February 2010

32 homers in ’08, no guaranteed job in ’10

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — I caught up with Mike Jacobs on Saturday, and it still boggles me that even he couldn’t land a Major League contract for the 2010 season.

I understand this isn’t Willie McCovey we’re talking about here. Jacobs obviously has his flaws. He’s weak with the glove and can play just one position (many will say that’s designated hitter, not first base), strikes out a whole bunch, and he needs to play every day to be effective (pretty much eliminating the chance he can be an effective late-game pinch-hitter).
But Jacobs still brings value because he can put up power numbers by swinging a big bat from the left side of the plate. After hitting .310 with 11 homers in 30 games in his first year with the Mets, the guy averaged 23 homers and 75 RBIs per season with the Marlins for three years. Sure, that came with a .258 batting average, .314 slugging percentage and .483 on-base percentage. And, sure, he struggled mightily in his first year in the American League with the Royals last season, batting just .228 with 19 homers in 128 games while serving mainly as a DH. 
But, really, he can’t get a guaranteed contract — anywhere?
“I think it’s a little surprising,” Jacobs told me before his Saturday workout at Tradition Field. “I think if you look at my career numbers, they’re pretty solid for four years in the big leagues. I think it’s just kind of the way it is now. Teams are kind of waiting people out a little bit.”
Yeah, no kidding.
Take Russell Branyan, for example. Branyan is also a lefty-hitting first baseman — though he can play third base and the outfield, too — and he broke out last year by hitting a career-high 31 homers and 76 RBIs. But he didn’t find a suitor until Feb. 19, and when he did, it was a one-year, $2 million deal with the lowly Indians. 
His .251 batting average probably had something to do with that, but I think this is more of the sign of the times — a sign of the economic state, in specific. You don’t need to look any further than Jacobs’ own clubhouse, as the Mets have made a bevy of Minor League signings this offseason.
For what it’s worth, Jacobs called his recent contract “a technicality” and seems to be staying positive. 
“I think it is what it is,” he said. “You can’t really put too much emphasis on it, about it being a Minor League deal or a Major League deal or whatever. The bottom line is you have a uniform on your back, and you have a chance to open peoples’ eyes again.”
It seems like Major League clubs are making more and more veterans have to do that before they make big league money. Is this indeed a sign of the times, or a long-term step in a different direction?
——-
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Mets infielders and starting pitchers meet before bunt-situation and first-and-third drills.

Ready for some games?
The Mets apparently are. They issued their pitching probables for the first four exhibition games. So, if you’re in their area, maybe you’re interested …
* March 1 (Intrasquad): Jack Egbert, Clint Everts, Travis Blackley, Jonathon Niese, Tobi Stoner, R.A. Dickey, Jenry Mejia
* March 2 (vs. Braves): Nelson Figueroa, Hisanori Takahashi, Bobby Parnell, Elmer Dessens
* March 3 (at Braves): Pat Misch, Pedro Feliciano
* March 4 (vs. Cardinals): R.A. Dickey, Tobi Stoner

Escobar lost in translation?

JUPITER, Fla. — I wrote a story about Yunel Escobar on Friday — about how his brash temperament and seemingly rebellious attitude has led to negative perceptions, and about how some of that may be caused by a culture and language barrier. Anyway, I think it’s an interesting topic, and I felt it was worth exploring a bit more.

