MLB 1-Day Warning: Season Preview Shootaround (the Horn)

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At long last, Opening Day has arrived! Unless you root for the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Padres, Astros, or Yankees (lordy, that’s a lot of unless-es; what are you doing, baseball?), your team will begin its quest for October glory on this very Monday. To mark the occasion, we’re gathering as a group to conclude our MLB Warning series, which throughout spring training has given you a daily reason to get excited about the sport’s return.

Today, Grantland’s baseball enthusiasts are here to tell you what’s on our minds as the 2014 season looms. Some of us are very excited. Some of us are very afraid. Some of us just want to drink beer or hang with our dads or watch a fluffy little bundle of joy run around with a fake hot dog bun wrapped around his bottom. And that’s OK, because baseball is the best, and baseball is back.

Click here to check out all of Grantland’s 2014 season preview coverage.

Rookie(s) of the Year

Ben Lindbergh: For most of baseball history, the aging curve for major league players looked like the “Plot Roller Coaster” from a workbook for future frustrated novelists.

Rollercoaster

The setup was the climb up the minor league ladder. The inciting incident was a phone call or conversation with a manager or GM: Congratulations, kid, we’re calling you up. The rising action took place over the player’s first few seasons, as he gradually adjusted to top competition. Then came the peak, followed by the long, slow descent into civilian life and weird endorsement deals.

Lately, though, the aging curve hasn’t looked like that. Recent research by FanGraphs’ Jeff Zimmerman indicates that over the last 15 years, players have increasingly tended to debut at their peak, plateau for a few years, and then begin their decline at the same age as always. Using wRC+, a measure of offensive production adjusted for era, league, and ballpark, Zimmerman showed that on the whole, hitters over the last eight years have arrived in the big leagues as fully formed products. (Pitchers, not pictured, have exhibited the same pattern.)

NewAgingCurve

How did players get so precocious? Better instruction and training techniques have made amateurs more prepared for the pros, but players aren’t making the majors more quickly. According to data from Baseball Prospectus, rookies, on average, are as old as they’ve ever been (save for a few years during World War II).

DebutAge

The likely explanation, then, is that advances in scouting and statistical analysis have made teams better able to tell when minor leaguers are prepared for a promotion. Clubs have also become more conscious of the importance of maximizing the value they get from a player’s first six years of service time, even if it means delaying his debut after he’s capable of contributing.

The new aging curve, coupled with stricter PED testing, has brought baseball’s distribution of talent back into balance. Historically, players ages 29 and under have produced about 65 percent of the Wins Above Replacement Player in a typical season. In the late 1990s, though, that figure fell to just more than 50 percent, as veterans produced deep into what once would have been their decline phase. Since the mid-aughts, over-30 players have again shown their age.

Under30WARP

The significance, for both you and your fantasy team, is that when a top prospect arrives, it’s safe to get excited. Not every young player makes an impact as early and outsize as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Jose Fernandez, but most rookies have already gotten their growing pains out of the way. Whichever youngster you’re looking forward to seeing this season — Xander Bogaerts, Billy Hamilton, Archie Bradley, Kolten Wong, Taijuan Walker, George Springer, Oscar Taveras — don’t temper your expectations, and don’t bother dreaming about what he’ll do down the road. Your favorite rookie might never be better than he is right now.

Speeding Up Our Hearts

Jonah Keri: Break out your Garbage Pail Kids, crank up some Duran Duran, and grab that 12-pack of New Coke: Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton is bringing back the ’80s.

Vegas has set the over/under on Hamilton stolen bases at 63.5. Only five players have swiped that many bags in a season in the past decade (including Jose Reyes, twice). If Hamilton can stay healthy and atop the Reds lineup all year, he’ll likely steal a bunch more than that. With his ludicrous speed, stealing 100 bases is a real possibility. And since no major leaguer has done that since Vince Coleman stole 109 in 1987, Hamilton might soon give us all acid-washed flashbacks.

It’s about damn time, too. As Coco Crisp explained a year ago, base stealing is a seductive art that combines tremendous instincts with acts of great cunning and courage. A well-executed stolen base can be a breathtakingly exciting event, and having a master thief like Hamilton on the scene will trigger a wave of anticipation throughout the stadium every time he reaches.

Hamilton could make a major analytical impact, too. Earl Weaver famously called stolen bases overrated and steal attempts a distraction from the worthy goal of three-run homers, but he was referring to the broader population’s stolen-base attempts, and how getting thrown out once every three tries negated the benefits of taking off. FanGraphs’ Base Running Runs stat, which measures the value a player generates with steals and general baserunning, rates Coleman as baseball’s most valuable single-season runner of the past century, with 15.7 Base Running Runs in 1986. Hamilton could match Coleman’s value. With his supernatural speed, Hamilton has ostensibly proven that he can’t be thrown out if he gets a good jump, and watching him go from first to third on a teammate’s single is a mesmerizing blur of an experience.

