Detroit Tigers v Toronto Blue Jays

The term 24-hour news cycle gets thrown around a lot but, even in here in the baseball margins, it’s a real thing. There are always column inches to fill and content creators gotta create more content. Which gives us Hot Stove Season and Ballot Outrage Season and Arbitration Season and, most recently, Prospect Season.

Prospect rankings are perfect for the voracious online audience because they are a) lists and b) hold promise for the future. Collated and organized every which way, the best prospect rankings combine personal observations with industry consensus to provide a snapshot of the minor league landscape, hoping it provides a look to the future of the bigs.

Like the draft, it is an inexact science. Any objective ranking will be. But that is what makes it so brilliant as a “content strategy” at this time of year. So much margin for error but when you’re selling hope, folks aren’t buying precision. They buy the idea that all the team’s ills lay in wait in the low minor leagues. This desperate hope serves as the foundation for a fierce loyalty and belief in heretofore unseen prospects that does not die easy.

Prospect list debate is the natural evolution of the rooting for laundry phenomenon. Stumping for a prospect who is yet to wear the clothes of choice but will one day and, when he does, look out – things are going to be different.

So the debates rage on and the accusations of bias for list curators ring out loudly. Overall team ranking in Baseball America’s organizational list becomes grounds for dismissal for general managers or scouting directors. And so the cycle goes, year after year.

For the plugged-in fans who do end up down this rabbit hole, it can be sobering experience. The first can’t-miss prospect who misses hurts. It hurts a lot. Fans carry torches for the players once considered franchise cornerstones long after they move from team to team, hoping for a second act in their baseball life.

For me, that player is Travis Snider. A Blue Jays fan who first started a blog about the team in the early days of January 2008, Travis Snider was going to change the world. The Jays selected the “compete for multiple MVPs” outfielder out of high school with a 2006 first round pick. He raced through the minors and eventually made his Major League debut in August 2008, putting up solid numbers in his first cup of coffee.

As the blog community exploded around that time (in tech hub Toronto especially), Travis Snider became a legend before his time. The Jays fielded good-but-not-great teams year after year but Snider would be different. He would lead the way and playoff triumph would elude Canadian baseball fans NO MORE.

Of course, it didn’t work out like that. Snider’s swing contained holes minor league pitching could not reach. A no-nonsense, old school manager greeted Snider in the big leagues and wanted to make changes – rightly or wrongly, depending on who you ask. The swing alterations began, one after another. When none of them stuck, the minor league yoyo routine began, options dwindling in a hurry.

Then, traded. The Jays traded Travis Snider to the baseball hinterland (lol irony) of Pittsburgh. In the middle of a game – a game in front of Snider’s friends and family in his hometown of Seattle. A thousand fanboy/fangirl hearts broke that day, many are yet to grow whole again.

It was with this single act that the gooey love affair with prospects gave way to harsh reality. All the energy and emotion invested in the fate of some 20-year old drains away. The reality sinks in – number two starter is a rare feat, not a disappointment. A future “Major League regular” is an asset, not an indictment. It’s just the way it goes.

Travis Snider currently sits about fifth on the Pirates outfield depth chart. He received his first arbitration reward this season, a decent payday just over a million dollars. Turns out it is tough to accrue service time when you’re in the big leagues for two months at a time for four years.

It is hard to see much of a future for Snider in Pittsburgh, what with the 2014 version of Travis Snider – Gregory Polanco – on the fast track to the big leagues in an outfield that already carries the National League’s most valuable player, a dynamic toolshed like Starling Marte, and the promise of Jose Tabata.

Another trade and another attempt to establish himself, now without options, for the former can’t miss kid. And still I pull for him. I pull for him so hard. I want Travis Snider to hit 20 home runs this season, I want a mid-twenties renaissance for the burly meat addict from the Pacific Northwest. Not for any real reason, of course. I don’t know him from Adam and his performance with the Pirates doesn’t really do anything for my life. I just want to see it. It’s just as irrational as expecting a 20-year old to come to the big leagues and change the fortunes of a moribund franchise. It’s just dumb hope. I guess I’d prefer to live with it than without it, in the end.

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To be my sunshine after the rain
It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.

Nats can’t close the deal

The Washington Nationals made one of the more famous examples of a knee-jerk signing after the 2012 season when they inked Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal plus an option. This closer contract came hot on the heels of a blown save that ended the Nats first playoff season since moving from Montreal, with Drew Storen spectacularly flaming out against St. Louis.

The Nats handed 9th inning duties over to Soriano, kept Storen in the mix in addition to Tyler Clippard – one of the most durable and reliable relievers in baseball over the past few seasons. Their bullpen…was about the same?

The 2013 Nats pen pitched fewer innings, registered fewer saves, posted a higher ERA (but a lower FIP), fewer saves and shut downs (fewer blow ups, too), and was realistically about the same. The team was worse but, a few ill-timed implosions aside, the bullpen was not the problem.

And yet here are the Nationals, attached to free agent Grant Balfour – he of the broken deal with the Orioles. Baseball oracle Ken Rosenthal provides the skinny, noting a “games finished” provision in Soriano’s contract might be the motivating factor above and beyond improving their club.

Rosenthal indicates there is interest in the Nats moving on from Drew Storen, the most likely trade candidate should they add another big bullpen arm. Balfour is a clear upgrade over Storen, the question remains if he would sign on for an eighth inning role.

But what about that games finished performance clause in Soriano’s deal? According to MLB Contracts, if Soriano finishes 120 games between 2013-2014. With 58 GF last year, the former Yankees bullpen boss needs 62 games finished to vest his 2015 option.

Not only has Soriano never finished 62 games in his career (58 is his career best, with three other years in the 50s), only two pitchers in all of baseball completed this many outings last season.

A difficult landmark to pass, as barely a handful of players eclipsed this mark in each of the last five seasons. Is a 34-year reliever coming off one of the worst years of his career a prime candidate to breakout in this way?

Improving the team is also job one for a front office. If the Nationals think they can get Balfour in as 9th inning insurance or to pitch the 8th (moving Clippard down the chart while shipping out Storen) then go crazy, I guess. If they think the savings they created by signing Ian Desmond and Joran Zimmermann is best used to preemptively avoid paying Soriano next year…well good luck to them. I really wish them the best.

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