My fave 5 (plus a bonus)

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Every time I watch a game with my wife, I bore her to tears with useless tidbits about all the bench guys, role players and reclamation projects on each team. She claims to find this interesting, but she’s a normal human being, so there’s no way on earth that she actually feels that way. So in the name of saving my marriage, I’ve decided to sacrifice the sanity of you the reader by subjecting you to my 5 favorite players to watch in baseball this season. These could be superstars turned ring chasing veterans, former top prospects given a second chance, guys with funny names or just a guy I find myself drawn to for no rational reason. I did a similar exercise last year, and while I didn’t keep up with all my favorites as much as I’d like, I did enjoy keeping tabs on them throughout the year. So in the interest of consistency and entertaining myself, let’s run it back with my Fave 5 (plus one bonus minor leaguer).

Matt Bush- Pitcher- Frisco RoughRiders– The 2004 MLB draft was absolutely stacked. The first round alone produced 7 All-Stars (Justin Verlander, Billy Butler, Jered Weaver,Glen Perkins, Phil Hughes,Gio Gonzalez and Huston Street) 3 pitchers who threw No-Hitters (Verlander, Homer Bailey, Philip Humber) and multiple solid starters (Stephen Drew, Trevor Plouffe and Neil Walker). The later rounds produced mainstays such as Dustin Pedroia, Yovani Gallardo, Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist. Of all the drafts, the MLB draft is the hardest to get right and has the most moving parts and variables. It’s not always just a question of drafting who you think is best. Teams also have to factor in whether the player will sign or go to college, how affordable they are on the bonus scale and stupidly enough, how the fans will react to the selection. There have been a lot of bad choices made with the first overall pick, but the Padres’ selection of local shortstop, Matt Bush, is possibly the worst on record.

His troubles began before his career ever started, with his arrest and suspension stemming from an assault charge prior to the start of his first minor league season, and got worse from there.   When he did get on the field, he struggled to perform, batting just .221 in his first season before breaking his ankle halfway through the year. His next year on the field wasn’t any better and the Padres moved him to pitcher in an attempt to get something out of his talent. Sadly, injury struck again, as he tore his UCL, necessitating Tommy John surgery. He was never able to work his way back, and was released in 2009. From there, he bounced around to the Blue Jays and Rays minor league systems with further legal troubles at each stop . After a semi-successful season in 2011, he was sentenced to 51 months in prison after he drunkenly ran over a 72-year-old man during spring training.

After 2 years in prison (and 4 years sober),  Bush was released on probation and signed by the Texas Rangers last fall. The Rangers have a history of dealing well with players with substance abuse issues (I.E. Josh Hamilton), and have put him on a zero tolerance policy.  This spring, Bush appeared in 2 games and pitched only 3 total innings. In those innings, he struck out 3 batters, gave up 1 hit and even touched 100 m.p.h on his fastball. This story isn’t complete and doesn’t even have a happy ending yet, as he was sent down to Rangers’ Double-A affiliate to serve as one of their primary set up men.

There’s a segment of our population that could never forgive him for his past mistakes, and I can’t completely blame them, but by all accounts, Bush seems to have his stuff together, and I’m a big fan of redemption stories. There’s no guarantee that he’s going to ever make it as a big league player, and he’ll never shed his “bust” label, but I’m going to be paying attention to the Frisco RoughRiders all season and hoping that even if it’s just for one inning, he can claw his way up to the big leagues.

Billy Hamilton- Outfielder, Cincinnati Reds-   Billy Hamilton is scary fast.  He’s fast enough that if John Candy were around, he’d absolutely try to find a way to make Hamilton push a bobsled. Luckily for us, Hamilton roams the outfield in Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Even with all the speedy young players in the game today, there’s no player who makes me say “whoa” quite like Hamilton. My first exposure to Hamilton came in 2012 when he stole 155 bases in 132 minor league games and also hit an inside the park home run where he made it around the bases in 13.8 seconds. To put that in perspective, the second fastest trip around the bases that season was Peter Bourjos at 14.3 seconds. Geesh.

