Behind the Mic: Take Me Out to the Ballgame

 

After the first week of major league baseball, I have a very clear (yeah, right) understanding of how the entire season will shake out. As far as I am concerned, there is no need to play any more games – let’s just get right to the Divisional Playoffs. I thought I would be so kind to tell you who will win the Divisions, the Pennants, and the World Series. I also think if you use any of these predictions, you are flat-out crazy.

American League

West
1. Oakland – I loved “Moneyball” and the system still seems to be working for GM Billy Beane.
2. LA Angels – Pujols, Trout and Hamilton could carry this team to the top, but won’t.
3. Seattle – Robinson Cano has to help.
4. Texas – The pitching staff is a huge question mark with all the injuries.
5. Houston – Manager Bo Porter told the team to “shock the world”. They would like to, but not with this lineup.

Central
1. Detroit – Tigers had the second-most wins (93) in AL last year. Another Miguel Cabrera season like last year and they could win more.
2. Kansas City – This team is on the rise – third last year means second this year.
3. Cleveland – They may have the best manager in the division; won 92 games last year; and could win it all. I am picking them third for no apparent reason.
4. Chicago White Sox – 63-99 last year. They should be better because they can’t be worse.
5. Minnesota – $24 million for former Yankee pitcher Phil Hughes – enough said!

East
1. Tampa Bay – I really like Joe Madden, the Rays’ manager – so much so, I have lost my reasoning power and picked them to win the Division.
2. Boston – Isn’t “Big Papi” now “Big Grand-Papi”? I do not think the Red Sox can possibly have the year they had last season.
3. New York Yankees – I wish the Blue Jays and Orioles were better so I could pick them lower!
4. Baltimore – Not bad last year – not good this year.
5. Toronto – Finished last in the East last season; they are better, but will still finish last in the East this year.

Tigers will win the AL pennant.

 National League

West
1. San Francisco – I know everybody is picking the Dodgers here, but Bruce Bochy is the best manager in the Division and he still has a good pitching staff.
2. LA Dodgers – Clayton Kershaw will win almost every five days and this team is solid. They are everybody’s choice (not mine) to win the National League West.
3. San Diego – In this spot last year; in this spot this year.
4. Arizona – Goldschmidt and Trumbo are not household names, but are good hitters and could move the D’backs higher in the standings.
5. Colorado – They will not improve on last year’s position because they did not improve on last year’s team.

Central
1. St. Louis – Great pitching; solid lineup; great organization. Nuts!! I wanted to pick the Pirates.
2. Pittsburgh – Needed more hitting prowess, but did not get any in the off-season. It’s hard to fathom that they will improve on last year’s record.
3. Cincinnati – They won 90 games last year and finished third. Could easily do the same thing this year. They need to switch divisions.
4. Cubs and Brewers will tie for the worst teams in this division.
5. See #4.

East
1. Washington – They do not seem to win the big games when they have to. However, they do have the best pitching staff in the League. If they don’t choke…
2. Philadelphia – Don’t ask me why. I just have a hunch and I think Ryne Sandberg will motivate this team the right way. Hold your breath, Phillies fans, that the old men stay healthy.
3. Atlanta – They always seem to find a way to win, but their depleted pitching staff will hurt them.
4. New York Mets – Hey, they’re the Mets and they can count their lucky stars that the Marlins are in this division.
5. Miami – Once again, they kept the payroll and the talent very low.

Dodgers win the Wild Card and the NL pennant.
The Dodgers will win the World Series, their first since 1988!

You heard it here first!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. “A tradition unlike any other”. That’s The Masters! And it will be unlike any other at least for the last 20 years because Tiger Woods will not be playing in it. Woods, due to his bad back, has played just 10 rounds on tour this year, breaking 70 just three times. So who will win? Well, Russell Henley, Patrick Reed, John Senden, Matt Every, and Matt Jones all have tour wins this year. Who???

