On this page, I'll share my thoughts, and any articles or information I think are of interest. Feel free to use the comments section to join in the discussion!
Rand: No reason to rush Sano
Every Miguel Sano home run — and there were two more Sunday, giving him 33 for the season, with 16 at Class A and 17 now at Class AA — creates a louder drumbeat among fans who want hime called up to the big leagues for a September taste.
They look at Trevor Plouffe and don’t see the long-term answer at third base (or on Sunday, they see Doug Bernier, a 33-year-old journeyman with two games of MLB experience before this season, manning the hot corner).
They watch the ball rocket off Sano’s bat. They look at 17 September home games that, without a pennant push in sight, would be livened up by the presence of Sano.
These are not unreasonable sentiments. Sano throttled Class A pitching, and despite a low batting average (. 238 entering Sunday) and a heap of strikeouts (roughly one every three at-bats), he has acquitted himself well in many areas at Class AA. If he had enough at-bats, his slugging percentage and OPS would rank among the top five in the Eastern League.
But he is only 20 years old. There is no reason to rush him to the major leagues, which would require him to be added to the 40-man roster.
Don’t even look at the struggles of Kyle Gibson, Aaron Hicks and Co. — players older and with more experience than Sano — as cautionary tales. Each prospect should be treated inside his own vacuum. If he’s ready, he’s ready.
And we’re still not convinced Sano is ready. The power is more than impressive, but the low average and high strikeouts only figure to keep heading in the wrong directions against even better pitching in the majors. Before Sunday’s outburst, he was 7-for-43 with 19 K’s in his previous 11 games at Class AA.
Let’s let this play out. Let’s not view desperation or a chance to sell a few extra tickets to disappointed fans as good reasons to promote a player who could be a Twins cornerstone of years to come.
Let’s wait until March and see if he has the kind of spring that would warrant a long look in 2014, hopefully for good.
But let’s not force or demand this. Patience is a virtue.
Cubs resembling expansion team, building ‘from the ground up’
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter August 25, 2013
SAN DIEGO — Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer were clear about their intentions as soon as they took over the Cubs’ front office in the fall of 2011, and by spring training last year new manager Dale Sveum had joined the chorus:
The Cubs were not “rebuilding.” They were “building.”
A new direction. New organizational structure, from the ground up. New culture. New business practices. New scouting and development emphases. New Cubs Way.
And no timetable.
Nearly two years later, this second season of the process isn’t much easier to watch than the first — especially for those continuing to pay the third-highest ticket prices in the game. And it’s hard from here to see Year 3 being significantly different.
But this much can be seen: It’s an expansion-like process the Cubs have undertaken, from redefining nearly every baseball function in the operation to stripping the roster down to short-term journeymen while pinning competitive hopes on recent draft picks and A-ball players.
And if that’s the closest historical model for what the Cubs are doing, then prepare for a long road back to the playoffs — especially with ownership focusing more on stadium issues after slashing baseball spending to below pre-Ricketts levels.
General manager Hoyer refutes the expansion notion.
But scouting executive Tim Wilken and first-base coach Dave McKay both referenced the process at the end of last season, recalling their experiences with the expansion Toronto Blue Jays more than 35 years ago when talking about the Cubs’ undertaking.
And Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo brought the point home this past week when he compared where the Cubs’ are to an expansion franchise — something he knows first-hand as a former scouting executive with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks and the guy who took over a similar task in Washington in 2009.
“When I came over here [to Washington], we had to do more to get ourselves to an expansion level than we did as an expansion team,” said the guy who used several key acquisitions and back-to-back No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to turn around the Nationals quicker than expected.
“There’s no other way to do it the right way,” Rizzo said of the farm-system overhaul designed to lead to a competitive homegrown core for sustained success. “It does take time to build a foundation through scouting and player development. When I came in we moved away from veteran players to young players. And sometimes until your minor leagues catch up, you’re filling in with players that are less talented — or kind of a stop-gap between the guys that you’re building up to be here and the guys you already have.”
