Ricky Romero

Is the All-Star Game a joke? Not to those who are here

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PHOENIX – Where’s Derek Jeter?

That seemed to be the question on the mind of many during Monday’s media day leading up to Tuesday’s All-Star Game. Jeter, the Yankees shortstop, decided not to play in the game, as he has recently returned from the disabled list with a calf injury.

Jeter is one of 16 players either unable or unwilling to participate in the game. Some, like Alex Rodriguez, are out because of a serious injury, others because of nagging aches and pains. Several pitchers are not allowed to participate, by MLB rule, because they started games on Sunday.

Jeter is simply the most notable of the 16 in part because of who he is, but also because he returned from the DL six games ago. He has gone 10-for-27 since his return, and certainly seemed healthy on Saturday when he went 5-for-5 to surpass the 3,000-hit mark.

Some say his absence, along with that of several others, makes a mockery of the game. But it’s hard to take credibility away from an exhibition game, and no matter what Bud Selig does to give it some importance, the All-Star Game is just that.

Rest a balky calf for a playoff run or fly to Arizona to play a couple innings in a non-counter? It’s a pretty easy choice. If Jeter, or any player, doesn’t want to play in the All-Star Game, there are plenty of players more than thrilled to step in and take part.

Seattle Mariners rookie Michael Pineda was asked if he ever expected to be an All-Star at age 22: “No,” he said, laughing. “It’s wild. To play in the All-Star Game is unbelievable. I’m very excited to be here. This is a big day for me.”

Pittsburgh Pirates veteran Kevin Correia, selected to his first All-Star Game at age 30, said he suffered through several sleepless nights after being told he was first in line to nab a spot if another pitcher opted out.

“It was a relief (when I finally found out),” said Correia, 11-7 with a 4.01 ERA. “It was just a goal that I wanted to accomplish in my career at some point. To finally get to experience something like this is definitely going to be something I’m going to look back on as a highlight in my career.”

And Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ricky Romero (pictured), 7-8 with a 3.09 ERA, was positively giddy about being chosen as a replacement.

“I’m just trying to soak everything in,” Romero said. “I’m living the dream.”

Romero spoke about his rise from the baseball fields of East Los Angeles and the importance of representing his hometown. At breakfast Monday morning, his mother told him how family and friends back in California were sharing in his excitement.

“Everyone who watched me grow up and watched me play, they saw how hard I worked and everything I put into it,” Romero said. “It just shows that anyone can make it out of there. It shows little kids that if you work hard you can do anything.”

And if the All-Star Game becomes a regular occurrence for Romero, would he ever consider skipping the festivities and using the break to rest?

“I would never miss this for the world,” he said, beaming. “For me, it’s exciting, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of it. The more, the better.”

One of the best things about baseball’s All-Star Game, what separates it from the others of its kind, is that the players give their all on the field from start to finish. There is no coasting on defense, no taking it slow to avoid injury, no grooving pitches down the middle just to get some work in.

If you start pressuring players to compete who might not be 100 percent healthy you might lose some of that quality of play. And in the end, a pennant race is far more important than an exhibition game.

“I think it’s a personal decision,” said Braves catcher Brian McCann, who will play in his sixth All-Star Game, his first as a starter. “Derek has been an ambassador to this game. He’s been nothing but great. I’m not into nit-picking. He’s here every year. He gives his time, and he does everything by the book. He just got back from the DL, I don’t blame him at all. They’re trying to win the World Series.”

But would a healthy McCann ever turn down an All-Star appearance?

“Never. I always want to be a part of this.”

To each his own.

Eddie Perez likely to be Braves’ interim manager if Fredi Gonzalez is fired

Atlanta Braves bullpen coach Eddie Perez, left, stands with manager Fredi Gonzalez during a spring training baseball workout, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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There’s been a lot of rumbling that Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez will soon get the pink slip. His team is 7-20 entering Thursday’s action. Historically, front offices — particularly those of rebuilding/restructuring teams — respond to that by making coaching and/or managerial changes.

Per MLB.com’s Mark Bowman, bullpen coach Eddie Perez is likely to fill in as the Braves’ manager on an interim basis if and when Gonzalez is fired. Perez has been with the Braves as a coach since 2007. He played for the Braves in 10 out of his 11 seasons from 1995-2005. Perez wasn’t known for his bat, but was respected for the way he called games and handled the Braves’ then-elite pitching staff.

Bowman notes that Gonzalez isn’t expected to be fired over the weekend. If the team plays well, that could extend Gonzalez’s leash, so to speak.

First baseman Freddie Freeman issued a vote of confidence for his skipper, saying, “I think everything is getting magnified since we’re off to this start. I don’t know if it’s fair to put it all on [Gonzalez] because he’s not a player. We’re the 25 guys [who have to] go out there and play every day. We’re obviously not playing to our capabilities. To say that’s Fredi’s fault is unfair in my opinion.”