2. I am writing this before the championship game, but how about the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship featuring Notre Dame and Connecticut? The two teams go into the final with combined 76-0 records. No final has ever featured two undefeated teams. Connecticut has won 44 straight, since losing on March 12, 2013 to Notre Dame.

3. “This first week of baseball will give us an indication of how bad the Phillies are or how good they just might be.” I wrote this in my blog last week. Well, the conclusion after the first two series with the Rangers and the Cubs is “no clue”. I thought they should have won every game against the Rangers (1-2) and did just fine against the Cubs (2-1). So, they were not so good and then pretty good. Stay tuned.

4. In case you are beating yourself up about your NCAA pool (and I am, for sure, since my administrative assistant TIED me!), let me offer a little solace. Out of 11 million brackets submitted to ESPN, only 612 had the Final Four. That is 0.00005%. I don’t even know how to SAY that percentage!

5. This year three teams were added to the Blue Mountain League and one left. Two of the new ones came over from the Tri-County League, which broke up after last season. They are the Northern Yankees and the Limeport Bulls. In addition, the Roseto Bandits entered as an expansion team. The Vynecrest Reds dropped out. The teams will each play 30 games, with six teams making the playoffs. Martins Creek won it all last year. RCN TV will cover the BML again this summer, assuming summer EVER gets here.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Spring Training Preview

As I gaze out my window at the freshly fallen snow for the gazillionth time this winter (and the extra two feet of the white stuff the plow truck deposited in front of my driveway), I realized it’s time to get ready for the opening of Major League Baseball’s spring training this week.

For Phillies fans, it will be a busy, yet not-quite-fulfilling spring session, given the lack of big-name moves during the offseason. In fact, there are more questions than in any of the last seven pre-seasons, which were met with much more optimism when compared to this year. Nevertheless, several key issues stand out as items to focus on for this year’s Spring Training if the “Phightin’ Phils” are going to have any shot at challenging for a post-season berth. Here’s four things that you MUST pay attention to as camp gets rolling.

THE VETS MUST BRING IT–AND STAY HEALTHY.
There’s simply no two ways around this one. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has used this as his excuse, er, reasoning, behind all the moves they’ve made since last summer. Guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and other “over-35” players must defy human nature and play better than they did the past two years, even given their advanced age (in baseball terms, of course). The mantra of “these guys we’re paying $20-million to play baseball have to produce for us” that Amaro and Co. have repeated this winter is the foundation of whatever the team hopes to achieve this year. Any sign of a major injury, continued decline or even just a status-quo performance by any of the established players could mean doom for the ball club before the season even starts.

WILL SANDBERG BE ABLE TO CONNECT TO THE VETERANS — LONG-TERM?
After watching Ryne Sandberg manage ball players for two full seasons at the Triple-A level, I can tell you that his style is completely different from Charlie Manuel. He loves to hit-and-run, have his players hit behind runners, bunt the winning run into scoring position, steal a base–at appropriate times–and really likes the game played the way it should be played. Trying to convince some of his dyed-in-the-wool veterans to do so will be a much more arduous task. Manuel thought he had explained the importance of hustling to Rollins, only to have to bench him on several occasions for simply forgetting to play at 100%. John Mayberry Jr., provided he gets on base, should utilize his God-given speed and try to pilfer a base once-a-season. It will be interesting to see if all the players buy in to his fundamentally sound brand of baseball…and what he’ll do when, inevitably, a player doesn’t follow through.

