The 20 best stories in baseball in 2014:
1. Toronto Blue Jays — Worst to first, at least so far. The Jays have received excellent hitting from Melky Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, and Adam Lind, and great pitching from Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Drew Hutchison. All the things that should have worked last year and didn’t are working now.
2. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees — He’s lived up to the hype and then some. Tanaka, 25, is in Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award contention. And you can make a case he’s the Yankees’ MVP with an 8-1 record and 2.06 ERA after Saturday’s win vs. the Twins, with only 12 walks.
3. Milwaukee Brewers — The Brewers have had excellent pitching and their lineup has provided enough support, and the comebacking Ryan Braun, though in and out with injuries, has looked like the hitter he was pre-suspension.
4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies — Player of the year so far. He has torn up Coors Field, hitting .521 with a 1.559 OPS. He’s been clutch, .422 with a 1.316 OPS with runners in scoring position.
5. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins — Hercules leads the National League with 16 homers and 51 RBIs. He’s also hitting .317 with a 1.039 OPS. We’re seeing the maturation of a hitter. It’s going to be awfully hard for the Marlins to pull the trigger on a deal.
6. Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, Brewers — Talk about reinventing yourself. K-Rod, who used to throw in the mid-90s and above, is now getting it done at around 92 miles per hour with his great changeup and curveball. Many teams had a chance to sign him, but after the Brewers traded him to the Orioles last season, they reacquired him. Great move by Doug Melvin.
7. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays — When in a zone he’s one of the more dangerous hitters in the game. He had 16 homers and 33 RBIs in May, giving him 18 homers for the season.
8. Nelson Cruz, OF/DH, Orioles — Perhaps the best value free agent signing of the offseason, the Orioles got Cruz to bite on a one-year, $8 million deal after he turned down a $14.1 million qualifying offer from Texas. Cruz was leading the AL with 19 homers and 49 RBIs entering Saturday with a 1.028 OPS. The trick now is to sign him to an extension before he goes through the qualifying offer/compensation process again.
9. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox — Abreu, who should come off the DL Monday, has not been overwhelmed by the transition from Cuba. His 15 HRs, 42 RBIs, and .908 OPS are proof of that.
10. Oakland Athletics — The A’s make the best use of platoons in baseball and they pitch very well, despite having lost two of their best starters, A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker, right off the bat. Sonny Gray has picked up the slack as ace.
11. Mark Buehrle, LHP, Blue Jays — His nine wins are tops in the majors, not bad for this gritty veteran who is well on his way to his 14th consecutive 200-plus-inning season. Buehrle is also five wins away from 200. At 35, he shows no signs of slowing down.
12. Miami Marlins — If the Marlins didn’t lose Jose Fernandez for the season, who knows how far they would have gone? As it is, their young lineup and pitching staff keep performing, two games over .500 in the NL East entering Saturday, neck and neck with Atlanta.
13. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds — We haven’t seen his best, but this fraction of what he’s going to be isn’t bad. Hamilton’s speed makes him an event on the basepaths. He has 19 steals, but that number will rise quickly as he gets on base more.
14. Josh Beckett, RHP, Dodgers — The no-hitter was unexpected for a guy whose career has been on the downside and has become limited in the number of innings he can provide. Yet Beckett recorded the first no-hitter of the season. He threw 128 pitches — 64 fastballs, 40 curveballs, 20 changeups, and 4 cutters.
15. Victor Martinez, DH, Tigers — He’s still a dynamic presence at the plate. He’s a big part of the Tigers’ surge, leading the American League in hitting (.347), including 13 homers and 34 RBIs. He’s killing lefthanded pitching (.435).
16. San Francisco Giants — What a surprise, the Giants are having another great season. Same formula — pitching, defense, timely offense, and bullpen. Can’t wait to see what move Brian Sabean makes at the trading deadline.
17. Colorado Rockies — The Rockies have come out of the blue. Their hitters are absolutely rocking at Coors Field — .344 with a .952 OPS and a .391 on-base percentage. Their pitching also has been very good at Coors — 16-7 with a 4.08 ERA, terrific in a tough place to pitch.
18. Dee Gordon, 2B, Dodgers — Gordon was looking at being traded or sent to the minors unless he transformed himself in a hurry. He’s done that. He leads the NL with 34 steals, though he’s slumped in May (.246).
19. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies — Solid comeback from injury-filled seasons. The Phillies were right to re-sign him amid chatter to move on to the next generation. Utley, hitting .323, has an NL-leading 22 doubles. He’s always been a doubles machine. Would Utley consider waiving his 10-5 rights to go to a contender?
20. Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs — The buildup is he’ll be the prize of the trading deadline. He’s had an excellent season with a 1.68 ERA (second in baseball to Adam Wainwright) despite earning just one win. The Cubs’ offense hasn’t been able to provide for him. But scouts have been impressed.
Teams are lining up
for Cubs’ Samardzija
Front and center: Jeff Samardzija.
It’s a name that’s hard to spell and hard to say, but everyone will be used to it by the time the deadline rolls around. Theo Epstein has kept things very quiet from the Cubs’ end, but word is he will sell him off well before the deadline if he can.
Efforts to re-sign Samardzija haven’t gone well, so Epstein is listening to offers. After this week’s draft, the discussion should come fast and furious, and according to one NL GM, “the feeling is he’s the guy who will get the most looks because he’s a front-line guy, a young veteran, and he’s been so good.”
So, who will go after him? The teams that have the most to offer would be the Red Sox and Rangers. The Giants would be third in line.
The Red Sox have been besieged with offensive issues, but what a preemptive strike it would be against their AL East opponents to acquire Samardzija.
It’s a slippery slope when Epstein and Ben Cherington deal because of their past relationship and Epstein’s knowledge of Boston’s farm system. But fair value is fair value. The Cubs have a lot of positional prospects, so what they need are pitchers.
Right or wrong, the Red Sox seem to protect their pitching prospects, and the one pitcher they would definitely not part with is lefthander Henry Owens. Whether that’s a deal breaker is anyone’s guess. The Sox certainly have other pitchers — Brandon Workman, Matt Barnes, Anthony Ranaudo, Allen Webster, and Rubby De La Rosa — they could offer. A good guess is it would take two of them, plus perhaps a catcher.
The Rangers also have prospects the Cubs would find attractive, and they could use Samardzija to revamp their staff, which has been decimated by injuries.
But the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Orioles are definitely also in the hunt.
The Cubs would likely be interested in Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy from the Orioles. They would likely want Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez from the Blue Jays, or Dellin Betances and catcher Gary Sanchez from the Yankees.
The Mariners, Rockies, Mets, Braves, Phillies, Pirates, Dodgers, and Angels could all be in on Samardzija, as well.
But in terms of how it affects the AL East, it’s the Red Sox who could deal for a righthanded pitcher who protects them in case Clay Buchholz’s limitations become acute.
Apropos of nothing
1. In the 1980s while at the Patriot Ledger, I had an item called Cleveland Indians Comedy Corner in my baseball notes column. This one might not be so funny to the Tribe but they’ve made 54 errors, more than the Rays and Orioles combined. Their third basemen have made 16 of them. They have allowed 39 unearned runs, have made errors in 37 games, and lost 21 of them.
2. There may not be a kinder man in baseball, and Dennis Gilbert, who serves as a special adviser to White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and is founder of the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, has made it possible for 650 high school players and their coaches to attend the Dodgers-Pirates game Sunday at Dodger Stadium.
3. Great to see Ellis Burks at the 2004 Red Sox reunion. Now a Rockies special assistant. Looks like he could still play.
4. Rays manager Joe Maddon Skyped with sports and social media students at Sandwich High last Tuesday, with teacher Joshua Rodrigues presiding. “Joe was awesome,” said Rodriguez. “A lot of the conversation after the interview was focused on how awesome it was that he was able to take the time out of his day to talk with high school students. We talked for 30 minutes about a variety of topics, ranging from baseball unwritten rules to what he does on a daily basis. I honestly think that this was an experience that the students will likely never forget.”
5. A better choice than Manny Ramirez to throw out the first pitch at the reunion? Sure. That was Johnny Damon’s team. He was the true leader of the Idiots. It should have been him. Yet Ramirez’s born-again lifestyle seems to be real. It’s been going on for almost three years now. It was first brought to my attention by David Segui, a former major leaguer who worked on Ramirez’s hitting when he was trying to come back after his second suspension for PEDs. Segui told me at the time to prepare myself for a new Manny. He’s continued that. Good for him. It’s a shame that one of the greatest righthanded hitters will never get to Cooperstown.
6. Rob Manfred should be the next commissioner. He’s been Bud Selig’s righthand man, been as tough as tough can be with the new steroid policy, and has helped advance baseball and increase revenues. This really isn’t a tough decision by the panel looking for a new man.
7. Here are three things that should be changed in baseball scoring: a hitter should be given an RBI on a double play; a hitter who advances a runner with a flyball should be given a sacrifice fly; a pitcher who commits an error should be charged with an earned run.
Updates on nine
1. John Mayberry, 1B/OF, Phillies — The Phillies would move Mayberry in the right package. The righthanded hitter has two homers and nine RBIs with an .837 OPS, but he’s hitting only .244. The Red Sox could consider him. The Phillies have been scouting the Sox for a third straight series and are looking at Boston as a possible trade partner.
2. Brock Holt, 3B, Red Sox — Holt is making a lot of friends around the league with his energetic play. His best position is second base, but he’s played well at third. Some in the Sox organization feel Holt could be a decent center fielder and believe going to winter ball and playing in center every day could lead him to become a superutility player.
3. Kendrys Morales, DH/1B, free agent — The Yankees have become another potential candidate to obtain Morales with Mark Teixeira’s wrist acting up and Carlos Beltran still out of the lineup with bone spurs in his elbow (though he says he’s feeling no pain after receiving a shot). Morales could rake at Yankee Stadium, particularly from the left side. This is an easy fix for the Yankees because they’ll also have to give up the few good young players they have to land a pitcher at the deadline.
4. Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Diamondbacks — With the Diamondbacks likely out of the race by the deadline, look for Arroyo to be on the move again. Arroyo is an experienced starter who could solidify the back of a rotation, particularly for a National League team. He’s not a shutdown guy, rather a keep-your-team-in-the-game guy.
5. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Rakuten Golden Eagles — Youkilis surprisingly attended the Red Sox’ 2004 reunion. He was in the country to receive shock therapy on his painful foot, which has kept him out of action or underperforming. Youkilis, hitting .215 with one homer and 11 RBIs, is on a one-year, $4 million deal with $1 million in incentives that he probably won’t achieve. He hopes to return to the Golden Eagles for the second half of the season.
6. Joc Pederson, OF, Dodgers — There’s been clamoring to bring him up to the majors with him having an excellent season (.337, 15 HRs, 33 RBIs, 13 steals) in Triple A. He’s a lefthanded-hitting center fielder and he would solve some of the Dodgers’ future problems. But they have committed to Andre Ethier in center now that manager Don Mattingly has decided Matt Kemp needs to become a corner outfielder. As a big-market team, the Dodgers need to win now and not be in the development business at the major league level. Unless there are more outfield injuries, Pederson will likely stay put for a while.
7. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles — Big weekend for Wieters, who will start throwing after a three-week layoff. It may go far in determining whether Wieters will play this season or shut it down, have elbow surgery, and be ready for next season. Wieters hasn’t caught since May 4; he received a platelet-rich plasma injection in his elbow May 12. He was hitting .308 with five homers and 18 RBIs in 26 games before going on the DL.
8. Gregory Polanco, OF, Pirates — As their hopes fade, Pirates management is steadfast that Polanco won’t come up until they have beaten the arbitration clock. He’s hitting .348 with six homers and 43 RBIs and would surely make a difference. Pirates fans who communicate with this reporter are irate. They should be. Haven’t they suffered through enough losing seasons?
9. James Shields, RHP, Royals — It will be interesting to see how the timing plays out on Shields at the trading deadline. If the Royals decide they’re no longer in the hunt (and that would be an organizational disappointment of the highest order), then Shields will be moved. The teams losing out on Jeff Samardzija will again be in the hunt, however there’s a bigger caveat there in that they would have to be able to sign Shields to a deal, and give up a lot to get him. “He represents what a team in a race would want down the stretch — veteran presence, tough, and quality,” said an American League executive.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Here’s an underreported key to the Rockies’ success this season: at home, where the ball is known to fly, Rockies pitchers produce the highest percentage in the majors of grounders, with 50.9 percent of all balls in play.” . . . Also, “Bartolo Colon now has 2,002 career strikeouts. His two favorite victims are Carlos Pena and David Ortiz, 16 whiffs apiece.” . . . Happy birthday, Derek Lowe (41).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.