Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Candidates for demotion and promotion
By Keith Law
The Cubs could solve a lot of problems by letting Anthony Rizzo use his old swing again.
Chicago Cubs manager Dale Sveum caused a stir the other day by suggesting that first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro could be sent to the minors if they didn't ... well, I'm not sure what they are supposed to do, because Castro is hitting better than the median National League shortstop and Rizzo has twice as many homers (six) as any other NL first baseman.
Neither guy is lighting the league on fire, but threatening them with a demotion to the minors seems a little draconian, and maybe a sign that the manager's a little in over his head.
But the immodest proposal brings up a better question -- which players around the majors indeed might be better served by a demotion to Triple-A? And which minor leaguers might be in line for an imminent call-up?
Rizzo's stat line this season is heavy on secondary skills; he's walking, and hitting for power, but not making much contact or hitting for average, with a very low BABIP (.171). For most hitters, I wouldn't be concerned with a lower-than-normal BABIP or contact rate in a small sample. In Rizzo's case, however, the Cubs appear to have altered his swing, getting his hands loaded lower and farther back than last year so that he's swinging more up through the ball, which should generate more power but would absolutely reduce contact and lead to more popups, all of which is true so far.
I've been told this kind of swing reflects Sveum's philosophy of hitting, but in Rizzo's case, I didn't think anything in his swing last season needed fixing. The Cubs should let him revert to his 2012 mechanics, which produced a successful half-year in the majors with a good contact rate and plenty of power for a 22-year-old.
The Twins knew they were taking a risk by promoting Hicks two levels and making him their Opening Day center fielder, especially given his history of slow starts, but he's 3-for-51 so far, all singles, with 21 punchouts, and has cost the team nearly a win -- minus-0.9 WAR per FanGraphs -- with his performance so far.
Hicks is struggling against fastballs and doesn't have a hit yet off an off-speed pitch. He has always been a patient hitter, but pitch recognition has been a constant issue; he's required lengthy adjustment times at each level. He's the Twins' center fielder of the future, but there has to be a point where continuing to run him out there to fail becomes counterproductive -- he's hurting the team but also is unable to make the adjustments he needs to develop as a player.
Right now, he's walking more, but hasn't converted those hitters' counts into hits. I'd give him until early May before pulling the plug on the experiment, but there has to be, if nothing else, more hard contact for them to continue running him out there.
The Mariners probably could demote half of their lineup without getting much argument from anyone, including their fans, but they have a few players who at least merit a more serious look at this point.
Montero is the easy call here: If he's not going to play every day, they should send him to Tacoma, where he can get regular at-bats. He's not a catcher -- that delusion needs to end -- but he should be the everyday DH somewhere, which could happen in Seattle if the Mariners would just give up on Justin Smoak and his .236 slugging percentage already.
ESPN Insider contributor Dave Cameron wrote about Smoak last weekend at USS Mariner. I have little to add other than that Smoak did have power in college and the Cape Cod League, but hasn't shown it in pro ball, losing most of his bat speed in the process.
Whatever the cause, the power's gone and it's not coming back, meaning the Mariners need to move on. Designating Smoak for assignment, putting Kendrys Morales at first base and putting Montero at DH at least would get Montero regular at-bats.
The Mariners' other main problem child at the moment is Ackley, who is hitting .197 and has become a cipher at the plate himself, less patient than ever and trying to pull pitches on the outer half rather than using the whole field. For a player with the bat speed Ackley had out of college to be beaten so easily by velocity is embarrassing, not just for him but also for the major league coaching staff.
There's been a surge of interest from Mariners fans among you about Nick Franklin, who is off to a very hot start in Triple-A Tacoma after a weak 64-game stint there last season. Although Franklin might be a short-term upgrade, you can't demote Ackley, who has a year-plus of major league time, without a purpose: Punitive demotions make no sense, so if Ackley's going to Tacoma, there has to be an admonition to work the count more and go to the opposite field.
In the meantime, it's great to see that the switch-hitting Franklin has walked more than he's struck out in a tiny sample, but another few weeks in Triple-A isn't hurting his development, either, and there's still the unresolved issue of his huge trouble hitting from the right side.
Arenado is, superficially, off to a tremendous start in Triple-A, hitting .414/.431/.759 so far for Colorado Springs. However, he has played 16 games to date, all in extreme hitters' parks, eight at home, four in Reno (4,400 feet above sea level) and four in Las Vegas (2,180 feet up), making that stat line rather suspect. This isn't to say that he can't hit, but that he's just raking in places where we'd expect a decent prospect to rake.
The Rockies are getting no offense from third base right now -- Chris Nelson is hitting .269/.316/.327 -- so it's not like Arenado has a high bar to clear in Denver. Unless they're holding him down for reasons related to the questions about his makeup and effort level from last season, I'd be in favor of seeing him called up sooner rather than later.
The Dodgers' rotation has gone from an area of strength to a Superfund cleanup site in the span of about 10 days because of injuries, some unpredictable (Zack Greinke) and some predictable (Chad Billingsley). They don't have an ideal starting pitcher to recall right now, unfortunately.
Lee is their top prospect, faring well in Double-A but still showing stuff that's closer to average than plus; he's succeeding thanks to good command. He would compete in the majors right now but wouldn't blow anyone away and would have to be added to the 40-man roster to be recalled. The Dodgers could recall right-hander Matt Magill, who has managed to keep his ERA and strikeout rate respectable while pitching in Triple-A Albuquerque but whose walk rate, a touch high last year, has spiked this season. That's not the pitcher whom you want to give a spot start when your pitching staff is already depleted.
Magill's already on the 40-man, but Lee is probably the better bet for success in a season when the Dodgers are trying to win, even with the disadvantages of recalling him before he's fully ready.