Incredible week for baseball. A.J. Pollock flew through the air to make a ludicrous catch. Aaron Hicks made an impossible throw to gun down Vernon Wells going for third. Carly Rae Jepsen unleashed the worst ceremonial first pitch of all time. And Tim Lincecum threw a 148-pitch no-hitter.
Meanwhile, Robinson Cano remained … unimpressed.
It’s Week 15 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
12. CLEVELAND INDIANS
There have been rumors of an Asdrubal Cabrera trade for young pitching. But while the Indians could certainly use quality young pitchers, and their shortstop has seen his production dwindle since his 2011 breakout,1 that kind of deal’s probably not happening between now and July 31. That’s not the kind of deal a contender’s likely to make — and the Indians are now contenders.
In sweeping the Royals over the weekend, the Indians improved to seven games over .500. They sit just a game and a half behind the first-place Tigers in the AL Central, three behind in the race for the second wild-card spot. They’ve won 21 of their past 32 games, getting typically strong performances from their top-10 offense. But their pitching has started to improve, too, with just 18 runs allowed over their past seven games. In his first full year as a member of a big league starting rotation, Corey Kluber has struck out a batter an inning and posted a 3.41 FIP, with 18 strikeouts and just two runs allowed over his past two starts and 14 innings pitched. Ubaldo Jimenez was terrible last year and started slowly this season, too; he then threw five-plus innings and allowed three earned runs or fewer in six straight starts (before lasting just four innings on Sunday).2 Scott Kazmir threw a total of 1⅔ innings in the big leagues between the 2011 and 2012 seasons; he has come on strong lately, striking out 25 batters, walking just seven, and yielding an opponents’ OPS of just .529 over his past five starts and 31 innings. Then there was Danny Salazar. On Thursday, the 23-year-old right-hander became one of three rookies to flirt with a no-hitter in his first major league start, all in the same week. His reward? A trip back to the minors, since the Tribe won’t need a fifth starter again until July 23. And that’s not counting staff ace Justin Masterson, or the highly capable Zach McAllister, who is rehabbing and is expected back before the end of July.
With Cleveland’s starting pitching looking better and deeper than it has in five years, and the Tribe eyeing their first playoff appearance in six, the rumor mill has them going after yet another starter. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the Indians could be in on the bidding for the Cubs’ Matt Garza. The Tribe could pursue help elsewhere, too, including for a bullpen that’s been one of baseball’s worst, with few remotely reliable options other than Cody Allen.
Whatever the Indians decide to do, the bet is that they do something as they chase the postseason. For one of baseball’s longest-suffering franchises, that in itself is progress.
21. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Two World Series, a perfect game, countless big games and huge moments. Giants fans are so used to joyrides, it’s tough to find an event that truly stands out. Saturday night was one of those events.
Four years ago, when Tim Lincecum was in the midst of a two-season run in which he was the best pitcher on the planet, seeing him throwing a no-hitter would have been plenty exciting. But the Lincecum of 2013 is most definitely not the Lincecum of 2008 and 2009. Through his first 16 starts this year, Lincecum did what he has done throughout his career, even during the bad times, striking out plenty of batters (about one an inning through the end of June). But the same command issues that plagued him last year have struck again in 2013; Lincecum walked 41 batters in his first 95 innings pitched and also caught too much of the plate far too often, giving up four runs or more in nine of 16 starts. On Saturday, Lincecum carved through the Padres lineup, striking out 13 (including six in a row), tossing 148 pitches … and firing the first no-hitter of his illustrious, but now somewhat diminished, career.
The Giants would be in worse shape this year than last even if Lincecum were performing the way he did in his prime. Ryan Vogelsong went from one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball over the past two years to a sub-replacement level disappointment this year before finally hitting the disabled list. Angel Pagan’s numbers were way down from last year even before he suffered a hamstring injury that might knock him out for the rest of the year.3 Matt Cain, one of the steadiest starters in the majors for the past seven seasons, has been wildly erratic this year, and now sits on an ERA greater than 5.00. Then there’s this, which kind of speaks for itself.
