These smaller players could make a big impact in the playoffs
There are plenty of big bruisers, such as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, J.D. Martinez, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado, who can impact a game and a playoff series, but it’s amazing how baseball has been transformed by smaller players, who are raising eyebrows with their athleticism and how they could impact the upcoming postseason.
The Red Sox have the ultimate little man in Mookie Betts, who at 5 feet 9 inches just became a 30/30 man, is a great outfielder, and who will likely be named American League Most Valuable Player. The Indians have two great smaller players in 30/30 man Jose Ramirez and shortstop Francisco Lindor, while the Astros may possess the best small player in baseball, 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve, as well as third baseman Alex Bregman, who is listed at 6 feet but we know he’s not.
“It’s something you’re seeing more in baseball,” said Betts. “I don’t know the reason for it but there are a lot of really good athletes in baseball now, players who can do a lot of different things.”
Jason McLeod, the assistant general manager of the Cubs and a former Red Sox scouting director, thinks we’re seeing smaller impact performers both as position players and relievers.
“In terms of straight size, I think you’ve seen an uptick in the relievers who throw from a lower slot with rising fastballs, like a Craig Kimbrel,” said McLeod. “You’ve seen more sub-6-foot pitchers who work the fastball up in the zone. In terms of the position players like Bregman, it still boils down to their ability.
“When you’re scouting the shorter-stature player as an amateur, you’re looking at how much physicality he has and how he’ll hold up in the first couple of years in the minors. [Dustin Pedroia], for instance, in college [at Arizona State], when we drafted him with the Red Sox, had uncanny hand-eye coordination and he got the barrel to the ball.”
McLeod talked about the Red Sox drafting Bregman out of high school and recognizing his skills despite being a smaller player. McLeod remembers Betts coming out of high school and how “he had incredible hand-eye coordination, but I had no idea he was going to be as strong as he is now.” McLeod also mentioned the Braves’ Ronald Acuna and the amazing skill set he has for a 6-footer (again being generous).
Marlins hitting coach Mike Pagliarulo thinks a smaller player who displays durability is huge.
“What I find is that pitchers work around the Stantons and Judges, but a smaller guy they’ll just throw it in there and boom, they hit it out,” said Pagliarulo. “There are amazing players like Betts and Ramirez and Altuve, smaller in stature, who just play the game hard and the right way and do the little things to succeed. The strike zone is smaller for those guys. It’s like a postage stamp.”
It’s not that there weren’t great small players in the past. We all remember Reds second baseman Joe Morgan, and Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, as well as Jimmy “The Toy Cannon” Wynn, Kirby Puckett, and Steve Garvey. We can name a lot of them.
So let’s take a closer look at some great small players who will be part of the postseason:
Khris Davis, A’s, DH, 5-10, 195 — The likely home run king in the AL has 47 homers and 121 RBIs to go along with a .249 average. Talk about impactful and consistent. In each of the last three seasons, Davis has hit 40-plus homers, knocked in 100-plus runs, and hit .247-.249. Davis, despite his stature, is a player who can win a game with one swing. “He’s probably the best slugger in baseball,” said Oakland general manager Billy Beane. “Maybe people didn’t know about him because he played out west, but I think they do now.”
Ramirez, Indians, 3B/2B, 5-9, 165 — Another compact dynamo, Ramirez has combined power and speed in an amazing package. Ramirez is hitting .272, an average that has dropped precipitously as a result of a recent slump, but he’s hit 38 homers with 105 RBIs and 34 stolen bases. “How can I describe him?” said Indians bench coach Brad Mills. “The biggest compliment I can pay him is he’s a baseball player. A 100 percent baseball player who impacts the game like nobody I’ve seen.”
Lindor, Indians, SS, 5-11, 190 — Lindor is a deadly leadoff man who also boasts power, defense, and speed. In most other years he would be an MVP candidate with his .279 average, 37 homers, and 90 RBIs. A tremendous all-around player who ignites the Indians’ offense.
Altuve, Astros, 2B, 5-6, 165 — He has had to battle injuries that have limited him to 134 games, but Altuve is starting to come together at the right time and will likely be a major factor in the postseason. This season, Altuve is hitting .314 with 13 homers, 61 RBIs, an 836 OPS, and 5.2 WAR. We all know Altuve is a big-time player when it counts most. He hit .533 in the 2017 ALDS and .320 in the ALCS.
Bregman, Astros, 3B, 6 feet, 180 — A powerful player who is a converted shortstop and former Red Sox draft pick. Bregman generates great power and has become a force in a lineup already packed with top players. Bregman winning a game wouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all Sox manager Alex Cora, who helped shape him as bench coach of the Astros last season.
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves, 5-8, 165 — Twenty-four homers and 72 RBIs for this diminutive infielder. Former Braves minor league coordinator Dave Trembley said he remembers Albies as a “baseball junkie who loved playing and competing. He made All-Star teams at every level. For a little guy, he had great command of the strike zone. He got big hits. He loves the moment.”
Acuna, OF, Braves, 6 feet, 180 — Trembley, who helped Acuna in the minors, isn’t surprised he has made an impact. “Very early, when he was 17 years old, he knew the strike zone,” said Trembley. “Where some kids that age chase after bad pitches, he never did. He didn’t have a lot of movement in his swing, which is unusual for a young kid, and he knew how to hit with two strikes.”
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Yankees, 5-11, 195 — The former National League MVP hasn’t had a typical McCutchen season, but the Yankees have been happy with him despite some struggles early in his tenure. McCutchen is another sub-6-footer who has great ability and who has achieved so much in his career.
Apropos of nothing
1. If you’re wondering, Chris Sale’s $15 million option for 2019 and David Price’s opt-out both have to be resolved within three days of the conclusion of the World Series. Sale originally had a $13.5 million option, which was bumped up by $1.5 million when he finished top three in the Cy Young voting last season. Price’s 2019 salary rises from $30 million to $31 million, so it doesn’t appear the Red Sox will negotiate anything more for the lefthander. Price can leave the organization if he feels he could earn more on the open market, but it doesn’t appear he’ll do that.
2. Red Sox manager Alex Cora knows he has some tough conversations ahead with players who won’t make the playoff roster. Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, Heath Hembree, and possibly Joe Kelly, Bobby Poyner, and Robby Scott may be on the wrong end of those conversations. Cora has said he will go with 14 position players and 11 pitchers.
3. The Marlins messed up their agreement with their Single A affiliate. They’re out in Greensboro, N.C., which was an ideal place for them, and will be playing in Clinton, Iowa.
4. I covered Bobby Witt as a high schooler in Canton, and now his son, Bobby Witt Jr., could wind up being one of the top three overall draft picks in June. Witt Jr., who played for Colleyville (Texas) Heritage, is considered by many the top high school player in the country. He’s a shortstop. His dad, who had a 16-year major league career, is a player agent. How convenient.
5. Right now, we’re looking at managerial openings in Baltimore, Toronto, Texas, and possibly Anaheim and Cincinnati (which is opening up its search despite Jim Riggleman’s nice interim run), and we’re looking at GM/president of baseball operations openings in New York (Mets), and possibly Baltimore and San Francisco. There’s more evidence of a serious chance that Dan Duquette retains his job in Baltimore (with manager Buck Showalter gone), but the sentiment seems to change on a daily basis.
6. While Carlos Beltran’s name is mentioned often as a possible managerial candidate, Cora, who remains one of Beltran’s best friends, thinks Beltran is content enjoying family life. Cora, however, says Beltran watches the Red Sox closely and often chimes in with recommendations for Cora.
7. It was nearly 40 years ago (Oct. 2, 1978) that the Red Sox and Yankees played their famous one-game playoff at Fenway Park. We know how it turned out. Jerry Remy, Dennis Eckersley, Luis Tiant, and Jim Rice were all at Fenway this past week still lamenting the loss. Remy always has fought the rap that the ’78 Sox choked. “It’s pretty hard to say you choked when you won 99 games,” he said. “We had an outstanding team. We just had so many injuries the second half of that year.”
