By BERNIE PLESKOFF
This week I offer my first of two articles regarding players on each team that can really help the overall efforts of their team if they personally improve upon last season’s overall results.
In some cases, the players I have chosen had some good aspects of their season, but improvement in an area or two may mean additional team victories.
Without question, there are additional or different players that qualify for this distinction. I have restrained myself and kept it to one player per team.
2017 statistics are listed:
ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS- Yasmany Tomas OF
AVG: .241 HR: 8 RBI: 32 SB: 0
Tomas is in the midst of a six-year contract that will pay him $68.5MM from 2015-2020. His contract is often sighted as a huge mistake that adds financial burden to a franchise that portends to claim limited payroll resources.
To begin, Tomas is a liability in the outfield, his current defensive position. When he was first signed out of Cuba, the Diamondbacks tried to play Tomas at third base. In his first Spring Training, Tomas showed little if any range, and a stiff and uncoordinated body at third base. He struggled to succeed and was moved to the outfield. His range is still limited. He has trouble tracking balls and taking adequate routes.
Tomas missed playing time last season when he dealt with a core muscle injury that resulted in surgery that limited him to playing in only 47 games.
Now said to be recovered and healthy, he faces an additional issue. In January, he was charged with reckless driving and criminal speeding on a Phoenix freeway. He was clocked at 105 miles per hour. The outcome of the incident is yet to be determined. He could face up to 30 days in jail and a fine.
In 2016 Tomas hit 31 home runs while driving in 83 on his way to a .272 batting average. His home runs gave his team hope that their investment may pay dividends.
That home run outburst was in the past. Can he come close to improving upon that figure going forward?
The Diamondbacks are not deep with quality outfielders in the organization. At this point, if his legal problems do not intervene, Tomas figures to play either left field or right field on a fairly regular basis. If J. D. Martinez somehow finds his way back to Arizona during his free agency quest for a suitor, Tomas could be relegated to the bench as the 4th outfielder.
As Spring Training has begun, the chance of Martinez returning to the desert seems minimal, at best. However, Arizona may sign an outfielder to take the place of Martinez, pushing Tomas out of the starting lineup.
Tomas could be an important component of an Arizona Diamondbacks team looking to repeat a postseason appearance. I’m not overly optimistic about Tomas.
ATLANTA BRAVES-Dansby Swanson-SS
AVG: .232 HR: 6 RBI: 51 SB: 3
Swanson was a first round draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2015 First-Year Player Draft.
Swanson may have been seen at the time by Arizona as the best player in a draft that included Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Andrew Benintendi, Ian Happ, Brendan Rodgers and Dillon Tate, all early first-round selections.
The Diamondbacks didn’t retain Swanson very long. In fact, they traded him to Atlanta along with pitcher Aaron Blair and outfielder Ender Inciarte for pitchers Gabe Speier and Shelby Miller. Miller was seen by the Dbacks as a major coup and a guy they could count upon to eat innings and win games on the mound in the desert. It didn’t work out. Miller had a horrible first year for the Dbacks and sat out last year with Tommy John surgery.
How good is Swanson offensively? Or is he merely adequate? The Braves have Ozzie Albies on the 25-man roster as well. He is the starting second baseman, but he can play shortstop if Swanson falters.
In his first full season with the Braves, Swanson hit .302 in 38 games. He only had 145 plate appearances. Last year he really fell off. He walked only 59 times in 551 plate appearances while striking out on 120 occasions. He had fewer hits (113) than strikeouts. His .312 on-base percentage was a huge disappointment.
The Braves can hope he achieves numbers somewhere between his first and second seasons. A batting average in the .250 range would be helpful. However, he doesn’t seem to bring much power to his game and he doesn’t run with enough speed, quickness or ability to steal bases.
Defensively, Swanson isn’t among the elite young wizards we see in both National League and American League lineups. He is adequate, at best. He made 20 errors last year in 572 chances.
Having attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Swanson is playing near his collegiate and home backyard. He was probably rushed to the big leagues before his development was complete.
A good first year clearly did not guarantee success in 2017. In fact, there were times Johan Camargo, targeted to play third base this season took his role as Swanson was returned to Triple-A. Only Camargo’s knee injury returned Swanson to the starting lineup.
