The Week Ahead: Hot matchups, big debuts, and a new ace in Philly

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halladay-100404.standard[1].jpgThe 2010 season started beautifully on Sunday night with a thriller between the Red Sox and Yankees. If you could ignore the dog-and-pony show that comes with an ESPN Sunday night telecast, you were able to enjoy quite the treat – even if you don’t have a horse in the Yankees-Red Sox race.

But believe it or not, there are more than two teams in Major League Baseball, and there are a lot of juicy tidbits to watch for in this first week. We have new faces in new places. We have some stellar pitching matchups. And we have some teams trying to live up to early high expectations as the season begins.

Let’s start with who won’t be around as the action heats up. In Texas, Ian Kinsler will not be suiting up. Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran of the Mets are not yet ready to take the field. The Mariners will have to wait at least a couple weeks to see new ace Cliff Lee take the mound, and the Diamondbacks (Brandon Webb), Astros (Lance Berkman) and Rockies (Huston Street) are also among the teams that will be without key players as the season begins.

But even with the injuries, there is plenty of fun to look forward to this week. Phillies fans, enjoying two straight World Series appearances, will unveal their new ace Roy Halladay on Monday as he faces the Washington Nationals. They’re giddy about Halladay in Philly, and rightly so, and he is a big reason some are picking the Phillies to win it all in 2010.

Among other debuts to watch for are Chone Figgins (Mariners), Ben Sheets (A’s, pitching Monday), Orlando Hudson (Twins), John Lackey (Red Sox, Wednesday), Rich Harden and Vlad Guerrero (Rangers), and Hideki Matsui and Joel Pineiro (Angels).

There are some nice pitching matchups in the first week. The Marlins start their young ace Josh Johnson on Monday against the Mets’ Johan Santana, and two-time NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum of the Giants faces off against the Astros’ Roy Oswalt. But the top matchup comes Monday morning when Kansas City’s reigning Cy Young winner Zack Greinke squares off against a man who could easily win it in 2010, Detroit fire-baller Justin Verlander. I pity the hitters in that one.

So settle in and buckle your safety belts. It’s going to be a fun week.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Yankees at Red Sox, April 4, 6-7:
There are only 17 more games between these rivals this season, so enjoy them while you can. Yes, these series get overhyped by ESPN. So what? They’re still fun to watch.

Twins at Angels, April 5-8: A couple of likely playoff teams square off in Los Angeles. And the Twins get one last chance to stay warm before returning home to open their new outdoor ballpark.

Cubs at Braves, April 5, 7-8: Both of these teams are expecting to contend in 2010, so there’s a nice bit of pressure to start fast in this season-opening series.

Yankees at Rays, April 9-11: The Rays think they can make it a three-team race in the AL East. Here’s they’re chance to prove it.

Cardinals at Brewers, April 9-11: Pujols, Holliday and company will test the Brewers’ revamped pitching staff. And Milwaukee gets an early look at whether it can get back into contention in 2010.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 1:10 p.m. ET:
Cardinals at Reds (ESPN)
Monday, 2:05 p.m.: Indians at White Sox (ESPN2)
Monday, 4:10 p.m.: Cubs at Braves (ESPN)
Monday, 7:05 p.m.: Giants at Astros (ESPN2)
Monday, 10:05 p.m.: Twins at Angels (ESPN2)
Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.: Yankees at Red Sox (ESPN2)
*Saturday, 3:10 p.m.: Mariners at Rangers (FOX)
*Saturday, 3:10 p.m.: Yankees at Rays (FOX)
*Saturday, 3:10 p.m.: Cardinals at Brewers (FOX)
Sunday, 1:40 p.m.: Yankees at Rays (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Cardinals at Brewers (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.