<span class="vcard">Matthew Pouliot</span>

Andy Fletcher

Umpires go first three outs of major league season without blowing a call

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Of course, our luck ran out in the bottom of the first of Sunday night’s opener between the Rangers and Astros.

With Jose Altuve on first and no outs in the frame, a Matt Harrison pitch to Brett Wallace got away from A.J. Pierzynski, causing Altuve to try for second. The throw arrived on a hop and appeared to beat Altuve but it was to the far side of the bag and by the time the tag was made, Altuve’s foot was on the base. Alas, Andy Fletcher called him out anyway, so new Astros manager Bo Porter took the field for the first argument of the season. The Astros ended up going scoreless in the inning.

MLB pushed back instant replay at least another year last winter, feeling it ready wasn’t to initiate a proper system. Even though there are a dozen cameras covering every baseball game and most calls can be affirmed or corrected in a matter of a few seconds. Still, one can count on MLB making the replay system as unwieldy as possible. It’s going to be awfully exciting next year watching Charlie Manuel deliberate on whether to throw his challenge flag.

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Update: Fletcher evened things up about a half hour later, taking a single away from Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus on a liner to center that was trapped by Justin Maxwell. That made for two easily-reversible blown calls in the first hour of the season.

2013 Preview: Boston Red Sox

Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes
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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Boston Red Sox.

The Big Question: will the offseason spending spree prove worth it?

Coming off a disastrous season in which they lost 90 games for the first time since 1966, the Red Sox were among the winter’s biggest spenders, signing five of the game’s top 25 or so free agents:

DH David Ortiz – two years, $26 million-$30 million
OF Shane Victorino – three years, $39 million
1B Mike Napoli – three years, $39 million (revised to one year, $5 million + incentives)
SP Ryan Dempster – two years, $26.5 million
SS Stephen Drew – one year, $9.5 million

They didn’t stop there, either:

OF Jonny Gomes – two years, $10 million
RP Koji Uehara – one year, $4.25 million
C David Ross – two years, $6.2 million

That they limited themselves to rather short-term deals was a form of restraint. Not sure whether the Dodgers would be willing to bail them out again, the Red Sox wanted to leave themselves the ability to retool on the fly should their latest plan fail as spectacularly as the previous one did.

That strategy prevented the Red Sox from competing for the best of the best (Zack Greinke, Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton and others). And because the Red Sox wanted to protect their second-round draft pick (and, more importantly, the draft slot money that came with it), they limited themselves to pursuing free agents who failed to receive qualifying offers. Which makes one wonder if they really got the players they wanted or if there were compromises involved.

Because, really, it’s not hard to see how the Red Sox could have gotten more bang for their buck:

  • Victorino is coming off a down season in which he struggled to hit righties. He might be in decline at age 32. Upton, on the other hand, could still have his best days ahead of him.
  • Making his AL debut after being traded by the Cubs, Dempster posted a 5.09 ERA in 12 starts for Texas last year. Anibal Sanchez was better after his trade to the Tigers, and he’s far younger.
  • Napoli ended up receiving a much smaller deal after his physical revealed a hip condition. The Red Sox could have moved on from him and signed Adam LaRoche for three years instead, but he would have cost a pick.

For all of their signings, the Red Sox core remains unchanged since the Adrian Gonzalez megadeal: the team is centered around Dustin Pedroia, Ortiz, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and maybe Clay Buchholz. It also has an emerging regular at third in Will Middlebrooks and a very good prospect trio in shortstop Xander Bogaerts, right-hander Matt Barnes and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.

What we’ll find out over the next six months was whether the Red Sox were right to add $60 million in non-superstars to that group. If the team contends and keeps fans interested to the point at which soon-to-be-snapped Fenway Park sellout streak proves to be nothing more than a minor dip, GM Ben Cherington will be praised. But this looks to be more of an 80-85 win team as presently constructed, and if that holds up, the Red Sox will kick themselves for thinking more about 2013 than 2014-15.

What else is going on?