Hamilton “only” stole 57 bases last year, and still hasn’t developed into a consistent hitter,  but he showed maturity as a player by cutting his number of times caught stealing from 23 to 8 between 2014 and 2015, and clearly the raw speed is still there. We haven’t had a player steal 100 bases in a season since Vince Coleman did it 3 straight years from 1985-1987, but the Reds are going to be absolute garbage this season, and probably the next couple of seasons, so I would love nothing more than to see Hamilton with a permanent green light. Aside from a great ball park and Joey Votto, there’s not a whole lot to cheer for. At the very least, Hamilton can keep us (and Reds fans) entertained for the summer. 

 

Cameron Maybin- Outfielder, Detroit Tigers:  When the Marlins traded Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers in 2007, it was viewed as a bit of a coup for Miami, as they acquired high-end prospects in Andrew Miller, Mike Rabelo and some spare parts for 2 guys they didn’t feel like paying. The centerpiece to the whole deal, however, was uber-prospect Cameron Maybin. Labeled as a highly coveted “5 tool prospect”,  Maybin was pegged as a game changing player, one capable of anchoring the outfield defensively with his strong arm and great anticipation, while also holding down the middle of a lineup with his speed and power. Unfortunately for Maybin, things don’t always go as expected, and after a poor start in Miami, he was shuttled back and forth between the Marlins and the New Orleans Zephyrs before being traded to San Diego in 2010. It seemed like he had found a home with the Friars when he stole 40 bases and was named the team’s MVP after the 2011 season. He signed a 5 year deal and seemed poised to cash in on his seemingly endless potential. 3 frustrating and injury filled years later, he was shipped to Atlanta as part of the Craig Kimbrel/B.J. Upton deal last year and despite a solid season with Atlanta, he was traded once again; this time back to Detroit.

Maybe it’s the hopeless romantic in me, but I absolutely love seeing players get second chances, especially in places where they started their careers. I loathe the Detroit Tigers, but very few things would make me happier this season than to see Maybin put together at least one solid season in Motown. He’s on the 15 day disabled list right now with a wrist injury, but once he’s healthy, it looks like he’s going to get every opportunity to claim the starting Center Field job. He’s still relatively young at only 29 years old, and showed flashes of the 5-tool talent last year in Atlanta, so my optimism isn’t entirely blind. Detroit has had a tough time filling the hole in center, and if you can say nothing else about the fans up there, they love their scrappy underdogs. Maybin probably won’t ever turn into the multi time All Star people thought he would be, but it would be cool to see him capture the imagination of the Tigers’ faithful, even if it’s just for a brief time.

 

Ichiro Suzuki- Outfielder, Miami Marlins-It’s crazy to think now, but before he came to the MLB, no other Japanese position player had played in the Major Leagues. There was a healthy level of skepticism regarding his ability to succeed here, but 16 years later, Ichiro has 10 All-Star game appearances, 498 steals, the 2001 Rookie of the Year and MVP, 2 batting titles, single season hit record and 2935 career hits. If you add in his Japanese league statistics, he has 4213 hits and 697 stolen bases in 25 years of professional games. Japanese league baseball is on par with our minor leagues when it comes to talent, but the numbers are still mind-blowing.

When he came into the league in 2001, he was accompanied by a horde of media usually reserved for royalty or a late 90’s pop star. Crowds of photographers from Japan spent every game photographing his every move. From his unorthodox and methodical stretching routine to the Matrix-style sunglasses and samurai level focus, Ichiro was the epitome of cool.  With all the focus on his arrival, it seemed impossible for him to possible live up to expectations. 116 wins, 56 steals, the Rookie of the Year, MVP, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and my favorite throw of all time later, he somehow managed to surpass all the hype.

16 year later, at the age of 42, the hype is gone. There are no hoards of reporters anywhere at Marlins games and Ichiro’s skills have eroded to the point that he’s a glorified bench player. With that being said, he’s still Ichiro. He still plays like a church softball veteran, slapping the ball to the opposite field and still doles out fantastic quotes. Side note: my personal favorite “Chicks who dig home runs aren’t the ones who appeal to me. I think there’s sexiness in infield hits because they require technique. I’d rather impress the chicks with my technique than with my brute strength. Then, every now and then, just to show I can do that, too, I might flirt a little by hitting one out”. Oh Ichiro, don’t ever leave, and please, don’t ever change.

