2011: Summer of Albert

Many people have already grown tired of the constant Albert Pujols contract coverage, including Albert Pujols and his Cardinal teammates.  That’s too bad, because for the next eight months the media will continue to push this topic into our faces, and for once I don’t think it’s hype without substance. 

What could possibly be bigger than the greatest current player potentially leaving the only team he’s played for–a storied franchise with some of the best fans in baseball–in the midst of one of the greatest careers ever seen?  It’s just like LeBron last summer, if he had played for a team that mattered, and if he had actually helped that team win something in the playoffs.

So every highlight and story about the Cardinals this summer will come with a standard package of contract talk and speculation.  Get used to it, because the media has two annoying habits of being lazy about pursuing new angles and of wanting to talk about things that are really, really important.  This story deserves the breathless attention it’s received, because it could dramatically alter the landscape of baseball over the next decade.

In baseball, a single player has less of an impact on the outcome of an individual game and a season in whole than in any of the major sports.  However, it’s difficult to overstate what an impact he has mentally on his opponents and his teammates.  If he were to leave St. Louis via free agency the organization would be left reeling without its identity, while any team that might add him would instantly have the swagger of invulnerability about it.

Insert him into any lineup and immediately that team will become dangerous and will tax opposing pitching simply through the sheer mental stress he places on pitchers.  The effect isn’t just on the hitters immediately before and after him, but two and three spots on either side and that impact is nearly as stressful on opposing pitching as his own at-bats.

If I must quantify it, I’ll use the sabrmetric standby Wins Above Replacement (WAR).  Albert Pujols has led the National League six straight seasons, averaging nearly 8.5 over that span.  Last year his 7.2 was his lowest total over that span and the Cardinals finished second to Cincinnati with 86 wins.  Take away Albert and you’ve got a below .500 team lost in the shuffle of the mediocre NL Central, and that’s with a dominant pitching staff headed by Adam Wainwright’s near Cy Young season.

Naysayers might point out that over that same span the Cardinals only won the division once which was also the only season they topped 90 wins.  However, if you went back and replayed those seasons with anyone else in baseball taking Pujols’ place how would they fare?  Arguing his impact on a team is ridiculous because of the nature of the game.  Single stars just don’t transform a season like they do in other sports, but the fact is, as baseball players go Albert is as impactful as they get and his decision will impact MLB more than anything in the previous or the coming decade.

So while you may already have all the scenarios memorized get ready for a summer of speculation because the story’s not going anywhere until Albert does.

The Order is Rapidly Fadin’

As Mr. Gallagher said in the quote above, and as Mr. Robert Zimmerman opined in his famous song, I’m about to change around the order of my life.  No longer will HuskerMax.com be the first website I check each day, but instead MLB.com and the glorious news of 30 soon-to-be World Champions. 

Everybody is looking better than ever.  The youngsters have improved, the old guys have healed, the fat guys have dropped weight, and everybody is throwing no-nos in the ‘pen.  I even heard an actual paid sports radio host say this morning that he thinks the Kansas City Royals rotation will be better over the next three years than the San Fransisco Giants. 

As far as I can tell, this gentleman knows that the Giants just won the World Series, that they have a Cy Young Winner (Tim Lincecum), and one of the most underhyped dominant pitchers in the game (Matt Cain) in addition to a very impressive young stud (Madison Bumgarner) and that still doesn’t include the man they just named their number two starter (Jonathan Sanchez), not to mention fallen star/guitar player/albatross Barry Zito, who always has great hair.

But such is the folly of Spring Training belief, truly the most dangerous gateway drug the world has ever seen.  I admit to falling victim to it though, never questioning the sweet nothings the springtime breeze whispers in my ear: “Matt Garza will be dominant in the National League; Zambrano CAN’T get any worse; Pujols may just be sporting blue stripes and a big C next year.”