If Hamilton can get on base at an even semi-functional rate, he’s going to be a valuable player this year, even after accounting for his nearly nonexistent power. What’s more, he’ll be fun to watch. All of which will leave us hungry (like the wolf) for more.

Royal Blue Skies

Rany Jazayerli: I was 10 years old the last time the Royals made the playoffs. I turn 40 next year, and my oldest child is 11. It’s literally been more than a generation since the Royals have played a truly meaningful game. Their playoff-free streak is older than Lindsay Lohan, and eight years longer than every other American pro team’s.

Maybe that streak will continue another year. Probably. For the first time in I don’t know how long, though, fans don’t need to use a massive gambling scandal, aliens, or mind control to concoct a scenario in which it won’t. Coming off a perfectly respectable 86-win season (their most wins since 1989), the Royals sensibly addressed their two biggest holes, right field and second base, this offseason. They traded for Norichika Aoki and signed Omar Infante, both of whom should be substantial upgrades over the cavalcade of guys who played those positions last year.

When spring training began, the Royals still looked like a long shot to make the playoffs, but events over the last six weeks have even this jaded fan wondering if this year might be different. The big story out of Royals camp is that rookie Yordano Ventura is ready for his close-up; he’s got as good a chance as anyone of being the pitching phenom of 2014. Meanwhile, the three-time defending AL Central champion Tigers are reeling. Shortstop Jose Iglesias, the linchpin of their upgraded defense, may miss the entire season. Setup man Bruce Rondon had Tommy John surgery. Left fielder Andy Dirks will miss the first half after back surgery. Max Scherzer turned down the Tigers’ contract offer. Miguel Cabrera didn’t, signing an extension for eight years and however much is in the Federal Reserve.

Yes, the Tigers still have their superstars, and yes, the Indians or Twins or White Sox will probably take advantage if Detroit falters. When you’re a Royals fan, you know it’s always some other team’s turn. But maybe this year, it’ll finally be our turn. God knows we’ve waited long enough.

Fernandez & Friends

Michael Baumann: It’s a shame for Marlins fans that Major League Baseball doesn’t have a youth competition, because Miami would have a much better chance of winning that than the actual National League. The team has four exciting U25 outfielders and a 21-year-old ace in Jose Fernandez, and Fernandez could have as many as four effective young sidekicks by season’s end.

As embarrassing as it was when the Marlins offloaded the bulk of their major league talent in three separate 2012 trades, we’re now starting to see the upside. You might recognize Henderson Alvarez, 23, from his season-ending no-hitter last year. While his fastball sits in the mid-90s, he’s one of those hard throwers who gets ground balls instead of swings and misses. Jacob Turner, a former no. 9 overall draft pick, was the big get in the Anibal Sanchez trade. While too many walks against too few strikeouts might mean the 22-year-old no longer has true star potential, the Marlins merely need Turner to be a solid mid-rotation arm. Nathan Eovaldi, 24, is one of the hardest-throwing starters in baseball. That would make the kid Miami got for Hanley Ramirez exciting even if Eovaldi hadn’t been Miami’s best non-Fernandez starter last year. And then there’s Andrew Heaney, a 6-foot-2 lefty out of Oklahoma State who figures to debut this summer. Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks called Heaney, 22, the top left-handed pitching prospect in the minors.

Last year, Miami had four starting pitchers throw 100 or more innings with a league-average or better ERA at age 23 or younger, and that’s a big reason why I’m so bullish on this team. It’s widely accepted that the Marlins will be competitive in two or three years. With this much elite young talent, however, I think the Marlins will make the jump to .500, or close to it, this season.

A Castle for a Prince

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Bryan Curtis: On Thursday, Prince Fielder had his first at-bat at Globe Life Park. Yeah, that’s the new, “corporate” name of the stadium where the Rangers play. But let’s not be childish. After all, Fielder seems made for Could We Get Any More Generic Park. And if Fielder was going to take his first whacks at My God It’s An Oklahoma-Based Insurance Company Park, it was as good a reason as any to watch.

In his first at-bat, Fielder looked at three balls. He hit the fourth pitch extremely hard. The ball traveled 424 feet to right-center. It could be a sign. As baseball fans know, Was This a Rejected Name for Fareed Zakaria’s CNN Show? Park has a shallow right field.

