Viva La Vidro Presents: Baseball’s Breakout Stars of 2011.

Jhoulys Chacin (SP-Colorado Rockies): Although many observers consider Ubaldo Jimenez the “crown jewel” of the Colorado Rockies pitching staff another gem is emerging in the Mile High City who may shine even brighter than his All-Star teammate…that man is Jhouyls “of the Nile” Chacin. Lost in the midst of Jimenez’s stellar season and Charlie Sheen’s 47 84 109th trip to rehab, Chacin put together a solid 2010 campaign, posting a 9-11 record with a 3.28 ERA and 138 K’s in 137 innings (a strikeout rate higher than that of Jimenez). Still just 23, the native of Venezuela has plenty of room for growth and could see his ERA dip below three with improved control and some help from his defense. If Chacin gets better run support in 2011, he’s got a legitimate shot at a top five Cy Young finish…and that’s not just whistling Dixie.

Reid Brignac (SS-Tampa Bay Rays): Buried beneath a glut of middle infield talent in Tampa (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Sean Rodriguez) former second round pick Reid Brignac hasn’t had the chance to flash his all-star level talent yet, but with Bartlett now in San Diego and Zobrist shifted to the outfield, 2011 will be the year that the Bayou Bomber finally takes center stage. Brignac managed to get 300+ plate appearances in a utility role last season, and while his plate discipline leaves something to be desired (77 K’s/20 BB’s), he showcased the power (8 HR’s, 13 2B’s, 45 RBI’s) that had the Rays thinking future star when they drafted him out of high school. With a retooled lineup (so long Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza; hello Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) hoping to stay afloat in the always competitive AL East, Tampa Bay will be counting on Brignac to produce big in 2011; the Cajun Crusher will prove that he is more than up to the challenge.

Jordan Zimmerman (SP-Washington Nationals): With Stephen Strasburg on the mend (which we all hope goes better than Barbaro’s “recovery”) the coveted title of Washington Nationals’ staff ace will be passed to Jordan Zimmerman for 2011 (unless John Lannan’s horse tranquilizers finally kick in). Zimmerman returned from Tommy John surgery in 2010 and while the results weren’t great (1-2, 4.94 ERA, 27 K’s in 31 innings) the fact that he showed no ill effects from the operation bodes well for his prospects in the coming year. The hard throwing right-hander breezed through the minor leagues (16-7, 2.60 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) and has the raw stuff (that phrase out of context would sound awful) to contend for a Cy Young award one day. Throw in the fact that a comparable pitcher returned from T.J. surgery and dominated the NL in his second year back (Josh Johnson) and the stars are aligned for Jordan Zimmerman to have a breakout year in 2011. You heard it here second.

Jay Bruce (OF-Cincinnati Reds): Joltin’ Jay Bruce ended 2010 with a bang, sending Cincinnati to the playoffs with a walk-off home run in the season’s waning weeks. The home run was a fitting finish to a superb second half for Bruce (.306-15 HR-34 RBI’s-.951 OPS) who appears ready to team up with Joey Votto to form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the middle of the Reds’ order. Bruce has some troubling home/road splits (19 HR’s at home vs. 6 on the road) but as long as he continues to play half his games at the Great American Ballpark (which is just a little hitter friendly) that should prove to be a moot point. The powerful left-hander is also a stellar fielder (he ranked fifth in the NL with a 1.6 defensive WAR) and if he plays as well in all of 2011 as he did in the second half of 2010, the Cincinnati Reds might just have back-to-back MVPs.

Michael Saunders (OF-Seattle Mariners): I can’t get away without plugging a hometown kid can I? Well, even if I could, I wouldn’t (the fact that I have a giant stash of his cards does not influence my decision whatsoever) because Michael “The Condor” Saunders is finally going to live up to his enormous potential in 2011. The young lefty got a chance to play everyday in 2010 and made dramatic improvements at the plate (most notably drawing more walks and hitting for more power) after struggling mightily in his brief call-up to Seattle in 2009. Saunders possesses all the physical tools to be an above-average fielder and hitter, and with the Mariners expecting him to produce this year, the Condor will deliver like Newman…large and in charge.

Stay tuned for a Seattle Mariners season preview coming soon!


The Kids Aren’t Alright: What’s Wrong With Michael Saunders?

Michael Saunders has been more inconsistent than my bowel movements after eating a Double Down.

When Ken Griffey Jr “retired” earlier this season, young left fielder Michael Saunders became my favorite player on the woebegone squad. What can I say—I’ve got a thing for lefties who spend their summer days flirting with the Mendoza Line.    

Though he wasn’t a top draft pick (11th round of the 2004 draft) Saunders combination of power and speed allowed him to move steadily through the Mariners’ farm system, reaching the majors last season to fill the void left by Raul Ibanez. Saunders struggled mightily in his first chance in the show (.221-0 HR’s-4 RBI’s-6 walks/40 strikeouts) as his long swing was exposed by big league pitchers. Still, at only 22, there was still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Saunders heading into 2010.    

Saunders’ role with the team was temporarily in question when the Mariners acquired Milton Bradley in the offseason to play left field and DH, but it didn’t take long for him to get the call from Tacoma when Bradley was neutralized with a variety of injuries and mental instability. Despite continued contact issues, Saunders flashed the power that made him such a highly regarded prospect, hitting seven home runs in 106 May and June at-bats for a power starved Mariners’ team. He even went deep twice against southpaws, highlighted by a go-ahead home run against Red Sox ace Jon Lester. While his slugging dipped in July, Saunders showed improved plate discipline, drawing 11 walks against 16 strikeouts and posting a .380 OBP for the month. It seemed that the light had come on for Saunders and he was on the verge of a breakout season. But then, just as suddenly as he found his groove, Saunders hit a wall. Literally.   