Like the dreams of so many chess club captains and varsity clarinetists who pine for the prom queen, most teams will fall short, their spring flings nothing more than memories amidst a cloud of losses, injuries, and fire sale trades.

Allow me to be your Tambourine Man over the next few weeks.  In the jingle jangle of BP and split squads come following me and I’ll give you the lucious nectar of belief that this is your team’s year.  Not until the cruel okey-doke that is April, with its second wave of snow and ice will I pull the rug out and get real.  Right now, every glass is half-full and refills are free.  Even for you Pirates fans.

Coming up: 2011 Previews: Pujols, Phillies pitching, and maybe even an original idea that you haven’t heard or read for the last two weeks straight (I’m still in Spring Training too).

Twins Make Simple Things Look Simple

Amid the recent kerfuffle over Hanley Ramirez’s lack of hustle, much was made about a general lack of respect for the game among young players and their unwillingness to commit to the fundamentals and all the little things that win games.  However, there is one organization where this attitude seems to have been completely eradicated.

It’s no secret that the Minnesota Twins have been among baseball’s most consistent teams over the last decade.  They have yet to return to the World Series since their glory days of the early 90s, and yet they’ve persevered and excelled on a yearly basis.  It doesn’t hurt to have two of the best left-handed hitters–both MVPs–back-to-back in the middle of the lineup, but their success and consistency goes far beyond the imposing presence of the new-age M&M boys. 

They’ve won despite the Commissioner’s attempts to contract them, a terrible ballpark (until this year), a “small market” home, and miserly ownership that has just recently started to loosen the purse strings.  They let go of a Cy Young, and lost a potential future Cy Young for essentially two years and kept on winning. 

Last year they won 16 of their last 20 games to force a one-game playoff with Detroit, which they won in 12 innings.  This year, they lost their All-Star closer before the season, the savingest (if winningest is a word, so is savingest) closer of the decade and yet they’ve not missed a beat and currently lead the AL Central by 1.5 games.

How has this organization fostered such a winning tradition and battled through so many obstacles?  I submit that their organizational attention to detail and focus on fundamentals puts them at an advantage every time they take the field.  Of course, talent trumps all and that’s where Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau come in, but the success of the team is rooted in its ability to avoid mistakes and capitalize on those of its opponents in all three phases of the game; pitching, hitting, and defense.

Let’s start with pitching.  The Twins once again are getting good results and winning more than they lose with a staff of improving youngsters and a suddenly rejuvenated Francisco Liriano.  The Twins preach one principle to their pitchers from draft day all they way to the clubhouse at Target Field and that’s throw strikes, period.  Velocity and “stuff” are tertiary to the ability to pitch ahead and avoid walks, the free bases that turn solo homers into 3-run jobs and a single run into a crooked number.

As they have for seemingly since the game began, the Twins lead all of baseball with the fewest walks allowed (106), 15 ahead of the second place staff.  The Twins refuse to allow free passes (they’re also tied for 4th with only 10 hit batters), and force teams to beat them by swinging the bat.  Not only does this keep runners off base, but the focus on strike-throwing allows Twins pitchers to be more efficient and work deeper into games.  The Twins lead MLB in fewest pitches per inning at just 15.29. 

Of course, all those strikes come at the expense of big strikeout numbers as they rank 24th with 301.  However, their control is so overwhelming that they still manage to lead MLB in K/BB at 2.87.  The Cubs are second at 2.50 despite having struckout 76 more hitters.  Also, the Twins still rank 5th in MLB with a 1.28 WHIP, so even though they’re pounding the zone relentlessly, they aren’t allowing hitters to tee off on them.  They’re throwing quality strikes and letting their defense do its job.  Any big innings put together against this staff must be earned, as they’re handing out just over two walks per game (2.26 BB/9IP, best in MLB).  However, a staff that forces so much contact and racks up so few strikeouts must rely on its defense more than others.  For the Twins, though, fundamentals and discipline extend to the entire team.

