Thursday, June 30, 2011

Looking Ahead to the Second Half of the Florida State League Part 2:The South Division

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

As I started on Monday, here is a recap of the first half of the Florida State League. In case you missed it, I talked about the North Division the other day, so ipso facto, e pluribus unum, por favor, quid pro quo and all those other terms, today I explore the South Division. It's only fair. Personally, I think the South Division was the more interesting of the two as only one team was over .500.

Like Monday, I'll be talking about who did well, who didn't do so hot, and what to expect for each team.

From worst to first:

Palm Beach Cardinals

Record: 29-40

Who did well: Right-handed starting pitcher Shelby Miller was smoking in the first half, striking out batters at a ridiculous rate of 13.75 per nine innings. Opponents were only hitting .202 against him before he was called up to AA.

Who didn't do well: The offense. The Cardinals averaged only 3.82 runs per game and hit only .252 as a team. The team leader only had 7 HRs and no player scored at least 30 runs.

What to expect: Much of the same. No offense, average pitching. In the second half, however, expect the staff to be lead by righty Matthew Swagerty, who in seven starts since moving up from low A has a meager 2.23 ERA.

Bradenton Marauders

Record: 30-40

Who did well: Second baseman Jarek Cunningham started off on fire, nearly leading the league in slugging at one point. He has since cooled down a bit, but is still one of Bradenton's big guns. And I also wrote about him for Minor League

Who didn't do well: Right handed starter Quinton Miller struggled in the first half, going 5-6 with a 6.51 ERA. Opponents also hit .315 against him.

What to expect: I think Cunningham will cool off a bit more, starter Phillip Irwin will continue to do well, but unless the Marauders get consistent support from other supporting elements, they will continue to be a sub-.500 team.

Charlotte Stone Crabs

Record: 30-39

Who did well: Shortstop Hak-Ju Lee was one of the pleasant surprises of the first half. I don't think many people expected him to be among the leaders in batting, stolen bases, runs scored, and on-base percentage.

Who didn't do well: Despite striking out over 15 per nine innings, reliever Scott Shuman couldn't find the strike zone with a radar. He walked an incredible 34 in 37 innings with 7 wild pitches.

What to expect: The Stone Crabs lack the big bopper in the middle of the lineup, so to stay competitive they have to rely on pitching, defense, speed, and contact. Lee should remain a stud, but their potential will ride on the arms of Alexander Colome (who I wrote about here) and their other starters.

Jupiter Hammerheads

Record: 32-38

Who did well: Outfielder Kyle Jensen was head and shoulders above his teammates in every offensive category. He lead the team in home runs, batting average, and hits, and only Hanley Ramirez in a rehab stint had a higher slugging percentage and OPS.

Who didn't do well: Starter Chad James went the entire first half without a win. Despite some rather decent numbers, to include an ERA in the 3s, he went 0-10.

What to expect: Even with Jensen, the Hammerheads scored barely 3.5 runs per game. That was last in the Florida State League. They need to find offense somewhere else if they are going to be competitive, or get James that elusive first win.

Fort Myers Miracle

Record: 34-36

Who did well: Lefty reliever Andrew Albers was the highlight of a dismal pitching staff. Albers walked only 7 in 47 innings, allowed fewer hits than innings pitched, and had an ERA under 2.

Who didn't do well: The pitching staff was among the worst in the Florida State League, allowing over 5 runs a game. Kane Holbrooks was one of the biggest offenders, allowing 97 hits and hitting 8 batters in 70 innings. The offense also wasn't much better, hitting only 23 home runs and scoring less than 4 runs a game.

What to expect: Not much. When your leading RBI guy has a .219 (despite a .250 BABIP), you know scoring runs is going to be tough. Combine that with one of the worst staffs in the league, and you are going to need a Miracle to compete (zing!).

St. Lucie Mets

Record: 38-32

Who did well: Many of the Mets starting pitchers were excellent in the first half. Matt Harvey, Jeurys Familia, and Darin Gorski all did well with ERAs near or under 2. While Harvey won 8 and Gorski 6, the rest was average at best. Harvey and Familia eventually got the call to AA.

Who didn't do well: Nothing went right for reliever Ronny Morla. The righty's walks went up, his strikeouts went down, and opponents hit .443 against him as he ended the first half 0-2 with a 13.89 ERA. That is almost video game bad.

What to expect: The Mets played above their Pythagorean Theory results. Instead of 7 games over, they should have been 1 or 2. Without Harvey and Familia to pitch lights out, they will join the rest of the pack in a very weak division.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Looking Ahead to the Second Half of the Florida State League Part 1:The North Division

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

The middle of June is usually nothing to look forward to in Florida. The weather is approaching the mid-90s, the humidity is rising, it's starting to rain everyday between 4pm and 6pm, hurricane season is slowly creeping upon us, and the summer gas increases behold us to our local area. It's not fun. But fortunately we have baseball to guide us through the summer swoon.