Ice water: Fielder was playing in an exhibition game. The pitcher was a Mexican Leaguer whose entire major league career consisted of the month he spent with the Yankees. Many better baseball players will come to It Almost Sounds Like a Shakespeare Revival Company Park this season.

Still, that homer is just the thing we’ve been expecting since Fielder arrived in exchange for Ian Kinsler. Last year, all but two of Fielder’s home runs landed between center and right. Batting third in the Rangers lineup, ahead of Adrian Beltre, Fielder will be protectee rather than protector. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was excited for the ballpark,” Fielder said a while back. He was referring, of course, to Was Model United Nations Park Taken? Park.

So forget the injuries to Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar. We Rangers fans will be there Monday at For Chrissakes Even Another AT&T Would Have Been Better Park. We’re hoping that by then, Shin-Soo Choo has figured out left field.

Koji, Again

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Charles P. Pierce: What I’m looking forward to in this baseball season just a’dawning is another 40-odd opportunities to yell, “Konichiwa, motherfuckers!” with which I embarrassed myself a number of times last year in front of friends, family, and assorted strangers. This was my tribute — inspired by my late father, a Naval officer who spent a year as a port director in Niigata after World War II — to the endless series of brisk saves produced by the jolly and remorseless efficiency of Koji Uehara, who for my money was the MVP of your world champion Boston Red Sox.

(Insert snarkery about obnoxious Sox fans here. Thank you.)

My devotion to the Boston closer only deepened when we all discovered that (1) his son is adorable and (2) Koji is a blogger. My father’s lessons didn’t go far enough to enable me to read Koji’s blog, but that’s OK. Koji was such a huge part of the charm of last year’s team that my fondest wish for this season is that he doesn’t turn out to be a flash in the pan, that his deadly splitter cuts even harder, and that when it comes time for me to yell, there aren’t any small children in the room.

Scully, Still

Dan Fierman: This is a story about baseball and dads. You’ve been warned.

♦♦♦

My father grew up on Flatbush and the Brooklyn Dodgers. I know. Whose didn’t? But mine did. And he met a woman named Janet and fell in love and then after a bunch of moves and life changes and the kind of weird thunderbolts that have reoriented every plan ever (not to mention an unfortunate cockroach incident in a Harlem apartment), they left New York forever and settled in Boston. They had three kids, all of whom, to some degree, became Red Sox fans.

My father hated this. Hated, hated, hated it. The Red Sox were a living incarnation of the old Dodgers. Idiot losers. Guaranteed heartbreakers. A horrible disease he’d inadvertently passed along. Oh, sure, he dutifully took us to games, asked us how they did, was patient when box scores were scrutinized and Peter Gammons columns devoured. But he hated it.

His oldest son moved to New York as soon as he could. Worked in magazines. Met a girl. Got a job. Then another. Then another. The last job took him to L.A., where he moved with his growing family — two kids, a dog, a pretty decent set of All-Clad pans — and suddenly his son was coming of age as a Dodgers fan, which was OK and actually kind of great in that Grand Circle of Life kind of way.

♦♦♦

Last year my dad came to L.A. I bought tickets. I told him he had to go to Chavez Ravine — secretly the greatest park in the circuit, and I’ve been to most — and that his grandson’s love depended on it. He said yes. Guilt is powerful, especially in old Jewish families. So we bundled off to the stadium; it was my father’s first Dodgers game since 1958.

My kid lasted four innings. He’s 6 now, and was 5 at the time. A respectable showing. When we walked out, threading our way past palm trees and posters from the ’50s, I asked my son if he wanted to listen to the game on the way home. He said sure. I turned on the radio as we drove toward Sunset and out of the orbit of the stadium, Vin Scully’s voice guiding us along.

Suddenly my father started. The blood drained from his face.

“Is that … ?”

“Yeah.”

Still?

“Yeah.”

“My God. I haven’t heard that voice since the ’50s.”

He let out a long, low whistle and burst into a crazy smile as I guided the car home.

In Yadi We Trust

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Sarah Larimer: Shelby Miller said something perfect and wonderful about Yadier Molina this spring:

“It’s almost like he can look right into a hitter’s soul. And Yadier knows what to do with that. He stares at the hitter, and you can see him thinking. ‘What pitch can’t you hit right now.’ And if he calls the pitch, then you know that’s got to be the one. You throw it, and it works. He’s thinking the entire game. He’s aware of everything that’s going on.

“I would say he’s the smartest player in the game.”

I love this. Don’t you love it too, even a little? I know you guys aren’t super into the Cardinals right now — for a number of reasons — but let me have my thing today: Molina is astoundingly clever, and as a Cards fan, it’s a total delight.

Sometimes when I watch Miller or Joe Kelly or (best of all) Adam Wainwright work, I think about what it’s like for them to so completely trust the guy behind the plate. I mean, what a wonderful gift. St. Louis’s pitching staff is tremendous fun, and part of that fun is watching how, year after year, Molina works with the guys on the mound.

Seeing Molina talk a pitcher off the ledge or destroy a joker trying to steal second is always ace, but I also dig the chill moments, when the cameras catch Yadi without his mask, grinning, chatting with a batter, or surveying Busch from home plate. Even in those seconds, I can see him thinking; he’s got a catapult for an arm and an electric brain that’s forever spinning. He’s like the people who do the Sunday crossword in pen: confident and in control. He’s a whiz who just happens to work with a glove.

So, this is what I’m looking forward to this season: that forgettable game in mid-July, the one no one else cares about, when Molina looks into the soul of some poor sap coming up to bat and thinks, What pitch can’t you hit right now? Because the smartest player in the game never stops thinking. And how thrilling it is, to watch a great mind at work.

Shouldering the Load

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Spike Friedman: With Robinson Cano in teal, Brad Miller developing, and a mystery-box outfield that could be anything from above average to the league’s worst, there’s much to be excited and terrified about as the Mariners’ season begins. But there’s one exciting/terrifying story line that dwarfs the rest: Taijuan Walker.

Starting pitching prospect Walker has unlimited upside. He’s 21. He averaged nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings at every stop in the minor leagues. His repertoire consists of 97 mph heat, a more than workable changeup, and some serious bendy stuff. Just look at the swing and miss in the above GIF, from the eight-strikeout performance Walker put together while getting a cup of coffee last September.

Bendy!

Other than Felix Hernandez, Walker is the most complete pitching prospect the Mariners have developed in 20 years. That’s exciting, but it also portends heartbreak, because nothing portends heartbreak like an amazing pitching prospect.

The first major news out of Mariners camp this spring was about Walker’s shoulder. Any news about any pitcher’s shoulder aside from “[Said pitcher’s] shoulder is great, why are you asking about [said pitcher’s] shoulder?” is inherently terrible. He’s since been diagnosed with inflammation of the bursa sac and will start the year on the DL. While he’s expected to return in early May, this is the body part where any injury past tendinitis/inflammation can be career-threatening. The organization’s second-most prized prospect, Danny Hultzen, is out for the next year and a half following shoulder surgery. Former Mariners prospect Michael Pineda just missed two years with the Yankees due to shoulder surgery. There’s reason to be concerned.

So as the season starts, all I want is to see Walker pitch, and all I fear is that I won’t for a long time.

Empower Bauer

Matt Borcas: It breaks my heart to recount the details of Trevor Bauer’s seemingly interminable funk, which has recently included, among other things, a 10.29 ERA and 2.43 WHIP in four spring appearances, the top spot on Keith Law’s list of falling prospects, and a floundering rap career. Bauer, who was jettisoned to Cleveland just 18 months after the Diamondbacks selected him third overall in the 2011 MLB draft, has thoroughly underwhelmed since joining the Tribe, to the point where his chief goal for 2014 is to “enjoy pitching.”

Baseball is a game, and games are meant to be enjoyed, so I have no problem with Bauer going all Eat, Pray, Love this season, especially if it brings him inner peace and professional prosperity. Still, we’re talking about a dude who once had perennial Cy Young potential. Now, a mere big league call-up would be a triumph, and Terry Francona’s dreaded votes of confidence are starting to sound ominous; isn’t “it may not always be easy” what marriage counselors tell couples on the brink of divorce?

It’s true that channeling potential into real-life success isn’t always easy; however, it’s also not hard to see what’s hindering Bauer’s development: the tyrannical oppression of his myriad idiosyncrasies. Once a prodigiously gifted athlete has “fixed” his mechanics or warm-up routine enough times, he becomes a paler version of himself (just look at modern-day Tiger Woods). As such, I’d suggest that a healthier, more individualistic approach to Bauer’s development might be to embrace, and perhaps even expand upon, the very quirks that made his upside huge in the first place. I’m thinking a 24-hour long-toss program before each start, between-inning bullpen sessions to keep his deltoids warm, and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” performances on a near-daily basis to help him improve as a rapper, thus augmenting his self-confidence.

That’s all I’ll say for now, since the rest of my plan is proprietary and awaiting government approval. I have no doubt, however, that this will work better than the forced assimilation that’s caused Bauer nothing but ruin. Trevor, if you’re listening, you know whom to call.