So now, just a couple days after Lincecum’s unhittable, priceless-reaction-to-ump-getting-smoked-in-his-batter’s-box day, the Giants find themselves eight games below .500, at a stage where going into sell mode might make sense for many clubs. As fate would have it, San Francisco’s two best and most likely pieces of trade bait would be the two players most responsible for the weekend no-no: Lincecum, and Hunter Pence, whose incredible shoestring catch ended the eighth inning and kept the no-hitter alive. Both players are eligible for free agency at season’s end. And both could be attractive to a number of contenders: Even in a diminished capacity, Lincecum would look fine as a fourth starter for several teams in the race, while Pence could be even more attractive as a durable, power-hitting outfielder in a trade market that’s thin on quality everyday players.
It’s still tough to imagine GM Brian Sabean hitting the sell button just yet. Playing in the worst division in baseball means the Giants still sit just 6½ games out of first, close enough that a healthy winning streak could thrust them right back into the race, the way one recently did for the Dodgers. Two of the Giants’ thinnest positions are starting pitcher4 and outfield, so flipping Lincecum or Pence could amount to a white-flag deal, unless they pulled off an incredibly unlikely trade of some kind for a player of similar ability — and that’s just not Sabean’s style, now or even before the Giants became a powerhouse team.
Of course we’re still 16 days away from the non-waiver trade deadline, and the Giants open the second half with three against the first-place Diamondbacks and four against a very tough Reds club. A losing stretch over that week could prompt a change of heart. If that were to happen, Lincecum’s start for the ages could go down as one of the last ones he’ll make in a Giants uniform. All the more reason to savor that special night.
27. CHICAGO WHITE SOX
They traded one of the fastest-deteriorating relief pitchers in the game for a toolsy, 22-year-old outfielder who might one day become something interesting.
Matt Thornton could still help the Red Sox, of course. At age 36 he still throws a 95 mph fastball and one of the more effective sliders for any left-handed reliever. But the effectiveness of that fastball has gone downhill the past few years, even if its speed has not. Once able to snuff out both left- and right-handed hitters, Thornton had allowed an ugly .320/.414/.420 line against righty swingers this year, while only .173/.232/.385 against lefties at the time of the trade. That continues some disturbing trends for the lefty:
If you’re the Red Sox, you live with Thornton as a Randy Choate–style situational lefty (and a downgrade from out-for-the-season flamethrower Andrew Miller), and avoid using him in high-leverage situations versus right-handed hitters. The always-sharp Tim Britton of the Providence Journal notes that Thornton has pitched much better since June 1, so that could be a good sign.
If you’re the White Sox, you’re happy to pocket nearly $2 million (Thornton is making $5.5 million this year, and Chicago threw in $750,000 to cover part of his remaining 2013 salary). And you’re happier to take a look at Brandon Jacobs. A 6-foot-1, 225-pound bruiser, Jacobs was recruited by Auburn to play football before signing with the Red Sox after getting drafted in the 10th round four years ago. He has drawn high marks for his raw athleticism but hasn’t put up the numbers to match. Jacobs put up strong numbers in 2011 in Greenville of the Sally League, hitting .303/.376/.505. But he’s stalled since then at high Class A Salem, hitting .252/.322/.410 in 2012 and .244/.334/.440 this season before the trade.
Still, with Thornton gone and several solid veterans (Jake Peavy, Alex Rios) reportedly available, new GM Rick Hahn has shown that he’s willing to aggressively trade for prospects. Jacobs’s natural talent, combined with his lack of results, make him a boom-or-bust candidate who’s far more likely to bust. But when your tools have been declared superior to those of a rare untouchable prospect in a very deep system and your own organization is dying for talent, you make that deal every time.
30. HOUSTON ASTROS
On July 29, 2011, Houston bid good-bye to one of its most recognizable players since the heyday of the Killer B’s, flipping Hunter Pence to Philadelphia. It was a typical deadline deal in many ways, with the out-of-contention Astros selling and the contending Phillies cashing in prospects for a veteran who could help immediately.