  • Lester and Buchholz currently rank 1st and 2nd, respectively, in the Grapefruit League in ERA. It might be worth writing off under normal circumstances, but perhaps the return of ex-pitching coach John Farrell as Boston’s new manager shouldn’t be underestimated here. Farrell was instrumental in the development of both pitchers during his first stint with the Red Sox, and at least half of the reason the Red Sox wanted him back this winter was for his ability to work with the team’s pitchers.
  • Bradley has been the shining star of camp, hitting .444/.523/.667 with two homers, 11 RBI and as many walks (eight) as strikeouts in 54 at-bats. Ortiz’s Achilles’ tendon setback has opened the door for the 22-year-old to make the team as a left fielder, with Gomes moving to DH.
  • Since Bradley is a natural center fielder, Ellsbury’s status as a free agent to be will be a frequent topic of discussion all year. Regardless of whether he returns to his near-MVP form of 2012, Ellsbury might be too expensive to keep next year, particularly since he’d likely be facing a move to left field. He’ll be a candidate to be traded this summer.
  • New closer Joel Hanrahan appears to be finding his footing now after struggling mightily the first half of camp. The Red Sox also have Andrew Bailey throwing well after an injury-ruined campaign, giving them a fallback in case Hanrahan struggles and potential trade bait come June or July.

Prediction: Fourth place, American League East.

Samuel Deduno completes WBC breakthrough with title game victory

Samuel Deduno
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Yan Gomes, the only major leaguer Brazil has ever produced, opted out of the World Baseball Classic to help his chances of making the Indians.

He won’t.

Melky Mesa, a veteran minor leaguer in the Yankees system, was all set to be part of the Dominican Republic’s left-field committee. Then Curtis Granderson got hurt. Presented with a slight chance of winning a bench job, he skipped out on the WBC.

And then the Yankees signed Brennan Boesch and Ben Francisco.

It would have been hard to blame Samuel Deduno for opting out of the WBC. Although he was the Twins’ second most successful starter while going 6-5 with a 4.44 ERA last year, he was bumped from the 40-man roster over the winter and went unclaimed on waivers. He opted to re-up with the Twins on a minor league deal, which put him in a battle with Cole De Vries and Liam Hendriks for the fifth spot in the rotation.

But instead of staying in camp and fighting for a spot in the traditional fashion, Deduno decided to represent his country and hope to stay in the race while away. To say it worked out would be a huge understatement. If he hadn’t already, Deduno clinched his rotation spot with five scoreless innings against Puerto Rico in Tuesday’s championship game. Overall, he allowed just one run and posted a 17/5 K/BB ratio in 13 innings over the course of his three starts.

It was a tournament MVP-quality showing for the 29-year-old Deduno, who was originally signed by the Rockies in 2003. He briefly reached the majors with Colorado in 2010, but the team dropped him from the roster the following winter. He went on to appear in two games with the Padres in 2011 before getting his first real opportunity last year. While he was moderately successful for the Twins, the 57/53 K/BB ratio in 79 innings scared everyone off when he was available on waivers over the winter. Fastball movement has long been Denudo’s biggest asset, though it’s contributed to his problems with walks. He also has a nice curve. Some have thought that package would play better in relief, but it didn’t materialize when the Padres tried converting him in 2011.

Deduno seems to have taken a step forward now. Instead of aiming for the corners, he’s just throwing to the catcher’s mitt and let his fastball cut and dive as it will. He still doesn’t have much of a changeup, and he likely will be undone by walks from time to time. However, there have to be several teams kicking themselves for not taking him on for a measly $500,000 over the winter.

2013 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Evan Longoria
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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: is this the year Evan Longoria challenges for the MVP award?

Longoria has been one of the AL’s better players since bursting onto the scene as a 22-year-old rookie in 2008, but he’s yet to take that next step. While he’s never posted an OPS below .850 in five seasons for the Rays, he’s also never topped .900, and he’s been limited to 133 games and 74 games the last two seasons due to injury.

With so many question marks up and down their lineup, the Rays may need Longoria’s biggest year yet if they’re going to return to the playoffs after last year’s absence. All of the new acquisitions — first baseman James Loney, second baseman-outfielder Kelly Johnson and shortstop Yunel Escobar — were available because they’re coming off very disappointing seasons. The Rays aren’t going to get anything offensively from their catchers, either. The core group of Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist, Longoria and Matt Joyce will be counted on to produce most of Tampa Bay’s runs.