As the Rays slowly approach their mid-season hiatus, the teams of the Florida State League are loading up for round 2 of their season. With Daytona and St. Lucie already locks for the playoffs, it's time to take a look at each team and see who did well, who did not so well, and maybe what to expect in the second half.

Today we will look at the North Division and sometime in the next few days we will look at the South.

From worst to first:

Brevard County Manatees

First Half Record: 27-43

Who did well: Khristopher Davis and Brock Kjeldgaard lead the offense, which was middle of the pack with 4.53 runs per game. The 23-year old Davis hit over .300 with an OBP of over .400 while the 25-year old Kjeldgaard currently has 18 home runs, tying the franchise record.

Who didn't do well: Pitching is not a strong point for the Manatees. They allowed a league worst 5.15 runs per game.

What to expect in the second half: More of the same. I wouldn't be surprised if Kjeldgaard got the call up to AA. He is, after all, 25 years old and doesn't exactly have time on his side. Although long term his ISO power numbers are probably not sustainable (currently .300).

Lakeland Flying Tigers

First Half Record: 36-34

Who did well: Closer Kenny Faulk has struck out 25% of the batters he has faced this year and is holding opponents to a .244 batting average. He has also only given up 1 home run in the last two seasons.

Who didn't do well: Despite being one of the youngest players in the Florida State League, Daniel Fields continues to struggle. Fields has struck out 35% of his at bats and his K/BB ratio is half of what it was last year.

What to expect in the second half: Lakeland's best player, shortstop Gustavo Nunez, was promoted to AA recently, so they will miss his bat in the lineup. The bullpen should continue to be solid, but starters Cole Nelson and Trevor Feeney need to get on track.

Tampa Yankees

First Half Record: 37-32

Who did well: Starting pitcher Jairo Heredia has found his groove. After getting shelled in Tampa in 2010, the 21-year old righty is keeping his walks down and striking out more than a batter an inning, resulting in an 8-1 record.

Who didn't do well: Jose Ramirez. Despite being ranked 24th in Baseball America's Yankees prospect list, the young righty is 0-5 with a putrid 8.14 ERA. This after I wrote highly of him on back in April. Oops.

What to expect in the second half: Luke Murton, the brother of the legendary Thunder Matt, will unleash a vengeance upon American baseball for the shunning of his older sibling. He will strike balls through the fences and annihilate the Florida State League like a Class 5 hurricane.

Dunedin Blue Jays

Record: 39-32

Who did well: Outfielder Brad Glenn is tearing it up, hitting 16 home runs already. Caution must be taken however, as his OBP is down, his walks per game are down, and his strikeouts are up. That's not good.

Who didn't do well: 1B/3B/DH Sean Ochniko only hit .216 for the first half. That's not good. However, his walks were up, his ISO power numbers were up, and his BA for balls in play (BABIP) was a completely unlucky .217. If he gets that back up around .300, he should show stark improvement in the second half.

What to expect in the second half: Glenn to do worse, Ochniko to do better, and their baritone beer sales man to get a job in radio.

Clearwater Threshers

Record: 39-30

Who did well: 20-year old catcher Sebastian Valle is smoking with a .343 batting average. That doesn't come without a caveat, however, his BABIP is currently over .400, which is super high, even considering the fielding aptitude of Florida State League players. He should settle a bit although hitting for contact was a concern he has obviously conquered.

Who didn't do well: Troy Hansawa. No offense to Mr. Hansawa, but if you are a 25-year old 5'9 155 lbs shortstop in the Florida State League, and you are only hitting .235, time is running out.

What to expect in the second half: Even though I am a little biased because I wrote about him, I expect a few more home runs or power from prized prospect Jonathan Singleton. He should settle in after a half-season getting used to the FSL and his new position in left field.

Daytona Cubs

Record: 47-23

Who did well: Pitcher Robert Whitenack did so well in the Florida State League, he was promoted after four starts. All he did was go 4-0 with more than a strikeout an inning and only one walk in 23 innings. That's impressive.

Who didn't do well: Despite a 5-4 record out of the bullpen, righty reliever Brett Ebinger struggled with a 7.12 ERA. His left-on-base percentage was also a really low 54%. That should go up and his ERA should decrease.

