For me, the four most exciting times as a baseball fan include (not necessarily in this order):
Pitchers and catchers reporting
The July 31 trade deadline
We've already seen the likes of Matt Garza, Alfonso Soriano, Francisco Rodriguez and Jake Peavy change teams, and I'm sure that between the time you read this Wednesday, more players will be dealt as teams plan for a playoff run and for next season and beyond. As the trade deadline passes, here are a few things I'm wondering about:
When will Chris Davis homer again?
Since the All-Star break, Davis is without a home run in 10 games, and in those 39 at-bats through Monday's action, Davis has a 20:1 K:BB. Given that he's fanned in nearly 30 percent of his plate appearances for the year, I'm not as concerned about the strikeouts, but he's also walked 9.4 percent of the time, so the 20:1 ratio is obviously a concern. Davis hit 19 of his 33 homers last year after the All-Star break, so no real concerns about splits here. Could we have another Bobby Abreu situation? Abreu, of course, had a huge first half (18 HR) in 2005, won the HR derby and then hit just six homers with a .260 average the rest of the way. Since I think "curses" are ridiculous, I'll toss that out the window. Davis' longest HR streak this year had been eight games, so while the outage and K:BB are concerning, I'm not ready to push the panic button quite yet. Another week without a home run? Yes, that would do it. Forty percent of Davis' batted balls in the last 10 games have been flyballs, a number that compares favorably to his 43.9 percent for the year. Let's give him another week or so before we really start worrying. Some of those flyballs will start going over the wall again.
Edit: Wouldn't you know that before filing this column late Tuesday, Davis hit home run No. 38. Watch him now hit three more in the next four games.
The Relevance of the Beard
If you believe recent reports, Brian Wilson is pitching like a combination of vintage Brian Wilson and Sidd Finch. He's reportedly in good shape and has been impressing scouts, and with multiple teams interested, the Dodgers felt compelled to give Wilson a guaranteed contract Tuesday. This is an organization that gave Brandon League, an inferior reliever, the closer job ahead of Kenley Jansen to start the year, so there is some precedence here. Wilson could come in, pitch a couple solid innings in a setup role and close ahead of Jansen or he could pitching in a setup role given Jansen has elite closer numbers - 12.2 K/9, 1.5 BB/9. Nothing would surprise me. The path appears to have Wilson open in the minors, pitch a couple games and then go from there. Expect him to join the Dodgers toward the latter part of next week. Where things go from there are to be determined, but I'm stashing Wilson in deeper formats.
Brandon Beachy - Wait 'til 2014?
After a solid first full season in 2011 in which he posted a 10.7 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 25 starts. He subsequently underwent the dreaded Tommy John procedure after making just 13 starts in 2012. Beachy didn't experience any significant setbacks in his recovery and made his return Monday. The results weren't pretty, as Beachy allowed seven runs on eight hits while lasting just 3.2 innings. A 4:10 GB:FB certainly didn't help, as Beachy allowed a pair of home runs. Beachy's fastball was in the 89-93 range most of the night, so that compares favorably with the 91-92 mph he averaged pre-injury. Beachy also posted a 5:1 K:BB in the start while getting hit to the tune of a .529 BABIP, so there's at least a few data points here to suggest he presents a buy-low opportunity. Beachy's next start is scheduled for Saturday in Philadelphia, an outing in which I wouldn't use him, but I still think he can provide some value this year.
What top prospects could help soon?
Any day now:
Xander Bogaerts, SS/3B, BOS - Bogaerts has been getting third-base time in Triple-A recently, fueling speculation that he could get the call to the big club. He's hitting .361 in his last 10 games, so the 20-year-old is nearing that next promotion. Don't expect Manny Machado production, but he's a top-10 overall prospect. Shipping Jose Iglesias out in the Jake Peavy deadline deal opens the door for Bogaerts. The Red Sox, though, called up Brock Holt to man third base for the time being. Will Middlebrooks is also in the conversation, and Boston general manager Ben Cherington said it's possible Middlebrooks could be back with the big club in August. If Bogaerts doesn't get the call before Middlebrooks, he should be in Boston when rosters expand in September.
