Top 100 Baseball Blog

Monday, April 30, 2012

Theo Epstein's Part in the Problems of the Red Sox

It has now been a little more than six months since Theo Epstein left the Red Sox after a near decade run as the team’s GM. The two World series titles he helped bring to the long suffering Boston fans defined his legacy forever, and rightfully so, but what seems to be lost in his departure and the accolades is the shabby shape he left the Red Sox when he signed on as the new president of the Chicago Cubs this past October. A lot of the blame for the disastrous way the Red Sox started this season has been heaped on new manager Bobby Valentine, but much of what has gone wrong can be laid at the feet of Epstein.

One of Epstein’s most distinctive calling cards during his tenure as GM was his ability to find diamonds in the rough and turn them into useful pieces for his team. Sure, he had some notable misses like Jeremy Giambi and Wade Miller, but acquisitions of little known players like Bill Mueller, David Ortiz, and Kevin Millar showed his ability to identify guys who could flourish if in proper system and used the right way. Looking back at the last few years one could say that Epstein lost his eye for bargain shopping. Rocco Baldelli, Brad Penny, Casey Kotchman, Jeremy Hermida, and Andrew Miller are indicative of the pattern of failure in this department over the final third of Epstein’s tenure. His inability to find effective bargains over the past few years contributed to the team throwing more money at marquee free agents to fill the voids. This exorbitant spending has also become part of the disarray of the Red Sox.

No GM has a perfect track record when it comes to acquiring players- particularly those with big dollar contracts. However, the past several seasons saw Epstein push the Red Sox to the reaches of their spending limits- something most fans thought they would never see- and thus far get back sub-standard returns. No contract can be fairly evaluated until they have run their course, but in the moment, the last notable signings Epstein made with Boston have put the team in a precarious situation.

The three contracts that must be focused on are those of John Lackey, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez. In 2010-2011, Epstein signed the trio to long term contracts at a cumulative cost of $378.5 million. Lackey turned in a combined ERA of 5.26 over the past two seasons before becoming the public face of the 2011 collapse and then discovered he required Tommy John surgery that is causing him to miss all of 2012. Crawford turned in his worst statistical season ever in 2011, posting a WAR that was exceeded by the likes of Yuniesky Betancourt and Miguel Olivo. He hasn’t appeared in a game yet this year, currently rehabbing injuries that will keep him out of at least half the season. Gonzalez has produced as advertised during his first year and change, and in comparison to contracts recently granted other first baseman like Joey Votto and Prince Fielder, may end up being a steal. The downside is that Gonzalez isn’t wired to be a vocal team leader, something the team is currently in desperate need of.

There is ample time for all three players to make good, or at least better, on their long term deals, but teams like Boston live in the present and Epstein’s spending has hamstrung the franchise. Many fans were shocked to hear this past off-season that the Red Sox had spending limits and were unable to competitively bid for free agent starting pitchers like Edwin Jackson. The team obviously is a cash cow, but ownership felt they had reached a ceiling at which they didn’t feel comfortable extending themselves, forcing the team to make due with what they have for this season.

Building a deep and sustainable farm system is the final area of Epstein’s legacy that seems curiously lacking in the wake of his departure. Despite having spent as much or money on player development than any other team in baseball, the depth of the Red Sox system today is shockingly thin, particularly when it comes to pitching depth. There are bunches of intriguing prospects dotting the lower levels of the minors, but only third baseman Will Middlebrooks appears to anywhere near being ready to contribute on a major league level. For a franchise once seen as a model for player development, it’s current status as extremely bottom-heavy minor league system is no example to follow.

The early days of Epstein’s regime demonstrated his acumen for player development. The team debuted home grown players like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, and Jonathan Papelbon; all cultivated from the draft. Unfortunately, the past few years showed a steep decline in the farm system production under Epstein’s watch. Daniel Bard, who debuted in 2009, is the last player of consequence to come up from the minors. In addition to the lack of depth, the team has gone some time without having a “can’t miss” prospect in their system.

So, while Epstein can never be thanked or appreciated enough for what he brought to Boston, he must also shoulder a major portion of the blame for the position the Red Sox find themselves today. The team is in the midst of a hot streak which has brought their record closer to respectability, but major issues still exist that will take time and resources to fix. While blaming any and all of the team’s ills on Bobby Valentine is in vogue, people should look at the “Boy Wonder” GM who brought two World Series titles to Boston, but saw his performance slip in recent years and left town when the getting was good.


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Friday, April 27, 2012

Rollie Hemsley: How a Hard Drinking Catcher Made AA an International Phenomenon

Particularly in the earlier days of the game, baseball had a well-earned reputation for hard drinking and living players. Because the players often socially mingled with the press, and because the writers depended on access to teams to sell their papers, the vast majority of the more salacious happenings failed to make it to the public. Even so, catcher Rollie Hemsley, whose drunken exploits while a major leaguer in the 1930’s were so ridiculous and legendary, that everyone knew about his reputation. His story has a happy ending however, as Hemsley was able to persevere and beating his drinking problem, and along the way became a major reason for the international explosion of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Ralston Burdett Hemsley was a talented catcher who made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1928. His skillful play kept him on a major league roster, but his propensity for drink kept him out of many games. In a 19 year major league career he played in over 100 games in a season just seven times. Known as the “Rollicker” and “Rollicking Rollie,” Hemsley was kicked off four major league clubs before he gained his sobriety and finished his career with dignity and success.

Hemsley played several seasons with the Pirates before being traded to the Chicago Cubs, the Cincinnati Reds, and then the St. Louis Browns in quick succession. It was with the Browns that Hemsley started to truly spiral out of control with his erratic and irresponsible behavior. He drank constantly, and when he was intoxicated nobody was immune from his impact. He once squirted seltzer water on a row of women who spurned his offer to go out for drinks, drawing the ire of the club which had trouble drawing fans as it was.

The stint Hemsley spent with the Browns proved to be the first time he started truly paying for his indiscretions. His manager in St. Louis was Rogers Hornsby, famously sober and intolerant of those who didn’t live life and play baseball to his rigid expectations. Hornsby was so strict that he clamped down on reading papers in the clubhouse, drinking on trains, and other measures mainly geared towards Hemsley. Unfortunately, not even a taskmaster like the Rajah could change the incorrigible catcher.

It all came to a head in August, 1934, when Hornsby suspended Hemsley after he drunkenly tried to punch a Philadelphia police officer who was questioning him at a bar. The punch missed, and in the process of being taken to jail, Hemsley was roughed up and charged with public drunkenness. When he left the jail the following day, he told his arresting officer, “I’m more afraid of Hornsby than I am of the magistrate.”

Hemsley was able to get out of the legal scrape unscathed, but only increased the wrath of Hornsby. The manager told reporters, “I wouldn’t have minded but for his getting into print and bringing a lot of unpleasant publicity to the game and himself. He has been offending in this way several times… I’m tired of overlooking these things.” The Browns put up with Hemsley through the 1937 season before finally trading him to the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians may have well known what they were getting into with Hemsley, and not shockingly, nothing changed during his first few years there.  Bob Feller was the reason why the Indians traded for Hemsley. He had caught Rapid Robert during a 1937 barnstorming All-Star game and the young pitcher had liked how the catcher handled his heat. As Feller remembered his old backstop, “He was a better catcher drunk than many catchers were sober.”

Bob Gil, a member of the Indians organization at the time remembered how Hemsley once got hit in the head with a ball while attempting to steal second base. The trainer tried to convince him come out of the game, but Hemsley refused, joking, “No! I’ve started games dizzier than this.”

Feller had many memories of Hemsley and the trouble he caused, which could also put a smile on his teammates’ faces. Feller recalled, “In those days whenever anything was wrong with a player it was blamed on his teeth, so Slapnicka (Indians GM Cy Slapnicka) decided everybody had to go to a dentist during spring training and get his teeth in perfect shape. Everybody went but Rollie, so the dentists came to the clubhouse to set up an appointment. Rollie put his hand in his mouth, took out his uppers and lowers and gave them to the doctor. ‘I’m too busy,’ he said. ‘Take these to your office and examine them.’"

For every quirky story he was a part of in Cleveland, Hemsley had just as many more troubling incidents. His 1939 contract included a $5,000 good conduct clause and his wife was paid by the team to travel with Rollie during road games in an attempt to keep him in check, but nothing worked. One night he smashed a dresser drawer over the head of a journalist who had come up to his hotel room and tried to snap a picture of him after hearing that he had just returned from participating in a drunken brawl with some former teammates at a brewery. The journalist had hoped to surprise him, but Hemsley knew who was at his door and what he probably wanted, so he ambushed him with a wallop and avoided the camera.

Later in 1939 Hemsley got roaring drunk on road trip train ride and in the middle of the night dumped water on a sleeping porter, tossed lit matches into sleeping berths, and finally climbed blubbering incoherently into manager Ossie Vitt’s bed, where he was sleeping. When reporters questioned Vitt on how he learned of Hemsley’s behavior on train, the skipper snapped, “How did I learn? Why the guy was right in my berth from midnight to 4 o’clock this morning. Half the time he was abusive and half the time he was crying.” Hemsley was immediately suspended for his actions, but like so many other times he won his way back with his talent and likeable personality.

What seemed to finally turn Hemsley around was his young daughter, who was certainly exposed to some bad experiences because of her father. Feller explained that “Rollie had a daughter he was crazy about. She later became Miss Missouri, a beautiful girl, and she died of cancer while she was just a child and Rollie always talked about her.” His desire to be a good father finally made him think about how he was impacting her.

GM Slapnicka once gave Hemsley a $1,500 diamond ring and told him it was for his daughter, overwhelming the tough catcher and reducing him to tears. He vowed to stop drinking on the spot and the GM arranged for him to meet with some members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a small mutual aid movement that had started in 1935 in Akron, Ohio by a couple of hard drinking men, Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith. They found their own sobriety and decided to pass their methodology on to others who were looking to do the same.

Hemsley experienced a great transformation in his life in the offseason before the 1940 campaign. On opening day, 1940, in Chicago, he caught a no-hitter by Feller, winning the game 1-0 on his own RBI triple. After the game he called a press conference and it was there that he revealed his association with AA, explaining, “I’ve quit drinking. I’ll admit I must have been quite a problem for a while. But that’s over now. I simply decided I’d have to quit to stay in the majors. No more of those old days for me.” He concluded his story to the reporters by extolling the virtues of AA. “I waited this long before saying anything because I wanted to be sure of myself. I haven’t had a drink in a year and I want others to know the reason why, so they can be helped.” Even Ossie Vitt confirmed Hemsley’s reformation, pointing out that his wife no longer had to travel with the team.

When Hemsley gave his press conference and announced his association with AA, he not only broke the group’s anonymity protocol, but was also the first member to do so on a national level. However, it gave the grassroots organization a huge publicity opportunity and dragged them out of obscurity. Bill Wilson allegedly was not happy that someone else was getting more publicity than him when it came to his AA, and embarked on publicity tour of his own. Because of the recognition caused by Hemsley, AA expanded rapidly and grew into the vast international group that it is today.

As far as anyone knows, Hemsley never had another drink again. He played in the majors through 1947 and in the minors through 1952 (with a 3 game stint in 1956). In 19 big league seasons he hit .262 with 1,321 hits and 31 home runs. He also threw out 40% of all base stealers during his career and is still remembered as one of the finest defensive players to ever strap on a face mask. He also managed in the minors, and after baseball worked as a real estate salesman. He died in 1972 from a heart attack at the age of 65 in Silver Springs, Maryland.

There is little doubt that Hemsley’s alcoholism and wild ways negatively impacted the overall results of his career, making it easy to wonder what might have been if he had found his way earlier in life. As it turned out he was about more than just accomplishments on the baseball diamond. His accidental breach of confidentiality made it possible for subsequent uncountable numbers generations of people struggling with alcohol to get help and change their lives forever. Much of that can be attributed to a troubled catcher who broke the rules of his benefactors so he could share the news of his personal rebirth with press, teammates, and the public who had all previously written him off as a lost cause.


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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Paul Hartzell: Tales of a Pitcher

At 6’5 and 200 pounds, right-handed Paul Hartzell personified a classically built pitcher. He was chosen by the California Angels in the 10th round of the 1975 MLB draft after having attended Lehigh University. The Angels were helmed at the time by future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams and pitchers Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan, but still lacked the talent depth to be serious contenders. Hartzell was a player counted on to help fill that void; to the point that he was in the majors less than a year after being drafted.

After signing in 1975 Hartzell was assigned to Quad Cities in the Midwest League. He was dominant during his first professional season, posting a 1.37 ERA and 5 saves in 24 games (1 start), allowing just 28 hits in 46 innings. He was considered so polished and major league ready that he broke camp with the Angels in 1976 and began his major league career.

Hartzell was impressive as a rookie, providing the pitching staff with much needed versatility. He appeared in 37 games, including 15 starts, and went 7-4 with a 2.77 ERA. He had 2 shutouts and 2 saves, despite lacking a strikeout pitch; punching out just 51 batters in 166 innings.

Despite his impressive rookie campaign, Hartzell was kept as California’s swing man over the next couple of years, starting and relieving as needed. Just before spring training began in 1979, he was part of a multi-player trade that sent him to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Rod Carew. The Twins installed Hartzell as a fulltime starter, but he was unable to establish himself and was released at the end of the season.

Over the next few seasons Hartzell bounced around between the Twins, Orioles and Brewers, before finally retiring following the 1984 season. During his 6 year major league career he had a 27-39 record and 3.90 ERA. More information on his career statistics is available at

Since leaving baseball Hartzell became a successful business man but still looks back on his playing career fondly. I was able to get a hold of him to find out a little more about his time in baseball, so check out what he had to say!

Paul Hartzell Interview:

Who were your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: Bob Gibson was my favorite player. He was a great pitcher and I was intent on watching him from about 1965 to the end of his career. He also played basketball, which inspired me to play in college too. But, I knew that he was really a baseball player at heart, and so was I.

I never really had a favorite team. I lived about five hours from three major league cities - Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York. My father worked on Saturdays and there was no way he was going to drive ten hours, plus three more for the game on the only day he got to rest. So, as hard as this may be to believe, the third major league game I ever saw, I was in uniform for opening day my rookie year, 1976.

What was your draft experience like, and how did you first know the Angels were interested in drafting you?: Walter Youse was the manager of the amateur team I played for in Baltimore in 1973 after my sophomore year at Lehigh. Walter became a scouting supervisor for the Angels in 1975 and I was his second draft pick with the Angels. Willie Mays Aikens was the first. Willie had his problems in later life, but Walter picked two guys who got to the big leagues pretty quickly in his first two drafts for the Angels.

Do you wish the Angels had given you a little more time in the minors before bringing you up to the major leagues?: No, I was ready to pitch in the majors. I was 22 years old and I had pitched more than 300 innings in summer baseball against the best college players in the country in 1973 and 1974, and then dominated in A-ball and Instructional League. I knew how to pitch. But, what was hard on my body was switching from relieving to starting and back and forth. I think that contributed to my injuries starting in 1979, which effectively ended my career.

You played for two Hall of Fame managers in Dick Williams and Earl Weaver. Which one was the most intense?: Don't forget Gene Mauch with the Twins! Three very intense men. I don't think I could pick one being more intense than the other, nor could I pick which one ran the best game strategy. What I do know is that Dick Williams gave a 22 year old kid from Lehigh University the chance to pitch in the major leagues, and the chance for my father to see me pitch twice before he passed away in 1976. I thanked Dick for that every time I saw him for the rest of his life and will always remember Dick fondly for that reason. I grew up in a pretty hardscrabble place in Pennsylvania, so "intense" coaching didn't bother me - I'd had them since Little League.

What was your favorite moment from your playing career?: Winning two games in one day is right up there, in 1977, and during that weekend I pitched in four games in less than 48 hours, all against the Texas Rangers. I'm pretty proud of that. Beating Baltimore twice in 1979 (the only pitcher to do that in 1979) is memorable too. Finally, I pitched a 10 inning complete game in 1979 against the White Sox, while pitching for the Twins. Not many guys go 10 these days!

Who was the toughest hitter you ever faced?: George Brett and it's not even close! Best of the best. Chris Chambliss was a great player, and if I had to pick one man to build a team around, it's Eddie Murray. I was on the way down and out when I played for the Orioles, but Eddie was always very nice to me and I have a great deal of respect for him as a man and a player. For the last month of the 1980 season, he carried the team on his shoulders like no person I have ever seen.

What pitches were in your repertoire?: Sinking (two-seam) fastball and a slider in the big leagues. Jim Sundberg, who caught my last game in professional baseball while with Milwaukee, said I was the only guy he ever saw who had a lot of success with one pitch. He's pretty close to correct. My slider was much better until a pitching coach with the Angels decided I needed to learn to throw a bigger curve. My curve was poor and I lost the release point on the slider and never really found it again. Such is life!

If you could do anything differently about your playing career, what would that be?: Not much! I enjoyed it and I look back on it with fond memories. I've had great success in business and baseball helped prepare me for the wins and losses of life. I remember teammates as great people who made me laugh and I remember the games as great tests of human nature and endurance. Nothing but good thoughts!


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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An Interview with Anthony Meo

The Arizona Diamondbacks are one of the most exciting young teams in baseball. In addition to established stars on the major league roster like Justin Upton, Daniel Hudson, and Ian Kennedy, they also have a deep minor league system that has acted as a feeder for new talent. In particular, their minor league pitching depth is very impressive, sporting a vast arsenal of talented young arms. Anthony Meo, who drafted just this past year, is one of these prospects and is considered so advanced that it will not be a surprise to see him in Arizona by the end of the season, and possibly contributing to a pennant winning team.

Meo is a right-handed starter from Coastal Carolina University, who was considered so polished that he was taken by the Diamondbacks after his junior season in the second round (63rd overall pick) of the 2011 MLB draft. Meo made the most of his last collegiate season, posting a sparkling 10-3 record and 2.16 ERA, with 115 strikeouts in 108.1 innings. Even more impressive was the no-hitter he threw in the Big South Conference tournament; the first in the event’s history.

Boasting a fastball that can reach the mid 90’s, a biting slider, and a promising changeup, Meo’s three pitch repertoire is more than enough ammunition to leave him in a starting role. With Hudson, Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Trevor Bauer, and Archie Bradley all either in the majors or with enough talent to be there soon, there is a logjam of talent when it comes to starting pitching in the desert. Things in baseball usually have a way of working out, and talent always rises to the top. Once Meo puts a little professional experience under his belt, he will be poised to make the jump to the big leagues and will trust that a role will be waiting for him when he is ready.

Anthony Meo Interview:

Who were your favorite team and player growing up and why?: Growing up in Rhode Island, my favorite team was the Boston Red Sox. I used to go to Fenway Park a lot while growing up and my favorite player had to be Pedro Martinez. Pedro Martinez was my role model, and when I was younger playing baseball I would always try to be like him. I love the way he pitched and how dominant he was when he was with the Red Sox. 

What pitches do you have in your arsenal, and which one do you think you need to improve the most?: The pitches I have in my arsenal are a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, curveball, and a changeup. The pitch I need to improve the most is my changeup. I have learned through experience the biggest key is keeping batters off balanced and the change up is the most important pitch to do that. Also, being a starting pitcher, you need to have at least an average changeup if you want to be successful.

Can you run through what your 2011 draft experience was like?: Coming into my junior year at Coastal Carolina, I knew I had a chance to be picked pretty high in the draft coming into the season. My goal was to put that in the back of my mind and focus on the team and pitching only. After a long and successful season, I finally got to hear my name called in the draft. It was an amazing feeling because growing up my goal was to always play Major League Baseball!

What was your reaction to being named by Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus and ESPN as one of the 10 breakout prospects of 2012?: It was really exciting to being named as one of the ten breakout prospects of 2012 by Kevin Goldstein. Now it’s time to focus on what is in front of me and prepare for a successful first season!

What have you done, physically and/or mentally to prepare yourself for your first full pro season?: To prepare myself for my first full pro season I have tried to continue with the same routine I have always done in the offseason. That includes working out, running, long toss, and bullpens. Luckily I was able to get my feet wet last year by playing in the minor leagues at the end of the year to get an idea of what my first season is going to be like. I’m very excited and thankful for the chance to play in 2012!


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Sunday, April 22, 2012

How to Jumpstart the Red Sox

The major league baseball season is 162 games long, so it is hard to get to overwrought about the performance of a team or player two weeks in. However, there are clearly major issues with the Boston Red Sox, seemingly incapable of righting the ship from last year’s historic collapse. After losing a 9-0 lead to the New York Yankees yesterday, Red Sox Nation is literally reeling. Generally speaking, injuries and lackluster pitching have contributed mightily to their early season struggles, but it is also painfully obvious that they are missing the competitive spark inherent in all successful teams. While they have a long road back to find their winning ways, there are a number of steps that could be taken immediately that might jumpstart that process.

Get Mike Aviles out of the leadoff spot: Since Jacoby Ellsbury went down with a dislocated shoulder last week, Bobby Valentine has mainly relied on shortstop Mike Aviles as his leadoff man. I like Aviles more than most, but he is horribly miscast at the top of the order. His .318 career OBP does not make him an attractive option at the top of the order.

Dustin Pedroia, an on-base machine, is the natural choice to slide into leadoff, but he has expressed his disdain for that role in the past. In the interest of not creating yet another dour Sox player, it makes the most sense to leave him be and look elsewhere. That leaves Ryan Sweeney as the best fit. He has been one of the hottest Boston hitters to start the year, isn’t afraid to take a walk, and can be plugged anywhere in the lineup. His .345 career OBP isn’t awe-inspiring, but he has a mark almost 100 points higher than Aviles this season and is more than capable as a replacement until reinforcements like Ellsbury and Carl Crawford arrive from the disabled list.

Let Ryan Lavarnway play: Lost amidst the team’s struggles has been the bland play of the catchers, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Kelly Shoppach. Salty has gotten the lion’s share of playing time, but strikes out too much and is barely hitting .200. Shoppach has hit alright, but is also a prodigious whiffer. Neither will ever be accused of being Gold Glove winners. So, why not give someone else a shot to see if they can do better?

An intriguing option is currently languishing in Pawtucket. Last year Ryan Lavarnway hit 32 home runs in the minors, with a .376 OBP, and is off to another solid start this year.  Unfortunately, he has the label of not being able to play catch at the major league level despite having done alright in the high minors. As long as he can catch or knock down most of what gets thrown at him, why not give him a shot to see what impact he can make with his bat? The upside would be adding to an already potent offense, with the downside being him proving his detractors right once and for all.

Shake up the pitching staff: The pitching staff has been the most disappointing part of the Red Sox miserable start. Granted, the team has endured one of the toughest initial schedule in the majors, but their 6.00+ ERA and the inexcusable number of home runs they have allowed has made pitching the major weak spot. Again, using the same argument as the catchers, that the status quo is not getting the job done, why not try something drastically different?

The first move should be switching the roles of Daniel Bard and Alfredo Aceves. Bard’s high 90’s stuff doesn’t play up quite so well in the rotation and he has struggled with his control in his first few starts. He flourished as a reliever the past few seasons and moving him to starter may have been a mistake. Making him the closer would inject the end of the bullpen with somebody possessing overpowering stuff and give it a little bit of the swagger it has been missing. It may seem unfair to demote Bard after such a small sample size in the rotation, but the Red Sox should have never moved a known commodity out of their pen. Even though Bard may not like it, moving him back is what is best for him and the team.

Aceves was devastated upon being informed that he had not made the starting rotation out of spring training. Being installed as closer after Andrew Bailey’s injury did little to soothe this bulldog’s feelings. Aceves has lesser stuff than Bard, but his warrior mentality on the mound is best suited for starting. The way he pitched as a long reliever and spot starter in the past proved how effective he can be in longer stretches.

There seems to be the belief that Bard should remain as a starter because he is the better pitcher. While it is hard to argue that his stuff is more dominant than Aceves, is he really the better pitcher. Consider the following comparison of their career numbers:

Aceves- 3.00
Bard- 2.98

Aceves- 1.086
Bard- 1.093

Aceves- 148
Bard- 149

The total sum outcome of swapping Aceves with Bard could mean a significant upgrade for both pitching units and be a potential huge catalyst for turning the season around.

The Red Sox may remain stubborn; believing that sticking with their current plan will eventually work out. However, that approach is simply not acceptable in the uber-tough American League East. The suggestions outlined above are not kneejerk reactions to a tough first couple of weeks. They are solid baseball moves that make more sense than how the Red Sox opened the season. Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and if the Red Sox realize that playing the best percentages give them the greatest chance of getting the best results, they may still turn this season around yet. 


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Friday, April 20, 2012

An Interview with Matt Lipka

The Atlanta Braves seem to always have good luck in producing talent. From Chipper Jones to Brian McCann to Freddie Freeman, the team has been remarkably consistent in identifying young players with major leaguer ability. It’s a system that has kept Atlanta annually replenished and in contention, something that few teams can claim. One of the most recent additions to Atlanta’s machine is Matt Lipka, a player the Braves think will be a franchise fixture for years to come.

Coming out of high school in Frisco, Texas in 2010, Lipka was one of the most athletic players on the draft boards. In addition to blazing speed, he was a star on the gridiron as a wide receiver, earning All-State honors twice and catching more than 50 total touchdowns thrown by Zach Lee, himself a top round baseball draft pick in 2010. Lipka decided to stick with baseball and the Braves took the right-handed shortstop with the 35th overall pick in the first round. It was a great fit from the beginning, as Lipka had spent a major portion of his childhood living in Atlanta and idolizing Chipper Jones.

Lipka got his first taste of professional experience in 2010, playing 52 games in the lowest levels of the Braves’ system. His speed was immediately evident, as he hit .288 with 21 stolen bases. On the other hand, his 1 home run showed the area of his game that faces the most development. He stole another 28 bases in 2011, but struggled to show consistency in the 127 games he played in A-ball. The biggest part of his season came at the end when the Braves informed him that they planned to move him to centerfield and make the most of his athleticism.

Lipka began the 2012 season in High-A ball and faces adjusting to his new position while continuing to improve in all aspects of his game. He has the physical tools and the Braves believe that combined with his work ethic and baseball IQ that everything will eventually come together and turn him into a major league player.

I was able to chat with Lipka this past off-season as he prepared for his most challenging season. He provided a lot of insight about being in the spotlight while working for a professional baseball career. For more information on this exciting prospect, checkout his statistics at He is also a must-follow on Twitter, where you can monitor his 2012 season.

Matt Lipka Interview:

Who were your favorite team and player when you were growing up, and why?: Being born and raised in Georgia for the majority of my life, I was a huge Atlanta Braves fan. I was an even bigger Chipper Jones fan; the way he went about playing the game and how he always came up clutch in big situations is what made him my favorite. Its guys like him that you want to turn into and mold your game after.

How did you know that the Braves were interested in you?: One day at one of my high school practices my area scout, Gerald Turner, showed up with the Director of Scouting for the Braves, Tony Demacio. After practice they invited me to go to a pre-draft workout at Turner Field in Atlanta. There wasn't a chance that I was going to miss my favorite team’s workout, so I went and showed well and came away with a good feeling that I had put myself in a good position. 

Can you describe what your draft day experience was like?: Draft day was crazy. I was extremely anxious and obviously hoping that I would be off the board on day one. So sitting by the computer with my family we sat through pick by pick, then a few of the teams that I had done pre-draft workouts for had upcoming picks and we knew that this would be the time. Atlanta's pick came at number 35 and Rod Gilbreath came up to the podium and made the announcement, ‘The Atlanta Braves choose Matthew Lipka, a shortstop from McKinney High School.’ We all went crazy; of course momma was crying, and I think my dad almost shot the computer chair through the wall when he jumped up with excitement. But no doubt the best feeling I have ever had to finally see all my hard work pay off, and to be able to fulfill my dream with my favorite team since I was a kid was just picture perfect. I definitely could not have drawn it up any better. And to share all of that with my family who has been there for me since day one and has done everything for me was just icing on the cake.

You and high school teammate Zach Lee were both drafted in the first round. How much of the draft preparation and experience did you share together?: We shared a good bit of it together. I met with all 30 teams, and because we were both from the same school a lot of the scouts wanted to kill two birds with one stone by meeting with us at our high school clubhouse. I'd say we probably went through about 15 of the teams up there, doing all the tests and answering their questions about our interest in pro ball and all sorts of stuff. Very neat experience, and to have a friend to talk to about it that understood what you were going through was a relief. 

How did the Braves approach you with the idea to move you from shortstop to center field?: I had just gotten to the hotel in Orlando for the 2011 Instructional League, and I got a call from Bruce Manno. Just told me that even though I had a great year at short the Braves thought that I would be able to help the big club sooner at center field.  And for me that was all I needed to hear; I will play anywhere as long as it benefits the team. Also my speed plays much better at center; it brings me back to my football days playing wide receiver and tracking balls down which eased the transition for me.  It didn't take me long to get used to it, and now I feel like I have been there for my whole life. I have gotten after it this offseason, working out at the Michael Johnson Performance Center. I have leaned up and gotten stronger, worked on flexibility, and worked on a ton of speed stuff. On top of that I do all my baseball stuff. I am very excited for a great year at a new position. 

If you could do anything differently about your baseball career to date, what would that be?: I don't think I would do anything differently. Playing varsity football all four years in high school made me fairly raw compared to my peers, who for the majority played full time baseball, but I wouldn't trade those days for anything. I think it made me a much better athlete and made me a lot tougher in the long run. Not to mention I experienced a lot of success and had the time of my life playing football in Texas. Two time All-State and was going to the University of Alabama for baseball and football. It is almost impossible to stay away from football here; nothing like Friday Night Lights! But now I am strictly baseball, I am more focused than ever and I always will be making improvements and learning new things every day.

Do you ever get a chance to interact or get advice from Atlanta players?: The Braves sent us out to a Rookie Development Camp last year at Turner Field in Atlanta. We met all the Braves coaching staff and they even had Chipper and Brian McCann come in and talk to us. Both stressed how you will always be faced with adversity at some point in your career, but it is important that you embrace adversity and not let it affect you. About how some of the best baseball players have some of the shortest memories, learning to flush things and not carrying it around with you. Keeping that attitude is key in the game of baseball, where if you fail 7 out of 10 times you're an all-star. Definitely a great experience and a great opportunity for me to be able to be a part of that camp and to amp up my game in all aspects. The mental side is just as important as the physical side in baseball. 

What do you consider to be the strongest aspects of your game?: I would say the strongest assets of my game are definitely my speed, work ethic, and resilience. Speed is something that you can't teach and it can impact every part of the game. I am still finding ways to get faster and faster and still learning how to steal bases and getting the most out of my speed.

Another asset is my work ethic. I am always going to give it 110% and I always hustle, you can't let anyone out-work you if you want to be the best. And last, I am very resilient. I play this game because I love it. I am never going to get down on myself and if something isn't working I will always find a way to fix it. Quitting is never an option; success is the only option and I am going to give it everything I have until I can no longer play this game. 


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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bobby Valentine: Enemy of Progress

The Boston Red Sox started off this season in miserable fashion, dropping 5 of their first 6 games, displaying atrocious pitching, and losing MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury to injury. Things didn’t look good heading into last weekend, but the team somehow rallied and put together an impressive 3 game winning streak against the formidable Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately, their momentum may be short-lived because Bobby Valentine, as he often does, decided to mix things up and cause a stir in his own clubhouse. It remains to be seen what his motivations were and how this may impact the team moving forward.

On Sunday evening Valentine appeared on WHDH-TV’s SportsXTra and was asked about third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who has gotten off to a slow start of the season. Valentine speculated, "I don't think he's as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason. But [on Saturday] it seemed, you know, he's seeing the ball well, got those two walks, got his on-base percentage up higher than his batting average, which is always a good thing, and he'll move on from there.

Predictably, Valentine’s comments immediately went viral in the Boston area. Youkilis expressed surprise and confusion, while ESPN reported his agent, Joe Bick, as saying, "I will not dignify his quotes by responding to something that is so far off base on so many different levels." Valentine immediately issued a public apology, but that doesn’t un-ring the bell. Desperately needing to earn the trust of Red Sox players and fans shocked by last year’s collapse and the crumbling demise of the Terry Francona and Theo Epstein eras, Valentine instead has dashed about like a bull in a china shop.

Youkilis is probably one of the last Red Sox players who should ever be called out. After David Ortiz, he is the second-longest tenured player on the team and has developed a reputation as a hardnosed grinder who plays with his heart on his sleeve. Not only has he played through a variety of injuries over the years, but his playing style is so in your face and abrasive that he was famously asked by teammates several years ago to tone it down for the sake of their sanity and the coolers in their dugout. Youkilis is also one of the more beloved players in Boston, was never implicated in any way to last year’s questionable clubhouse behavior, and has only scuffled for the first week; not exactly a lengthy slump. Choosing him to call out on to the carpet was a curious choice by Valentine.

The fallout from Valentine’s remarks has already extended beyond Youkilis. ESPN also reported Dustin Pedroia telling reporters on Monday that "I really don't know what Bobby is trying to do. That's not the way we go about our stuff around here. He'll figure that out. The whole team is behind Youk. We have each other's backs here."

While Pedroia’s comments may be just as treasonous as Valentine’s, the fact that he felt comfortable going on record with them just 9 games into the season indicates that the club is far from embracing their new manager in the way they did Francona. Pedroia may issue a public apology like Valentine did, but it will be just as hollow and do nothing to dispel the appearance that there is a serious lack of trust between the players and the manager. It’s a big problem to overcome because an “us versus them” mentality is a quick recipe for a toxic clubhouse.

If Valentine is going to succeed in Boston, he will need to put aside his need to make good copy and become the story. By virtue of simply being on the major league roster, the majority of Red Sox players earn regional hero status the moment they don a uniform. This may grate on Valentine and his desire to control everything and everyone, but it is a reality he is not going to change. He must adapt his style to his new environment. He has been driven out of other jobs before for insisting to do things “his way,” so he needs to seriously evaluate how he is to proceed if he hopes to stay in Boston for any length of time.


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Monday, April 16, 2012

Ozzie Guillen Still On Thin Ice

Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen is returning this week from a 5 game team suspension, earned from the public comments he made expressing admiration for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. All eyes will be on the colorful skipper, who has publically been shamed into shutting his mouth, though he has never had much success in sustaining his silence in the past. This time is different, and if Guillen doesn’t do a better job of censoring himself, he may not be given another chance.

Guillen should be best known for his 16 year major league playing career and the World Series title he won as the manager of the Chicago White Sox in 2005. The fact that instead he’s more renowned for what comes out of his mouth is emblematic of the thin ice on which he sits today. Believing he was riding high after signing on as the Miami manager this past off-season, he is actually at a crossroads with his career that could turn out in very different ways.

Many people may view Guillen’s suspension as a first amendment/free speech issue, but it’s not.  I believe as much as anybody that when speaking for yourself you have the right to say what you want. However, Guillen is the most public mouthpiece of the Marlins and everything he says in his capacity of manager reflects back on the organization. His decision to commend Castro was bad enough, but was made worse by his employment being in the one American city that hates the dictator’s regime more than anyone.

The Castro remarks is just one instance in a long line of incidences involving Guillen and his mouth. He has publically chastised his players and GM, used gay slurs, and earlier this year proudly announced that he gets drunk every night in his hotel room after games. The only conclusion that can be drawn at this point is that Guillen is a total blowhard, that he craves being in the spotlight, or a combination of both. These are not qualities that a family oriented business like a major league baseball team should want as their representative. If Guillen continues to go down this road his managerial career will be very much in doubt.

Guillen has always walked a fine line between being an attraction because of the spectacle of never knowing what he will say next, and being bigoted and boorish. Unfortunately he often falls on the wrong side of that line and public tolerance is wearing thin. His over-the-line comments this past week were another indicator that he has no filter and a major reminder to the Marlins that they got in bed with a manager who is as likely to lose them money as he is to make it for them.

Undoubtedly Guillen was brought to Miami in part because of the hope that he would appeal to the significant Latino community in the area. He is off to a rough start, but can still turn it around if he isn’t too arrogant to learn from his mistakes. If it’s attention he craves, he can earn it in spades for things besides making off-color remarks. If he leads a potentially exciting young Marlins team to the playoffs and steps out and does work in his new community, the accolades will be there and for all the right reasons. Winning cures all and if he achieves that in a classy and community-minded way, he will start to earn back respect.

Guillen’s future with the Marlins and baseball hinges on his ability to choose the right path moving forward. It’s time for him to stop talking and to listen if he wants to become anything more than a punch line in the annals of baseball history. He may be on his last chance and unless he recognizes the error of his ways and does something to correct them, the end may come before he even realizes it.


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Friday, April 13, 2012

How Hack Wilson's Historic 1930 Season Avoided Knockout Punch

Lewis “Hack” Wilson enjoyed one of the most inspired seasons in baseball history in 1930. Playing outfield for the Chicago Cubs, he hit .356 with 56 home runs and a major league record 191 RBI. He had set the National League RBI record the year before with 159, but shattered that with his inspired play in 1930. It is still remembered as one of the single greatest statistical seasons by any player, but few know that because of a controversial off-season the previous winter, it came close to playing out much differently.

During Wilson’s career only the top players earned high salaries, and even then, with the uncertainty of how long they could play, most looked for whatever earning opportunities they could find during the off-season. Wilson was no different, and after the 1929 season he started to explore the possibility of becoming a boxer on the side. Despite possessing chicken legs and miniscule size 6 feet, Wilson looked like a bull from the torso up, with muscular arms and a size 18 neck. He was also considered a scrapper in baseball, having earned the moniker of “the Dempsey of the dugout” for the frequent fights he got into with teammates and opposing players. With America’s cultural obsession of baseball and the sideshow at that time, it was not a stretch to imagine that Wilson in the boxing ring would attract a great deal of attention and make him a lot of money.

Since Wilson never had any formal pugilistic experience, finding him an appropriate opponent was key. The natural contender from the start was flamboyant White Sox first baseman Art Shires. Self-styled “The Great,” Shires was a decent ball player who was always in trouble. He was a rough man who was quick to speak with his fists, once beating up his own manager, Lena Blackburne, in a fit of anger. Not only was Shires viewed as someone who could compete in the ring, but playing for the cross-town rival White Sox made it a natural rivalry that was sure to drum up additional interest in the bout.

Shires tried his hand at boxing in early December, 1929, taking just 21 seconds to knock out an unknown fighter named Dan Daly. The ball player wore a robe with the words "Arthur “The Great” Shires printed on the back and his surprising acumen in the ring gained him instant notoriety. It was the perfect segue into announcing his fight with Wilson.

The all-baseball player bout was announced on December 14, 1929 by promoter James Mullen, who indicated the fight would go four rounds and take place sometime that January. Although it was not set up as a standard match, it was not the type of lightweight celebrity boxing that occurs today. Shires had already proven he had some semblance of ability in the ring and Wilson proved no slouch as a bare knuckle brawler. At that time people went to boxing matches to see blood and nothing less was expected from the Shires-Wilson fight.

It was believed that Wilson and Shires stood to make in the neighborhood of $10,000 apiece for taking on the fight. To hype the match they immediately started carping at each other through the media. Shires told attentive reporters that “Hack will think he is looking into the sun again, when I start throwing them at him. The fact that he belongs to the National League, which really is a minor league, doesn’t prod my major league pride.”

Wilson shot back that he thought Shires was a braggart. “Down here in the West Virginia mountains we knock poundings off each other, and we do things without bragging about them. I never bragged about what I can do, but when I hear a fresh guy like Shires shouting about what he is going to do to me, I can’t help but want to take a few socks at him.”

The Cubs turned out to not be among those looking forward to the match. Bill Veeck, the team president, disapproved, saying, “Wilson is a great ball player, but I do not think it is within the province of any ball player to become a boxer. Wilson has not, and will not, receive our permission to fight Shires. If he goes ahead with it, the thing will entirely be his own responsibility. We cannot prevent a man doing what he pleases in the off-season. His contract, which has yet to be renewed, covers athletic endeavors, and if he fights he will violate that clause. Also, he will be fighting as plain Hack Wilson, and not the Cubs centerfielder.” Interestingly, not a peep was heard out of the White Sox camp, which obviously did not hold their own troublesome player in the same high regard.

Wilson initially stuck by his decision to fight, since he stood to make as much as $10,000 for the bout and another $1,000 in training fees. He issued a response to Veeck’s statement, telling reporters, “He seems afraid that I’ll get hurt or something of that sort and that my baseball career would be endangered as a result. I don’t think so. I hope he will not ask me to abandon the match after I talk the situation over with him.”

Publicity for the fight raged on, as everyone wanted to see if Wilson would contradict the Cubs’ wishes and go forward with the dangerous stunt, and if he did, if it would endanger his place on the team. When first asked about the fight, Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, seemingly threw his support behind Wilson, growling, “Let ‘em fight.” However, before the situation was over his stance on the matter would change greatly.

The fight all came down to cold hard cash for Wilson. He had no secret desire to become a prize fighter; he just wanted to get paid. When Veeck’s stance became known, Wilson hinted a $10,000 raise would help make up his mind. Shires promptly upped Wilson’s take to $15,000 to keep him interested. Wilson admitted “Fifteen thousand is a lot of bucks, I’ve been undergoing the most terrific struggle trying to be good and say no, but I just can’t turn down that kind of dough.” He even supposedly went to a bank to see and hold $15,000 in currency, and then gold bullion, to see what it looked and felt like; an experience that supposedly strengthened his resolve to fight.

Wilson was not afraid of being hurt, joking that getting knocked out would be like “seeing canaries and rainbows and pretty stars. Rather pleasant.” He also started to feel cocky because of public opinion making him the favorite. Chicago newspapers made Wilson a 7 to 5 favorite, despite him being 7 inches shorter than the more “experienced” Shires.

As a last ditch effort, Veeck pulled a low, but effective move by reaching out to Wilson’s wife, Virgina for help. She was as much against the fight as anyone and needed little prodding to put her foot down. She drove to a Martinsville, West Virginia newspaper office to issue a formal statement: “If president Veeck of the Cubs wishes to disapprove of Lewis’ plans to fight Art Shires or anyone else, I wish to voice my opposition too.” In hindsight nobody can say for certain if Mrs. Wilson’s actions helped end her husband’s boxing career before it started, but in order to get out of the match, he needed a way to do so gracefully, and by the end of the week, such an opportunity fell into his lap.

As a tune up to Wilson, Shires arranged to fight professional football player, George Trafton. Trafton, a 225 pound offensive lineman, outweighed Shires by more than 20 pounds and was none too pleased with the baseball player’s non-stop chatter.  Trafton told reporters to “Tell Shires to forget about this Wilson fight until he gets by me- which he won’t! I think I’ll put a stop to all this noise about a Shires-Wilson fight by knocking the guy out myself.”

Trafton backed up his claims pretty effectively, beating Shires handily by decision. He knocked the first baseman down three times with right-handed punches, but it was hardly a classic exhibition of pugilistic skill. Both fighters were so tired that by the end they could barely raise their arms above their heads. Papers roundly derided the quality of the match and put an end to the speculation that boxing was going to see its next great infusion of talent from the baseball diamond.

Shire’s shoddy effort against Trafton and the immediate negativity it generated created the perfect opportunity for Wilson to excuse himself from their fight. He quickly canceled, explaining, “I had a feeling that I owed it to the quiet, dignified players of the major league to slap down this braggart, but Trafton took care of the matter.”

At the time Wilson may have been out $15,000, but his decision was heavily in his favor. He stayed in the good graces of the Cubs, who had so many other reasons to get rid of him. He also ensured he didn’t miss any time in 1930 because of unnecessary injury, and ended up having not only his best professional season, but one of the finest in baseball history.

The fallout from the canceled fight was swift and final. In late December, Shires was suspended by the Michigan State Boxing Commission and the National Boxing Association because his manager was alleged to have offered a bribe to a future opponent to lose on purpose. Shires was ultimately cleared because of a lack of evidence that he was involved, but it was a death knell to the possibility of him having an extended or lucrative boxing career.

The whole baseball boxing fad and subsequent controversy did not sit well with Commissioner Landis, who loathed any attention that didn’t cast a pristine light on the game he ruled with an iron fist. Reversing his initial support of the Wilson/Shires fight, on January 20, 1930 Landis issued an edict that ballplayers could no longer participate in boxing for pay, stating, “The two activities do not mix.” A fight card that started with so much promise and anticipation dissolved within a matter of weeks, but ensured the existence of one of baseball’s most historic seasons.


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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Cody Buckel: The Rangers' Texas Sized Prospect

Since Nolan Ryan became president of the Texas Rangers in 2009, they have become known as one of the tightest run organizations in baseball; combining savvy roster building with cultivating a deep farm system. Because of Ryan’s Hall of Fame pedigree as a pitcher, he has added pressure to develop a stable of dominant young pitchers. He has already made great strides with that process, with one of the most exciting prospects in Cody Buckel.

Although he has a slight build (6’1, 170 pounds), Buckel, a right-handed starter, has the Rangers salivating about his potential. He was drafted out of high school in 2010 in the second round of the draft, eschewing a scholarship to Pepperdine in order to start his professional career. The decision to skip college was likely a smart decision given how advanced Buckel is at such a young age. He possesses a fastball in the low 90’s, a big curveball, slider, and a changeup. He has the potential to have all four offerings average as at least average pitches if they continue to develop, which is something that not many pitching prospects can claim, and a major reason why he has such a high probability of sticking as a starter.

The Rangers initially proceeded cautiously with Buckel, having him pitch in just 4 games in 2010. However, they gave him much more rope in 2011, as he appeared in a total of 23 games in A-level, posting an 8-3 record, 2.61 ERA, and 120 strikeouts in 96.2 innings. More information on his statistics is available at

Buckel has started 2012 with the Rangers’ High-A level team and will have his innings increased once again. If he continues to make the same progress he has achieved thus far in his brief professional career, it will only be a matter of 2-3 more years before he is pitching in Arlington. This past off-season he shared some insight on his experiences in baseball. If you want to follow Buckel through this season, you can also check him out on Twitter.

Cody Buckel Interview:

Who were your favorite team and player growing up and why?: My favorite teams growing up were the Yankees and Athletics. I followed Derek Jeter and Barry Zito, so since they were my favorite players I followed their teams.

What pitches do you have in your arsenal, and which one do you think you need to improve the most?: I have four pitches: fastball (both four-seam and two-seam), changeup (like a circle change), curveball, and a cutter/slider.  I would like to get more feel with the changeup and more consistency with the cutter/slider.

Can you run through what your 2010 draft experience was like?: When I was drafted I was actually at school taking an English final. I had to tell my teacher that I needed my phone on the desk. The Twins called in the early second round and I didn't accept their offer; then the Padres called me and asked if I was still at my number, but they passed me up, so I was getting a little nervous I would get passed up completely. But then the Rangers called and confirmed the number and about 30 seconds later I was a Ranger.  It was the happiest moment of my life knowing all the hard work had paid off and I was going to start a professional career.

After you signed your first contract, did you do anything to treat yourself or celebrate with friends and family?: After I signed, my family and I celebrated by just having a good dinner together. That dinner had to be put on hold actually because the day after I signed I was in Arizona conditioning and finishing the rookie ball season.

How much preparation did you have to put in to transitioning from relieving to starting last season?: Since I have been a starter all my life, it was the relieving that was new to me, so when I got into the rotation I was much more comfortable. I was able to prepare better mentally and ready my body and arm more easily.

Can you tell me a little bit about your relationship with fellow pitching prospect Trevor Bauer?: Trevor Bauer and I go back a few years. We met in Arizona when we happened to be on the same Junior Olympic team. We clicked instantly and had the same interests and goals at such a young age (I think we were 13 when we met). We stayed and touch and pushed each other to do well and were constantly challenging one another to see who'd get more k’s or less hits (we even did this last year in our first year of pro ball). He's almost my mentor even though he isn't that much older than me; however, his baseball and pitching knowledge is way beyond his years and any player or coach that I know for that matter (mechanics and the effect the pitching motion has on the body). We have a great friendship and hope to be pitching against each other in the big leagues soon.

What are the biggest challenges you believe you still need to conquer before you will be major league ready?: The biggest challenge is to stay healthy all year round. I feel if I keep my body and arm in great shape there's nothing stopping me from living the dream I've had since I was 8.  I'm fiddling with my mechanics right now to insure my arm stays healthy and can endure a full season without tiring.

Have you had any interactions with or advice from Nolan Ryan?: I met Nolan the day I signed, but that the only interaction I've had with him. It was pretty incredible to be standing in the same room with such an icon of the game.  I do hope to be able to talk with him about pitching and any advice he might have to better my game.


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Monday, April 9, 2012

Greg Gagne: The Throwback Player

The Minnesota Twins of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were among the more entertaining baseball teams in recent memory. Led by mercurial Hall of Famer, Kirby Puckett, they won two World Series in the span of five years (1987 and 1991) with a collection of fun, but hardnosed players. One of the mainstays of those teams was their shortstop, Greg Gagne, whose contributions were often unsung, but absolutely vital to their success.

Gagne was originally selected by the New York Yankees in the 5th round of the 1979 MLB Draft. He started his minor league career slowly, but produced better numbers as each year passed. The Twins took notice and made sure that he was included in a trade they made with New York in 1982 that sent Roy Smalley to the Big Apple. The transaction cleared a path for Gagne to be groomed for the Twins’ starting shortstop role, as Smalley had previously held the position since 1977.

Gagne bounced up and down between the Twins and the minors for a couple of seasons after the trade before settling in as the starter in 1985 and quickly became part of the team’s core. He, Puckett, first baseman Kent Hrbek, third baseman Gary Gaetti, and starting pitcher Frank Viola formed the successful nucleus. They were known for their charismatic and joking nature, but tough play on the field; making their World Series victories no big surprise.

The heydays of the Twins were before the days of inflated home run numbers; making many of their statistics seem puny compared to the inflated numbers of today. Gagne was what would now be considered an old fashioned player. He was an excellent defender and merely adequate at the plate. His best season in Minnesota came in 1987, when he hit .265 with 10 home runs and 40 RBI in 137 games.  His 4.1 WAR (wins above replacement) that year was also the best of his career.

Following the 1992 season, Gagne left Minnesota via free agency. He ended up playing for the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Dodgers before calling an end to his 15 year major league career after the 1997 season. He played a total of 1,798 games, hitting .254 with 111 home runs and 604 RBI. He also collected 1,440 hits and 108 stolen bases, and left baseball with a reputation as one of its most underappreciated players. More information about his career statistics is available at

Gagne left baseball with as little fanfare as he played the game, and I was always was curious to find out more about him. Fortunately I was recently able to ask him a few questions about his playing career and his favorite memories from baseball.

Greg Gagne Questionnaire:

What is the strangest thing you ever saw as a player on the baseball diamond?: The deke that Chuck Knoblauch and I did on Lonnie Smith in Game 7 of the World Series in 1991.

Who was your favorite coach or manager?: I liked Hal McRae because he let me play.

Who was the biggest jokester between Kent Hrbek or Mickey Hatcher?: I have to say (Mickey) Hatcher.

If you could do anything differently about your playing career, what would that be?: I would have been a switch hitter.


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