WHO IS THIS MIGUEL ALFREDO GONZALEZ GUY ANYWAY?
After the initial ESPN-reported signing offer of five years, $48-million fell through, the Phillies signed Gonzalez to a $12-million pact over three seasons. At that time, MAG was unofficially slated to be the number-three pitcher behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Amaro has slowly backed off his expectations so much that is sounds like Gonzalez is not even a guarantee to be in the team’s starting rotation. Sandberg has referred to him as the “mystery man” and almost everyone in the organization admits they have never seen him pitch nor have any idea what to expect from him. Here lies your hopes of a solid pitching staff. Through experience, you cannot expect Kyle Kendrick to be consistently relied on for anything more than a number-four starter. One must dream of a week without snow in Eastern Pennsylvania as a more realistic hope than thinking Roberto Hernandez, Jonathon Pettibone or even Chad Gaudin will be anything remotely close to what the Phillies had in previous year’s “Number-3” guy, Roy Halladay. I will probably be wrong, but I keep holding out hope the Phillies do make a run for A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana or one of the few remaining quality starters available to try to add SOME consistency to this rotation. If they don’t, Gonzalez will be the single most-watched pitcher in camp, and anything short of a performance that solidifies him as a middle-of-the-rotation guy this spring will be a huge disaster for the Phillies.

WHEN WILL ‘PAP’ MELT DOWN?
Notice I did not say “if” Jonathon Papelbon melts down. It’s simply in his track record of sounding off and creating havoc in the clubhouse when things are not going well. If the Phillies gets off to a bad start in spring training, it could happen sooner rather than later. The Phillies themselves were so convinced of this distraction that they tried to give him away to any team with the need/payroll/ space/patience to acquire him…yet found no takers. Remember, with this young, inexperienced core of relievers joining him in the bullpen this year, it will be pivotal for “Pap” to provide some leadership for the young arms…something that will not happen if the Phillies closer is unhappy. Several of the beat writers have told me that he was a major distraction during 2013 (and his famous line “I didn’t come here for this” would only support their claims) and he will continue to be one in the likely event that all of the above things don’t go absolutely right for this team out of the gate.

Am I being too pessimistic about the 2014 Phillies? What are your thoughts on my “big four” items to watch for this spring training? What other players and issues should we be focused on for the next six weeks…and beyond? Post your comments here on our blog or email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep watching future editions of our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” program, live each week at 6pm, as we start to focus in on the Phillies as the regular season draws near.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Pitching Projections

 

Phillies Pitching Projections

Last week, we examined what I hoped the Phillies’ lineup and position players roster would look like. This week, it’s the pitchers’ turn.

Starting Pitchers
• Cole Hamels
• Cliff Lee
• Matt Garza / Ricky Nolasco / David Price
• M. A. Gonzalez
• Doc Halladay (only on an incentive-laden contract)
• Kyle Kendrick
• Jonathan Pettibone
• Zach Minor (or another free agent “swingman”)

The Bullpen
• Closer — Jonathan Papelbon (if he’s not traded)
• Set-up — Joe Smith
• Lefty Specialists — Antonia Bastardo & Jake Diekman
• Long Men — B.J. Roseberg & Justin DeFratus
• “On the Bubble” Guys — Michael Stutes, Luis Garcia, Ethan Martin, Cesar Jimenez

First of all, you’re probably asking yourself why I listed eight starting pitchers when there’s only five starting slots. When I covered the Phillies back when Larry Bowa was managing, I remember him prophesying that the game was changing, stating teams need to have eight reliable Major League arms entering a season. His words have become commonplace for most teams, as evidence by the ten different starting pitchers (not including their “bullpen games”) used by the Phillies in 2013. The team needs to be proactive in acquiring enough talent going into the season. They must avoid sending out mediocre Triple-A hurlers in (what will hopefully be) meaningful July and August games, as they were forced to do in 2013.

Secondly, Garza is the best available free agent pitcher available, but there are a few other options I would pursue, both via trades and free agency. As stated in my analysis of the position players, I think you listen to offers for Dom Brown. Coming off an All-Star “breakout” season, I think you could package him (and additional prospects not-named Mikael Franco) to get a long-term “number-3” starting pitcher whom you can have under club control for the next couple of years.

