Daily Dose: Pujols, Smoltz team up for win

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John Smoltz and Albert Pujols made for a nice combo Sunday, as Smoltz threw five scoreless innings in his Cardinals debut and Albert Pujols went deep to become just the eighth player in baseball history with 40 or more homers in at least five seasons before the age of 30. Who are the other seven? I’ll give you the answer after talking about Smoltz’s impressive return to the National League.
Smoltz flopped in Boston, going 2-5 with an ugly 8.32 ERA in eight starts, but a 33/9 K/BB ratio in 40 innings, average fastball velocity of 91 miles per hour, and plenty of break left on his hard slider suggested that he could still get major-league hitters out. Or at least that’s what I’ve been opining in this space for the past couple weeks. Not only did Smoltz get hitters out Sunday, he struck out nine of the 18 batters he faced.
He didn’t look as dominant as those strikeout totals suggest and left plenty of pitches out over the plate, but as Cardinals fan and Rotoworld news guru Drew Silva pointed out on Twitter during the game: “Smoltz has hung a few, but this is the NL and these are the Padres.” The good news for Smoltz is that he’s in the NL to stay and, while he doesn’t get to face the Padres every time, he does get to face the Nationals next.
While the answers to the trivia question are Alex Rodriguez, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Ralph Kiner, Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, and Juan Gonzalez here are some other notes from around baseball …


* This year has been a rough one for Aaron Harang, who has just one win since May despite hurling nine Quality Starts during that time and is now finished for the season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Saturday night. Harang went 32-17 with a 3.75 ERA for the Reds between 2006 and 2007, but is 12-31 over 55 starts in the two seasons since then.
Based on his brutal 12-31 record you’d assume that Harang has been an absolute mess in those two years, but that’s hardly the case. He has a 4.52 ERA and 295/93 K/BB ratio in 347 innings over that span, which given neutral support from the Reds’ lineup and bullpen would leave him at something more like 21-22. He’s certainly not great, but Harang will be massively undervalued by anyone focused on his record.
* Scott Feldman continued his improbable run as one of the league’s top starters by shutting out the Rays for seven innings Sunday. With the victory Feldman improved to 13-4 with a 3.87 ERA and he racked up a career-high 11 strikeouts in the process. Prior to Sunday he hadn’t missed many bats, which along with mediocre control and just an average ground-ball rate equals success via plenty of smoke and mirrors.
AL Quick Hits: Fausto Carmona had eight strikeouts and one walk in seven innings of one-run ball Sunday to beat Felix Hernandez … Scott Downs (toe) is set to come off the disabled list Monday, but may not resume closing right away … Mark Buehrle gave up five runs in 5.1 innings Sunday and has just one Quality Start in six attempts since his perfect game … Trevor Bell was chased from his third career start in the second inning Sunday … Jarrod Saltalamacchia (arm) is slated to begin a rehab stint this week while eyeing a September 1 return … Michael Cuddyer homered twice in one inning Sunday while subbing for Justin Morneau (ear) … Brian Roberts reached base four times Sunday, including his MLB-leading 47th double … Jim Leyland said Sunday that the Tigers will limit 20-year-old rookie Rick Porcello’s workload down the stretch … Brett Tomko has won both starts since joining the A’s, but don’t count on the 36-year-old being anything but mediocre going forward.
NL Quick Hits: Tim Lincecum took a loss Sunday despite throwing a Quality Start at Coors Field … Scott Rolen returned from the disabled list by going 0-for-3 with two walks Sunday … Angel Pagan hit two homers Sunday, including an inside-the-parker that got stuck under the outfield padding at Citi Field … Bud Norris coughed up six runs and failed to make it out of the second inning Sunday … Thanks to Oliver Perez imploding Pedro Martinez picked up a win Sunday despite letting the Mets score four runs in five frames … Ryan Dempster allowed just an unearned run in seven innings Sunday and has a 4.03 ERA since returning from a broken toe … Ubaldo Jimenez stayed on a roll with eight innings of two-run ball Sunday, striking out nine in his 12th win … Alcides Escobar smacked his first career homer Sunday after going deep four times in 109 games at Triple-A … Vicente Padilla is scheduled to make his Dodgers debut Thursday at Coors Field … Matt Diaz missed the cycle by a homer Sunday and is 14-for-29 with three homers in his last nine games.

Video: Minor leaguer dives over the wall to rob a home run

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Meanwhile, in Tulsa, Zach Welz of the visiting Arkansas Travelers made a spectacular catch. It was the catch Torii Hunter tried to make on that famous David Ortiz homer in the playoffs a few years back except Welz made it.

