Tag Archives: Detroit Tigers

It’s the A’s, rather than the Tigers, that are Grrreat

It’s been a while since I’ve written an Oakland A’s blog, but my plan for the rest of the season is to chart the A’s fortunes by publishing a review of every series.

Writing about a second consecutive series-sweep is a good way to start.

Brooms Out

Game Three of the A’s series against the Detroit Tigers was the usual 21.05 BST Sunday start and as I settled down to watch it two words came to my mind: be greedy.

The A’s had captured narrow one-run victories in the first two games and it would be natural to be glad to go into Game Three with a series win secured whilst hoping for another win. However, the best teams are never satisfied and with this being far from a classic Detroit Tigers team a sweep was there for the taking. Don’t be happy with 2 out of 3, was my thinking, grab all 3 while you can.

The A’s did just that and this time they put a few more runs on the board in the process. I still get the feeling that plenty of baseball fans don’t really know who Khris Davis, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are, but all three hit home runs on Sunday and if they carry on in this form then they may well be the object of US national attention when October comes along.

Davis in particular is red-hot at the moment. He’s hit 10 home runs since 22 July and has 31 on the season, third in the Majors behind J.D. Martinez and Jose Ramirez (both on 33). His longball on Sunday was classic Khris, seemingly flicking a ball to right-centre that just kept on going.

Pitching performances and pitching additions

Arguably the most pleasing aspect of the series sweep was the contribution made by the three starting pitchers. Oakland’s outstanding bullpen has been heavily worked of late and so strong showings by Brett Anderson, Edwin Jackson and Trevor Cahill, the latter showing his veteran poise by settling in superbly after escaping a long 29-pitch first inning, were a welcome sight.

The A’s had been heavily linked with adding a starting pitcher at the trade deadline, yet a deal didn’t materialise and the announcement during Sunday’s game that the team had acquired reliever Shawn Kelly seemed to show that they had turned their attention to making their bullpen strength even stronger.

That was until a little while ago when I logged onto MLB.com to check the home run stats and found a breaking news banner flashing before me revealing that the A’s have signed starter Mike Fiers. He was in town already with Detroit so that will make the travel arrangements a little easier!

Fiers had been the name most widely linked with Oakland on the basis that he is a solid starting pitcher without being a guy who would require you to give up too much to get him. It’s a delicate balance for the A’s Front Office as you never want to let a potential play-off opportunity go to waste, yet the potential of a Wild Card one-and-done exit means that the low-payroll, and still rebuilding, A’s would be foolish to mortgage too much of their future in trading away good prospects for a short-term rental.

Although it’s not exactly the Astros signing Justin Verlander, Fiers fits the bill as someone who should be able to help out the rest of the way, so the move gets a thumbs-up from me.

Hello Laureano

It’s not always the bigger name additions that pop up with a useful contribution either. I was only vaguely familiar with A’s farm hand Ramon Laureano when he was called up to the Big League roster on Friday.  He made an instant impression on all A’s fans by making his first Major League hit a 13th-inning walk-off single in Game One, followed it up with a couple of good catches in centre field in Game Two and then demonstrated a perfect example of ‘good ole baseball fundamentals’ in Game Three when he singled home Matt Olson to break the deadlock in the fourth inning.

With runners on first and third, the A’s TV crew, the excellent Dallas Braden I think, were explaining that the gap was there on the right-side of the infield to shoot a single through. Right on cue, Laureano did a textbook job of keeping inside the ball and getting the runner home, something the A’s ideally need to start doing more of rather than being overly reliant on the longball.

Series line-up sheet

One of the many slightly quirky things I do in my baseball fandom is keep series sheets to keep a track of A’s batting lineups and how we are using our pitchers. With the next series only consisting of two games, I’ll leave the explanation for the next blog, but here’s the Detroit series sheet in any case.

Up Next

It’s an odd week for the A’s as we have an off-day on Monday, then a two-game home series against the Dodgers, then another off-day on Thursday before starting a weekend series in Anaheim.

The Dodgers don’t come to the Coliseum very frequently and as LA are one of the few teams who can match the A’s stunning form of late, it should be an excting, if short, series.  Subject to a last minute Fiers fill-in, the series is scheduled to be a southpaw showpiece, with Rich Hill and Sean Manaea starting Game One and Clayton Kershaw and Brett Anderson starting Game Two.

Unsurprisingly, both are night-games so they are 03.05 am starts for us in the UK. Work commitments will prevent me for watching either one live, but I’ll be keenly logging on at breakfast to read/watch all that happens.

Check back on Thursday for the next series review.



Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Rookie Managers Making It Look Easy

Alex Cora and Mickey Callaway must have their feet up in their respective manager’s office thinking that this managing malarkey is easy.

Cora’s Red Sox sit astride the Major Leagues with a 12-2 record heading into Sunday’s games, with Callaway’s Mets close behind on 11-2 having had their nine-game winning streak brought to an end by Milwaukee yesterday.

Meanwhile, it turns out the Phillies’ manager Gabe Kapler might not be completely clueless – as some declared after his first three games – as his team have won five games in a row to second behind the Mets on an 8-5 record.

The Nationals’ Dave Martinez (7-8) and Yankees’ Aaron Boone (7-7) are holding steady in the early going too, which just leaves veteran Ron Gardenhire among the new managers for 2018 for whom the start of the season is proving to be a struggle.

Gardenhire has been in the game long enough not to be too envious of those whippersnappers. There are only 30 MLB manager jobs at any one time and even being in charge of a rebuilding Detroit Tigers is a post to be proud of.

However, it is interesting that so many potentially plumb positions ended up in the hands of rookie managers.

Sport teams generally will change a manager when things have gone badly, with the manager holding responsibility for the team’s performance and being the easiest big part to change as opposed to making significant changes to the playing staff.

That often leads to an ‘opposite ends’ approach to the recruitment of managers, especially in football.  If a ‘back-to-basics’ experienced British manager gets the boot then a younger continental manager is just what’s needed.  If relegation looms with said younger continental manager’s brand of ‘tippy-tappy’ football not working in England, well of course you need a ‘back-to-basics’ experienced British manager to shake things up.

It’s not quite the same in baseball as the manager here has a different brief to work towards (accepting manager/head coach roles vary among football clubs too), yet you still see that approach being taken and, to varying degrees, that goes for the six new managers in MLB this year.

The situation in Washington was the most extreme. Ex-manager Dusty Baker has his critics from previous managerial stints, yet it’s difficult to see quite what he did in his two years at the helm with the Nationals to deserve to be pushed aside over the off-season rather than to continue with the team. They won 95 and 97 games in 2016 and 2017 and whilst consecutive 3-2 Division Series exits were bitterly disappointing when expectations of a World Series were so high, in the cold light of day there wasn’t much about those series defeats that you could pin on Baker.

His departure was a classic case of the team wanting to change something to get over the Division Series hump and Baker being the easiest option.  They changed from a 68 year-old with 22 MLB managerial seasons of experience to Dave Martinez, a 53 year-old who is taking on his first MLB managerial job after serving an apprenticeship under Joe Maddon at the Rays and Cubs.

The changes in Boston and New York were more understandable.

The Red Sox won 93 games and the AL East before being knocked out of the play-offs by a formidable Houston Astros team, so it was hardly a disaster on the field last year. However, it never seemed like a happy camp under John Farrell and so bringing his five-year reign to a close and moving on to the dynamic young Alex Cora looked like a shake-up move at somewhere that needed a shake-up.

The same could be said for the Mets, although in their case the 2017 season undoubtedly was a disaster.  Terry Collins had outstayed his welcome so bringing him back for 2018 was never going to work. Mickey Callaway’s glowing reputation from his five years as pitching coach under Terry Francona in Cleveland made him an obvious candidate to take over at a team whose fortunes are so heavily invested in the form and fitness of their starting pitching.

Aaron Boone was a left-field choice for the Yankees, yet fits into the ‘opposite ends’ idea by virtue of his excellent communication skills – shown to all in his work with ESPN – being cited as a crucial factor in his appointment. Joe Girardi had served a decade as the Yankees’ manager and many on the New York beat had started bemoaning his increased willingness to say very little in his managerial briefings long before it was announce he would not be returning for 2018.  It wasn’t simply the New York press wishing for someone more quote-worthy – although I’m sure that makes their lives much easier – but more that their experience was indicative of what they were picking up from players too: that Girardi was failing to inspire his team any more.

Those four situations are all about winning now, which is different to the roles that Gabe Kapler and Ron Gardenhire are taking on. In Philadelphia, they are firmly on the way up with a young team and so switched the 66 year-old Pete Mackanin for 42 year-old rookie manager Kapler.  In Detroit, they are at the start of a rebuild and decided that the experienced head of Gardenhire was what was needed at this point to move on from first-time manager Brad Ausmus, whose four-year tenure produced mixed results.

These are early days in the 2018 season and none of us can be certain how the six managerial appointments will pan out over the next few years, but it is likely we can take a good guess at the type of manager they will be replaced by when that time comes.

That is, someone the opposite of who they are replacing.

The Sunday Smasher

The Bangles sang that “It’s just another manic Monday”.

In MLB the song goes: “It’s just another Shohei Sunday”.

The Angels’ Japanese star is back on the mound today and after he went six perfect innings against the A’s last time out, he now gets to face the Kansas City Royals who have the worst record in MLB so far this season.

In other words, this has ‘potential no-hitter’ written all over it.  Or it will produce a big shock of the Royals being the line-up to knock Ohtani out of his stride. Either way, it will be worth watching.

First pitch from Kauffman Stadium is at 19.15 BST and the game is available to watch on MLB.TV.

MLB 2016 – American League Preview

MlbHlSqA new baseball season always creates plenty of excitement, yet 2016 promises to be something a bit special.

There are so many great potential story lines – a part of so many teams that potentially could make it to the play-offs – that it’s difficult to know where to begin in rounding them up.

That’s especially the case in the American League.

Whilst there are teams that likely will be out of the play-off conversation when September comes around (to my reckoning: Baltimore, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota, Oakland and Tampa Bay), none of them are punting on the season and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that one of them could still be in with a sniff if things go their way.

You can put together realistic scenarios for most of the teams to at least have a shot at the Wild Card. Here are a couple of the main stories in the three AL divisions alongside my predictions (i.e. somewhat educated guesses) as to who will finish where.

AL East

The Toronto Blue Jays clearly had a good team last year and the logic of them winning the AL East division in 2015 made many overlook that this was a club that hadn’t made it to the play-offs since their back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1992 and 1993.

It was a tremendous achievement for John Gibbons and his men and they will hope that having taken that leap they are set for a period of success; however, there’s a shadow hanging over the club that may call that into question. Sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion are both out of contract at the end of the season and neither have signed an extension as yet, with their own self-imposed ‘start of season’ deadlines about to expire. If that doesn’t change in the next few days, the possibility that two of their core players could both be leaving at the end of the season will add an extra dimension to their campaign.

The Boston Red Sox know that this will be David Ortiz‘s last season as he is set to retire and they will want him to go out on a high note. They’re an interesting team this year. The starting rotation includes plenty of question marks after the newly-recruited ace David Price, but from there this is a roster that should be competing at the sharp end. The thing is, you could have said the same before the 2014 and 2015 seasons and in both cases they didn’t just miss out on the play-offs, they finished dead last in the division. David Ortiz’s send-off is far from the only reason that 2016 has to be different.

AL Central

The projection systems have written off the Kansas City Royals yet again despite back-to-back World Series appearances and capturing the ultimate prize last year.

The Royals are not an extravagantly talented team loaded with stars and instead very admirably have found ways to work around their limitations to be more than the sum of their parts. Their Opening Day starting rotation of Edinson Volquez, Ian Kennedy, Yordano Ventura, Chris Young and Kris Medlen looks underwhelming, for example, but they’re an excellent fielding side and if they can hand over the game to their bullpen with a lead then that’s normally good enough to win the game. Doubting their ability to make it three Fall Classic appearances in a row isn’t unjust; however you shouldn’t be surprised if they do.

Conversely, the Detroit Tigers are still being looked at favourably despite falling to pieces in 2015 and falling to the bottom of the division. They’ve just become the first MLB team to hand out two $100m+ contracts in the same off-season – signing outfielder Justin Upton and pitcher Jordan Zimmermann – so their worst-to-first intentions are clear. If they get some luck with good health to their key players – and that’s a big if – then they just might do it.

AL West

Look through all the predictions and this is the division that has the most people scratching their head when trying to pick a winner. If in doubt, the best starting place is to look back to how things turned out last season, and that would mean the West being a Texas two-step battle once again.

The Houston Astros’ excellent 2015 was a surprise even to the team itself and they will be an exciting club again this year with Carlos Correa and Dallas Keuchel leading the way. It’s worth remembering, though, that they got off to a dazzling start by winning 15 of their 22 games in April and then played just a shade over .500 the rest of the way (71-69) to an 86-76. They will enter this season with expectations on their shoulders, so we’ll have to say how they carry that load.

The Texas Rangers went in the other direction. They struggled through April and on 3rd of May were bottom of the division on an 8-16 record, 9.5 games behind the leading Astros. The Rangers then swept a three-game series in Houston on their way to a 19-11 May and ultimately swept past their Lone Star State rivals on 15 September to go on and win the division.

All of which means that we shouldn’t overact to how the standings look at the end of the first month. The full 162-game regular season showed that both the Astros and Rangers were good teams in 2015 and, irrespective of their April records this year, that’s likely to be the case again in 2016.

My predictions

AL East – Toronto, Boston (WC), NY Yankees, Tampa Bay, Baltimore.

AL Central – Kansas City, Cleveland (WC), Detroit, Chicago WS, Minnesota.

AL West – Texas, Houston, Seattle, LA Angels, Oakland.

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Spring again

WHGB11As Spring Training has got underway, so my regular Sunday catch-up begins again for another year.

Dreaded injuries #1

There is a morbid side to this time of year in which whenever you log onto MLB.com, your first thought is: I wonder if anyone picked up a bad injury overnight?

Amid the stories of uneventful Spring Training debuts for pitchers ‘just getting their work in’ and position battles for the 25th spot on a team’s Opening Day roster, it is news of injuries that take centre stage when they occur.

One of the first MLB.TV streamed game of Spring Training featured the New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers and we immediately witnessed the sort of moment that every manager dreads:

It was a 95-mph fastball from the Yankees’ pitcher Luis Severino that hit Cameron Maybin‘s wrist and the result was a fracture and 4-6 weeks on the sidelines. It could happen to any hitter, especially this time of year when pitchers are trying out new pitches.

Harsh as it sounds, the Tigers would prefer the injury to happen to Maybin rather than Miguel Cabrera or Victor Martinez, but it still takes away from their outfield depth and creates an early headache for a team more dependent than most on good health this season.

Dreaded injuries #2

If that wasn’t bad enough, managers even have to be wary about their players when they’re not playing games.

The LA Dodgers’ great strength for this year seemed to be the depth of their resources, but that is being tested already with pitcher Brett Anderson suffering a recurrence of a back injury that will put him out of action for 3-5 months.

