Phillies lead race for top 2018 MLB Amateur Draft pick

Brady Singer could be top pick in 2018 MLB Draft
On Friday, the Philadelphia Phillies will begin playing the final full month of their 2017 schedule. The club will enter that last full month with the worst overall record in baseball.
The Phillies dropped the final two games of their most recent series against the woeful Atlanta Braves by a combined scored of 14-3. Now the club opens up a four-game weekend set with the Miami Marlins on Thursday.
That series in South Florida begins an 11-game away trek against division rivals, the Phillies longest road trip of the season. It continues with three against the New York Mets, and then a four-gamer with the Washington Nationals next weekend.
Entering play on  Thursday, the Phillies sport a record of 49-83. The San Francisco Giants (82), Chicago White Sox (79), and Cincinnati Reds (77) are currently closest to the Phillies in the loss column.
Should they finish with the worst record, it will be for the second time in three years. In 2015 the Phillies finished 63-99, the worst record by any Phillies team since the year that I was born. That 1961 squad dropped 107 games, and currently stands as the worst Phillies team in more than 70 years.
The current group is on pace to win just 60 games, which would make it the worst in the last 56 years for the franchise, and the only one in that span to lose 100 or more games.

HEADED FOR TOP PICK IN 2018 DRAFT

Finishing with the worst record in the league would again give the Phillies the top overall pick in the MLB Amateur Draft. After earning that “reward” in 2015, the club made outfielder Mickey Moniak the top pick in the 2016 Draft.
Many evaluators currently rank University of Florida right-handed ace Brady Singer as the top available talent. However, it is far too early to worry about who will actually emerge by next spring, and speculate as to who the Phillies might pick.
The real issue is that this has to stop. This must be the last time for a long time that the club is in contention for such a high draft pick.
The Phillies are fielding a losing team for a fifth consecutive season. The emergence this year of position players Rhys HoskinsNick Williams, and Jorge Alfaro is a positive sign. But more talent is needed, and it’s time to stop looking at the short-term band-aid of stopgap players.

Maikel Franco regression creating a quandary for the Phillies

Franco’s regression helping hold back Phillies progress
The Philadelphia Phillies are suffering through a fifth consecutive losing season. Once again here in 2017, the club can be found at the bottom of the standings in Major League Baseball.
The team has been making a serious attempt to rebuild with youth over the last three years or so. One of the key pieces in that rebuilding plan is third baseman Maikel Franco.
Franco will turn 25 years old on August 26. He now has roughly 1,500 big league plate appearances on the back of his baseball card. In that time, he has slashed .247/.301/.423, poor numbers by any measure.
It was hoped that this season would mark a step forward for both Franco and the team. In fact, as the season was opening I named him as my Phillies “spotlight hitter”, the biggest key to any improvement by the club.

Not only has Franco failed to improve and deliver on his promise, but instead he has utterly failed. For the first time, the Dominican native will be eligible for arbitration this coming winter. The Phillies are sure to offer it to him. But would they try to sign him to a long-term deal? Should they?
Normally this would be a no-brainer for many organizations. A rebuilding team frequently tries to tie up a young player who they believe will be a key part of their program going forward.
But to offer Franco, who cannot become a free agent until following the 2022 season, any big money would be a mistake at this point.

THE TROUBLE WITH MAIKEL

How can the Phillies offer a player who has shown no improvement at all such a deal? The contract would probably need to approximate the Odubel Herrera deal given last off-season? We’re probably talking five-six years and $60 million, with half of that guaranteed over the next two-three years.
One of Franco’s calling cards is supposed to be his power. Perhaps if he were banging an easy 30 homers per year and driving in 100 runs, and providing strong third base defense, you could look past some of the other numbers.
However, to this point in his career Franco has gone deep 56 times and knocked in 202 runs. Divide his plate appearances by a normal three seasons, and you get approximately 18-20 homers and maybe 70-80 RBI.
Those aren’t the types of numbers that a team trying to build a championship contender needs to see out of a key corner infielder.

