Let the voting begin

April 28, 2013

All-Star voting is one of my favorite baseball traditions. The Major League Baseball balloting system has always had a special place in my heart.

Case in point: In lieu of a drink coaster, every morning when I sit down at my desk, I park my coffee cup on a classic 2001 Official Ballot.

The complexion of the midsummer classic has changed dramatically since that time, however. The 2001 All-Star Game was essentially the last truly enjoyable game of the old-school exhibition format. Thanks to the 11-inning stalemate of 2002, MLB commissioner Bud Selig decidedly scrapped the exhibition format that dated back to 1933 for the modern competitive format that exists today, in which the outcome decides home-field advantage in the World Series.

So too has changed the method I use to determine my All-Star votes. Growing up through the exhibition era, I would simply vote for the players having the best individual seasons. I rarely took into account past performance.

Case in point: In 2001, I voted for Rich Aurilia at shortstop for the National League. Aurilia was having a career year – he went on to hit 37 home runs to couple with Barry Bonds in breaking the all-time record for home runs by two teammates in the same season.

Aurilia did earn the starting nod that year, in what would be the only All-Star appearance of his career. Interestingly, he became only the second player in 19 years to start at shortstop for the NL who wasn’t Ozzie Smith or Barry Larkin. (The other was Walt Weiss with the Braves in 1998.) However, despite his 200-hit pace and prolific power numbers, Aurilia wouldn’t get my vote this year; not with the likes of Troy Tulowitzki in the field.

No longer do I weigh players’ performances based merely on the months of April, May, and June. Current performance is important of course. But now, formulating a well-balanced team is the goal. To do so, I equally take into account a player’s experience, past performance, and defensive prowess. Tulowitzki’s bat is comparable to the 2001 performance of Aurilia, but Tulo brings a breadth of experience and elite defense.

One other standard I’ve integrated into my annual balloting: I only select one player per team – at least initially. As the voting deadline draws near, I’ll be inclined to include as many as two players from the same team if they stand out head-and-shoulders above the other players at their respective positions. But parity in the game matters. One of the ways fans can insist on parity from top to bottom throughout MLB is to recognize team diversity come All-Star time. If you’re voting, let’s say, for eight Giants in the NL, you’re probably a homer, and/or you’re saying you’re OK with the Yankees’ strategy in recent decades of hording all the elite talent in baseball.

I’m pretty much OK with the homer element. However, at the end of the day, it is this school of thought that prevents a handful of teams from ever truly gaining the opportunity to compete for a World Championship which, thanks to the current system, goes hand-in-hand with how the larger baseball world approaches voting parity for the All-Star Game. In this area, the bottom line is: The better the variety of uniforms represented in the All-Star Game, the better it is in the larger sense for the game. So, at least at the outset of the voting season, I have a strict one-player-per-team rule.

Also note: When it comes to voting for outfielders, I try to stay true in choosing players at each respective outfield position. It’s an imperative to choose a true center fielder. There is nothing worse than seeing an outfielder who isn’t considered a good enough center fielder to play the position in the regular season who ends up representing his league as the elite player at the position. I’m a little less stringent on choices for corner outfielders, but not much.

Case in point: Justin Upton had never played a big-league game as a left fielder until the seventh inning of the 2009 All-Star Game. With the game tied 3-3 in the eighth, Upton took a bad route on a deep fly ball that turned into a triple for Curtis Granderson, who soon crossed the plate with the game-winning run.

Now that Upton is playing left field for the Braves, I am completely comfortable with voting for him as a right fielder, as he has plenty of previous experience at the position. But God help the NL if fans elect three current left fielders to play the outfield, which is entirely possible considering the hot starts of Upton, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Braun.

Also, I’m a National League guy. That means I tend to play the American League voting fairly loosey-goosey. For instance, the AL would probably be better served with the experience of A.J. Pierzynski behind the plate. Given a choice on a hypothetical NL ballot between he or Carlos Santana, I’d give the nod to Pierzynski. However, for the AL, I have no problem voting for the upstart Santana. As a fan, I’m rooting for the NL, so that’s the side I’m going to favor. I’m not saying I’d ever go as far as to sabotage the AL with my votes. But the thought has crossed my mind.