The emergence of third base prospect Austin Riley may send Camargo back to shortstop and Swanson to the bench. With young players like Swanson, Camargo and Riley anything can happen.
The Braves need to have a solid hitting and fielding Swanson to start the season on the right track. He has to play like a former first round draft pick and do his share to help lengthen the Braves lineup, make solid contact and get on base. I’m not overly optimistic about Swanson.
CHICAGO CUBS-Addison Russell-SS
AVG: .239 HR: 12 RBI: 43 SB: 2
Russell was a first round draft pick by the Oakland Athletics in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of Pace High School in Florida. In 2014 Oakland traded Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, pitcher Dan Straily and cash to the Chicago Cubs for pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija.
This past season, Russell missed playing time with plantar fasciitis in his right foot that he re-aggravated after returning to the lineup. He also missed the postseason with a hamstring injury. So health was an issue for the player the Cubs counted upon to hold down their shortstop role. Javier Baez, a very versatile, outstanding defender and solid hitter took his place.
Russell appears to be healthy heading into the 2018 season. Russell is an excellent defensive shortstop with an ability to make the routine as well as the eye-popping plays. It is his bat that has scouts and analysts baffled.
Russell turned 24 in late January and he is far from hitting his prime baseball years. Still young enough and continuing to develop his skills, Russell has been around so long in baseball since graduating from high school that people mistake him for an older more seasoned veteran.
For three seasons Russell has hit .242, .238, and .239. It really is incredible that he has been so consistent with a batting average that seems to below expectations.
In his 2016 season, Russell hit 21 home runs and 95 home runs, hinting at what type of pop sits in his bat. Can he do that again?
The Cubs would be thrilled to be able to keep Russell in the lineup day in and day out at shortstop. That would free Baez to play second base daily, keeping his potent bat and outstanding defense in the lineup. Russell and Baez could form one of the finest double play combinations in baseball.
Russell may not hit above his normal batting average in the range of .240, but he should be able to drive in runs, score runs and hit in the clutch at a greater pace than his past injured season.
Yes, the Cubs have other players that have to rebound like outfielders Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber to name just two. However, Russell plays up the middle at a position where stability and a loud bat can sure help. I am optimistic Russell bounces back with a healthy and productive 2018 season.
CINCINNATI REDS-Jose Peraza-SS/2B
AVG: .259 HR: 5 RBI: 37 SB: 23
Peraza was an international free agent from Venezuela. He is still only 21 years old, and that must be in the equation regarding any conversation regarding Peraza.
Last season Peraza played more games at second base (77) than he played at shortstop (55). He also played two games in center field. He is versatile. He is fast.
Last pre-season Peraza was viewed as a player that could possibly team with outfielder Billy Hamilton as a record-breaking stolen base combination for the Reds. While Peraza did steal his share of bases, he only attempted to steal 31 times. He was thrown out eight times. He walked only 20 times to set himself up to steal second.
In his trial 2016 season, Peraza flirted with becoming a household name in baseball when he went to bat 256 times and hit .324. He stole 21 bases in 31 attempts. Note-that was only in 72 games compared to the 143 games he played last season.
Can Peraza up his offensive game and set the table for the louder bats in the Reds lineup? Can he improve his walk rate and put the ball in play, allowing his speed to prevail? Those are the questions that he brings to his new season.
Billy Hamilton may be at the top of the Reds order. Peraza, however, may not be hitting behind Hamilton. He may be further down in the lineup and be expected to drive in runs.
But if Peraza shows he can get on base more often than his .297 on-base percentage last year, he could eventually hit behind Hamilton.
While his team won’t be looking for the long ball from him, Peraza will be expected to make his share of offensive noise while becoming the team’s shortstop on a full-time basis. He is capable at shortstop and the job appears to be his with the departure of Zack Cozart to the Los Angeles Angels. I am counting on Peraza to improve a bit above his results from his 2017 season. Especially in the stolen bases department.