Modern day statisticians, er sabrematricians, have found many ways to quantify defense, and they’ve devised some profoundly useful numbers that put real meaning into defensive ability.  However, for the purposes of this discussion I’m not looking for UZR or anything beyond the oldest and simplest of defensive stats.  The Twins just simply never makes errors, ever.  Their one miscue in yesterday’s game brings their season error total as a team to 10.  That’s the same number that Nationals’ infielder Ian Desmond has committed by himself!  They’ve played 46 games, which means they boot a ball about once every other series.  The second best team in MLB has 19 errors!  The Twins pick up the ball at a .995 fielding percentage clip. 

They are not likely to lead Baseball Tonight’s Web Gem awards balloting, but that’s not their style anyway.  They demand focus and expect every simple play to be made.  There are numerous players throughout baseball that thrive on making the spectacular play and yet will drop a routine grounder from time to time.  The Twins tell their pitchers to let the ball be hit and they tell their fielders to make routine plays look routine.  They have a history of exciting players like Kirby Puckett and Torii Hunter, but they’re much more concerned with converting routine plays into outs. 

This goes hand in hand with their pitching philosophy; make the opposition earn every base.  They don’t allow free bases on errors, and they don’t let runners move up extra bases with stupid mistakes.  Compare the Twins “free base” totals with the MLB average and you’ll see how their fundamental superiority adds up over time.  League average totals for walks, hit batters, and errors are 166, 15, and 30, respectively.  Let’s just say each is worth one base for simplicity.  That’s 211 free bases.  The Twins numbers are 106, 10, and 10, a total of 126, 85 fewer free bases, the equivalent of just over 21 free trips around the diamond.  This is a simplistic comparison, but it clearly shows the edge that a focus on fundamentals has given the Twins.  In business, we call these things core strengths.  The Twins core strength is that they absolutely give nothing away and dare you to take it from them.

But the Twins don’t stop there.  They take the same principles of discipline and focus up to the plate with them as well.  While their pitchers abhor walks, their hitters couldn’t be happier, or better, at earning them.  They’ve strolled to first 204 times, 2nd in MLB, while striking out only 268 times, 28th most in MLB (or 3rd best).  Their differential between walks taken and walks allowed is 98, more than two extra free passes every single night.  That advantage over the course of 162 games cannot be overstated.  And just as they don’t give free outs to teams defensively, they similarly loathe to surrender them on the basepaths. 

While their stolen base numbers (25 steals, 4 CS) are nothing exciting, that success rate is tops in MLB (86.2%).  So while they certainly aren’t the Running Rays, putting pressure on opposing batteries and causing mayhem, what they are is intelligent and opportunistic baserunners who will swipe bags when they see them available, but otherwise will allow their patient and potent teammates to move them along.  With the 3rd best batting average and 2nd best OBP in MLB, they have little reason to force the issue and run themselves out of innings.  

With their fundamental edge in all three categories, the Twins routinely put themselves in position to win games and force their opponents to make plays to beat them.  They rarely give away games and their ability to execute at each position and their willingness to rely on every single member of the roster is what has been the foundation for their tremendous success and consistency. 

All teams have peaks and valleys and both hot and cold streaks thr
oughout a season, but Minnesota’s consistent dominance of the fundamental areas of the game make it easier for them to pull out tough victories and allow them a competitive advantage every single night of the season.  This keeps them from the extended losing streaks that can kill a team’s season.  Rarely do they take themselves out of a game with mental mistakes, impatient at-bats, or lack of command on the mound.  It’s that day in day out focus that keeps them on a steady path to success.

Clippard Posting Astounding Season

Typically middle relievers only get noticed when they do something terrible like blow a lead, walk in a run, or otherwise screw up a perfectly good start for the starter or a potential save opportunity for the closer.  Like umpires, if we know the names of middle relievers it’s usually a bad sign, just ask the Royals relief squad. 

