Before I begin my article for this week, I want to share something that has really made me think.
Like many chronologically advanced individuals, I have a cardiologist. Today at my annual visit, my wonderful heart doctor talked to me about his 9 year-old son. The doctor knows my background in baseball and how much I love the game. He wanted to share that his 9-year old is a pitcher on a little league team in Scottsdale.
The doctor then went on to show me a list of about 40 metrics that are made available on their cell phones to his son and the little league team members and their families. Every metric that is used in major league baseball was displayed for every player on the team. Metrics. The kid is nine.
May I state again that his son is nine years old. Metrics? I thought it was a joke. Nope. He showed it to me. Right there on dad’s phone.
The doctor was as amazed as me that they have those statistics for his child. He also told me that the team has a pitching coach and a hitting coach. I asked him to repeat that. Yes, his son’s little league team has a pitching coach and a hitting coach. In fact, the pitching coach was a major league pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. Apparently, this former big league pitcher has a son on the team.
Was I seeing and hearing things? I loved baseball at nine years old. But my little league team didn’t have a metrics chart. Or a pitching coach. We had a dad that was our coach. He hit ground balls to us in batting practice. He made sure every kid played in every game. His son was on the team. But metrics? Position coaches?
Isn’t the point of little league at age nine for a kid to have fun? Get some fresh air. Exercise. Learn baseball fundamentals? But stewing over sophisticated metrics?
I asked my cardiologist not to tell me any more or I would have a heart attack right there in his office.
We’re done with about 27 games for almost every team in baseball. Several players have caught my attention.
CLINT FRAZIER-New York Yankees
Yankees outfielder Clint Frazier was a first round draft pick (5th overall in 2013) outfield prospect for the Cleveland Indians when he was traded by Cleveland to the New York Yankees on July 31, 2016.
He, along with pitchers J.P. Feyereisen, Ben Heller and Justus Sheffield were dispatched to New York at the trade deadline for reliever Andrew Miller. It was a trade that made a dynamic impact for the Indians, as Miller was a major component of their competitive Central Division championships.
When I first met Frazier in the 2015 Arizona Fall League he almost broke my hand when we shook hands before I interviewed him. Frazier has incredibly strong hands. And at the time of his selection by the Indians, his bat speed was “off the charts” fast.
Fighting injuries since arriving with the Yankees, Frazier really hadn’t shown many dividends for his new team. Until now. He didn’t hit badly when he got chances with the parent club in 2017 and 2018, but he couldn’t break into a very deep and solid Yankees outfield and he couldn’t always stay healthy.
Things have changed for Frazier. His Triple-A hitting coach, Phil Plantier made a suggestion this past spring that may have changed Frazier’s entire approach at the plate. He suggested that Frazier pull his hands back. It was a simple suggestion. In his first game after Frazier tried the suggestion, Frazier went five for five. The rest is history, as he brought his new approach to the parent team when he was promoted. He is hitting like the Indians had hoped he would when they drafted him.
At a time when the Yankees are reeling from so many injuries to starting players, it is difficult to understand how they remain competitive. Frazier stepped up. Big time. He was hitting with power and driving in runs. Until. Until he got hurt again.
After his hot beginning, he is dealing with a bit of a sore ankle after a slide in a game early in the week. He says he’s fine. And the Yankees really need him. He must not be fine, as he went on the IL April 25. The hot start has to wait.
It remains to be seen if pulling his hands back will continue to pay dividends for the Yankees and Frazier. But for now, the story of Clint Frazier “pulling his hands back” has certainly helped to keep the Yankees afloat.
CHRISTIAN WALKER-Arizona Diamondbacks
Sometimes it takes a teammate getting injured to give a player a chance. That’s the case with Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker.
Walker was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in the 4th round of the 2012 draft.
As spring training moved along this year, it was evident Walker would hit on the short side (against left-handed pitching) in a first base platoon with left-handed hitting Jake Lamb. With Paul Goldschmidt traded to St. Louis, Lamb was moved to first base as Goldy’s primary replacement. Lamb played 15 games before he was injured with a quad strain.