COLORADO ROCKIES-D.J. LeMahieu-2B
AVG: .310 HR: 8 RBI: 64 SB: 6
I admit that I am very partial to D J LeMahieu as a solid, impactful baseball player. Perhaps it’s because he plays in hitter-friendly Coors Field. More to the point, however, I really like watching his outstanding defense and his solid contact rate. LeMahieu makes things happen.
A second round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago Cubs. In 2011 the Cubs traded LeMahieu to the Colorado Rockies along with outfielder Tyler Covin for pitcher Casey Weathers and third baseman Ian Stewart.
In a nutshell, here is why I have tabbed LeMahieu as a critical bounce-back player for Colorado this coming season. Last season, every facet of his offensive game declined.
LeMahieu went from hitting .348 in 2016, his best average ever, to hitting 33 points less last season. His home runs declined from 11 to eight. His RBI total declined from 66 to 64. His six stolen bases were five less than the previous season. His on-base percentage declined from .416 to .374.
By most standards, LeMahieu had a great offensive season.
Frankly, most analysts looked for him to build on his fantastic 2016 at a time in the game when offense was busting out all over the landscape.
At age 29 LeMahieu is probably approaching the downside of his prime years. Big for a second baseman at 6-4, 215 pounds, LeMahieu is a terrific defender but will he get better or be headed for a more consistent downward trend on both sides of the ball?
LeMahieu will likely hit in the two hole in a very dangerous Rockies lineup. He will be hitting behind All-Star Charlie Blackmon and ahead of Nolan Arenado. It doesn’t get much better than that in terms of lineup construction. He will have to do his share to assure Blackmon and Arenado maximize their own stellar potential. I am very bullish on LeMahieu returning to numbers close to his 2016 season.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS- Joc Pederson-OF
AVG: .212 HR: 11 RBI: 35 SB: 4
The Dodgers selected Pederson in the 11th round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of Palo Alto (California) High School.
In many ways, Pederson has played like an 11th round pick. He has a composite .222 batting average in a career that has included parts of four seasons.
I am amazed that Pederson is still a viable member of the Dodgers starting lineup. I believe if the season began tomorrow, Pederson would be on the large side of a left field platoon that includes right-handed hitter Enrique Hernandez.
For a team that hints at winning the World Series with a pitching staff that is loaded with solid starters and solid relievers, their outfield situation leaves a great deal to be desired. If Chris Taylor plays center field, it will help. But even though he bounced back last year, perhaps Yasiel Puig in right field may continue inconsistent ways in the same manner as Pederson has shown.
In 2015 Pederson hit 26 home runs. He hit 25 in 2016. Then last season, Pederson’s home run output slipped to 11. He only had 323 plate appearances, however, 153 fewer than the previous season. To his credit, he does know how to accept a walk.
I have never been a big believer in Pederson’s skills. I first saw him in the 2012 Arizona Fall League where he got in a few games for the Mesa club. I wasn’t very impressed at the time, but he was still only 20 years old at the time. He will turn 26 in April. It is time for him to step up and produce.
Pederson could be hitting in the bottom third of the lineup, but there will be men on base when he comes to the plate. The Dodgers lineup is potent. He will be counted on to drive in the guys ahead of him like Puig and Bellinger. I am not very optimistic that Pederson will respond favorably to the new season. I believe the Dodgers will find a different left fielder at some point sooner than later.
MIAMI MARLINS-Dan Straily-P
W-L: 10-9 ERA: 4.26 WHIP: 1.29 IP: 181.2
There is very little I like about the Miami Marlins. As I’ve noted in previous editions of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD, I feel the fans of the Marlins deserve far much more than the new ownership tearing up their roster again. With names like Stanton, Gordon, Yelich and Ozuna now playing elsewhere, the remaining players on the club feel defeated before the season begins. How many good pitches will Justin Bour or J.T. Realmuto see in any given game? It could be very tough for the team to score runs.
On paper, the Marlins pitching staff looks dreadful. The No. 1 starter may well be veteran Dan Straily. He returns to Miami after having a decent season. If he can start 33 games again and provide reliable outings he could be a critical component for the club. He has to set the tone for the rotation. That means some pressure, even on a club not picked to win much.
