By Mike Rosenbaum/MLB Prospects
After Derek Jeter’s retirement, one of the biggest questions heading into Major League Baseball’s offseason was how the New York Yankees would replace The Captain at shortstop.
Based on previous years, the assumption was that the Yankees would sign an aging free agent such as Hanley Ramirez. However, general manager Brian Cashman decided to take a different route, acquiring Didi Gregorius from the Arizona Diamondbacks in early December as part of a three-team deal.
“I was a little surprised about the trade, I’m not going to lie,” Gregorius recently told Bleacher Report. “Because, you know, it’s the Yankees.”
To be pursued by the Bronx Bombers clearly meant something to the 25-year-old. Meanwhile, that the Yankees traded for Gregorius, of all people, was particularly appropriate.
When the Diamondbacks acquired Gregorius prior to the 2013 season, Kevin Towers, the team’s general manager at the time, said the shortstop reminded him of a young Derek Jeter.
Now, Gregorius is poised to play the same position in the same park occupied by Jeter for the better part of the last 20 years. It goes without saying that he has big shoes to fill, and it’s almost a guarantee that expectations will be unreasonably lofty.
“I don’t look at it as being a long-term replacement, because I’m not really replacing him,” said Gregorius with a chuckle. “It’s not like he’s moving to second or third base.
“But it’s amazing to be playing shortstop for the Yankees after Jeter. I’m pretty sure he’s coming out here [spring training] to talk to the team, and I’m sure he’ll have advice for me, and I’ll be asking him questions.”
Gregorius has always drawn rave reviews for his defense at shortstop, which is more or less the reason he’s now been included in two separate three-team trades in the last three years.
Gregorius has impressive range in all directions as well as natural fluidity at the position, and the defensive metrics support his reputation as a strong defender at shortstop.
Specifically, FanGraphs’ overall defensive rating (3.9 Def, min. 1,000 innings) for Gregorius over the last two seasons places him ahead of guys like Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Adeiny Hechavarria and—wait for it—Derek Jeter.
He’s also tied with Ian Desmond for 16th among shortstops in defensive runs saved (minus-1 DRS) during that time frame, and he ranks 19th in Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-3.7 UZR).
The biggest knock on Gregorius’ defense is that his footwork and body control have a tendency to be inconsistent, which, as the metrics confirm, might limit his playmaking ability at shortstop. That said, his athletic 6’2” frame allows him to cover ground well, and his arm strength across the infield is an easy plus.
Offensively, Gregorius has shown flashes of promise over parts of three seasons in the major leagues, but he has yet to develop the overall consistency to hold down an everyday role.
Gregorius’ first full season in the major leagues in 2013 was his best offensive campaign to date. Playing in 103 games for the Diamondbacks, he batted .252/.332/.373 with seven home runs, 16 doubles and promising strikeout and walk rates of 16.1 and 9.2 percent, respectively, over 404 plate appearances.
However, his overall production was below league average (92 wRC+), and his career-high 1.4 fWAR was heavily influenced by his strong defense, via FanGraphs.
The emergence of rookie Chris Owings last season hurt Gregorius’ development, as the 25-year-old batted just .226/.290/.363 with six home runs to produce a 76 wRC+ over 299 plate appearances.
Specifically, Gregorius’ offensive struggles stemmed from a decreased aggressiveness outside the strike zone (rather than inside), and he also had problems making contact against quality secondary pitches.
There’s something to be said for Gregorius’ ability to consistently post an extra-base hit rate above 50 percent (he posted a 51 percent clip in 2013 and followed it with 58 percent last season). But with 13 career home runs in 724 plate appearances, Gregorius is unlikely to offer much over-the-fence power in his career.
Yet as a left-handed hitter who hits a lot of fly balls, it’s possible that Gregorius might enjoy a slight power spike playing at Yankee Stadium, which, coincidentally, was the scene of his first MLB home run on April 18, 2013.
“I’m looking forward to hitting at Yankee Stadium,” said Gregorius. “Everybody talks about the short porch in right field, but I’m not going to become a dead-pull hitter. Maybe I’ll hit a line-drive home run, you never know; but I’m planning on using the entire field.”
By Matt Cassidy/FutureSox
***The following article was written by Adam Engel, a Chicago White Sox outfield prospect, as a guest of FutureSox. This is part of our Prospect Perspectives series: articles written by the players themselves. Engel played winter ball with the Melbourne Aces of the Australian Baseball League this offseason. Here he gives us a glimpse into what that experience was like for an American ballplayer. We hope this gives our readers a unique view into a player’s perspective on life in the minors.***
By Adam Engel
Australia, what a trip. The best way to explain the experience as a whole is describing a developed country with a not-so-developed way of reproducing America’s pastime. We weren’t exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into but we were able to walk away with a once in a lifetime experience.
Cricket quickly proved to be the dominant interest between our wooden bat sport and theirs. As Americans we stood out like a sore thumb as soon as we opened our mouths, and especially when you room with a 6 foot 6 inch red headed Georgia boy [fellow White Sox prospect Nick Blount]. We were constantly asked if we were “on holiday”, their version of vacation, but had to explain we played baseball for Melbourne. The number one response was, “I didn’t even know we had a baseball team.” The sport is obviously a work in progress in terms of popularity. It was actually pretty cool explaining the game to people who had never seen the sport before, giving us a chance to share our passion with people who are from the “sports capital of the world”.
Being in the southern hemisphere, our winter ball experience was actually taking place in Australia’s summer months. We were able to visit various beaches along the coasts of the country. Our travel from city to city was all by plane and nationwide. I found the weather to be very similar to all the weather we experience in the states. The biggest difference is the amount of ozone depletion over the country leading to much more intense UV rays. Nick and I learned the hard way that if you want to soak up some rays at the beach, sunscreen is an absolute necessity. Nick went on to have one of his best outings of the summer a few days after trying his best to match his skin with his hair color.
The best part of the trip was building relationships with teammates from two totally different countries and cultures. The Australians were some of the most hospitable teammates and people I’ve been around. It was almost an immediate comfort level from a social standpoint from the very beginning. The guys knew we were a long way from home and welcomed us the best they could. Once the holidays rolled around we had several teammates inviting us to their homes for a Christmas meal and celebration. Being my first Christmas away from home, this was probably the toughest stretch of the trip. One particular family brought us in, fed us, took us to see some kangaroos and let us crash at their house on Christmas day. It wasn’t the same as home, but I don’t think that I could have had a better experience considering the circumstance.
The Australians were great but the Japanese players may have been my favorite part of Australia. They understood very little English but were fluent in hand motions. They always had a smile on their face and were the first to pick you up after making an out or the first to give you a high five after a nice play. They also were the first to quickly puff down a cigarette after their rigorous conditioning sessions that seemed to last all of practice. Both the Australians and Japanese players were great and definitely a highlight of the overall experience.
Some of the big differences between home and Australia are pretty obvious, so I’m going to try to write about the little things. Fast food in Australia is scary good. There was a KFC across the street from our apartment and I quickly fell in love with their “Kentucky Burger”. Minimum wage is almost double what ours is which seems cool, but also means the prices of everything are somewhat outrageous and we weren’t making their minimum wage. With that being said, tipping isn’t required so that helps the pocket book.
Spiders are everywhere. Nick and I had a near death experience the first day when a huge spider crawled across our windshield while I was still trying to get used to driving on the other side of the road and on the opposite side of the car. The majority of drying when it comes to laundry happens on a clothesline, not a dryer. The coffee is either from a barista (two thumbs up), or some dissolvable coffee blend mixed with hot water (two thumbs down). Natives wear work boots, jorts and muscle tees to local gyms. If you didn’t want to stand out, showing off your ankles was encouraged when picking out jeans or sweats (Nick and I were content with standing out). The voltage is different meaning if you plug your Xbox into the wall it will fry your power brick – man down.
Our team ended up in last place. How we got there is worth an article itself. Our GM was let go midseason followed up by our assistant GM getting deported. Very unique chain of events but I think it actually is what the team needed in the long run. They hired a new GM who has big league experience as a player so the future of the Aces is bright. The league was very competitive. I was somewhat concerned about the type of arms we would see but that proved not to be an issue. There were ex big league guys sprinkled throughout the league along with high level minor leaguers. I wouldn’t say quite the consistency of talent as maybe some of the other winter league teams but a league with prior big leaguers, Japanese big league and minor league guys and a bunch of young American and Australian talent makes for a competitive experience.
Overall the experience was that of the once in a lifetime variety. In a three to four month span we played at all ends of the country and saw most major cities. We played with Australians and the Japanese. We were able to work on our craft in warmer weather and experience things like feeding kangaroos and watching cricket in state of the art stadiums. If you can handle spending time away during the holidays, then this trip is hard to pass up.
The Blue Jays and the Pirates met in Spring Training games today with the Blue Jays winning 4-1.
Perth native Liam Hendriks threw a scoreless 8th for the Jays, facing 5 for 1H and 2Ks with John Holdzkom throwing a perfect 9th for the Pirates, facing 3 for 2Ks.
By Nathan Ryan/FOX SPORTS
JARRYD Hayne announced on Tuesday he had signed a rookie contract with the San Francisco 49ers.
So, what does he need to know ahead of his move to the spiritual home of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young?
[Well there are a number of things – but importantly he needs to know:-]
AUSSIE ATHLETES LOVE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA
Hayne is in good company in San Francisco with many Australian athletes having enjoyed success in the Bay Area. In between stints with Tampa Bay, Grant Balfour was a wildly popular relief pitcher with the Oakland Athletics largely on account of his moments of “Balfour Rage”. The Sydney native spent three seasons with the A’s and set the record for most consecutive saves for the team.
Rich Thompson and Luke Hughes are among the other Aussies to have played for the A’s. Travis Blackley, meanwhile, has pitched at the major league level for both Bay Area clubs — the A’s and the San Francisco Giants. The region even has its own Aussie rules competition — the Golden Gate Australian Football League.
by Chris Cwik | CBSSports.com
Rays manager Kevin Cash believes pitcher Grant Balfour will be good to go by opening day, according to the Tampa Tribune.
Balfour is currently in Australia, tending to his sick father. Cash said Balfour was still working out, and expects the pitcher to be ready for the start of the regular season.
The 37-year-old posted a 3.46 ERA over 62 1/3 innings last season.
by Alexis Brudnicki/BaseballAmerica
When the International Olympic Committee approved a new bidding process in December—abolishing the limitation on sports and allowing host cities to propose the inclusion of one or more additional events—it opened the door for baseball and softball to return to the Games in Tokyo in 2020.
One issue with baseball’s previous place in the Games was that it included only men. To solve that problem, the World Baseball Softball Confederation was formed, the two sports bidding together to return to the pinnacle of international competition.
“The bid is in conjunction with IOC direction,” said Justin Huber, the sole baseball athlete representative on the WBSC Executive Board. “It’s not a publicity stunt; it’s legit. … They’ve got support from all of the professional leagues, including Major League Baseball, (which) wants baseball reinstated into the Olympic Games.”
As the host country for the Games in question and a baseball nation, Japan is doing everything possible to see the bid come to fruition, setting a new standard for campaign management.
“It (revolves) around Japan’s involvement,” Huber said. “They really want baseball and softball in, and they’ve got the infrastructure, they’ve got the fan base, and they’ve got the TV networks ready to go.
“They’ve even gone so far as Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe put together a focus commentary group dedicated to trying to help the campaign—help the bid … it’s quite unprecedented really. So there’s an awful lot of support and it makes sense in a lot of ways, and it’s not without foundation.”
Everything about the initiative makes it seem as though baseball and softball are on the right track to return, but Huber is quick to caution people not to get too presumptuous. The general manager of the Melbourne Aces in the Australian Baseball League acknowledges that baseball has addressed the issues the IOC brought forward, but there is no guarantee that any sports will be added, though there should be a decision made in July at their next meeting.
“It’s definitely not guaranteed, and baseball or softball are not saying, ‘This is in the bag and we’re going to be there,’” Huber said. “That would be really arrogant and shortsighted. It wouldn’t be in line with the Olympic movement.
“They’re very conscious of that and the whole focus is around the core values of the Olympic Games, because that’s what it’s all about. It’s about life through sport, and this is a great opportunity for baseball and softball to be on the world’s biggest stage again.”
By Michael Hurcomb/CBSSports.com
Rays reliever Grant Balfour is eyeing a return to the closer’s role in 2015 after being removed from the job in 2014, mostly due to control problems. Balfour pitched exceptionally well down the stretch last season, posting 12 scoreless appearances in his final 13 outings.
“September was good,” Balfour said, per MLB.com. “I sat down and worked on some things. I think that last five weeks or whatever it was, I felt like that was me and it showed with the numbers I put up. I was happy with the way it ended. You always want to finish strong, particularly how everything else went. I’m just looking forward to this year.
“Every year I look forward to going out and having a good year. Some years, it works out and some years, it doesn’t. But I try to do everything I can to make it happen. Maybe last year things got to me a little bit when things weren’t going well. I learn from new experiences. I’ve had some really good success in my career. And I can feed off that.”
Balfour admitted he is pitching with a chip on his shoulder after enduring some struggles in 2014. The closer’s role is up for grabs with Jake McGee expected to miss the start of the season due to an elbow injury.
“As long as everything is in shape and I feel good, then I believe in myself that I can go out there and do what I want to do,” Balfour said. “As long as my body is allowing me each day to go out there and do what I want to do. Hey, I’m going to give everything I got and I totally believe in what I can do.”
By Kristine Tarbert/Penrith Press
Penrith Baseball and Sydney Blue Sox star Aaron Sookee is proof that hard work pays off.
Sookee, who has spent the past two seasons working on his pitching, has been invited to spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He knows what it takes to make it in the US minor leagues, having spent four years with the LA Angels.
After reaching a top velocity of 154.5km/h, Sookee, 23, of Emu Plains, is one of the fastest pitchers in the country. He will join the Diamondbacks next month.
“I was surprised at first, it happened so fast,” Sookee said.
“I fly out on March 7 and then spring training starts on the ninth.”
“It was really good having guys like Trent and Koo in the squad, because I got to work with Koo for a few months before I went to Taiwan for the under-23 World Series.
“He thinks about pitching a different way and he was just getting me to use my legs differently and that was the key.”
Spring training is a series of practices and exhibition games preceding the start of the regular baseball season. It allows new players to try out for roster and position spots.
“It will depend on how good I go in spring training to what level I go to,” Sookee said.
“Every day from 6am to 3pm you train and then you play a game. Pitchers will probably throw three times a week, and that’s it, it’s a month trial to see what team you make.”
Having made the playoffs with the Blue Sox, and helped Penrith to it’s first playoff berth in a decade, Sookee said his goal for the US would be consolidation.
“I want to have a really good spring training, make a full season team and just have a solid season, where I can consolidate the season I had here, that’s the goal,” he said.
“I think you can mentally prepare just by being physically ready, so if I’m fit and healthy there’s no reason I wouldn’t be mentally ready.”
As he prepares to play upwards of 140 games during the minor league season, Sookee credits his continued growth to the club that had always given him a chance.
“Even before this season there was always an opportunity to play at the highest level in this state, they always gave me a chance,” he said.
“On top of that bringing in guys like Koo and Oeltjen that I can be around, guys that have had the success over there, on top of everything else was perfect.”
A former major leaguer for the Diamondbacks himself, Trent Oeltjen had one piece of advice for Sookee.
“He tells you to have fun with it and believe in yourself and what you can do, so I’m just going to enjoy it while can.”
Jon Byrne began umpiring in 1998 with the Western Australia Baseball Umpires Association. In 2001 he attended an umpire’s school in Adelaide which led to national umpiring opportunities with the Under-16s tournament in 2002 and 2003, and the Under-18s in 2005 and 2006.
After taking up a US Minor League Umpiring role in 2005 he continued to umpire in Australia in the off-season with the Claxton Shield from 2007 to 2010 and the Australian Baseball League in 2011 and 2012.
In his nine professional seasons he has officiated at all levels from Rookie and Advanced Rookie, to Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A.
Most recently Jon became the first Australian Major league Umpire when he officiated his first Major League Baseball game between the New York Mets and the the Washington Nationals on May 16, 2014. Since then he has umpired a total of nine MLB games, three of which he plate umpired.
He worked as an umpire for Minor League Baseball from 2003-2012, starting in the Gulf Coast League and moving up to Triple-A. Since 1995 Robson has conducted and participated in the Western Australia Baseball Umpires Association Seminar.
For the past five years Robson has been crew chief for the ABL Perth Heat and most recently was Australia’s representative at the inaugural 2014 IBAF 21U World Cup.
James Shields has worked at all levels of Australian baseball since the mid-90’s and has been a regular contributor to umpire seminars and courses. In 2000 he was a student at the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpires and has since instructed for the New Zealand Baseball Federation’s umpire school, Queensland Baseball Umpires Association and the Victorian Baseball Umpires Association.
Shields has been an umpire since 2011 for the Australian Baseball League and the Queensland State League. Since 2012 he has also been a integral part of the Gold Coast Baseball Association. A well regarded umpire Shields has been invited to umpire at various invitational tournaments and most recently Australia’s representative at the 2015 18U Oceania Championships in New Zealand.
Kerry Jackson scored her first game of baseball in 1977 after only scoring cricket. She then became involved in the original ABL with the Sydney Blues and the Sydney Storm and served as league statistician for several years. She was the Sports Services Manager for Baseball at the 1999 Intercontinental Cup and Sydney 2000 Olympics, as well as tournament director for national championships in both Sydney and Canberra.
She currently serves as competition manager for the New South Wales State League and has been vice president, secretary and competition manager for the Sydney Winter Baseball League since 2000.
Kerry is a long-standing volunteer and supporter of baseball, she works tirelessly around the clock, and is an extremely dedicated volunteer.
At 78 years old William “Spider” Sinclair continues to show his dedication and selflessness with the amount of time he puts back into baseball at all levels. He is currently the president of the Masters League of WA, a position he has held for twenty years.
William has played, umpired and been involved in all levels of the sport for over 60 years. He started playing baseball in 1954, and represented Western Australia in the Claxton Shield four times.
He began umpiring in 1963 and still continues umpiring today for his great grandson. Highlights of Williams career include umpiring at the Goodwill Games in China, winning Gold at the 2001 Australian Masters Games and fundraising for grassroots baseball in WA.
In 2000 he was awarded the ‘Australian Sports Medal’ for services to the sport of baseball, as well as the Australian Government Sports Achievement Award for Outstanding Commitment to the sport of baseball.
Named volunteer of the year at Pine Rivers Rapids Baseball Club in 2012 and 2013, Geoff Wade has lived and breathed baseball since he was 6 years old. Well known in the baseball community, he has played and volunteered at numerous Queensland baseball clubs over the years. His enthusiasm, knowledge of the game and willingness to help has helped Geoff rebuild Pine River Rapids Baseball Club
An umpire and coach, he encourages the players and their families to take ownership of the club, becoming proud members who take pride in the fields and their surrounds.
Geoff is the current President of his club, has introduced a Winter Masters team, as well as secured numerous grants. He is well respected by his peers and the community; and he hopes to share his knowledge while continuing to give back to the game he loves.