The Condor will have to continue to develop at the plate if he wants to help the Mariners back to the playoffs.

In an August game against the Texas Rangers, Saunders collided with the left field wall trying to keep a home run in the park, and injured the same shoulder that he had labrum surgery on earlier in his career. Though the injury wasn’t serious, Saunders was shelved for around two weeks before returning to the lineup on August 31st. Since that time, the Condor just hasn’t been able to take flight, hitting a paltry .161 in September with just one extra base hit in the month (he hasn’t hit a home run since July). Reports from the clubhouse seem to indicate that Saunders’ shoulder is feeling fine, so what does he have to do in order to stay an important piece in the Mariners’ rebuilding effort?   

Part of Saunders’ regression is due to bad luck, as he carries a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of just .267 on the season (last season his BABIP was .329, the league average is around .300). Saunders has the wheels to leg out base hits, but he hits too many pop ups (16% of his flyballs don’t leave the infield) and flyballs (0.57 groundballs for every 1 flyball) to utilize his speed. While part of the low BABIP is out of  Saunders’ control, he would benefit from a shorter, compact swing which would allow him to make more consistent, solid contact (his 16 percent career linedrive rate is well below the MLB average of 19%). A shorter swing would also allow Saunders more time to react to pitches, neutralizing his two biggest weaknesses (fastballs inside and breaking balls away) and giving him a better chance to hang in against lefties. 

Saunders certainly has the talent to become an above average left fielder (think .270-20 HR’s-70 RBI’s-20 SB’s) and I hope that the Mariners give him a chance to play full-time in 2011, because let’s face it, they probably won’t be contending for the AL West title anyway. Saunders needs to make some adjustments in order to raise his average and provide value to the Mariners at the plate (he’s already a solid defensive player), and the best way to do that is to get at-bats at the major league level (especially against left handers, so they won’t have to platoon him in the future). If the Mariners want to climb out of the cellar next season, it will be on the strength of young players like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Saunders–the days of overpriced free-agents in Seattle are over. 

Mark my words, the Condor (and the M’s) will soar. Just not in 2010…

The Hunt for Reds in October: Is Cincinnati Ready to Join the Playoff Party?

Joey "the Canadian Crusher" Votto is the centerpiece of a talented Reds' lineup.

Despite having the endearingly clueless (unless of course you invested heavily in Mark Prior or Kerry Wood rookie cards) Dusty Baker at the helm, Cincinnati’s strong finish to last season convinced many that the Reds were ready to take a step forward and compete for the NL Central in 2010.  

The team went a combined 20-11 in September and October and enjoyed a strong season against their divisional rivals (46-34). Led by a stable of quality young arms and homegrown talent in the field, the Reds have been a chic pick by baseball pundits this Spring to sneak into the postseason. But, does the team have enough weapons to compete with St. Louis and Chicago and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2000? Let’s take a closer look at everyone’s favorite Cinderella for 2010, starting with their pitching:   

Although phenom Aroldis Chapman probably won’t see significant major league action in 2010, the Reds still boast a strong starting rotation of established arms and up and coming stars—the team finished 7th in the NL with a 4.18 cumulative ERA last season. Veterans Bronson Arroyo (15-13, 3.84 ERA) and Aaron Harang (6-14, 4.21 ERA) mentor a terrific triumvirate of young arms consisting of Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto and Edison Volquez. All three have shown the potential to be staff aces but have struggled with inconsistency and injuries; they’ll need to step up this season if the Reds want to match the duo of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.  

Johnny Cueto has all the makings of an ace, and the Reds need him to perform at a high level in 2010.

Cincinnati’s bullpen is rock solid, with All-Star closer Francisco Cordero (39 saves, 2.16 ERA) and specialists like the ageless Arthur Rhodes (1-1, 2.53 ERA) and Nick Masset (5-1, 2.37 ERA) ready to put the game on ice. If their relief corps can continue to perform at a high level and Volquez, Bailey and Cueto live up to their potential, the Reds should have the pitching to compete with just about anybody. Can their offense keep up?  

Calling Cincinnati’s 2009 lineup pedestrian would be an insult to pedestrians. Their anemic offense finished 15th in average, 11th in runs, 15th in OBP, 13th in slugging and 13th in OPS out of 16 NL teams, and was a major reason why the Reds were outscored by 50 runs last year. Their lineup certainly isn’t devoid of talent, but Cincinnati will need more production from top-to-bottom this year in order to support the starting rotation.  

A full season of Joey Votto (.322-25 HR-84 RBI’s in 469 AB’s) should help the offense, as will steady vets Brandon Phillips (.276-20-98-25 SB) and Scott Rolen (.305-11-67), but young players like Jay Bruce (.223-23-58) and Drew Stubbs (.267-8-15-10 SB) need to stay healthy and live up to their potential if Cincinnati is going to take a step forward in the National League. Question marks also remain at shortstop (rookie Drew Sutton), catcher (an aging Ramon Hernandez) and leftfield (some combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jonny Gomes); those three positions will go along way in determining the Reds’ success or failure.  

There’s a lot to like about Cincinnati heading into 2010. They have a solid young nucleus of pitchers and bats and have done an amazing job of creating quality major league players through their farm system. The Reds have burgeoning flamethrowers in Homer Bailey and Edison Volquez and potential MVP candidates in Joey Votto and Jay Bruce, but they still need more time to develop and more firepower to compete with St. Louis and Chicago in the talented and balanced NL Central. Cincinnati has a chance to finish above the .500 mark for the first time in ten years, and should use the momentum heading into 2011, because it’s unlikely that the Reds will make the playoffs this season; not with the depth of their division.

Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t quite fit Cincinnati…at least not this year.