For most clubs, September 1 serves as an uneventful late-season benchmark. It’s the day all teams can expand their rosters by adding as many as 15 players. But at that point, you’d expect anyone able to make a significant impact — be it a top prospect or a skilled journeyman — to already be up with the major league club. In other words, September call-ups tend to be September call-ups for a reason.
Still, a handful of new arrivals look poised to have some say about how the rest of the season plays out. Current top prospects (Corey Seager) or former ones (Javier Baez) have already made their presence felt and could influence pennant races and postseason results. Beyond those bigger names, several less-hyped players could make an impact, too, by getting big hits in big games, auditioning for a bigger role on next year’s squad, or even taking playing time away from other players who might deserve it.
After bringing one veteran back at the twilight of his career, the Rockies have too many cooks at first base. The Rays recalled a young lefty to the big club’s starting rotation but left another promising southpaw behind at Triple-A. The Twins brought back a switch-hitting slugger who can hopefully pair with their rookie right-handed masher. Meanwhile, one Yankees call-up who could make an impact also batted .181 in the minors this year.
As always, this column is a Labor of love. It’s Week 22 of The 30.
Best Mike Trout Impression of the Week
Here’s a fun debate: Pick the best defensive center fielder in baseball.
With the big name, the hardware, and this unforgettable catch on his résumé, it’s tempting to nominate Mike Trout. Lorenzo Cain has certainly made his share of spectacular grabs. Kevin Pillar has frequently appeared on highlight reels. When Juan Lagares is healthy, few can hang with him. The baseball cognoscenti might even point you to Jackie Bradley Jr. as option no. 1.
Our pick is someone else. Combine his amazing catches with his strong and accurate throwing arm, and the top-rated defensive center fielder in baseball by multiple defensive metrics is Tampa’s Kevin Kiermaier.
The Rays center fielder was at it again last Monday night against the Orioles. Leading off the bottom of the first, Manny Machado smashed a ball deep to center. Kiermaier raced back, to the track, to the wall, then braced himself to leap over the short fence at Oriole Park. As serendipity would have it, this was a ball struck to almost exactly the same spot as J.J. Hardy’s drive back in 2012 — the one that gave Trout his first indelible defensive highlight. It also worked out well for the marketing wizards at Southwest Airlines, who’d installed a giant ad on the center-field wall in Baltimore.
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Machado’s drive would again require a center fielder to leap high over a Southwest sign — and high over the wall — to take away a home run. Kiermaier delivered, with a pack of honey-roasted peanuts to spare.
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If you ever want to see the face of a pitcher who knows he got away with one, watch Chris Archer’s reaction to Kiermaier’s grab. It’s almost as perfect as the catch itself.
Honor the Vet, Play the Kids
The Rockies get Justin Morneau back, but they still need to focus on giving playing time to younger talent.
30. Atlanta Braves (54-83 record, minus-177 run differential, no. 28 last week)
29. Philadelphia Phillies (53-84, minus-176, LW: 29)
28. Cincinnati Reds (56-79, minus-63, LW: 26)
27. Colorado Rockies (56-80, minus-101, LW: 27)
26. Miami Marlins (57-80, minus-58, LW: 30)
25. Oakland A’s (58-79, even, LW: 24)
24. Milwaukee Brewers (60-76, minus-57, LW: 25)
23. Detroit Tigers (62-74, minus-96, LW: 23)
On Friday, Justin Morneau played his first major league game since May 13. The Rockies won’t pick up Morneau’s $9 million option for next year, so this might be the home stretch for the veteran first baseman’s two-year run in Colorado. At age 34, coming off a season marred by a recurrence of his previous neck and concussion problems, Morneau’s future in the big leagues doesn’t look too promising.
If this is the end, Morneau leaves behind an impressive career. Along with Joe Mauer, he formed a devastating duo that helped make the Twins the kings of the AL Central last decade. He won the AL MVP award in 2006, finished second in 2008, and played on five division winners in eight years. Although he owed many of those MVP votes to RBIs that never would’ve happened without Mauer constantly getting on base in front of him, Morneau still deserved his reputation as one of the best all-around first basemen in the game. His 2014 renaissance, in which he won the NL batting title and hit .319/.364/.496, was quietly one of the best stories in baseball, especially after those concussion issues seemed to have sapped his ability to stay healthy or put up big numbers, depending on the year. He’ll be remembered as one of the best sluggers in Twins history, but he has also earned his status as a beloved Rockie.