Which brings me to my last point: The practice of voting for an All-Star DH needs to be scrapped. If you must, throw the best DHs on the All-Star Game Final Vote, and let David Ortiz and David Robertson duke it out. But having an extra category for the AL throws the whole ballot out of whack. In protest, this season I will be writing in a vote for Edgar Martinez as DH. And I’m already looking ahead to next year’s odds-on favorite – Dave Kingman.

So let the games begin and the balloting fun commence. Listed below is my preliminary ballot. The official Fungo Lingo All-Star picks will be decided upon and previewed throughout June.

Preliminary All-Star votes

National League:

 C  – Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals

1B – Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers

2B – Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

3B – Pablo Sandoval, San Francisco Giants

SS – Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies

OF – Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals

OF – Shin-Soo Choo, Cincinnati Reds

OF – Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves

American League:

 C  – Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians

1B – Mark Trumbo, Angels of Anaheim

2B – Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox

3B – Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

SS – Jed Lowrie, Oakland A’s

OF – Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

OF – Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles

OF – Nelson Cruz, Texas Rangers

DH – Edgar Martinez, Seattle Mariners

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Roberts still a Giants killer

April 27, 2013

Given the success of Giants’ pitchers in recent years, it’s practically impossible to be critical of the way they play the game.

However, methinks it fair to point out the reason the Giants lost Friday night’s opener in San Diego. The 2-1 nail-biter came down to a simple tactical decision; or lack of one. Tim Lincecum did not drill Chase Headley in the bottom of the third inning.

Headley came to the plate on the heels of what is perhaps the most bizarre stolen base the Giants will see all year. With the Giants leading 1-0, Padres starting pitcher Andrew Cashner swiped second base on a well-timed delayed steal on a pitch in the dirt to strike out Will Venable.

The reason to drill Headley in that situation is elementary. Cashner made the Giants look bad. Sure plunking the next hitter is an old school train of thought. But such a tactic would have given the Giants a little momentum at a critical point of the game. Instead, the Padres rolled into a rally, following the sneak-attack with three straight singles to take a one-run lead, which they sustained throughout for the victory.

The demoralizing facet of the Cashner steal was more than merely witnessing the opposing pitcher beat you with his legs. And don’t get me wrong. The steal was great baseball. But seeing Padres first base coach Dave Roberts peer intently from the coach’s box immediately thereafter as the evil mastermind of the pivotal play brought back all the bad memories that should be attached to Roberts’ legacy in the eyes of the Giants.

Somehow, modern history will have Giants fans remember Roberts as a Giant. They shouldn’t. Sure he played the final two years of his career in San Francisco. Sure he stole 31 bases with the Giants as Barry Bonds made history in 2007.

But Roberts was, and always should be revered as, a Dodger. Giants fans especially should behold him with such reverence, because Roberts is one of the classic Giants killers of all time. He always seemed to have game-changing runs stashed up his sleeve against San Francisco. In his career, his total combined runs and RBIs was 58 against the Giants. To put that number in perspective, against the fellow NL West Rockies, who played at the most prominent offensive yard of the era, Roberts’ combined runs-and-RBIs total was 46. 

Friday night, by putting the wheels in motion to essentially steal the game, he reminded the Giants of that fact.

And San Francisco should well be prescient of Giants killers when in San Diego. Padres reliever Luke Gregerson threw up a scoreless eighth – mowing through the top of the Giants’ order on six pitches. Just a day in the life from the veteran right-hander, who has slain the Giants throughout his career to the tune of a 1.86 ERA in 38 appearances.

Granted, the last thing the NL West needs after the Carlos Quentin-Zack Greinke debacle is another bean-ball war. But for what it’s worth, one simple cutter to the fanny could have won Friday’s game for the Giants.


The new Guillermo in town

April 25, 2013

Let’s make something clear. I am a Hector Sanchez fan – a big Hector Sanchez fan. I always have been.

So it pains me to say this. But it need be said. In his four starts this season, Sanchez has not looked good behind the plate. His all-around subpar defense has been obvious. And it is likely the reason Guillermo Quiroz got the starting nod for Wednesday’s day game, to spell Buster Posey after a night game.

And in his first start behind the plate with the Giants, Quiroz was nothing short of stellar. He showed the exemplary defensive skills that have become synonymous with Giants catchers in recent years. At this point of the Giants’ burgeoning baseball dynasty, such excellence is downright expected.