What to expect in the second half: While most people might want to yell when they see prospect Michael Burgess the recipient of a ghastly .190 batting average. Of course, there is more than meets the eye, as his BABIP is a ridiculously low .227. That should go up.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Florida Rays

I recently arrived at the conclusion that the Rays are the perfect Florida team. They epitomize the state in a way no other professional team does. I think I’ve mentioned before that I am a Florida State grad, and if one postulates the theory that former FSU head coach Bobby Bowden was “Old Florida” – where “daggum it” was a popular phrase and the good ol’ boy system ran rampant – then the Rays are the best team to carry the mantel in the post-Election 2000, post-real estate bust, post-recession “New Florida”.

A few months ago, I explored how difficult it is to win fans in Florida, but there isn’t a reason why fans shouldn’t support the Rays. Looking at the Florida sports landscape, if we cast other sports teams into certain Florida “roles” none are as perfect as the Rays. The Miami Dolphins, for example, are like my grandparents’ house near the Villages. My grandparents have been around forever and they keep muddling along, living day-to-day as old people do. Sure, they might win a bingo tournament and be the talk of the town for a week, but their most recent accomplishments will never compare to their own personal glory days. And like Archie and Edith’s reverence of old Herbert Hoover, Dolphins fans shed tears to the past and sing songs to the memories of Marino, Shula, and their heralded ’72 perfect season.

Staying down south, the Rays baseball brethren, Florida Marlins, are as Florida as an oft-traded beachside timeshare. With their two World Series Championships and several mediocre years, they are the residence that sits frequently empty mired in perpetual disarray, only to be fixed up and flipped to new owners. Yet somehow while the neighbors think they are a blight and the homeowners association has lost all semblance of control, the owners fleeced the city for wads of cash to build an entirely new home.

Admittedly, I don’t know my Bucs and Lightning histories as well as I should. I know the Bucs stunk hideously, were good for a bit, went back to stinking, turned the corner with Dungy, won with Gruden, struggled again for a bit, and have just now found their groove again. But I am not sure how that relates to Florida culture. Really bad, good, bad, good, great, bad, and good. That’s more like a roller coaster at Busch Gardens than a predictive model.

Anyway, let me explain why I think the Rays are more “New Florida” than the aforementioned teams or any other team in the state.

First and foremost, let’s look at the Rays current living conditions. Like many Floridians, the Rays ownership moved into a fixer-upper home thinking the conditions were prime for renewal. They spent their hard earned money on upgrades and modifications. Then reality struck. The market plummeted faster than Scott Kazmir’s ability to get out hitters. Now the Rays, like most Floridians, are stuck in their current homes, unable to sell or renegotiate the agreements binding them their place of residence. For the Rays, it is a terrible lease, while for many Floridians living in homes that are undervalued, it is their draconian mortgages that keep them in the red. The only difference is where there are thousands of vacant homes destroying the market value for homeowners, there are no empty stadiums for the Rays to move to, unless you count the remnants of several minor league parks scattered throughout Central Florida.

Second, the Rays are perfect for Florida because like the state they are moving past their cheesy schlock gimmicky stage and rapidly progressing into an era of responsibility. If one were to compare the Namoli Era to plastic flamingos and kitschy “Wish You Were Here” postcards depicting arrays of oranges and palm trees, then the Sternberg Era is when people decided Florida is more than just a collection of bingo halls, spring break meccas, and retirement communities, it is a legit place to live, work, and raise a family. It is where elections are decided, Space Shuttles are launched, and decisions on wars are made.

The Rays are also similar to the state of Florida in that they are making smarter decisions on long-term development. For years Florida was the land of whimsical development decisions, where housing developments, Best Buys, and Wal-Marts were built without any care or consideration for their environmental impact. Which is similar to how the Rays once acquired talent. They would sign million dollar closers, aging sluggers, and other assorted has-beens or never-will-bes.

Now there is a growing movement on both fronts to follow a process of growth and responsible management. There is more cognition of the overall landscape of the both organizations and efforts are made to maintain growth and overall organizational health. The only fear is whether it is too little too late.

Fourth and most interesting to me is how the Rays talent development at the big league level should be readily accepted by the average Florida sports fan. People like to call Florida a “football state” and cite that as one of the reasons the Rays don’t belong, but in reality a college football state is perfect for the home of the Rays.

The most popular players in Florida college football history only played four years for their school. No matter how great a player like Tim Tebow, Charlie Ward, or Jim Kelly is, he can only quarterback for his respective schools for a few years before he must move on to bigger and better things. So how in concept is this different than a majority of the Rays homegrown talent?

Admittedly, there is no NCAA-like law stating a player like Carl Crawford had to leave the Rays, but until baseball changes its fundamental financial system, it might as well be mandate that players will change from small market team to a larger market franchise at the end of their initial contractual obligation. Small market organizations, like college athletic teams, have to develop a cyclical talent development process (or a feeder chain) to replace their departed talent.

