Spring Training has just begun. The first exhibition games are tomorrow. But that does not mean that we have to wait for my division and playoff previews. Every Saturday, from today, February 28, to the day before Opening Night, April 4, a different division will be previewed, with predictions as to who will come out on top. Today I begin with an intriguing division for many different reasons, the AL East.
1. Toronto Blue Jays -- 2014 Record: 83-79; Projected Record: 87-75
The American League East is a division full of mediocracy this upcoming season. No team is the best in the league, while at the same time no team is the worst. The Toronto Blue Jays are a team that very well might come out of nowhere down the stretch and win this division. The Jays finished with 83 wins last season, behind an offense that scored the fifth-most runs in baseball. Their pitching staff was less than great, working in the bottom third of the league in ERA, but they come back in 2015 with more experience and ready to win a division crown.
This offseason, the Blue Jays did some good work to make upgrades all around their roster. They upgraded Dioner Navarro by signing Canadian catcher Russell Martin, they upgraded Brett Lawrie and Juan Francisco at third base with the Josh Donaldson trade, and they acquired Michael Saunders (who might not be an upgrade over Melky Cabrera) in an underrated deal with J.A. Happ. Not to mention, they signed Justin Smoak to play first and shifted Edwin Encarnacion to designated hitter. These deals weren't the flashiest (expect for maybe the Donaldson deal), but they have to be some of the best this offseason. Behind GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays' front office quietly scored big this offseason.
Toronto's pitching staff will likely be the make-or-break part of this team. I value them highly. Marcus Stroman (107 ERA+ in 130.2 innings) pitched great in his first big league action and is ready for a full season in 2015. Also, 24-year-old Drew Hutchison looks to improve upon his first full year last year. Daniel Norris, the Jays' 2nd round pick in 2011, looks to win the 5th starter's job. He's got a big potential. New addition Marco Estrada (87 ERA+), R.A. Dickey (105 ERA+), and Mark Buehrle (115 ERA+) are all big league veterans that, if they preform, will help stabilize the young guns. I have to believe that the Blue Jays are solid all around and are ready to take this division for the first time since 1993.
2. Boston Red Sox -- 2014 Record: 71-91; Projected Record: 86-74
Last season, the Boston Red Sox were coming off a World Series championship. They did everything but repeat. The Sox finished with the fourth-worst record in the American League and never looked comfortable as a team, even after having probably the best clubhouse chemistry the year before. Some attributed it to A.J. Pierzynski, who is known as a "clubhouse cancer," while others attributed it to the lack of strong and consistent play from the younger players on their roster, such as Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Will Middlebrooks (who was shipped to the Padres).
In 2015, the Red Sox look to build off the additions of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to play third base and left field, respectively. In addition, the Sox want strong play from their recently redesigned starting rotation of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Joe Kelly. Those arms all provide upside to the 2015 Red Sox, but are all wild cards. I'm not sure if they will produce to what the Red Sox hope or expect them to, but at the same time I do not think they will all be busts. The Red Sox likely should have gone after James Shields a little more than they did, in an effort to solidify their rotation.
The reason the Red Sox are ranked second is simple: they added good veterans. Sandoval and Ramirez are both primer additions to a club that I already believed would rebound with more experience from their younger players. The Red Sox also have a lot of depth: Allen Craig, a starter for a long time with the St. Louis Cardinals, currently does not having a starting job on their club. The same goes for Shane Victorino, longtime starting outfielder. Boston poses enough depth around the field, but in their pitching staff they are a little weak. That's why I'm wary to pick them to win the division.
3. Baltimore Orioles -- 2014 Record: 96-66; Projected Record: 83-79
The Baltimore Orioles are coming off a season in which they tied for the most wins in all the Major Leagues. Their best move, perhaps, was signing recently-suspended Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal and even though they forfeited a draft pick, Cruz went on to post career numbers, homering 40 times and driving in 108. Steve Pearce, a 31-year-old utility man, was picked up by the team during the year and went on to post a .930 OPS (160 OPS+). Delmon Young, a former first round bust, hit .302 with a .779 OPS. Call it strategy as much as you want, but even the most most diehard Orioles fan has to admit that there was a little luck involved.
Baltimore will be getting Matt Wieters back from injury and Chris Davis back from suspension, but they already lost the likes of Cruz and fellow outfielder Nick Markakis to free agency. Their pitching staff, which despite registering the seventh-lowest ERA, posted the seventh-highest FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) in baseball and is bound to regress in 2015. According to Fangraphs, the Orioles are projected to finish with 79 wins. While the regression from 2014 may not be that bad, the 2015 team does not look too promising.
