By Bernie Pleskoff
Last week, I identified players on each National League team I feel have a chance to really help their respective team this coming season. While each club probably has more than one player that will help tip the scales in the team’s favor, some players just seem to jump out when I review their roster.
This week, I look at important players on each club in the American League. Of course, each guy is debatable. However, these are position players or pitchers that can really add some energy to their respective team’s quest.
Vital statistics from 2017 regarding batting average, home runs, RBI and stolen bases are included below the team name.
For pitchers, won-loss record, ERA and WHIP are included.
BALTIMORE ORIOLES-Tim Beckham-3B/SS
AVG: .278 HR: 22 RBI: 62 SB: 6
There are several concerns in my evaluation of Beckham. First, with the move of Manny Machado from third base to shortstop, it means Beckham could start the season as the team’s permanent third baseman. That causes me some concern.
While he may be able to play third base, he is already inconsistent enough at the plate without having to take a position change with him to his defensive position and to the plate. Sure, he can play there, but will there be any type of mental price to pay with a position change?
Beckham was a 2008 1st selection draft pick of the Tampa Bay Rays, going first overall in a fairly weak draft that included Buster Posey and Eric Hosmer as two of the highest achieving big-league players.
Beckham never really sparkled for the Rays and he was traded to Baltimore for pitcher Tobias Myers in 2017. Sporting a .260 lifetime batting average in his 1021 plate appearances, Beckham showed some life at times at the plate last season. For example, playing for the Orioles he hit .394 in August. But he also turned in a .160 performance in July and .180 in September. Not good.
The Orioles biggest issue by far is woeful starting pitching. However, their solid offense with lots of thump in the lineup seems to keep them in games. It would be very helpful if Beckham could deliver a consistent season month to month in his new position. I doubt that will happen. I look for a continuation of good Beckham and bad Beckham, enough to cause acid reflux to those who need him to produce.
BOSTON RED SOX-Jackie Bradley, Jr.-OF
AVG: .245 HR: 17 RBI: 63 SB: 8
Jackie Bradley Jr. fell off the cliff last season. He lost 22 batting average points, hit 19 fewer home runs and drove in 24 fewer runs in 95 fewer plate appearances than in 2016. His offensive season was woeful. He was the subject of trade speculation all offseason.
While those 2016/2017 year-over-year numbers are compelling, perhaps his 2015 season was really the outlier. Consider that Bradley Jr. had seasons of .189/ .198/ and .249 before breaking out in 2016. Was the excitement over that season overblown?
Defensively, Bradley Jr. is superb. He saves runs. Offensively, the addition of J D Martinez adds length to the Red Sox lineup and may give Bradley Jr. more opportunities to drive in and score runs. However, if the opposing pitcher doesn’t fear Bradley Jr., there will be no reason to throw him any pitches he can drive and he will get himself out chasing bad pitches.
Bradley was a 1st round pick of the Red Sox in 2011, the 40th player taken overall.
While I look for Mookie Betts to rebound from a sub-par batting average last year, I don’t think the same is in store for Bradley Jr. I see his value remaining as a terrific defensive outfielder, but I’m afraid there may be only a slight uptick, if that, at the plate.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX-James Shields-RHP
W-L: 5-7 ERA: 5.23 WHIP: 1.44
The White Sox are in the midst of a reboot. They’re starting over as relatively inexperienced players are taking major roles on their 25-man roster.
While the offense is taking shape, pitching may be the real strength of the White Sox future. It may take time for Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dane Dunning and others to step up and take their respective places among the team’s pitching depth of the future.
In the present, games must be played. Pitchers must take the mound. And the head of the rotation may well be James Shields, a veteran of 12 seasons who is seemingly on a major decline in his effectiveness.
Now 36, Shields is still needed to help eat innings and to provide some mentoring and stewardship to the young pitchers in waiting.
Shields won 13 games for the San Diego Padres in 2015. He lost seven that year, but he threw to a 3.91 ERA. Since then, he has fashioned seasons of 6-19 while pitching for the Padres and White Sox combined in 2016 and 5-7 with the White Sox last season. The decline is steep.