Well, Quiroz delivered in his starting debut. Despite starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner taking a no-decision in an extra-inning loss to the Diamondbacks, the battery mates locked up for Bumgarner’s most efficient outing since his first start of the season, when he two-hit the Dodgers over eight shutout innings on April 2.

While the Giants’ decision to keep three catchers on their opening day roster seemed to foreshadow a disappointing sophomore season for Sanchez, the chance that Quiroz would emerge as a diamond in the rough hardly entered into the think tank of the Giants growing fan base. With any more performances like Wednesday’s though, people are quickly going to get curious about the new kid.

But like several Giants catchers in recent memory, Quiroz is not a new kid. He’s a 31-year-old journeyman catcher who has played with seven organizations since signing as an international free agent in 1998 with the Blue Jays. The Giants are his fourth organization in two years. Which begs the question – How do the Giants keep finding these guys?

Eli Whiteside and Chris Stewart were both pivotal finds in recent years. Whiteside, of course, played in the Giants organization during both World Series-winning seasons over the past three years, including serving as the backup catcher throughout the postseason during the championship run of 2010. And he and Stewart anchored the team behind the plate in 2011 after Posey was lost for the season due to injury.

The fantastic backstory of Whiteside and Stewart is the tandem combined for nearly two decades of minor-league service time before catching on as big-league mainstays. If Quiroz sticks in San Francisco, his legacy will be cut from the same stone as Whiteside and Stewart.

The most major league exposure Quiroz has seen came in 2008 when he appeared in 56 games with the Orioles. He hit just .187 that season, after which he had appeared in just eight games in parts of three seasons with three different teams prior to this season. He has already appeared in seven games for the Giants in 2013.

Perhaps plucking Quiroz over the offseason from a multitude of minor-league free agents was more of an obvious move than that which netted his predecessors. After all, Quiroz did hit 15 home runs last season for Mariners Triple-A affiliate Tacoma. It’s the first time since 2003 – when he was rated as a bona fide top prospect – that Quiroz notched double-figures in home runs.

Or perhaps it’s just destiny – a Guillermo legacy, if you will – beginning with the signing of Guillermo Mota prior to the 2010 season. Mota helped the Giants to two World Series rings. And, who can forget Mota’s magnanimous larger-than-life smile after receiving the first ring during the esteemed April 2011 pregame ceremony?

Maybe keeping a Guillermo in the mix is the secret to the Giants’ burgeoning dynasty. And early indications are that Guillermo Quiroz may be an integral figure in making a run at three World Championship rings in four years.  


Andres being Manny

April 23, 2013

There’s an infamous baseball idiom that followed Manny Ramirez throughout his career: “That’s Manny being Manny.”

Dubious but logical.

In regards to Tuesday night’s extra-inning collapse by the Giants, it seems more appropriate to say: “That’s Andres being Manny.”

One important caveat to the latter – other than it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it – is that Andres Torres is in fact not Manny Ramirez.

While obvious, it seems necessary to make the point, as there were a couple of moments amid the Giants’ 6-4 loss to the Diamondbacks in 11 innings, that Torres seemed to believe himself to be a prima donna power hitter. And the problem was hardly his hitting into a double play in the 11th inning.

The obvious mistake came with the game tied in the top of the 11th when Torres fielded a hit off the bat of Didi Gregorius. With the Giants playing a deep outfield set, the D-Backs’ rookie shortstop hit a lazy fly ball to the left-center gap that fell in front of Torres. As Torres caught it flat-footed, he inexplicably hesitated in throwing the ball back to the infield. Gregorius exploited the window of opportunity by hustling into second base for a game-changing double. An infield error (on a would-be double-play grounder) and a wild pitch later, Gregorius scored the go-ahead run.

That crucial mental error is the play everyone is talking about. It certainly embodies the haphazard “Andres being Manny” adage. But it isn’t the play that inspired it.

That point came in the bottom of the ninth during a three-pitch strikeout, when Torres seemed convinced he was one of the premier power hitters in the game. On the heels of Brandon Belt’s dramatic pinch-hit, two-run blast to tie it, Torres followed by hacking at two high-and-away fastballs that floated way out of the zone.

