Baseball Beat/WTNYMarch 17, 2006
Another Casual Friday
By Rich Lederer & Bryan Smith

With just about two weeks left until the 2006 season begins, the middle of March is normally a time to start counting down the days to opening day (while filling out and monitoring your NCAA brackets). In the meantime, the World Baseball Classic will divert and capture the attention of baseball fans for the next several days.

We were both fortunate to see baseball games this past week, one of us basking in the Arizona sun with the other performing his patriotic duty, rooting for the good ol' US of A. With the Major League season just a hop, skip and a jump away, here are a few notes to lead us into the weekend...

Rich: A couple of months ago, I made a decision to purchase a strip of tickets to the WBC games in Anaheim. After attending games on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, I have no regrets. Well, I regret the fact that the U.S. team lost two of three games and failed to advance to the semis in San Diego, but I'm glad I was there.

Bryan: Boy Rich, I'm jealous that you got to see competitive baseball.

Rich: I'm not sure how much I saw, Bryan. The people in front of me spent more time standing and waving American and Mexican flags than watching the games. It kinda felt as if I went to the zoo and a baseball game broke out, to be honest.

Bryan: I can't really complain...

Rich: You're not allowed to complain. Just me.

Bryan: As I was saying, the Angels entered the ninth inning today with Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick and Kendry Morales due up. A prospect fan's dream. I'll have the full report next week, but I will say that the Angels' opponents, the Cubs, have been more of a nightmare lately. Mark Prior's injury comes as no surprise, and while his diagnosis isn't too frightening, for once the Cubs need starting pitching.

Glendon Rusch, Rich Hill and Jerome Williams entered Thursday with a 8.18 ERA. Fans will have faith in Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux, but the comfort ends there. With an offense that was going to be questionable no matter what, the Cubs pitching staff now has very little wiggle room. With each passing day, my win prediction for the 2006 Cubs seems to drop.

Rich: Mine wasn't very high to begin with so I'm not going to adjust anything. I've got the Cubs at about .500. You know, the same as Team USA. Do you realize the Americans were 3-3 and could have been 2-4, if not for that botched call at third base against Japan?

Bryan: Yeah, that's as surprising as the Koreans getting through the first two rounds undefeated. Good for them. Good for baseball.

As far as spring training goes, if you are curious about how your favorite prospect has played this spring, I would suggest this article at the official Minor League Baseball site. My first point is to stress that numbers are just small sample sizes this early on, and everything must be taken with a grain of salt. However, I also remember spring trainings of yesteryear, when players like Russ Martin and Prince Fielder (both mentioned in this article) raised a lot of eyebrows.

Brewer fans should rest assured that Fielder is generally a slow starter. He really improved as the AAA season went on last year. The Brewers should also be made aware of this, so that there are no temptations to use Corey Koskie and Bill Hall on the corners. Fielder is one of the four leading preseason candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year (an article that demands to be written later), and a bad Spring Training should hardly dillute such thoughts. Everyone of my fantasy teams will have Fielder and Brian McCann on the bench.

Rich: I'm not as high on Fielder as you are, Bryan. But I'm biased. I remember seeing him at P.F. Chang's in Newport Beach with his Dad when Cecil was playing for the Angels in 1998. Prince was a big boy back then. He was only 14. I don't know what it is, but I just have a hard time thinking of him as a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate. Oh, I'm sure he will hit for power...I just don't know if the rest of his game will be strong enough to support anything less than 30 or 35 home runs per season.

Bryan: I also want to point out that Joey Devine is mentioned in this piece, growing in fame for striking out 14 batters in his first seven innings this March. The Braves' closer spot is one of the most watched positions in fantasy baseball, and Devine should probably start getting major attention in fantasy leagues. I thought Blaine Boyer would land the job originally, but it appears to be a matter of time before Devine is pitching in the ninth. This is, of course, a good time to mention that Blair Erickson and Mark Melancon -- college baseball's two best junior closers -- currently have 54 strikeouts in 44 innings.

Rich: If we're talking prospects, you best be tipping your hat in the direction of Evan Longoria. The rap on him last year was that he didn't walk much. Well, guess what? The MVP of the Cape Cod League has drawn 19 bases on balls in 90 plate appearances. He has a .527 on-base average. Oh, and Longoria has only struck out five times thus far. This guy is a surefire top ten pick. But he's a third baseman, not a shortstop.

Bryan: Speaking of college baseball, I'd like to point out an article by Dave Cameron at The Hardball Times. Cameron is really the first to enter a full report on the North Carolina duo's season, which has been absolutely fantastic. Daniel Bard has certainly passed Ian Kennedy in my rankings (Joba Chamberlain has, too), and is really competing with Max Scherzer for the second spot.

Andrew Miller, however, is by far the best player in this draft. This is another topic I will have more on soon, but Cameron details the heavy two-seam fastball that Miller has perfected, resulting in pretty ridiculous groundball rates. This draft has gained a lot of criticism for not having that one, great player, but my vote is for such talk to stop. Miller is an injury risk, I know, but he would be one of the top ten pitching prospects in baseball right now. Simply put, the Kansas City Royals must, must, must draft and sign the Tar Heel southpaw.

While we are on the topic of the draft, let me point out the fact that Matt Antonelli hit his seventh home run of the season this week. In 72 at-bats, the Wake Forest third baseman has 24 hits, 48 total bases, 17 walks and seven steals. He's a freak athletically, a former high school player of the year in football and hockey (ironically not baseball). He is a good third baseman, but probably has the ability to move to centerfield and possibly even second base. Antonelli made the 20 spot in my Sports Illustrated preview article, but his stock is way up since then. In a draft extremely thin on position players, I would be shocked to see Antonelli not drafted in the top 30.

Rich: Well, Bryan, I see where I am 12-4 in my college hoops pool. And the good news is that all of my Sweet Sixteen teams will be playing this weekend. That's a lot more than what Team USA can say.


Evan Longoria. Oh! And there I thought you said Eva Longoria.

Daniel Bard is not a groundball pitcher. I thought you guys only liked groundball pitchers.

Neither Bryan nor I have ever said we only like groundball pitchers. All else being equal, we like pitchers who induce groundballs more than those who give up flyballs.

What we really like are strikeout pitchers. In the hierarchy of ranking pitcher types, we would go (1) strikeouts, (2) groundballs, and (3) flyballs. Pitchers who can strike batters out and get groundballs are our preferred combo. But we would take guys who get lots of Ks while allowing their fair share of flyballs over a pure groundball specialist any and every day of the week.

The worst combination? Pitchers who don't strike out many batters while relying more heavily on flyballs than groundballs.

Bringing one more variable into the mix, we also like pitchers who strike out a ton of batters without allowing many walks. As such, look for pitchers with high strikeout and groundball tendencies and low walk rates.

With respect to Bard, Maryland hit him hard last night, getting 10 hits and a like number of runs off the junior, whose record fell to 3-1 while his ERA jumped to 4.05. He walked four and struck out six.

Inclusive of Bard's game on Friday, here are his stats on the year:

IP     H   R  ER  BB  SO
33.1  25  16  15   8  41

Bard has also hit seven batters so that bears watching. But his stat line looks like he has what it takes. Scouts also like his size (6-4, 202) and stuff. He was rated by Baseball America as the Cape Cod League's second-best prospect last summer.