David Murphy at Philly.com did a piece recently on Franco’s failure in fastball counts, when a power hitter should normally feast. Murphy made the following ominous observation.

“Franco is hitting just .181/.330/.313 when ahead in the count, and that is nearly 71 percent worse than the league average.”

Defensively, Franco’s ‘Total Zone’ and ‘Defensive Runs Saved’ numbers are below average. For fans of more traditional stats, his Errors are on pace to easily become a career high.
Yes, Franco is still young. He can still improve. Yes, he flashes tremendous talent at times. He can bash prodigious home runs, and make sensational fielding plays. But he simply doesn’t do those things consistently enough.

PHILLIES NEED TO EXPLORE OPTIONS

To this point in his career, Franco has done nothing to show that he can be counted on as a cornerstone of a future Phillies winning ball club. However, there is no prospect coming through the pipeline to challenge him at third base.
Cole Stobbe turns 20 years old at the end of this month, and is the highest-ranked third baseman in the Phillies minor league system. Stobbe is probably still two or three years away from pushing for a big league opportunity.
As the Phillies move forward, they should and will offer Franco a one-year contract for next season. It will be up to Franco to make the improvements necessary if he ever wants to see a truly big payday.
More importantly from a fans perspective, the Phillies need to work with him to get the most out of the player. But they also need to begin considering a long-term contingency plan at the hot corner. Another season like this in 2018, and it will be time to consider going in a different direction.

Cubs lose Contreras, but Avila ready to step in

Contreras (C) has been pivotal to Cubs this season
The Chicago Cubs are the defending World Series champions, and entered the season as prohibitive favorites to repeat in the NL Central Division.
Things haven’t gone as smoothly as the team or their fans in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field had expected. The Cubbies struggled for most of the first half of the season.
Coming out hot after the MLB All-Star break, Chicago re-established themselves at the top of the division. Their most consistently productive player all season has been young catcher Willson Contreras.
The 25-year old backstop is in his first full season as the starter behind the dish on the North Side. He was slashing .274/.342/.519 with 21 homers and 70 RBI following Wednesday night’s game. Those power totals are second on the ball club.
But potential disaster struck in the late innings of that 3-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants. While running out a routine grounder in the bottom of the eighth inning, Contreras pulled up lame. He needed to be helped from the field with what turns out to be a hamstring injury.
An MRI on Thursday will determine the extent of the injury, as well as the length of time that Contreras is expected to miss. He could be gone for a week or so. He could also be gone for a lot longer. A stint on the Disabled List is a virtual certainty.
“He’s in good spirits,’’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo said per Bob Nightengale of USA Today. “He said he’s had it worse than this before [in 2015 in the Arizona Fall League]. He thinks he’ll be fine. Injuries like that, when you see someone grab like that, it’s not very good. So you never know. We’ll see.’’

NEW BACKUP BACKSTOP READY TO STEP IN

Fortunately for the Cubs, they have a solid replacement ready to step into the breech. Alex Avila is a 30-year old veteran in his ninth big league season. He was obtained by GM Jed Hoyer in a deal at this year’s trade deadline.
On July 31, Hoyer shipped a pair of talented prospects, third baseman Jeimer Candelario and shortstop Isaac Paredes, to the Detroit Tigers. In exchange, the Cubs received Avila and Tigers’ closer Justin Wilson.
For many at the time, Wilson probably seemed the bigger addition. The 29-year old had saved 13 games in Detroit, allowing just 22 hits over 40.1 innings with a 55/16 K:BB ratio. He wouldn’t close with the Cubs, but as a left-hander, Wilson would become an integral part of manager Joe Maddon‘s late-innings bullpen mix.
But now it seems that Avila may prove just as crucial an addition, if not more so. With Detroit he was the starting catcher, and had a stellar .387 on-base percentage over 274 plate appearances. Avila also demonstrated some pop, with 11 homers and 32 RBI.
He certainly doesn’t lack for the confidence to step into the Cubs starting role, for however long they need him. “There’s nothing to hang our heads,’’ Avila said per Nightengale. “No reason to be upset. We’re in first place. We got to keep grinding away. Got to keep playing hard. We’re in a great position.’’
The Cubs are indeed in first place. However, their lead is just 1.5 games over Milwaukee and Saint Louis. The arch-rival Cardinals have been playing good ball for weeks. If the Cubs want to remain on top, the ability of Avila to effectively step in while Contreras is out is likely to prove a crucial factor.