Watch as he topples over the wall to come up with the would-be dinger off the bat of Tulsa Drillers first baseman Cody Bellinger:

MLB, MLBPA move to help baseball in Puerto Rico. After hurting baseball in Puerto Rico.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 30:  A Puerto Rican flag flies from a building a day after the speech Puerto Rican Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla gave regarding the government's $72 billion debt on June 30, 2015 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  The Governor said in his speech that the people will have to sacrifice and share in the responsibilities for pulling the island out of debt.  (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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Yesterday Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union announced that they will play games in Puerto Rico as part of a plan to develop and support baseball on the island. They likewise pledged $5 million for the creation of development programs in Puerto Rico and plan to stage special events there.

The press release about this made mention of Puerto Rico’s undeniably outstanding baseball tradition. What it did not mention is that, in the view of many, Major League Baseball itself harmed that tradition significantly when it decided to subject Puerto Rican players to the draft in 1990. A move that the MLBPA signed off on too, of course. Indeed, there’s a pretty strong argument that, if it were not for MLB and the MLBPA’s own acts, there would be no need to “develop and support” baseball in Puerto Rico like this at all.

An exploration of this can be read in this 2012 article from The New York Times. The article (and many, many others like it which have been written over the years) notes the sharp decline of Puerto Rico’s professional and amateur baseball leagues and observes that the once steady flow of players making their way from the island to the major leagues being reduced to a trickle.* (see update below) Why?

No one here disputes the diminished stature of baseball in Puerto Rico, and most agree on the culprit: Major League Baseball’s decision, in 1990, to include Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, in its first-year player draft. This means Puerto Rican players must wait until they have completed high school to sign a professional contract, and then they are going up against players from the United States and Canada in the draft.

Perhaps more important, major league teams have less incentive to cultivate talent in Puerto Rico because those players may end up with another team through the draft.

Sandy Alderson is quoted in that article dismissing the notion that the draft was to blame, but even his dodge is couched in basic economic incentives. He claims that, hey, there is stuff that is more financially lucrative for people to do in Puerto Rico than play baseball now. Well, sure. I’d just like him to explain how radically reducing the amount of money a kid can get from playing baseball due to taking away his right to sign with the highest bidder and by utterly killing the incentives for clubs to invest in developing players doesn’t enter into that calculus. Alderson doesn’t explain that one.

No matter what Major League Baseball might say on the record about all of this now, the fact remains that no one spent the past 26 years building academies in Puerto Rico like they have in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. No one has an incentive to turn a 12-year-old with promise into a 16-year-old prospect like they do in those countries because there is no longer any way for a teenager to sign for life-changing money like they can elsewhere. The draft has saved Major League Baseball hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to Puerto Rican players over the past 26 years and it has reduced the number of prospects who may push high-salaried MLBPA members out of work, but has done tremendous damage to the baseball tradition to which Major League Baseball and the MLBPA now pay lip service.

I’m glad that MLB and the MLBPA are doing something about baseball in Puerto Rico. But $5 million over the course of four or five years, which is what this plan involves, a couple of games (if they’re even played), doesn’t even represent a fraction of the damage that the league and the union inflicted when they imposed the draft.

UPDATE: A couple of people who know a hell of a lot about this stuff have pushed back against my post on Twitter:

Marcano has written a book about the excesses and abuses involved in the development of baseball talent in Latin America. He is 100% right about this and, to the extent my writing above made it sound like I was endorsing the model in place in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic on its own terms, I want to be clear that I am not. There is a lot of bad stuff that goes on there and for every kids signing a million dollar bonus, there are hundreds who find themselves at a professional dead end or far, far worse.

That said: Major League Baseball has no problem exploiting that system in those countries and its move to impose the draft in Puerto Rico was not born of some principled stand against those excesses. It was to be a foothold for an international draft which is primarily about cost savings. It would be quite possible to have a system in place that both (a) protects kids from abuses; but (b) provides the sorts of financial incentives to make baseball a worthwhile pursuit for those with the talent to play it.

Also:

Cooper, the managing editor of Baseball America, so he knows of what he speaks, notes that from 1987-1990, before the draft was imposed, 19 Puerto Ricans made their Major League debut. From 2000-03, 23 made their debuts. From 2013-16, 22 made their debuts.

That certainly blows my above comment about “reducing the flow of players to the majors to a trickle” out of the water. That said, Major League Baseball’s move yesterday was not just about the pipeline to the majors. It’s about baseball overall in Puerto Rico. Those numbers reflecting that the top eschelon of talent is still making it to the majors are undeniable, but the Times article from 2012 talks about the erosion of amateur leagues, Puerto Rico’s diminished standing in international tournaments and the reduction in size of the Puerto Rican winter league.

So, OK, I’ll walk back my comments about just how much the imposition of the draft in 1990 damaged baseball in Puerto Rico, but I maintain that it’s hard to argue that it did not do some damage.