 

Byung Ho Park- First Baseman- Twins-  It’s obviously on a much smaller scale, but what Jackie Robinson did for black players, Ichiro did for Asian position players. If not for his massive success, we would still have the idiotic idea that players from the Far East couldn’t succeed in the Major Leagues. Thanks to him, this generation of Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean players have a much better shot at making it.

My favorite such player is “rookie” First Baseman Byung Ho Park in Minnesota. After averaging 43 homers and 123 RBI  over the last 4 seasons, Park had accomplished all he could in the underwhelming Korean Baseball Organization. Much like the Japanese baseball leagues, Korean leagues are nowhere near the level of American baseball, but Park’s numbers in a 144 game schedule are still mind-blowing enough to believe he can make the jump to MLB competition. Early returns are somewhat promising, as Park didn’t look overwhelmed in Spring Training, and he’s fortunate to be in a lineup with solid veterans like Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer and Trevor Plouffe. Along with young stars in training like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, those mainstays can take much of the pressure off of Park as he adjusts to big league pitching and travel rigors.

The Twins surprised a lot of people with their success last season, and if they can stay healthy, they can make some waves this season as well. Similar to my thoughts on Maybin, I despise the Twins, but it’s a very respectful hatred as they tend to play the right way and churn out quality players. I’m intrigued by how a player like Park can come into such a successful system after years of dominance and adjust his style and game plan to succeed in his new surroundings. The other minor storyline that interests me is the potential of a Korean superstar in lily-white Minnesota. The last iteration of successful Twins was based on Northerners like Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, so the concept of this generation being lead by guys like Buxton, Sano and Park is fantastic. Nothing is more fun than watching a blend of cultures succeed, and this Twins team will be no exception. My heart says I should root against Park’s success, but my brain tells me it would be awesome for baseball.

 

Jorge De La Rosa- Pitcher-Colorado Rockies- Nearly every baseball team builds the pitching rotation the same way: You have your number one pitcher, or “ace”, at the top of the rotation, and then ideally 3 or 4 solid options behind him. You want to be able to count on your ace to win at least 2/3 of his starts and then get the rest of the guys to win half their games. There are 2 very different and also very interesting scenarios with a team’s ace. On one end, you have the dominant super-team with a guy who can make a run at historic levels of wins and strikeouts and captivate audiences with his greatness. On the other end, you have pitiful tanking teams who have a guy who has no business being a number one starter. When that perfect storm of bad comes together, you have a chance for something truly dreadful. The most recent example was poor Mike Maroth with the 2003 Detroit Tigers. The Tigers threw out the worst team in the modern era on their way to 119 losses. The biggest benefactor of this ineptitude, Maroth finished at 9-21 with a 5.73 earned run average in his 2nd season in the Bigs. While he was never a terrible pitcher (he had a career record of 41-46 outside of that season), he was completely unqualified to be an ace. With all the awful teams in the league this year, there are a few potential “Maroths” in 2016, but the best candidate is the Rockies “ace”, Jorge De La Rosa.

Like Maroth, De La Rosa has been a very adequate, but underwhelming pitcher throughout his career with a record of 93-75 and a 4.57 E.R.A. When you combine his lack of ability with the awful Rockies’ team and the Coors Field effect, De La Rosa is going to have a long season. Much like a car wreck, ugly baby or political debate, this Colorado team is going to be so bad that I can’t look away. They have just enough young talent on offense to make them interesting, but the shortcomings throughout the rest of the roster are going to make every one of Jorge’s starts must watch TV for me. The whole country has loved watching the Warriors chase the Bulls wins record this year, and I’m going to be equally fascinated to watch De La Rosa chase down Maroth this summer. I know it’s not kind to enjoy others’ failure, but I just won’t be able to look away.

Whether these guys succeed or fail is anyone’s best guess. They could be All-Stars, they could be scrubs, but at the very least, they’ll be interesting, and I know I’ll be watching.

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