MLB playoff races wild with more than 20 teams still alive

Brewers and Cardinals two of many teams still alive
It is very possible that we are about to experience one of the greatest stretch runs in MLB history during the month of September, which begins in just three weeks.
A quick glance around the standings in Major League Baseball on Thursday morning, August 10, shows that three of the division races are already virtually over.
The Washington Nationals have a 14-game lead in the National League East Division. In the NL West, the Los Angeles Dodgers hold a 15.5-game lead. Over the in the American League, the Houston Astros are 13 games up.
With half of the divisional races settled, some might think that it was actually shaping up to be a boring end to the regular season. Nothing could be further from the truth. When you examine the Wildcard races, particularly in the American League, things really look interesting.
The Red Sox and Indians lead the AL East and Central respectively. Each holds a four-game lead, and both clubs appear to be deeper and more talented across their rosters than their nearest pursuers.
The defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs are on top of the NL Central. However, this is the one race that is remains extremely tight. The Milwaukee Brewers and Saint Louis Cardinals are just 1.5 games behind, and the Pittsburgh Pirates sit just 3.5 games out.
The Cards are the hot team right now. They’ve won five straight, and have gone 25-16 since falling seven games below .500 on June 24.
“There were too many guys in this clubhouse who weren’t performing to their career norms,” first baseman Matt Carpenter said following an 8-5 win over the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday night per Derrick Goold of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.
“When you have that many guys underachieving individually and collectively, that’s not where we want to be. You’ve got to believe eventually that’s going to change. It looks like it’s happening all at the same time. Which has a chance to be special.”

Wild Wildcard races

In the National League Wildcard race, Arizona and Colorado have appeared headed for a one-game October showdown for some time now. However, if either should stumble, both the  Brewers and Cardinals sit just 6.5 games behind.
The Dbacks and Rockies will put on their own possible playoff preview next month. The two rivals, who have evenly split a dozen head-to-head matchups already, will meet seven times in September.
The real insanity comes courtesy of the American League Wildcard race. The New York Yankees control the top spot, sitting 3.5 games up. The Seattle Mariners have won 10 of their last 15 game to take over the second spot.
On the outside looking in for now are the Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays, but each are just a game behind Seattle. The Minnesota Twins are just 1.5 games back. Sitting two out are the Los Angeles Angels, while the Baltimore Orioles are only 2.5 games behind the Mariners.
Even the Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Detroit Tigers remain alive. While they have a number of teams in front of them, the trio sits just three, four, and five games out in the loss column respectively.
The situation makes for a lot of scoreboard watching. “It’s a lot more fun than not playing scoreboard, because then then you’re out of it,” said Rays’ first baseman Logan Morrison per Martin Fennelly of the Tampa Bay Times.
These next three weeks during the season’s “Dog Days” of August will almost certainly weed out a few of these AL clubs. But do any of them look good enough to run away from the pack? Not to me.
That AL Wildcard battle is the real show to watch. Five teams right now within 2.5 games of the final playoff spot. It is shaping up to be a truly wild September across much of Major League Baseball.