The injury has allowed Walker to assume most of the playing time at first base. Walker has hit with power and he has driven in runs. He has done everything asked of him as a replacement player.
Walker was first promoted by the Orioles in 2014. When I scouted Walker, I felt he had power that could develop over time and with patience. I felt he was a bit anxious at the plate, but repetition could help bring out his strength. In 2014 he played in only 19 games. It didn’t get much better after that. He played in 12 games in 2015 for Baltimore.
The Atlanta Braves selected Walker off waivers in February 2017. Waived again, he was chosen by the Reds off waivers in March of the same year. The Reds designated him for assignment in late March. You get the picture. Sign him and waive him. Right after a team would sign him, Walker would become an unwanted player. Then the Diamondbacks signed him late last March. He is now getting a chance to play. Finally, at age 28 Walker is getting a chance to show that indeed, he belongs.
What happens when Jake Lamb returns? Because Lamb scuffles against left-handed pitching, it wouldn’t surprise if Arizona traded Lamb. It would seem they really like what they have seen this year from Christian Walker.
Sometimes a guy just needs a chance to play. And that’s what is fianlly happening to Christian Walker.
PAUL DeJONG-St. Louis Cardinals
Now 25 and still not in his prime baseball years, Paul DeJong is almost a hidden secret in baseball. I don’t hear or read much about the Cardinals 4th round 2015 draft pick out of Illinois State University. But he’s been making some noise with his bat.
Not a big guy at 6 feet, 200 pounds, DeJong is a right-handed hitting shortstop with power. In his first two years with the Cardinals he hit 25 and 19 home runs, respectively. This year he is still hitting homers, but he’s become a doubles machine. He is hitting both for average and for power in the middle of the Cardinals lineup. His production is outstanding, but for a shortstop, his hitting and power are really special.
It isn’t always the most expensive players that are the best at their position. As a matter of fact, DeJong is playing for a salary of $1.6MM. Only in his third full season, DeJong is proving to be an excellent defensive shortstop in addition to being an offensive leader. And that’s pretty amazing for a guy that “walked on” to his Illinois State Redbirds baseball team.
The Pirates selected DeJong as a catcher in the June 2014 draft. He chose not to sign. He returned to ISU and played shortstop, second base, third base and catcher. In fact, when he went to the Cardinals in the draft, he was a player without a true position. The Cardinals took a chance on him, and he has payed tremendous dividends in the middle of the infield.
DeJong graduated with a degree in biochemistry with a pre-med emphasis. Not too shabby.
Scouts and talent evaluators have always been conflicted about DeJong. Can he play major league quality defense? Can he make enough contact at the plate? Well, based upon what we have seen so far, those questions can be put on the back burner. It appears that DeJong can play solid defense. It appears DeJong is making enough solid contact in today’s hitting environment to dispel all the concerns. Yes, he strikes out. But he also hits the gaps and drives the ball over the fence. I think the Cardinals will take the trade of strikeouts for the doubles and home runs.
JORGE POLANCO-Minnesota Twins
I have long been intrigued by the overall game of Jorge Polanco. I guess I just really like watching shortstops play the game. Polanco, like Paul DeJong, is still under the radar in my opinion.
Polanco will not turn 26 until July. He was an international acquisition by the Twins from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic.
Polanco made enough of an impression with the Twins brass that he was promoted to the major league club at the age of 20. He only played in five games and hit .333, showing his front office that he meant business as a player. In 2014 he returned at age 21, but he played in only 12 games, hitting .300.
He got more playing time in 2016 and became a regular with Minnesota in 2017.
Polanco has always been an excellent switch-hitting contact hitter. He isn’t big at all at 5-11, 200 pounds, but when he barrels the ball he can hit the gaps and get a good share of doubles. He has above average speed and excellent baseball instincts.
The Twins seem convinced that Polanco will retain his current hitting prowess and ability to make things happen in their improving lineup. They signed Polanco to a contract extension that goes through 2023 with a club options for 2024 and 2025.
