Tag Archive | "Young Prospect"

Rookie Kolten Wong Expected to Be St. Louis Cardinals’ Starting 2nd Baseman

Kolten Wong’s journey has traveled many directions in his short time establishing himself on the St. Louis Cardinals’ roster. He was the prospect who was poised to take the position over late last season. He became the heir apparent during the offseason. He struggled at the start of spring training.

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Now he appears to be the starting second baseman when the season begins.

As spring training winds down for the Cardinals, most of their roster decisions have been made. One of the key positions that seemed to demand attention was second base.

General manager John Mozeliak acquired an insurance policy for his young prospect when he signed Mark Ellis to a contract in December 2013. Ellis would challenge the young Wong to produce immediately if he wanted to hold on to his starting role.

Wong responded early in spring training by pushing himself too hard and found himself without a hit in his first 10 at-bats. Speculation was rampant that Wong simply was not ready. The young man was doing very little to change the minds of his critics.

Then something clicked in his progress—Wong relaxed and started showing signs of the talent so many had talked about prior to this season. He finds himself leading the Cardinals this spring with a .372 batting average. He has an impressive .674 slugging percentage and is leading the team in OPS with a 1.100 mark. The offensive production that some predicted seems to have arrived.

Meanwhile, his challenger struggled to take the field often enough to truly create the competition that management seemed to want. Ellis was slowed by a left knee ailment that caused him to miss seven consecutive games, and now finds himself preparing for Opening Day.

Ellis is expected to be ready for the season opener on March 31. When discussing the situation with Rick Hummel the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,Ellis expressed frustration with the injury more than with not being the starter:

I’m always disappointed when I can’t play…. I never want to be the guy in the training room. I want to be the guy who nobody has to worry about. They don’t have to worry about, ‘Hey, is this guy going to be able to play today or not?’ That’s what is disappointing.

Wong seems ready to begin his rookie season, and Ellis is ready to be the veteran backup.

The Cardinals are ready to win with both of them.

Bill Ivie is the founder of i70baseball.com.
Follow him on Twitter to discuss all things baseball throughout the season.

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Wacha Wacha Wow

The St. Louis Cardinals have shown offensive prowess over the last week, racking up the run support and showing midseason form at the plate.  The offense was impressive, but may have been overshadowed by the presence of pitching prospect Michael Wacha.

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Wacha took the mound behind starter Lance Lynn on Wednesday against the Mets.  The young prospect was making his second appearance in a Spring Training that has had many Cardinal officials raving about his work.  On the heels of Wednesday’s performance, I doubt the hype will be dying down anytime soon.

Mets announcers seem to be uttering the same phrase repeatedly in that highlight, “Oh Boy” seemed to be the order of the day.

The Cardinal farmhand took over for Lance Lynn to start the third inning and went right to work striking out Mets’ shortstop Ruben Tejada.  Superstar David Wright would follow with a base hit, the only blemish on Wacha’s day, before Ike Davis and Marlon Byrd would send fly balls into left field for an easy inning.

If the third inning was easy, the fourth was borderline dominant.  Lucas Duda and Justin Turner would both strike out, the former looking and the latter swinging, before John Buck would ground out weakly to second baseman Daniel Descalso.

The fifth inning would be more of the same with different names at the plate.   Matthew den Dekker, who’s name is familiar thanks to his home run robbing catch earlier in the week (seen below), would watch strike three while Mike Baxter would take his chances swinging even though he would come up empty.  Ruben Tejada, seeing the Cards right hander for a second time, would also ground out to Descalso, though the Cardinals infielder had moved across the diamond to third base.

Wacha seemed dominant, at least on paper, but watching the young man pitch made it obvious that he was pitching smart.  His fastball was in the lower 90’s, but it was also in the lower part of the strike zone.  His changeup was pinpointed and seemed to keep guys off balance while his “third best pitch” as the Mets’ announcers pointed out, his breaking ball was sharp and kicked up dirt.  He truly stepped on the mound to pitch, not throw, and it was clear by the outcome that he was successful.

Most impressive might have been his efficiency.  Wright’s base hit was the only ball struck hard, and even that one was not crushed.

Fans have been hearing for some time now that this is a great farm system.  Spring training gives them their first chance to see this first hand.

Michael Wacha is the future of the organization.

The future looks really, really good.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at I-70 Baseball
Follow him on Twitter here.

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A Look Back At Zack

The aftershocks of the Zack Greinke trade are still reverberating in Royals-land, and KC fans are trying to wrap their heads around life without Zack and the outlook for the four new names added to the franchise. A lot of unknowns. But here I will take a look back at the known: Greinke and fellow trade piece Yuniesky Betancourt’s time with the Royals. Zack and Yuni both stirred the emotions of Royals fans. The similarities end there though.

Betancourt was another stopgap in the seemingly endless merry-go-round of subpar shortstops in Kansas City, and became a whipping boy for many fans. To the sabermetrically inclined, GM Dayton Moore’s acquisition of Betancourt mid-season 2009 was another glaring example of the organization’s head-in-the-sand attitude towards advances in baseball analysis. He was dreadful in his 71 games with the club in ’09 and marginally better in 2010. His 16 home runs—four of the grand variety—in 2010 came out of nowhere and did provide a boost. Still, that Moore included him in this trade takes the sting out of losing Greinke ever so slightly.

Zack has been a part of the Royals organization since the 2002 draft, so Royals fans have had a long time to get attached to him. He whizzed through the minors and made his Royals debut in a start in Oakland in 2004 when he was just 20 years old. He pitched well enough in his five innings that day to be in line for a win. The game served as an ominous foreshadow of things to come for Greinke: with the Royals up 4-2 and two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the Royals were primed to celebrate their young prospect’s first victory. But Eric Chavez hit a two run blast to tie it up, and the Royals dropped the game in the 11th. If Zack had any idea how many times his talents would be wasted by hapless Royals teams over the ensuing years, he would have demanded a trade then and there. Instead he trudged on, and had an encouraging rookie year (3.97 ERA, 4.70 FIP). Then came a tortuous sophomore campaign in which nothing seemed to go right. Zack wasn’t as bad as his 5.80 ERA and 5-17 record suggested (his FIP actually improved to 4.49), but the year took a toll on him.

His struggle with anxiety and depression that led to him walking away from baseball in 2006 spring training has been well documented and probably overblown, so here’s the short version: Greinke headed home to Orlando thinking he might become a lawnmower, but received some help and rediscovered his drive to play. Zack has credited then Royals GM Allard Baird and manager Buddy Bell for handling his problems with grace. He headed to AA Wichita where Frank White was managing and the team was winning games. Zack was supposedly enjoying being part of a winning team so much that he was disappointed when the call came to head to the losing big league club for three late-season relief appearances.

Greinke was hit hard early in ’07 and was moved to the bullpen after seven starts. There he made 38 largely effective appearances before being put pack into the rotation in time for seven more starts at the end of the year. It was in those games Greinke began filling his potential as an ace. With the season winding down, he shut out the White Sox for eight innings, allowing two hits, zero walks and striking out 10. He has never looked back. In 2008 he put it all together over a full season, and Kansas City had the makings of a star on their hands.

Royals fans were already endeared to Greinke at this point, but it was taken to a new level when he signed an extension before the ’09 season that everyone thought would keep him in Kansas City through 2012. In a city jaded by seeing homegrown players who achieve success bolting for larger paydays, fans were jubilant that Zack actually wanted to stay. He seemed to think Moore was putting the Royals in a position to contend, and silly as it seems now, there were dreams that the ’09 Royals could do just that. A motivated Greinke flew out of the gates, reeling off one of the sickest stretches of pitching in history. It took 24 innings into the season for anyone to get a run off him—and it was unearned. Through 10 starts, his ERA stood at 0.84 and he had 73 strikeouts and 12 walks. Royals fans started wishing each other a Happy Greinke Day when he was starting. And as if they needed anymore reason to love him, he told the media in New York, “I don’t want to pitch for New York in the playoffs. I want to pitch for Kansas City in the playoffs.”

The complete domination abated slightly in the middle of the season—perhaps when it was clear the Royals weren’t contenders—but then returned in full force at the end of the season. On August 25, he struck out 15 to set a new Royals record. He followed that up with an even better game: a one-hit shutout in Seattle. Much of his success was predicated on a slider so filthy it buckled the knees of anyone in a ten mile radius. He landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated and dominated an inning of the All-Star game. When the year was over, he had 242 strikeouts, a 2.16 ERA, an impossible 205 ERA+, a 2.33 FIP and a Cy Young trophy. It was probably one of the three greatest individual seasons in Royals history (along with George Brett’s 1980 and Bret Saberhagen’s 1989).