Tyler Clippard, however, has transitioned from a starter on the most recognizable American sports franchise, to a middle reliever on perhaps its most dubious and somehow has gained more recognition, and even more astounding it’s positive recognition.  After another late-inning rally by the suddenly feisty Nationals, Tyler Clippard, not Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Ubaldo Jimenez, or even Big Time Timmy Jim Lincecum leads all of Major League Baseball with seven wins.  This is the same Tyler Clippard who announced his presence with authority as an up-and-comer for the Yankees in 2007 and pitched his way to the bullpen in Washington in less than two years.

Last year he had a fine season, pitching 60.1 innings in 41 games and compiling a 2.69 ERA.  This year, though, he’s out of his mind.  In addition to the absurd record he’s allowing opposing hitters a tiny .188/.294/.291 (AVG/SLG/OBP).  His WHIP is 1.12 and he’s struck out 30 to only 12 walks.  Of course, his incredible win total is due in part to his losing a few leads (he has 0 saves in 5 opportunities) and being in the right place at the right time to get credit for victories when the team has come back late.  It also doesn’t hurt that once he leaves the game with the lead he’s followed by the best closer in baseball so far this season, Matt Capps.

However he’s getting it done, both he and the Nationals will take it.  The starters may be giving him a hard time about being the win vulture, swooping in and stealing their Ws, but this franchise will take them any way they can get them.  With their potential front end starter finishing his apprenticeship in Syracuse, the dominance of Clippard and Capps in the back of the bullpen adds another ray of hope to the Nationals increasingly bright future.

Livan’s Surprise Start Defies Logic

When I look at the league leaders online or in the newspaper (yeah, they still exist) I see what fans see every year during April, a surprising collection of names that usually disappear by the time school lets out.  Scott Podsednik and Pudge Rodriguez hitting .449?  And even though I know it’s early and things will begin to level out and make sense within a few weeks, I still can’t help but be shocked by this line, ERA: 1. Hernandez, WSH, 0.75.  What!? 

That’s Livan Hernandez, pitching for his fifth team since 2006, back with Washington for a second go-round.  He’s 2-1 and is incredibly getting hitters out consistently.  He’s averaging eight innings per start and has thrown a complete game shutout already.  Allow me to channel my inner John McEnroe; You cannot be serious!  Isn’t this the same guy who allowed approximately six hits per inning over the last several years?  Isn’t he the guy who throws a mid-80s fastball and an assortment of junk similar to the guys I see in city leagues across the metro Kansas City area?

It’s true, 35 year old Livan Hernandez has apparently found the fountain of youth and is enjoying a start that no one could have predicted.  Over his last four seasons, Hernandez has essentially been a glorified batting practice pitcher, but has somehow guiled and gutted his way into double digit wins three times, though he’s posted double digit losses all four years and compiled a 46-47 overall record.  His batting average against over that time is stunning, .288, .308, .342, and .308 from 2006-2009.  His ERA is a robust 5.28 over that time, but considering the way hitters have been teeing off on him it’s surprising it’s not worse.

So what’s the key to his turnaround this year?  Has he suddenly regained his fastball or retooled his repertoire?  Has he begun a top secret HGH regimen?  Is it really Stephen Strasburg in disguise?  I believe, in fact, the answer is much more mundane than any of those possibilities.  It’s just plain dumb luck. 

Hernandez is dominating opposing hitters with an unreal .159 batting average against, third best in all of baseball.  His WHIP is a stellar 0.83, a shade over half of his career average.  However, a closer look shows that he also has the third best BABIP in Major League Baseball with a ridiculous .180, which means that eventually those atom balls that have been finding gloves will turn into bleeders and gorks that find holes.  Before long, opposing hitters will start “hitting ‘em where they ain’t,” and feasting upon Livan’s fat fastballs as they have for much of the past decade.