The confidence the Twins have shown in Polanco is even more impressive when one considers that Polanco was suspended for 80 games at the beginning of the 2018 season when he tested positive for a banned substance.
An average defender, many scouts who saw him felt Polanco was best suited to play second base. I remember that was my first impression. I felt he didn’t have the range to play short. It will be interesting to see what happens when Twins hot shortstop prospect Royce Lewis graduates to Major League Baseball. That may be the time Polanco moves either to second base or left field.
For me, Polanco is one of the interesting guys in the game to this point of the season. A clutch hitter, it seems he really thrives with men on base. I’ll take that any time on my fantasy teams. However, I miss out on him every time. Maybe next year.
JEFF McNEIL-New York Mets
Having turned 27 April 7, Jeff McNeil is finally getting a true chance to play. Last year, he appeared in 63 games for the Mets, hitting .329 in 248 plate appearances. He didn’t make his major league debut until July 24, 2018 against the San Diego Padres.
A 12th round draft pick of the Mets in 2013 out of California State University at Long Beach, McNeil spent parts of six seasons playing in the Mets minor league system. He compiled a very fine .311 batting average in his 1842 plate appearances.
McNeil is a very versatile player. Since signing with New York, he has played second base, shortstop, third base, left field, center field and first base. So far in this season alone, McNeil has spent playing time at second, third, and in left. His versatility and his potent bat make him a very valuable guy to have on a team.
A left-handed hitter, it doesn’t seem to matter which hand the pitcher uses. He can hit both lefties and righties proficiently. In his short big league career experience, McNeil is hitting .342 against right-handed pitching and .329 against left-handed pitching. His bat allows him to be a dependable every day player, regardless of who is on the mound.
McNeil isn’t a power hitter, but he can hit home runs. He does, however, put the bat on the ball with a simple and uncomplicated approach at the plate. He can take the ball to all parts of the field as a disciplined contact hitter. He isn’t flashy. He’s just a good hitter. His defense is average and he gets the job done without flash as an average major league defender.
A good athlete, McNeil played baseball, basketball and golf in high school in California. In fact, he was targeting a golf career and appeared in the 2009 United States Junior America Golf Championship. He didn’t do that well and shifted his attention to baseball in his senior year in high school.
Perhaps it was because he was only a 12th round draft pick that the Mets didn’t call upon him for their major league club until 2018 when he was already 26. That happens. Sometimes mid to lower round draft picks have to prove themselves for a longer period of time in Minor League Baseball. However, McNeil has shown he is a valuable major league contributor on a team that is improving. It looks like his bat will be part of the Mets lineup for the foreseeable future. And that’s as it should be.
AUSITN MEADOWS-Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays and Austin Meadows received a wonderful gift on July 31, 2018. That was the date the Pittsburgh Pirates traded Meadows, pitcher Tyler Glasnow and former 2017 1st round draft pick Shane Baz to the Tampa Bay Rays for pitcher Chris Archer. Actually, Baz was named as part of the trade on August 14 to complete the trade. The addition of Baz just made the trade even more lopsided in favor of the Rays. It was an incredible package to receive for Archer.
Pirates fans have every reason to be upset about this deal. Glasnow was a very highly rated pitcher who wasn’t quite living up to what was expected of him in Pittsburgh. Meadows was a former 1st round, untested 2013 draft pick. Meadows was the 9th player taken overall that year out of Grayson High School. Baz was a fresh rookie pitcher who still has to prove he was worth a No. 1 pick. But really? Three very promising players for Archer?
In 2018, at the age of 23, Meadows made his major league debut for Pittsburgh against the San Diego Padres. He played in 59 games, getting 191 trips to the plate. He hit a very respectable .287 with six homers and 17 RBI.
How do you trade a 23-year old former 1st round draft pick who had a fine debut in a third of a season? And throw in a quality right-handed starting pitcher for Archer? And another 1st rounder? If I’m the Rays I make that deal in an instant. Chris Archer is a good pitcher. He has won as many as 12 games once. In 2016. He is reliable. He will take the ball every fifth day. He is in his age 30 season. Glasnow is 25 and replaces Archer in the Rays rotation. Shane Baz is only 19 and is pitching in the Appalachian Rookie League. He’s a few years away from pitching at the big league level. He was, however, the Pirates 1st round draft pick in 2017 (12th overall). Right, I said that above. But it just shocked me at the time and it shocks me even more now.
After watching him in spring training this past March in Florida, I pegged Meadows as a “breakout” player for 2019. I thought he would be fantasy gold. Well, the left-handed hitting, 6-3, 220 pound outfielder began the season as predicted. A thumb sprain sent Meadows to the Injured List (IR) April 21. It doesn’t appear to be too serious and he is expected back when his IL time expires.
Meadows comes from an athletic family. His mom played softball for Georgia Southern and Georgia State University. His dad played baseball and football for Morehead State University. His brother Parker plays baseball in the Tigers organization.
Meadows had committed to attend Clemson University but decided to sign with the Pirates when he was drafted out of Grayson High School in Loganville, Georgia.
In 2016 Meadows suffered a broken orbital bone in his eye. He also has missed minor league playing time with hamstring and oblique injuries. His overall performance in the Pirates development system was seen as inconsistent. Some analysts felt he should be more advanced than he had shown for a 1st round player. However, he finished parts of six minor league seasons with a very fine .294 batting average. Now, he is poised to show the Pirates they made a mistake in trading him.
CHRIS PADDACK-San Diego Padres
One of the best stories of the spring so far is the emergence in the Padres starting rotation of right-hander Chris Paddack
Paddack, a 6-4, 195 pound, 23-year old rookie out of Cedar Park High School in Cedar Park, Texas was an 8th round, 2015 draft pick for the Padres. To see him pitch in the big leagues after throwing only 177.2 innings in parts of three minor league seasons is a bit surprising. But Paddack earned his spot in the rotation and he is proving the Padres front office to be correct in their evaluation of his skill, his maturity and his ability to win.
Paddack has used a fastball that can top out at 98 miles per hour and a devastating changeup and a quality curve to keep hitters off balance and change their eye levels so far this season. In spring training it was obvious to me that Paddack had what was needed to break camp in the rotation. He did. And he’s been pitching extremely well so far.
Paddack made the parent club after appearing in 37 games and starting 33 of them in the Padres minor league system. He finished his development with a sparkling 1.82 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. With those numbers and with his mound demeanor it would be difficult to say he wasn’t ready for prime time.
He has carried his outstanding skill to the major league level. In his first four starts he compiled a record of 0-1 with a 2.25 ERA and .080 WHIP, proving his minor league numbers were not a fluke.
Paddack was scheduled to play baseball for Texas A&M, but the Miami Marlins drafted him in the 8th round in 2015 and he signed with them. The Marlins traded Paddack to the San Diego Padres in June of 2016 for Fernando Rodney. The rest is becoming history. Credit the Padres scouting staff for uncovering a very solid major league quality arm in Paddack.
Maybe the Marlins knew something they didn’t want to deal with when they traded Paddack to the Padres. Paddack was diagnosed with a torn UCL a month after the trade, in July, 2016. He had Tommy John surgery that August. Now three years later, in 2019, Paddack is a quality starting pitcher in the San Diego rotation.
BRAD KELLER-Kansas City Royals
When I saw Brad Keller pitch again in spring training for the Royals, I targeted him for my AL Only fantasy team. Thankfully, I won that bidding. I really think Keller is on his way to being a very good pitcher on a club that will give him the ball every fifth day.
At 6-5, 230 pounds, Keller could be a poster player for today’s prototypical pitcher. He has the type of physical frame many teams covet in their pitchers.
The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted Keller in the 8th round of the 2013 draft out of Flowery Branch High School in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Arizona failed to protect Keller for their 40-man roster and he was claimed (drafted) by the Royals with the fifth pick. Arizona failing to sign him to the 40-man roster allowed the Royals to strike quickly when their time came in the draft. Prior scouting reports came to life. How often does a team get to give a big, strapping guy like Keller a chance? They got their man. Scout Mitch Webster and other Royals scouts have earned their money with their evaluations of him, as I explain below. He can become a really good pitcher. And one that got away from Arizona.
The fact that Keller did not pitch well in Minor League Baseball may have everything to do with why the Diamondbacks chose to move away from him. However, in 2017 scout Mitch Webster, a former player himself, saw Keller pitch in a five-inning performance for the Jackson Generals. He threw 71 pitches in five innings. Webster liked what he saw. But he wasn’t the only scout who liked Keller.
When he was still in high school, Royals scout Scott Gaffney was an assistant coach at Flowery Branch High School, where Keller was a pitcher. Gaffney liked Keller and notified Royals area scout Sean Gibbs. At draft time, the Royals didn’t have the financial room in their draft spending budget to grab Keller early. They had hoped he would slip to them, but the Dbacks took Keller in the 8th round.
Webster saw Keller pitch after Arizona had selected him. Mike Hazen and his Arizona staff didn’t think they had the room on their 40-man roster to keep Keller. At the time he wasn’t fooling many minor league hitters and he was deemed expendable by Hazen and his staff.
Keller throws four pitches in his repertoire. He has a four-seam fastball that sits at 93-95 miles per hour, a two-seam sinking fastball at a tad less in velocity, a changeup and a slider. Keller has good command and can use any pitch at any point in the count. He mixes and matches mostly between and among his four-seam, his two-seamer and his slider. The changeup is the pitch he uses least often.
Keller was suspended for five games due to a brawl with the Chicago White Sox when White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson hit a home run off him. Anderson flipped his bat. When Anderson came to the plate the next time, Keller hit him with the first pitch in the sequence. Benches cleared. Keller said it wasn’t an intentional pitch. He said he was trying to go inside but he didn’t have great command. His suspension and a one-game suspension for Anderson followed the incident.
On a young and transitioning team like Kansas City, Keller has a chance to be the No. 1 starter. He isn’t quite an ace, but he is a solid and dependable right-hander with a toughness to carry the day.
MAX FRIED-Atlanta Braves
I have watched lefty starter Max Fried’s career since the San Diego Padres made him their 1st round draft pick in 2012. He was signed out of Harvard-Westlake High School in Los Angeles, California. He was the 7th player taken overall in the draft.
Even though Fried had committed to attend UCLA, he chose to sign with the Padres.
Fried has his career abruptly interrupted by requiring Tommy John surgery in August 2014.
In December that same year, while in recovery from surgery, the Padres traded Fried to the Atlanta Braves. He was sent to Atlanta along with Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson and Mallex Smith for Aaron Northcraft and Justin Upton.
Now 23, Fried is getting a chance to pitch regularly for Atlanta. He had spot appearances in 2017 and 2018, but this year he is a legitimate member of the Braves rotation. So far, he is having great success.
What I like about Fried is the amount of movement he gets on his breaking balls and the velocity differences between his fastball and breaking balls. He keeps hitters way off balance and changes the eye level of the hitter on almost every pitch. Even though he is young and doesn’t have a great deal of major league experience, Max Fried knows how to pitch and he knows how to sequence his pitches.
I think Max Fried has the potential to be an All-Star. Perhaps not in 2019, but soon enough.
Fried throws a four-seam fastball that sits at 94. He doesn’t throw a sinker, but he does have a changeup at 85 miles per hour, a wicked slider at 81 and a devastating curve at 75 miles per hour. Mixing and matching between those pitches keeps the hitter guessing.
For Fried, everything seems to work off the fastball. His fastball/curveball combination can easily set the hitter up for either the slider or changeup “out” pitch.
At 6-4, 190 pounds, left-handed Max Fried is the word, a name and a pitcher to remember. Hopefully, his elbow issues are long behind him and he can now thrive on a team with an offense that should score enough runs to keep him in the win column for years to come.
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