Of course, this cyclical talent development process has been used by state football programs for decades. While fans root for the name on the back, the name on the front of the jersey is far more important. Florida sports fans need to understand this is the way the Rays must operate under the current climate of Major League Baseball. While the Rays can try to circumvent a few departures by signing a select group of cornerstones to team friendly contracts, they and their fans have to prepare for a majority of their talent to depart, just as a university athletic team would.

The Rays starting pitching staff presents possibly the best example of this college athletic talent development process. With the Rays emphasis on drafting and developing young starting pitchers, their rotation slightly resembles the usual quarterback cycle of college football teams. The “ace” is usually the number one starter and also the most senior talent. Behind the ace lines up each other quarterback respective of their experience. Then after each season, the departing senior begets a younger leader, as Chris Leak begat Tebow, Casey Weldon begat Ward, and Jim Kelly begat Bernie Kosar who begat Vinny Testaverde.

Although David Price (Class of 2008) is considered the ace, one could also make the argument that it could be James Shields (Class of 2006). Behind them is Andy Sonnanstine (Class of 2007), Jeff Niemann (Class of 2008), Wade Davis (Class of 2009), Jeremy Hellickson (Class of 2010), and Alex Cobb (Class of 2011). As the Rays traded Matt Garza, fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Shields, Sonnanstine, and possibly Niemann moved to make way for younger pitchers such as Matt Moore or Chris Archer (Class of 2013?).

So by being stuck in a home they don’t like, shucking their schlocky past, developing for the future, and using a process of cyclical talent development, the Rays should be understood and welcomed by a vast majority of everyday, average Floridians. They are a team most Florida residents can identify with.

And last but definitely not least, there is one final bond the Rays share with many long time Florida residents: while Florida old-timers do things to purposefully antagonize Northerners such as drive slow or say “y’all”, the Rays do one thing that ruffles the feathers of their own friends from the North: they win AL East titles.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Hard Luck Year of Chad James

(This post originally appeared on Bus Leagues

This year was supposed to be the breakout year for Marlins prospect Chad James. Last year, in his first in professional baseball, the then 19-year old went 5-10 with a 5.12 ERA in the Low-A South Atlantic League. He walked far too many, allowed 33 stolen bases, threw 17 wild pitches, and had a spectacularly unphenomenal 1.62 BB to K ratio.

Following the season, Baseball America ranked him the 2nd highest prospect in the Marlins system. They wrote that he had a plus fastball, a power curveball, and an occasional plus change-up. Baseball America also listed several problems, however, including:

- Inconsistent change-up

- Tendency to nibble and not challenge hitters

- Inconsistent mechanics

- Slow to the plate

Despite his faults, the Marlins promoted James to the Class-A Advanced Jupiter Hammerheads. Although he has had some success this year, James is still a mixed bag of performance and potential.

As of June 5th, Chad James had an 0-9 record, pacing not only the Florida State League in losses, but also more than any current Major Leaguer. But his record is not completely reflective to how James has pitched. He has actually improved significantly over last year.

First and foremost, it seems he is pitching much more to contact this year than before. His BB/9 has dropped from 5.12 in 2010 to 2.20 this year. His strikeouts have dropped from 8.27 per 9 in 2010 to 6.98 this year, which considering his stuff, is probably not good. Hitters are also making better contact, upping their collective batting average from .262 to .301. Despite these conflicting numbers, his ERA is still a better-than-decent 3.10. He has pitched at least 6 innings or better in 5 of his 12 starts, including two recent games where he went 8 innings and allowed 2 runs or less.

I personally saw James pitch in his worst start of the year, a 4.1 inning debacle in Dunedin. He reminded me a lot of a left-handed AJ Burnett in appearance. As for performance, he couldn't locate and the Blue Jays teed off on him, to include back-to-back-to-back home runs in the fourth. Nothing worked and he looked terrible. I hope to see him on a better night.

Overall, it's doubtful Chad James is really a 5-21 level pitcher. Based on his numbers, he should probably be 5-4 or so. But keep in mind, Jupiter is second worst in the league in runs per game, with a miniscule 3.79. They are second worst in batting average, on-base percentage, and worst in slugging - even with slugger Kyle Jensen and his 11 homers and .335 batting average.

As for James, he is barely 20 and seems to be still trying to find himself on the mound. If he can keep reducing his walks and at the same time get hitters to swing and miss more often, he'll continue to climb up the Marlins organizational ladder.

But here in the Bus Leagues, isn't that what every pitcher hopes to do?