We hear so much about baseball’s bright stars. We read about Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge. We marvel at the accomplishments of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Ronald Acuna and Juan Soto are waiting in the wings to take over the ink and air time. Soon we will be raving about guys like Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jimenez. Baseball has plenty of high profile players. Plenty. These guys (and yes, there are more) are the cream of the crop and their every move can make headlines.
Every team may not have a superstar. Some teams may not even boast of a star. But every team has a guy or two who makes things click without getting major headlines. Every team has a guy or two who is having a good year, but the optics of these critical team components get a bit blurred when the big guns go to the plate.
Today I want to highlight at least one player from each National League team that seems to get the team’s juices flowing. A tough out at the plate, or a tough guy to face on the mound, these guys may not be the heart of their club. They just may be the arteries that get the blood pumping through those hearts. Statistics for the season as of August 17 are (listed in parenthesis).
DANIEL DESCALSO-ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS
Because he is so versatile and such a competitive player, Daniel Descalso has saved the Dbacks bacon many times this year. He has played first base, second base, third base, left field, center field, and he has even pitched in addition to serving as a designated hitter. Descalso plugs holes caused by injury or poor performance. He is the Dbacks Everyman.
The beauty of Descalso is his ability to hit for average with some power in his bat. Also a spare part when he played for St. Louis and Colorado previously in his career, Descalso has always had excellent value coming off the bench. He makes contact at the plate, drives the ball and plays outstanding defense. Every winning team needs a player like Descalso to provide energy and stability at any time in the game. He is extremely valuable in Arizona. (.256/10/49)
NICK MARKAKIS-ATLANTA BRAVES
It really is difficult to believe that the Baltimore Orioles granted Markakis his free agency back in 2014. The Braves signed him, and he has been a huge component of their organization since. Put quite simply, Markakis makes things happen on offense. And he plays outstanding defense. Nick Markakis was a good player when he was with the Orioles. He was a regular outfielder for nine seasons. He never made an All-Star team. In fact, he didn’t make his first All-Star team until this season with the Braves, and it was his 13th as a major-league player. The left-handed hitting Markakis is 34, and playing like he was 24, but he isn’t considered a star. He is in position to finish with his best ever season at the plate. A doubles machine, Markakis may exceed the 49 two-base hits he smoked in 2008 with Baltimore. Maybe he isn’t in the minds of most fans, but Markakis is a leader on the playoff bound club. (.319/14/76)
ALBERT ALMORA JR.-CHICAGO CUBS
Last year, in his age 23 season, Albert Almora got the chance he needed to show the world he is an outstanding baseball player. Almora went to the plate 323 times for the Cubs and hit .298 with eight homers and 46 RBIs. But Almora was never known for his hitting. Almora’s best tool is fantastic defense in center field. He is the captain of the outfield when he’s in the lineup, and he makes every play within his area code. The Cubs are a much stronger club when Almora is staffing center field. That is especially true when slugger Kyle Schwarber is in the outfield. Frankly, Almora’s bat is a plus. But frankly, it is his defense that really helps the Cubs. A right-handed hitter at 6-2 and 190 pounds, Almora is having an outstanding season on both sides of the ball. Playing with confidence in his abilities, he has upside remaining in his game, but especially in his improving hit tool. We have seen his bat and overall offense become more refined in the past two season. (.297/5/32)
SCOOTER GENNETT-CINCINNATI REDS
In 2015 Scooter Gennett played for the Milwaukee Brewers and hit six home runs in 375 plate appearances. He played in 114 games. He saw an increase in plate appearances in 2016, with 542. His home runs increased to 14. And then, the following March, the Reds were able to select Gennett off waivers from Milwaukee. It may be one of the all-time worst decisions made by the Brewers front office. Last season, his first in Cincinnati, that same Scooter Gennett hit 27 homers and drove in 97 runs. He hit .295. It was amazing, but lots of people felt it was a fluke season. This year, Gennett made his first All-Star Team. He is hitting homers once again and driving in runs. Gennett is a spark plug that few people know outside of Milwaukee and Cincinnati. He is an outstanding defensive second baseman with a great feel for the game. Gennett is so valuable because he always finds a way to beat the opposition. If the Reds can get some pitching and if Joey Votto can get his knee and legs back for the future, the Reds can become dangerous. I can’t help think it will be Scooter that leads the way. (.305/18/70)
KYLE FREELAND-COLORADO ROCKIES