However, when you think about the Orioles, you have to take in consideration they have one of the best manager and general manager combinations in baseball with Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette. They are the two people that makes this projection perhaps more than a little irrational. Showalter and Duquette are two baseball geniuses that keep the Orioles in the running every year. If they can pull it off this year, I would not be surprised. It will be very tough.
4. New York Yankees -- 2014 Record: 84-78; Projected Record: 77-85
The New York Yankees have a ton of questions surrounding themselves. Alex Rodriguez, Stephen Drew, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, and Mark Teixeira all are question marks in 2015. Will they produce? Will they turn the team back into a contender? How will they come off their injury or suspension? The Yankees questions marks make me believe that they are ready to take a step back this year and fall further into the depths of the American League East.
This offseason, the Yankees were faced with the ginormous task of replacing icon Derek Jeter. They did so with the acquisition of Didi Gregorius, a shortstop from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Gregorius is a light-hitting, defensive minded shortstop that is still young and raw. He may not be able to handle the position full-time quite yet. In an attempt to create a backup plan for Gregorius, New York agreed to sign Stephen Drew, while also having him play second base along with shortstop.
One strength of the Yankees last season was their young bullpen, behind the likes of David Robertson, Dellin Betances and others. They lost Robertson, their closer, to the White Sox through free agency this offseason. Now, they do not have a closer in 2015, with new addition Andrew Miller perhaps handling the duties, even though he only has two career saves. The bullpen has gone quickly from a strength to perhaps another question mark for a team that is filled with them.
5. Tampa Bay Rays -- 2014 Record: 77-85; Projected Record: 73-89
Perhaps the biggest loss from the Rays offseason was not on the field. Two main components from their usually contending teams--manager Joe Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman--are gone to the Cubs and Dodgers, respectively. On the field, the Rays are in shambles, dealing away Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, and Jeremy Hellickson. The only question I have for them now is: will the team still be in Tampa Bay by the time they begin to contend again?
From 2008 to 2013, the Rays made the playoffs four times in six seasons. They kept their teams young, fresh, and talented, while still being able to be competitive with the other teams in the American League. Evan Longoria was their cornerstone, and Ben Zobrist, David Price, among others helped keep the team in contention every year. The Rays still have hope; their pitching staff is young with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, and Drew Smyly, but the rest of the team is relatively weak. As of right now, their starting outfield consists of David DeJesus, Desmond Jennings, and Steven Souza Jr. That is the least bit impressive.
The Rays' rebuild looks like it will continue for a few more seasons. They may still be able to be competitive out of the cellar this year, but if they finish above .500, I would consider that a successful year considering their roster and competition around the AL East and American League in general.
The Red Sox are now in prime position to acquire Cole Hamels.
Any way you slice it, they have the prospects to satisfy Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies front office with an offer for the left-handed ace.
With the signing of 19-year-old Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada to a $31.5 million bonus, Boston not only solidified their infield for the future, but also solidified the opportunity to acquire one of the primer pitchers in baseball. And it may not even take that much of a hit to their farm system. But how is that possible?
The Phillies have demanded at least one blue-chip prospect from any team that has wanted to acquire Hamels. The Padres were rumored to have shown interest, but a deal is likely not going to be completed due to that reason. They do not have the blue-chip prospects that the Phillies covet.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, do. With the signing of Moncada, they now have the flexibility to move shortstop/third baseman Xander Bogaerts in any Hamels deal. If they do, Boston could move Hanley Ramirez back to shortstop (his natural position) and still have three viable options in the outfield, playing any three of their many outfielders, which include Shane Victorino, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Allen Craig, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava. All six of those options are good enough to start.
Boston could use Ramirez at shortstop until Moncada is ready for the big leagues, which may not be until 2017 or 2018. If, by then, he has outgrown the position, the Red Sox could slide him into third base, moving Pablo Sandoval to first base or designated hitter (if David Ortiz is retired by that time).
The Phillies seem to have their eyes set on Blake Swihart, a 22-year-old catcher and the Red Sox first round pick in the 2011 MLB Draft. Swihart has drawn comparisons to Buster Posey, being praised for a great bat and plus defense. Instead of Swihart, the Red Sox could offer the likes of Christian Vazquez, a 24-year-old catcher and former 9th round pick, to Philadelphia. If this deal takes place at the trade deadline, Boston could call-up Swihart directly from the minor leagues, as he may be MLB ready then.