Longoria has two 30-homer and two 100-RBI seasons to his credit. He may well have gotten there again last year had he stayed healthy; he had 17 homers and 55 RBI in his 74 games. And the Rays likely would have made the playoffs had they gotten 150 games from Longoria. The uphill climb appears even more difficult this season with James Shields and B.J. Upton gone. Longoria coming through with a .290-30-110 campaign would make things a lot easier.

What else is going on?

  • The Rays thought enough of Wil Myers’ potential to part with Shields for him, but he didn’t enter camp with any chance of winning the right field job, even after he hit 37 homers between Double- and Triple-A last year. Like other Rays prospects before him, he’ll have to serve the obligatory season-opening stint in the minors to push back his free agency. The Rays’ needs will determine whether he’s up around May 1 or if he remains in Durham into June to guarantee that his arbitration eligibility is delayed as well.
  • With a .235/.297/.265 line in 34 at-bats, Loney isn’t showing anything this spring that suggests he’ll be a better answer at first base than he was for the Dodgers or Red Sox last year. He’ll enter Opening Day with the starting job, but the Rays need to keep an eye open for alternatives.
  • Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona) are competing for Shields’ vacated rotation spot. Many believe the Rays will trade Niemann prior to Opening Day rather than keep both. They can afford to make the move because they have top prospect Chris Archer waiting in the wings in Triple-A. Odds are that Archer will turn out to be the real fifth starter come May or June.
  • Matt Moore’s emergence as a legitimate No. 2 starter behind Cy Young winner David Price is another big key for the Rays. Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb should be rock solid, but it’s Moore who will determine whether the Rays have a very good rotation or one that ranks as the best in the league. The 23-year-old Moore, who was viewed by many as the game’s best pitching prospect a year ago, improved from a 4.42 ERA to a 3.01 mark in the second half of 2012.
  • 2012 surprise Fernando Rodney, new owner of the lowest ERA in major league history, has already quieted the doubters with an impressive showing as the Dominican Republic’s closer in the World Baseball Classic.

Prediction: Second place, American League East.

United States loses, baseball wins at World Baseball Classic

World Baseball Classic - Second Round - Miami - USA v Puerto Rico
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Let’s face it: the World Baseball Classic’s uphill climb as an event worth watching wouldn’t gain any momentum if Team USA ran away with it.

That’s why it has to be pretty exciting for MLB to see Puerto Rico advance past the U.S. and join the Dominican Republic, Japan and The Netherlands in the WBC semifinals. While baseball hardly needs a boost in the Dominican and Japan, it’s standing in Puerto Rico and Europe figures to get at least a modest boost thanks to this month’s tournament.

In the short term especially, it’s money more than talent than MLB is hoping to gain from Europe. But getting Puerto Rican kids more interested in baseball would be a nice boon for the league. It’s no coincidence that all of Puerto Rico’s stars on the field Thursday were over 30 years old. The only actual position prospect on the team is the Twins’ Eddie Rosario. And while I like Houston’s Xavier Cedeno as a lefty specialist, none of the pitchers would seem to have grand futures in MLB, either.

Puerto Rico just hasn’t produced much major league talent since MLB put its prospects into the draft. MLB teams can no longer set up there and develop the players themselves, as they’ve long done in the Dominican Republic. A nice run in the WBC isn’t going to undo all of the damage, but it’s a little something to try and build on.

The Dutch island of Curacao is already producing talent and even more kids there could be inspired to pick up a baseball as Andrelton Simmons, Jurickson Profar and Xander Bogaerts hopefully develop into major league stars. Throw in Baltimore’s Jonathan Schoop and The Netherlands’ infield could well rival the Dominican group come 2017.

As for the U.S. team, well, this was probably the best way for it to go down; it was competitive yet far from dominant. One imagines that the U.S. players will hear it from the Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in the clubhouse over these next several months. Whether that inspires a few more stars to suit up in 2017 remains to be seen; odds are the 2013 results will be largely forgotten a year from now. But I believe the next WBC will be viewed more favorably by the players. It’s not that we’ve gotten particularly high quality baseball from the teams, but we’ve seen a bunch of very competitive games and boisterous crowds. I think it’s the case that some of the guys who opted out — the Mike Trouts, Bryce Harpers and Prince Fielders — have watched these games and felt like they’re missing out.