With all of that said, it was still a bit odd to watch Morneau take his place at first, given that the Rockies have been more or less eliminated since Memorial Day. Few teams stand to benefit more from giving reps to young players than the Rockies do. With Morneau sliding into the lineup, he takes the spot of Ben Paulsen. In his rookie season, Paulsen’s batting .281/.330/.475, which still comes out as better than average even after adjusting for Coors Field’s hitter-friendly confines. Were this a season less overstuffed with first-year talent, he’d surely rank higher than 14th among NL first-years for park-adjusted offense.
To be fair, Paulsen’s not a typical rookie. He’s 27 years old with a modest pedigree, and thus doesn’t project to have anything close to the future that someone like Kris Bryant does. Paulsen started Morneau’s first two games in left field, but he wasn’t in the lineup on Sunday. We’ll see what happens going forward, but for a team about to complete its fifth straight season with fewer than 75 wins, the kids have to play — even if they’re not quite true kids anymore.
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On the pitching side of things, the future’s no clearer. Lefty starter Chris Rusin fired his second complete game in his past four starts on Thursday, but he also allowed 11 runs two starts ago. Right-hander Chad Bettis has a 50 percent ground ball rate, which is a great skill to own when pitching home games at Coors, but he has also managed 100 pitches in just one of his past nine starts. Veteran lefty Jorge de la Rosa, the staff’s de facto ace, has posted park-adjusted, defense-independent numbers that sit merely at league average. And top prospects Jon Gray (third overall pick in 2013) and Eddie Butler (MLB.com’s no. 35 prospect coming into the season) have yet to make good on their considerable potential in the bigs. But with neither pitcher older than 24, we’re a ways away from writing them off.
The state of the Rockies, then, remains the same now as it was during spring training: The team has nowhere to go but up, which is what happens when you’re still near rock bottom.
Patience in the Arms Race
Matt Moore’s back, but the Rays’ ace in the hole is a kid who likely won’t be up until next year.
22. San Diego Padres (65-72, minus-50, LW: 19)
21. Arizona Diamondbacks (65-72, plus-9, LW: 18)
20. Boston Red Sox (64-72, minus-31, LW: 21)
19. Seattle Mariners (66-71, minus-80, LW: 22)
18. Chicago White Sox (65-70, minus-43, LW: 20)
17. Baltimore Orioles (65-71, plus-26, LW: 16)
16. Tampa Bay Rays (67-69, minus-15, LW: 17)
15. Cleveland Indians (66-69, minus-1, LW: 15)
Even in the midst of a wild-card battle that lacks anything close to an elite team, the undermanned Rays are a long shot to pass three AL rivals and crack the postseason. The next month will feature a bunch of games in which the Rays are still mathematically alive, but the more relevant implications are for 2016 and beyond.
Matt Moore’s start on Saturday was a good sign for that second goal. At first glance, Moore’s numbers from Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win over the Yankees don’t jump out at you. En route to allowing two runs on three hits and two walks, hitting a batter, and logging a modest three strikeouts, the 26-year-old lefty tossed just 79 pitches and didn’t make it out of the fifth inning.
Dig deeper, though, and you can see positive developments. Moore, who was demoted on August 1 and called back up a month later, allowed just three baserunners in his first four innings of work. He tamed what had been his biggest demon since he returned earlier this summer from Tommy John surgery: Of the 52 fastballs that Moore threw Saturday, 34 went for strikes, an excellent 65 percent success rate. And he threw a lot harder than he had earlier this year, averaging an eyelash under 94 mph. Manager Kevin Cash pulled him with two outs in the fifth not because he was struggling, but because he was running out of steam.
If Moore can carry that renewed velocity and command with him into 2016, and if Alex Cobb can make it back to full strength sometime next year, the Rays could trot out the following rotation: Archer, Cobb, Moore, Jake Odorizzi, and Drew Smyly. That group looks promising (and young) on paper, but that was also the plan coming into the season. While Archer has engineered one of the league’s biggest breakouts in 2015, the rest of the rotation has been ravaged by injuries. A shoulder injury cost Smyly most of this season, and his next start will be just his eighth of 2015. An oblique injury sidelined Odorizzi for more than a month. Cobb didn’t throw a single pitch this season, and won’t be ready by Opening Day 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery this spring. So based on recent history, banking on these five guys to pitch together for long stretches in 2016 seems like wishful thinking.
Come next year, though, the Rays should have a nice insurance policy against any health woes: 22-year-old lefty Blake Snell. Moore, not Snell, got the call on the first, but the no. 52 overall pick in the 2011 draft has arguably posted better numbers than any starting pitcher in the minors this year.
Snell was a compensatory pick in exchange for losing Brad Hawpe to free agency; by opting not to re-sign a player on his last legs who played just 17 more games in his career, the Rays got a talented pitcher who’s been a strikeout machine (467 punchouts in 422 innings) throughout his minor league career. What makes Snell’s performance particularly exciting this year is his improved ability to find the strike zone. Although his walk rate of 3.6 free passes per nine innings is still high for a top pitching prospect, it’s considerably lower than it’s been at any point since Snell’s 2012 season in rookie ball. Combine that improved pitch efficiency with nearly twice as many strikeouts as hits allowed and a 1.41 ERA (including a 1.83 mark at Triple-A), and you’ve got a pitcher who seems ready to battle big league hitters.
Despite Snell’s success in the minors, you can still look at what’s happened to the Rays’ other pitchers and defend their decision not to overextend him with a call-up and risk another injury to another young pitcher.1 The Twins, who are even closer to the second wild-card spot than the Rays, took a similar approach in electing not to promote their top pitching prospect, Jose Berrios. So for now, the focus shifts to next season, when Snell could be the best bet to replace Cobb in the rotation.
Yes, one can still take issue with broader veteran-over-prospect roster choices made by the Rays, such as giving tons of playing time to non-productive thirtysomethings like Grady Sizemore and Daniel Nava, while struggling to find at-bats for top hitting prospect Richie Shaffer.
Miguel Sano is the new face of the Twins offense, and they’ll hope the third time’s the charm for his presumptive partner in crime.
14. Los Angeles Angels (69-67, minus-6, LW: 14)
13. Minnesota Twins (70-66, minus-14, LW: 13)
12. San Francisco Giants (71-66, plus-57, LW: 11)
11. Texas Rangers (71-64, minus-32, LW: 10)
10. Washington Nationals (71-65, plus-55, LW: 12)
The Miguel Sano Experience has been a joy to behold. We’ve known about his immense talents (and immense size) from the moment the Twins signed him as a teenager out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. Since then, he’s had one movie made about him, and another’s on the way. He was named one of the top 10 prospects in the game by multiple publications. Before he’d played a single game in the big leagues, we were told that Sano was about as close as you could get to a can’t-miss star.
Somehow, he has exceeded — hell, obliterated — those sky-high expectations. Through the first 55 games of his major league career, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound masher is batting .281/.386/.583. Still, as you might expect from any 22-year-old rookie, there are some holes in Sano’s game. For starters, he has struck out in 37.7 percent of his times at bat, including a golden sombrero on Sunday against the Astros. And while he’s crushing the ball when he does make contact, Sano’s .419 batting average on balls in play, some 120 points above league average, isn’t going to last. Those glitches aside, Sano has been nothing short of beastly, as he’s repeatedly displayed tape-measure power. Among hitters with as many at-bats as Sano, only Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper rate better by Isolated Power. Prorate his current home run total of 15 over a full season and Sano’s on pace to best every other slugger in baseball, save for Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz.
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For the Twins to hang in the race for the second wild-card spot and contend in 2016 and beyond, they’ll still need to find lots of help for Sano. Joe Mauer’s decline has been painful to watch, and paying him $23 million a year through 2018 is going to be tough to swallow for a team that usually carries a lower-end payroll. Throw in a jarring lack of offensive production at catcher and shortstop, along with below-average contributions at every outfield spot, and you have the fourth-worst offense in the majors this year by park-adjusted numbers.
After calling the 25-year-old Kennys Vargas back up on September 1, Minnesota will hope he can provide an offensive lift, even if it’s a small one. Thanks to strong power numbers in the minors, the Puerto Rico native earned his major league debut on August 1 of last year. In 234 plate appearances in 2014, Vargas showed flashes of promise, cracking nine homers and 10 doubles while slugging .456. Still, his lack of plate discipline was obvious, as Vargas struck out five times more often than he walked. Those batting-eye problems then carried over to 2015, as Vargas posted a weak .295 on-base percentage and a 27 percent strikeout rate through his first 29 games of this season before being demoted to Triple-A in mid-May. The Twins called him back up in early June, watched him struggle for another three weeks in the majors, then sent him down again at the beginning of July.2
Vargas has fared well in the minors this year. In 302 plate appearances spread between Double-A and Triple-A, he batted .283, slugged .496, and, most impressively, flashed a .414 OBP, with 52 walks against 71 strikeouts.
Aside from his lack of plate discipline, the biggest problem with Vargas is that he’s a hulking slugger who lacks speed and defensive ability and is thus best suited for at-bats at DH … just like Sano, who is already a much better hitter. So for now, the Twins will look to Vargas as their biggest power threat off the bench and a spot starter for Sano at DH and Mauer at first. For next year and beyond, though, it’s conceivable that Vargas (assuming his batting eye can start to catch up with his power potential) could be a bigger threat at the plate than Mauer is.3
Mauer is untradable given the money owed to him, and benching the homegrown kid and former superstar now past his prime would be an issue, too. But that’s a problem for the future.
Because of his large stature and swing-for-the-moon approach, Vargas drew comparisons to former Minnesota Twin David Ortiz when he raked as a minor leaguer. That, of course, is a stretch. The overwhelming odds are against him ever approaching the career of an all-time great. Still, the Twins should find a way to squeeze him into the lineup, both now and in the future, to see what they have in the young slugger. Otherwise, as happened with Ortiz after the 2002 season, they’ll be at risk of seeing him leave for another club where he finally flourishes. For a team that lacks big power threats beyond Sano, the thought of letting another potential big fish get away isn’t fun to contemplate.
The Yankees have a huge pinch-running threat on their roster — now they just need to use him.
9. New York Mets (75-61, plus-59, LW: 6)
8. Houston Astros (75-62, plus-104, LW: 8)
7. New York Yankees (76-59, plus-87, LW: 9)
6. Chicago Cubs (78-57, plus-33, LW: 7)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (78-58, plus-73, LW: 5)
4. Toronto Blue Jays (78-58, plus-199, LW: 4)
3. Pittsburgh Pirates (81-54, plus-80, LW: 3)
2. Kansas City Royals (82-54, plus-85, LW: 2)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (87-49, plus-133, LW: 1)
Amid all the hoopla over the Jays’ great play since trade deadline week, the Yankees have quietly put together an impressive run of their own, winning 15 of their past 23 games. A pair of homegrown heroes have played a key role in several of those wins.
I jumped on the Luis Severino bandwagon in mid-July, noting that he could be an excellent plug-in for CC Sabathia or any other struggling starter. When the Yankees failed to make any splashy moves at the non-waiver deadline, I banged the drum again for Severino, arguing that he could have as big an impact as a blockbuster trade, if he could harness the wipeout stuff and terrific numbers he’d put up at Triple-A. Six starts into his big league career, Severino’s numbers rank up there with David Price’s and have been better than Johnny Cueto’s numbers in KC. In 35.1 innings, the 21-year-old right-hander has fanned 34 batters, allowed just 28 hits, and put up a sparkling 2.04 ERA.
Meanwhile, Greg Bird has lent a big hand (claw?) of his own over his first 21 big league games. Originally expected to see mostly spot starts and bench duty, Bird got pressed into everyday action when Mark Teixeira suffered a leg injury late last month. The 22-year-old rookie first baseman has fared well in Teixeira’s absence, combining his recent starts with a few previous at-bats to post a strong .260/.337/.466 batting line. With a 6-3, 220-pound frame and powerful lefty swing that could propel a bunch of balls over the short right-field porch in the Bronx, Bird looks like a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium both now and for the rest of the decade.
Beyond those two, if you’re looking for a super-sleeper who could chip in over these final four weeks of the season, Rico Noel is your man. On overall talent, Noel isn’t in the same stratosphere as Severino (a potential front-of-the-rotation starter) or Bird (a potential middle-of-the-order hitter). In fact, he was downright terrible with the bat this year in the minors — .181/.302/.207 — sporting offensive numbers that would even make a few pitchers scoff. Because of that lack of production, the 26-year-old outfielder was actually released by the Padres in June — only to be picked up by the Yankees in early July. Just two months after that, he earned his first call-up to the Show.
Of course, the Yankees didn’t bring him up on September 1 for his bat; they did it for his legs. The 5-8, 170-pound waterbug swiped an amazing 283 bases in 611 minor league games before getting his call to the Bronx. An advantage of September baseball is that even in this era of bloated seven- and eight-man bullpens, expanded rosters allow contending teams to add ace pinch hitters, defensive specialists, and other useful pieces to the mix. With Noel, the best-case scenario is something close to what Terrance Gore did last year for the Royals. An even tinier outfielder who also couldn’t hit, Gore still made an impact in KC, stealing five bases and scoring five runs in September despite stepping to the plate just twice. His unique skill set was even more evident in the playoffs, when Gore didn’t get a single at-bat but still stole three bases, scored two runs, and generally scared the hell out of pitchers whenever Ned Yost asked him to pinch-run.
Noel’s contributions have been more modest thus far, as he’s made just two appearances. The first came as a defensive replacement for Carlos Beltran on Wednesday. The second happened on Sunday, when Noel pinch-ran for Alex Rodriguez in the eighth inning, then trotted home easily on an RBI single.
Given that the Yankees remain just a game and a half behind Toronto — with a huge four-game series against the Jays this upcoming weekend in New York — Joe Girardi should strive for any edge he can find. Noel pinch-running for various Yankees graybeards late in games could give the club the kind of tiny boost that helps decide a pivotal game in a pennant race or even the postseason.