Straily has been around in his career. He was chosen by Oakland in the 24th round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. Since then, Straily has pitched for the Cubs, the Astros, the Padres, the Reds and now the Marlins. In his six seasons, he has compiled a 37-30 record with a 4.25 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. He has faced injuries as well as almost consistent changes in leagues and environments in his career.
If Straily can step up and improve a bit on his already acceptable record, it would go a long way to set a positive pace by helping his pitching colleagues. I think he has a chance to produce positive results, even on a bad team.
MILWAUKEE BREWERS-Jonathan Villar-SS-2B-3B
AVG: .241 HR: 11 RBI: 40 SB: 23
Which is the real Jonathan Villar? Is he the guy that hit .285 and stole a whopping 62 bases while being thrown out 18 times in 2016? He also scored 92 runs. Perhaps Villar is really the guy that hit .241 and stole only 23 bases in 31 attempts last season. The Brewers could sure use the 2016 edition of Jonathan Villar.
Now in his age 26 season, is Villar slowing down and can he still steal enough bases to put himself in scoring position? The Brewers can use him at second base, a position of relative weakness on a strong offensive club. A solid Villar both at the plate and in the field could set the tone for the bigger hitters in the lineup like Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, new to the team this coming season.
This is Villar’s final season on his contract. He will be making effort to improve upon the $2.55MM he is receiving this season.
A review of Villar’s career dictates caution whenever he is considered. His remarkable 2016 stolen bases totals were the most, by far, of any of his five seasons. His highest total of stolen bases was 18 in his rookie 2013 campaign with Houston. Of course, he had never appeared in 156 games before either, as he did for the Brewers in that outstanding 2016 year.
Injured at times last season and playing in only 124 games, Villar still managed to hit 11 home runs, down eight from his wonder year. He does have some pop in his bat. And with his speed, he can score runs. I think he will improve upon his 2017 season and he could surprise. But I see little hope for a huge season like the one he put together the year before last.
Pending a move, Villar could help the Brewers avoid a huge hole at second base.
NEW YORK METS-Matt Harvey-P
W-L: 5-7 ERA: 6.70 WHIP: 1.69 IP: 92.2
It really is painful to think of how great a pitcher Matt Harvey might have been. Can he ever return to the Matt Harvey I saw pitch in his debut game against the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012? He was awesome. He was strong as an ox. He had an electric fastball and outstanding secondary pitches. Harvey was a gem that was among an elite group of starting pitchers that would comprise a New York Mets rotation billed as potentially the best in baseball.
The Mets had a stable of Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler ready, willing and at one point able. They also had Robert Gsellman waiting in the wings. Injuries have taken a toll on each of those prized arms.
Most are set to return. If they flourish, the Mets flourish. If they flop, I believe the Mets flop.
If Harvey returns to form and Syndergaard and deGrom pitch as expected, the Mets can be dangerous. They made good offseason acquisitions with Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier to help bolster the offense. But it really is Harvey in my mind that can turn the season from mediocre to good.
Harvey is a former 1st round draft pick of the Mets. But he has really scuffled to return from Thoracic Outlet Syndrome- a very difficult to treat shoulder and arm condition. It takes a long time to recover and to return to form-if ever.
I have my doubts regarding a complete rejuvenation for Matt Harvey. Shoulder issues and pitching are not compatible. But if he is better than last season, Harvey and the Mets could be interesting to watch. I’m not very optimistic about Harvey’s bounce back situation. I sure hope I’m wrong.
PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES-Maikel Franco-3B
AVG: .230 HR: 24 RBI: 76 SB: 0
I really believe one of the reasons the Phillies spent heavily on their acquisition of Carlos Santana was his positive influence in the clubhouse. A great teammate and a player that gives 100% every time he steps on the field, Santana can become a mentor to the young Franco.
Both Franco and Santana are from the Dominican Republic. Franco is still very young at age 25. Santana is his elder at the age of 31.
Franco’s numbers last year were fairly equal to his power production from 2016. He hit one fewer homer at 24 and drove in 12 fewer runs at 76 in virtually the same amount of plate appearances. The huge difference came in Franco’s batting average that dipped from .255 to .230. His on-base percentage dropped from .306 that wasn’t good at the time to an awful .281. For a power hitter in the middle of the lineup, that on-base percentage has to increase for him to succeed at his perceived role.
