Thursday, July 31, 2008

More to the TBA than just the majors....

If you type “Michael Taylor” into Google’s search engine the first site that pops up is for Michael Taylor’s Designs a furniture and accessories company. While my girlfriend would probably page around that site, in fact she may already have, that wasn’t the Michael Taylor I was looking for. Nor was the second link - an IMDB site for Michael Taylor (XII) the co-executive producer for Battlestar Galactica (the new one, not the old one). The Michael Taylor I was looking for wasn’t even on the first page, nor the second.

It wasn’t until the third page of results that I had a true hit and it was courtesy of That is the beauty of having minor league baseball in your own town. Michael Taylor, 5th round draft pick for the Philadelphia Phillies, formerly of Stanford University is the newest member of the Wasteland Hall of Fame. As a matter of fact I think he might be the first inductee since I haven’t gotten around to writing about the others yet.

Unless you’re a member of his family, a Phillies scout or a Clearwater Thresher season ticket holder you probably don’t know who Taylor is, and to be honest before Saturday night neither did I. Taylor stands a lofty 6’ 6” and weighs in at 250 lbs. As my friend, Work Mike pointed out he looked like a “man among boys”. Work Mike is also convinced that he helped Taylor achieve his 3-4, 2 RBI night because he “pounded & locked it in” the fist bump before the game. Needless to say Work Mike is an interesting guy.

Taylor, who is working on finishing his degree from Stanford, drove in those two runs in a Thresher win over the Ft Myers Miracle. I hear you saying “What’s a Thresher? How is a Miracle a team?” Your confusion is not surprising we’re talking about the Florida State League, a class A minor league division that features mostly young players in their second or third league of pro ball. This is where the stars play before they are stars. Ryan Howard played 130 games here and hit 23 home runs. Chase Utley hit a pedestrian .257 in his one season in Clearwater. Cole Hamels was here long enough to break his hand in a bar fight down the road from the stadium.

Occasionally a rehabbing major leagurer will roll into town after coming off the DL. Jimmy Rollins was one of the latest to don the sand and red colored jersey of the Threshers. Most of the time the field is covered with fresh faced college kids or recently signed Latino free agents. They’re still learning how to be professional ballplayers, most of them having at best a half of season of rookie ball under their belt. The defense can be spotty, the pitching wild and the hitting suspect.

Despite the proximity to Clearwater‘s pristine white sandy beaches the players aren‘t looking to hang around here too long. They’re trying to beat the odds and crawl their way up the majors. The majority of the players are around 23 or 24 years old, much older than that and it’s probably time to start thinking about a new career. Unless they tear up the league early in the season most of these players are a season or two away from a September call up to the majors.

In the meantime, they spend most of the time learning. Even the players that have spent a few years in major colleges are still adjusting to wooden bats and A+ sliders. Power pitchers are learning that professional hitters can hit 95mph fastballs especially ones down the middle, so maybe its time to learn a second or third pitch.

Taylor is one of those hitters trying to adjust, despite his large frame he moves with an easy athletic grace whether it’s loping out to his position in left or gliding around the bases for a stand up double. His size is his most notable asset, during an inning change he towered the Thresher 3rd baseman Gary Cates who is listed at 5’7 on the Thresher website, but looked like a veritable Mini-Me standing next to left fielder.

The Phillies hope Taylor develops into a hitter with Ryan Howard type power. He still has some work to do, his swing seems a little long at this point, but he is starting to put it together. In May he was named the Topps Minor League Player of the Month for the South Atlantic League after he hit a scorching .363 with 7 home runs while playing for Lakewood. Since his promotion to Clearwater he’s only hit .252 overall, but it appears he’s starting to come around. In the 10 games between July 18th and July 26th he hit .351 with 4 doubles, a home run and 7 RBI’s.

The joy of minor league baseball is going to a game and “discovering” a player like Michael Taylor. By the time you see the players in Tropicana they’ve already been talked about, blogged about, chewed up and spit out by someone. Even when a player like Evan Longoria has a rookie season like he’s having now, it’s almost expected. Anything less would have been a disappointment.

So if you live in a town with a minor league ball team g out and see them. Just because they aren’t making millions yet doesn’t mean they’re not worth seeing. Besides it’s always fun to say, “Hey I knew he was going to be a star back when I saw him in Durham”. Or in Reading or Midland or Ottawa or any of hundreds of other towns across the country.

And remember - when you see Michael Taylor crushing pitches out of Citizen’s Bank Park in Philly, you first heard about him here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A baseball post?

I had posted awhile back that I wasn’t going to write about the Rays unless they hit a losing streak or the All-Star break. It was nice of them to roll it into one package. The team thundered into the 4 day break with an impressive 7 game losing streak. Everything that could go wrong did. The offense remained dormant, the pitching faltered and the normally reliable defense scuffled a bit.

As quickly as the national media jumped on the bandwagon they jumped off. It took the Rays roughly 5 minutes to blow the 4 game lead they had built over the Red Sox. The “I told you so’s” are lined up and ready to go.

I told you they couldn’t handle the pressure
I told you they were too young to know how to win
I told you their offense wasn’t good enough
I told you their bullpen was smoke and mirrors

Well folks let settle down a bit. No one likes a 7 game losing streak, even a franchise that is accustomed to them like Tampa Bay. However, if there is ever a time for a losing streak it was right before the break. The majority of the team got to take a break. They got to put the bats away and decompress a bit. The bullpen, which has seen a lot of work lately, got to take a few days off.

Having a clean break from the losing streak should be beneficial for the young team. If this had happened in the middle of August the losses would keep piling on, each day more pressure to win, each loss garnering more negative press. Now that they’ve had a chance to shut it down they can start the second half of the season fresh and remain a factor in the American League.

So what do they need to do to run with the big dogs? Quite simply hit the ball. 4,0,1,2,0,4,2,2 - those are the runs scored by the Rays in their last eight games That’s not going to get it done. Neither is 5 for 58 with runners in scoring position. How do they change that? The overriding theory is by bringing in a right handed bat. The names that seem to be garnering the most notoriety on the internets are Matt Holliday and Jason Bay.

While big deadline deals are sexy, especially when you’re a buyer instead of a seller for the first time in franchise history, they don’t necessarily pay off in the end. The biggest deal in 2007, Mark Teixeira to the Braves for a gaggle of prospects propelled them to a fantastic 3rd place finish in the National League East. The teams that made the American League playoffs in 2007 all made minor moves. The eventual champs, the Red Sox, picked up Eric Gagne who’s impact was minimal at best.

From reports it seems the Pirates are asking for the moon for Bay and Xavier Nady. It could cost teams as much as 2 premium prospects to acquire either of them. The Rays could put a package together that would satisfy Pittsburgh needs, but would it be worth it? Assuming David Price is off the table, what would the reaction be in losing Jeff Neimann, Desmond Jennings or Reid Brignac? While Bay is a big name and a big bat his defense in the outfield leaves a lot to be desired.

In Holliday’s case the Coors Field factor has to be a consideration. Ten of his fifteen homeruns this year are at the friendly confines in Denver. His road average is a respectable .301, but is 56 points below what he hits at home. There is also his contract. He is in the first year of a 2 year $23 million contract. That would be a lot of money for the frugal Rays to invest in an outsider.

Most likely the offense will have to come from players already on the team. Carlos Pena, BJ Upton and Carl Crawford are the names that immediately jump out as ones who need to turn it up. Pena seemed to be warming up as he hit .294 with two homeruns in the nine games before the All-Star break. If he can stay healthy and provide the type of offense that justifies his large contract than it will be similar to picking up a new player.

Upton has slumped recently, hitting .190 in the month of July, but has been steady if not spectacular for most of the season. Coach Joe Madden may want to think about moving Upton to the leadoff spot. With his power numbers down and his walk numbers up he may be better suited to hit leadoff. That would leave Aki Iwamura without a spot in the line up, but as anemic as the offense has been it might not be a bad idea to try some players in different spots.

Crawford seems to be a victim of his own success. As the only bright spot for a dismal franchise for many years CC is suffering through his first down year. It was a year that many had high hopes for, including Crawford. He is a notorious streaky hitter and seems to be striking the ball a lot harder in recent games. If he starts getting on and wreaking havoc on the bases it will lead to better pitches for the heart of the order behind him.

There is still a lot of ball to be played this season. One losing streak is not the end of the world for this team, but they must find their offense or they face risk proving the naysayers right.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Skating on into the San Jose Sunset

The light is dimming on the Dan Boyle Era here in the TBA. Rumors began swirling around like storm clouds during the madness that is the beginning of the free agency period. With OK Hockey signing every available forward they could the payroll blew by their self appointed $48 million cap and has come to rest slightly above the NHL mandated $56 million cap. After the binging it was time to begin the purge.

Boyle is cursed with owning the largest contract by a member of the Lightning not named Vinny Lecavalier. The fact that OK Hockey had supposedly signed off on that deal has suddenly become a mute point. He’s also a valuable commodity. Puck moving defensemen are a rare asset in the new NHL. Which is of course why the 31 year old is getting $6.67 million over the next six years.

The rumors grew louder once Brian Campell signed with Chicago. The number one defensive free agent was off the market and several teams were left wanting. The Senators, Flyers, Thrashers and Sharks all became potential dance partners for the Lightning.

As reports surfaced on Thursday that the Lightning had officially asked Boyle to waive his No Trade Clause Ottawa seemed a likely dance partner. They needed a defenseman, they had salary cap room and a player the Bolts would like in return in Andrej Meszaros and Boyle was originally from the Ottawa area. That possibility, however, died at the hands of Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray who stated that the Boyle deal was “too rich for the Senators” according to an article in the Ottawa Citizen.

Atlanta, an interdivision foe, seemed an unlikely destination. Boyle seemed to relish sticking it to his former team (the Florida Panthers) and would probably do the same against the Lightning. Making another deal with Philadelphia seemed to be overkill as the two teams have seemingly made 864 deals in the past 10 years.

That left San Jose. After taking a night to sleep on it TSN reports that Boyle agreed to be traded to the Sharks Saturday morning. In exchange for Boyle and hard-rocking defenseman Brad Lukowich the Lightning would receive Matt Carle, a prospect and a 1st round and 4th round pick. Carle is the centerpiece of the deal, a 23 year old defender in Boyle’s mold. Getting back 2 picks would also give Ryan Malone’s dad something to do as head of Lightning scouting department.

Once this deal is consummated, TSN reports it’s only pending paperwork, the Dan Boyle Era will be officially over. Boyle joined the Lightning in January of 2002, plucked from the Florida Panthers for a 5th round draft pick. He had spent two unhappy seasons in Miami playing for a coach, Mike Keenan, that he “couldn’t stand to look at”.

His arrival in Tampa Bay signaled a changing of the tide in the area. No longer were lumbering statues securing the Lightning blue line. Boyle would be a key component in the build up to the Stanley Cup winning team of 2004. His ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone set the pace for Coach Tortorella’s “Safe is Death” style of play. His 67 goals in a Lightning uniform are a team record for defenseman.

The offense he provided offset any liability he posed on defense. Not everyone needs to be a rugged, hard hitting defense first player. The fact that Boyle could skate the puck up the ice allowed Lecavalier and Marty St Louis to surge forward and get set up in the offensive zone. That’s an element that the Bolts will be missing unless Carle can return to his 2006-07 form that saw him score 11 goals and add 31 assists. Paul Ranger, who would be the de facto number one member of the blue line, is able to move the puck more by passing than carrying it down the ice himself.

It’s always a sad day when a fan-favorite has to move on. The new ownership seems hell-bent on totally renovating the team that was built under the Feaster/Tortorella regime. By the time its done it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Lecavalier as the only remaining link to the Stanley Cup team. The lack of Feaster’s name in any report seem to indicate that the embattled GM is on his way out. With his removal the OK Hockey takeover will be complete. Will it be for the better? That’s still to be determined. At least there will always be the memories of Boyle zooming up the ice with the puck on his stick and his head up surveying his options. Deciding that he had no better options he kicked it into a seemingly higher gear and weave his way to the net. With a quick flick of the wrist the puck would be behind the opposing goaltender.