Yes, we all know how difficult it is to pitch in Colorado. The air is light, breaking balls don’t spin much and the outfield is as vast as they come. The mile high altitude has taken its toll on terrific pitchers. Kyle Freeland, a 25-year-old lefty is having a fine 2018 season in that very tough park. Freeland consistently sits at 92 to 93 miles per hour with his fastball. That isn’t enough velocity to pitch high in the zone at Coors Field. But he also has a sinker, which helps tremendously. A cutter, a slider and a changeup offer a very compete repertoire for Freeland. If one of his pitches isn’t working, he can always find another one in his repertoire. He is on course to pitch more innings this year than last, his first in the major-leagues. He threw 146 innings in his debut season and got a good feel for pitching. A former first round draft pick for Colorado in 2014, I like Freeland as the type of pitcher that can stop a losing streak and give his team a chance to win every outing. ( 10-7/3.02 ERA/1.24 WHIP)
MAX MUNCY-LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Even though he has cooled between the All-Star Game and now, Max Muncy helped the Dodgers get to where they are a top-tier type team fighting for the division championship in the National League West. Muncy has literally come out of nowhere to create a bit of a cult image for himself. In two seasons with Oakland in the American League, Muncy hit 3 and 2 home runs respectively in 2015 and 2016. This year he owned National League pitching for months and became an All-Star. Muncy, 28, is a left-handed hitter, but he will likely fight for playing time in the remainder of the season. Without question, Muncy energized his club in the first half and helped them become a clear threat to go all the way to the World Series. A career-best type season like the one Muncy is displaying is a feature of most well-balanced clubs. Somebody unexpected steps forward. In the first half, that was Muncy. He set the tone for what is to come. (.255/26/52)
J.T. REALMUTO-MIAMI MARLINS
Realmuto is one of the best stories of the season. He may be the best offensive catcher in baseball right now. That includes Gary Sanchez, who is now injured but has had a very difficult time at the plate. Realmuto is hitting in a lineup without much protection. Yet, the All-Star has produced incredible numbers at a position that is so physically demanding. He is hitting for batting average, smoking home runs, driving in runs and scoring runs at a career best pace. Realmuto has been the subject of many trade rumors, but there is talk the Marlins actually want to retain him with a contract extension. Given the depleted roster of the Miami team, Realmuto is a very valuable player for a franchise that doesn’t deserve his talent. There are guys that look bigger and stronger behind the plate, but the 6-1, 210 pounds Realmuto packs a terrific punch at the plate. (.293/15/58)
JESUS AGUILAR-MILWAUKEE BREWERS
To say Jesus Aguilar has made the most of the opportunity the Brewers have given him is a complete understatement. Cast aside by the Cleveland Indians because they had Carlos Santana at first base at the time, Aguilar is getting a chance to prove that he belongs in the big leagues. This season marks the first time he has really gotten a sustained opportunity to play. Even though the Brewers are loaded with guys that can play first base, he has appeared in 110 Brewers games as of this writing. A dangerous right-handed hitter with power, Aguilar has a strong 6-foot-3, 250 pound frame. Now in his prime in his age 28 season, Aguilar is proving that his outstanding All-Star and Home Run Derby season is not a fluke. I look for Aguilar to continue to make an impact with the Brewers as this year concludes and we look to the future. (.280/29/87)
BRANDON NIMMO-NEW YORK METS
On a team that is hopelessly lost, Nimmo is beginning to offer someone to believe in for the future. Just a bit. Failing to trade any of their star pitchers at the non-waiver trade deadline to bolster an aging and ineffective roster, the Mets can look to Nimmo as a player to build around. Nimmo is hitting in his career average area of .260ish, but he is getting playing time and improving with the repetition. He is hitting with some power and could easily end the season with 20 home runs. A very solid defender with good speed, Nimmo can play anywhere in the outfield and help a team that is desperate for a life-line to the future. (.265/15/39)
CESAR HERNANDEZ-PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
The Phillies are where they are today, fighting to win the National League east because they have a balanced attack without a lot of huge stars. They have collected a roster with quality players eager to prove they can play with anyone. For me, Cesar Hernandez energizes the top of the Phillies batting order. He has some legitimate pop in his bat and his speed on the bases is a true asset. He can set the table for players like Rhys Hoskins, Carlos Santana and others. The Phillies are where they are due to a balance of solid offensive and defensive play, as well as credible pitching that will just get better. I credit Hernandez with giving them a big boost as a switch-hitting, versatile player in their middle-infield. He would be in high demand if the Phillies looked to trade him, but I feel it would be a mistake and a huge loss. (.258/10/39)
COREY DICKERSON-PITTSBURGH PIRATES
In February this year, Corey Dickerson came to the Pirates from the Tampa Bay Rays in a deal for infielder Tristan Gray and pitcher Daniel Hudson. Frankly, I think the Pirates stole Dickerson. He has always been a bit under the radar, including his days playing for the Colorado Rockies. He missed some time this year with hamstring problems, but Dickerson is a very dangerous hitter atop the Pirates lineup. He staffs left field in an outfield that includes Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, one of the best offensive outfield groups in the game. It is no surprise the trio hit in the top three positions in the Pirates batting order. A left-handed hitter, Dickerson is a pure contact hitter with speed. He can hit for average, hit for power, drive in runs, score runs and steal bases. He’s perfect atop the batting order, using his selectivity at the plate and making excellent contact. He’s a major reason the Pirates are improving. (.303/11/46)
TRAVIS JANKOWSKI-SAN DIEGO PADRES
I think the Padres are totally missing the boat with Jankowski. He is their 4th outfielder, but I believe he should be starting in center field. They still feel Manuel Margot is the better player. Perhaps he is. However, I feel Jankowski, a left-handed hitter with outstanding speed can add a great deal to their lineup. He doesn’t have much power, but he is smart enough to accept a base on balls and use his speed to steal bases. He has 20 steals already this season. In 2016 he stole 30 bases in 42 attempts. Jankowski is the type of player that gets his uniform dirty. He can get on a roll stealing bases and scoring runs if given the opportunity. But the Padres have to discover the best way to deploy his skills. I think Jankowski remains a secret in baseball and his value is only increasing. He can do plenty of damage if he’s let loose to run on the bases. (.260/2/15/)
ANDREW SUAREZ-SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Starters Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Smardzija have all missed starts for the Giants this season. Cueto and Smardzija are both out now, with Cueto gone for the year. Bumgarner is back pitching. It is difficult to imagine where the Giants would be today without Andrew Suarez. He has supplemented the starting rotation by taking the ball with regularity and providing his team a chance to win. A smallish sized lefty by today’s standards at 6-0, 187 pounds, Suarez throws both his four-seam and two-seam (sinker) fastballs at 92 miles per hour, which is a tick under the league average of 93. He also throws a very good slider as his second best pitch, along with a changeup and a curveball. With that full repertoire, Suarez can change speeds, keep the hitters off balance and mix and match his pitches. He’s been a real innings eating savior for the Giants rotation. (4-8/4.40 ERA/1.30 WHIP)
HARRISON BADER-ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
After I saw a great deal of Bader in the Arizona Fall League I became convinced he would one day staff center field for the Cardinals. His time has come. He is doing a fine job patrolling the middle of the outfield with exceptional speed that many fans are unaware of. He can steal bases, and he can catch the barrel of the bat and smoke some doubles to the gaps. A right-handed hitter, I wonder if he wouldn’t have more success if he hit higher than his current 9th spot in the Cardinals lineup. I see him as a future leadoff hitter, setting the table for bigger guns like Marcell Ozuna, Jose Martinez and Matt Carpenter. While Carpenter gets much of the credit for the turnaround of the Cardinals under their new interim manager Mike Schildt, playing a young outfielder like Bader can only make the Cardinals better. Not a big guy at 6-0, 195 pounds, the fleet-footed Bader is still only 24 and he has a bright future in the middle of the revised and revamped Cardinals outfield. (.285/9/23)
ANTHONY RENDON-WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Other than the emergence of potential future superstar Juan Soto, this team has been disappointing, to say the least. While Soto has been just great and should probably be the subject of this article in this space, he hasn’t played a whole season. But I really struggled to find one guy that has stood out and made a tremendous difference so far with sustained play most of the year. I could just as easily have picked infielder Wilmer Difo or first baseman Mark Reynolds, both of whom have provided quality play coming off the bench for injured players. The Nationals are hanging around the National League East, a division most people felt they should win easily. Not so. Rendon has been steady. He has always battled health issues, but he is playing now and hitting well. I chose him for this article because he has been consistent and reliable. Unlike the uneven season of Bryce Harper offensively, Rendon has produced good numbers as he remains a very tough out in the middle of the Washington lineup. If the Nationals do enter the playoffs, and that is yet to be seen, I believe it is because their third baseman has provided quality leadership. (.294/16/59)
In my opinion, Jose Urena of the Miami Marlins should be suspended from baseball for at least 30 games. On Wednesday this past week, Urena hit Braves star outfielder Ronald Acuna in the elbow with a 97.5 miles an hour fastball. It looked very much like the pitch was intentional. And therein lies the rub. How does anyone know what was in the mind of the pitcher when he throws the ball? Never mind that Acuna was on a five-game home run streak, including three leadoff homers in a row. Urena had never thrown a pitch as fast on his first pitch this season. Proving intent is almost impossible. But Urena, and those who seek revenge for their club by throwing at a hitter must pay the price. It is not enough for a pitcher that throws at a hitter to miss only one start or a week if he is a reliever. Something must be done to stop the age-old baseball nonsense of retaliation. Give the hitter credit for beating your pitch. Move on. Pitch better yourself, but don’t intentionally try to hurt your opponent. It makes no sense. There is no longer room in baseball for a pitcher to throw at a hitter in retaliation. It has to stop and those pitchers have to pay a much more severe price.
Joey Votto has been playing hurt for the Reds. In their series this week against the Cleveland Indians, Votto could barely walk, let alone run. He should be shut down for the season and his knee should be given whatever treatment is necessary to get him up and running again in 2019. The Reds are going nowhere as a team this year. It is a perfect opportunity to get Votto back to health so he can come back and be the Votto we know and not the Votto we have seen recently who can no longer drive the ball with the full use of his lower body. He was finally put on the disabled list late in the week, but I think he should be allowed to finish the season trying to get healthy rather than risk further injury.
This week we saw James Paxton join Trevor Bauer as starting pitchers who will spend time on the disabled list after being hit by vicious line drives. Paxton was hit in his left arm, his throwing arm. He is scheduled to miss only one start, but who knows how he will respond when he returns? His injury adds to the pitching woes of the Mariners. But Erasmo Ramirez stepped up and pitched well, as did Mike Leake. With the team not being able to count on Felix Hernandez as they did for years, the Mariners are hunting able-bodied pitching arms.
The St. Louis Cardinals may make life miserable for National League Central teams heading down the stretch. St. Louis is on a roll under their new interim manager Mike Schildt. And yes, a manager can make a difference. The tone set in the clubhouse carries to the field.
I look for the Yankees to make every effort to pry lefty Patrick Corbin from the Diamondbacks during the offseason. A free agent at the end of the year, Corbin went to Cicero-North Syracuse High School in New York. Maybe returning to the state is in his plans. A quality lefty, Corbin may be the best pitcher available this offseason if Clayton Kershaw doesn’t exercise his escape clause with the Dodgers. Corbin has recovered after having Tommy John surgery a few years ago. An All-Star twice, Corbin is a perfect fit for the Yankees who could use him to help negate the short right-field porch. It remains to be seen if the Diamondbacks can afford to keep him. If he does leave Arizona, his loss will be major.
The loss of Kenley Jansen with an irregular heart beat is a major blow to the Dodgers. It is likely that Jansen will have surgery in the offseason. The Dodgerss are deep in pitching and have sent Kenta Maeda to the bullpen. Russ Stripling was set to join him in the pen, but he is now on the team’s 10-day disabled list with lower back inflammation.
The Oakland Athletics are giving the Houston Astros fits. It looks now like Oakland has a great shot at the Wild Card if they don’t beat out Houston in the American League West. Pitching issues are making it very tough for the Seattle Mariners, although they did get star Robbie Cano back from his suspension. Will his presence be enough to jolt the team past Oakland? Watch out for Oakland.
Bob Melvin may be the best overall manager in baseball. Melvin just doesn’t get the credit he deserves for deftly handling his roster, keeping his players fresh and motivated, and using his pitching staff properly. Among the many, many mistakes made by the Arizona Diamondbacks upper-management in recent years was dismissing Melvin as their manager. But I could write pages and pages regarding poor upper-management decisions by Arizona Brass. Melvin’s firing was among their Top 10 blunders. There have been many more.
Baseball is about to experience four of the brightest potential stars the game has seen. By next year, we may see Ronald Acuna (Braves) Juan Soto (Nationals) Eloy Jimenez (White Sox) and Vlad Guerrero Jr. (Blue Jays) torment their respective leagues. Each carries an impact bat and incredible gifts. That isn’t even to mention Fernando Tatis Jr. (Padres) Dante Bichette (Blue Jays) and Michael Kopech (White Sox). The second tier may not be as dynamic as Acuna, Soto, Jimenez and Guerrero Jr., but they are top of the chart type guys.
The arrivals of Guerrero Jr. and Jimenez will be to baseball what the arrivals of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper were as rookies. And frankly folks, I can’t wait.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff and we’ll converse about baseball together.