Shields will have been paid a total of $75MM on a four-year contract that he signed in 2015 when his current deal ends after this season. A 2019 team option exists, but unless he has a remarkable recovery it is doubtful that option will be activated. Even though I think his work is important to the White Sox, I look for a continued decline in performance from an aging James Shields.
DETROIT TIGERS-Matt Boyd-LHP
W-L: 6-11 ERA: 5.27 WHIP: 1.55
The Blue Jays signed Boyd in the 6th round of the 2013 draft. In 2015, the Tigers were pleased to get the left-handed pitching Boyd along with pitchers Jairo Labourt and Daniel Norris in a trade with Toronto for David Price.
The Tigers, like many teams in MLB, are starting over. One of their building blocks may well be Boyd. They need him to step up and help eat innings in an effective, efficient manner.
It really is a fact that left-handed pitchers take a bit longer to develop. Control and command may be a bit slower to come to fruition. Boyd walked 53 hitters in 135 innings last year. How long will the Tigers stick with him? They aren’t deep in starting pitching options ready to pitch on the biggest stage.
I do believe Boyd will get his chances. I think the Tigers will be patient with him.
Boyd is coming into his age 27 season, the age at which he should be entering his prime. He doesn’t have much time to turn things around. While I think he shows improvement in the coming season, I wouldn’t bet on him becoming much more than an adequate mid-rotation starter.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS-Alex Gordon-OF
AVG: .208 HR: 9 RBI: 45 SB: 7
The Royals have watched Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Jason Vargas and possibly (probably) Mike Moustakas leave their club via free agency. They were able to retain Alcides Escobar.
It is interesting to note that not that long ago the team gave Gordon a long-term four-year contract worth $72MM that expires in 2019. The 2020 season includes a mutual option.
The second player taken overall in the 1st round of the 2005 draft, Gordon has appeared in three All-Star games and has been part of the nucleus of Royals teams. However, as they enter a rebuilding phase, he is showing two years of steep decline in offensive production.
In 2015 Gordon hit .271/13/48 with 12 stolen bases. The following season his batting average dropped to .220 even though he hit four more home runs. His RBIs declined by eight.
Last season was his worst. He lost an additional 12 points of batting average, making it a 63-point drop in two seasons. He hit eight fewer homers last year, but drove in five more runs.
Gordon was equally bad against both right and left-handed pitching, so platooning him would not have helped.
Now 34, Gordon is well past his prime. But he has value in being able to show the way to younger players now on the team’s 25-man roster. He has excellent work habits and hustles on every play. A solid role model, improvement from the veteran Gordon could set a nice pace for prospect and younger players.
While I see the decline continuing, I think Alex Gordon can retain value for the Royals by providing some timely doubles to the large outfield gaps at Kaufmann Stadium, just as he has done in his past. However, the tank is running out of gas.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS-Tyler Skaggs-LHP
W-L: 2-6 ERA: 4.55 WHIP: 1.37
Having suffered from Tommy John surgery, and an oblique injury and on and on, the story of Tyler Skaggs is quite simple to write. Skaggs has not been able to stay healthy.
Skaggs has long been a favorite of current Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. Dipoto traded for him twice. Once when Dipoto brought him to the Arizona Diamondbacks when Dipoto was the interim general manager, and once when he brought him back to the Angels when Dipoto moved to Anaheim as their baseball operations guru. There was a reason for Dipoto’s positive evaluation of Skaggs. When healthy, he has huge upside as a left-handed starter.
Given the moves made by the Angels to bring in Justin Upton, Zack Cozart, Ian Kinsler and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels have improved their overall 25-man roster tremendously. They are much more stable than in past years when they surprised teams and probably played above their skills.
The Angels will likely use a six-man rotation that features Garrett Richards, Ohtani, Matt Shoemaker, J C Ramirez, Parker Bridwell and Skaggs in some order. Skaggs adds value because he is the only lefty in the group.