The expansion model is not particularly optimistic.
The 10 expansion teams that began operation in the last 50 years took an average of 8.7 years to achieve their first winning season and 9.9 years to reach the playoffs.
Six are still looking for their first World Series titles, and two (Seattle and Montreal/Washington) still seek their first pennants.
The numbers look a lot worse if you discount the two exceptions that won quickly by spending a lot on elite free agents early in their histories:
◆ The Florida Marlins in 1997, with free agents that included Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Alex Fernandez, Al Leiter and Bobby Bonilla;
◆ And the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks (Randy Johnson, Steve Finley, Mark Grace and trades for Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez).
The Marlins, who blew up their ’97 team as soon as it won the Series, actually needed 11 seasons to make the playoffs, and win a Series, with a homegrown core.
And the expansion cousin Marlins and Colorado Rockies still haven’t won a division title between them despite three combined World Series appearances.
“Calling it an expansion effort minimizes the impact of a lot of people we inherited,” Hoyer said. “Expansion is truly starting from ground zero. And we inherited some good players and some good people.”
They also purged much of the old guard, including a handful of young players and prospects, leaned hard on the Rule 5 draft, waiver claims and buy-low free agents. And the major-league roster has been used for two years as chum to land inventory for the farm system.
“It’s very hard to acquire players through free agency, and players are back to peaking early, and older player are not as good a demographic to go after,” Hoyer said. “So with that in mind, “we’re attempting to really build from the ground up and through young players, and that takes time.
“But it’s not unique to Theo or me. I think everyone in baseball’s trying to do some form of that right now.
“I think ‘expansion’ is an extreme way to talk about it. Saying that is saying that you’re asset-free, and we weren’t. So I don’t see it as that extreme.”
Sunday, August 11, 2013
The hoss whisperer
By Eddie Matz
ESPN The Magazine
Pitching coach Jim Hickey likes to give space to young stars like ROY candidate Chris Archer.
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 2 NFL Preview. Subscribe today!
CHRIS ARCHER HAD spent July making grown men look like Little Leaguers, but now, against the Giants on the first Friday in August, the Rays' rookie phenom looks like, well, any other rookie. The trouble begins in the seventh, when Archer allows a cheapie infield single to Hunter Pence that travels all of 70 feet. Four pitches later, Brandon Belt lashes an RBI triple to deep center. On the very next pitch, Brandon Crawford crushes a two-run homer to right. Just like that, it's 4-1 Giants. It's the kind of blitzkrieg that typically results in a mound visit, especially with a rookie toeing the rubber. Heck, most pitching coaches would've trotted out there earlier. But Jim Hickey is not your typical pitching coach. Following the triple, he stays put in the dugout. After the home run, he doesn't move. Only when Archer gives up an infield single to Joaquin Arias, the fourth straight two-out hit, does Hickey make his way to the mound. The visit lasts 11 seconds, ends with a pat on the butt and is followed soon after by Archer's strikeout of Marco Scutaro to end the inning.
By now, the secret to Tampa Bay's small-market success is no secret at all: The Rays can pitch. Despite a payroll that annually ranks among the league's lowest, the team's .568 winning percentage since the beginning of 2008 is second only to the Yankees' .581 (through Aug. 8). Not coincidentally, in four of the past five seasons, the Rays finished first or second in the American League in ERA. This season the team won 21 of 26 July games and overtook Boston for first place in the always difficult American League East, thanks to a staff that posted a scintillating 2.54 ERA (more than half a run better than the next closest AL team) and got seven complete games (most in one month since the '99 Phillies) from a baby-faced homegrown rotation that will earn a combined $15.5 million this year, or almost $8 million less than the Yanks' CC Sabathia. Make no mistake: With a middling offense that ranks sixth in the AL in runs scored and a slumping slugger -- Evan Longoria's .635 OPS in July was the lowest of any month in his career -- it's the Rays arms shouldering the load. The man behind the mound men? Hickey, the unheralded less-is-more coach who knows that by letting his young hurlers lose a battle, like Archer lost that Friday in August, he's helping the Rays win the war.
Ask Tampa's hurlers what makes Hickey so good at his job and you'll hear the same words over and over again. Communication. Trust. Patience. It's as if they're reading from a script for a neighborhood bank commercial. "Honestly," says David Price, the 2012 Cy Young winner, "what's special about Hick is his ability to communicate." That's right: On a club run by three former Wall Street analysts -- owner Stuart Sternberg, GM Andrew Friedman and president Matthew Silverman -- and renowned for its innovative, statistically minded analysis, Tampa's secret sauce is a pitcher who barely made it past Double-A who's really good at ... human interaction.
Knowing how (and when) to talk to people might not matter on a club that's laden with veteran pitchers. But in a market like Tampa, where the Rays rely on promoting affordable young talent in order to keep pace in the AL East arms race, it's an indispensable gift. "At this level, it's all mental," says 25-year-old starter Alex Cobb, now in his third season with the Rays. "Hick just has a way of settling you down when things get sticky."
"There are three kinds of pitching coaches," says 1988 NL Cy Young winner and current ESPN analyst Orel Hershiser, who served as the Rangers pitching coach from 2002 through 2005. "The least-common-denominator coach tells you what you're doing wrong. The second-level coach tells you what you need to do differently but only addresses the symptom. Then there's the master, who watches you and understands you and gives you one tweak that fixes five things."
Which class is Hickey? Well, take the first time he laid eyes on Archer, in February 2011. Hickey saw a kid who delivered 98 mph cheese and a filthy slider. He also saw someone whose relatively short stride made for an inconsistent release point. Even though Hickey knew he wanted Archer to lengthen his stride, he held his tongue. He held his tongue through Archer's stop at Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham. He held his tongue when Archer appeared at spring training. He even held his tongue after Archer's call-up in June, watching the kid labor through his first four 2013 starts, when he walked 14 hitters in 19 innings, making it past the fifth inning only once and losing three of four games. At last, Hickey intervened.
"Do you wanna be the four-inning, 100-pitch guy," the coach asked his righthander during batting practice at Yankee Stadium, "or do you wanna be the dominant elite guy?" Moments later, Archer stood atop the bullpen mound in the Bronx with Hickey by his side, the two of them working on adding an extra two or three inches to the starter's stride. "It was a minor thing," says Hickey, whose rule of thumb is to give his pitchers six starts before offering any kind of adjustments, "but I thought it would help Archie out." Three days after the intervention, Archer beat the Yankees, and he went undefeated in his next seven outings, in which he threw two shutouts, averaged nearly seven innings per start and walked a grand total of 11 batters.
"That," Hershiser says upon hearing the story, "is master-class coaching."
THE ABILITY TO get through to his team is hardly surprising given Hickey's upbringing. Growing up on Chicago's South Side, James J. Hickey IV learned early how to relate to people. He was the fourth of six children. His mother was a special-needs teacher. His father was a Korean War vet and former prizefighter (he once battled Joe Louis) who could sell anything and did, driving door-to-door all over the Midwest convincing folks that they really and truly needed all-natural sausage casing made of pig intestines.
A Cubs fan by birth, Hickey told his parents at 5 that he would be a major league baseball player. At Texas-Pan American, he threw 16 complete games his senior season. The success didn't translate to the pros, though. "I was an average minor league pitcher at best," says the 1983 13th-round draft pick. In 1989, after seven years toiling in the depths of the White Sox, Dodgers and Astros farm systems, Hickey decided it was time to swap cleats for commissions and follow his old man into the sales world. "I never had any intention of coaching," he says. Then Fred Gladding, the former big league hurler who'd been Hickey's pitching coach at Double-A Columbus, told Hickey he had the smarts and, more important, people skills to excel at it.
In 1991 Hickey got his first job as a pitching coach, working for the Astros' Class-A affiliate in Burlington, Iowa. Combining the listening skills of a salesman and the patience of a teacher, he was a natural. Nevertheless, 13 years later, he was still stuck in the minors, still working two jobs in the offseason. (To feed his wife and three kids, he drove a UPS truck; to feed his passion, he was a substitute teacher.) Despite sending the big club a steady stream of overachieving arms who'd outperformed their draft status -- guys like Roy Oswalt (23rd round) and Carlos Hernandez (undrafted) -- he couldn't break through the glass ceiling installed by Gerry Hunsicker, the old-school Astros GM who believed that to be a big league pitching coach, you needed big league experience. But in 2004, after firing coach Burt Hooton as part of a midseason housecleaning, Hunsicker broke his rule and gave Hickey a try. The following season, Hickey helped Houston's hurlers post a 3.51 ERA, second best in MLB, and lead the Astros to the first World Series appearance in franchise history.
Nearly a decade later, the Rays' young staff couldn't care less that Hickey is one of seven current pitching coaches who never played in the majors. Instead, they see a meticulous game planner who spends up to six hours prepping for a series by watching video and compiling stats on opposing hitters. They see an everyman who speaks fluent Spanish and frequently catches his starters' bullpen sessions, traits so rare that reliever Jamey Wright, who has played for 10 teams, can't recall ever having a pitching coach who did either. Most important, they see an open-minded teacher who gives them space to find themselves. "The X-factor with Hick," Wright says, "is that he didn't pitch 15 years in the bigs, so he's not set in his ways." Adds Alex Cobb: "He lets us learn from our mistakes." Maybe that's because he's learned from his own.
On Sept. 30, 2007, Hickey was arrested on DUI charges, the same day he finished his first season with Tampa Bay, one in which the Rays posted an MLB-worst 5.53 ERA. Given his résumé at the time, it would've been easy for the Rays to ax Hickey, who admits he was "prepared to be dismissed." Instead, the club re-signed him to another one-year deal. "I'm a big believer that you don't abandon someone just because they made a mistake," manager Joe Maddon says. "We saw a lotof talent in Hick."
Today, it's hard not to draw a parallel between the Rays' success -- they've won at least 90 games four of the past five years and are on pace to win 90 again this season -- and Hickey. But the coach is quick to downplay his role. "Not too much credit, not too much blame," he says.
Adds the grizzled vet Wright: "Could they bring somebody else in here to do what Hick's done? Maybe. "But you'd sure have a lot of pissed-off pitchers."
“It’s to the point we hope we don’t have a play at the plate, no one can hit a cut-off man, no one can throw,” said one GM. “All anyone wants to work on is fun stuff: hitting. I wish they went back to taking pre-game infield and throwing to the bases.”
And not to be critical, but Farrell is wrong when he says scouting is simply evaluating a player’s tools.
“It’s our job to know if a player is coachable, is he a team player? We test our potential draft picks,” said a National League scout. “We have to know if a player is mentally tough. Is he aggressive? What are his instincts? Is he a dummy? Arrogant? We provide a complete picture.”
Watt's star burns brightly because of his intense, singular focus
August 23, 2013
HOUSTON -- JJ Watt has a pretty good idea what time he will go to sleep tonight, and next Monday, and could probably recite the times he will eat and what foods he will put in his body for at least the next few days or so.
His existence -- singularly focused on being the best football player he can possibly be, if not one of the greats of all-time -- is stunningly calculated, particularly for a 24-year-old kid.
Potential distractions are cast aside or never entertained; girlfriends, a social life, swank parties do not exist in his world where literally every hour, or half hour, is carefully scripted to maximize the Houston Texans defensive end's opportunity to fulfill his dream.
This pursuit has served him incredibly -- historically -- well in two explosive seasons, despite the challenges he faces as a 3-4 defensive end, and if Watt were to shatter the single-season sack record or knock down even more passes than he did a year ago, at this point no one who knows him would be surprised.
"Every single part of my life is calculated," Watt said, looking refreshed even as the monotony of training camp transitions into the regular season routine. "Everything. I'm sure part of it is unhealthy, because my personal relationships suffer, I don't have much of a social life. I literally dedicate my life to this game, and you're not going to find me out, you're not going to find me at the bar, you're not going to find me outside my house very often, because if I'm not at the stadium I'm recovering, I'm eating, I'm doing some recovery for my legs, I'm getting my body ready.
"I know that I have probably an eight- to 10-year window in this league, and if I want to be what I say I want to be, then I have to commit myself 100 percent. That's why I don't have a girlfriend, because I give my life to this game and I want to be the best in this game, and I know it takes an unbelievable commitment. And so I've sacrificed that stuff. I know I've probably missed out on some great parties and some fun at the bars, but to me getting sacks on Sunday and the opportunity to be an All Pro and the opportunity to get Defensive Player of the Year far outweighs any party I could go to."
Watt admits that his approach may be "a little crazy," but the results are beyond reproach. And he isn't wired to change it even if he wanted to.
By now most football fans realize the 6-foot-5, 295-pound game-changer is a true freak-of-nature athlete who had to force his way on to the Wisconsin football team as a walk-on not all that long ago and now possesses an almost preternatural ability to anticipate a quarterback's release and then pound the ball back to where it came, or merely pick it off.
The 11th overall pick in 2011, Watt helped the Texans to their first playoff appearance with 5 1/2 sacks, four passes defensed, two fumble recoveries, a blocked field goal and a burning desire to make plays. His interception of Andy Dalton swung the AFC Divisional playoff in Houston's favor, and the Texans went on to their first ever postseason victory.
Last year he was clearly at ease with his surroundings and produced a season for the ages, with 20 1/2 sacks, 39 tackles for a loss, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a ridiculous 16 passes defensed. He became "JJ Swatt," morphing into a household name and one of the players fans are most excited to see in 2013, with the Texans again in Super Bowl-or-bust mode.
Texans general manager Rick Smith surely believed he had a special player, and person, when he selected Watt, but this has astounded everyone. The Texans loved the fact that Watt, who also played varsity track, basketball and baseball in high school, was self-made. He transferred from Central Michigan to Wisconsin, going from delivering pizzas to walking on in Madison and starring in two years there. They loved the fact he already had a charitable foundation and strong values.
But for him to be the game's dominant defensive player just entering his third year in the league?
"I don't think that anyone could have known that this is who he would be," Smith said. "You saw some indications that he was a little bit more driven and mature beyond his years. He went to work to change his body when everybody told him he wasn't good enough. So you saw some of the elements and characteristics that would lead you to believe he had that type of makeup.
"But I don't think anyone could have predicted that this guy is as together as he is. He's a great football player but he's also a great man. He's got all of the athleticism you're looking for, the size, weight, speed ratio -- and he has tremendous instincts and he's got the will and drive. He's a got a rare, rare combination of physical, mental, emotional characteristics that you don't see very often."
So if that is born of careful strategic inner dialogue about how to maximize his sleep, naps, massage times, diet -- down to which types of calories he puts in his body at certain times -- to say nothing of when he's in the cold tub or watching film, then so be it. This is the path Watt's chosen.
Watt thinks of someone driving a six-figure performance car and how easily a trained driver could detect a slight defect in the breaks or handling. That's how his body feels to him. He knows what it needs, is in tune with it, and feels like he can quickly detect if anything is awry, and then immediately address it. He doesn't necessary enjoy eating avocados, but he understands what that food does for him, likes how his body responds to it, so avocados are in heavy rotation.
"I can tell if my body enjoys it and is using it as fuel," Watt said. "If I put a food in my body that is bad for me, my body rejects it and doesn't like it and that makes me feel bad for the rest of the day."
Few things bring him more joy than knowing that while others may be lounging or dabbling with a bowl of ice cream or out at the club, he is flushing his legs of toxins or honing his craft and harnessing his energy.
"I love the thought of working when other people are resting," Watt said, unable to entirely keep a devilish grin from flashing across his face.
"It's hard to imagine how quick this guy is," tight end Owen Daniels said. "And over the past couple of years he's gotten super strong. His technique, the way he uses his hands. It's almost like you can't win. He has so much power. He's so athletic. And literally, he's all about football. Everything in his life, it's like, 'Will this make me a better football player?
"The toothpaste he uses, the kind of water he's drinking, when he stretches, his diets, supplements. It's everything. He's that focused. It's impressive and it's obviously really paying off."
But, again, he is not crazy.
Occasionally, Watt will deviate slightly from the day's prescribed course of action, and he may go to bed a few minutes later than he planned. He will, however, adjust the next day's naptime to account for whatever he sleep he lost, lest things get too far out of whack.
"It's not one of those things where I'm like OCD and I freak out," Watt said. "So I can cope with it and I'm fine with it. But I'm not happy about it."
He's also far from satisfied about anything he has accomplished thus far. Watt doesn't speak in terms of numbers but spend any time with him and you know that even another 20-sack season wouldn't sate him.
"I'm always looking for that next thing that I can do to become even better than I am now," Watt said. "And a lot of people say I might regress some, a lot of people say, if he can just have half as good a year or as good a year. I say I have no interest in complacency, no interest in regression, no interest in mediocrity. I want to be better and that's how I approach every day."
Perhaps you have heard similar sentiments before, but to be in Watt's presence while he says it lends a unique believability to his words. He's living this. And savoring it.
He's a hero to the Texans community relations department, eager to do outreach, a more-than-willing ambassador for the team. Even as Watt's life began to change, especially following his interception of Dalton in the playoffs following his rookie year, when he started to be noticed more in public.
By the end of last year, no type of hooded sweatshirt, sunglasses or hat could obscure him from the masses, inescapable at his size. So often someone would walk up, even when Watt thought he might be somewhat cloaked, look closely, ask if it was him. He would say, yes, I'm JJ Watt, and sometimes chaos would ensue.
"Sometimes it becomes a swarm, but it's cool," Watt said. "Someday nobody will know who I am and nobody will care and it's nice to enjoy it while you can."
Watt seems at times to almost be too good to be true. He's a model teammate, wowing veterans with his mindfulness. His potential, on the field and in terms of earnings, seems limitless. After this season the Texans would be able to redo his contract -- they also have star linebacker Brooks Reed entering his third season and Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Cushing in the final year of his deal.
These are good problems to have, of course, and Smith didn't want to discuss future contracts but did note the team's precedent of retaining its talent. It's fair to assume if former Texan Mario Williams got $50 million guaranteed from Buffalo in 2012, then Watt's figure will shatter that.
No matter when such a record-setting deal goes down -- and it most certainly will as long as Watt is healthy -- he's not thinking about it now. Those things aren't mapped out in his daily plans; it's not anything in his control now. Getting his team a Lombardi Trophy, doing right by those who support him, and adhering to his code are all that really matter.
"I try and represent my team, my city and all the fans and my family, the way I feel it would make them proud," Watt said. "I'm always trying to make people proud, so I try to do things the right way. I try to work hard and try to give back as much as I can, because I want be a good representative of these people who put a lot of trust in me.
"We've got fans that spend their hard-earned money on my jersey and support my charity, and for me if you're going to spend your hard-earned money on my jersey I want you to be proud. I want you to be proud every single time you put that on. When you go out in public, I want you to be extremely proud of wearing No. 99."