Braves fans know Escobar’s situation, others may not. In a nutshell, he is one of the most underrated players in baseball (that’s not just me talking, but also those who cover the Braves on a daily basis) because of his ability to hit for a high average, occasionally display power, run and play slick defense at a very demanding position. But he gets a bad rap — whether undeservingly or not — because he has barely no communication with the Atlanta media, occasionally comes off as a “hot dog” on the field and has been known to lose focus at times.
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I wanted to know if he was a misunderstood guy. And while I don’t defend a lot of Escobar’s recent actions — some of which have gotten him benched by the usually lovable Bobby Cox — I can understand how a player who is aggressive and brash by nature and speaks barely any English could get his actions and words misconstrued at times.
I had a good conversation with Escobar (pictured, right) about whether he felt like he’s in fact been a misunderstood guy, and he told me he feels that’s absolutely the case, and the language plays a big part. He talked about how he wishes he could be in front of the cameras talking in English and eventually getting those endorsement deals, and he said it’s a disappointment for his parents in Miami to have to mostly read negative things about him, instead.
“I have family, and my family worries when they talk bad about me in the press, and they think I’m behaving bad,” he told me in Spanish before his Friday workout at Champion Stadium. “But I always talk to my family, and my family has never liked the perception of me from people who don’t know me. And those are the types of things that worry me. My door is always open for those who want to get to know me because I don’t hide from anybody. I’m always here.”
To be fair, though, Escobar’s door isn’t always open. There have been times where he did something to affect the game and simply denied to be interviewed by the Atlanta media, hence the tense relationship with the local press.
While Escobar has never really found trust with the media, he’s relied heavily on bench coach Chino Cadahia, a fellow Cuban who has served as his confidant and interpreter since the start of the 27-year-old’s career. 
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Cadahia (pictured, left) made a good point to me. He said that while some of Escobar’s actions are destructive and have warranted disciplinary action (though not very serious ones), some of that cockiness and aggressiveness is what makes him great — it’s what gives him sort of an edge. 
So, it’s all about finding that balance with Escobar.
One other thing he pointed out was that Latin players, for the most part, are just different, and they’re used to a different style of playing the game and different mannerisms.
While there are a few marketable Latin players — namely, Albert Pujols and David Ortiz — there are also guys like Escobar and Marlins superstar shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who also doesn’t have a great relationship with his local media, and while his actions haven’t led to benchings, also doesn’t have the greatest of reputations on the field.
“You have to understand where [Escobar] came up playing baseball; even though it’s still the same game, it’s still a little different,” Cadahia said. “And he’s also got his own mannerism. I guess it’s the way he got accustomed to playing in Cuba, and here, it’s perceived a little different than it is over there, I guess. But he’s toned that down quite a bit. I think Bobby has been a very big influence on him. Every time he does something, Bobby makes it a point to tell him, ‘We don’t do it that way here.'”
——-
The Braves would love nothing more than to give the soon-to-be-retired Cox the type of sendoff he deserves (at least a playoff berth would be warranted). But it’s important to note that in a division that features a Phillies team I don’t feel has any weakness, the Braves will be relying on a closer (Billy Wagner) and cleanup hitter (Troy Glaus) coming off major surgeries.
One guy who should illicit hope, however, is Jason Heyward. The 20-year-old lefty-hitting outfielder has all the tools (he’s the No. 1 prospect in baseball for a reason), and he’s already starting to show it in batting practice. David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution writes about Heyward’s thrilling (and destructive) BP sessions at the Wide World of Sports complex here.

Where does Maybin hit in the Marlins’ lineup?

JUPITER, Fla. — The Marlins will go into the 2010 season with one of the lowest payrolls in the big leagues, but ownership is seemingly putting the heat on manager Fredi Gonzalez to make the playoffs this year. Owner Jeffrey Loria felt his club was good enough to play in October last year, and he feels even stronger about that notion this year.

There are obvious reasons for that mentality — two big ones are Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez — but certain things will have to happen for that to become a reality.
For starters, Cameron Maybin (pictured) will have to finally demonstrate at the highest level what has made him one of the most promising young players in the game in recent years. 

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I really believe Maybin’s struggles last year (a .254 batting average in 54 games) had a lot to do with the fact he was hitting eighth. Batting in that spot of the lineup in the National League is really difficult since you’re not getting many pitches to hit with the pitcher behind you, especially when you’re an aggressive hitter like Maybin, who sports a career .475 slugging percentage in the Minor Leagues.
Gonzalez told me that “in a perfect world” he’d like to avoid batting Maybin eighth and that he sees him as his No. 2 hitter — between leadoff man Chris Coghlan and No. 3 hitter Hanley Ramirez. But that can change.
Here’s what Maybin said when I asked him what his ideal spot in the lineup is: I’ve always hit at the top of the order. That’s all I’ve been telling everybody. I’ve always been a guy that hit in the top of the order in the Minor Leagues. Here, we’ve got so many weapons. It’s just one of those things. The things I can bring to the table, you can put me in a lot of places.
I’m still unsure of where Maybin belongs in a Major League lineup, because he’s got the speed to be a leadoff hitter and the power to be a middle-of-the-order guy. It’s a lot like Hanley in the beginning of his career. Ramirez began as a leadoff hitter with the Marlins, but now he’s a full-fledged power hitter (though, of course, he can hit for a high average, get on base and steal bases, too).
So, what about Maybin? Is he a run producer or a run scorer? He says he doesn’t really have to choose.
“I just want to affect the game in as many ways as I can with my ability, that’s my plan,” he said. “However that may be, by knocking them in or scoring from first base on base hits, that’s what I do, man.
“If you’re hitting in the middle of the order, you’re looking to drive runs in. If you’re hitting at the top, you’re looking to get on base. … I just want to be whatever I can be. Everybody asks these difficult questions. It’s all about helping the team win — bottom line. Whether it’s one-two, eight-nine [in the lineup].”
As spectacular as Coghlan was at the top of the order en route to winning Rookie of the Year for the NL, I believe he is the prototypical No. 2 hitter. The only problem is the Marlins haven’t really had a truly leadoff hitter since Juan Pierre left, and Maybin strikes out too often to be a top-of-the-order guy.
But when asked if he believes he can be an everyday leadoff hitter in the big leagues, Maybin said, “Absolutely. Why not, man?” Still, though, he added that he loves hitting behind Coghlan — like he’s done through so many years in the Minors — and that’s ideally where he’ll be in 2010. 
Here are his Major League-career splits from the different spots in the lineup …
* 1st: 46 AB, .304 BA, .699 OPS, 1 RBI
* 2nd: 83 AB, .325 BA, .861 OPS, 1 HR, 7 RBI
* 3rd: 3 AB, .333 BA, 1.000 OPS, 1 RBI
* 4th: 1 PA, 1 SH
* 5th: 2 AB, 1 H
* 6th: 1 PA, 1 BB
* 7th: 10 AB, .333 BA, 1.067 OPS, 1 HR, 4 RBI
* 8th: 93 AB, .194 BA, .594 OPS, 2 HR, 3 RBI
* 9th: 21 AB, .190 BA, .689 OPS, 1 HR, 1 RBI
——-
As for that whole playoffs thing, is it unfair to demand postseason from a team with that kind of payroll? I think the Marlins will be fine, and I think they’ll be in the thick of things all year (everyone in the league pretty much feels the same way). But the NL East has become the deepest division in the Major Leagues, and I see zero weaknesses on the Phillies.
Here’s what Fredi had to say: There’s no reason why we can’t make a run at this. A lot of things have to go right. You can drop $100 million on this team, and it would be hard to get five wins better [than the 87 wins of 2009]. But I like the guys that we have here. The pitching has got to be better, more consistent than last year, and then we’ll see what happens in July, when it’s time to get another piece. 

Adjusting to the big leagues is tough enough …

JUPITER, Fla. — Meet Cardinals prospect Jon Jay …

DSC01422.jpg… I remember watching him when he manned the outfield for the University of Miami, and let me tell you this: The guy can hit. He’s not a big home-run threat (more like a No. 2-type hitter), but in his four years in the Minor Leagues, he’s batted a pretty solid .298 with a .363 on-base percentage — though his slugging percentage was just .425. Now, he comes into camp in the mix for the job as the Cardinals’ lefty hitter off the bench.
St. Louis’ outfield, of course, is a crowded one, with Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus and Ryan Ludwick the starters. So Jay’s only shot at finally cracking a big league roster is to make the team as a pinch-hitter.
But is that the right thing to do to a kid who, in a way, is still developing and needs professional at-bats? Jay (pictured above taking live batting practice against Blake Hawksworth on Wednesday) turns 25 in March. He of course just wants to be in the Major Leagues for the first time, but would being a late-inning lefty pinch-hitter — ala veteran Matt Stairs — slow down his development? 
“There’s always room for improvement and seasoning, but that was one of the reasons I went to Venezuela this year,” he told me. “I got some more at-bats, and I was able to kind of work on my game a little bit more in different aspects. I think it was a good experience for me, just playing in front of big crowds and just playing more baseball and just going so deep into the year with that.”
Sure, but even that can’t prepare him for what would face him if he actually broke camp as a member of the 25-man roster. 
It’s hard enough to adjust from Minor League to Major League pitching. And then it’s a whole other thing to adjust from being an everyday player to sitting on the bench for an entire game, then getting up for one at-bat in a tight game and immediately seeing a mid-90s fastball. Imagine adjusting to both at once.
I spoke to veteran corner infielder Wes Helms about pinch-hitting a lot last season, and he says it’s an art — one you never perfect, and one you need to be in the big leagues a while to even get used to.
How will Jay adjust if that’s the role he plays?
“I think my routine just stays the same,” said Jay, who batted .281 with 10 homers, 54 RBIs and 20 stolen bases for Triple-A Memphis in 2009. “But obviously I’ll talk to guys that have been there before and the coaching staff. Mark McGwire has been around for a long time, and just our coaching staff has been. It’s great to have those guys to go to. 
“I pinch-hit a lot last year during Spring Training, so I got a little bit used to that. Just always being ready.”
——-
An interesting side note: Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, who does TV work for the Orioles, made a brief appearance at Cardinals camp on Wednesday, yukking it up with manager Tony La Russa (top) and pitching coach Dave Duncan (bottom). 
La Russa called him “a legitimate Hall of Famer,” but bragged that he once broke up a no-hitter in the late innings against him — in instructional league.
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2010 Astros a team of change

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Will a new message be worth putting up next year? … 

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… That was the last time the Astros went to the playoffs, and the only time in franchise history the club made it to the World Series (one that ended in a sweep suffered at the hands of the White Sox). 
Now, after finishing in second-to-last place and 17 games out of first place in the National League Central, Houston will have a new manager (Brad Mills), back end of the bullpen (Matt Lindstrom and Brandon Lyon), third baseman (Pedro Feliz) starter (Brett Myers) and shortstop (Tommy Manzella). 
Let’s examine their two biggest changes …
The closer
For the last 13 years, the Astros have had one go-to ninth-inning man — Billy Wagner 1997-2003), Brad Lidge (2004-07) and Jose Valverde (2008-09). Now, for the first time in a long time, they are unsure. It could be Lyon with Lindstrom setting up; it could be vice-versa; and it could be a platoon situation in the ninth. 
I examined this in my MLB.com story. But here’s a question for this blog: With the ink barely dry on Lyon’s three-year, $15 million contract, is it Lindstrom who’s in an uphill battle right now? Each pitcher brings something different to the table (Lyon is more finesse, Lindstrom more electric), and each has their flaws (Lindstrom’s been inconsistent as a closer, Lyon doesn’t have quite the upside). 
But is that figure attached to Lyon’s name something that favors him at this very moment? Mills and Wade have stressed it’s an open competition all throughout camp, and Lindstrom and Lyon each said the right things on Tuesday. So, if it is, it will remain a secret.
I asked Lindstrom, who’s making $1.625 million, if he feels he is indeed in an uphill battle because of Lyon’s salary. 
Here’s what he said: “Not really. Not an uphill battle. I’m just excited to be here with a new organization, new club, and I think we can have success this year if we just go out there and play hard and play together. I don’t really worry too much about contract stuff and things like that.” 
To be fair, Lindstrom (pictured stretching below) has his own issues to worry about — like how he’s going to bounce back from a 5.89 ERA — so he can’t afford to be sweating that kind of stuff. But it’s worth a thought …
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The shortstop
That’s where another one of the Astros’ most drastic changes will come. It’s a position Miguel Tejada held down the last two years, and a position a 26-year-old prospect, Manzella, will handle now. 
Like Lyon and Lindstrom, Tejada and Manzella are pretty much opposites. The 35-year-old Tejada doesn’t really have the range needed to be an everyday big league shortstop (as evidenced by the Orioles making him their third baseman), but he can hit (a .313 batting average with 14 homers and 86 RBIs last year ain’t too shabby). Manzella, on the other hand, should be pure joy to watch defensively this year, but his offense (a .268 batting average with a .321 on-base percentage and 21 homers in five Minor League seasons) is questionable.
Defense is obviously a priority at shortstop — more than any other position, I think — but how much offense are you willing to sacrifice for great defense? Does Tejada make up for his lack of range with how effectively he still produces runs? Or does Manzella make the Astros better because of his run production, even though he isn’t projected to produce much at the plate?
Perhaps it varies team-by-team. Well, the Astros will rely on three relative question marks in the middle of the order this year in Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. Could they have used Tejada’s bat and sacrificed some defense on the left side (where Feliz is a solid defensive third baseman and may make up for some of that), or do you take the defense of Manzella instead? 
Here’s what Mills said when I asked him how much offense he’s willing to sacrifice for defense from his shortstop: “I think we’re going to have to wait and see what transpires because of that. You’d hate to have this guy, his rookie season, step in and put a lot of weight on him. A lot of it is going to depend on the guys around him — how they’re swinging the bats and how many runs are scoring and so forth. And people will talk about [Manzella], that he has problems swinging the bat, but you know what, you look at his past history, he swung the bat pretty well where he’s been at the Minor League level. And there’s no reason to think he won’t do that now where he’s at. So I’m not ready to resolve that this guy is just a glove man.”

And we’re off …

KISSIMMEE — So, I’ve finally started my own MLBlog, and here’s my first thought: What in God’s name took me so long?

As I described in the “About” section of this page, I’ve been writing for MLB.com since May 2008. During that time, while covering a wide array of teams in Florida, I’ve come across so many different personalities, interesting topics, quirky anecdotes and chunks of information that can drive a baseball fan insane. Some of it made the MLB.com headline stack. But some of it didn’t and was instead lost in the abyss that is my memory bank. 
Well, that doesn’t need to happen anymore. It’s 2010, and we have blogs — seems like I’m just figuring that out, right? — so I’m going to use that to my disposal by (hopefully) providing daily entries here from my various Spring Training and regular-season stops this year. 
But don’t expect up-to-the-minute posts on transactions, injury updates or lineups. I want this to be the space where I (correction: we) think outside the box. Hopefully, if nothing else, this blog will make you see things from a different perspective. That’s never an easy task for us baseball writers, especially with such knowledgeable fans like y’all, but I’ll give it a whirl. 
So, follow along. And bear with me. 
Here’s where I’ll be this week:

* Tuesday: Astros (Kissimmee)
* Wednesday: Cardinals (Jupiter)
* Thursday: Marlins (Jupiter)
* Friday: Braves (Lake Buena Vista)
* Saturday: Mets (Port St. Lucie)
* Sunday: Tigers (Lakeland)
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