But this was more than your typical late-July trade. The Astros were starting a process that would eventually lead to an ownership change, front-office overhaul, and a complete roster teardown. The Phillies were going all-out in their quest for another World Series run. So despite already leading the NL East by five games, Philly’s all-in approach led them to trade two very good prospects and two lesser minor leaguers for Pence. The Phillies did hold on to win the division, winning 102 games that year to boot. But they fell short of their World Series goal, losing to the Cardinals in the division series. Meanwhile, the Astros could only hope they’d found the first few ingredients that might lead them back into contention in a few years.
Just shy of two years later, one of those prospects made his major league debut against the Rays … and was phenomenal. Jarred Cosart threw almost entirely fastballs and curves, with 90 of his 96 pitches being one of those two offerings. Cosart’s fastball in particular was electric, averaging 95 mph, topping out at 98 (technically 97.52), and darting all over the strike zone, inducing weak contact throughout the game (only four whiffs, curiously). All told, he fired eight scoreless innings and allowed just two hits to beat a red-hot Tampa Bay team that had won eight games in a row. That made him just the fourth American League pitcher in the divisional era to throw at least eight scoreless innings and allow two or fewer hits in his major league debut.
Even that short list undersells what Cosart did. He actually no-hit the Rays through 6⅓ innings, making a bid to become just the second pitcher ever to throw a no-hitter in his first major league appearance. He didn’t get the no-no, thus securing the legacy of Charles Leander “Bumpus” Jones, who pulled it off in 1892 and has since taunted all other pitchers for 121 years.
You can see the logic in trading any and all veterans when you’re a team that’s as far from contention as the Astros are; if a player’s not likely to be in his prime (or younger) and under team control when Houston becomes a winner again, might as well trade ’em for younger assets with upside. But at a certain point, you need some of these prospects to pan out for things to turn around. Which is why they’ll be watching Cosart closely to see if he can build on his spectacular debut, and hoping Jonathan Singleton, the other big-name prospect acquired in that deal, can eventually make an impact himself.
It’s also why — posturing aside — the Astros are reportedly demanding a high price for their top starting pitcher, Bud Norris. With two wild-card spots per league in play, even teams near or a smidge under .500 can consider themselves quasi-contenders, and thus become reluctant to trade key veterans for minor league prospects. This creates a seller’s market, in which only teams with little to no shot and an eye squarely on the future — the White Sox, Cubs, Marlins, and certainly the Astros, to name a few — will push hard to cash in those vets, driving up the price for the many potential buyers hoping to improve their chances. So if the Astros plan to trade a good starter who’s not eligible for free agency for another two and a half years, they can and should ask for potential future Cosarts. For a team in Houston’s position, the opportunity cost for whiffing on a deadline deal involving one of the few enticing veterans you have on the roster is huge.
So, too, is the cost of committing to the wrong players, or even the right players at the wrong prices. Jose Altuve is one of the top contact hitters in baseball. He’s one of the most prolific base stealers in the game. And he’s just 23 years old, so there’s room for significant improvement as he matures. But he’s also hit just 12 home runs with an .093 Isolated Power mark through his first 292 games in the big leagues. He owns a 5.1 percent career walk rate, and advanced defensive metrics don’t like his glove. He’s a talented but also deeply flawed player who very well might not be a foundational piece for an Astros team that sorely needs a bunch of ’em. Fortunately, Houston’s getting his services at rock-bottom prices. Altuve will make just $12.5 million from 2014 through 2017, the four guaranteed years on his brand-new contract. The deal also includes two club options that could allow the Astros to keep Altuve through what would have been his first two post–free agency seasons, still merely carrying him through age 29.
The Astros own the lowest payroll in baseball at just $21 million and could be on their way to another no. 1 overall pick. Altuve is the first major leaguer to get locked up to a long-term deal under the stewardship of new(ish) owner Jim Crane. This is certainly a risk worth taking. Now the Astros just need to find and develop a bunch more Altuves … or better, ideally.