But Zack never seemed particularly excited about or interested in the individual achievements. He found it “annoying” when KC fans chanted “Cy Young” during his last home start of ’09. Greinke just wanted to win. And in spite of his once-in-a-decade performance in ’09, the team was merely 17-16 in games he started thanks to criminally bad run and bullpen support.

No one was deluding themselves that the 2010 Royals would be contenders, and it seemed to most observers that Zack lacked motivation last season. The traditional stats (4.17 ERA) show that he was downright mediocre, but of the things Zack could control, he was still an elite pitcher (3.34 FIP). Fangraphs WAR rated him the seventh best pitcher in the AL in 2010. But in August, he revealed to the Kansas City Star just how frustrated he was with the Royals. He stated that he had no reason to get excited about another youth movement in Kansas City since even if it paid dividends, it would not be until after his contract was up. Then during this off-season, it became clear Greinke was pushing hard for a trade to a team that had a chance to win now. Dayton Moore had failed to build a competent team around his star, and that led to his hand being forced to move him.

There are real reasons to be excited about the future of the Royals starting in 2012 or so, but for now, there’s a gaping hole on the mound where one of Kansas City’s favorite athletes used to be. Dayton Moore signing Greinke to that extension in ’09 was probably his finest move as GM; his inability to keep Greinke content and in KC may be his worst. I shudder to think what a re-energized Greinke might do to the National League in 2011. And for now, Royals fans are left to wonder what could have been in Kansas City.

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Taking A Closer Look At Joakim Soria

Just like some baseball fans that I know, I was skeptical when a young prospect was selected to become the Royals’ closer during the 2007 season. Part of the reason was because I have followed the Royals since the late eighties and saw closers come and go in the organization. Some were crafty veterans who, if brought into the game, would almost guarantee a Royals victory (Jeff Montgomery and Dan Quisenberry). However, I still had a bad taste in my mouth from one of the Royals’ most recent young closers to get the boot, Mike MacDougal. He had one pitch that was effective, for a while. In fact, he actually earned an All-Star nomination. However, inconsistency after that nomination did MacDougal in rather quickly, and he was soon traded away.

Joakim Soria, like many other closers, has one or two pitches that he primarily relies upon. He does have more than that in his arsenal but every good pitcher has a “punch-out” pitch he has worked at for years, trying to make it perfect every time he throws it. His fastball is not as fast as a Nolan Ryan’s, but had some bite to it. In just his second full-season in the majors, Soria was mentioned in conversations with Brad Lidge and Mariano Rivera in terms of stat comparisons and effectiveness to end the game for his team.

If you are a fantasy baseball advocate and you were not able to grab those two in the past few seasons, you should have grabbed Soria. Not just for the saves, for his ability to strike people out too. In every single season, including his rookie year, he averaged at least one strikeout per inning pitched. This means every time he makes an appearance (usually one or two innings at most), he strikes someone out.

Soria is fifteen years younger than Rivera, but comparisons of these two closers have already been made. The biggest difference is the four World Series rings Rivera has. I am hesitant to put Soria on the same level as Rivera, just because he is still early on his career. Yes, he is showing striking similarities to the most intimidating pitcher the Yankees have on their roster. The Royals’ coaching staff and front office recognized this by giving him pay raises in each of the past three seasons.

The Royals need to keep him. He has provided leadership, composure and consistency in a bullpen that has been anything but. He is someone you can build a bullpen to support. He has filled a role that the Royals asked him to do and has done so better than any Royal in the past ten years.

After four seasons in the majors, he is averaging 33 saves per season. Rivera has an average of 37.27 in his fifteen years with the Yankees. Dennis Eckersley averaged 32.5 saves/season in his twelve years as a relief pitcher. Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, has an average of 33.9 in his eighteen seasons as a closer. What these three great relievers have in common are three things: opportunity, longevity, and consistency. It is too early to tell, in my opinion, if the Royals have another hall-of-famer in their bullpen. They have had one in their 41-year history.

I want Soria to stay a Royal his entire career. I cannot think of any Royals fan, coach or current player who does not want this.

I want him to become mentionable in hall-of-fame related conversations. Being mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats is great for a team that has had so many sub-par things going for them in recent memory.

I think that he has what it takes to last as long and still be just as effective as a Rivera, Lidge or Hoffman. As long as he sticks to the regiment that has made him this way. I do not want to see another MacDougal or Jose Rosado.

The Royals have let too many quality young players go since the strike in 1994. They need to keep this one. He is lights out.

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