NOTES FROM AN EXCITING WEEK

This past week, we witnessed an obvious lack of hustle on the part of Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez. There are two distinct incidents that helped cause his Yankees club drop a crucial game to the Tampa Bay Rays on July 23. Every game is crucial to the Yankees in their chase of the Boston Red Sox.

As a young kid I was taught several fundamentals of baseball. Among the rules of the game I have never forgotten was this: “Run and run hard until you enter the dugout.” It’s that simple. If you play the game, play the game properly. If you are hurt or injured in some way, you shouldn’t be playing in the game.

Sanchez’ first blunder was loafing after a ball that got away when he was crossed-up on the pitch by Luis Severino. Instead of hustling after the ball, Sanchez took his time and wandered to the ball, Severino was late covering the plate and a run scored. The opposition was hustling. Sanchez and Severino were not. But Sanchez says he hurt himself on that play while going after the ball.

Late in the game and behind to the Rays, the Yankees loaded the bases in the 9th inning. Sanchez hit a ground ball into a shift. The runner on first, Aaron Hicks beat the throw to second base. Sanchez did not run hard to first base out the box and was thrown out second-to-short-to first for the final out of the game. Sanchez was beyond slow getting out of the batter’s box and then he tried to make up ground with greater hustle near first base. It was too little, too late.

It was later reported that Sanchez must have reinjured his groin on the passed ball that resulted in a run for the Rays. However, he continued to play in the game. And on that last out he hustled halfway down the line. And that’s where I have a real problem.

If, in fact, Sanchez was hurt making a play, why didn’t he leave the game? How does he help his team while playing injured? If he was hurt, how could he hustle halfway down the line on the last out?

Confusing the matter even more, Sanchez is quoted after the game stating he “should have run harder.” But if he was hurt, how could he run harder? If he was hurt, why didn’t he tell reporters he reinjured his groin early in the game instead of saying he should have run harder?

In a very tight pennant race, the Yankees lost that game by one run.

It just doesn’t add up to me.

The New York Yankees are in a very competitive pennant race. The Boston Red Sox may well run away with the American League East Division. They can’t afford to field injured players. Believe me when I tell you manager Aaron Boone has a situation on his hands with Gary Sanchez. Sanchez is not a good defensive catcher. Sanchez isn’t hitting. And Austin Romine is a better defensive catcher and a solid hitter. He just doesn’t have the home run power of Sanchez. The Sanchez situation will test Mr. Boone.

In another game played the same night between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, in his haste to get off a throw, Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis bobbled a potential double-play grounder hit right to him. He did manage to shovel the ball to shortstop Francisco Lindor to get the lead runner at second. It did, however, open the floodgates for the emerging Pittsburgh Pirates offense. What followed was a play that should never, and I do mean never, occur at the big league level.

With the Pirates Josh Bell on first base via the botched twin-killing mentioned above, David Freese hit a popup near the pitcher’s mound. Third baseman Jose Ramirez waived his arms and called for the ball. First baseman Yonder Alonso came from nowhere, bumped into Ramirez and dropped the ball. Alonso was charged with an error. And it was huge. It would have been the 3rd out. Actually, with the boot by Kipnis it would have been the 4th out since the double play wasn’t turned. The next hitter, Josh Harrison hit a towering three-run homer to left field off a shaky Corey Kluber. The Indians never recovered and lost the game 7-0. The game was called by rain in the 6th inning.

A defense can’t give an offense 4 outs an inning. 5 outs an inning is worse than inexcusable.

One would think Kluber would have called one of the two defenders off the play. The play was right in front of him. From what I have seen and heard, that did not happen. Alonso was far too aggressive and should have seen and heard Ramirez. Whatever happened should never happen. A popup to the infield has to be caught. There is simply no excuse for that type of bumping into one another in the infield at the pitcher’s mound.
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While I’m on the topic of play that bothers me, I want to bring up the fact the indoor roof at Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, is a shade of white or silver color. It is a translucent Teflon coated fiberglass. The light color allows the white baseball to be lost in the roof. Plenty of balls are hit high enough to get lost. I saw it again this week when one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, Kevin Kiermaier lost a ball in the roof. Four catwalks that help support the structure are also a hazard of play . Since the Trop was opened in 1990 as the Florida Suncoast Dome, couldn’t that major problem of the color of the fiberglass have been corrected? Couldn’t something have been done so a player can see a high fly ball? I’m not an engineer, but isn’t there a way to correct a very obvious hazard to play? I do think the catwalk connecting supports can’t be fixed. I get that. But the color of the fiberglass?

Last week, I mentioned a move for the Rays to a new location had not been settled. Well, indeed, the team has announced official plans to build in Tampa’s historic cigar production area of Ybor City. It is a vibrant, bustling part of Tampa with a 14 acre site ready for construction. However, there does remain one slight problem. Who pays for the complex? That isn’t just a hiccup, its cause for angina. The plans for a total multi-purpose complex with a baseball venue, retail, hospitality and housing all sound wonderful. But somehow I don’t see the Tampa Bay Rays footing the bill. Will the citizens of the county or the Tampa area pay for the complex?

Stay tuned.
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I mentioned the surging Pittsburgh Pirates. They have learned how to win. It may be a bit too late for this year, but the team is gaining momentum. They have slashed their $101MM
payroll from 2017 down to $89MM. They have shed players like Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, saving money in the process. Their highest paid player is catcher Francisco Cervelli at $11MM. Starling Marte (through 2021) and Gregory Polanco (through 2023) are cornerstones of their offense and both are signed long-term.

In several recent series, the Pirates have given the opposition fits with very solid offense and pitching good enough to win. Corey Dickerson, a very underrated outfielder is hitting the cover off the ball. He left the game Tuesday night with a slight injury, but it may only have been precautionary. Dickerson, Marte and Polanco form one of the most dangerous outfields in baseball and this year are only now showing their collective talents. That trio can be lethal.

Switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell has turned himself into a very skilled hitter capable of taking the pitch where it is thrown. People wonder why he doesn’t hit more home runs? Bell is a guy that is happy to take exactly what the pitcher offers. A mistake by a pitcher can land in the bleachers as a homer. He does, indeed, have power. But more often than not, he takes pitches to the opposite field and has established himself as an improving contact hitter with plate discipline and very good pitch recognition. Dickerson, Marte, Polanco and Bell are as good a four hitters as any team can field. Josh Harrison adds some spark to the lineup as well. I do think the Pirates can continue to be dangerous moving forward. I don’t think this mid-season surge is a fluke. And Gerrit Cole would have helped. But he’s gone to Houston in what I felt was a foolish salary purge.

Frankly, I feel the biggest unresolved issue in Pittsburgh is the financial constraint placed by ownership unwilling or perhaps unable to compete against organizations with more robust resources. And if that’s the case, the people of Pittsburgh deserve ownership willing to spend the money necessary to compete in an ever more competitive National League Central Division.

To me, the Milwaukee Brewers present a total opposite picture in the NL Central than the Pirates. Also a small market, the Milwaukee area has been depressed economically for quite some time. Yet, Brewers ownership has shown creativity and a willingness to spend the money to field a team that could win the division. Hiring intelligent baseball minds to run the organization and making wise personnel decisions, the Brewers are now on the map as a franchise that can compete with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals. Shouldn’t the Pittsburgh Pirates be in that same conversation? I think they should. And Cincinnati is improving greatly. But like Pittsburgh, as their team improves, the Reds ownership will be tested to see if they can compete with the better teams in the division. Reds ownership will have to step up and spend some money. But the creativity of the Brewers, like getting Mike Moustakas and inserting him at third base, helps take the Brewers to a higher level than the Reds for this year and maybe years to come.
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This week also saw the introduction of St. Louis Cardinals right-handed pitcher Daniel Poncedeleon. What a great baseball name. Not many people had heard about Poncedeleon before he baffled the Reds for 7 hitless innings. Where did Poncedeleon come from, you ask? He was a ninth-round draft pick out of Embry-Riddle University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He also attended the University of Arizona. Now 26, Poncedeleon has worked his way up the ladder in the Cardinals development program. After starting with the Class-A Advanced State College club in the New York-Penn League, his career has taken off. He has been a starting pitcher throughout his career, compiling a 34-16 minor league record. He has a brilliant 2.65 career minor league ERA and a 1.18 WHIP. His only hiccup, a relatively minor one at that, is an average 3.3 walks per nine inning. He strikes out 8 per nine innings.

In his major-league debut July 23 against the Cincinnati Reds, Poncedeleon threw seven hitless innings. He walked three, struck out three and didn’t yield a run. He was removed from the game after throwing 116 pitches. The Reds got their first hit of the game in the 8th inning when Phillip Ervin singled off reliever Jordan Hicks.

The fact Ponceleon pitched in the game for the Cardinals is nothing short of a miracle.

On May 9, 2017, Daniel Poncedeleon was pitching for the Cardinals Triple-A Memphis club against the Chicago Cubs Triple-A Iowa team in Des Moines, Iowa. It was a day game. The Cubs Victor Caratini was at the plate. Caratini smoked a ball right back to the mound, hitting Poncedeleon in the head. Poncedeleon thought he was fine. He didn’t realize how seriously he was injured until he was on the way to the hospital. He remained in the hospital for almost three weeks. He had swelling on his brain as well as suffering a fractured skull. He endured an emergency craniotomy to repair an epidural hematoma, or bleeding within the brain.

He worked his way back and then, on July 23, Poncedeleon threw those seven shutout innings at the Reds. A little more than 14 months after a life-threatening injury while pitching, Poncedeleon is not only back on the mound, he made his major-league debut.

Given the reality of professional baseball, Poncedeleon was optioned back to Triple-A the next day. He has since been returned to the parent club. I do have a hunch we’ll be seeing more and more of Daniel Poncedeleon on the big league mound.
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This week the Baltimore Orioles continued their roster reorganization with the trade of reliever Zach Britton to the New York Yankees for three pitching prospects. The Orioles received right-hander Dillon Tate, right-hander Cody Carroll and left-hander Josh Rogers. Tate is the highest rated among them, with most analysts feeling he is within the Yankees Top-10 overall prospects. I had him rated in the Top 15 among Yankees prospects.

It is important to note that each of those pitchers would have had to be placed on the Yankees 40-man roster in the offseason or they would have been susceptible to the Rule 5 draft, making them available for any team to claim for a nominal fee. Instead, the Yankees packaged the three pitchers to obtain another bullpen arm for the pennant run.

We don’t know the packages of players the Orioles had to choose from among other teams. However, the Yankees package provides them with three pitchers capable of continuing their development and ultimately pitching at the major-league level. Tate is the most advanced.

Critics may wonder why the Yankees needed another reliever to go along with a loaded bullpen? There is one really good reason as I analyze this deal. Having such a strong pen allows manager Aaron Boone the luxury of removing his starting pitcher at the first sign of fatigue or when Boone feels the starter is vulnerable to a big inning. If the Yankee starters can last five or six innings, the bullpen can take over. On alternating nights, the relief corps that could include pitchers like Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Jonathan Holder, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, Chasen Shrive, A. J. Cole, Adam Warren and now Zach Britton can handle the last three innings of any game and preserve a win or hold the opposition to help the team come from behind.

In the postseason the Yankees and all other teams will only need four starting pitchers. In each case, the fifth starter will likely join the bullpen as well, further helping to shorten the game for the starting pitcher. That’s the strategy dictated by metrics in today’s game. And Zach Britton is a perfect fit for what had been an already potent Yankees bullpen. Some teams may rely on only three starters in the postseason.

Give the Yankees even more credit for adding lefty J.A. Happ to their rotation. Coming over from Toronto in a deal for third baseman Brandon Drury and outfielder Billy McKinney, it seems the Yankees have gotten the pitcher they needed without tapping Justus Sheffield, Chance Adams or another one of their prospect starters just yet.

The Yankees have added to their bullpen and their rotation without giving up any of their top prospects. Justus Sheffield, Estevan Florial, Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Jonathan Loaisiga, Chance Adams and many, many others remain. So does Clint Frazier. And Gleyber Torres, and Tyler Wade, and Ronald Torreyes and Miguel Andujar and on and on and on. I don’t think general manager Brian Cashman gets enough credit for building and retaining such an incredible farm system.

Depth in the bullpen is crucial in today’s game. That’s why we’ve seen deals by the Indians (Hand and Cimber) Yankees (Britton) and more recently the Milwaukee Brewers, who have added the White Sox Joakim Soria to their bullpen mix. Solid bullpens are critical for teams hoping to advance in the postseason.
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As the week concludes, I can’t help wondering what would happen if the baseball season were to begin today with the style and success or failure in the way several clubs are playing.

I think clubs like the Oakland Athletics, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Cincinnati Reds would be much more competitive and would be threatening to enter the upper echelon of their respective pennant races. They are much better and much stronger now than they were back in late March, April and even May. I’m not as convinced about Seattle.

Can the clubs I mentioned above continue their resurgence and be competitive next season? Will they make the right type of transactions and player signings that put them in the mix as potential division champions for 2019? Wouldn’t it be great to see some new teams come to the front next year just as we have seen the upswing of the Phillies, the Braves and the Brewers?

If major-league baseball can build from the traditionally successful franchises and add new, young and hungry clubs to the mix the game will get a much needed shot in the arm.
However, this season with so many teams (especially in the American League) hopelessly out of the pennant races, the game is being reduced to competition between those that have and those that don’t have. Those teams with the resources, creativity, smart front offices, and the willingness to spend their resources on player development continue to thrive. Those franchises that are satisfied with mediocracy and claim to be without resources simply just exist. Their fan base is cheated. Competitive balance suffers.

With the type of play we have witnessed from teams willing to field exciting and competitive clubs, perhaps next year we can dispense with the nonsense of “buyers” and “sellers” at the non-waiver trade deadline. Perhaps next year every team in baseball will want to improve their lot in major-league baseball, and not only at the trade deadline.

The Astros don’t miss a chance to bolster their overall depth. They’ve added Martin Maldonado from the Los Angeles Angels to their catching corps. And just at the end of the week they, too, added another bullpen arm when they traded for the Twins Ryan Pressly.

The Diamondbacks really needed another starting pitcher. In essence, their backup pitcher right now is Shelby Miller, who has not performed well at all since coming over in trade from the Braves. He returned this season from Tommy John surgery and hurt his elbow. It doesn’t appear to be serious, but he hasn’t pitched well at all. Arizona went out and traded for right-hander Matt Andriese from the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a brilliant move, as Andriese can help out by lengthening the bullpen and serving as a starter if needed. I love the fact Andriese can help in the bullpen or move to the rotation if needed.

In another move that I applaud, the Dbacks traded for infielder Eduardo Escobar from the Twins. He will be a rental for now, as he is due to be a free agent at the end of the year. Escobar is a very underrated infielder, capable of playing shortstop, second base and third base, the position he will begin playing while Jake Lamb is out injured. Escobar is a very solid hitter and was described as the “heart” of the Twins clubhouse. He will be missed in Minnesota as much as he will be valued in Arizona.

The Cubs will have five lefties in their rotation with the addition of left-hander Cole Hamels from the Texas Rangers. We have to remember that Hamels was pitching in a bandbox in Texas. He was more effective on the road. It would seem he will make a nice addition in lengthening the Cubs rotation. However, I can’t be among those who think he will succeed in his new National League home. Yes, he adds another starter for the Cubs. I wonder just how effective he will be over the remainder of the season at home and on the road.

The Phillies now have Asdrubal Cabrera to put in their infield mix. I don’t think he’s still a quality shortstop, but is third baseman Maikel Franko on the move in a trade? The Mets got a nice pitcher back in tall, lean right-hander Franklyn Kilome.

The Yankees have to be concerned with the wrist injury to Aaron Judge. I’m not sure three weeks is a realistic timeframe for his return. And once he does return, how effective will he be swinging the bat? I’ve seen plenty of bats impacted negatively by hand or wrist injuries.

The Brewers have traded for third baseman Mike Moustakas from the Kansas City Royals. In exchange, the Royals will get outfielder Brett Phillips and right-handed pitching prospect Jorge Lopez. This is an interesting deal because the Brewers already had a solid third baseman in Travis Shaw. With the arrival of Moose, Shaw moves to second base. That my friends, is tricky and risky. The shortstop/second baseman relationship is built over time. At least in spring training. The movement, footwork, timing and pivot on the double play are not easily learned. They take time and practice. I wish Shaw well in making the transition. But having both Shaw and Moustakas in the same lineup adds firepower and length to the lineup.

Lopez is a 25-year-old right-hander who is likely nearing the end of his development program. Used as both a starter and recently as a reliever in the Brewers organization, his best pitch is a wipeout curveball. That curveball, along with a solid fastball that is gaining in velocity along with a changeup provide Lopez with an excellent major-league quality arsenal.

I don’t know what to expect from Brett Phillips. I’ve seen him a great deal and he has shown inconsistent results. A left-handed hitter, going to Kansas City may be the break Phillips needs to start his career. Drafted by Houston and traded to Milwaukee, Phillips has teased with power but he has never taken off as a prospect. Maybe he will get a good look with the Royals, who need outfield help. I’m not overly optimistic about his future.

Rumors have circulated that the Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians are interested in Texas Rangers slugger Joey Gallo. The third baseman, first baseman, outfielder could fit well in right field for the Indians. I just don’t see as clear a role for him with the Phillies. Regardless, he will upgrade the offensive firepower of any team that gets him in trade.

Apparently, the Indians have also shown interest in Twins second baseman Brian Dozier. Dozier, a free agent at the end of the season just doesn’t seem like the type of player Cleveland would add because of the rental situation. If the price were right, however, the Indians could add his bat to the mix. Such a move would likely send Jason Kipnis to center field. That’s a prospect that would improve the outfield offense while not doing much for center field defense. I think getting Gallo and putting him in right field is the much better move.

I mentioned the Yankees farm system earlier. It will be virtually impossible for the team to hold all of those fantastic prospects without putting them all on the 40-man roster or losing them at the end of the season. That will be quite a high wire act for Mr. Cashman and his colleagues in the Yankees front office. But I’m sure they have a plan.

Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff

About The Author

Bernie Pleskoff is a former professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Bernie's work has been featured on MLB Pipeline, MLB.com and FanRag Sports, among others. You can follow Bernie Pleskoff on Twitter @BerniePleskoff