Thirdly, for fans calling on Adam Morgan or Jesse Biddle to start the season with the big club… cool your jets. Morgan had injury problems throughout 2013, and each time he came back he pitched less effectively. Biddle also looked stellar at times, but battled with his control, and you simply CANNOT rely on a young, unproven arm in a year in which so much is at stake.

Finally, I would not simply hand Ethan Martin a spot on the roster. I know fans salivated at the mid-90s fastball and knee-bending curve he put on display in Philly this past season. However, I saw him battle the strike zone while with the IronPigs and think he has to develop some consistency in throwing strikes before becoming a later-inning reliever.

What do you think of my ideas for Phillies 2014 pitching staff? What players do you think the team will add before spring training? Post a comment and let us know what you would do if you were the Phillies’ general manager this winter!

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Position Player 2014 Projections

 

Phillies Position Player 2014 Projections

Back in September, I gave my annual suggestions on what moves the Phillies should make for the upcoming winter trading and free agent season. With the World Series completed and offseason moves in the works, I want to give my take on the Phillies’ projected roster for position players, given the latest news, rumors and insights.

CF Jacob Ellsbury / Curtis Granderson
SS Jimmy Rollins
2b Chase Utley
1b Ryan Howard
RF Mike Morse / Nelson Cruz
C Carlos Ruiz / Dioneer Navaro
3b Cody Asche (might alternate with the catcher depending on if a right or left-handed pitcher is starting)
LF Ben Revere
Right-handed PH — Darin Ruff; Kevin Frandsen, Mark Reynolds or Chris Young
Left-handed PH — Cesar Hernandez or a Free Agent—preferably an outfielder and a ‘power bat’
Utility IF — Freddy Galvis
Backup C — Erik Kratz or Cameron Rupp

ANALYSIS:
First of all, I know you are saying: “Wait…where’s Dom Brown?” I think it’s very possible that the Phillies look to trade Brown for a quality starting pitcher (perhaps included in a package for Tampa Bay’s David Price?). The Phillies’ needs include improving their outfield defense, adding a consistent bat and improving both their bullpen and starting rotation, all at the same time. You have to trade somebody and Brown’s stock will never be higher. I saw him play for years in the minors, and he was very inconsistent, both at the plate and in the field. With the Phillies this year, he hit over .270 with 24 HRs the first half of the year, then hit under .250 with 4 HRs the second half. His defense? Spectacular one minute, botching routine plays the next. You can’t improve this team while keeping it the same, and Brown can get you the most among the trade-able players.

Ellsbury is a guy the Phillies have coveted for some time. Although he’ll be EXTREMELY expensive to acquire, he adds power and a consistent bat to your lineup and is less likely to get resigned by his former team than some of the other free agents the Phils are looking at. Granderson is a cheaper option to play center field, and he should require a shorter deal if the Phillies want to go that route. Cruz is a question mark coming off his PED suspension and his offensive numbers in pitcher-friendly parks are dramatically lower. Morse is a quality clubhouse guy and is coming off a down year—meaning he’ll be affordable and allow you to add a right-handed power bat while allowing you to still spend money elsewhere. Young could also be a right-handed addition who is not a liability defensively. Adding any two of these players improves your outfield defense in THREE spots (moving Revere to left field helps solve his “weak arm” issue that he had in center field).

I’ve heard several other media members strongly suggesting the Phillies will trade Revere instead of Brown, but consider this: what did the Phillies give up last season to acquire Revere…and is that what you really want to have back in return? Trading Brown is not a popular move, but one that must be considered for the right value in return.

The Phillies could also kick the tires on free agent outfielders Carlos Beltran (who I suggested on RCN SportsTalk two years ago when he was available) or Corey Hart, but both have injury issues and the Phillies have enough health-questions already on the roster.

I think the Phillies will try to upgrade by adding a better left-handed bat of the bench than Roger Bernadina, although he did add speed and quality defense. The Phillies were hoping that Bernadina could rebound from his sub-Mendoza batting average in September, but weren’t exactly impressed with what they saw. Because of the lack of outfield depth, I kept Cesar Hernandez off my projected Opening Day roster for now. Major League baseball ruled that he can have an extra option and therefore be sent to Triple-A for the upcoming year. The Phillies were impressed by his bat and the way he adjusted to center field. The plan is to send him to winter ball to see if he can play shortstop. If he can adjust to another new position, he might give Galvis a run for the backup infielder spot.

Ruff still needs to learn to better handle breaking pitches at the major league level and will provide insurance at both first base and the corner outfield positions. In extended playing time, Frandsen didn’t exactly have an explosive second-half at the plate. The Phillies could look to add an extra bat if they have money available, but Ryne Sandberg did talk glowingly about Frandsen’s approach at the plate on several occasions, and his double-digit pinch-hits this year were among the best in the Majors this season.

In an upcoming blog entry, we’ll take a look at the projected Phillies pitching staff. In the meantime, send us your thoughts on the Phillies lineup and position players for the 2014 season and post your opinions on what you think of my roster projections.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Offseason Predictions

 

Phillies Offseason Predictions

Around this time for the last several years, we’ve done a segment on RCN Sports Talk  with all of our panelists making predictions on what moves the Phillies would make during the offseason. I can happily boast that most of my September suggested acquisitions (including Raul Ibanez, Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, and Jim Thome) have come true during the following winter. (Full-disclosure: Most of those ‘correct predictions’ haven’t always worked out too well—like Adams and Thome). Nevertheless, with Ryne Sandberg now officially the Phillies’ Manager for 2014, I’d like to give my annual “Six-Step Offseason Game Plan” for Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. and company to consider for the upcoming months.

STEP #1: SIGN MATT GARZA
The Phillies desperately need a solid, right-handed #3 starter to begin the 2014 season. Sandberg has said in multiple publications that the team’s number one goal for next year is to improve the starting pitching. As the prize starting pitcher in this year’s free agent market, Garza will not be cheap. However, the Phillies’ starters not named Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee sported a collective ERA well north of 4.50 this year. Also, with Lee turning 35-years old during the next season, the Phillies need another quality, reliable starting arm for any kind of playoff run. Ricky Nolasco or James Shields might be the only other free agent pitchers that I would “settle” for, but all three names are going to command big bucks and a long-term deal. So for my money (and it’s not), I would spend the lion-share of my available budget by going after Garza.

STEP #2: ADD AN RH POWER BAT
Not since Jayson Werth migrated to Washington  have the Phillies had a reliable, middle-of-the-order bat to compliment Chase Utley and Ryan Howard (more on the latter in a moment). I saw Darin Ruf play quite a bit in Triple-A and with the Phils and saw the same issue. He needs to gain consistency in laying off low-and-away breaking pitches. I think it’s very possible he improves in this area, but believe it would be a mistake at this time to pencil him in as an everyday outfielder. With Dom Brown and a weak-throwing Ben Revere in the other spots, you need a better defensive outfield option to play every day. The problem is: How do you acquire a Giancarlo Stanton-type of player without having to sell the farm? I DON’T think they should give up on their extra depth by going after Stanton. That’s why I believe Philadelphia will try to sign Mike Morse—a player they’ve coveted in the past coming off a down year. Ruf could be insurance should Howard or Brown go down with an injury (both have spent time on the DL the last two years) and also in case Morse continues his slide.

ALTERNATE ‘STEP #2’ (DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU ARE SQUEAMISH OR A DIE-HARD FAN OF A SPECIFIC PHILLIES PLAYER): There is another possibility how the Phillies could add another bat for the lineup, but it would probably involve trading away a “core player.” I know the Phillies are high on both free agent outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo, but signing either presents a problem. Ellsbury is another left-handed bat on a team already top-heavy from that side of the plate. Choo is right-handed but not the “power bat” the team needs to add. In an offseason where the team needs to get creative to improve the club (and their outfield defense as well), don’t be surprised if one of these players are added. However, the signing of Ellsbury or Choo would require a higher-end player (either in salary or prospect status) to be dealt to free up either cap or roster space, while still addressing the team’s other needs.

