Last week in this space I detailed one National League player from each club that I labeled “go-to guys.” I detailed my selection of a player on each team that has impacted the team’s chances to win. In each case, the player was not a star. The player wasn’t grabbing huge headlines in the game in general or in his own market in particular. They were a list of guys that make things happen.
This week I will do the same for American League clubs. We all know the stars. We’re well aware of J.D. Martinez and Jose Altuve. We now even know Jose Ramirez who was once an under the radar player probably known best to Indians fans. This group includes important players that don’t get the hype. They don’t get the buzz. They don’t sizzle like Frankie Lindor or Andrew Benintendi. They don’t hit the rocket shots of Aaron Judge, Joey Gallo or Giancarlo Stanton. They guys are just good players.
Of course, many teams have more than one of these guys that make a difference. In some cases, I make tough choices between several team members. In other cases, I barely found any player that should make the list. It was a stretch for teams like Baltimore and Toronto, two teams I feel totally underachieved and threw in the towel early.
After each description I will include the player’s stats as of Friday, August 24. For hitters, I have included batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and runs batted in. For pitchers I have included wins-losses, earned run average and walks and hits per innings pitches (WHIP).
For me, the most important offensive stat is on-base percentage. Some of the players below don’t have good numbers, granted. But in my estimation, they were helpful to their team in ways that are not always reflected in statistics. Like I said above, it was tough to find a guy on some of these American League clubs, and that’s a shame.
MYCHAL GIVENS-BALTIMORE ORIOLES
This team is so bad and so lacking in quality players and pitchers that I reluctantly chose Mychal Givens as a player that has stepped up and helped out. A franchise that has been inept for a while and is watching their fan base disintegrate in front of their eyes has few, if any, impact players remaining. With players like Manny Machado, Kevin Gausman and Jonathan Schoop gone, the team is hopelessly searching for someone-anyone-to step up. To some extent, Givens has done that. He has given his team a competent closer, if they ever have games to close. Givens, a right-hander is 6-0 and 2110 pounds, but his fastball sits between 96 and 97 miles per hour. He also throws a slider and changeup in his repertoire. But it is his fourseam fastball that will carry him at the back end of the Orioles bullpen. At least for now. (0-6/4.60/1.40/4 saves)
BROCK HOLT-BOSTON RED SOX
This team is just loaded with guys that can hit and guys that can pitch. Stars come out every game, and they are visible during the day as well as when it gets dark. But when one of the stars is banged up or needs a breather, in comes Brock Holt. So far this year, Holt has played first base, second base, shortstop, left field, right field and he has been the team’s designated hitter. He’s not only versatile, he’s good. A quality major-league player, Holt might even be playing regularly on several major-league clubs. He may get lost among all the glamor players in Boston, but his teammates and Red Sox fans know Brock Holt. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t make a huge splash, but you know when he’s missing. A 9th round pick by the Pirates in the 2009 draft, Holt was traded to Boston along with pitcher Joel Hanrahan in 2012 for Ivan De Jesus, Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimental and Jerry Sands. Now 30, the left-handed hitting Holt is as close as a player can come to being indispensable on a first-place quality club.
JAMES SHIELDS-CHICAGO WHITE SOX
I can hear it now. “James Shields? Bernie, are you out of your mind”? No, I’m not. Very quietly and without any fanfare at all, James Shields has been a rock for the White Sox rotation. He is a solid mentor for young pitchers in the organization, showing them how to pitch and not just throw. Shields has been much maligned in recent years, but this season he has taken the ball and pitched on a club going nowhere. Some pitchers with his experience might have been screaming publicly to get them out of the losing situation and beg for a chance to pitch for a winner. It would be nice if the White Sox did move him in the next week to a team like the Brewers who might benefit from his presence in a pennant race. Shields is now throwing his fastball at 89 miles an hour, down from the 91 he was throwing in March 2017. It is much more about his cutter, his variable speed curveball and his changeup when he goes after hitters. His fastball is just another pitch. He dissects hitters by using all four quadrants of the plate and pitching to the hitter’s weaknesses. It comes from his experience. Shields goes deep in games and gives his team a chance to win during most of his outings. He may not win you a fantasy championship, but 36-year-old James Shields still has some fuel in his tank and he has helped bring some dignity to a mediocre (at best) White Sox rotation.