Now usually I’d say that three straight starts like Livan has had is a trend and not a fluke, and he has faced three legitimate teams, including a shutout against the potent Brewers lineup that just napalmed the Pirates staff this week.  However, with the combination of his history and the good fortune that he’s had so far, I can’t imagine this charade lasting much longer.  Only thrice in fourteen full seasons has he had fewer hits allowed than innings pitched and I expect things to return to normalcy soon.

He usually doesn’t hurt himself with walks, but with a team behind him that’s still building and a pedestrian offense, Livan should enjoy this month while he can.  I expect the rest of the summer will be much like the last several have been and Livan will find himself running to back up bases as opposing hitters fight at the bat rack for a chance to face him.

Cubs Come Through When it Counts in Home Opener

Yesterday the Cubs beat the Brewers 9-5 in the Wrigley Field opener mostly on the strength of three home runs which plated seven of the nine scores for Chicago.  Much like last year and several recent seasons in Chicago, there is concern that the Cubs rely too heavily on the round trippers for their offensive output.  So far this year the Cubs have scored 19 of 27 runs via the longball and there’s concern that they won’t be able to produce when the fickle winds of Wrigley turn around.

It is a little disconcerting that the team seems to scuffle for several innings (or games) at a time, failing to make the little plays to score runs and then suddenly open the floodgates with outbursts like they did yesterday.  However, this season it appears the Cubs are coming up with more timely hits, even if they still tend to be big flies.

Last season, the team struggled mightily with runners on base and in scoring position, even failing to plate a single run in many bases loaded, no out situations.  That occurred again in the 1st inning of Sunday’s game against Cincinnati, when Ryan Theriot, Kosuke Fukudome, and Derrek Lee each reached to open the game against Mike Leake, a pitcher making his first pro appearance on any level.

With the bases loaded, no one out, and cleanup hitter Aramis Ramirez coming up against a kid who last threw a competitive pitch for Arizona State, the Cubs proceeded to pop up, strikeout, and fly out for a scoreless frame.   Of course I thought this was a harbinger of another long season of missed opportunities on the North Side, but yesterday’s output showed a different possibility.

I’m not just talking about the deluge of runs, which is a once a week commonplace in recent Cubs history.  It’s the situations in which the runs scored that are more important.  All nine of the runs came with two outs.  The team which I last summer dubbed the  “Rally Assassins” was suddenly more clutch than a stick shift, at least for a day.  Perhaps new hitting coach/proclaimed miracle worker Rudy Jaramillo is starting to have an impact on this lineup.

In the five run third, the Cubs had runners on second and third with two outs after a double steal on a strikeout.  This was a classic Cubs opportunity to blow a good chance.  However, Xavier Nady homered, Alfonso Soriano singled, and then Jeff Baker capped it with another homer.  The next inning the Cubs would hit safely four consecutive times with two outs to plate three more and they added another two-out tally in the fifth.  In all, 9 of their 13 hits came with two outs.

More than the home runs and the gala event of Opening Day, these situational successes should give Cubs fans hope that the slow start is fading and this Cubs team may have what it takes to get back to the top of the division.

Even after the 13 hits yesterday, the club is still hitting a dismal .223, good enough for a tie for 14th in the National League.  However, subsequent situational splits offer a glimmer of hope.  With runners on the Cubs improve, sort of, to .233 (11th in NL) and with runners in scoring position they clobber the ball (not really) at a .250 clip (9th in the NL).  Alright, none of those numbers are what you would call “good” or even “encouraging,” but this last one is.  With runners in scoring position and two outs, the Cubs are hitting .333 (2nd in NL) and that’s where games are won and lost. 

When pitchers are hanging by a thread, like Doug Davis was all day, a team must be able to provide the clutch hits that send him to the showers and open the bullpen gates.  Too often in the recent past, Cubs teams have let pitchers hang around and stay in the game by letting them off the hook with double plays, baserunning mistakes, and by giving away at bats. 

