High-A Dunedin off to hot start

April 19, 2014

When Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen made an April 15 rehab appearance at Toronto High-A affiliate Dunedin, part of him must have wanted to stay.

The minor-league Jays — not the Milwaukee Brewers — are off to the hottest start in professional baseball. Dunedin has posted a 13-2 record through its first 15 games and just three weeks into the season has opened up a four-game lead in the Florida State League North Division.

It’s fitting that Janssen returned to Dunedin this season. In 2005 when Janssen was a minor-league starter, he was part of an outstanding starting rotation that featured four first-round draft picks in Zach Jackson, Dustin McGowan, David Purcey and Ricky Romero, each of whom have since reached the big leagues.

But the 2005 Dunedin rotation had additional depth in Janssen, a fourth-round pick out of UCLA in 2004. The right-hander went 6-1 with a 2.26 ERA through 10 starts before being promoted to Double-A New Hampshire midway through the year.

This season, the minor-league Jays boast another crop out outstanding starting pitchers, though not nearly as high-profile as the staff of 2005 with only one first-rounder on the roster — right-handed reliever Justin Jackson.

The rotation is fronted by a trio of early-season standouts in left-hander Daniel Norris, a second-round pick out of Tennessee high school in 2011; left-hander Matt Boyd, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon State in 2013; and right-hander Taylor Cole, a 29th round pick out of Brigham Young in 2011.

The trio is off to a 7-0 start. Norris is considered to be the top prospect of the bunch, and has allowed just one run through 15 innings to post a 0.60 ERA in three starts. Boyd has been even better, proving untouchable through his first three starts yielding no runs through 17 innings while posting a perfect 3-0 record. And Cole has posted a 2.55 ERA through three starts and currently leads the Florida State League with 23 strikeouts.

In fact, the only loss incurred by a Dunedin starter this season has been by right-hander Jesse Hernandez. Hernandez yielded four runs (three earned) through six innings in a 5-2 loss to Brevard County April 11. Hernandez bounced back Friday by firing four shutout innings in a combined team shutout as the Jays downed the same Brevard County team 1-0.

Dunedin has won eight straight games heading into play Saturday night. The Jays send Boyd to the mound with the lefty bidding for his fourth win, as Dunedin goes for a series sweep against Brevard County in the final game of a four-game series.


Letting Uribe walk was right call

April 16, 2014

The Giants, by far, got the better deal with Juan Uribe departing for Los Angeles via free agency after the 2010 season.

At the time, the Giants had to face one point-blank decision — was Pablo Sandoval the third baseman of the future?

Sandoval answered with a resounding yes that echoed through the next two seasons to the tune of back-to-back All-Star appearances which culminated in a 2012 World Series Most Valuable Player award.

With Uribe’s impending departure after the Giants’ first World Series crown though, this wasn’t the perceived scenario. Despite Uribe’s brilliant defensive performance in the 2010 postseason, not to mention the decisive eighth-inning home run in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series in Philadelphia, he was still widely regarded as a utility man.

The Dodgers changed that perception in a hurry when they signed Uribe to a three-year, $21 million deal prior to the 2011 season. Some rumblings questioned the Dodgers’ exorbitant spending for a utility man. But history has shown it wasn’t a utility man in which they were investing, but an everyday third baseman.

Despite a dreadful showing through his first two years in Los Angeles, Uribe salvaged his stay with a solid 2013 campaign and, as a result, ended up landing a new two-year deal. All told, the Dodgers have invested $36 million in the now 35-year-old.

Sure, Uribe is a smooth defender with a game-changing presence at the hot corner. But only two words are needed to sum up why the Giants got a better deal with Uribe’s departure. Those two words — Joaquin Arias.

After scuffling through the 2011 season spent rifling through a series of patchwork utility men in Emmanuel Burriss, Mike Fontenot and Mark DeRosa, the Giants signed Arias to a minor-league deal heading into 2012. He immediately revitalized the Giants infield, bringing a right-handed hitting compliment to the young Brandon Crawford at shortstop while providing a natural feel at every infield assignment with which he was tasked.

Remember, Arias had played just 10 innings as a major league third baseman before landing in San Francisco. But he handled the hot corner like a natural, his crowning achievement coming on June 13, 2012 in recording the final out of Matt Cain’s perfect game with a difficult flat-footed throw that many a major league third baseman probably couldn’t have executed in a typical situation, let alone that one.

And in contrast to the two-year, $15 million deal Uribe signed with the Dodgers prior to this season, Arias signed a two-year, $2.6 million deal with the Giants. And while Uribe is relegated to playing only third base at this stage of his career after some years as a surefire over-the-middle presence, Arias, 29, is in his prime as a versatile and invaluable utility man.

“We have a lot of respect for [Uribe], but he chose to exit … and we won in 2012,” Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt said. “So, I’m not sure who made the better decision.”

The answer is clear. The Giants did.


Springer gets the call in Houston

April 15, 2014

I love it when they make me look like I know what I’m talking about.

Prior to last season, my friends and I shared our best-in-the-AL West-prospect lists. Rangers’ prospect Jurickson Profar took almost everyone’s top spot. Mariners’ right-hander Taijuan Walker got a lot of love as well. Other consensus choices were Mike Olt, Mike Zunino and Carlos Correa. One of my best friends who is an A’s fan — God bless him — even threw Sonny Gray’s name into the mix.

But there was one name strangely absent from everyone else’s list.

It was at that moment I proclaimed Astros outfield prospect George Springer might just turn out to be the best player of any then-current minor-leaguer out of the AL West.

Who the heck is George Springer? — someone asked. I don’t much talk to that someone anymore.

At the time, my answer was simple. George Springer is a right-handed version of Larry Walker. Too high of praise, my friend accused. Like I said, we don’t much talk anymore.

Walker was indeed a great player. He is one of those guys I put in the class of greatest players that justifiably aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Through 17 years in the big leagues, Walker could do it all. In an era where the term “five tools” got bandied about far too readily, Walker was a legit five-tool player.

The Rockies great won three NL batting crowns in four years: 1998 (.363), ’99 (.379) and 2001 (.350). Walker not only led the NL with 49 home runs in 1997 en route to being named NL MVP, he also earned one of his seven career Gold Gloves. He also tabbed 150 career assists as a right fielder.

The point of the player comparison wasn’t to claim Springer is going to compile such a resume. Who the heck knows what Springer is going to do over the next decade or two? Maybe he will pull a John Frank and decide to quit professional sports to attend medical school. (That is your obscure reference to 49ers football of the ‘80s, thank you very much.) In the meantime, rest assured that in the here-and-now, George Springer is a bad, bad man on a baseball diamond.

Last year, Springer took it to another level. After two seasons of proving himself as a solid prospect in 2011 and ’12, Springer emerged as one of the best prospects in all of baseball in 2013 while being promoted from Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma. The center fielder fell three homers shy of going 40-40, clubbing 37 home runs and stealing 45 bases. And yes, he can catch and throw.

On the heels of his alma mater UConn sweeping the national championships in men’s and women’s basketball, it is fitting Springer received the call to the major leagues Tuesday.

Good luck, George Springer. Thanks for making me look like I know what I’m talking about.


Renda to DL with quad strain

April 14, 2014

Nationals prospect Tony Renda was placed on the 7-day disabled list April 11 with a strained quad.

Renda sustained the injury legging out an infield single in Nationals High-A affiliate Potomac’s 4-2 win over Carolina. According to Renda, the injury is not serious. He was rehabbing Monday but has not yet resumed baseball activities.

And he is already champing at the bit to get back onto the field.

“I’m the type of guy that if there’s a game playing I want to be in it,” Renda said.

Having played in 135 games for Low-A Hagerstown last season — the team played 137 total games — Renda isn’t accustomed to taking too many days off. But that’s when he’s at his best. A 5-foot-8 second baseman in the mold of Dustin Pedroia, Renda was a doubles machine in 2013, tabbing 43 two-baggers to lead the South Atlantic League.

For his efforts on and off the field, Renda was honored by the Nationals organization as the first ever recipient of the Bob Boone Award. The criteria of the award — according to a Washington Times article by Amanda Comak published Sept. 13, 2013; outstanding professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination and work ethic — reads like Renda’s resume.

“It was a very successful season,” Renda said. “To cap it all off with winning the Bob Boone Award for the organization … it’s a great feeling to get recognized for a good year. And to get that award is a really, really nice thing.”

Renda has left his mark at every stop as he’s pursued his passion as a baseball player.

His name is etched throughout the Serra High School-San Mateo record book as the Padres’ all-time leader in career hits (139), career runs (120) and career total bases (234). To put his Serra years into perspective, Barry Bonds hit for a .404 career batting average from 1980-82, ranking 11th all time. Renda ranks sixth all time having hit for a .434 career average from 2007-09.

In three years at Cal, he lead the Cinderella Golden Bears team of 2011 to the College World Series. And since being drafted in the second round by the Nationals in 2012, he has totaled 243 hits in 214 games.

The quad strain Renda suffered last Friday was a result of hustling for his third hit to cap a 3-for-4 night. It was his fourth multi-hit performance in eight games. He is currently hitting a cool .375 (12 for 32) and, despite not having any home runs, owns a healthy .438 slugging percentage.

“Every ball that I hit I try to drive and put into a gap somewhere,” Renda said. “I’m not necessarily trying to put it over the fence. I’m just trying to get that ball into the gap and run.”

That’s a day in the life for Renda. That’s why his being out of action for three straight days and counting is such a miscast.

As for the last time he went three days without playing baseball?

“There really hasn’t been,” Renda said. “It’s tough to sit and watch. But I’ve got other work to do. I need to get this quad right so I can play the rest of the year.”


Bumgarner’s greatest at bat

April 13, 2014

No one likes falling behind 1-0 early, but it was kind of worth it Sunday to see Tim Hudson’s epic f-bomb while Wilin Rosario’s second-inning home run was still going up.

It was a weekend for epic bombs though. Pablo Sandoval came within a flagpole’s width of hammering splash-hit No. 64. There’s nothing like a Sunday walk-off homer that does tally the splash-hit meter — thank you very much, Brandon Crawford. But the bomb that stole the show was Madison Bumgarner’s fourth-inning grand slam Friday night.

It’s no secret Bumgarner can hit. Forget the .145 career batting average. Forget that he’s consistently been one of the least effective bunters on the Giants’ staff. Forget that he went 0-for-the-playoffs in both 2010 and ’12. When a guy hits an Andres Galarraga-esque grand slam in a crucial situation to give his team the lead, all the by-the-numbers jargon goes out the window.

Not to mention, Bumgarner is one of the most gifted young left-handed pitchers in the game. And the statistical category that matters most is his innings pitched column, which has registered 200-plus innings in each of the last three seasons. FYI, in 2010 he pitched 214 1/3 innings between Triple-A Fresno, the MLB regular season and the playoffs.

Probably the most important at bat of Bumgarner’s career came in 2010 though. It was a June 27 pinch-hit appearance against the Boston Red Sox at AT&T Park. It was just the fourth at bat of Bumgarner’s career. Insofar as five-pitch at bats that end in strikeouts go, none could be more valuable to a young player than the one Bumgarner had that day.

The game within the game of the situation was the Red Sox had one of the premier left-handers on the mound that afternoon in the person of Jon Lester. Lester was absolutely dealing that day. He would go on to tab a complete-game victory in allowing one run on five hits while striking out nine in a 5-1 Red Sox victory. But in that gem was an object lesson on how seamlessly an electric southpaw can dominate when he’s throwing darts.

That’s precisely what Bumgarner has been ever since he debuted as a professional pitcher with Low-A Augusta in 2008. He threw 141 2/3 innings for the Greenjackets that season, striking out 164 against just 21 walks en route to winning South Atlantic League Most Outstanding Pitcher honors.

Just two years later he was settling into the Giants’ major league rotation as, in the American League, Lester was etching his first of two consecutive All-Star seasons. And history now shows the similarities are many between the two lefties.

Lester has also been an innings eater throughout his career, surpassing the 200-inning mark in five of the last six seasons. The year he fell short in 2011, he only missed the mark by 8 1/3 innings. More importantly as it’s applicable to Bumgarner is Lester’s ability to dominate the inside half of the plate to right-handers.

And while the excitement surrounding Bumgarner’s 2010 call-up had many anticipating his plate appearances because he was being billed as the second coming of Don Robinson with a bat in his hands, the brilliance of manager Bruce Bochy was evident with that decision to pinch-hit Bumgarner so he could see first hand, as a right-handed batter himself, the way a southpaw dominates at the major league level.

Not that Bumgarner’s pinch-hit appearance against the Red Sox was a giveaway. As he showed Friday, he is capable of lighting up a baseball diamond like a pinball machine with one swing of the bat. But his swift emergence as one of the most uniquely dominant pitchers in the game has much to do with the rapid education he underwent since the day he started playing pro ball as an 18-year-old less than a year removed from high school.

And that 2010 pinch-hit appearance against Lester just may be synonymous with Bumgarner’s graduation day.


Gavin leads St. Francis charge

April 12, 2014

At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, St. Francis ace left-hander John Gavin is one intimidating competitor on the mound.

