TSN Baseball Insider Steve Phillips answers three questions each week. This week, topics cover the Toronto Blue Jays and their crowded bullpen, the early success of journeymen pitchers, the comments of Archir Bradley's agent and the diminishing number of African-American players.
1. The Toronto Blue Jays are currently carrying an eight-man bullpen and with Adam Lind banged up, the Jays only had two bench players for their first game against the Twins on Thursday. Is an eight-man bullpen feasible over the duration of the season?
Certainly an eight-man bullpen provides depth and flexibility for the manager to handle moves during the course of the game. It typically will allow John Gibbons the ability to work matchups for any situation. When a starting rotation does not go deep in the game, the added bullpen depth allows the manager to try and hold the lead or hold the deficit on a daily basis and gives him the best chance to win. With a doubleheader scheduled on Thursday, the extra arms protect Gibbons from having to do what White Sox manager Robin Ventura did when he pitched a utility infielder in the 14th inning of a tie game (and lost).
Of course, with the one or two extra relievers, there are limitations in other areas. It doesn't allow the manager much creativity on the offensive side of things. In the American League, it is easier to carry an extra pitcher or two on the roster because they generally don't have to pinch hit for the pitcher. The Jays' greatest weakness is their starting pitching and therefore bullpen support is critical.
I don't suspect the Jays will go with 13 pitchers all season long but there will be times when it is necessary and appropriate.
2. We've seen hot starts from a trio of journeyman pitchers who were pressed into starting duty because of injuries to their team's regular rotations in Atlanta's Aaron Harang, Jesse Chavez of the Oakland Athletics and Alfredo Simon of the Reds. It doesn't seem realistic to expect any of the three to maintain their torrid paces, but who do you think has the best chance to stay successful?
Teams that have successful seasons find ways to deal with adversity. Injuries can cause tremendous problems over the course of the season. There is a saying in baseball that you never have enough pitching. There is nothing more true. Each teams has to go into the season understanding that they will need potentially 20 major league-ready pitchers over the course of 162 games. There will be injuries and underperformance that will prompt a change in personnel. As soon as you think you have enough pitching, the "baseball gods" remind you who is boss.
Journeyman pitchers are journeyman pitchers for a reason. They have good enough stuff to retire hitters at the major league level but lack the long-term consistency to do it on a regular basis. Aaron Harang, Jesse Chavez and Alfredo Simon all have experience and decent stuff. Yet at this point in their careers, they are part of the inventory that their teams carry to deal with the adversity of the season.
Chavez with the A's, is with his fifth major league organization. He is now 30-years old. He hasn't been able to secure a full-time position on any staff. He has made three starts so far without earning a decision but he does have a 1.35 ERA and has struck out 22 batters in 20 innings. You may look at this and think that he has figured something out. But you cannot judge a player by just a three-start window. He has 11 years worth of performance as a professional that led him to be inventory for Oakland. Certainly, the A's are ecstatic about what he has given them but they understand what he is and where the season may progress from here.
I actually broadcasted games that Harang and Simon threw against the Mets this season. Both pitched well. Simon (1-1 1.20 ERA) is a big hard-throwing righthander with a good slider. His stuff is better suited for the bullpen but out of necessity, he has been asked to start. His versatility is valuable in a pinch because he can easily move from the bullpen to the rotation. Every team would love to have a guy like him on their staff but you won't win with 12 guys like him on the staff.
Harang (2-1 0.96 ERA) has a far superior track record than the other two. He led the NL in strikeouts once as a starter for the Reds. He has won 112 major league games. That being said, Harang couldn't make the Indians rotation in spring training. The Braves picked him up once it was clear he wasn't in the Indians' plans. Harang has a career 4.25 ERA but over the past three seasons, his earned run average has been in the high 4's or low 5's. He is starting to deteriorate at the age of 35.
Of the three, Harang has the best chance of success this season but at some point, all three of these pitchers will be part of their team's adversity. They will start to perform like the pitchers that they are and need to be replaced.
3. The Arizona Diamondbacks are off to a horrendous start, and have a team ERA over 6.00, which is almost a half-run more than the 29th-placed team. The agent for their top pitching prospect, Archie Bradley went to media to complain that Bradley wasn't called up yet. Does this affect how Bradley is viewed by the organization, or is this just part of doing business in the Majors?
So you wonder where the "us against them" mentality gets started. Agents telling players that their organization is treating them poorly and unfairly can lead to an animus relationship.
Players need to understand that when their agent speaks, it is them speaking. The agent works for the player. When he says something, it is as if the words are coming out of the player's mouth. Agents sometimes forget that and players sometimes don't realize it. As a general manager, I reminded myself that sometimes agents step over the line. They think they are just doing their job. I didn't want resentments between me and an agent. I would speak to a player and remind him that his agent is representing him with everything he says and does.