It’s the latest blow for a pitcher who has had an injury-plagued career. 2015 was kind to Anderson and he re-signed with the Dodgers over the off-season after they extended him a qualifying offer (the MLB-defined 1 year, $15.8m contract) to dissuade him from becoming a free agent.

The Dodgers now have three main starting pitchers, and plenty of money, unavailable to them. Anderson and his $15.8m are joined on the sidelines by Hyun-Jin Ryu (being paid $7m this season and potentially back on the field in May) and Brandon McCarthy ($11m this year and potentially back sometime in July).

It’s credit to the Dodgers, and their financial resources, that their season is far from sunk despite these key losses.

Desmond left to learn a new position

A change is as good as a rest, they say. Ian Desmond will be getting little in the way of rest this Spring following his move to the Texas Rangers that requires him to change his fielding position from shortstop to left field. Desmond made his debut in the #7 position on Friday and was glad that only one ball came his way, yet he will be putting in plenty of work to try to get accustomed to his new role over the next few weeks.

It was a strange decision by the Rangers to sign Desmond and move him to left field and the player’s agreement to it is largely due to simply wanting a job somewhere. We often highlight ‘walk years’ when a player excels in the season before he becomes a free agent, but Desmond’s 2015 was the exact opposite to that and once he turned down the Nationals’ qualifying offer, the draft pick a team had to give up to sign him made finding an opportunity difficult.

I’ll be looking at contract offers as part of revising the Baseball Basics for Brits Volume 3 about players and contracts. Desmond’s gamble on turning down the Nationals’ 7-year, $107m contract extension a year ago is likely to feature in the ‘when player’s wish they could turn back the clock’ section.

Maybe too soon for Manaea-mania?

We all know that you shouldn’t put too much stock in Spring Training performances, especially in these early weeks, and so A’s fans like myself won’t be touting pitching prospect Sean Manaea for a Cy Young Award on the back of his promising two-inning debut on Friday against the Rockies. However, there’s no harm in enjoying a youngster doing well, particularly ahead of a season where a .500 record would be a return to some form.

talkSPORT takes up MLB rights

British baseball fans should be retuning their DAB radios as part of talkSPORT’s plans to launch talkSPORT2 on 15 March.

Ex-MLB on 5 Live Sports Extra host (among many other shows) Nat Coombs will be presenting a new All American Sport Show on talkSPORT from Tues 22 March, 18.00-20.00, that will be well worth a listen.

And talkSPORT have the rights to broadcast MLB games too, with familar faces/voices Josh Chetwynd and David Lengel apparently lined up to be part of it. Further details on stations (talkSPORT, talkSPORT2 or a bit of both) and games covered will be announced in due course, but it’s fantasic news that a dedicated British-focused presentation of baseball will be available once again.

Checking in on London

And finally, as for MLB-related matters in Britain …

It was good to see MLB’s Murray Cook visiting the Olympic Stadium in London again, with talks continuing around MLB bringing games to London in 2017 or beyond.

Outfielders come off the market

The top two remaining MLB free agents have come off the market in the past couple of days and so it’s worth revisiting the off-season review to take these signings into account.

The Detroit Tigers have firmly pushed themselves up into second place in the AL Central division, and become a real Wild Card threat, with the addition of outfielder Justin Upton on a six-year contract worth $132.75m (a shade over £93m, or approximately £300k per week).

We all know the story here: the Tigers’ 86 year old owner Mike Illitch has once again dipped into his savings and upped the payroll to try and win a World Series for Detroit.

The only knock on the signing is that Upton adds another right-handed bat to a lineup that already leaned heavily that way. It makes them a little more vulnerable against good right-handed pitching, yet, as Upton himself noted at the press conference to announce the deal, Miguel Cabrera doesn’t mind which hand the ball comes out of.

It rounds off a good off-season for the Tigers, one much needed after they fell down the trapdoor in 2015. The need for Cabrera and Victor Martinez to stay healthy remains; however they do at least have another good hitter now to help cover in case they miss any games.

The other major outfielder signing hasn’t been confirmed as yet, but the announcement of Yoenis Cespedes’ return to the New York Mets is just a formality.

Like many others, I had questioned whether the Mets’ owners would actually go out and spend some money to back up their great young pitching. The market has worked favourably for the Mets in the end. It looks like Cespedes never got the big offer he was hoping for and was therefore open to a return to New York that could give him another bite at the free agent cherry in a year’s time when there will be less free agent competition.

Although the headline figures on the reported deal are three years for $75m, only a bad injury or collapse in performance is going to prevent him from pocketing a $27.5m salary (£19.2m, or £369k per week) this season and then opting out of the remaining two years of the contract.

That should work well for both parties. Cespedes is a difficult player to rank because his highlight reel exploits (home-run hitting spurts, ridiculous throws from the outfield etc) tend to see him elevated to the position of a star attraction, even though his overall contribution in a season shows him to be a good rather than great player.

Adding a good player is always a good idea though. The claims that he turned down a larger offer from division rivals the Washington Nationals makes it all the sweeter for the Mets.