Franco did cut down on his strikeouts, but he has to go to the plate looking for good pitches to hit and not solely looking to drive the ball out of the park. The patience of Santana, a hitter with a good eye who accepts walks can really help Franco.
Given the influence of Santana and a young and hungry cast of characters around him, I look for Franco to improve his batting average and on-base percentage while still reaching the mid-20’s in home runs.
PITTSBURGH PIRATES-Starling Marte-OF
AVG: .275 HR: 7 RBI: 31 SB: 21
The Pirates 2017 season was deflated right from the start as star outfielder Starling Marte was suspended 80 games for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing drug policy. The violation by a veteran player is and was inexcusable. Not only did he harm himself, he harmed his entire team and their fans.
Probably creeping out of his prime at the age of 29, Marte was at one point a feared base stealer. He is still capable of putting up big stolen base numbers and good power and batting average numbers across the board.
We can only hope he has conquered whatever demons led to his suspension, because the Pirates need Marte now, more than ever.
Gone is Andrew McCutchen, their former All-Star outfielder who was dispatched to the San Francisco Giants outfield. That means rookie Austin Meadows may get a shot at a role with the parent team. However, prospect production cannot always be consistent. The loss of McCutchen leaves a void. It remains possible veteran Daniel Nava may get some playing time in the outfield as well. The point is this, the third outfield spot is unsettled.
If Marte and right fielder Gregory Polanco have solid seasons it will make things much brighter in what could be a dismal 2017 season for the Pirates. I have few if any issues with Polanco’s play. He isn’t a star, but he’s fairly steady. With a good compliment of offense and a full season of play from Marte, the Pirates can spoil some games for contending teams. I am optimistic Marte’s worst days are behind him and I foresee a solid 2018 season for him as he moves to center field full-time.
SAN DIEGO PADRES-Hunter Renfroe-OF
AVG: .231 HR: 26 RBI: 58 SB: 3
Renfroe was a 1st round draft pick of the Padres in 2013 out of Mississippi State University. He is entering his second full season with the Padres, as he got 35 at-bats as a 24 year-old in 2016.
Like many young players, Renfroe found the outfield seats last year, blasting 26 home runs. He’s a powerful hitter, but he didn’t hit for much average. With only a .284 on-base percentage, Renfroe has plenty of work to do recognizing pitches sooner and laying off breaking balls he can’t hit.
His plate discipline being an issue, Renfroe may have to hit in the lower third of the batting order. With little offense and not much power, the Padres will not be able to afford to leave men on base in obvious run-producing situations. That’s likely why Wil Myers and Chase Headley will most probably hit ahead of him.
It takes three seasons for some young players to find their stroke against the best pitchers in the world. With limited offensive firepower currently, the Padres are a team on the move with young and exciting players like Frenchy Cordero, Javier Guerra and Fernando Tatis Jr. in their organization and gaining experience.
I think Renfroe’s presence with a nice home run bat may be even more meaningful this year as the team continues to improve. If, in fact, the Padres are able to sign free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer, I believe Renfroe will be among the beneficiaries of his presence. I look for steady improvement from Hunter Renfroe this year and a much bigger 2019.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS-Hunter Pence-OF
AVG: .260 HR: 13 RBI: 67 SB: 2
In 2013 and 2014, Hunter Pence played all 162 games for the Giants. It was Pence on the top step of the dugout in their World Series years screaming and hollering encouragement to his teammates. He was “the man”. Pence could be counted upon to drive in crucial and timely runs with a hit at the right time.
Age and injuries have caught up with Hunter Pence.
Always one of my favorite players when I scouted for the Astros, Pence really didn’t do anything fundamentally correct in his game. His swing was awkward. His throws were awkward. He even ran awkwardly. But man, he could play.
Last year Pence gave back 29 points in batting average, falling from .289 in 2016 to .260 last year. He played in pain. He missed games. He was inconsistent. But he could catch fire at any time and carry his club. Can he still do that?
