Prospect Watching and “Discovering” Hall of Famers

One of the advantages of working in the Arizona Rookie League is seeing the most recently signed draftees or members of the 2014 International free agent class making their stateside professional debuts. Most of the players assigned here are high schoolers, college players usually skip Rookie ball altogether because of their college experience, but there are exceptions. Royals second rounder Josh Staumont from Azusa Pacific University and Rangers 20th rounder Xavier Turner out of Vanderbilt are two examples.

Indians outfielder Gabriel Mejia is an International player who turned heads this past week, going 4-5 in a game against the Rangers in Surprise and being clocked to first at 3.4 from the left side and 3.6 from the right side. That’s fast.

Players will sometimes repeat the league although at this level it means next to nothing. An 18 year old from Minnesota will have less game experience than a similar aged player from Florida. Even at that, though, the Florida kid could have moved, could have been injured, so reading into a repeat shouldn’t be cause for concern. Especially considering the number one reason for a repeat, organizational development, is something virtually no one understands or even knows about.

Over the past year or so, several prominent minor league slanted blogs and websites, including industry leader Baseball America, have undergone significant changes at the top. Long time guru Jim Callis left to join Jonathan Mayo and Bernie Pleskoff at MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline, and while holdover John Manuel does a great job in his own right, the site and magazine has taken a noticeable turn towards sabermetrics. I still read and subscribe because despite their selling out, they still are the industry leader in both professional and amateur prospect coverage, but I can see the day coming where my money will go elsewhere.

The moral of the story is this; most of the prospect “writers” on some of these blogs don’t go to games, the stories they tell you come from watching on TV or repeating what Callis and Keith Law write in their columns. My advice? Pick one or two guys you know go to the ballpark and whose visionary field matches your own….and leave everyone else alone. Reading a “scouting report” written by a 20 year old college kid who has been following the game for six months seems like a defeatist way to gather information.

As most who know and follow me are aware, I’ve been a Yankee fan for almost fifty years. My first memories are of a broken down Mickey Mantle and a closer by the name of Dooley Womack. It bothers me when sports fans use the word “we” when talking about their teams and it’s a word most often used, unfortunately, by Yankee fans. None of us have ever had an impact on a personnel decision or anything that’s happened on the field, but success often breeds jealousy and increased membership on the bandwagon.

One of the biggest black marks on the history of the franchise, at least in my lifetime, took place, ironically just as the team started winning again, in the mid seventies and involved owner George Steinbrenner’s bizarre obsession with Billy Martin. Maybe it’s because Martin stood up to the Boss and George respected that, maybe it was just because of the fact the constant headlines sold tickets, who knows, but years later, it’s an embarrassing time despite the wins and losses.

There’s another black hole we, as fans, are living through now, the Alex Rodriguez saga. From the initial trade, to the ripping up of his awful contract only for it to be replaced by a worse one to the PED scandal, this has been a twelve year disaster and I feel the worst is yet to come.

The call-up of top prospects this year by their parent franchises is unprecedented; only two of Baseball America’s top ten prospects are currently playing minor league baseball and one of the remaining duo, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager, is a virtual lock to be in Los Angeles by the trade deadline. This has caused two phenomenons, one, the increased attention they’ve received since reached the major leagues. One day it’s Kris Bryant in the headlines, the next it’s Carlos Correa, and so on. The second is now the minor league cupboard is barren, there are guys in Triple A who should be in Double A, and so on all the way down the line. With four or five below average draft classes consecutively and most of the better players receiving their major league diplomas, the future of prospect watching, at least for the foreseeable future won’t be what we’re used to.

With that said, though, there’s nothing like the minor league experience. When I first joined the Eastern League in August of 1978, among the players I got to see were Bristol’s Wade Boggs and an 18 year old outfielder with Jersey City who stole everything but the key to the city, Rickey Henderson.

Did I know they would be Hall of Famers then? Not a chance. Does it make it that much better now that they are? You betcha.

So, head out to the ballpark. What are you waiting for?
Thanks for reading,

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse @IBWAA @FlameDelhiSABR

Alumni Giving Back and Prospecting for Prospects

This past Monday, February 16th, I was fortunate enough once again to spend the day with some very important friends, the Arizona Major League Alumni (AZMLA) as they held their 29th annual fundraising event. In the past, it was a weekend event, with a dinner, old-timers game and card show which culminated with a Monday golf tournament and auction. As some of the guys have gotten older and the economy impacted participation only the Monday event remains, and it’s a day I know every participant looks forward to as the old year turns to the new.

Held at the prestigious Troon Country Club in Scottsdale, the event raises money for the numerous charitable endeavors the Alumni are involved in throughout the year. The primary benefactors of their efforts are Arizona Youth Baseball, the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT) and the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America. The last two are non-profit organizations whose fundamental existence is built on helping former players, scouts, executives, umpires and even immediate family members who have fallen on hard times for any reason.

Arizona Youth Baseball is their designated charity however, and as the title says is an organization that revolves around the youth of Arizona. The primary function is to teach baseball the major league way through clinics, but it’s not just about learning the game, it’s also about being successful in the classroom and in life; learning teamwork and respect is something they will need to be successful as adults.

Among the past participants are Hall of Famers Bob Feller, Harmon Killebrew, Brooks Robinson, Ferguson Jenkins, Phil Niekro and Gaylord Perry. There have been appearances as well by Cy Young winners (Vern Law) ERA champions (Joel Horlen), stolen base champs (Vince Coleman) and HR kings (Dave Kingman). Even Hall of Fame announcer Bob Uecker has stopped by from time to time.

An almost yearly participant is Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who lives in Arizona year round. The best part of his appearance is he just doesn’t show up for the free golf and dinner and take off, he stays for the entire event and makes sure everyone who wants a picture or autograph or just a hello is accommodated. He also donates items for the auction, signed bats, balls, Brewers hats, etc, so if you’re looking for something other than just a card signed, there are other options.

Over the years I’ve played with Bob Owchinko, the late Ed Bouchee, Jim Walewander, Leon Brown, Mike Colbern, and this year Rich Chiles. The guys are great to be around, and the stories are priceless; listening to Bouchee recount his days with Casey Stengel and the 1962 Mets won’t soon be forgotten.

I won’t lie, the day can be expensive, but that’s point of a charity. I know most people budget donation money throughout the year, and if you’re looking for a different option, then I can’t think of any better than the last Monday in February in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Baseball America came out with their Top 100 Prospect list this past week, the last of what has turned into an everybody has an opinion event. BA started the Top 100 in 1990 and for a time were the only publication to do so; over the years they built a solid network of scouts who they relied on for information.

Nowadays it seems everybody has an opinion, although I’ll venture to say it’s more about selling website hits and subscriptions than it is the legitimacy of their work.

At the end of the day, everyone knows who the top prospects are regardless of whose list you favor, the trick is figuring out which guys at the back end or who missed altogether will end up being regular major league players.

For me, that’s the beauty of spring training. I’m fortunate to not only live in Arizona but to work part-time for MLB, which gives me access to backfield workouts and extended spring training games at 8 am where the future of baseball really lies. For every Kris Bryant there are a hundred guys drafted in the 40th round or free agents signed out of some mid-west Independent League trying to play his way into a Class A lineup.

Everyone starts at the bottom, over the past few years Alumni of the Arizona Rookie League include Mat Latos, Starlin Castro, Elvis Andrus and Mike Trout. Pablo Sandoval never made a top prospect list, but he came through the AZL as a 17 year old in 2004, beginning a journey which has led him to All-Star status and three World Series rings as a major leaguer.

Yes, it’s fun to watch Joey Gallo take batting practice or Francisco Lindor field ground balls, but the real fun of spring training backfield action is trying to spot the next Pablo Sandoval and following his career.

Wherever it may go.
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse

Please Respect Greg Bird

Like Rodney Dangerfield, Greg Bird can’t seem to get any respect. His 2014 season may not have been what was expected coming off a solid 2013, but you’d think dominating the talent laden Arizona Fall League would have reinforced the opinion of some prospect prognosticators.

Such appears not be the case.

Even our own group of experts here at ProspectPipeline have Bird outside the Top 100 prospects and rank him third at first base behind two players with just as many questions on their respective skill sets.

Look, no one knows better than I that  AFL stats are pretty meaningless overall in a player’s resume’ and winning the MVP doesn’t carry much weight either. The Fall League is a short season, seven weeks at the most, and anything can, and usually does happen over such a small sample size, but we’re not talking Chip Cannon here.

Those who know prospects are aware of Chip Cannon, for the rest of you Cannon was a 6’5″ outfielder drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the eighth round of the 2004 amateur draft. In 2005, his first full season as a pro, Cannon, playing in three classifications, hit 32 homers with 98 runs batted in while compiling a .289 average with a .942 OPS. The next season, 2006, he led the Eastern League in homers and runs scored (and strikeouts) and was sent to the AFL where he led the league in homers and runs batted in and was named league MVP.

Cannon would play two more seasons in the Jays system then found himself with Tampa and after eight games with AA Montgomery in 2009 was out of baseball.

He never played in the major leagues.

I understand it’s difficult profiling a first baseman, especially a guy with with a strict positional limit and no dominant carrying tool. He doesn’t have Matt Olson’s power or Josh Bell’s versatility and these are the things that catch the attention of some evaluators, but from a scouting standpoint Bird carries a complete package.

The old adage corner players requiring a higher power profile than their middle counterparts is true, but it’s only because they can’t contribute equally on defense, a shortstop or centerfielder has many more defensive responsibilities than a first baseman or left fielder. That doesn’t mean Bird can’t have a long productive career averaging “just” sixteen homers a season, which was Wally Joyner’s number over his sixteen year career. Mark Grace also played sixteen seasons and his season average was less than that, an even dozen. Whether Bird can match Joyner’s career .362 on base percentage or Grace’s .303 batting average remains to be seen, but discounting him because he likely won’t hit thirty homers in a season seems to be a shortsighted view.

Another thing about Bird is until he signed with the Yankees he was a catcher, the high school battery-mate of Baltimore’s Kevin Gausman, so he’s well behind the learning curve of his counterparts Olson and Bell. I had heard of Bird’s struggles defensively in 2013 and they weren’t just his error totals. People I trust told me he was a good athlete and his problems stemmed from inexperience; being a half step behind a play could be the difference between an out or a run, and as the season wore on and even into 2014 these sources were steadfast in their beliefs Bird would eventually become a solid defender.

I remember seeing Paul Goldschmidt at the 2011 Futures Game and workout and thinking he may be the worst defender I’d seen in awhile, but he worked his behind off and is now considered a Gold Glove candidate and I think Bird is on a similar path. He’s a good athlete for a big guy and while he won’t win any spring training gasser contests he’ll eventually become an above average defensive player.

The thing I like best about Bird though is his swing. My friend Joe DelGrippo, a former college player who follows Yankee prospects as they come through the Sally League has been on Bird almost from the get go, saying his swing was short and clean for a big man. I won’t get into the mechanics of a swing here because I’d like to keep this under 2000 words, but in a nut shell a short, repeating swing means fewer slumps and the ability to put the barrel on a higher percentage of pitches, even when you’re fooled. In 2014, for example, the longest stretch of hitless games for Bird was three, and that was during the last week of the season when fatigue may have played just as much of a factor as the opposing pitcher.

I’ll take that profile any day.

The immediate future for Bird has him picking up where he left off in 2014, returning to Double A Trenton where he should spend at least half the season. Come the All-Star break he could move up to AAA Scranton-Wilkes-Barre; if he’s struggling in AA then leave him be. There’s no other first base prospect in the system anywhere close to challenging Bird as the eventual replacement for Mark Teixeira following the 2016 season, so if 2017 is the earliest we’ll see him in New York then no reason to panic.

(When Teixeira leaves, McCann will not be the everyday first baseman, let’s kill that idea once and for all)

Bird doesn’t have the shiny power of Joey Gallo, who is ranked close to or in the top ten of most prospect lists and who quite possibly will join Chip Cannon in the never played in the majors club.

Greg Bird won’t be a member of that club. He may not have Teixeira’s glove or Albert Pujol’s bat or Prince Fielder’s power, but if the best he can become is Wally Joyner or Mark Grace, I’ll take it.

Then I’ll invite all the non-believing prospect evaluators over to my house for a barbeque, where I’ll be serving crow.

Now that we’re getting into prospect season, I’ll be sharing some websites and Twitter handles of some people I know and respect, and since we’re talking Yankees today I’ll keep it in the family.

The first is Yankees Unscripted, founded by Chris Carelli. Chris is a fellow member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America and outside of his site contributes Yankee related material to MLBTradeRumors.

The second is Pinstriped Prospects with Jed Weisberger. Jed is also an IBWAA member and is a contributing writer to MLB.com.

Living in Arizona I can’t keep up with the goings on with the Yankees as I’d like, and other players as well. Having guys like Chris and Jed (and Joe) who I can bounce things off makes it much easier when Greg Bird or Gerritt Cole come out to the Fall League, I feel like I’m more prepared.

Til next time

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA

On Opening Day, Jeff Kent, Ernie Banks and Cheapskates

With the Super Bowl now safely in our rear view mirrors, it’s clear sailing ahead as equipment trucks are leaving the frozen north for the humidity of Florida and the Valley of the Sun. The trucks will begin arriving as early as Tuesday with pitchers and catchers a few days behind them and by February 25th camps will be in full swing preparing for the upcoming Major League season.

The last off-season was almost unbearable what with the Alex Rodriguez drama surrounding his dealings with Tony Bosch and Biogenesis and the eventual length of his suspension. Thankfully, this off-season was a bit more normal, although the flurry of transactions leading up to and through the Winter Meetings was dizzying to say the least.

And I don’t think we’ve seen the last, either. The Diamondbacks don’t have a catcher, James Shields doesn’t even have a job, and the Phillies are still trying to shed $100 million off their payroll. I believe there will be another big deal or two happening between now and Opening Day, with either Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels likely changing their address.

In the aftermath of the recent announcement of the Hall of Fame Class of 2015 the one thing that didn’t surprise me at all was the whopping fifteen percent racked up by Jeff Kent. The Hall of Fame is about all-round greatness over an extended length of time, it’s about winning games with your legs and glove when your bat takes the day off, and vice versa. The fact Kent is the all-time leading homerun hitter amongst second baseman is meaningless when compared to some of the other greats who played the position and who actually did contribute in other areas like Robbie Alomar, Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan.

The fact some people are upset at Kent’s showing, or that guys like Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines aren’t in yet makes me scratch my head wondering what they’ve actually been watching all these years.

In the aftermath of Ernie Banks’s passing, I spent a quiet afternoon thumbing through old scrapbooks I put together as a kid and some other publications and videos, just reminiscing on his career as a player. Banks played an important role in my early life as part of the foundation for being a fan of the game and as an adult in a more personal and private way.

In reading through some articles, I came across a “Where are They Now” piece written by Herb Scharfman in the July 7, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. There is a passage in the article that made me stop and read it again because while I’d heard similar stories before about this, I’d never heard Banks say it.

Before the Cubs headed to New York for an important series against the Mets the first week of September, 1969, Banks said he made a point to talk to different players on the team regarding the increased media presence that would be in the clubhouse and to watch what was said.

“So we get to New York, and lose the first game. Don Young dropped a fly ball, and that was it. We came into the locker room. I was next to Santo and he just went crazy (blaming Young). Young was so upset, he ran out. (Coach) Pete Reiser had to bring him back. I had never seen anything so hurtful.”

The incident made the papers, and according to Banks, the team fell apart because of factions in the locker room, with players at “cross-purposes” after that.

(The next day, September second, was the infamous “black cat” game, to which Banks said was orchestrated by the Mets right up to intentionally releasing the cat onto the field).

That teammates blamed Ron Santo for dividing the clubhouse and not being a good teammate isn’t news, but when a guy who could have won the Governor’s election at any time during his career comes out and says it, well, that’s justification. And it kind of makes you wonder why Santo only gained Hall of Fame status after he himself passed away…..doesn’t it?

Speaking of the Cubs, would they really that cheap to start Kris Bryant in the minor leagues? I mean, worrying more about a few extra dollars five years from now over the possibility of the postseason this year seems somewhat short sighted and ignorant.

Can we just stop assigning arbitrary win shares to players and dollar values to wins and just put the best product on the field?

On a side note, if you are looking for another website to follow (and who isn’t?) then check out the newly re-designed 27outsbaseball.com. Chris Phillips and the gang over there are kicking it up for this year with the new site design and twice weekly podcasts featuring interviews with minor league players including Cody Decker of the Padres and San Francisco Giants minor league POY Mitch Delfino.

I follow some other sites as well, more during the season as the opinion of those who actually get to the ballpark and watch games is invaluable and I’ll be mentioning them as we get closer to the start of the season.

Baseball’s Back!!
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse

Gil Hodges, Billy Beane and Top 100 Ranking Lists

Living in Arizona means I’m among the fortunate whose season runs just a bit longer than most everyone else but even ours comes to a close eventually. The Arizona Fall League Championship Game signals the igniting of The Hot Stove season which runs until pitchers and catchers report in February.

The Winter Meetings concluded this past week and while it’s still nothing more than a glorified happy hour, there were more trades made than in the past three combined and the foundations were set for more after the holidays. As I predicted, the Veteran’s Committed failed to elect anyone, although the underrated Tony Oliva made a surprising run, missing by one vote, as did Dick Allen. If one thing should be obvious at this point with the VC it’s time to put an end to the Gil Hodges love-fest. He was never a good candidate to begin with, either traditionally or sabermetrically and is even less so now forty-two years after his passing.

Growing up in the frozen Northeast I’d always be desperate for off-season news. There was no ESPN or internet or sports talk radio, so whatever was in the local sports page was welcomed no matter how small or infrequent the information was. Nowadays information is everywhere either through blogs or social media sites trying to be the next big thing. We even have teenagers on Twitter claiming to be “insiders” which pushes the envelope to the limit if you ask me.

Billy Beane has taken more than his share of negative feedback on some of his most recent transactions and while most of it is deserved, it’s also defensible. As the A’s General Manager, Beane’s job is the same as any other businessman, put out the best product as possible while staying under budget. Beginning in 2005 however, Beane began wearing two hats; one his manager of operations lid he’d been wearing since 1997, the other as part-owner, which meant he now reports to himself to some degree.

I’m currently reading the biography of a former major league executive and in one passage he speaks about going through the same things Beane has been, working for a lame duck franchise and intentionally ‘devaluing the product” so as to make the transition to new ownership smoother. The A’s gave up on Josh Donaldson two years before arbitration because they didn’t want to price themselves out of a decent return. They traded a potential All-Star shortstop to rent Jeff Samardzija for two months. They traded their top lefthanded power bat for a scrub infielder who may never play major league ball regularly. We’ve seen examples of “devaluing” in the past, Montreal, Texas, Arizona and San Diego come to mind, and even the current Mets situation qualifies. Teams aren’t going to lay out financial committments they can’t keep or someone else doesn’t want.

The myth of Moneyball aside, Beane understands the process better than most of his peers because he played the game, which gave him the ability to see unseen skills in a player that don’t show up on a spreadsheet. I used to be anti-Beane myself, but I’ve come to learn over the years he’s trying to balance the budget of a business without hurting his own bottom line.

Time to give the guy a break.

The close of the Winter Meetings signals the beginning of the off-season “dead zone”, as most team offices close until after the first of the year, which means there are few conversations and even fewer transactions. What we start to see is the various blogs and websites publishing their own top prospect lists. For a minor league junkie like myself I like reading about players I haven’t seen yet, but I also have to take that information with a grain of salt because in all likelihood the person doing the writing hasn’t seen him either.

Baseball America started the list process in 1992 and over the years built up a long list of respected baseball people (myself included) that did see players and could offer legitmate information above batting average and strikeout rates. Since then other reputable sites including our parent site have hired their own group of former scouts and personnel to write about what their experienced eyes tell them.

“I think Player X is a top 20 prospect”

“Why”

“Because he had a X stat in a pitcher’s park in a hitter’s league”

Next.

“Why is Player Y not on your list?”

“Because my formula says he’s not as good as others think”

“What is your formula”

“Can’t tell you”

OK, then.

Word to the wise. Find someone you like and who thinks like you do; Jonathan Mayo, Bernie Pleskoff, John Sickels, whoever, and stick with one or two.

Too much information really does cloud the waters because it’s hard to swim through.
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA

Twitter Silliness, the Genius of Billy Beane, and the Trimming of Alex Rodriguez

This past Wednesday evening the ugly side of social media and the internet played itself out once again, and once again the only people who were affected did nothing but read it.

I think it was Jayson Stark who said; “The best thing about the internet is it gives people a voice who otherwise wouldn’t have one, the worst thing about the internet is it gives people a voice who shouldn’t have one,” and that statement yet again has been proven to have some truth to it.

I won’t mention any names here because the last thing I want to do is give any more time to people who’ve already exhausted their fifteen minutes. It started simple enough, a re-tweet from a follower written by an individual with “MLB” as part of his handle. Look at my Twitter friends and followers (@prospect_pulse), most of them are associated with baseball in some capacity and that accounts for probably 80% of my interactions, so I thought nothing of it. As time passed and the tweet continued to be moved around, I received another re-tweet, this time from an account that had “ESPN” as part of its tag, so I figured there was some legitimacy to the story.

Well, I found out maybe twenty seconds later, it wasn’t. The ESPN account was a fake, and the initial “tweeter” was a high school kid who, according to his profile, is a “major league insider.”

So, we all got taken, and badly.

Now, stuff like this has happened before; just a few weeks ago ESPN Baseball writer Jerry Crasnick was the victim of a fake Twitter account, and with the Winter Meetings taking place next week, I’m sure we will see situations like this again. These things happen so frequently that I’ve gotten into the habit of looking at unfamiliar users account profiles and follow lists as a way to check their credibility even if I trust who sent it to me. I didn’t this time for reasons I can’t explain, and I got burned.

What really ticked me off though was after the story turned out to be false, our intrepid “reporter” placed the blame on his source. Now, anyone who is in this media/reporting/evaluation field has been burned before, it’s the nature of the beast. Some details, especially those involving baseball trades or signings can change at the last minute and even immediately after the fact, as was the case years ago with the deal that sent Johan Santana to the Mets.

I can’t blame a source because they didn’t write the story or post the tweet, I did. It came from my account or my email address, to turn around and throw someone I trust under the bus just because I’m embarrassed to have egg dripping from my face is not only unprofessional, it’s flat-out disrespectful. Here’s another thing, most team connected personnel have a small list of outsiders they consider trustworthy enough to share information with, so if something does end up public, they’ll know pretty quickly, or at least have a good idea of who sprung the leak, at which time you’ll no longer be on their list.

Trust and respect is a two way street.

Now on to some other things.

*I’m concerned that authorities in the Dominican Republic will charge Texas Rangers prospect Ronald Guzman with the death of a motorcyclist who died after colliding with Guzman’s SUV this week.

*I believe the Veterans Committee will once again pitch a shut-out next week, selecting no one for induction off their ten man ballot.

*I was on Twitter last night when the news of the Josh Donaldson trade broke and it’s mind-boggling to me how anyone can think the Blue Jays won the deal. First, it’s way to early to make the suggestion, and second, using sabermetrics to defend your position isn’t going to win any arguments. To suggest Donaldson is “the second most valuable player in the American League over the past two years” just shows how poor a stat WAR really is. After some thought, though, this is my takeaway; Donaldson turns 29 next Friday and has played two major league seasons. As an evaluator, I don’t buy into someone being a late bloomer, Donaldson is clearly a guy who’s taken advantage of regular playing time, but for Billy Beane to trade him still a year away from arbitration and four years away from free agency tells me far more about his future than his stat sheet does.

It goes further than that, Beane is one of three General Managers (Jerry DiPoto, Ruben Amaro Jr) with major league playing experience. I said on Twitter last night what Beane does with his trades is “like taking candy from a baby” because while his other twenty-seven counterparts were in college studying things useless in running a franchise, Beane was studying baseball. He knows things which can only be learned from his experiences on the field, and the myth of Moneyball aside, he’s managed to stay competitive despite playing his home games in a sewage facility and having a budget slightly higher than my daughter’s allowance.

*I still believe the Yankees will find a way to get rid of Alex Rodriguez before Spring Training. I know if I was a player there is no way I’d want him back in our clubhouse after the things he said last off-season, and I’d feel the same way if I had Brian Cashman’s job. The Yankees over the past ten years or so have made some monumentally stupid financial decisions, eating $61 million dollars will be a drop in the bucket to some of them.

As a trained chef, I know the best way to save money on meat is to trim the fat, I think the best thing the Yankees can do to improve their quality is to “trim the fat” from their roster.
Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse, @IBWAA

On the Off-Season, the Hall of Fame and the Veteran’s Committee.

Living in Arizona gives an advantage in that the baseball season is a couple of months longer than it is for those in, say, Buffalo, with pitchers and catchers reporting in mid-February and the Arizona Fall League running until the second week in November.

As I was driving home from the AFL Championship Game last Saturday in Scottsdale the realization that baseball was really over for three months hit me, and with it came a sense of sadness that I’ve felt leading into every off-season for the past fifty years. To come home from work and not be able to flip on the TV to watch a game, or listen on the car radio while running Saturday errands is like trying to quit smoking, it’s just not that easy. Baseball will return soon enough, our first tournament with Perfect Game comes in January, but until then it’s going to be hard adjusting to a different routine even though I’ve been trying to adjust since Lyndon Johnson was President.

You’d think I’d have figured it out by now.

I was talking with friend (and fellow SABR member) Barry Bloom in the press box before the Championship game about his off-season plans. Barry’s a lifetime BBWAA member whose been covering Major League Baseball since the early 1980’s. After a brief vacation he’s heading to San Diego for the Winter Meetings and then back home to Arizona to ponder his 2015 Hall of Fame ballot. Now a senior writer for MLB.com, Barry covered the San Diego Padres for over twenty years with the Union-Tribune and to say he takes his voting responsibility seriously would be an understatement.

For those who know me, either through the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) or my other writings around the web, I’m a “small Hall” guy; I believe the Hall of Fame is for the super elite, those players, managers, umpires and executives who had a hand in changing and impacting the game and whose accomplishments and statistics are recognizable even without mentioning their name.

Our conversation turned to the upcoming Veteran’s Committee ballot scheduled to be voted on and announced in San Diego during the Winter Meetings on December 8th. The VC is considering candidates from the so-called “Golden Era,” those whose main contributions to the game took place between 1947-1972.

Among the candidates is Dick Allen, the 1972 American League Most Valuable Player and long considered one of the best players not yet enshrined in Cooperstown. When I brought up the subject, Barry’s first question to me was, “What makes Dick Allen a Hall of Famer?”. I was taken aback a bit by that, if only because I thought after first seeing the ballot Allen was the only candidate I’d vote for. He said the only guy he sees having a chance is Howsam because of what he did in putting together the great Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” franchise of the 1970’s.

The converstion drifted onto the purpose of the VC, personally I think it should be disbanded altogether, although Barry made a good point about this year’s managerial electees needing a spot to be considered. Over the years, the Veteran’s Committee is responsible for many of the more egregious selections, especially during it’s early days, when players were elected more on the fact they were off field bar hopping buddies than their on field performance.

I was part of a Twitter debate on just this subject recently, specifically with fellow SABR member Graham Womack, founder and editor of the great website “Baseball: Past and Present.” Our conversation started with players who were elected without ever appearing on a BBWAA ballot (see?) and eventually turned to a debate on which guys we’d kick out if we had the chance.

We can’t do anything about removing players, after all we’re not responsible for them being put in to begin with. However, there’s a long-standing public mindset that thinks it’s OK to elect a poor candidate based on the ideal of, “Well, if Player X is in than Player Y should be in too” and that just doesn’t work for me.

Players have to be retired five years before they can appear on their first ballot, this is to essentially let the elements of favoritism fade away (although that didn’t work in the case of Kirby Puckett) and then, starting this year, remain on for a maximum ten years. No one becomes a better player fifteen years after he retires, if you can’t get in after ten years then you’re obviously not worthy, so there is no reason to consider you anymore.

The Hall of Fame is fine the way it is. No one has come up with a better way of doing things over the seventy year voting history, and I doubt there’s something on the horizon to change my mind.

Chuck Johnson

@prospect_pulse, @ibwaa

Triumph and Tragedy; Oscar Taveras, Mike Darr and Zelman Jack

The recent tragic death of Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend puts into perspective what we forget sometimes; that athletes and celebrities are human beings and are subject to the joys and sadness of life just as we are. Because of their standing in the public eye, their failings are painted differently than if the same things happened to you or I if for no other reason than the media coverage it generates.

The loss of a young player with obvious star potential certainly grabbed our attention for awhile but for most of us I think we’ve moved on by now, although there is the maybe factor with this being something to remember for the rest of your lives.

One February morning in 2002 as I approached the freeway exit to go to work at about 5 am I could see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles in the distance. My first thought was they were in the opposite direction lane from mine so I wouldn’t be tied up in traffic, and as I approached it became clear something bad had happened. The vehicles were gone, the tow trucks and ambulances were gone, all which remained was the State Police Accident Investigation team. When you see those guys with their tape measures and flashlights walking and even crawling around looking for evidence it’s never a good sign.

Only later on did I find out that was the accident that killed San Diego Padres players Mike Darr and Duane Johnson. Since I drove by the exact spot on my way home it was something I thought of every day. As time went on though it became less and less and got to the point that it almost never happened, maybe during spring training I’d think more about it because of the timing, but after ten years it was hardly a thought anymore.

There is one case, however, that I do think about from time to time despite it being over forty years since it happened.

I grew up in southwestern Connecticut and there was an Eastern League franchise that played in nearby Waterbury. For years I’d go to games with my dad and grandfather and as I got older my mom would sometimes drop me off while she ran her errands and I’d just hangout and watch alone. For a few years in the late sixties the teams we had weren’t very good, especially in 1968 and 1969 with the Indians. The Giants started the franchise for Waterbury in 1966 and outside of Bobby Bonds I was too young to remember much about them. The Indians left Waterbury after the ’69 season and were replaced by the Pittsburgh Pirates. This was a good thing, the Pirates had played the previous two seasons in York, Pennsylvania and had won the Eastern League championship in ’69, so we were excited to get a good team.

And that’s exactly what happened.

The 1970 Pirates won the EL title in a one game playoff over the Reading Phillies and featured a number of future major league stars including Richie Zisk, Gene Clines and Bruce Kison. Our favorite player though was outfielder Zelman Jack.

Jack was a power hitter and with Charles Howard and Zisk made for a formidable lineup, but the part we liked the most was he had a great smile and attitude and would always talk with the kids waiting outside the tunnel entrance to the field and would sign anything.

Looking back, he wasn’t a major league caliber player, he played minor league ball for seven seasons and in 1971 returned to Waterbury at the age of 25, nowadays he would have stopped being a prospect a long time ago.

But what did we know, we just liked him, whether he’d ever play in the majors never crossed our twelve year old minds.

December 26, 1971, the day after Christmas and two days after my 15th birthday, I walked into the living room and as was my custom stole the sports section of the paper from my father. I sat down and looked at the headline, then flipped the fold over to see the bottom half of page one.

And there it was. “Jack, 25, Killed in Fall.”

It hit me like a ton of bricks, to this day I still can’t describe my exact feeling outside the fact it felt like losing a family member.  I read the article but couldn’t process anything, and I remember going back and reading it again and again just to see if maybe I was missing something or that it wasn’t really there to begin with.

I still have the clipping.

Someone reading this likely has those same feelings about Mike Darr, and in twenty years those feelings will be just as strong, and in thirty years someone will have the same strong feelings about Oscar Taveras.

Take my word for it, it’s OK. I take out the clipping from time to time and read it and one thing remains the same; Zelman Jack is part of my childhood and an integral part of my love for baseball that won’t ever go away.

For which I’m forever grateful.

Chuck Johnson
@prospect_pulse

Adam Dunn’s Retirement Spoils the Fun

I have to say I was both surprised and disappointed at Adam Dunn’s recent decision to retire. He hit .201 over his four seasons in Chicago with 720 strikeouts in 528 games, poor numbers even by the previously established standards Dunn set for himself over his first ten major league seasons.