STEP #3: RE-SIGN CARLOS RUIZ
Even if you DON’T like the idea of “Chooch” returning, consider the following – the Phillies’ 2014 starting catcher must:
1) Be right-handed
2) Handle pitchers well
3) Not be over the age of 36
Looking at all available free agents, those three requirements eliminate just about every free agent but Ruiz. I doubt Boston  will let Jarrod Saltalamacchia go and don’t think you can sign Brian McCann away from Atlanta. Even if you could sign the latter, you’d have way too many left-handed hitters. A.J. Pierzynski is too old to count on to catch 140 games. Dioner Navarro, although he rakes left-handed pitching, is not a steady defensive-minded backstop and will finish with a lower batting average than Ruiz. This might be the area the Phillies look long and hard to find a partner via the trade market, and would consider jettisoning away some of their young prospects. Unless they can find a quality backstop elsewhere, look for Ruiz to re-sign a one- or two-year deal.

STEP #4: ADD A SET-UP MAN
Despite the improved bullpen during the last two months of this season, I would not go into next season without a proven—and injury-free—reliever to help out in the back end of the bullpen. The Phillies have been fooled for two years now in thinking the younger players will fill-in all the available holes. Although I would now count on BJ Rosenberg, Jake Diekman and Justin DeFratus for roster spots in 2014, I would not assume they, nor any player coming off an injury, should be counted on for the eighth inning role. Again, it might be pricey. I would target a guy like Joe Smith from Cleveland, who boasts a career 2.98 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP (as of 9/18). I would estimate a three-year, $15- to $18-million deal to get this done.

STEP #5: RE-SIGN DOC HALLADAY OR KYLE KENDRICK
This might be the most emotionally-draining move of the off-season. With Miguel Gonzalez already signed for next year (and without anyone seeing him throw a pitch in the last several months), I don’t know how anyone could target him any higher than a #4 pitcher. It leaves room for just one of these two right-handers. Halladay is a Hall of Famer and was one of the premiere pitchers in the game for the last decade. However, his velocity actually decreased in his last outing at home and he didn’t show signs of making a strong adjustment with his new arm slot. Coming off a major injury, it will be hard for the Phillies to commit big dollars to him, unless Doc gives a big-time hometown discount and agrees to a heavily incentive-filled deal. Kendrick has been frustratingly inconsistent through his Phillies career and, until the last 15 games of this season, has been amazingly resilient health-wise. He was injury-free during his Phillies-tenure before having shoulder problems in September. He might cost $8 million to occupy the #5 spot in your rotation. But with young starters Jonathan Pettibone and Adam Morgan also coming off injury issues, you need to have another arm ready to be available to go for spring training.

STEP #6: FIND A QUALITY SWING-MAN
This was one of former Phillies’ GM Pat Gillick’s strengths: try to find someone who other people have given up on, give him an incentive-laden deal, and hope he performs for you. That’s where Amaro’s scouts will have to dig deep to find a low-risk, high-reward type of player who could either help out in the rotation or as a long-man out of the bullpen. If there’s one thing the Phillies painfully learned this year it was that just because you have a quality starting rotation heading into spring training, doesn’t mean it will STAY quality all season long. A little extra pitching depth is a requirement and could go a long way in helping the 2014 Phillies.

As hinted at with “Step #2”, it may not be possible to make all these moves without unloading salary, which brings us to the possibility of the Phillies trading Howard or Papelbon. Although it may not be probable, I would bet that Amaro will explore trade possibilities involving both of these players. If they do, following the above advice would help cover the team’s weakness should one or both players get moved.

What do you think of my offseason Phillies agenda? Which players do you think Philadelphia will—or should—add? Post a comment here and let us know in what direction the Phillies should go.