The Giants have shored up a suspect outfield with the addition of Andrew McCutchen. There is little doubt in my mind McCutchen will make a weak offensive Giants team better. He and newcomer Evan Longoria at third base should breathe much-needed life into what was becoming a moribund lineup. Age has caught up with San Francisco. While McCutchen and Longoria aren’t youngsters, they’ll help a great deal.
Life in the Giants lineup can be made much more lethal, much more interesting and much more explosive if Hunter Pence has life in his swing and in his legs. If he can play 145 games and deliver key base hits along with Buster Posey, McCutchen and Longoria, the Giants may be fun to watch.
If Pence struggles at the plate and is overmatched with a slowing swing, the year could be a long one for him. I am not very optimistic that we will see the best edition of Hunter Pence. In fact, I think further negative regression may occur.
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS-Michael Wacha-P
W-L: 12-9 ERA: 4.13 WHIP: 1.35 IP: 165.2
When I first saw Michael Wacha pitch I felt he was on his way to becoming an annual All-Star. His mix of a good fastball with very sharp secondary pitches was dazzling. It was his changeup that intrigued me.
A former 1st round pick and the 19th player taken overall by the Cardinals out of Texas A&M in 2012, Wacha has been a good pitcher. He hasn’t touched on greatness. He hasn’t become the lead dog in the Cardinals rotation like I thought for sure he would. Instead, Wacha finds himself pitching somewhere in the middle of the Cardinals rotation, likely behind Carlos Martinez and possibly even the aging Adam Wainwright. But Wacha, Luke Weaver and to some extent Miles Mikolas and possibly Jack Flaherty will be the keys to the Cardinals season.
If they pitch-they win.
I have always learned that the Cardinals will hang around in a pennant race until their pitching kicks in and shuts down the opposition. At the end of the season, Wacha can make a huge difference as long as he stays healthy and as long as he uses his entire repertoire to the fullest.
In 2015 when Wacha was at his best, he won 17 games while losing seven. That’s a few years ago and he’s now 26 instead of being fresh and new at 23. Teams know what to expect from Wacha. He isn’t a surprise or the “flavor of the week” as he was back in his best season. But it is very possible he can return to close to his best. And he could set a pace for other pitchers in the rotation to follow his lead.
Wacha had a good season in 2017, but he can be better. Wacha’s walk rate is creeping up. He has to be able to induce ground balls and not worry about striking out every hitter. If everything falls in place and he clicks properly, I think he has the potential to deliver a 14-win season for his Cardinals while lowering his WHIP.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS-Matt Wieters-C
AVG: .225 HR: 10 RBI: 52 SB: 1
A year ago in the offseason, Matt Wieters was looking for a new home. He played his entire career with the Baltimore Orioles before signing a two-year contract with Washington that expires after this season.
Wieters was a former 1st round 2007 draft pick of the Orioles out of Georgia Tech.
To say Wieters didn’t have his best season in 2017 is putting it mildly. He dropped 18 points in batting average, hit seven fewer home runs and drove in 14 fewer runs than he did in his last season with the Orioles.
Perhaps some of Wieters’ decline was based upon him changing leagues and seeing new and different pitchers. Perhaps he is just in decline. At age 31, he may not return to his best production.
It isn’t any secret the Nationals have inquired about catching help. They had their eye on J.T. Realmuto of the Marlins, among others. So this is the year Wieters has to step up and show he is worth another contract.
The Nationals have a mighty solid lineup with the blatant exception of Wieters. A switch-hitter, if he improves his woeful .288 on-base percentage, it will go a long way to keeping the line moving and getting bigger hitters like Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman additional plate appearances per game. More plate appearances translate to the potential for more runs being scored and less stress for their great pitching staff.
If, in fact, Wieters becomes almost an automatic out it impairs the entire offensive momentum the Nationals can muster.
As of now, Pedro Severino appears to be the catcher working as a back up to Wieters. If, however, the Nationals can bring in a better hitter behind the plate without sacrificing much defense, Wieters may find himself the backup catcher. I am not optimistic that Matt Wieters will improve either his batting average or his on-base percentage this coming season.
Next Week: American League players that have to step up.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff