Redemption Song: Long Forgotten Prospects Find Niche in MLB.

Jose Bautista has hit more home runs by himself than the entire Seattle Mariners team.

One of the reasons I’m such a big baseball fan today is that I collected cards growing up  (and yes, I still do). There was nothing more exciting than pulling a rookie card of the next hot-shot prospect, sticking it in a hard case, and knowing that it would help put you through college. Well, the following players certainly didn’t help me through school while they struggled to live up to their top prospect status, but after years of anonymity, they might at least keep my knees safe from college loan sharks. Here are five long-awaited players finally marking their mark in Major League Baseball: 

Jose Bautista: While 29-year-old Jose Bautista is no spring chicken (and his defense at the hot corner makes Russ Davis look like a Gold Glover) the Pirates still have egg on their face for trading away this year’s most surprising slugger. After struggling to hold down in full-time gig in Pittsburgh, Bautista was traded to the Blue Jays in 2009 for prospect Robinson Diaz in the hopes that a change of scenery would allow the third baseman to tap into his batting potential. As luck would have it, that’s exactly what happened. Bautista was as ordinary as Drew Barrymore in his first year with the Jays, but he’s been a revelation this season, leading the American League with 43 HR’s and ranking second in walks and RBI’s (105) and third in OPS (.992) and slugging. It’s a testament to Bautista’s work ethic and skill set that he’s been able to achieve this level of success at such an advanced age, and also another sign that the Pirates just don’t get it. Like we needed another of those.    

Bryan Bullington: So Bryan Bullington hasn’t exactly been killing it since joining the Kansas City Royals (1-4, 6.11 ERA), but it’s still inspiring to see the number one overall pick from the 2002 draft (picked by, you guessed it, the Pirates) get his first Major League win at age 29. Bullington struggled for years with inconsistency and injuries after being drafted out of Ball State, but he put it all together in a start against the hated Yankees on August 15th, throwing eight innings of two-hit baseball in a 1-0 Royals victory. It’s not quite as inspiring as The Rookie, but it’s close.   

Neil Walker: It’s hard to believe that Neil Walker is just 24 because it seems like he’s been in the Pirates’ system forever. Drafted out of high school as a catcher, Walker was shifted to second base to accelerate his ascent to the bigs, and while it took longer than expected, he’s making the most of his opportunity this season. Since being called up in May, Walker has hit .310 with 10 HR’s and 51 RBI’s while posting an .842 OPS and playing adequate defense at second. If the Pirates plan on contending in the next decade or so, they’ll need Walker to keep showing that he was worthy of the number 11 overall pick in 2004. They’ll also need a first baseman, shortstop, right fielder and about twenty more pitchers…but that’s a story for another day.   

Aren't you glad you held on to that Colby Lewis rookie card for over a decade?

Colby Lewis: This time last year, Colby Lewis was playing for the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in Japan’s Central League. Now, the burly right-hander is one of the major reasons why the Texas Rangers are on the verge of capturing the AL West title. First drafted by the Rangers way back in 1999, Lewis bounced around in the majors and minors before finally discovering the secret to pitching while playing in Japan (its Red Bull if you’re wondering). Lewis has been a mainstay of the revived Rangers pitching staff, posting a 10-12 record (a lack of run support is the main culprit of his 12 losses) with a 3.86 ERA and 173 K’s in 177 innings. Not too bad for a pitcher who came into the season with a career ERA on the wrong side of seven.

Andres Torres: Just like Nelly, I’m a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes (this portion of Viva La Vidro is brought to you by Nelly’s new hit single “Just a Dream”) and while Andres Torres has neither, I still can’t help but think over and over again how amazing it is that it took Torres until age 32 (he was drafted by the Tigers in 1998) to get his first chance at a starting role. Torres had just over 400 career at-bats before 2010 but he’s looked like a seasoned vet this season, posting a line of .273-14 HR’s-60 RBI’s-23 SB’s as the leadoff hitter for the San Francisco Giants. In addition to setting the table for Los Gigantes’ offense, Torres has also played stellar defense in centerfield, leading to a WAR (wins above replacement player) rating of 4.0 (nearly twice as good as any Mariners’ offensive player). Torres’ value to the Giants can’t be overstated–without him, the Padres would be running away with the division. Who ever said old people can’t contribute positively to society…and pennant races?

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Baseball’s Top Five Breakout Stars for ’10

Gutierrez won't be able to hide out in the fog of Seattle much longer.

Besides “free Krispy Kremes” and “Ken Griffey Junior”, no three words in the English language are more exciting to me than “pitchers and catchers”. When I hear that magical combination of words I know that Spring Training has arrived and another season of baseball is on the horizon. With each new year a fresh crop of stars emerge and make their mark on the game, elevating themselves from good players to great players. Just like Jessica Simpson on the last stages of her “In This Skin” tour, the following players are poised for a major breakout.  

1) Franklin Gutierrez: In the eyes of most Mariners fans Gutierrez already had his breakout season—though no one outside of Seattle or the sabermetric community seemed to notice that in 2009. With a retooled roster that doesn’t include Carlos Silva (that’s one of my last shots at El Guapo, I promise) the M’s are a serious contender in the AL West and, if the team can stay in the playoff hunt late into the season, the best defensive centerfielder in baseball will finally receive the credit he deserves (or at least a Gold Glove). The affectionately named “Guti” made significant improvements at the plate last season, and if he continues to mature as a hitter, has the chance to become a legitimate 5-tool star. Don’t be surprised if Gutierrez goes for a line similar to .300-25 HR-90 RBI’s-20 SB’s in 2010…it is the Mariners year after all.  

2) Madison Bumgarner: You can laugh at his last name all you want (and his first name while you’re at it), but it won’t change the fact that Madison Bumgarner is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. In two ridiculous minor league seasons, Bumgarner has posted a combined 27-5 record with a 1.65 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a nearly five-to-one strike-to-walk ratio. I don’t care if you’re playing in the Soda Pop Valley League…those numbers are hard to ignore. If Bumgarner can replicate his success in the minors for a Giants’ pitching staff that already includes Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, San Francisco would become a very dangerous team in the wide open NL West.  

Will McCutchen become the best pirate since Captain Cook in 2010?

3) Andrew McCutchen: Hidden in the baseball wasteland that is Pittsburgh, McCutchen enjoyed a terrific rookie season, proving once and for all that the Pirates can occasionally do something right (although let’s be honest, A-Mac will be traded in two years). The former first-round draft pick finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting and put together a solid season at the plate (.286-12-54) and on the basepaths (22/27 in stolen bases). The young right-hander exhibited good patience at the dish and has the potential to become a 30-30 player for the next decade in Pittsburgh (or New York). It might seem like baby steps, but players like McCutchen are a step in the right direction for the Pirates…give ’em another 10 years and they’ll be right back in the thick of it (the middle of the NL Central that is). 

4) Matt Weiters: Sure “Orange Jesus” didn’t quite save the Orioles as they walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (aka the AL East) last year, but that just means he’s in no danger of a sophomore slump in 2010. One of the most hyped prospects in recent memory, Weiters got off to a slow start in 2009 (.259 pre-All Star batting average) but finished the year with a flourish (.301) and he will be counted on to lead a group of young talented Baltimore hurlers that includes Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and David Hernandez (each of whom could have made this list themselves). Weiters should be one of the top three catchers in the AL in 2010, and it won’t be long before he’s challenging Joe Mauer for batting titles and MVP’s.  

Bailey and the Reds are looking to make some noise in the NL Central this season.

5) Homer Bailey: The number seven overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey has been anything but a homerun in his short major league career, though his finish to last season showed why the Reds thought so highly of him. The hard-throwing Bailey went 4-1 in September, with a 2.08 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 innings (numbers eerily similar to Zack Grienke’s last five starts of 2008–and we all know what he did the next year). Bailey will combine with Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez and eventually Aroldis Chapman to form one of the best young rotations in baseball, and should turn quite a few heads in 2010. The Cincinnati Reds will be one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball next season due in no small part to the emergence of Bailey. Expect Homer to win 13-15 games with a sub-4.00 ERA and about 150 K’s.

Winter Meetings Heating Up: Three-Way Trade Sends Granderson to New York Yankees, Jackson to Diamondbacks.

Granderson will be bringing his multi-talented game to New York next season.

Fresh off a victory in the 2009 World Series the New York Yankees have apparently set their sights on capturing the 2010 Fall Classic…and maybe a few more. In the biggest deal of the offseason thus far the Yankees are set to acquire All-Star outfielder Curtis Granderson from the Detroit Tigers in a three team trade that also includes the Arizona Diamondbacks. Though the deal is yet to be finalized, it appears that the Diamondbacks will receive Ian Kennedy from New York and Edwin Jackson from the Tigers, while Detroit will pick up Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from Arizona and Phil Coke and outfield prospect Austin Jackson from the Yankees.

The deal addresses an immediate need in the outfield for the Bronx Bombers, who are set to lose Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui in free agency. Granderson is one of the game’s premier defensive centerfielders and despite a down year at the plate, still hit 30 homeruns and stole 20 bases. At only 28-years-old, the Yankees are hoping that Granderson will be able to rebound to his 2007 season form, a year in which he become only one of four players in history to post 20 HR’s, 20 triples, 20 doubles and 20 stolen bases in the same season. Granderson has a proclivity for strikeouts (141 K’s in 2009) and hit only .249 last year so this deal is anything but a sure thing for the Yankees.

Top prospect Austin Jackson was the key piece in the trade for Detroit.

The Detroit Tigers forfeit two of their franchise’s most popular players in Granderson and Edwin Jackson after a year in which they missed out on the playoffs despite holding a seven-game lead going into the season’s final month. Jackson finally lived up to his enormous potential in 2009, winning 13 games and posting a 3.62 ERA, although he struggled mightily after the All-Star break (5.07 ERA). Jackson was eligible for arbitration going into 2010, and the Tigers traded him to avoid paying the substantial increase in salary he was due to receive. Granderson was controlled by the Tigers through the 2012 season but the team was looking to shed payroll and the centerfielder was due almost $24 million over the next three years. In return for Jackson and Granderson, Detroit receives one of the best young power arms in the game, two solid left-handed relievers and a top outfield prospect. In just his second year in the big leauges, the hard throwing Scherzer struggled with consistency while going 9-11, but he did strikeout more than a batter an inning and shows considerable room for growth. Coke was the Yankees primary left-handed bullpen arm, going 4-3 with a 4.50 ERA, while Schlereth went 1-4 with a 5.89 ERA in just 18 1/3 innings. The key to the deal for the Tigers was the inclusion of Jackson, who hit .300 with four HR’s, 65 RBI’s and 24 stolen bases in Triple-A last season, and projects as a top-flight centerfielder.

The Arizona Diamondbacks seem like the odd team out in this deal, giving up a promising starter in Scherzer and a potential closer in Schlereth in return for the inconsistent Edwin Jackson and the unproven Ian Kennedy. Jackson certainly has quality stuff but is prone to bouts of wildness, and before last year never posted an ERA below 4.40 in a full season. Kennedy has struggled in his brief trials with the Yankees (1-4, 6.03 ERA) and doesn’t appear to be anything more than a fourth of fifth starter. Both pitchers will benefit from the move to the National League but the Diamondbacks may regret this trade if Scherzer continues to develop.

Just two days into baseball’s winter meetings and already a blockbuster deal is close to being completed that will have a substantial impact on how the rest of the offseason plays out. New York has made it clear that they won’t take a backseat to any team and the Red Sox and Devil Rays will have to act quickly in order to keep pace in the AL East. Baseball may be a methodical game but the offseason moves at the speed of light…at least when the Yankees are involved.

Sunday Night Spread: A Look at the Day Around Major League Baseball

PuffDragonAre you too lazy to read an entire game recap? Do you find yourself looking for something more than a boxscore, but less than a novel? Or are you just tired of waiting until the morning’s paper to find out that your favorite team lost yet again? If you said yes to any of the above, then you’ve come to the right place! Viva la Vidro presents its first (and possibly last, depending on the author’s motivation level) edition of the Sunday Night Spread, a look at each game in the majors in 50 words or less. Dig in!

Cleveland 3 Minnesota 1: David Huff the Magic Dragon becomes the major’s least deserving 9-game winner after allowing 1 run in 7 innings against the Twinkies to lower his Carlos Silva-esque ERA to 6.23. Somewhere off in the distance, Matt Cain’s 2007 and 2008 seasons are weeping.

Toronto 14 New York Yankees 8: Canada’s dominance over America continues as the Jays pound out 15 hits and capitalize on four Yankee errors (undoubtedly all by Jeter) to win by a touchdown (extra-point was wide right). The real loser was Randy Ruiz’s face; not a good time to play baseball if you have a head.

New York Mets 4 Chicago Cubs 2: Two teams that were supposed to be good but actually suck squared off in a game that no one cared about. The Mets got four RBIs from Daniel Murphy, currently owned in 1.7% of fantasy baseball leagues, after tonight.

Cincinnati 4 Atlanta 2: The Braves continue to fade faster than Lindsay Lohan’s career as Cincinnati takes the lead on a hit-by-pitch of the opposing pitcher, go figure. Drew Stubbs falls a double short of the cycle, but if no one outside of Ohio notices, did it really happen?

jeremy%20guthrieBaltimore 7 Texas 0: Baseball’s best pitching Mormon, Jeremy Guthrie, six-hits the potent Rangers’ offense over 7 innings as the ghost of Brigham Young cheers him on from behind home plate. Texas falls 3 back in the AL Wild Card chase.

Washington 5 Florida 4: The Nationals would be the best team in baseball if they could reverse their record (47-90), but that’s not allowed till after Labor Day, so Washington had to settle for a walk-off dinger from Ryan Zimmerman.

Pittsburgh 6 St. Louis 5: Pujols homers (again), but Ryan Franklin and his goatee blow the save in the 9th against the suddenly scorching Pirates (currently riding a one-game winning streak). See, GM Neal Huntington knew what he was doing all along (what, why’s everyone laughing?)

Detroit 5 Tampa Bay 3: 40-year-old Russ Springer celebrates receiving his first social security check by coughing up a go-ahead grand slam to Brandon Inge in the 9th. The good news is he still gets 15% off at the Old Country Buffet.

Boston 6 Chicago White Sox 1: In yet another lesson why you don’t mix colors with whites, the Red Sox topped their pseudo-rival White Sox behind 7 shutout innings from Jon Lester in a game that had everyone seeing pink by the end. Use Oxi Clean, or just don’t wash ’em at all.

Milwaukee 2 San Francisco 1: America’s fattest favorite vegan came through with a game-winning homerun in the 12th and then proceeded to eat 27 pounds of Rice-A-Roni in mock tribute to San Fransisco’s favorite treat. This could get ugly the next time these two teams meet, likely in the World Series.

Houston 4 Philadelphia 3: The Phillies lose and Brad Lidge isn’t to blame? Cole Hamels gave up 4 runs in 6 innings, and Miguel Tejada went 4-4 for the Astros after a hearty portion of “b-vitamins” with his breakfast.

94928-004-72912736L.A. Angels 7 Kansas City 2: Former Mariners Yuniesky Betancourt and Willy Bloomquist each went 1-4, but it just wasn’t enough as the mighty Halos rode 5 innings of 10-hit ball from Joe Saunders to their 81st win.

Colorado 13 Arizona 5: The humidifier seems to be broke again in Colorado, as the Rockies and Diamondbacks combined for 8 HRs, three of which came from .198 hitter Chris Young. We can build on this Diamondback fans!

Oakland 5 Seattle 2: Fister’s got a blister, but besides that fun rhyme the M’s didn’t enjoy themselves much in Oakland, as the A’s used a 7th inning grand slam from Scott Hairston to cruise to a win. Ichiro collects career hit 2,000 in America, next stop: the moon?

San Diego 4 L.A. Dodgers 3: The freeway series? The smog series? The dear God our state is going to get annexed from the union series? The Padres are almost as bad as California’s economy, but they gutted out a win against division foe L.A. as Adrian Gonzalez hits his 35th HR. The Dodger’s lead is down to 3.5 games in the NL West.