A 1st round pick by the Angels in 2009, he was the 40th player chosen in the draft. He showed plenty to scouts before being selected in the first round. If he can stay healthy, he can win. It really is a big, big if.
MINNESOTA TWINS-Kyle Gibson-RHP
W-L: 12-10 ERA: 5.07 WHIP: 1.53
The Twins made Gibson their 1st round draft pick out of the University of Missouri in 2006. But the huge, 6-6, 215 pounds righty has seemed to scuffle every year.
Last year Gibson changed his throwing mechanics and he had some success in spurts. If the Twins are indeed looking to make the playoffs this year, Gibson is among the pitchers that have to respond and step up to the next level.
Having pitched parts of five seasons in Minnesota, Gibson has a career ERA of 4.70. He has a 44-48 record, which may indicate he is an average big league starter. He should be better than that. And he may be better than that with this year possibly being his true breakout campaign.
Walking 3.4 hitters per nine innings last year and striking out 6.9, it seems obvious both of those ratios could stand improvement. He also yielded a home run per nine innings, a high statistic pitching in the pitching-friendly Minnesota home park environment.
Twins No. 1 starter Ervin Santana will be out for several weeks with an injury. With the starting pitching thin already, the rest of the Twins rotation will be asked to keep their team in games while the potent offense does their job. I think Gibson can improve upon a 2017 season where he showed signs of figuring things out.
NEW YORK YANKEES-Greg Bird-1B
AVG: .190 HR: 9 RBI: 28 SB: 0
What happens if Greg Bird is healthy all year? How much damage can Greg Bird do tucked in a lineup with Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius and much, much more. Bird is almost a forgotten man in Yankees conversations.
I have watched Bird play on an everyday basis. When healthy, that short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium has his name written all over it. He can have a monster home run season.
Yes, Bird has to play more than the 48 games he played in 2017. If he can get his legs, ankles, feet and body in shape, he will tuck in a lineup and lengthen the potentially lethal damage of the young and powerful Yankees.
The Yankees just picked up Brandon Drury to play third base. Drury is a line drive gap hitter with a good barrel of the bat approach. A guy like Drury in the lineup will just add more firepower to a team that should have all its pieces in place opening day until the final bell. I can’t imagine how many runs the Yankees will score. It could be a record number.
The Yankees got Bird in the 5th round of the 2011 draft out of Grandview High School in Colorado. Still only 25 as he enters the season, Greg Bird should be coming into his prime years wearing Yankee pinstripes and supplementing a vicious lineup that almost relegates him an afterthought. Not in my book. If Bird plays, Bird hits homers. Yes, he may strike out too much, but if he gains some plate discipline, he will be a major contributor to the Yankees march to the postseason and possibly the World Series. I think he’ll have a big, big year if he stays healthy.
OAKLAND ATHLETICS-Stephen Piscotty-OF
AVG: .235 HR: 9 RBI: 39 SB: 3
From the time I first put eyes on Stephen Piscotty in the 2013 Arizona Fall League, I was sold. The guy has an advanced hit tool and he should be able to rebound from a poor season in St. Louis last year.
Traded by the Cardinals to the Athletics for minor league prospect infielders Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock, Piscotty has a new lease on life in a new league.
A former 1st round selection by the Cardinals out of Stanford University in 2012, Piscotty will be able to play in the location where his ill mom is getting treatment.
Piscotty is signed thru 2022 with a team option for 23. It would appear he is one of the core players the Athletics can build around for the future.
Every counting statistic declined for him last year. However, as recently as his rookie 2015 season, Piscotty was a .305 hitter. He dipped to .273 in his sophomore season, but he remained dangerous, hitting 22 homers and driving in 85 runs.
The Athletics are stabilizing their roster as they continue to plan for a new stadium somewhere in the Oakland area. We may see less player movement and more consistency in roster construction going forward.
Look for Piscotty to return to his good batting average and solid run production this coming season. He could really help the Athletics build a solid foundation for the future.
SEATTLE MARINERS-Felix Hernandez-RHP
W-L: 6-5 ERA: 4.36 WHIP:1.29
While we may have seen the best of King Felix in previous years, the Mariners still need him to step up as a core pitcher in their rotation. But there are plenty of pitches on his right arm.
He will turn 32 in April and he’s thrown 2502.1 innings in a stellar 13-year career.
Hernandez has appeared in six All-Star games. He has had a tremendous career as the undisputed ace of the Mariners staff.
He’s a rare player that will likely play his entire career with the same team.
Signed out of high school in Venezuela, Hernandez had been strong and durable until injuries cost him starts and innings the past two seasons. In 2016 King Felix made 25 starts. Last season he started only 16 games and an injured shoulder took a huge toll.
If there is any major concern with the Mariners, it may well be their pitching. They should be able to score plenty of runs with bats like those of Robbie Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, Kyle Seager and newly acquired Dee Gordon leading off in the batting order. They’ll score runs and put some pressure on the opposition. But can Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, and Marco Gonzalez provide enough quality innings behind James Paxton and Hernandez? And can the King pitch like the King? I’m not counting on a season of good health and a high success rate.
TAMPA BAY RAYS-Brad Miller-INF
AVG: .201 HR: 9 RBI: 40 SB: 5
Yes, that batting average was correct, he hit .201 last year. And after hitting 30 home runs in 2016 the Rays and the world of baseball (especially fantasy players) had nice high hopes for Miller. Perhaps his abysmal season was because he was hurt and played in only 110 games with an abdominal injury. Ultimately, he had to have core surgery. Perhaps his 2016 season was an outlier. I’ll take both of those for reasons Miller went into the tank last year and never returned.
Drafted by the Seattle Mariners with a 2nd round pick in 2011, the Mariners traded him to Tampa Bay along with Danny Farquhar and first baseman Logan Morrison for pitcher Nate Karns, outfielder Boog Powell and pitcher C J Riefenhauser.
Frankly, the Rays approach this offseason in reducing payroll and sending their veterans packing has left me totally concerned about their viability as a professional baseball club. What is left of their 25-man roster is a skeleton of what it was just a couple years ago. It really is a shame for the good people of Florida that they have both the Marlins and the Rays in total reduction of payrolls.
But Miller remains. There will be no Evan Longoria in the lineup to help him in the counting stats. I doubt that Miller will be as bad as he was last year, but I don’t think he’s anywhere close to a 35-home run hitter, either. If the Rays are going to do anything to increase their credibility as a baseball team, they have to have a solid Brad Miller in the lineup.
TEXAS RANGERS-Cole Hamels-LHP
W-L: 11-6 ERA: 4.20 WHIP: 1.20
By most standards, Hamels had a good year in 2017. Until one compares some stats from last season with 2016. He won 15 games in 2015 and threw to a 3.32 ERA, that season.
Hamels is entering his age 34 season. Clearly, some of the zip is off his stuff. Texas has hopes of competing in the American League West. Hamels has to lead a pitching staff that appears to be meh on paper. They will have Matt Moore, Mike Minor, Doug Fister, Matt Bush and Bartolo Colon as their primary rotation pieces-nothing to get too excited about. That group makes the presence of Hamels even more important.
Hamels was an outstanding pitcher for the Phillies before being traded to Texas in the deal that sent Hamels and pitcher Jake Diekman to the Rangers for catcher Jorge Alfaro, and pitchers Alec Asher, Jerad Eickhoff, Matt Harrison, Jake Thompson and outfielder Nick Williams. It was a hefty price to pay for Hamels, and one could argue his best days are long gone.
A former 1st round pick of the Phillies in 2002 out of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, it remains to be seen if Hamels is a pitching leader that can improve upon a good, but far from great 2017 season. I see further decline overall, but he likely has at least one more credible year ahead of him as the Rangers rotation leader.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS-Troy Tulowitzki-SS
AVG: .249 HR: 7 RBI: 26 SB: 0
Troy Tulowitzki has shown signs of age and wear and tear. Now entering his 13th season, Tulowitzki is 33 years old.