Since the Red Sox have already given the blue-chip prospect the Phillies have coveted in Bogaerts, due to the fact that they may have a better option in a few years, then they will not need to give up Swihart in any deal. It could be a nice compromise that ends up working out for both sides.
Then, the Red Sox may give up one or two red-chip prospects in the deal to Philadelphia. Overall, the deal premises are Bogaerts, Vazquez, and one or two others for Cole Hamels. Would that be a fair deal? I would think yes. Yoan Moncada's signing opened this door for Boston and could be a huge development in the talks throughout the season.
The only Baseball America number one prospect since 1990 (excluding 2014 and 2015 top prospects Byron Buxton and Kris Bryant, who both may be in the Major Leagues as soon as this year) to not make the Major Leagues goes by the name of Brien Taylor.
Taylor turned 43 last month and has been out of professional baseball for 15 years.
In 1991, the Yankees picked Taylor with the 1st overall pick out of East Carteret High School in Beufort, North Carolina. Taylor, the second of four children, was born to a mason and a crab picker. He played on the baseball team at East Carteret and as Taylor's onetime advisor Scott Boras put it in 2006, "Brien Taylor, still to this day, is the best high school pitcher I've seen in my life."
Taylor often hit 98 and 99 on the gun in high school. During his four years, he totaled a win-loss record of 29-6 with a 1.25 ERA. He struck out 213 hitters in 88 innings pitched. Scouts marveled at the success of Taylor. "There are certain pitchers who come along every so often and you don't know how to describe them," said Mike Fox, the head coach at the University of North Carolina. "Well, you can describe Brien pretty quickly: No one could touch him."
Taylor going number one overall to the Yankees was hardly a surprise. New York offered him a $300,000 signing bonus, the typical amount for a top draft choice at the time. The money was already a life changing amount for his family, but under the discretion of Boras, Taylor held out for more money. He held out to the point where the Yankees signed him for $1.55 million the day before he would have headed to a local community college on scholarship.
Taylor wasn't able to get a scholarship from a top university; his grades were poor in high school, but even still he was able to pressure the Yankees into signing him to the largest bonus ever.
Even before Taylor stepped on a professional mound, Baseball America ranked him as the top prospect in all of baseball. In 1992, at the age of 20, Taylor pitched 161.1 innings at the High Single-A level, posting a strikeout percentage of 28.2 percent (strikeouts/batters faced) and a walk percentage of 9.9 percent. Those numbers earned Taylor a promotion to Double-A for the 1993 season.
Taylor wasn't as good in Double-A as he was the year before, but people could not fathom a 21-year-old lefty having a ton of success at that high of a level in the minors. In simpler terms, the small regression was expected. He still went 13-7 with a 3.48 ERA that year, as both his strikeout and walk percentages didn't reach the same numbers as the prior season.
The Yankees planned for Taylor to pitch in Triple-A in 1994 and be in the Major Leagues by 1995 at the latest. Initially, New York planned for Taylor to be on the fast track to the Majors, like how the Mets expedited Dwight Gooden's debut. However, they found that he needed to hold runners at first better, and decided to have him progress through systematically.
Anyway, in 1993, Taylor was injured while defending his brother in a fistfight. He and his cousin went to confront Ron Wilson, the man who hurt his brother, but instead got into an altercation with the man's friend, Jamie Morris. According to Wilson, Taylor hurt his shoulder when throwing and missing a punch at Morris. Following the incident, Boras told reporters that Taylor had just suffered a bruise.
That was not the case. The Yankees had Taylor visit Dr. Frank Jobe, the same man who preformed the first "Tommy John surgery" on Dodgers pitcher Tommy John. Jobe called Taylor's injury one of the worst he had ever seen. Jobe repaired a torn capsule and a torn glenoid labrum in his shoulder. Essentially, he tore his shoulder right out of its socket. He missed the entire 1994 season.
Taylor would come back to baseball in 1995 and over the next four seasons he never was able to get back to Double-A. In 108 2/3 innings from 1995 to 1998, Taylor walked an astounding 175 hitters, and failed to top 90 mph with his fastball. His tenure with the Yankees came to an end after the 1998 season after he could no longer get hitters out in Single-A ball.
The Mariners gave Taylor a chance in 1999, but he was released following inconsistency in his extended Spring Training games.
"Sometimes I get the ball across the plate, sometimes I feel like I've never held a ball in my life," Taylor said in 1996.
Taylor signed with the Indians in 2000 and did make their Single-A team. But at age 28, he could not find his former self within him. He pitched 2 2/3 innings with Cleveland's Single-A Columbus team, giving up 11 runs (eight earned), while walking nine and striking out just two. That was the end of Taylor's career, giving him the title of "perhaps the best pitcher we never got to see."
After retiring from the game, Taylor moved to Raleigh, North Carolina with his five daughters and worked as a UPS package handler, then as a beer distributor. He moved back home by 2006, working as a bricklayer with his father. In 2005, Taylor was charged with misdemeanor child abuse, after leaving four of his daughters (ages 2-11) home for more than eight hours.
Taylor was charged with cocaine trafficking in 2012 and was charged with 38 months in prison in August of that year. After being released in September of last year, Taylor will be supervised for the next three years. Brien Taylor has practically fallen off the face of the Earth.
Why is all this important? As we approach the 2015 season, many fans will be watching for their team's top prospects to improve at the minor league level. Every prospect comes with a little bit of doubt. This is an extreme example, but even though Taylor showed promise and progression, one injury or incident can ruin a player's career forever. The minor leagues are practically a black hole. If any player can survive them with health and with success, then they are going places.
Prospects are exactly that, prospects. Some may turn out to be great, while others, like Taylor, will be the failure stories for many years to come. Teams have to put way more effort into the background of their draftees and make sure that they aren't only a good ballplayer, but a good person as well. I'm not saying Taylor isn't. But maybe if he had made better choices, he would have been a better player.
Taylor changed the MLB Draft and how fans look at prospects forever. And taught everyone a valuable lesson. Prospects are just prospects.
All quotes are not mine. They are from outside sources.
Jesus Montero literally looks like he's "in the best shape of his life" as he reports to Mariners Spring Training
Catcher Jesus Montero has had quite the roller coaster of a career.
He was signed by the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 2006, and by 2009, Baseball America had already recognized him as one of the 100 best prospects in the nation. His peak season came following the 2010 season, when he was ranked as the 3rd best prospect in baseball after hitting .289/.353/.517 in 504 plate appearances at the Yankees Triple-A affiliate.
Montero, along with Hector Noesi, was traded to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos (minors) in 2012. He hit an unimpressive .260/.298/.386 that season as the main designated hitter, his only with a full 500+ big league plate appearances.
Kendrys Morales came to Seattle to handle the DH in 2013 and Mike Zunino was their main catcher, leaving the then-23-year-old Montero in the minor leagues for most the season.
By this time, Montero had lost most of his average and power hitting abilities and had surgery on a medical meniscus in his knee on June 5. Plus, he was suspended for using PEDs. He had begun the fall down the roller coaster and the Mariners had lost their patience for him and his abilities.
Then, last Spring Training, Montero arrived 40 pounds overweight. That was considered the end of his "prospect" talent. Last season, he spent almost the entire year with Triple-A Tacoma, and didn't even register 500 plate appearances there. Montero was suspended again, this time due to an altercation with a club scout. Practically everyone had given up on him.
This offseason, Montero worked to get himself back into shape, coming back to Mariners camp looking almost like a different person. He came into camp at 230 pounds, a weight he hasn't been since 2011. It may or may not help his performance this season, but good for him to take the initiative and get himself back into shape. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what he can do in Spring Training.
Here's the transformation of Montero from last Spring Training to this Spring Training.
"It's way better to be feeling like this," Montero told the Seattle Times, "Like I am right now."
On Wednesday, October 29, 2014 at 11:10 pm eastern, in front of 40,535 screaming fans, Royals catcher Salvador Perez fouled out to third base. Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey rejoiced. The Giants had just won baseball's 110th World Series.
When the lights shut off at Kauffman Stadium that night, the door had been closed on yet another baseball season.
Baseball's second season, the Hot Stove season, began that night, much to the disappointment to many baseball fans, including myself. It would be a tough three months waiting for the rebirth of baseball in the spring. Today, those three months have concluded. Pitchers and catchers officially reported for five teams, with many more coming in the following days.
The baseball season is like none other. It follows the seasons, beginning in the budding spring and ending with the harsh facts of fall and winter. Today is not only the day when pitchers and catchers report; today is the unofficial beginning of springtime. Today is the beginning of something new for fans in 30 major cities across the United States and Canada, along with those who have adopted teams around the world.
The lights have been turned back on. In just 11 days, Spring Training games will begin. In 45 days, the Padres and Dodgers will be under the spotlight playing on Opening Night. And in 46 days, baseball will begin officially with Opening Day.
Is it just me, or is it time to play some ball?