Thursday’s Late Word from Indiana

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Owing to a day-long commitment, I asked John William Greenbaum to handle the usual tasks of the column.  This he did, and his report follows:

Hello, this is John-William Greenbaum pinch-hitting for Don Wardlow. You have my apologies as to getting out this column so late, but better late than never and I had to double-check my research on one story that I really think you’ll get a kick out of. But first things first.

In my last column, you may recall that I mused about the New York Mets being the front-runner for Antonio Bastardo, the hard-throwing lefty reliever with occasional control issues, although also excellent movement. I predicted that the Mets were more likely to sign Bastardo based on the need for a proven left-handed reliever than their competition–the Baltimore Orioles–due to the Orioles already having a fairly dominant left-hander in Brian Matusz. Well, in this particular case, since I usually get my signing predictions completely and totally wrong, I’d just for once like to say “I was right”. Bastardo has inked a two-year deal with the Mets for 2 years and $12 million. What should be interesting is seeing just how Bastardo slots into the Mets bullpen. Clearly, he’ll be paired off with a right-handed reliever to pitch the seventh inning–but whether that right-handed reliever is Addison Reed or Jenrry Mejia remains to be seen, with the other one of Reed or Mejia setting up closer Jeurys Familia.

The Tampa Bay Rays have signed Steve Pearce to a one-year deal. Never much of a fielder, the one-time power-hitting first base prospect for the Pittsburgh Pirates who had a good showing in the 2007 All-Star Futures Game has never been able to hit for average, though has shown good ability to take walks and hit for Major League power. Pearce seems likely to go back to first base–a bit ironic given that he’s going to an american League team–but figures to slot in there only temporarily, with Tampa Bay moving him to an even split between DH’ing and the outfield once they can get themselves a better defensive first baseman.

The Houston Astros have signed left-hander Wandy Rodriguez to a Minor League deal. Always talented but just as injury-prone, Rodriguez returns to the organization he began his professional baseball career with under the name “Eny Cabreja”. Rodriguez has never really pitched well out of the bullpen, so I doubt he’ll fit into Houston’s plans as a lefty specialist, though given his history in the starting rotation, he has a shot at making the Astros’ fifth starter spot out of Spring Training, though I would be surprised if, given Houston’s wealth of pitching talent, he keeps his job all season.

Infielder Munenori Kawasaki, formerly of the Blue Jays and the Mariners, has signed a Minor League contract with the Chicago Cubs. Kawasaki is not much of a hitter, but he brings a sorely-needed versatility to the Cubs bench, since many of the Cubs prospects like Javier Baez, Tommy La Stella, and Arismendy Alcantara may see everyday playing time at AAA ball to increase their trade value for what the cubs really need: good defensive outfielders. A guy like Kawasaki–capable of playing every infield position and playing it well–allows the Cubs a nice degree of versatility here, despite being an under-the-radar signing.

The Washington Nationals and New York Mets are both making runs at Yoenis Cespedes. This should be interesting to see, since while the Mets seem to be offering more money, they’re also only offering three guaranteed years. The Nationals, reportedly much more vigorous in their pursuit of Cespedes, are offering five years, but also less money ($100 million eventually, but with a number of deferrals). In this case, Cespedes will have to choose between job security and a payoff. I would call it a toss-up, except the Nationals really do seem determined to get him, and may blink first. If that’s the case, then the Nationals have an excellent trade chip in center fielder Michael Taylor. It would also likely force the Mets into picking up a less-than-stellar option like Will Venable or even trading for someone to either platoon with Juan Lagares or provide a better bat in the outfield. If the Mets get Cespedes, then Juan Lagares can likely be traded while Washington is forced to go with the likes of Will Venable or even trade for someone–something they most assuredly don’t want to do.

The Arizona Diamondbacks reportedly do not want to part with their first round draft pick in order to sign a second baseman like Howie Kendrick–long rumored as a potential fit for the team–and instead want to trade one of their two good-field/no-hit second basemen (Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings) or utility infielder Aaron Hill for a stopgap. The halting of what seemed a likely Kendrick run means that Arizona will likely trade for someone who only has a year or so left on their contract and is over the hill, but still useful.

The Miami Marlins are interested in several different starters to add to their starting rotation. Doug Fister seems the best bet of these, but the erratic Alfredo Simon and aging Kyle Lohse are both headscratchers. Non-tendering Henderson Alvarez is starting to look less and less like a good move given what the Marlins hope to replace him with. While Fister is a potential upgrade, Simon is likely not and Lohse is most certainly not.