Updates on nine
1. Ben Cherington, vice president of player personnel, Blue Jays — Cherington has become a legitimate candidate to run the Mets or Giants. Giants president Larry Baer is looking for a modern-thinking GM to take over for Framingham’s Bobby Evans, who was let go after 25 years in the organization. Here’s why Cherington is ideal for San Francisco: He combines modern analytics with scouting. And he is a New Hampshire native, as is Giants vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean, who has great regard for Cherington. Two names that have also surfaced for the Giants GM job are Brewers assistant GM Matt Arnold and Royals assistant GM Scott Sharp. Cherington, a former Red Sox GM with a World Series championship on his résumé, also is a good fit for the Mets, who are also seeking someone who can combine old school and new school thinking. Would Cherington take a job knowing that Mets owner Jeff Wilpon has the reputation for being a meddler? It would appear the San Francisco job is more in line with what Cherington wants, but geography may also play a role, as Cherington has a home in New York. And Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development, is said to be a favorite of Wilpon’s.
2. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals — While handicapping where Harper could wind up next season on a long term deal, the places that appear to make the most sense are Washington, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. All three have the money. The Giants could use Harper as part of a major rebuild to their offense. The Phillies need to do something dramatic with their offense, and the Nationals could have an elite outfield with Harper and Juan Soto.
3. Kevin Cash, manager, Rays — Cash should receive some AL Manager of the Year consideration. He probably won’t win it, but it’s fascinating to consider that if and when Buck Showalter is told he’s not returning in Baltimore, Cash will be the senior manager in the AL East. Prediction: One would think that Cash eventually goes the way of predecessor Joe Maddon after his contract expires after next season, moving on to a team that will offer him a better financial package.
4. Derek Jeter, part owner, Marlins — Those who observe the Marlins believe Jeter needs to hire a GM to bring the organization together. Current GM Michael Hill is not Jeter’s guy, while director of player development Gary Denbo has proven to be derisive and not the GM type. This would be an important role to which Jeter should give serious consideration.
5. Ned Colletti, former GM, Dodgers — Colletti was immediately identified as a possible successor to Evans in San Francisco. The reason is that Colletti was once Sabean’s assistant GM in San Francisco. It appears Sabean will have a big say in who succeeds Evans, but he needs to pick a guy who is a combination of modern and old school thinking.
6. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers — Beltre shouldn’t feel the need to retire, because he’s still really good. The reason he might pack it in, however, is that the Rangers will be undergoing a rebuild with a new manager, and Beltre would like to retire, and then go into the Hall of Fame, as a Ranger. Beltre, 39, is one of only 10 players with at least 3,000 hits and 450 home runs. He’s tied with Frank Thomas for 24th on the all-time list with 1,704 RBIs. Beltre told me prior to the All-Star break that his wife and kids would help decide whether he would retire. At the time he was leaning toward playing another season, but that may have changed considering the Rangers’ circumstances have changed.
7. Bartolo Colon, RHP, Rangers — Colon told reporters in the middle of this past week that he would like to play another season. He’s 44 but feels he could still help a team as a back-end starter.
8. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals — Yes, that five-year, $97.5 million deal is finally up with the Cardinals. So, where Wainwright ends up next season is anyone’s guess. The Cardinals could bring him back under a shorter term and less money, but after 15 years with the organization the 37-year-old, who was limited to eight starts this season because of an elbow injury, could also call it a career. We’ll likely find out soon.
9. Michael Brantley, OF, Indians — Finally, after two years’ worth of injuries, Brantley had a relatively injury-free season, got his mojo back, and will head to free agency, where he’s expected to be in demand. Brantley could be a major target of the Giants and possibly the Phillies, if they don’t wind up with Harper. The 31-year-old Brantley is hitting .309 this season with 17 homers and 76 RBIs.
From the Bill Chuck files — “As of Thursday morning, Joey Gallo had the same .209 average as he had last season. Of more interest, Gallo who had 41 homers and 32 singles in 2017, had 40 homers and 37 singles in 2018, which would make him the first to have more homers than singles in successive seasons since Mark McGwire in his 1998 and 1999 enhanced seasons.” . . . Happy birthday, Jeremy Giambi (44).