SweetSpot: Reid Brignac

The best time of the season is here

September, 14, 2012

As the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles played on in the late-afternoon shadows, the managers turned to Chris Archer and Tommy Hunter, a rookie with just 18 innings of big league experience making his first relief appearance of the season and a veteran starter banished to the bullpen, respectively.

This is pennant-race baseball.

In Anaheim, Angels ace Jered Weaver took the mound, making his first start in 11 days because of biceps tendinitis, and all he had to do was prevent the A's from completing a four-game sweep and keep the Angels within shouting distance of the playoffs.

This is playoff-race baseball.

In Houston, the Phillies -- who punted back in July when they traded two-thirds of their starting outfield -- had suddenly found themselves smelling the sweat of the Cardinals, Dodgers and Pirates. They started a rookie named Tyler Cloyd, making his fourth major league start. Not only that, he was starting on three days' rest. I knew nothing about him, so I looked up a few facts. He was the International League pitcher of the year, but he's a finesse right-hander who rarely reaches 90 mph. He was an 18th-round draft pick in 2008 out of Nebraska-Omaha, but his lack of velocity meant he wasn't one of Baseball America's top 30 Phillies prospects entering the season despite good minor league numbers in 2011.

This is wild-card baseball.

I intended to watch the monumental Chris Sale-Justin Verlander showdown, two Cy Young contenders facing off in a crucial game in the American League Central, but that game was rained out, so I focused on the Yankees-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park. Phil Hughes, a pitcher who had allowed the second-most home runs in the major leagues, was trying to pitch the Yankees back into a first-place tie with the Orioles. All he did was pitch one of the best games of his career, allowing no runs for just the second time this season.

This is baseball.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyThe Orioles should be celebrating. They're in playoff contention after not having a winning record in 15 seasons.
I'm riveted to my television set, flipping channels, checking box scores, watching a second game on my laptop. It's the best time of the year, when nearly every game matters, when important outs in important games start taking on an October-like intensity. It's why we watch the first 140 games, to build up to these moments: Archer versus 20-year-old rookie Manny Machado with the game on the line.

Archer had used a little magic in the 13th inning, when he escaped a bases-loaded, no-outs jam to extend the game another inning. During that high-wire act, he fell behind Matt Wieters 3-0 but came back to strike him out on a 94 mph fastball, his seventh consecutive fastball of the at-bat. No tricks, just heat, and it worked. I tweeted something along the lines of: "If the Rays win this game and eventually make the playoffs, remember this inning."

But Buck Showalter has been around this game a few years. They say he's pretty wise. In the 14th inning, Archer got the first batters out, but Adam Jones fouled off a 3-2 slider and then drew ball four. Endy Chavez singled to left. That brought up the rookie Machado, 0-for-5 on the day, 2-for-his-past-20. Archer fell behind 3-and-0.

You don't give a rookie the green light.

Buck gave Machado the green light.

Machado swung and lofted a sinking line drive near the left-field line. Matt Joyce ran in, dove, stretched out, his glove reaching for the baseball, reaching for hope -- to keep the game going, to give the Rays hope of getting a win closer to the playoffs rather than a loss further away. Off the glove. Base hit. Orioles win 3-2 -- their 13th in a row in extra innings; 27-7 in one-run games, the best percentage in history. How can you not believe in the Orioles?

Joyce came up a few inches short. If Sam Fuld, an outfielder with more range, had been in left field, he makes the play. But Fuld had been removed in the 13th inning when Joe Maddon had replaced him with Reid Brignac to give the Rays five infielders after the Orioles loaded the bases. And that strategy worked when the Rays got the first out of the inning on a force at home. Maddon used 26 players in the game, clawing for any little edge.

That's what you do this time of year.

* * * *

Cloyd pitched three scoreless innings against the Astros but then gave up a single -- single -- home run and got the hook. He was replaced by another rookie, B.J. Rosenberg, with an ERA of 9.00. Rosenberg pitched two scoreless innings. In the eighth, the Phillies clinging to a 4-3 lead, Charlie Manuel turned to yet another rookie, Phillippe Aumont, once the prize of the Cliff Lee trade with the Mariners. Big stuff, no command: He averaged 6.9 walks per nine innings in Triple-A. He walked a guy, but got a caught stealing. He walked another guy. He hit a batter.

Two outs, two on, the Phillies cannot afford to lose. They have a $50 million closer in the bullpen.

Manuel brought in yet another rookie, Jake Diekman. He gave up a two-run double and an RBI single, and the Phillies lost 6-4.

Jonathan Papelbon sat in the bullpen, and suddenly that playoff run seems a little less likely.

The victories are extra sweet. The losses extra bitter. Welcome to the best time of the season.
The Cleveland Indians once traded CC Sabathia to acquire Matt LaPorta.