The strangest news today, however, does not have to do with an individual player. Rather, the trade deadline has been moved from July 31 to August 1. Why they’ve given it only one additional day is something I can’t explain–it seems pointless on the face of it, and most of the proposals to move the trade deadline have been to around August 15, so this is most assuredly not what either side of the debate had in mind. Reportedly, the bizarre and literal deadline deal has to do with July 31 falling on a Sunday, although we’ve had that happen without consequence before.

There are a great many baseball birthdays today, but given the length of today’s column, I thought it prudent to focus on some of the lesser-known ballplayers with a birthday today.

Jimmy Zinn would be 121 years old were he alive today. Jimmy Zinn was a remarkably talented ballplayer and even drew comparisons–at a time when Babe Ruth was active–to Babe Ruth. A talented pitcher and outfielder alike, Zinn was a lefty power hitter and a right-handed pitcher. Noted for a sinking fastball and a hard curve, Zinn was a strikeout pitcher who, at least for the time, threw with a great deal of power. Signed by the 1919 Philadelphia A’s at the age of 24, Zinn had little idea where his fastball and curve were going to wind up, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the results: an ERA of 6.31 over 5 games, including 3 starts, and in 25 and 2/3rd innings, giving up 38 hits, walking 10, and striking out 9. A veteran pitcher in the Texas League, Zinn went back in 1920 and signed a contract with the Wichita Falls Spudders–the very first farm team in Pittsburgh Pirates history. As Zinn blew away his opponents with surprisingly good control, the Pirates called him up, which was at the time a remarkably novel concept. Pittsburgh’s period newspapers covered it not really because it was Jimmy Zinn, but rather because calling up a prospect without signing him was just such a new and novel idea to the people of 1920. In stark contrast to his horrid pitching with the Philadelphia a’s, Zinn pitched well during his brief first season in Pittsburgh, going 1-1 with a 3.48 ERA over 6 games, including 3 starts. In 31 innings, he K’ed 18 and walked just 5! In a preseason exhibition game that season, Zinn had suited up for the Pirates and given up a homerun to Babe Ruth. Well, him and dozens of other pitchers. But this particular homerun–and this particular pitcher–were special. Ruth an abnormally long time, even for the time, to trot around the bases, which Zinn did not like and for that matter, never forgot. Zinn assumed the “Firpo Marberry” role for the 1921 Pirates, being used mostly as a relief pitcher, albeit a very effective one. He went 7-6 with a 3.68 ERA over 32 games, including 9 starts, but in 127 and 2/3rd innings, he surrendered 159 hits, though he did exhibit vastly-improved control. And then came 1922. Zinn was pitching brilliantly over five games, all in relief, when a scheduled exhibition game with the New York Yankees came along. Sure enough, Jimmy Zinn found himself facing none other than Babe Ruth once more. Johnny Gooch, Zinn’s catcher, was worried that he might throw at Ruth and began to stall. Pittsburgh manager George Gibson went to the mound and gave Zinn an instruction that would end his Pirates career: “throw a big fat one right down the middle if you get to two strikes. Those fans came here to see Ruth hit one out.” But he was talking to the wrong pitcher. Zinn eased his fastball around the plate for the first two pitches, missing both times. He managed to slip a changeup over before Ruth swung mightily at one of his curves–and missed. Gibson signaled to Zinn to throw the next pitch down the middle. Zinn threw a hard curve, low and away, and the Babe swung mightily, his bat connecting only with the air as the umpire called “Stee-rike THREE!” Gibson immediately pulled Zinn and chewed him out. He had his pitching staff throw fastballs down the middle in order for Ruth to bat once more in that same inning, and indeed, he did hit a homerun. But he didn’t hit it off Zinn. Gibson, furious, ordered Zinn’s sale to the Kansas City Blues, which, while best known as a Yankees farm club, was independent at the time. Gibson got his comeuppance, however, and was fired in favor of the legendary Bill McKechnie. Zinn, meanwhile, became both Kansas City’s ace and its best pinch-hitter, playing the outfield as well on days he didn’t pitch. To compare him to Ruth is unfair, but to compare him to the likes of Wes Ferrell probably is fair. Kansas City offered Zinn a huge amount of money to stay with the team after he went 18-5 with a 3.98 ERA in the hitter-friendly American Association down the stretch. He went 27-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 1923. He remained the ace of the Blues through 1928, winning 20 games twice more. Purchased by the Cleveland Indians in 1929, Zinn found himself pitching an even more hitter-friendly league than the American Association! Although his record of 4-6 with a 5.04 ERA seems terrible by today’s standards, it wasn’t that far below league average at the time. Still, Cleveland had a strong pitching staff and wanted to convert Zinn, who batted .381, into an outfielder. Zinn requested a sale or trade if he wasn’t to be used as a pitcher, and the Indians knew his value well enough not to argue. Sold to the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League, Zinn went 26-12 with a 4.07 ERA in the 1930 PCL, but injuries curtailed his 1931 season. Although he put up three more strong seasons with the Seals, Zinn was never the same after his arm injury. Injured again in 1935, he split the season between the Seals and the Sacramento Solons. In 1936, his arm problems were so bad that he had to sit out the season. In 1937, he became pitcher-outfielder-manager for the El Paso Texans of the Class D Arizona-Texas League. He held the job in 1938 as well, and was a potent force with the bat, though reduced his role even further as a pitcher. He began 1939 managing and playing for the Jacksonville Jax of the Class D East Texas League, but was fired early on. The Western League’s Sioux City Cowboys, a Class C team, offered him a job as a player-manager, and he took it. He retired as a player after the season, missing out on playing in four different decades by just one year. The troubles Sioux City franchise folded after the season, and Zinn found himself without a job. He managed in the Minors from 1946 through 1948 and then again in 1953. He had gone 308-214 as a professional pitcher.

You’ve likely heard of our next birthday boy: Andy Hawkins, who is 56 years old. Andy Hawkins was a first round draft pick of the Padres in 1978 who threw bullets who when he was drafted, but quickly learned that his success lay in dialing it back. When he made the Major Leagues with the 1982 Padres, the right-hander showed that he could throw a remarkably strange pitch in addition to his four-seam fastball, slider, and changeup. It was something like a slider, only it didn’t break. Hawkins reportedly claimed his pitch could break bats, a claim that was scoffed at. But yet, there he was, and there a few players who found their bats sawed off at the handle by Hawkins’s strange pitch. He went 2-5 with a 4.10 ERA over 15 games, including 10 starts that first season in 1982. He didn’t really break out until 1985, when he went 18-8 with a 3.15 ERA after beginning to throw his fastball as a sinker. His strange pitch that could break bats also got a name: the cut fastball. While it had been in existence since the fifties and many a pitcher–including Jerry Koosman–had thrown it, few had ever given thought to naming it. Andy Hawkins changed that. In 1986, Hawkins had very high expectations, but dropped to 10-8 with a 4.30 ERA. In 1987, he dropped all the way down to 3-10 with a 5.05 ERA. San Diego managed to get one more good season out of him in 1988–when he went 14-11 with a 3.35 ERA–before George Steinbrenner signed Hawkins in the hopes that the right-hander could become his ace. Hawkins went 15-15 with a 4.80 ERA for the 1989 Yankees, and then came 1990. Hawkins went 5-12 with a 5.37 ERA, but on July 1, 1990, he pitched a no-hitter…and lost it. However, because it was on the road, he didn’t even get credit for a no-hitter! Injured in 1991, Hawkins split the season between the Yankees and the A’s before retiring. He would coach a bit in the Rangers organization, but as of now is retired.

Roger Kieschnick is 29. A cousin of the two-way player Brooks Kieschnick, Roger was a third round draft pick for the 2008 San Francisco Giants. Highly touted as a power hitter, Roger Kieschnick proved effective in 2009, slugging 23 homeruns and driving in 110 runs in only 517 at-bats with Class A Advanced San Jose. Injured in 2010, he rebounded in 2011, but immediately demonstrated problems with hitting any sort of a breaking ball. He walked 34 times and struck out 121 times at Class AA Richmond. Although he got off to a good start in 2012, Kieschnick was injured yet again, and yet again his plate discipline suffered. He managed to walk enough times in 2013 for the giants to finally call him up…where batted .202 in 38 games with only one extra-base hit. Selected off waivers by the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014, Kieschnick’s batting average sank to .195 as he failed to walk even once against 16 strikeouts in 25 games. He struggled at AAA ball, too. Signed by the Angels in 2015, Kieschnick showed decent power, but once again couldn’t hit for average, spending the entire season with their AAA affiliate. He remains unsigned, and given how much he’s swinging and missing, I have a feeling that this season is either his last or he’ll just go unsigned.