I’m not sure it tips the balance either way to any significant extent. The Mets’ roster still had a decent margin in hand over the Nationals on paper without Cespedes and, even though it would have made for an interesting story, adding him to Washington’s lineup at the expense of the Mets would not have made me elevate them ahead of the reigning champions.

That’s not to say the Nationals couldn’t put together a great season, with or without Cespedes, just that it’s hard to bank on them doing so following last year’s disappointment (and describing it as a ‘failure’ wouldn’t be overly harsh in the circumstances). Cespedes joins Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist in resisting the Nationals’ overtures this off-season. There’s a sense of negativity around Washington at the moment, not just from Jonathan Papelbon’s continued presence either, and, more than most, they look like a team that needs to have a good April if they are to have a good season.

Off-season so far: American League

MlbHlSqGetting on for two weeks ago we looked at the off-season so far in the National League.

When I made some notes for this article they began by stating that no major deals have happened since that point, yet on Saturday that changed with reports of Baltimore re-signing Chris Davis.

There are still a number of free agents on the market that you would have expected to have signed by now though and they may prove to be a difference-maker, especially if signed by a team in the American League.

Currently, whilst the National League has clear dividing lines between genuine contenders and the rest (at least so it appears, we’ve all learned that MLB is capable of surprising us), it’s much harder to nail your colours to the mast of many teams and say they are clearly better than their division rivals at first glance in the AL.

AL East: Boston bouncing back?

The main off-season story has been the two big moves made by the Boston Red Sox. After finishing dead last with a talented but underperforming roster, they’ve responded by signing the best free agent pitcher in David Price (taking him from the reigning division champions) and trading for arguably the best closer in Craig Kimbrel.

Bitter rivals the New York Yankees hit back by trading for flamethrower Aroldis Chapman and, even though he is likely to start the season serving a suspension for an alleged domestic violence incident, he will help to give them a fearsome bullpen as they hope their group of veterans can hold together for one more year.

As for the Toronto Blue Jays, there’s no doubt that losing Price is a blow to their hopes of retaining their crown, especially with him staying in the division. They haven’t done all that much over the offseason – the main moves seeing a reunion with pitcher J.A. Happ and a trade for reliever Drew Storen – and the plan is to hope for full seasons from Marcus Stroman (injured for much of 2015) and Troy Tulowitzki (a mid-season acquisition who also lost time to injury) and that their batting strength continues to come through for them.

I don’t think any of those three teams will be exceptional, but they all have a chance to win 91-92 games and take the division. I’d rank them as 1. TOR, 2, BOS, 3 NYY for now, although I just have a hunch that the Blue Jays might not quite live up to their 2015 season.

I’m putting the contender cut-off at that point even though Baltimore appears to have made a big move this weekend by re-signing Chris Davis. They went 81-81 with him last year and haven’t yet replaced starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen (who has signed with the Miami Marlins), so don’t look a good bet to improve. Neither do the Tampa Bay Rays, who haven’t done little this off-season and look set to put together a good but not great team again, whilst still punching above their weight against teams with vastly greater financial resources.

AL Central: Royals reign, but can Tigers roar again?

The Kansas City Royals won the Central handsomely before winning the World Series and they have to be favourites again in 2016. Although they parted ways with mid-season recruits like Johnny Cueto (signed with the Giants) and Ben Zobrist (Cubs), they kept hold of Alex Gordon when he appeared to be leaving as a free agent and have added pitcher Ian Kennedy this weekend on a five-year contract.

Alongside the Royals winning it all, the AL Central in 2015 was marked by the Detroit Tigers collapsing after their run of dominance. That plays into two storylines for 2016.

The Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians ended up in second and third place respectively, yet being honest you would have to say they were just above average. Neither team has much in the way of money to throw around and they haven’t made significant signings to push forward over this off-season, with the main move being the Twins taking a punt on South Korean slugger Byung-ho Park. The Twins will be looking for youngsters Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton to excel, and the Indians to somehow find some runs to support their strong starting pitching, to try to keep in the running.

That’s going to be difficult because the Tigers have added Jordan Zimmerman to their rotation and revamped their bullpen, including signing closer Francisco Rodriguez. Add in some decent roster additions for depth, including outfielder Cameron Maybin, and they are back to the position of being favourites for second place and a shot at a Wild Card if Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez can stay injury-free.

The Chicago White Sox made plenty of moves over the previous off-season and they didn’t have the desired effect. You can understand why they’ve tried again, trading for Todd Frazier from the Reds and Brett Lawrie from the A’s, through wanting to take advantage of having one of the best pitchers in the league in Chris Sale. They need everything to go right to get back into the race and that’s a bit too much to rely on to predict they’ll do it right now.

AL West: Your guess is as good as mine

The West was taken over by Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in 2015 (strange as that is based on their locations, but that’s how the divisions shape up in the AL), so the question is can they stay in front?

They can as neither team has got worse over the winter, yet neither has made additions that would clearly keep them ahead either. The Astros have added Ken Giles as their closer in a trade with the Phillies, whilst the Rangers’ main move actually came before the mid-season deadline last year when they brought in Cole Hamels (also from the Phils).

So what about the chasing pack?

The A’s have completely revamped an awful bullpen and resisted the temptation to trade Sonny Gray, but it would be a stretch to push them too high up the predicted standings based on that. Last year’s third placed team the LA Angels traded for star shortstop Andrelton Simmons and will always be dangerous with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols at the heart of their lineup, although that potential makes it all the more surprising that they haven’t added further (yet) to really take advantage of the talent they do have.

In contrast, the Seattle Mariners have been very active this off-season. They re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma after it looked like he was off to the Dodgers and also traded for Wade Miley from the Red Sox to give them a potentially strong starting rotation. What will define their season is if their position player additions (including Nori Aoki, Adam Lind and Leonys Martin) provide a solid complement to the Cano-Cruz-Seager core, of if they make that trio’s contributions count for little.

I can genuinely see a way in which the Mariners get into the race here, and it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that the A’s could as well, so this is the most difficult division to predict. I’ll duck the issue and keep the five teams in their finishing positions of 2015 for now, as Spring Training injuries or late off-season additions could have more bearing on this division than any other.

AL Central: Off-season so far

The Kansas City Royals were the surprise story of the 2014 season. Quite simply, every other team could look at them and think, ‘well if the Royals can finally turn things around, there’s a chance for us all’.

Repeating the feat will not be so easy though and if Royals fans thought that their World Series run would herald a new era of success, after so many years of hard times, they haven’t exactly been bowled over by the moves their Front Office has made to make that dream become a reality.

Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios have been added to the offence, signings that may have been more exciting four or five years ago, whilst Edinson Volquez has recently joined a pitching staff with a James Shields-shaped hole in it. Shields is still out there on the free agent market so a return isn’t completely out of the question; however it seems unlikely and Kansas will be looking to their younger players to replicate their late season form.

Shields is the number two starting pitcher on the market behind Max Scherzer. At some point over the next few weeks we will find out if the Detroit Tigers’ owner Mike Ilitch does delve into his sizeable coffers once again, this time to bring Scherzer back.

That seems unlikely considering the annual salaries they are already committed to with Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and the re-signed Victor Martinez over the next four years (see the payroll commitment spreadsheet on the Tigers’ page at Cot’s Baseball Contracts), but if they don’t feel they can keep hold of David Price before he reaches free agency at the end of 2015, maybe they will stretch to a fourth big contract. The Tigers have added Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene to the rotation already, whilst trading away Rick Porcello to acquire outfielder Yoenis Cespedes from Boston.

The Cleveland Indians have been quiet so far this off-season, just adding Brandon Moss and Gavin Floyd, and are banking on their good core of young(ish) players to be backed by returns to form by 2012/13 offseason free agent signings Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, there is a new manager at the helm in Paul Molitor after Ron Gardenhire’s 13-year spell with the team was brought to an end. The Twins were not expected to be too active this off-season, biding their time as young players like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano (both hampered by lengthy injuries in 2014) make their way through the Minor Leagues. They have brought back veteran outfielder Torii Hunter, signed Ervin Santana as a free agent and agreed a contract extension with Phil Hughes, who was a terrific signing for the team last winter.

All of which leaves us with by far the busiest team in the division and one of the most active across the Majors. The Chicago White Sox have added players to the batting lineup, starting rotation and bullpen (as noted recently) and how well they mesh together in 2015 will be one of the factors in determining if the Royals’ World Series appearance was the start of a play-off run or just a one-and-done affair.

Winter Meetings create a rumour wonderland

The MLB Winter Meetings, which begin on Monday 8 December, are a pre-Christmas treat for baseball fans.

It’s the annual event, being held in San Diego this year, where all MLB teams gather alongside agents and some players as they discuss potential trades and free agent signings alongside general housekeeping around rules and procedures.

There were no major deals announced during the event last year – the three-team trade between the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels involving Mark Trumbo, Adam Eaton, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago was the main deal agreed – yet the week plays an important role in setting up deals to be completed in the week or two afterwards.

And, more than anything, hordes of reporters flock to the meetings and generate copious amount of rumours for us to devour.

Free agents

Quite a few of the free agent hitters have already found new homes this offseason.

Deals completed so far include Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez signing for the Boston Red Sox, Russell Martin moving to the Toronto Blue Jays, Nelson Cruz joining the Seattle Mariners and Victor Martinez opting to stay with the Detroit Tiger.

In the past few days, two more names came off the free agent list with Nick Markakis agreeing a deal with the Atlanta Braves and Torii Hunter reuniting with the Minnesota Twins.

Consequently teams looking for position players – which is all of the teams – will be looking for potential trade partners and the free agent activity is going to focus more on the pitchers.

Jon Lester appears to be the most likely pitcher domino to fall first based on the growing rumours around alleged contracts being offered to him. Once Lester makes his decision, those that miss out may well move quickly to capture James Shields as a very capable substitute.

Max Scherzer will continue to play a waiting game unless a team throws a monumental contract offer onto the table this week, although his agent Scott Boras is sure to be a high-profile figure during the Winter Meetings.

AL East bearing its teeth

The New York Yankees broke their unusual silence this on Friday.

First they acquired shortstop Didi Gregorius as part of a three-team trade and then they signed relief pitcher Andrew Miller on a four-year contract worth $36m (just over £111k per week).

The moves are no surprise considering how competitive the AL East is likely to be in 2015.

The Boston Red Sox were woeful in 2014 and have wasted no time in improving their roster with Sandoval and Ramirez joining their lineup and plenty of rumours abounding about potential deals to come.

Meanwhile the Toronto Blue Jays have already added Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson to their lineup and, again, reports suggest they are far from finished when it comes to adding new players this offseason.

The Tampa Bay Rays are taking a more considered approach to a probably modest offseason trading period, although they made an important decision this week in appointing 36-year-old ex-catcher Kevin Cash to replace Joe Maddon as their new manager.

Which leaves us looking at the reigning division champions waiting for them to react. The Baltimore Orioles have lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis this week and, even with catcher Matt Wieters and third baseman Manny Machado returning from injuries, that means they have two notable holes to fill, at least, if they are to avoid being overtaken by their division rivals.

Reading list

With the baseball games all dried up – including the MLB Japan All-Star series this year – and Christmas lists being compiled, early December is the main time of year that I spend considering additions to my baseball book library.

The Hardball Times annual is always on my list and I’ve been eagerly dipping into my 2015 copy over the last couple of days since it came through the post.

Even just from the opening three chapters reviewing the American League side of the 2014 season, I’ve learned more about the success the Cleveland Indians have had in recent years through player trades, how the Toronto Blue Jays really missed a trick in failing to improve their roster mid-season, and been reminded of some of the young players that made a mark in the American League such as the Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier, the Angels’ Kole Calhoun and the Astros’ Collin McHugh.

Baseball historian John Thorn’s book ‘Baseball in the Garden of Eden’ has been waiting on my shelf to be read for a while so I’ll be looking to get to that one soon. ‘Baseball Explained’ by Phillip Mahony also looks like being a good contender as a key book for Brits new to the game based on my initial flick through.

I’ll put together some reviews once I’ve had a chance to enjoy reading them over the next few weeks. If you’ve got any other suggestions for books to catch up on, please pass them on.

A Friday filled with Division Series drama

MlbPostseason2014We are only a few days into the 2014 postseason, but it’s safe to say that when we look back over the offseason Friday’s bonanza of baseball will turn out to be one of the most memorable days from it.

It was the only day on the Division Series schedule in which we were guaranteed games from all four series – Monday could provide that too if the two American League series both go to a fourth game – and all four served up the sort of drama and excitement that playoff baseball is all about.

The MLB.com Game Recap videos combined provide a great way to spend 15 minutes re-living the action from the four Friday contests.

Detroit and Baltimore got the day underway with Game 2 of their series starting at 17.07 BST. The Orioles staged an incredible comeback to turn around a 5-1 deficit and to put themselves in the best possible position of a 2-0 series lead heading to Detroit.

The loss for Detroit highlighted the flaws of a team containing several outstanding players, yet having weak links in other parts of their roster despite it being put together at considerable expense. Although a home win for the Tigers in Game Three will put a completely different spin on the series, you would expect the Orioles to complete the job based on their regular season performance and the first two games of the series.

San Francisco and Washington went next and the Giants showed the World Series-winning magic of 2010 and 2012 may still be with them by grabbing the advantage by winning Game One.

One big change from those two title triumphs and this year is the introduction of the Video review challenge system. We saw the huge benefits of that in the third inning when the Giants’ Travis Ishikawa was called out on a close force-out play at second base only for the review process to prove that he was safe.

Ishikawa came around to score the opening run of the game two batters later and that’s exactly why replay is so important; getting potentially crucial calls right rather than relying on the hoary old tosh of ‘luck evening itself out’. Just as importantly, the umpire was able to come out of the game knowing that even though his professional pride may have taken a very slight dent by getting a tricky call wrong, the mistake didn’t cost the Giants and he didn’t have to deal with a bunch of reporters and irate fans.

Two other things stood out from the game for me. Firstly, there was the monumentally important bases-loaded strikeout by Hunter Strickland to end a Nationals threat in the sixth inning. Save-compiling closers apart, relief pitchers tend to fly under the radar until the playoffs come along. Strickland’s 100MPH punch-out pitch will certainly have gained him some attention last night.  Secondly, the Bryce Harper hype is something I’ve written about before, but even the naysayers have to admit that he has enormous talent. Mark down his gargantuan moonshot in the seventh inning – off Strickland, such is the hero/zero highwire act that relievers walk – as his first real playoff highlight.

Then came the ding-dong drama of the series opener between the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Cards beat Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs yet again and whilst their fans will be desperate to take the next two games in as trouble-free a manner as possible, the rest of us can only look at all that happened in Game One and ask for four more of those, please.

It was a game that had everything, not least the sort of amped-up aggro that looks certain to turn the rest of the series into a passion-filled tussle that may well spill over from a figurative fight to a literal one.

In every best-of-five-game series, the home team that has lost Game One is desperate to win the next game rather than head to their opponent’s backyard in an 0-2 hole, yet it must carry even more weight here. The facts are simple: the Dodgers somehow lost after knocking out the Cardinals’ ace Adam Wainwright and handing a 6-1 lead to Kershaw to protect. If ever a team needed a win to wipe away the memories of yesterday with a win today, it’s these Dodgers.

A small crumb of comfort for the Dodgers is that they’re not yet in as big a hole as their cross-town rivals, the Los Angeles Angels.

After two games at home, they’ve now suffered two extra inning defeats to Kansas City as the completely spurious but always-attractive feeling of a ‘team of destiny’ really starts to take hold around the Royals.

Kauffman Stadium is going to be absolutely electric on Sunday night as Kansas City hosts their first postseason game since 1985. The Angels didn’t win 98 regular season games by chance and so a comeback cannot be counted out, yet they are going to need C.J. Wilson to find a quality start from somewhere after an inconsistent patch of form. Despite his nickname, ‘Big Game’ James Shields hasn’t been particularly impressive so far in his playoff appearances. Sunday night would be the perfect time for the Royals’ starting pitcher to live up to his billing.

Weekly Hit Ground Ball: When the final day may not be the final day

WHGB11The final day of the MLB regular season is always tinged with sadness.

It’s caused by the realisation that the daily delight of baseball that has been a constant for the last six months is about to reduce to a trickle of playoff games and then a long baseball-free winter.

The one thing you hope for on this day is that there is one last hurrah, a gripping pennant race to be decided that will have you flicking between games and getting caught up in the drama.

The high-water mark of recent times to judge any final day against came in 2011. Here’s how I summed it up at the time:

“It’s just gone seven a.m. and while I’m tired I know there is little chance that I will be able to fall asleep again any time soon.

My head is still spinning from the most incredible end to an MLB regular season you could imagine.  The lack of sleep isn’t helping with my futile attempt to take it all in, but even if I was wide awake, I would still be shaking my head with disbelief and wondering if this has really happened.

In the early hours of Thursday, the Tampa Bay Rays somehow snatched the American League Wild Card from the Boston Red Sox

It was 5.07 a.m. in the UK.  That’s not a very sociable hour to be cheering or screaming in frustration, but anyone following the action would have found it impossible not to let their emotions get the better of them.

The Rays were one strike away from losing in the ninth inning of their game.  The Red Sox were one strike away from winning their game.  Somehow it is the Rays that have ended up winning the AL Wild Card.

I can’t summon the energy or concentration required to think much about the postseason right now.  All I know is that it has got a lot to live up to”.

I can’t imagine anything could top that final day – or very long night as it turned out to be for us in the U.K. – however the 2014 final day is set up to potentially come some way close to it.

After the games on Saturday there are still three key postseason matters to be decided:

  1. Who out of the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates will win the NL Central, with the ‘loser’ heading to the NL Wild Card game to face the San Francisco Giants
  2. Who out of the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals will win the AL Central, with the ‘loser’ heading to the AL Wild Card game
  3. Who out of the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners will win the second AL Wild Card spot, with the winner facing the loser of the Tigers-Royals race, whilst the loser of the A’s-Mariners race seeing their playoff hopes dashed at the last.

If the results go the right way – or the wrong way depending on who you support – any or all of the three races could be tied after the teams have completed their 162 schedule meaning that a single 163 game decider will be needed.

In all three cases both results need to go the way of the chaser: them to win and their opponent to lose. And just to add to the drama, the key games today are all starting at different times.

In the National League Central race, the Pittsburgh Pirates begin their game against the Cincinnati Reds at 18.10. BST needing to win to keep their division title hopes alive. If they lose then the St. Louis Cardinals will be able to play their game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, starting at 21.10., with the freedom that they’ve avoided the Wild Card ‘play-in’ game. If the Pirates have won their game, all the pressure suddenly sits on St. Louis’s shoulders needing to win their game to clinch the division and knowing a loss will lead to a nervy game 163.

It’s a similar scenario in the American League Central, only in this case it’s the current division leaders, the Tigers, who get underway first. They start their game against the Minnesota Twins at 18.08, one hour ahead of the first pitch between the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox.

As with the Cardinals’ scenario, if the Tigers win their game then the Royals’ result will be irrelevant and we would probably be in a situation (subject to the Tigers-Twins games going into extra innings) where the Tigers clinch the division while the Royals are still in mid-game. However if the Tigers miss their chance then it will be an anxious wait for them to see if the White Sox can do them a favour.

The same story could play out in the AL Wild Card race and that is the most tense of them all. At least in the other two races the ‘loser’ will have a Wild Card playoff place to soften the blow. There will be no such consolation prize for whoever misses out between the A’s and Mariners.

Oakland are in the ‘all we have to do is win’ spot and begin their game against the Texas Rangers at 20.05, with the Mariners starting their game against the LA Angels at 21.10. in the ‘we need the A’s to lose and for us to win’ spot.

The different start times mean that it’s possible all three cases will come to a calm conclusion as the evening progresses, with the first result in each deciding everything, yet you wouldn’t bet against the drama continuing right down to the wire.

It should be a great final day to the 2014 regular season, because there’s every chance that it will not be the final day of the regular season after all.