They picked up Russ Canzler for cash.

When the 2012 season opens, it's likely that Canzler will be the team's starting first baseman ahead of LaPorta.

Canzler is a soon-to-be 26-year-old minor league vet who lacks the prospect pedigree of LaPorta, but he's turned himself into a guy who should be able to contribute at the big league level after hitting .314/.401/.530 at Triple-A Durham. Among International League players with 200 plate appearances, only Trevor Plouffe and Ryan Lavarnway had a higher OPS. Canzler played first, third, left and right for Durham, although his fielding percentage indicates he's stretched at third base. But with LaPorta coming off another disappointing season (.247/.299/.412), I would guess Canzler will be given the opportunity to win the first-base job. (A platoon isn't really feasible since both hit right-handed.)

I actually thought Canzler would be a nice platoon with Carlos Pena in Tampa, considering Pena hit .133 against left-handers in 2011. But the Jeff Keppinger signing made it tough to find room for Canzler on the roster.

Assuming the Rays go with 12 pitchers, their 13 position players probably look like this:

C: Jose Molina (R), Jose Lobaton (S) or Robinson Chirinos (R)
1B: Carlos Pena (L)
2B: Ben Zobrist (S), Jeff Keppinger (R)
3B: Evan Longoria (R)
SS: Sean Rodriguez (R), Reid Brignac (L) or Elliot Johnson (S)
OF: Matt Joyce (L), B.J. Upton (R), Desmond Jennings (R), Luke Scott (L), Sam Fuld (L) or Brandon Guyer (R)

If Joe Maddon wants to platoon with Joyce, he can slide Zobrist to right field and play Keppinger at second. That would probably give Fuld the edge over Guyer for the fourth outfield position, since he could spell Jennings against tough right-handers. The other option would be keep Guyer as a possible platoon partner for Joyce (or Scott at DH) and use Keppinger at first base against right-handers. And yet another option is to see if Brignac can win the starting shortstop job on a full-time basis, with Rodriguez serving as the starter at shortstop or first base against left-handers (over his career, he's hit .260/.360/.422 against left-handers but just .212/.278/.377 against righties). Brignac and Johnson are both regarded as superior fielders to Rodriguez, so if Brignac can at least hit like he did in 2010 (.256/.307/.385), the job will be his to win.

Anyway, as always Maddon has roster flexibility. I don't like the idea of Pena as a full-time first baseman, but it looks like the Rays will have options to ensure that he doesn't have to play every day against left-handers.
After hitting .318 with 52 extra-base hits and 52 stolen bases in the minors in 2009, Desmond Jennings became one of the top prospects in baseball. But his trek from hotshot to starting major league outfielder was slower than expected. The Tampa Bay Rays sent him to Triple-A in 2010 -- which made sense, considering he had played 32 games there in 2009. When Jennings failed to match his 2009 numbers, hitting .278 with three home runs, he didn't make his major league debut until a September call-up.

Still, many expected him to be the starting left fielder for the Rays this season. Instead, the team signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, and when Ramirez retired a week into the season after failing a drug test, minor league veteran Sam Fuld became the left fielder. Jennings languished in Triple-A and while his numbers improved over 2010 -- he hit .275/.364/.456 -- they weren't even as impressive as less-heralded teammates like Brandon Guyer or Justin Ruggiano. Scouts said Jennings looked a little bored, maybe he needs the challenge of the major leagues.

Sure enough, the Rays called up him July 23 and he's been on fire ever since going 2-for-3 with a double, triple and two walks in his first game up. He's hitting .354/.440/.646 with eight home runs, 15 steals and 22 runs in 34 games. The Rays are 21-13 since he recall and the question, as Eric Karabell and Mark Simon raised on the Baseball Today podcast: Did Tampa wait too long to call him up? The Rays are 6.5 games behind the Yankees? What if they finish a couple games behind? The Tampa Bay front office will face a lot of criticism if that happens.

That said, I'm not sure it was a bad decision. By delaying Jennings' service time, they'll get an extra year from Jennings before he reaches arbitration (and, later, free agency). Second, Fuld did OK in left field, excelling on defensive in particular, and hitting well in April; his playing time though May and June was probably deserved. Third, if Jennings had hit at Durham like he has in Tampa, he would have been recalled much sooner.

I think it's important to realize that Jennings isn't this good. You don't suddenly go from hitting 15 home runs over two seasons in Triple-A to hitting eight in just 130 at-bats in the majors without a little luck. Even Jennings' biggest supporters couldn't have expected this outburst. In the end, if Tampa falls a couple games short of the playoffs, you can blame the poor play of Reid Brignac or the production from the catchers more than the decision to leave Jennings in the minors.