My Presence, Their Presents

Corban Goble: When it comes to finding creative ways to combat pervasive local lack of interest, no MLB franchise does it better than Tampa Bay. And since that whole “winning baseball games” thing doesn’t always draw fans to the Trop, the Rays also have a totally bat-shit promotional schedule.

Here are some of the items you can cop if you attend a Rays home games this year: David Price dog tags, which feature his talented French bulldog, Astro (5/25); a toy basketball set featuring Yunel Escobar’s likeness miming a shot motion while wearing his glove (7/13); a James Loney grill set (6/8); a Mr. Potato Head designed to look like Joe Maddon (8/2); a Chris Archer Christmas stocking (7/27); a Don Zimmer snow globe (7/25); and this absolutely terrifying DJ Kitty stocking cap (5/10).

Also, if you bought tickets to Coachella, throw those on Craigslist and hit the Trop instead, because this year’s postgame concert lineup is off the chain. Weezer, Joan Jett, the O’Jays, and the Wiggles? A little Weez in the Trop? I’m sold.

In short: If you’re looking for me this summer, you’ll be able to find me at the Trop, strategically sitting in the section with the best odds of receiving the payload from the hot dog gun.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

Josh Wimmer: I’m not a “baseball guy.” It never occurs to me to go to a baseball game unless somebody else takes me. But I’m always up for it. I mean: Going to a baseball game means getting to sit outside, uninterrupted, for three hours. Junk food is socially acceptable. There are beers! Granted, they’re probably shitty, but even shitty beer tastes ideal — like, Platonically ideal — when a live baseball game is unfolding under the summer sun.

I like being at baseball games because there’s no pressure. It’s not like football or basketball, where you have to pay constant attention, or soccer, where you’re perpetually confused even though nothing seems to be happening. Baseball functions neatly as either foreground or background. When the game gets intermittently boring (in my experience, most of them do), you can talk to your friends and neighbors. They’re all in a good mood, because like you, they’re all outside, in the sun, eating junk food and drinking shitty beers. Look around, and you know who you’ll see enjoying themselves at any respectable baseball game? Very old men. And babies. And nearly everyone in between.

There’s a scheduled stretch. And you get to do the wave! All the little rituals. But the very best part of baseball is: This slow, old-fashioned pastime is not merely sanctioned within our ceaselessly on-the-go society … it’s also one of the most American things we can do. (Especially if we drive there and spend too much money.) I love it. I sure hope somebody takes me to a baseball game this year.

Man’s Best Friend

Mallory Rubin: Choosing one element to highlight is exceedingly difficult when you’re as excited about the 2014 baseball season as I am. I could have written about the Orioles, but I’ve already done that (more than once), and I’d like to make it until at least May before Grantland readers start calling me a shameless homer.

I could have written about how convincing 11 of my coworkers to join me in a daily head-to-head fantasy baseball league felt like the crowning achievement of my life, but you guys might think that spoke more to the quality of my life achievements than to the level of enthusiasm surrounding fantasy baseball in this office, so I opted against it.

I wanted to write about Super Sophomores like Wil Myers and Jose Fernandez, but I’m starting to worry that those guys may take out restraining orders against Grantland’s collective gushing coverage.

I could have written about the Nats, but if I use every Bryce Harper GIF before Washington actually plays a game, I’ll never forgive myself.

I almost wrote about the shiny silver lining in the dark injury cloud, because as big of a bummer as it is to lose guys like Clayton Kershaw and Yu Darvish at the beginning of the season, it does afford the opportunity for overshadowed but also excellent aces like Chris Sale to steal center stage. But anytime you equate one man’s misfortune with another man’s gain, you kind of sound like a dick.

So I decided to write about Hank. Because with Hank, there’s no “but.” There is a butt, however, and as you can see in the above GIF, it’s covered in the most adorable hot-dog-and-bun costume in the history of humanity. If you don’t know about Hank, here’s the very quick version of what will probably one day be a Hollywood story: Hank is a stray dog who walked into the Brewers facility one day. The team, which deduced he’d been hit by a car, instantly adopted him, and his legend spread like wildfire. He’s officially on the roster. He’s got his own shirsey. He’s going to have a bobblehead.

In short, as Opening Day commences and 30 teams and fan bases dream of what’s to come, Hank is the perfect symbol for the love and goodwill and hope we’re all feeling. He’s ready. Are you?

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Warning, MLB Preview, MLB Shootaround, MLB Predictions, Ben Lindbergh, Jonah Keri, Rany Jazayerli, Michael Baumann, Bryan Curtis, Charles P. Pierce, Dan Fierman, Sarah Larimer, Spike Friedman, Matt Borcas, Corban Goble, Josh Wimmer, Mallory Rubin