Not only has the Fullerton-committed senior dominated in two outings against Serra this year. Through an array of fist-pumps, rally yawps, and extended stare-downs into the opponent’s dugout as he walks off the hill, Gavin has dominated with vigor.

That’s the game face of Gavin, who will be regarded as a high-value target come the Major League Baseball draft in June. Once he steps off the field though, the big senior is like a different guy — all boyish smiles and even a tendency to blush when put on the spot — not that he backs down from the opportunity to flash the interview chops which he’s refined during the flurry of media attention this season.

“I’m a different person (on the field),” Gavin said. “That’s how I’ve been since little league. My friends call me a gentle giant. But when I get between the lines it’s a different story.”

The story has not been kind to archrival Serra this season. Gavin fired six-plus shutout innings Friday to earn the win in St. Francis’ 3-0 win to move into first place in the West Catholic Athletic League. Earlier this season, he threw six shutout innings in taking a no-decision as St. Francis went on to win 1-0 in extra innings.

Gavin has amassed a 4-0 record on the year, and in yielding just two earned runs on the season touts a miniscule 0.33 ERA with 53 strikeouts against 13 walks through 43 innings. The third-year varsity senior now owns a 22-2 career record. But Friday’s win was his first ever against Serra.

And Gavin’s emotion between the lines was obvious early and often.

Uncharacteristically issuing four walks in the game, Gavin walked Serra leadoff hitter Chris Papapietro to start the first inning. On the ensuing pitch as Serra’s Nolan Dempsey attempted to bunt, however, Gavin pounded the top of the zone with a hard low-90s fastball. The result was a short popup in front of the mound which Gavin tracked down like a cat. He quickly wheeled and fired a strike to first base to double up Papapietro.

And the animated fist pump and rally cry that punctuated the twin killing resonated throughout the rest of the game.

After firing six scoreless frames, Gavin went out to start the seventh. After surrendering a leadoff double to Serra’s James Outman, St. Francis manager Mike Oakland went to the bullpen. With Outman’s double was only the second Serra base runner to reach scoring position in the game. The Padres tabbed a third against St. Francis closer Patrick McMullen, but would strand the bases loaded to end it.

“[Gavin] got up to 90 pitches and I wanted to protect him,” Oakland said. “In fact, that was his last batter no matter what. Even if he got him out I was going to go get him.”

Come June, there should be some major league teams interested in going to get Gavin as well. Both he and catcher Tim Susnara are garnering serious attention. Susnara, a left-handed hitting catcher, is committed to Oregon next year. Gavin, Susnara and Serra pitcher Matt Blais (committed to UC Davis) all played for the same summer team in 2013.

As for the future, Gavin is more focused on the immediate with St. Francis currently one game atop the WCAL standings over second-place Mitty.

“I’m just trying to win a [Central Coast Section] championship right now,” Gavin said. “I’m not really too worried about [the draft] right now. When we’re done doing what we need to do on the field for St. Francis then I’ll worry about it.”


Green off to fast start in PCL

April 9, 2014

History couldn’t quite repeat itself for Grant Green.

The former A’s prospect, now with Angels Triple-A affiliate Salt Lake, came up with two on and two out in the ninth inning Wednesday night as the Bees trailed Giants affiliate Fresno 10-7.

With Heath Hembree on the mound attempting to close it out for the Grizzlies, the history between he and Green loomed large, as in a similar situation last season Green hit a two-run home run to tie a game in the ninth.

This time around Green almost did the same, hitting a booming 415-foot fly ball to the deepest part of Smith’s Ballpark that Grizzlies center fielder Gary Brown ran down at the wall for the final out of the game.

Even more remarkable was the at bat to set up Green as the potential tying run. In the preceding at bat, Bees No. 2 hitter Taylor Lindsey ran up an 11-pitch at bat, fouling off five straight pitches before finally drawing a two-out walk to prolong the game.

The fireballing Hembree earned his second save of the year and has yet to give up a run through three outings this season.

Green, though, has been one of the hottest hitters in the Pacific Coast League this season. In fact, all the former Oakland first-round draft pick has done is hit since being traded last July for Alberto Callaspo. Last year at Salt Lake he hit a cool .333 (8 for 24) before being called up to the major league squad where he produced a solid .280 average. This season, he ranks third in the PCL with 11 hits while hitting for a .423 average.

Image

MiLB Gameday graphic of Grant Green’s long out to end Wednesday’s game against Fresno. The Grizzlies just held on to win it 10-7.


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