SHANE BIEBER-CLEVELAND INDIANS
The incredible, off the charts seasons of the Indians Big Three (Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley and Jose Ramirez) has been well documented. Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso have been doing their part as well. The rest of the Indians lineup has been mediocre, at best. The team has really been carried by five people. And a pitching staff that along with the Houston Astros can boast the best in baseball. Trevor Bauer, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have been beyond outstanding. Bauer is now out for eight to ten weeks with a broken bone in his foot. Shane Bieber has really stepped up. When Carrasco and Kluber were slowed with issues, Bieber was there to take the ball as the 5th starter in the rotation following a very credible Mike Clevinger. Bieber was a minor league pitcher until his debut May 31st against the Minnesota Twins. Pitching on his birthday, Bieber let it be known that he was there to stay. A 4th round pick in 2016, Bieber has flown through the Indians system by showing fantastic control and command of his 92 miles per hour fastball and secondary pitches that include a slider and a changeup. Bieber is with the Indians to stay, and he has helped lock down that 5th starter role that may have gone to the injured Danny Salazar had he been healthy or even to Mike Tomlin, had he been effective. (7-2/4.36/1.36)
JOSE IGLESIAS-DETROIT TIGERS
Jose Iglesias may be one of the most underrated shortstops in baseball. The game today is loaded with top-tier shortstops that include stars that are almost too numerous to mention. I’m afraid if I list them I will forget someone and offend their fans. But Iglesias isn’t spoken of in glowing terms by most analysts. Scouts and those who watch the Tigers daily realize what Tigers pitchers and their front office are well aware of about Iglesias. He is an outstanding defensive shortstop capable of making virtually impossible plays with his terrific range and strong arm. Iglesias has added potent gap-double type offense to his game, making him a crucial part of the Tigers makeover. However, should they wish to maximize his value for the sake of their transition, Jose Iglesias can fetch quality prospects from a club still looking to fill a void in the middle of the infield. Now 28, Iglesias came to the Tigers from Cuba. He is steady, reliable, and continues to play under the radar. (.266/301/13/41)
YULI GURRIEL-HOUSTON ASTROS
There are so many high profile players on the Houston Astros, Yuli Gurriel practically gets lost in the shuffle. On offense, a player like Alex Bregman has been making his presence known this year in addition to the usual household names like Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa. Well, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman and designated hitter Yuli Gurriel is doing his part to help the Astros win another Championship. A former star in Cuba, Gurriel is a right-handed, 34-year old contact hitter with power in his bat. He can hit for average as well as hitting home runs and doubles. His younger brother Lourdes Jr. is in the Blue Jays organization. While neither Yuli or Lourdes have star status stateside, both have the qualities to contribute to their respective teams. With Yuli, he offers a consistent bat and good defensive play to an Astros club that has fallen into some tough times due to a rash of injuries.