This past season Tulowitzki suffered from hamstring injuries, a groin injury and finally an ankle injury that ruined his year. He’s still taking it relatively easy as Spring Training begins.
Tulowitzki had great years as the stable and hard-hitting shortstop of the Colorado Rockies for 9 years plus. He was a major component of their lineup before he was traded to Toronto along with pitcher LaTroy Hawkins for pitchers Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman, Jesus Tinoco and infielder Jose Reyes.
A former 1st round 2006 selection and 7th player taken overall by the Blue Jays, Tulowitzki has appeared in five All-Star games.
Tulowitzki may hit in the middle of the Blue Jays batting order if he can return to health and show that he still has some pop in his bat. The lineup includes the potent bat of Josh Donaldson who can become a free agent after the season. Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales can help out among others as well. But lots of the pressure on the offensive side of the ball will fall to the veteran Tulowitzki, who is signed to a six-year $118MM contract that doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season. The team has an option for 2022 as well.
If he returns to health, Tulowitzki can step up and be a valuable member of a team that needs peak performances to contend against the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East. I think he’ll claw his way back to respectability, but I find it hard to believe Troy Tulowitzki has anything close to his Rockies days left in his bat or body.
YANKEES AND DBACKS GET THEIR GUYS
Early in the offseason, I singled out Brandon Drury as a good example of an available third baseman that could help stabilize the Yankees third base situation. Early this week they made that happen. In a trade that sent Yankee and Dbacks prospects to Tampa Bay and Steven Souza from Tampa Bay to Arizona, the Yankees have fortified a position of need for the coming year, and possibly beyond.
Drury is a barrel of the bat contact hitter capable of adding length to the back end of the Yankees lineup. More capable defensively playing third base than second base, Drury doesn’t have the quickest feet or best range on defense. But he’ll do fine. He can drive the ball to the gaps on offense and help keep the line going in the potent and almost lethal Yankees lineup.
The move allows the Yankees to provide Miguel Andujar more time to develop on defense and refine his offense in the Yankees minor league development program. They can take their time with him and not worry about rushing him to the major-league club until they are confident he is ready.
Souza assumes the right field position on a permanent basis in Arizona. His presence will help shift David Peralta to left field. Nobody can replace the departed J.D. Martinez, but Souza adds a bit of pop himself with some speed on the bases.
An outfield of Peralta in left, A.J. Pollock in center and Souza in right allows the team to use newly acquired speedster Jarrod Dyson to be the fourth outfielder, serving as a defensive replacement and adding much-needed speed on the bases.
Highly priced Yasmany Tomas may have difficulty making the team. At best, if he is on the 25-man roster he will be the 5th outfielder. A better approach may be to use one of his options and send Tomas to the Triple-A Reno club. Tomas may be able to play there every day, increase his market value and offer a club some value in trade. Of course, the Diamondbacks would likely have to absorb about two-thirds of his contract. Consider that Tomas signed a $68.5MM contract in 2015 that won’t expire until 2020. Tomas was a product of the Tony La Russa/Dave Stewart regime that has saddled new general manager Mike Hazen with payroll and roster challenges that he and his staff are ably navigating.
J.D. MEETS THE GREEN MONSTER
I know what a great power bat J.D. Martinez will bring to the Boston Red Sox after he signed a five-year $110MM contract that includes an out clause and no-trade options along the way.
But I caution readers that some of the home runs to be expected from Martinez may just smack into the Green Monster in left field as opposed to clearing that 37.2 feet barrier.
But beware if you think Martinez is a dead pull hitter. Last year at Chase Field Martinez went on a second-half tear, helping to lead the Dbacks to the postseason. In that awesome stretch, he hit plenty of bombs to right/center field. And I think he can do it again in Fenway.
SHORTER RIGHT FIELD HOME RUN TARGET IN ANAHEIM
The Angels have announced they have reduced the right field outfield wall by at least ten feet for this coming season. That should help left-handed hitters like Kole Calhoun and Shohei Ohtani among others.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff