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Triple Play: Justin Upton, Jonathan Papelbon, Alex Rios

In this week’s Triple Play, we look at the hottest of several scorching Braves hitters, a closer who can’t put nor shut up, the man tasked with replacing Nelson Cruz, and plus more items like our weekly Wainwright Walk Watch and the Ichiro Hit Tracker. Off we go:

JustinUpton

Who’s Hot?

Justin Upton, Atlanta

Welcome back, Justin. It’s been quite a while. Remember in April, when the younger Upton was mashing everything in sight, single-handedly carrying the Braves’ offense (and fantasy teams everywhere)? That was the month he blasted 12 home runs with 19 RBI, scored 22 runs and posted an OPS of 1.136. Fans and analysts nationwide praised the Braves for “stealing” Upton from the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the following three months, however, Upton only hit four homers and drove in 29. All the “what was Arizona thinking???” noise quieted. Fantasy owners stopped even trying to deal Upton because he wouldn’t bring back equal value. Well, the April version of Upton is back. Thus far in August, Upton is batting a sizzling .395/.452/1.373 with six homers, 13 RBI, and 10 runs scored. The big difference this time, though, is that Upton has a LOT of support around him in the Braves’ lineup right now (more on that below).

Who’s Not?

Jonathan Papelbon, Philadelphia

Oh, it hasn’t been a pretty season in Philadelphia, has it? They lost Roy Halladay to injury and just never seemed to recover. They have strugged to find competent everyday outfielders and enough starting pitchers. Very little has worked. The motor-mouthed Papelbon has grown frustrated and said “he didn’t come here for this.” Well, after watching Pap’s performance the past two months, it seems safe to say the feeling is mutual – the team certainly didn’t bring the former Red Sox closer to town and pay him $13 million a year to watch him blow saves on a regular basis. In fact, Papelbon has Papelblown six of his past 13 save opportunities. Some of them have been spectacularly bad – take August 1, for example: on a night the Phillies honored Brad Lidge for his blown-save-free 2008 season, Papelbon entered the game after Cole Hamels threw eight shutout innings and immediately surrendered four hits and a walk. What had been a 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 loss that left a sour taste in the mouths of players and fans alike.

Never one to bite his tongue, Papelbon said after the game, “Obviously I want to go in and preserve wins for these starters, man, because that’s what I take pride in. But some nights, you just go back in the dugout and you kind of scratch your head (and think), what just happened?”

Well, here’s what has happened: Papelbon’s fastball velocity has dropped a mile per hour each season since he left Boston (93.8 in 2012, 92.2 in 2013), making him far more hittable. His strikeout percentage has also fallen off a cliff: 34% in 2012, 23% in 2013. On a team with such poor defense as the Phillies, a “power” closer who can’t strike out opposing hitters the way he once could is just asking for trouble. There were rumors that Papelbon was being shopped around before the trade deadline, but there were no takers. Even the Tigers, desperate for a big-name closer to appease manager Jim Leyland, had no interest. For now – and the foreseeable future – it looks like Papelbon and the Phillies are stuck with each other.

Playing the Name Game

Player A: .269/.330/.511, 27 HR, 76 RBI, 5 SB, 49 runs, 123 OPS+

Player B: .279/.331/.427, 12 HR, 57 RBI, 26 SB, 58 runs, 102 OPS+

Player A is the Rangers’ now-suspended right fielder Nelson Cruz. Player B is his replacement, Alex Rios. After failing to make any deals to boost their lineup before the non-waiver deadline, the Rangers finally got their man last Friday, acquiring Alex Rios from Chicago via a waiver claim deal. Two games in, it has looked like a brilliant move. Rios started his Rangers career by going 4-for-7 with a walk, double, triple, three runs scored and two RBI. While Rios doesn’t offer the same power as Cruz, he brings another speed threat to the lineup to complement Elvis Andrus (30 steals) and Leonys Martin (27). With Cruz sidelined for 50 games, the only Rangers hitter with more than 16 home runs is third baseman Adrian Beltre. Don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time a Rangers team had such a dearth of power. I wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t done searching for offense.

Team A: 18-5 record since All-Star Break, 2.83 ERA, 14 QS, 5.2 runs scored/game

Team B: 18-5 record since All-Star Break, 2.56 ERA, 17 QS, 4.4 runs scored/game

Team A is the Atlanta Braves. Since the All-Star break, the Braves have turned the National League East division race into a laugher, winning 14 straight games to open a 14½-game lead and turning the Nationals into overly-hyped also-rans. As noted above, Justin Upton has been red hot, but Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Chris Johnson have also been crushing the ball over the past couple of weeks. All four players have driven in at least 10 runs, scored 10 runs and have an on-base percentage over .400 over the past two weeks. After Tim Hudson’s horrific ankle injury, it was widely assumed that the Braves would trade for another starter. It hasn’t happened. Brandon Beachy was activated off the disabled list and stepped right into the void. The results have been mixed, as it typical for a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery, but each start so far has been better than the last. Atlanta also has relied on prized rookie Alex Wood, and he hasn’t disappointed (2-2, 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, three consecutive quality starts entering Sunday).

Team B is…..are you ready for this?….the Kansas City Royals. Lost amidst all the Braves hubbub is that Missouri’s other team has been every bit as good as Atlanta since the break. All the Royals have done is: 1) reel off an eight-game winning streak (their longest since 2003); 2) twirl their way through the most successful road trip in franchise history (8-1); 3) take three of four from Boston, generally considered the best team in the AL; and 4) win seven straight series, the longest such streak since 1991.

Since the All-Star break, the Royals’ rotation has been the backbone of their success, with 17 quality starts in 23 games. Ace James Shields has spun five quality starts in that time, while Ervin Santana has four and Jeremy Guthrie three. The unexpected surprise, though, has been 36-year-old Bruce Chen; he has given the Royals five consecutive quality starts since being restored to the rotation on July 12. Kansas City also recently recalled fireballing lefty Danny Duffy to fill a rotation spot as well. Suddenly, Kansas City has one of the deeper rotations in the AL. And don’t forget closer Greg Holland (32 saves, 74 strikeouts in 46 innings, 1.57 ERA, 0.91 WHIP).

First baseman Eric Hosmer also has been terrific, sporting a .362/.392/.489 slash line since Aug. 1. After starting slowly the first two months, he has combined with left fielder Alex Gordon and designated hitter Billy Butler to give the Royals an imposing middle of the order. The competition on that July 26-August 4 road trip (White Sox, Twins, Mets) was surely sub-par, but the result perhaps should be taken with a small grain of salt, but one thing is certain: the team is giving its fans reason for serious optimism for the rest of this season and next.

Random Thoughts

  • Wainwright Walk Watch: Once Adam Wainwright started the 2013 season by pitching 37 innings before allowing his first walk of the season, we started a weekly tracker to keep track of how few free passes the Cardinals’ ace hands out this season. He has led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio all season, and it hasn’t been close. In his most recent start, Wainwright lasted seven innings against the Dodgers, allowing seven hits, three runs and two walks while striking out five. For the season, Wainwright has walked only 21 hitters versus 156 punchouts, good for a 7.4-to-1 K/BB ratio (still the best in baseball). His next start is scheduled for Tuesday against Pittsburgh. In his last start against the Pirates on July 31, Wainwright pitched seven innings, allowing four runs and one walk. Given the Cardinals’ recent struggles, this start takes on even more importance than usual.
  • Ichiro Hit Tracker: as noted in last week’s column, 39-year-old Ichiro Suzuki is closing in on 4,000 hits in his professional career (including the 1,278 he tallied playing in Japan). As you probably know, only Ty Cobb and Pete Rose have reached 4,000 in their careers. Following Sunday’s game against Detroit, in which he went hitless, Ichiro sits at 3,993 hits. Next up for Ichiro and the Yankees: four games at home against the pitching-challenged Angels, followed by a three-game set in Boston.
  • If it does happen this coming weekend, here’s hoping that the achievement is appropriately noted by Fox Sports and/or ESPN.
  • I, however, am NOT holding my breath.
  • Pittsburgh entered Coors Field last Friday with the best record in baseball, facing a Rockies team that crawled home following a terrible 1-9 road trip that essentially ended their hopes of contending for a wild-card spot.
  • Naturally, the Rockies broomed the Pirates. Because, baseball.
  • Next up for the Pirates: another showdown with St. Louis, which might miss Yadier Molina more than even they expected. Since he went on the DL July 31, the Cardinals are 5-7 and have fallen into second place, three games behind the Pirates.
  • Chris Davis is on pace to belt 59 homers and knock in 153 runs.
  • Miguel Cabrera is on pace to hit “only” 49 homers and drive in 153. He is not 100% and may not be for the rest of the season. Detroit currently has a seven-game lead in the AL Central – nice lead, but certainly not safe. After all, Oakland had a six-game lead on July 29 and watched it fizzle away by Aug. 7. If the Tigers are able to open a division lead as large as Atlanta’s, you have to wonder if they would consider putting Cabrera on the DL  in an effort to get his abdominal injury healed in time for the playoffs.
  • Apropos of nothing, the only other major leaguer with at least 90 RBI entering Sunday was Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (91).
  • News: Stephen Strasburg notched his first career shutout Sunday against the fading Phillies. Views: I half expected the Nationals to shut him down in the 7th to preserve his arm.
  • Random Baseball Statistic Guaranteed to Enrage Brian Kenny: on August 11, 1970, Jim Bunning became the first pitcher to win 100 games in both leagues.
  • Alex Rodriguez popped his first home run of the season Sunday and represented career home run No. 648 (or, 12 shy of Willie Mays). The two runs he drove in give him 1,952 in his career, passing Stan Musial for sixth on the all-time RBI list.
  • That means that A-Rod now has 648 career homers, which is 12 shy of Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time list. He also added an RBI single later in the game, giving him 1,952, which means he’s passed Stan Musial for sixth on the all-time list.
  • In perhaps the ultimate testament to his greatness, Mariano Rivera has blown three consecutive saves for the first time in his career. It took 19 seasons and 937 appearances for it to happen.
  • Still, I expect some dimwitted New York media member to suggest that it’s time to remove the Sandman from the closer role. Mike Francesa, maybe?

Follow me on Twitter: @ccaylor10

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Breaking Good

Everyone expects improvement from the 2012 Kansas City Royals, but just how much improvement to expect is a point of debate. Will 4-5 players make “the leap” at the same time vaulting the Royals into 90+ win territory? Will this season be a springboard to 2013, around 81 wins and a lot of incremental individual improvement? While much of the answer may lie in the Royals clubhouse, I think a good portion may also be determined in Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago. The unbalanced schedule means that the Royals will play 72 of their 162 games against the Central Division. Just how good (or bad) the division is may have as much to do with how successful the 2012 Royals are as anything.

Another way to say this is, the Royals need some help in 2012 to contend…and thankfully they are already starting to get it. What, you say? We’re still a month away from Spring Training, how can the Royals already be getting help? Let’s take a look at the off season news from the AL Central:

The Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox did not really contend last year and may have actually gotten worse heading into 2012. The Twins lost Michael Cuddyer, Joe Nathan and Jason Kubel to free agency and their additions were not impressive. Justin Morneau is still recovering from concussion issues while Joe Mauer is supposed to be completely recovered from his tired legs. The White Sox, on the other hand, seem to be trying to rebuild while maintaining a $100 million dollar payroll thanks to anchors of contracts still owed to the likes of Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy. They lost Ozzie Guillen and traded away Carlos Quentin, Sergio Santos, and Jason Frasor for young pitching. My honest appraisal is, if the Royals make even the slightest of progress, these two teams should not be much of a concern.

That brings us to the Cleveland Indians, the team thought to be on the same path as the Royals, if not a step or two ahead. It is easy to forget how dominant the Indians were early last season after their collapse. Their biggest acquisition? It could be Derek Lowe if he turns back the clock, or Kevin Slowey…and that’s about it. The lack of acquisitions are not even the biggest problem for the Tribe, it is the question marks surrounding Fausto Carmona right now. The 28 year old opening day starter is actually 31, and facing charges in the Dominican Republic for lying about his identity. No one has any idea how serious this is, but there is no way it is a positive for the Indians.

It would be pretty easy to argue that the three teams above have no bearing on the Royals division chances. The Tigers are the favorite and it is not really close. They have the best pitcher in the division (baseball?), Justin Verlander, and arguably the best hitter in Miguel Cabrera. Thankfully for the Royals, the Tigers have added virtually nothing to last year’s squad and just this month lost DH Victor Martinez to an ACL injury that could sideline him for 2012. Sure, there are options available for the Tigers to replace Martinez, but none of them come without question marks. Losing Martinez also hurts Cabrera, who needs the protection in the lineup.

All this being said, it is still on the Royals to go out and win the division. The AL Central has been a weak division for some time and just as the Royals seem to be poised to improve, the rest of the division is regressing. Does that mean it is a prime opportunity to add a started like Roy Oswalt? Only time will tell.

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Patrolling Centerfield

The song Centerfield by John Fogerty is one those songs that always reminds me that baseball is near. It reminds me of the days my coach would send me out to center field. to experience the smell of the grass and the crack of the bat. All of my senses aroused by my surroundings on the field? These were some of the best times of my life. Now I countdown to Spring Training and Major League Baseball season. Spring Training is getting closer, only 40 days away. That leads us to our topic centerfield. I will take a look and provide a comparison of the centerfielders in the American League Central.

Oh, put me in, coach – I’m ready to play today;
Put me in, coach – I’m ready to play today;
Look at me, I can be centerfield.

Team Player Avg. OBP SLG OPS H 2B 3B HR RBI SB
Chi Alex Rios .227 .265 .348 .613 122 22 2 13 44 11
Cle Grady Sizemore .224 .285 .422 .706 60 21 1 10 32 0
Det Austin Jackson .249 .317 .374 .690 147 22 11 10 45 22
KC Lorenzo Cain .273 .304 .318 .623 6 1 0 0 1 0
Min Denard Span .264 .328 .359 .687 75 11 5 2 16 6

The projected center fielder this year for the White Sox will be Alex Rios. The once Toronto Blue Jay All Star, has not been the same player since joining the Sox. Rios provided solid offensive production in 2010 and if he can return to similar production he could a contributing force to an aging White Sox offense. Rios’ defense has never been great and is also declining as he ages. Will Rios become the All Star Chicago traded for and finally get the production they thought they were acquiring? I for one don’t think so.

Cleveland brought back the once great, but now so often injured Grady Sizemore. Grady was an outstanding center fielder early in his career. For the past 3 seasons, staying healthy has been a huge struggle for Grady. His numbers have declined significantly as Grady has battled back from all his injuries. We know the production Grady can provide to his team, but the real question is can he stay healthy.

Detroit’s Austin Jackson may be the best of the bunch. Jackson has only played two full major league seasons. Jackson’s numbers have not been anything special, but as major league careers go last year may have been Jackson’s sophomore slump. If Austin is able to raise his average he could be the best centerfielder in the Central. Jackson’s free swinging nature may impede his ability to consistently hit for average, but the potential is there.

The Royals will be starting Lorenzo Cain. Cain has a ton of potential, but he is still a relative unknown. He provided Milwaukee with solid offensive production in 2010, but that was only in 43 games. It will be hard to predict what Lorenzo will provide, but if you look at his numbers from AAA last season, you can see why the Royals acquired Lorenzo in the Greinke deal. For a more in depth look at Lorenzo please read my past article Loco for Lorenzo.

The Minnesota Twins will be starting Denard Span in centerfield. Span also battled the injury bug last season, only playing in 70 games. Span’s first two big league seasons were full of hope as he hit .294 and .311. The past two years he has hit .264. Span provides great speed and defense. Span’s inability to consistently hit left handed pitching is the biggest thing that holds him back. If he can improve on this facet of the game Minnesota will have a solid top of the order producer.

The center fielders of the American League Central have a ton of question marks. In my opinion this is how the centerfielders stack up.

  1. Austin Jackson
  2. Grady Sizemore
  3. Denard Span
  4. Lorenzo Cain
  5. Alex Rios

Austin Jackson may be young, but has made it through his sophomore slump. I can definitely see his offensive numbers getting better and he is a great defensive centerfielder. If Sizemore can stay healthy he could be the best in this list, but his health is a huge question mark. Span has been consistent and provides solid defense and offense. As a player, he just does nothing for me. Lorenzo Cain is a relative unknown. His minor league stats give us Royals fans hope, but as of right now that’s all it is. As for Rios, he has never been a great defender and his offensive numbers have been steadily declining. I look for more of the same from Rios.

Hopefully for the Royals, Cain will produce offensively as he did in AAA in 2010. His speed and defensive ability should be a huge benefit to the Royals pitching staff. For the first time in years, maybe decades the Royals defense up the middle will be a formidable force. Let me end with this,

Got a beat-up glove, a homemade bat, and brand-new pair of shoes;
You know I think it’s time to give this game a ride.
Just to hit the ball and touch ’em all – a moment in the sun;
(pop) it’s gone and you can tell that one goodbye!

The crack of the bat is getting close, can you feel it? Thanks again to John Fogerty for the use of his lyrics to Centerfield.

On a complete side note, I feel like I want to share my opinions on Tim Tebow’s performance Sunday afternoon.

Tebow Time

How can I not address Tim Tebow? There were times during the AFC Wildcard game where Tim Tebow was highly inaccurate, but Tebow leaves everything out on the field. Obviously, someone powerful must be on his side. He showed signs of the strong arm everyone knew he had. When he is accurate you saw what can happen on the first play of OT. The threat of the running game pulled both safeties up to the line of scrimmage. The corners were stuck on an island on the outside with the wide receivers. To the Broncos credit they trusted Tebow and ran a play action pass. Tebow then threw a strike right down the middle to Thomas in stride and he did the rest. Tebow always finds a way to win and it is absolutely baffling. If only the Royals could find a #1 starter similar to Tebow. No matter what happened he would fight and do anything it took to win the game. Chris Carpenter in last year’s playoffs is the best example I can think of. An athlete of this breed only comes along once in a lifetime. Love it or Hate it, hang on and enjoy the show.

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Biggest Royals Plays Of The First Half

Worst WPA plays of the first half:

3. -53% WPA • Matt Holliday home run vs. Greg Holland

June 18 • Royals 4 @ Cardinals 5

Greg Holland has been nothing short of fantastic this year, but he shows up on this list for yielding a two-run homer to Matt Holliday that put the Cards ahead for good in the game.

2. -66% WPA • Torii Hunter home run vs. Joakim Soria

May 30 • Angels 10 @ Royals 8

In Soria’s third and final blown save of the first half, he squandered a one run lead with a single to Bobby Abreu followed by a two run shot by Hunter

1. -68% WPA • Carlos Quentin double vs. Joakim Soria

April 6 • White Sox 10 @ Royals 7

Heading into the top of the 9th, the Royals lead 6-3 and bring in Mr. Automatic, Joakim Soria. Soria retires the first two batters, at which point the Royals win expectancy rounds up to 100%. The game is over. But then Juan Pierre singles…and Gordon Beckham walks…and Alex Rios singles…and Paul Konerko singles….and in the biggest WPA swing of the Royals first half, Carlos Quentin hits a two-run double to give the White Sox the lead and a staggering 68% increase in win expectancy for the Sox.

Best WPA plays of the first half:

3. +44% WPA • Eric Hosmer home run vs. Neftali Feliz

May 18 • Rangers 5 @ Royals 4

I would not expect to see a Royals loss in this list, but here it is. The Royals trailed by a run in the top of the ninth when Hos hit his third career dinger to tie things up, but KC dropped the game in the 11th.

2. +47% • Melky Cabrera single vs. Chris Perez

April 21 • Indians 2 @ Royals 3

This hit finished off a nightmare ninth inning for Indians hurler Chris Perez and a walk off win for the Royals.

1. +52% WPA • Wilson Betemit double vs. Fernando Rodney

April 3 • Angels 9 @ Royals 12

This was the fourth game of the season and one of many big plays in a crazy opening week. Betemit’s double scored two runs to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth; ironically, Matt Traenor’s walk-off homer in the 11th was not quite as big of a play by WPA (+39%).

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