WHIT MERRIFIELD-KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Like other American League clubs that have fallen on hard times and are in roster transition, the Royals don’t boast many impact players anymore. Clearly, catcher Sal Perez is the heart and soul of the team. I consider him a star. I don’t, however, consider Whit Merrifield to be anywhere near star status. That said, he a very capable player with the ability to play first base, second base, third base, left field, center field and right field, all of which he has done for Kansas City. His value rests with his ability to steal bases with good speed and his solid hit tool. He has some double-digit home run pop in his bat, but he is more likely to be used for his good batting average, his skill in moving runners along and his nice contact rate. Merrifield has had some big games for the Royals, giving the team life at times when many could easily have declared them dead and forgotten. For a former 9th round pick, Merrifield has shown that if a player has talent, it doesn’t matter where he is drafted. Merrifield has talent and he keeps playing hard in the midst of a bad season in Kansas City. (.304/373/9/44/28 stolen bases)
ANDRELTON SIMMONS-LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The team of Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Justin Upton and Shohei Ohtani hasn’t lived up to their pre-season billing as a threat to the AL West Astros. Basically, Ohtani got hurt and has lost time on the mound. Trout is out with wrist inflammation. Zack Cozart, signed as a free agent from the Reds has had shoulder surgery. So bad luck has impacted the Angels. All that said, Andrelton Simmons remains a secret as perhaps one of the very best defensive shortstops in the game. And beyond his defense, since he arrived in Los Angeles, Simmons has improved his offense as well. He has some speed and can steal bases. He, too, missed some time this season, but he is a steady force in the middle of the infield and in the middle of the batting order. Simmons is from Curacao. He’s 6-2, 200 pounds and he’s a solid right-handed gap hitter. One position the Angels don’t have to tinker with is shortstop, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Andrelton Simmons, an unheralded player for 2018. (.295/.344/8/58)
KYLE GIBSON-MINNESOTA TWINS
The Minnesota Twins came into this season with high hopes of being credible in the American League Central and giving the Cleveland Indians a run for the top spot. Well, it didn’t happen. For openers, Byron Buxton couldn’t hit and he couldn’t stay healthy. He is now in Triple-A trying to find his way. Miguel Sano was so overweight and out of shape he was sent to the lower minor-leagues to reshape his shape. And hopefully, to get his swing back. Logan Morrison was signed to provide power from the first base position. He had as much pop as a 4th of July Cherry Bomb dud. He’s now hurt and out for the season. The net result is yet another American League club in disarray trying to find themselves. Given their desire to improve their pitching, they have revamped the delivery of Kyle Gibson, hoping to get better results. It worked. Yes, they have Jose Berrios, but he has been inconsistent. Gibson has been the guy to stabilize a shaky rotation. He is throwing his fastball at 93, but he is using his huge 6-6 inch body to throw his two-seam sinking fastball more downhill in a slower release. His second most frequently thrown pitch is his slider followed by a changeup and curveball. By improving the quality of his outings, Gibson has helped save the Twins from an even worse season. (7-10/3.63/1.29)
AARON HICKS-NEW YORK YANKEES
Like other teams with mega-stars, the Yankees can turn to a different high quality hitter from game to game. If it isn’t Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Judge (when healthy) maybe it’s Didi Gregorius (now injured as well), rookie Miguel Andujar or rookie Gleyber Torres. Or, maybe, just maybe it’s the under the radar Aaron Hicks. Yankees fans have to love what Hicks brings from both sides of the plate as a switch-hitter. Hicks has plenty of power. He’s a very solid defender in center field and he has enough speed to steal bases. A top-notch golfer, Hicks may have been good enough on the links to join the PGA tour. But he’s a baseball player now. A castoff the Twins gave up on when he didn’t hit early in his career, Hicks may be a flickering light in a galaxy of stars, but I think he has the type of ability to play solid baseball in center field for years with New York. (.245/.364/20/58)
JED LOWRIE-OAKLAND ATHLETICS
I had a tough time coming up with just one go-to guy on this club. I find them exciting to watch and I can’t help feeling good about their story. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson have solidified their corner infield for years to come. Kris Davis just continues to pound the ball out of the park without getting recognition. Trevor Cahill has provided a spark to their underwhelming pitching staff. But Jed Lowrie really does make things happen. People started taking notice of Jed Lowrie last year. This year he hasn’t missed a beat, either. At 6-0, he isn’t a big guy. But he has some real doubles power in his bat. He can hit the ball out of the park as well. Lowrie is a steady influence among younger players. A former 1st round pick of the Boston Red Sox in 2005, Lowrie is now in his 11th big league season. At the age of 34, it doesn’t seem he is slowing down. Lowrie is a run producer from second base and he compliments the offense very well. (.273/.356/20/79)
MITCH HANIGER-SEATTLE MARINERS
Mitch Haniger has not reached stardom. In my view, he’s close. But Haniger really isn’t very well known outside of Seattle, Arizona and maybe even Milwaukee. Haniger can play baseball. In a trade that was controversial at the time, the Arizona Diamondbacks sent Jean Segura (a true star) and Haniger to the Seattle Mariners along with pitcher Zac Curtis for infielder Ketel Marte and pitcher Taijuan Walker. Segura was coming off a fantastic season and Haniger had begun to hit. New general manager Mike Hazen realized his Dbacks needed a starting pitcher. That was to be Walker. However, Walker has had surgery, Marte has been acceptable and Segura and Haniger have been outstanding contributors to the Mariners. The Brewers drafted Haniger in the 1st round in 2009 and traded him to the Dbacks in 2014 for pitcher Anthony Banda, himself now injured. Most times, Haniger has a knack for providing a quality at-bat. He can find the gaps with the barrel and make solid, loud contact. He does strike out, but then again, who doesn’t? Haniger is quick on the bases and can provide a few stolen bases each year as well. A good defender, he plays a solid right field and is just a dependable baseball player capable of timely hitting and driving in runs. (.280/.367/21/82)
JOEY WENDLE-TAMPA BAY RAYS
Joey Wendle? Not many people have ever heard of Joey Wendle. He was a very steady player in the Indians farm system before they traded him to Oakland for Brandon Moss in 2014. At the time of the trade, I was upset the Indians had lost Wendle. I had him pegged as a “late bloomer” with a solid second base bat. Apparently, neither the Indians or Athletics agreed with my analysis. The A’s sent him to Tampa Bay for Player To Be Named Later Jonah Heim who has been pitching at Class-A Advanced and Double-A this year in Oakland’s farm system. That deal can now be called a steal for Tampa Bay. Wendle has blossomed. A scrappy second baseman, Wendle provides a spark in a Rays lineup that is now gaining in energy. He and third baseman Matt Duffy are two fun guys to watch play the game. They both get their uniform dirty from playing hard and being active on every play. Wendle is a complete player. He plays solid defense, has a bit of pop in his bat, can hit for average and he can steal a base now and then. He has really helped stabilize the lineup in Tampa, especially as a left-handed hitter against right-handed pitching. Now 28, Wendle is coming into his best years, and the Rays will be happy they have him. (.288/.338/7/45)
At age 36, Shin-Soo-Choo has provided superb ability from the leadoff position in the Rangers lineup. The guy just hasn’t slowed down and he’s a very tough out. This year he could even be considered as a Comeback Player of the Year (but he won’t be). He has raised his batting average an even 20 points from last season, and he is now one short in his home run total from 2017. He plays on a pretty bad club, but he and several other players on the offensive side of the ball have put up respectable numbers. It is the pitching that has landed the Rangers in their basement position. Choo is a strong left-handed hitter out of South Korea. He played for Seattle and Cleveland before landing in Texas. He isn’t running as much as he did in the past, but he is setting the table for the rest of the dangerous lineup to follow. Choo is a very good right-fielder with a strong and accurate arm. At one point, I thought Choo would be traded at the July non-waiver deadline due to his age. But the Rangers must realize he is a force to reckon with at the top of their order. He has an expensive contract and he won’t be a free agent until after the 2021 season, but he is the type of guy that should be able to help until his contract expires. (.281/292/21/60)
KEVIN PILLAR-TORONTO BLUE JAYS
In full disclosure, I must admit I had to look long and hard to find even one Blue Jays player I could say was a go-to guy for Toronto. This team was riddled with injuries and poor play from the first game of the season until today. They have underachieved and they haven’t fixed any of their offensive or pitching problems for the future. With Josh Donaldson hurt, it took the wind out of their sails. Pitching has been a bust as well. They have shipped several of their players to other teams in hopes the returns can help. We’ll see. Frankly, it should be the emergence of prospects Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Dante Bichette that rejuvenate the team. At least Pillar put up some offensive numbers, along with Kendrys Morales and even Justin Smoak. But none of them stirred the club to victory. At age 29, Pillar provided the same batting average this year as he has in the past. His home runs are down, and it isn’t likely he will catch up in the last half of the season. However, the numbers are relative, as Pillar was injured with a sternoclavicular joint sprain in mid-July and has far fewer at bats this year. Still a tremendous center fielder, Pillar risks his body making difficult catch attempts anywhere in his area code. That’s how he injured himself in Fenway Park last month. He didn’t return to the lineup until August 3 this year. If there is any Blue Jays player worthy of this list, for me, its Pillar. (255/.284/10/49/.706)
As I continue to evaluate baseball teams, I continue to see the futility in many of the clubs that have thrown in the towel and remain non-competitive. Baltimore, Kansas City and possibly San Diego could all lose 100 games this year. As I write this, the Orioles are only nine away, with the Royals ten. San Diego is a long-shot. They need 19 more losses. Not pretty. And frankly, I think the Orioles will be horrible for years to come.
The reverse of that finds the Boston Red Sox with 90 wins as of August 25. I was in Boston this past week to watch the Red Sox play the Indians. I can’t really find any fault with their club, especially if Chris Sale returns healthy by the postseason. The team is balanced on offense, plays solid defense, and has a good rotation (with Sale). I do have some concerns about the bullpen, but their starters can stick around long enough in games to negate any relief issues.
If I voted today, there would be a tie for American League Manager of the Year between the Red Sox Alex Cora and the Athletics Bob Melvin. Both are fantastic at their jobs. My National League Manager tie is between Torey Lovullo of the Diamondbacks and Bud Black of the Rockies. But interim manager Mike Shildt has done a tremendous job rejuvenating a once dead St. Louis Cardinals team. I don’t usually blame futility on a manager, but Mike Matheny was deadly for the Cardinals. They now have new life under Shildt.
I wonder if the Nationals have any regrets about letting Dusty Baker go?
When to throw in the towel and call it a season? Ah, that was the question facing the Washington Nationals. A little late, folks. You blew the non-waiver trade deadline and then, when waivers were required you sprung into action. Gone are Shawn Kelly (designated for assignment and then traded to Oakland) Daniel Murphy (traded to the Chicago Cubs) and Matt Adams (claimed off waivers by the St. Louis Cardinals). But Bryce Harper remains. Apparently he was claimed by the Los Angeles Dodgers and then pulled back off waivers.
Here’s my question for general manager Mike Rizzo? Wouldn’t it have been better to trade Murphy in the offseason when waivers aren’t required and perhaps get more for him than Andruw Monasterio? Maybe the Player To Be Named Later is solid. Maybe.
Can Oakland catch Houston? Another Maybe. But why not? When push comes to shove, it’ll be the pitching that makes a difference in the next five weeks. Why not Oakland? Oakland can’t pitch with the Astros. Starting August 27 the Astros play the Athletics three games at home. That will be the final three games between the two teams during the regular season. But why? Why could they beat the Astros? The Athletics have that “certain something” that propels contenders. They have a solid offense that can hit a pitcher’s mistakes. Any pitcher is capable of making a mistake. While I don’t think Oakland is a better club than Houston, I think they have a chance. But not much of a chance. Not against those Astros bats and those Astros starters. But they are playing so well now, the Athletics certainly have a chance.
The schedule for both teams down the stretch could make all the difference:
Oakland plays: at Houston (3) home against the Mariners (4) home against the Yankees (3) home against the Rangers (3) at Orioles (3) away at Tampa Bay (3) home against the Angels (3) home against the Twins (3) away against the Mariners (3) and away against the Angels (3)
Houston plays: home against the Athletics (3) home against the Angels (3) home against the Twins (3) away at the Red Sox (3) away at the Tigers (3) home against the Dbacks (3) home against the Mariners (3) home against the Angels (3) away against the Blue Jays (3) away against the Orioles (4).
Which schedule would you rather have? Who has the pitching? In the case of the Oakland A’s, I would fear the Astros and the Yankees the most.
In the case of the Astros, I would fear the Red Sox and the Diamondbacks the most.
Common foes are the Mariners, the Angels, the Twins and the Orioles.
Baseball history is loaded with cellar-dwelling clubs knocking the stuffing out of first-place clubs late in the season. Both the Astros and Athletics better beware of teams that are playing with nothing to lose. The only thing they have to gain is knocking off a top contender.
I think the Mariners would love to knock them both around and claim the AL west for themselves. I don’t think they can jump two teams in the time remaining. I think the West will be won by Houston or Oakland, and probably Houston.
Next week I’ll review what happened between Oakland and the Astros and look at the National League pennant races.
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