Giants fans are well aware that Torres is an adrenaline player. And when he channels that adrenaline by staying within himself at the plate, giving himself a chance to ignite the team on the basepaths, the trait is an endearing one. But Torres’ adrenaline got the best of him in a paltry at bat. Torres got caught up in trying to be a hero. And in doing so, he ended up playing the goat.

In 700+ at bats over the past two seasons, Torres has hit seven home runs. Only one of those has come at spacious AT&T Park. So someone really ought remind Torres he is not a slugger, but a doubles machine, by virtue of which there is a lot to like about Andres being Andres. But that’s not what happened Tuesday night.


Let McKenry play

April 15, 2013

So I tuned in to the Cards-Pirates game Monday evening just in time to see some James McDonald chin music knock down Yadier Molina. Something struck me as out of place, however. And it wasn’t that every player was wearing No. 42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day.

The problem with this picture was that Russell Martin caught the pitch. Martin catches a good game, I’ll give him that. And before Sunday, I would have been willing to give the Pirates the benefit of the doubt for starting a guy hitting .065 on the young season.

But Sunday, Pirates backup catcher Mike McKenry had the game of his career, blasting a pair of home runs in Pittsburgh’s 10-7 win over Cincinnati.

Admittedly, I have a sweet spot for McKenry. It’s for the same reason I detest Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp. As previously explained, in the old days, before Myspace turned into the flea market of social networking sites, Kemp shot down my friend request, and I haven’t liked him since. McKenry on the other hand was the first of many pro players to accept a friend request from me. He and I even had some correspondence early in his career, in which he told me he was working on developing more consistent power at the plate.

Mission accomplished for McKenry, who hit 12 home runs in part-time play last season. And it’s precisely that production that has me mystified as to why he wasn’t in the lineup again Monday. Fort McKenry – as he’s called in Pittsburgh – tends to hit his home runs in bunches. Last year on two separate occasions he hit homers in consecutive games. On two other occasions, he hit two separate home runs within a span of three games.

The Pirates have a lot invested n Martin, who signed a high-priced, two-year contract prior to the season. And sure, I appreciate the fact that Martin skipped an invite from Team Canada for the World Baseball Classic, even though it’s probably par for the course for a catcher who needs all the spring reps he can get while acclimating to a new club. But he honored his team commitment despite being ridiculed harshly in the media. So bully for him.

It’s important to note that McKenry has yet to establish himself as an everyday major league catcher. He has started just two games this year. But for a team that entered into play Monday dead last in baseball with .203 team batting average, the Pirates can ill afford to be sitting a guy after he goes yard twice in the team’s biggest single-game run output of the season.


Look at Angel run!

April 12, 2013

With all eyes on Kyle Crick’s first home start at San Jose Friday night, it was offense that stole the show.

Crick’s outing was cut short against Diamondbacks High-A affiliate Visalia, much in part to some sour defense. The big right-hander departed after 3 2/3 innings after surrendering five runs – though only one run was earned. Visalia extended its lead to 7-0 in the fifth.   But San Jose came roaring back with a five-spot in the bottom of the frame, sparked by the bat, and the legs, of Angel Villalona.

Villalona led off the inning with a sharp single to left. After advancing to second on a walk to Chris Lofton, Villalona flashed some surprising speed on the base paths when the big first baseman tagged on a medium-deep fly ball to right off the bat of Jeff Arnold.

It seemed to defy all previous scouting reports when Villalona went sprinting into third base with an athletic pop-up slide. Granted, most of those scouting reports are from three years ago, when Villalona was a big-bodied 18-year-old

It’s now hard to imagine that amid the prolific San Jose roster in 2009, many considered Villalona one of the most exciting prospects in the mix. Just a year previous, he was considered the top prospect in the Giants organization. Heading into 2009 only Bumgarner and Buster Posey were ranked ahead of him.

Villalona had a decent showing that season, batting .267 with nine home runs and 42 RBIs. Solid output, considering Villalona, at 18, was the youngest position player in the California League that season.

The knock against him had nothing to do with his baseball tools. It was his work ethic at which scouts scoffed. Sure, he was considered a hulking man-child. But the fear among scouts was something of a worst-case-Pablo-Sandoval-scenario. Add to the fear that Villalona seemed to lack the passion gene, and at 6-foot-3 had much more body to tame than Sandoval.

But now, after a long legal drama unfolded for Villalona in his home country of the Dominican Republic, the one-time prospect may finally be ready to emerge from the massive dark cloud that has loomed with every mention of his name for the past three years. And if one 90-foot increment is any indication, Villalona may at long last be ready to exhibit the massive talent which the Giants took a chance on by signing him as an international free agent in 2007.


Noonan a hit in first start

April 11, 2013

For years it has been one of the Giants’ best kept secrets. But now the cat is out of the bag. Nick Noonan can hit.

Once regarded as one of the top prospects in the Giants organization, Noonan has been something of an afterthought to baseball prospectors since his subpar showing at Double-A Richmond in 2010. But even though he batted just .237 that season, his talents, albeit indirectly, loomed large in San Francisco’s first World Championship.

During the pivotal trade deadline of 2009, the Giants were in the market for a veteran second baseman. They were essentially in a battle for second place in the NL West, having utilized a revolving door of organizational second basemen in Emmanuel Burriss, Kevin Frandsen, and Matt Downs. And the word on the street was the Giants were taking a good, long look at then-Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla as a potential trade target.

That same 2009 season was the year of the mighty High-A San Jose Giants team that featured future stars Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Brandon Crawford. By the time the July trade season arrived, however, Posey was untouchable to trade suitors, while Crawford and Bumgarner had been promoted to Double-A. Yet the Marlins still had scouts at San Jose for consecutive games as the rumors that Uggla was bound for San Francisco seemed fast becoming a reality.

One NL scout on hand marveled at the bat of Noonan. Although his defensive skill set remained a question, his bat seemed destined to eventually play in the big leagues. His contact was loud. The ball jumped off his bat. And for a wiry, young middle infielder, he possessed plenty of projectable gap power.

Any negotiations between the Giants and Marlins reached an impasse. Uggla remained a Floridian through that year and the next. (He was ultimately traded to the Braves following the 2010 season.) And while any precise trade proposals are unknown, it seemed the Marlins had a keen positive evaluation of Noonan. Yet the young second baseman remained a Giant.

By “young,” we’re talking one of the youngest players in the California League. Noonan was the second youngest position player to play the entire season in the league that year. The youngest was his teammate Angel Villalona. Still, Noonan held his own, hitting .259 with 26 doubles en route to helping San Jose to a California League championship.

Meanwhile, the Giants did ultimately score a veteran second baseman at the trade deadline, acquiring Freddy Sanchez from the Pirates for highly touted pitching prospect Tim Alderson. And the rest is history, as a year later, Sanchez played a monumental role in the Giants’ 2010 World Series triumph.

Most of the following two seasons were a scuffle for Noonan, as his batting average dipped dramatically at the pitcher’s paradise of Double-A Richmond. After his poor showing in 2010, he slipped further into the abyss while repeating the level by hitting .212, with a meager .288 slugging percentage.

But then came a late season promotion to Triple-A Fresno, where Noonan swiftly began realizing the potential that had caused the Giants to draft him as a first-round compensation pick out of the San Diego prep Francis Parker School in 2007. He hit .297 in a short stint at the hitter’s paradise of Fresno in Aug. 2011 – though the small sample size of 37 at bats did nothing to reestablish him as a top prospect. Over a full season in 2012, however, Noonan affirmed his performance by hitting .296 in 490 at bats, while proving his versatility by playing three different infield positions.

Noonan’s minor-league path is reminiscent of another second baseman out of Southern California – that being Phillies great Chase Utley. Also a wiry-strong left-handed hitting second baseman, Utley’s first season at High-A Clearwater of the Florida State League in 2001 – where he hit .257 with 25 doubles – is eerily similar to that of Noonan’s 2009 season at San Jose. And two years later, Utley broke into the big leagues at the age of 24 – the same age Noonan is now.

It’s obviously way too early to gauge Noonan’s success by the numbers. Nonetheless, it is quite fun to say the rookie is currently batting .455. Although that is sure to diminish, Noonan’s first big-league start on Thursday is now etched in stone – 3 for 5 with two runs scored – with a nifty eighth-inning double-play assist that loomed large in the Giants’ 7-6 comeback win over the Cubs at Wrigley.

Perhaps the only downside to Thursday’s breakout performance is that the cat is now out of the bag. Nick Noonan can hit. And it’s precisely that hitting talent that could make Noonan the next big-league success to emerge from the depth of talent of the 2009 San Jose Giants.