Whit Merrifield breaks out as Royals return to contention

Whit Merrifield emerges as productive second baseman
When the Kansas City Royals opened play for the 2017 MLB season, very few prognosticators picked them to be a contender.
The Royals captured back-to-back American League pennants in the 2014 and 2015 seasons. And in 2015, they won the second-ever World Series crown in franchise history. That isn’t all that long ago.
But fortunes of big league mini-dynasties can turn around in a hurry these days. The Royals slipped to a .500 finish a year ago. With the Cleveland Indians on the rise in the AL Central Division, and with an aging homegrown core, the Royals looked like yesterday’s news.
Flash forward a few months, and here we are in the Dog Days of summer. Heading into play on Tuesday, August 8, Kansas City is tied for one of the two American League Wildcard playoff berths. The club also sits just three games behind the Indians in the division.
As the season was set to open back in late March, Royals skipper Ned Yostannounced that then 21-year old Raul Mondesi Jr had won an open battle for the team’s second base position.
The losers in that battle, Whit MerrifieldChristian Colon, and Cheslor Cuthbert, were left to battle for bench roles with the club in the final days of spring training.

PLAYER PERFORMANCES RESULT IN CHANGED PLANS

Merrifield had an option remaining, and so ended up opening the year back with Omaha in the Pacific Coast League. He quickly showed that he could rake AAA pitching. Over 37 plate appearances, he hit for an outstanding .412/.432/.794 slash line with three home runs.
Meanwhile in Kansas City, to say that Mondesi was over-matched would be an understatement. He slashed just .103/.167/.179 over his first 14 games and 46 plate appearances. Mondesi did steal five bases, but he simply wasn’t reaching often enough to make a real difference in that regard.
Into the breach stepped Merrifield. Given an opportunity to start with the big club, he took it and ran. The 28-year old is now hitting .294 over 401 plate appearances. He has 13 homers, 49 RBI, 50 runs scored, and stolen 18 bases. In short, Merrifield has been an unexpected gem for the Royals.
A little over a week after Merrifield took over the job at the Keystone position, Kansas City began to win. Since May 1, the Royals have a 50-38 record.
Rustin Todd of the Kansas City Star noted in a piece earlier this month that the Royals’ vice president for communications, Mike Swanson, was reporting that Merrifield was in rare company.
Per Swanson, Merrifield was just the seventh player in big league history to produce 175 hits, 80 runs, 40 doubles, and 20 stolen bases over the first 162 games of his career.
“With his versatility, there’s a lot of things he can do,” Yost was quoted by Todd. “He can steal a base, he can bunt, he can swing the bat, he hits the ball to all fields. He gives you a good at-bat.”

IMPROVED APPROACH LEADS TO BREAKOUT

Merrifield was Kansas City’s selection in the 10th round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of South Carolina. As he rose through the Royals farm system, a strong 2014 season split between AA and AAA was the only sign that he might be more than a big league bench player. At least so far, he has turned out to  be so much more.
In a recent piece for Beyond the Box Score, Anthony Rescan broke Merrifield’s success down in a more analytic fashion.
“This year, Merrifield has displayed a solid amount of offensive upside. His aggregate offensive statistics have spiked up significantly. He currently sits at a 111 wRC+, .339 wOBA, and a .289 TAv. All of this is being done at a .309 BABIP as well.” ~ Anthony Rescan
Merrifield’s consistent production has been a key to the turn-around of the Royals lineup. Not once this season has he gone more than two games without producing a hit.
Since the MLB All-Star break, Merrifield has only upped his game, hitting for a .327/.366/.577 slash line and six home runs in that span.
The Royals have surprised many by fighting back into contention here in the 2017 season. However, the club has now dropped six of their last eight games. And they just lost their all-star catcher and team leader Salvador Perez until September.
To stay in the race, Kansas City is going to need their remaining veteran core of Eric HosmerMike MoustakasLorenzo Cain, and Alex Gordon to step up in the lineup. Continued production from Merrifield is also sure to go a long way towards the Royals returning to postseason baseball.