Perhaps yesterday is the early turning point for this team that can provide some momentum and confidence in those all-important situations.  As the saying goes, “two out knocks get you to heaven,” and with enough of them maybe this team will find the promised land of October baseball.

I’m not saying Trey Hillman is incompetent…

I’m just implying it as strongly as possible.  After seeing some of the ridiculous quotes from Trey Hillman in Bob Dutton’s KC Star article, I had to post a quick followup to yesterday’s post.  These are actual quotes from Trey Hillman following Thursday’s game against Detroit.  This was the game in which the bullpen blew a third consecutive save to start the year and finished up a series in which they allowed 16 runs in 9.1 IP, while the starters allowed 3
(2 ER) in 19.2 IP.

“We’ve got to give guys an opportunity to settle into roles,”

  He’s talking about an 8-man bullpen soon to be reduced to seven in which five of the guys were in the exact same role last year (Colon, Tejeda, Cruz, Farnsworth, and Soria).  They should be pretty well settled by now.  The only thing in question each night is which guy will go out and pour gas all over Kauffman stadium before lighting it on fire.

“We don’t have guys with a long history of being effective in the seventh and eighth innings.  We’re going to have to develop it.”

  Actually they have exactly the opposite.  They have many guys with a long history of failure in the seventh and eighth innings and apparently they’re not going to develop anything different at this point.  Cruz is in his 10th season and is 31 years old, Colon is in his 5th year and is 30, Tejeda is in his 6th year and is 28, and Farnsworth is in his 12th season and turns 34 next week.  Dusty Hughes might develop, but if these rubes were going to develop or become successful it would have happened by now.

The fact is that it’s been apparent for over a year that this bullpen is the biggest gaping hole in the roster, and yet it has not been in any significant way.  Contracts play a part, but the organization did nothing to change the makeup of this year’s bullpen in any significant way.

I realize he can’t come out and say that his guys are worthless and there’s no hope, but I feel like he really thinks they can turn a corner and suddenly start shutting people down.  The fact is that these guys have long track records showing their mediocrity and they’re unlikely to ever show anything else.  How the Royals can justify the fact that they addressed the problem in no tangible way this offseason is beyond me.

 

Royals Hope Old Arms Learn New Tricks

There’s a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.  If that’s true, then Dayton Moore, Trey Hillman, and the rest of the crew running the Kansas City Royals should be carted off to the nut house.  Last year, the bullpen was the bane of the team’s (and the fans’) existence.  Aside from All-Star caliber closer Joakim Soria, who was hobbled by injuries, the group was a ragtag collection of cast-offs and no-names who combined to cause more heartburn and indigestion than Kansas City’s famed barbecue.

The group included Roman Colon (4.83 ERA in 50.1 IP), Juan Cruz (5.72 ERA in 50.1 IP), Robinson Tejeda (3.54 ERA in 73.2), and Kyle Farnsworth (4.58 ERA in 37.1 IP).  That’s a combined 4.55 ERA over 211.2 innings of relief, a performance that led the Royals to bring all four back to form the core of their bullpen again this year. 

That means the four most frequent offenders from last season’s disaster are back in their usual roles.  Various factors led to them being retained (including Farnsworth’s unforgivable contract given before the 2009 season), but the fact remains that Dayton Moore and his organization addressed their biggest flaw by doing precisely nothing.  They’re still counting on four proven failures to somehow bridge the gap to Soria.

Those four and Soria are joined this year by John Parrish (who missed all of 2009 recovering from arm surgery), Dusty Hughes (a promising youngster who debuted in 2009 with a 5.14 ERA in 14 IP), and  Luis Mendoza (who logged all of 1 IP in 2009 with the Rangers, allowing 4 ER and posted a robust 8.67 ERA in 63.1 IP in 2008). 

This motley crew is tasked with preserving the narrow leads provided by Kansas City’s typically anemic offense and allowing Cy Young winner Zack Greinke to accumulate his deserved share of wins, rather than the all too frequent quality start no decisions of 2009.

After only two games, though, it must be too early to tell how they’ll fair this year, right?  Perhaps several had strong springs to prove they’ve turned a corner.  Well, so far, through two games they’ve blown a two-run lead and cost Greinke a win, and managed to somehow turn a 7+ inning shutout performance by Luke Hochevar into a no decision, 11th inning, come-from-behind win credited to Farnsworth. Old reliable Kyle earned the W by allowing three straight hits to start the top of the 11th before weaseling his way out and letting the offense provide a dramatic walk-off victory in the bottom half of the inning.

In the season opener, Greinke battled his way through six innings against the tough Detroit offense and allowed only 1 ER.  He left with a 4-2 lead, thanks to a surprising offensive outburst against Detroit ace Justin Verlander.  Before he could even find a seat in the dugout, however, Colon, Tejeda, and Cruz teamed up to post a 6-hit, 1 BB, 6 ER performance in the sixth inning to put the game out of reach and leave Zack with nothing to show for his hard work on Opening Day.

Luke Hochevar followed suit the next day throwing an oustanding 7.2 IP, 5 hits, 1 BB, 0 R and leaving with the lead only to see Soria cough it up and Farnsworth allow a run before a miraculous comeback in the bottom of the 11th brought the Royals a win.

As I began this post, that’s all the damage the bullpen had done this year, but during the course of my writing they managed to do it again.  Today Royals starter Brian Bannister tossed a fine outing, going 6 innings and allowing only 1 run, leaving with the lead.  Hughes went 1 inning, allowing the tying run before giving way to Mendoza who posted a 1.2 IP, 5 ER performance. 

It seems there’s a different guy each day, but no matter who Trey Hillman beckons from the pen, it always ends in disaster, and the fact that all of the main pieces were brought back and no attempt at change was made is a fault of those running the organization.  This bullpen should have been completely dismantled and rebuilt, but Dayton Moore did nothing and Hillman allowed it to happen.

Hillman may soon be on his way out, but it won’t matter who’s filling out the lineup card as long as this embarrassment of a bullpen remains intact.  For that reason, perhaps Dayton Moore should be feeling the heat more than Hillman for failing to address the biggest gaping hole on his team.

Heyward Makes the Cut

It’s now official that Spring Training sensation Jason Heyward, an Atlanta Braves outfielder, will make the Opening Day roster for the big club.  Manager Bobby Cox further said that Heyward will be playing regularly as the team’s everyday right fielder against lefties or righties.  It’s no surprise that the phenom is getting his shot, but the way he’s taken the Grapefruit League by storm this spring is impressive.

After a 2009 during which he rocketed from Class A all the way to AAA and was subsequently named Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year, Heyward was expected to continue his growth.  The shows he’s put on in Florida, however, have exceeded expectations.  His 450+ foot shot earlier this spring is already legendary and the Braves organization hasn’t shied away from questions about his ability and potential the way most clubs do to protect their young stars.

His organization, his manager, and his teammates are impressed and they’re expecting him to give them some pop in his first look at the big leagues.  Heyward, by all accounts, is handling the attention, the incredible comparisons, and the mounting expectations quite well.  He’s a well-grounded kid with a great demeanor, excellent work ethic, and a quiet confidence that he’ll adapt and find his comfort zone quickly at the next level.

Heyward has all the tools for success and coming up through the Braves organization should only help him.  Booby Cox is one of the most successful skippers in Major League history and veterans like Chipper Jones should be able to help Heyward make the adjustments to life in the show. 

One must remember, though, that Heyward won’t turn 21 until August and he still will face the challenges of any young player seeing Major League arms day after day.  He’s ripped the cover off the ball at every level, but this is an entirely different animal.  The NL East doesn’t have the greatest collection of arms, but he will see Roy Halladay several times as well as nasty lefties Cole Hamels and Johan Santana (if he’s healthy).

It’ll be interesting to see how he fares early on and how quickly pitchers can find ways to get him out.  He’ll be a hot pick for Rookie of the Year coming out of the gate, but I expect the typical development curve with his share of droughts and tough stretches.  However, with his physical (6’4″ , 245 lbs) and athletic tools he will punish any mistakes he sees and will get plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.

If he does have a regular season similar to what he’s done this spring, he will give the Braves a much-needed boost in their attempt to regain the NL East crown and he’ll provide plenty of fireworks and excitement for the always apathetic fans of Atlanta.

Big Shakeup in AL Central

With the news that Twins closer Joe Nathan has a
“significant tear” in the ulnar collateral ligament of his throwing
arm the AL central race has
suddenly been changed dramatically.  It’s not a certainty yet that Nathan
will get surgery, an operation that would likely put him out for the entire
season, but it appears that the Twins are suddenly without their biggest
pitching weapon and the entire division may be turned on its head.

At first glance it seems ludicrous to claim that a pitcher who appeared in only
70 games and pitched less than 70 innings could affect an entire division with
his absence (especially coming from a self-proclaimed closer hater), but Nathan
is one of only a handful of superstar closers in Major League Baseball and his
presence means more than his impressive number of saves and strikeouts. 

In a division without a dominant team and without a lot of overpowering
pitchers, he was perhaps the division’s most important arm.  That’s most
important, not best.  Zack Greinke won the AL Cy Young last year, but his
team still finished last and may likely see the same result whether he
duplicates his 2009 success or not.  The loss of Nathan, on the other hand,
not only dramatically alters Minnesota’s
end-of-game strategy, but it kills their swagger and belief that no matter
what, if they led after 8 innings, they were going to win.  The entire
dynamic of the team will be affected knowing that they don’t have their
shutdown ace to slam the door in the late innings.  

The Twins are hoping Francisco Liriano can reclaim the magic in his left arm,
but he’s still a work in progress as is the rest of their young staff, which
seems to take a step backward with every gain they make.  Even the success
of Nathan’s bullpen mates, Jon Rauch (7-3, 3.60, 17 holds) and Matt Guerrier
(5-1, 2.36, 33 holds) can partially be attributed to the knowledge that they
only had to get three outs and pass things off to Nathan in the 9th.  Now
they’ll be shuffled into unfamiliar roles, and nothing seems to cause more
chaos in a bullpen than shuffling roles.  It’s part of the stupidity of
modern bullpen use, but it’s true nonetheless. 

With Nathan at the back end of the Twins bullpen, Ron Gardenhire could manage a
game much differently than he will with an average or unproven closer or
closing committee.  The Twins were able to shorten games and could rely on
Nathan game after game.  Since he came to Minnesota
and became a full-time closer in 2004, Nathan has converted 246 of 271 save
chances, just over a 90% clip.  Compare that to the gold standard of
closing dominance, Mariano Rivera who’s converted 243 of 261 (93%) over the
same span and you see how important Nathan is to a team who needs every single
win.  Remember, two years running the Twins have had to play one-game
playoffs to decide the division.  This is a team who’s playoff hopes could
live and die with a single blown save.

As for the other teams in the division, they’ve now got an added incentive to
get into the Twins ‘pen, knowing it’s down a man.  No longer will opposing
hitters be hoping they scratch something out against one of the game’s
best.  Instead they’ll go to the plate in a close game late knowing that they’re
facing an inexperienced arm who hasn’t faced the game-ending pressure nearly as
often as Joe Nathan. 

With Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and a few key offseason additions the Twins
will still be a top team in the AL Central, but the loss of Nathan will be felt
later in games.  In a division as close as this one figures to be, every
game could come down to the bullpen and the Twins just lost their ultimate
trump card.  I think hitters in camp for the Tigers, Sox, and even the
Indians and Royals might step in the cage today with a little more bounce in
their step knowing they just might not have to hear “Stand Up and
Shout” blaring from the Target Field sound system until 2011.

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