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s action

Chicago Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, left, and Kris Bryant celebrate a 7-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates in a baseball game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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The Phillies and Cardinals got started a little early, finishing up their four-game series on Thursday afternoon. In the evening, we have 10 games on our slate, including Cubs-Nationals.

The Cubs have jumped out to a 20-6 start, looking like baseball’s best — and scariest — team. Entering Thursday’s action, the Cubs have a +93 run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed). That’s by far the best in baseball. The next best are the Nationals at +50, the Mets at +44, and the Cardinals at +41. In fact, the Cubs’ run differential is so good that they have under-performed relative to their expected won-lost record of 22-4.

This is without Kyle Schwarber. This is with Jason Heyward hitting a miserable .211/.317/.256, Jorge Soler hitting .185/.276/.292, and Addison Russell hitting .224/.356/.329. It’s with John Lackey pitching to a 4.32 ERA.

What makes the Cubs so good? They’re on-base machines. The club’s aggregate .364 on-base percentage is second best in the majors behind the Pirates. Dexter Fowler has an outstanding .470 OBP and Anthony Rizzo is at an elite .403. In fact, of their regulars with 100-plus plate appearances, Heyward is the only one with a sub-.350 OBP. The league average is .319. The Cubs steal bases, too, as they’re 17-for-24 (~71 percent) in that department.

The Cubs have baseball’s best pitching staff, which has yielded a major league-best 2.54 runs per game. Only four teams are below 3.00 runs allowed per game. Of course, reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta is the big contributor to that with a sterling 0.84 ERA, but Jon Lester has put up a 1.58 mark and Jason Hammel 1.24. Closer Hector Rondon has found himself in only four save situations but has converted each of them with an even 1.00 ERA and a 15/0 K/BB ratio in nine innings. The Cubs’ aggregate bullpen ERA of 2.66 is fifth-best in the majors.

It’s too early to use defensive statistics with any degree of certainty, but even the eye test shows the Cubs to be elite defenders at the important positions, particularly shortstop (Russell), right field (Heyward), and third base (Kris Bryant).

The Cubs’ success isn’t exactly surprising. The club rode five consecutive fifth-place finishes into some high draft picks and that talent is starting to establish itself in the majors. Whether it was fans, writers, or Vegas oddsmakers, the Cubs were preseason darlings.

Kyle Hendricks starts for the Cubs opposite the Nationals’ Joe Ross at Wrigley Field tonight at 8:05 PM EDT.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 6:10 PM EDT

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Texas Rangers (Derek Holland) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray) @ Miami Marlins (Adam Conley), 7:10 PM EDT

Milwaukee Brewers (Chase Anderson) @ Cincinnati Reds (Alfredo Simon), 7:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Henry Owens) @ Chicago White Sox (Erik Johnson), 8:10 PM EDT

Seattle Mariners (Wade Miley) @ Houston Astros (Chris Devenski), 8:10 PM EDT

New York Mets (Jacob deGrom) @ San Diego Padres (Colin Rea), 10:10 PM EDT

Colorado Rockies (Chris Rusin) @ San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain), 10:15 PM EDT

The Phillies are seeing to it that their minor leaguers eat well

Crop of vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other vegetables.
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For years we’ve talked about how odd it is that baseball teams are in the extraordinarily competitive business of developing highly-trained athletes yet, for whatever reason, it pays minor leaguers virtually nothing and all but forces them to subsist on junk food and other cheap options.

As Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports, however, the Phillies are changing that. Indeed, they’re plowing serious money into nutritious food options for their minor league players:

The Phillies are teaching their minor leaguers how to play baseball, so why not teach them how to eat well, too?

“We want them to not have to worry about anything other than baseball,” assistant general manager Ned Rice said. “When they’re playing for the Phillies, they’ll have that stuff taken care of for them.”

 

That this is a news story — and it is a good and novel one — is kind of sad in some ways. How teams haven’t been on board with this approach for decades is beyond me.

Tracking baseball’s “Naturals”

The Natural
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Rob Neyer has a great column in today’s New York Times in which he tracks the real life players who, at one time or another, were dubbed “The Natural.” A la Roy Hobbs in the book and movie of the same name.

There are some that a lot of people probably remember: Jeff Francoeur and Ken Griffey, Jr. as “The Natural” come to mind easily. There are some who I don’t ever recall being called “The Natural” but were, apparently, like Terry Pendelton and Karim Garcia. There are also some whose stories were far odder and far more tragic than any version of Hobbs’ tale (oh man, a Toe Nash sighting!). Then there’s Rick Ankiel, whose path may be the closest one to Hobbs’ of them all, at least broadly speaking.

Fun stuff that, in addition to being a walk down memory lane, is also an instructive lesson about how the power of narrative works in sports.