Brandon Crawford is 29. By now, if you’re a baseball fan, you probably know who Brandon Crawford is. A fourth round pick of the Giants in 2008, Crawford’s power was always subject to some question and depended a lot on whether the left-handed-hitting infielder would ever be able to hit left-handed pitching. After a rocky 2011 debut season, Crawford hit .248 in both 2012 and 2013, though showed improved power in the latter season. The important thing was that he could field, and any hitting was at first viewed as a bonus. However, in 2014, he all of a sudden batted .246 with a .324 on-base percentage, 20 doubles, 10 triples, and 10 homeruns. Basically, his power was finally developing while at the same time, he was showing terrific speed to make up for his low average. This past season, in 2015, Crawford made the NL All-Star Team, batting .256 with a .321 on-base percentage, 33 doubles, 4 triples, and 21 homeruns. I think he has a good future so long as he keeps his power numbers up and maintains his average/doesn’t really sink below .240.

Chase d’Arnaud is also 29. The brother of New York Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud, Chase is a right-handed-hitting shortstop and third baseman. Originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, Chase d’Arnaud was billed as something of a lead-off hitter. Well, he struggled in that role in the Major Leagues when he debuted in 2011, batting .217 with a .242 on-base percentage, 6 doubles, and 2 triples over 48 games…though he did steal 12 bases against just two times caught stealing. After a cup of coffee in 2012 in which he went hitless, d’Arnaud spent 2013 in the Minors. Signing with the team that drafted his brother Travis–the Phillies–in 2014, he was briefly called up for use as a pinch runner only, not getting any at-bats, but scoring two runs…and also being caught stealing twice. In 2015, he had a much more expanded role, batting for the first time in a Phillies uniform. He went 3-for-17 over 11 ballgames. The Atlanta Braves have since signed him, though what they plan on using him as is unclear.

Finally, Tim Wheeler is 28. A left-handed-hitting, right-handed-throwing slugger who was drafted in the first round of the 2009 draft by the Colorado Rockies, Wheeler is something of a lesson on how to overestimate the importance of one or two physical skills while knowing full well that others will likely never develop. A solid defensive outfielder, he lacked range, but had good hands. He had a good arm, but he was drafted for two reasons: light tower power and blazing speed on the basepaths. Playing for the Tri-City Dust Devils of the Northwest League, Wheeler showed excellent power and speed, but he only hit .256, didn’t walk much, and struck out a lot from the get-go. The Rockies didn’t think it mattered. With Coors Field, all they figured would matter with Tim Wheeler was power and speed. He improved a bit playing for Modesto in 2010, raising his batting average and taking more walks, and then came 2011 with the Tulsa Drillers: Wheeler batted .287 with a .365 on-base percentage, 28 doubles, 6 triples, 33 homeruns, and he also stole 21 bases. But then again, he walked 59 times and struck out 142 times. In 2012, Wheeler was with AAA Colorado Springs, but injuries struck and it was really a lost year. Still, in 2013, the Rockies expected him to break out. Well, he batted .262 and strike out quite as much, but he only hit 5 homeruns. That injury had more or less knocked out the one tool that Colorado was counting on. Repeating Colorado Springs in 2014, he hit .233 with a .313 on-base percentage, 25 doubles, 3 triples, and 11 homeruns while walking 36 times and striking out 109 times. This past season, when Colorado moved its AAA affiliation to Albuquerque, Wheeler got his average up to .245 while posting a .345 on-base percentage, 15 doubles, 1 triple, and 10 homeruns. Admittedly, he stole 16 bases without being caught even once, but he walked 58 times and K’ed 122 times. One wonders what kind of a career path at this point Tim Wheeler will have.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading that and I thoroughly enjoyed writing it!”

  I certainly enjoyed reading what John William had to say. I remember listening to the end of Andy Hawkins’ losing no-hitter on July 1, 1990.  My broadcast partner and I were in Pompano Beach to do a game for the Miracle of the Florida State League.  The radio station that had our game also broadcast the Yankees game where Hawkins was undone by walks and a bases-loaded error by Jim Leyritz. 

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