His lifetime On-base Percentage of .364 is the same as Mark Teixeira and is higher than both Robinson Cano and Ryan Howard, among others. His lifetime Slugging of .490 is the same as Reggie Jackson and puts him inside the top 140 players of all-time, but mention Dunn and the average fan thinks of two things; whiffs and really long homers.

He’s third on the all-time list with 2359 and over his fourteen year career owns five of the top twenty highest single season totals in history. He also had six forty homer seasons, five consecutive, and two other seasons of thirty-eight and finished his career with 462, which places him 35th on the all-time list. Through the negatives of the low average/high strikeout totals, Dunn manged to remain productive outside the long-ball, scoring 100 or more runs three times, driving in 100 or more six times and walking more than 100 eight times.

After homering for Team USA in the 2001 Futures Game, Dunn went to Cincinnati to start his big league journey and homered nineteen times in sixty-six games and after a couple of season totals in the twenties started his streak of forty plus in 2004 with a career high forty-six.

Dunn’s twenty-two homers this year was his lowest ever total in a qualifying season, as was his seventy-one walks, so it seems clear that maybe he was slowing down just enough to make it impossible to have him in the lineup everyday especially when he had no defensive value.

Dunn is young enough still to turn things around (he turns 35 in November), and as a free-agent would have the earned right to choose the best hitting environment and lineup in which to play. We’ve seen guys in their mid-thirties come on again after some down time, David Ortiz comes first to mind, you could probably put Albert Pujols on that list too.

Dunn’s decision clearly isn’t about money, he’s made about $112 million over his fourteen seasons. Career milestones also aren’t a factor, three more seasons would make him a lock for 2000 hits, 400 doubles, 1400 RBI and 1600 walks. It would also make him a lock to pass Jim Thome and Reggie Jackson for the all-time strikeout crown, but there’s one mark he could reach with just one average Dunn season and it’s arguably the most prestigious number in our sport.

The 500 Home Run Club.

Dunn needs thirty-eight homers to reach the plateau, and most likely would need to play into early 2016 to reach it.

For selfish reasons I’d like to see him hang around and get it done just to piss down the leg of the BBWAA. There are twenty-six members of the club and no non-steriod guy who’s reached the mark has ever been excluded from the Hall of Fame. Now, I’m not saying at all Dunn is a Hall of Famer or that he should even receive serious consideration, but it would certainly make the voters and suits in the Commissioner’s office squirm in their chairs for awhile.

Just for fun.

I know it would make Dave Kingman smile.
Chuck Johnson @prospect-pulse

Let’s Try this Again and Jeter’s Retirement Void

Over the past ten years or so I’ve traveled around the internet looking for a place to call home. Just like in real life, some neighborhoods are better than others and sometimes what you see isn’t always what you get. I even tried to build my own place once but that didn’t go so well either.

From the very beginning at ArmchairGM and on through Bleacher Report, Dugout Central, New York Baseball Digest and Big League Magazine, writing about baseball has always been a therapeutic break from the daily ups and downs of life. There were high points and low points in each stop and just like in the real neighborhoods I’ve lived in I learned a lot and still have friends today despite not visiting the old places in many years.

I learned long ago writing is like having a long conversation with yourself. Instead of sitting around within a group and having them be your editors and critics you rely on the little voice in your head. I’ve also learned along the way feedback is a gift; good and bad. Negative feedback shouldn’t be taken personally despite its outward appearance to the contrary, it just means someone disagrees with my point and that I didn’t do a very good job expressing it.

What the little voice is telling me now is it’s time to give this a go again. I don’t know about building my own place, so I figure I’ll just rent for awhile and come back to a place I’m familiar with. Hopefully you’ll find it a welcoming place to visit as well.

Derek Jeter played his last game recently, and as he walked off the field for the last time the thought crossed my mind that this was something we won’t ever see again, especially as a Yankee fan.

The succession of legendary players who have left a permanent mark not only on Yankees history but baseball history stretches back to the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig. Not forgetting the most iconic player of all time, Babe Ruth, but one should remember he spent some time playing in Boston before heading to New York.

Gehrig overlapped Ruth, who was followed by Joe DiMaggio, who was followed by Mickey Mantle, who was followed (briefly) by Bobby Murcer, who was replaced by Thurman Munson who was followed by Ron Guidry and then Don Mattingly and then Jeter.

I’ve been a Yankee fan a long time; I remember Mantle and Murcer and Munson but also Len Boehmer and Kevin Maas and Deion Sanders. I was a passenger on the wagon long before the band got on and even during the down years there was always someone to drive it, someone you had no problem watching and paying money to see.

Not anymore.

Thanks for reading

Chuck Johnson @prospect_pulse

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