Rocky Mountain High: Surging Colorado Back in NL Playoff Hunt

Tulowitzki's resurgence in the field and at the plate are a big reason why the Rockies are back in the hunt.

Tulowitzki's resurgence is a big reason why the Rockies are back in the NL playoff picture.

When the Colorado Rockies took the field against the Houston Astros on June 4th, they were 12 games under .500 and mired at the bottom of the NL West. They couldn’t hit, they couldn’t pitch and their defense was more porous than Nick Nolte’s face. The Rockies could have easily given up and mailed in the rest of the season, after all the Dodgers were running away with the division and Colorado looked dead in the water. But as they had already shown in their incredible finish to the  2007 season, the Rockies are a team that can never truly be counted out. Since a loss to the Astros on June 3rd, Colorado has been absolutely incendiary, winning 17 of their last 18 games on the way to a 37-33 record that has them tied with Milwaukee atop the Wild Card standings.

So what flipped the switch for the Rockies and turned them from afterthoughts to serious playoff contenders? Well, a lot of the credit has to go to interim manager Jim Tracey who took over after Clint Hurdle was fired on May 30. Tracey has revitalized Colorado with his positive attitude and, more importantly, got the offense back on track by shaking up an underperforming lineup. The new manager has made sure to get playing time for third baseman Ian Stewart (13 HRs in only 180 ABs) who has replaced the struggling Garrett Atkins (.207 BA). Second baseman Clint Barmes has thrived since Tracey cemented him in the #2 hole (.349 BA in June) and his decision to move Troy Tulowitzki up in the lineup has done wonders for the young shortstop’s confidence (.909 SLG since June 8). With Brad Hawpe likely to set career highs across the board, Todd Helton once again looking like one of the best hitters in baseball and Chris Ianetta rounding into form, the Rockies suddenly have one of the best offenses in the National League.

Street has dominant over the past two months.

Street has dominant over the past two months (0.82 ERA in May).

Just as important to Colorado’s turnaround has been the success of their pitching staff. The Rockies looked to have a solid bullpen heading into the season, with Manny Corpas and the newly acquired Huston Street battling for the closer’s role. However, both struggled in the early going and late game implosions cost the team numerous games. While Corpas has continued to pitch poorly, Street has turned the corner and given the Rockies some much needed stability in end game situations. Since a terrible April (6.10 ERA), Street has been lights out, converting 16 of 17 saves and striking out more than a batter per inning. He finally looks to have regained the form that made him the 2005 AL Rookie of the Year, and continues to emerge as one of the elite closers in the NL with each outing. Just as impressive as the bullpen has been the starting pitching of the Rockies. Long criticized for having a great offense but little pitching (see: the Blake Street Bombers) this year’s Colorado staff features three starting pitchers with ERAs of 4.00 or below. Aaron Cook, Jason Marquis and Ubaldo Jimenez have combined to give the Rockies a solid rotation, and if they can get any a little more consistency out of Jorge De La Rosa (82 Ks in 75 innings but a 5.85 ERA) the team might conceivably have one of the top 5 rotations (2nd in the NL in quality starts) in the league to match their potent offense (1st in runs).

One of the worst teams in all of baseball coming into June, the Rockies are suddenly looking like a dangerous matchup for the playoffs (they have risen from #28 to #15 in ESPN’s Power Rankings over the past three weeks). With a prolific offense and a solid pitching staff, Colorado has made a statement to the rest of baseball that they need to be taken for real. If the Rockies can keep up this torrid pace, the front office may soon remove the interim from Jim Tracey’s manager title (18-5 since he took over for Hurdle), and the LA Dodgers might have to start looking over their shoulders. Once again, the Colorado Rockies have shown why the MLB season is 162 games long…because no team (besides the Pittsburgh Pirates of course) is ever a winning streak away from contention.

Can the Rockies repeat their ’07 run to the World Series, or are they destined for a return to earth? Regardless, it should make for a fun summer in the Mile High City as the team continues to make Rockies’ fans forget about their slow start.