George Springer, OF, HOU - If Springer were in the Yankees organization, a lot more people would have heard of his exploits - 29 HR, 35 SB, .413 OBP. He's an elite prospect who is killing the ball since his Triple-A promotion - .358/.448/.726.
Chris Owings, SS, ARI - We should see Owings and fellow Triple-A Reno infielder third-baseman Matt Davidson soon. Owings is the more interesting prospect to me given his position and the fact he's batting .347 with 12 homers, and he can run - 16 SB. Plus, there's not exactly a big roadblock at shortstop in Arizona.
Taijuan Walker, SP, SEA - Despite 12 strikeouts in 11 innings over two starts, Walker has scuffled in his last two starts, but if you make the case that he is the best pitching prospect in baseball, I won't argue too strongly against it.
Deeper sleeper: Adam Conley, SP, MIA - This lefty is a former second-round pick, and in his last 10 starts for Double-A Jacksonville, Conley has a 1.99 ERA. The organization has never been shy about promoting from Double-A to the big leagues.
Oscar Taveras, OF, STL - Just wanted to head off the questions. He's dealt with a sore ankle, a malady that has limited him to 174 at-bats. Taveras also has a solid but not spectacular .803 OPS in Triple-A, and while he just turned 21, that's not enough to force his way into a crowded outfield picture.
Billy Hamilton, OF, CIN - A .306 OBP just isn't going to get him more than a September call-up to pinch run.
Yordano Ventura, SP, KC - He's had a few Triple-A scuffles, but the hard-throwing right-hander has a 2.40 ERA and 18:3 K:BB in his last 15 innings.
James Paxton, SP, SEA - Paxton has turned his season around with a 1.80 ERA in July. He has the ceiling of a solid No. 3 starter.
Deeper sleeper: Ethan Martin, SP, PHI - The former Dodgers' top prospect is still struggling a bit with his command, but in his last 18 innings, Martin has allowed just one run with a 20:9 K:BB. He has a 2.79 ERA in five July starts and could fill in should Jonathan Pettibone struggle.
How do we value Wil Myers the rest of the way - Top-15 outfielder?
At .331/.368/.532, one has to wonder where the Rays would be if Myers had broken camp with the team. Myers has a 3:4 K:BB and three homers in his last seven games and is already making the James Shields deal look lopsided in favor of the astute Rays organization. To add to Myers' ridiculously high fantasy value, he's even swiped five base to go with the seven home runs in 35 games. He'll struggle in stretches, but there's so much hitting ability that I don't think I'm going out on a limb in suggestion that he's already a top-15 outfielder, sample size be damned.
Is Jesse Crain a threat for saves in Tampa Bay?
Fernando Rodney has had a tough time following his elite 2012 season, but in his last 15.1 innings, Rodney has surrendered just two runs with a 23:6 K:BB. Rodney is tough to explain, particularly given this:
K/9: 2012 - 9.2, 2013 - 12.2
BB/9: 2012 - 12.2, 2013 - 5.8
More strikeouts, but at this same time, Rodney has had a tough time finding the strikezone. Still, the control has been much better lately, and I think he can hold off Crain this year. Crain is dealing with a sore shoulder that has kept him out since June 29, and with no definitive timetable for his return, the Rays obtained his services in a trade that will seemingly bring a return commensurate with his performance. Crain does have a 0.74 ERA, 11.3 K/9, and 2.7 BB/9, so if 100 percent healthy, he could challenge Rodney at some point, but I don't see it happening.
Who is on my "All-Disappointment" Team and what can we expect from them?
1B - Albert Pujols (LAA) - It's pretty sobering for Angels fans to see the likes of Brandon Moss and James Loney with higher WARs than the $252 million Pujols. That said, Pujols' performance already took a huge dip three years ago in his final season with the Cardinals, so is this really a surprise? Pujols looks done for the year with the foot issue, so the real question is about 2014. I'm guessing I'll have him in the 8-10 range among 2014 first basemen.
2B - Rickie Weeks (MIL) - Well, this is frustrating. After batting .355 in June, Weeks sits at .176 through Monday's action this month. He's hit 10 home runs, which is fine for a second baseman, but with a contact rate that has dipped from 76 to 71 to this year's 70 percent, Weeks is never going to hit for a high average. If you're smart, he's on zero of your teams.
SS - Starlin Castro (CHC) - You usually hope that when a 20-year-old rookie posts a 5.7 BB% and solid .755 OPS (well, solid for a shortstop), that three years later he would have built upon that initial success. Not the case here. Castro has suddenly become one of the league's worst offensive shortstops, batting .245 with six home runs and a walk rate that's dipped under 4 percent. Castro, though, hit .300 through his first 100 at-bats in July while showing a bit more plate discipline and even walking in three straight games. Ultimately, I think he's better than this, as shown by the July numbers, but I do wonder how high his ceiling really is now.
3B - Mike Moustakas (KC) - When you lose playing time to Miguel Tejada and you have a .617 OPS as a corner infielder, your job is clearly on the line. Still, he was a top-10 pick and the owner of a 1.100 OPS in Double-A at age 21, so I'm certainly buying in keeper leagues. This year? Not so much.
OF - Josh Hamilton (LAA) - Meet my second-round pick in the NFBC. Hamilton has five homers in July to go with an ugly 23:3 K:BB, so things aren't exactly looking up. He's yet to hit above .237 in any month in an Angels uniform, and while I guess we could see a great finish, I'm not counting on it.
OF - Matt Kemp (LAD) - Who would have thought 2013 would have been more of a lost season than 2012? It certainly has been for Kemp this year. He should be back from the ankle injury pretty quickly, but at this point do you really feel comfortable pursing Kemp as a buy-low candidate? I guess you could, but do you really dare to be disappointed again.
OF - B.J. Upton (ATL) - Upton's 10.4 BB% is up more than three points compared to last year, but that is where the positives end. I guess you could say that the .240 BABIP is a big part of his .177 average, but the line drives and flyballs are down while Upton's groundball rate has risen from 40.3 to 47.2 percent year-over-year. At the same time, he's also not seeing the ball as well as he has in the past apparently, as Upton's 15.3-percent swinging strike rate is the fifth-highest mark in the league, just slightly better than the likes of Mr. Hamilton (above) and Pedro Alvarez. Optimistically, Upton will return from his leg injury refreshed and having viewed a ton of video and armed with a new approach ... but as bad as he's been this year, I just can't recommend him.
SP - Josh Johnson (TOR) - Ideally, Johnson would be traded to the Braves with Leo Mazzone subsequently coming out of retirement to fix him. Barring that ridiculous scenario, I guess we can hope that the 19 runs Johnson has allowed in his last 13.2 innings is just a blip on the radar considering his 17 strikeouts in those innings. Johnson has also allowed eight homers in his last five starts to give him a 1.7 HR/9 on the year. Take all that and you have a 6.08 ERA, but with a 9.4 K/9 and 3.2 BB/9, Johnson's xFIP checks in at a reasonable 3.55. There's a lot to like here, including a 92.8 mph average fastball that is in line with prior years and a slightly elevated .335 BABIP (.300 career). I like him as a buy low, but if you go down that road, you should only buy VERY low considering how bad he's been lately.
SP - CC Sabathia (NYY) - Compared to 2012, Sabathia's walks, strikeouts and home runs have all trended in the wrong direction, but if you look at his 3.58 xFIP, that's a number that is actually better than the 3.70 mark he posted when he won a combined 40 games between 2010 and 2011. That said, CC is allowing more flyballs this year than in prior years and hitters are swinging and missing with less frequency against his offerings that have dipped in velocity fairly significantly (90.7 mph avg FB vs. 92.3 in 2012). I don't think he's hurt necessarily, but after pitching at least 230 innings per season between 2007 and 2011, the mileage is catching up to him. As long as you're not considering him an ace, you'll be OK with the results the rest of the way.
RP - Brandon League (LAD) - I guess we shouldn't be too shocked that League lost his job to Kenley Jansen, but after allowing just one run in his last 23.1 innings last year, I actually thought League presented a buying opportunity in 2013 drafts. Oops.