I wanted my minor leaguers to think they were ready to be big leaguers. I wanted them to keep fighting and pushing to prove they were ready. So the fact that a top prospect is so confident that he thinks he is able to compete at the highest level is actually a good thing.
Is Archie Bradley better than at least one of the starters on the D'backs. You tell me? Their starting rotation has a combined 7.63 ERA (30th). The next closest team's starters have a 5.21 ERA. Arizona's starters are far and away the worst in baseball so far.
A little known fact is that no team starts their season with the best 25 players on their major league roster. Every team has a prospect that is better than a role player on the major league club. But the prospect starts the season in the minor leagues to better refine his skills so when he is ready for the majors, he isn't just a middle reliever, utility infielder or extra outfielder.
Archie Bradley has all the makings of a successful starter at the major league level. He has quality stuff, a presence on the mound, poise and athleticism. He will be a big leaguer. It is just a matter of when he will get the call.
The D'backs wanted him to refine his abilities so he started the season in the minors. He has only made three starts (1-2 3.31 ERA) there. It is his first season at the AAA level. He needs time to refine his command and control and consistency of his off-speed stuff.
The D'backs don't want to rush him to the majors and set him up to fail. They don't want the pressure on the youngster to have to be the savior of the team, which is impossible. All five of Arizona's starters have been bad. One young kid is not going to improve them every night. Their problems are far greater than just the one start he would make every fifth day.
The Diamondacks will likely, at least, wait until early June before even considering a call-up. They want to get beyond a certain date to protect him from becoming arbitration eligible any sooner than he has to. It is the organization's prerogative and it is the right thing to do.
Bradley's agent would be better served telling his client that he needs to stay focused and ready. That it is not a matter of if he will be a big leaguer but only when. He can only control what he does, not what the organization does.
So in the long run, there will not be lingering hard feelings about the pressure the agent is applying unless the agent keeps planting a seed of distrust in the player's mind.
4. What has happened to all of the African-American baseball players?
This is a question that was asked quite a bit this week. April 15 was the 67th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball. It is a good time to evaluate the progress that the game has made since Robinson's heroic efforts.
I think it is safe to say that if Jackie were alive today, he would be disappointed in the number of African-American players in the majors. In 2014, only 8.3 per cent of big leaguers are African-American, which is down from a high in 1981 of 18.7 per cent. In contrast, the number of foreign-born players has grown to 26 per cent of the 2014 rosters. When Jackie Robinson broke into the majors, that number was less than 1 per cent.
Baseball scouts and executives are color blind. It doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from. If you can play and help me win, then I want you on my team. The decreasing number of African-Americans is not a byproduct of racism or discrimination, it is strictly a scouting issue. Scouts go where the players are. The numbers indicate that baseball is growing internationally.
A fisherman throws his line in where he has the best chance to catch the most fish. Scouts are the same way. It is not that scouts don't want to sign African-American kids. It is just that there are fewer African-American kids playing baseball and putting themselves in a position to be drafted.
So why is this the case?
I believe part of the issue is that organized baseball had diminished in size and numbers in the inner cities. MLB has tried to bring the game back with the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) academies. There are now six in the U.S. that have about 220,00 kids participating. But because so many fewer kids were playing baseball, it dried up the number of prospects scouts were finding.
Baseball is a more expensive sport than basketball. A glove, cleats, bat and bag can run about $300. All a kid needs to play hoops is a pair of sneakers and a buddy with a ball. Plus there are fewer baseball fields around the cities than there are basketball courts.
One of the other financial challenges faced today is the fact that the higher levels of baseball are played as part of elite travel teams. These teams may demand a $1,500 participation fee in addition to the cost of equipment. Many of these teams travel to weekend tournaments, which can cost a family a significant amount of money for hotels and meals.
In order to get drafted or offered a scholarship, players may need to participate in showcase events around the country. These can be expensive propositions as well. For a family having difficulty making ends meet, these can be out of the question.
In addition to the financial challenges, there are limits to the number of baseball scholarships available to student athletes. When a player is recruited to play college football, he gets offered one of 85 full scholarships from a Division I school. When he plays basketball, he may be offered one of the 13 scholarships available. But in baseball, up to 30 kids split 11.7 scholarships. So there is far less return on investment for a baseball player than the other sports.
Finally, I think there are fewer kids playing baseball overall because they think the game is boring. It moves too slowly for them. Kids today want the quick hit. They want instant and constant action. The pace of baseball pushes some kids away to other sports. Kids need to be taught the game within the game so their interest can grow.
As much as I would love to see more African-American players in baseball, I just don't think the trend will be easily reversed. Let's hope the RBI programs work and we can restock the inner city ponds for the fishermen. If not, the game will continue to grow internationally until it can no longer be declared "America's Pastime."