Derby squads provide lots of pop
The trios picked by Joey Bats and Tulo should provide huge entertainment value
The 2014 All-Star Game Home Run Derby field has star power, international appeal and a healthy mix of players who've been making waves for a while and others just beginning to emerge on the national scene.
The only thing it lacks is closure.
Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Toronto's Jose Bautista, the respective team captains, named three players each to their squads Tuesday. Tulowitzki added Yasiel Puig, Giancarlo Stanton and Todd Frazier to the National League contingent, while Bautista selected Yoenis Cespedes, Adam Jones and hometown favorite Brian Dozier of the Minnesota Twins.
But Tulowitzki and Bautista are still only 75 percent of the way home. They plan to announce their final picks for the event on Thursday. The Derby will take place Monday night at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Bautista has been particularly challenged to fill out his roster. Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz and Miguel Cabrera all passed on the opportunity to take part. Edwin Encarnacion is on the disabled list with a quad strain, while Victor Martinez (soreness in his side) and Brandon Moss (ankle) are touch-and-go with injuries that have yet to send them to the DL.
So what can we glean from the news so far? A few Derby observations:
The favorites and crowd-pleasers
Stanton's decision to take part was a source of joy to Derby aficionados and anyone who plans to bring a glove and sit in the nether regions of Target Field. He's the only hitter in the field who has busted a video board and been compared favorably to 1960s situation comedy icon Herman Munster in his raw power.
Stanton's 484-foot shot off San Diego's Eric Stults on April 4 is the second-longest home run this season, behind Trout's Bo Jackson-esque shot off Kansas City's Jason Vargas. Some observers were even more impressed by Stanton's recent opposite-field tracer off Jason Hammel, which whizzed over the head of Chicago first baseman Anthony Rizzo and kept going until it cleared the fence at Marlins Park.
With an average home run distance of 423.8 feet, Stanton is the midseason leader in the competition for the ESPN Hit Tracker's Golden Sledgehammer Award. San Francisco's Michael Morse is second, with an average distance of 420.5 feet, while Puig is third with 417.3.
"He hits the ball so hard -- it's incredible," a National League scout said of Stanton. "He hits a lot of line-drive homers, and he hits them to right field. He hits them anywhere in the ballpark. And if he gets under it and gets some lift, it's like the perfect storm. Break out the tape measure."
Stanton can expect to be pushed by the Cuban tag team of Cespedes and Puig, who bring bat speed, showmanship and a ton of enthusiasm to the party. Cespedes, a non-All-Star in 2013, parachuted into Citi Field as a last-minute entry and left fans and fellow players transfixed on his way to winning the event. If you don't think Puig will warm to the stage, you simply haven't been paying attention.
"He has a flair for the dramatic, and he likes the lights," Tulowitzki said upon announcing the selection of Puig. "I think he's going to do great."
Who could join the party?
Colorado's Justin Morneau would be a nice fit if he makes the NL All-Star team through the online Final Vote, which concludes Thursday. He won an MVP award with the Twins in 2006 and was a fan favorite in Minnesota before concussion problems put a crimp in his career and paved his way out of town. Morneau's Final Vote candidacy could receive a dual push from Colorado fans, who are enjoying his comeback with the Rockies, and Twins boosters who would love a reunion.
Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez, another slugger potentially on Tulowitzki's radar, is the National League's answer to Adrian Beltre as the player most likely to need an excavation tool to dig his way back to freedom once he corkscrews himself into the batter's box with a violent swing. As Gomez recently told Milwaukee reporters, "I go to the Home Run Derby every day."
Bautista appears to have fewer options than Tulowitzki in rounding out his roster. White Sox rookie sensation Jose Abreu would be an obvious attraction, but he's been lukewarm, at best, in his public comments about the Derby.
Oakland's Josh Donaldson (19 homers) and Seattle's Kyle Seager (13) have the highest home run totals among other AL All-Stars available. Donaldson, who once made a splash by hitting a home run into a basket during batting practice in Oakland, recently told A's beat reporters he would be interested if asked to participate.
The veteran dark horse
Bautista's 2014 average home run distance of 404.6 feet ties him with Albert Pujols for 24th in the majors, according to the Home Run Tracker. He is also the most experienced participant in the field, with two Derby appearances on his résumé.
Joey Bats made a quick first-round exit in his Derby debut in 2011 at Chase Field in Phoenix, but he advanced all the way to the finals before losing to Prince Fielder the following year at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.
"Over the years, he's learned how to use his lower half and drive the ball," the NL scout said. "He always had bat speed as a kid. It all came together when he learned to get his foot down and drive the baseball. He does that incredibly well."
Bautista's career numbers at Target Field certainly bode well for his chances: He has 11 homers and a .966 slugging percentage in 59 career at-bats in the Twins' new venue. Think he has a comfort level at the place?
The pride of New Jersey
Few players are going to be more stoked to appear in a Home Run Derby than Frazier, who has a track record for coming up big on a national stage -- first evidenced by his bravura performance with the Toms River, New Jersey, championship team in the 1998 Little League World Series.
"I know he's a Little League legend," Tulowitzki said. "I'm hoping he can bring some of that Williamsport magic to a national stage."
Frazier is the only hitter in the Derby field who uses Frank Sinatra for his walk-up music, and he's almost certainly the only contestant who has homered in the big leagues while throwing his bat at the ball, which he did in a plate appearance that became a YouTube sensation. Wouldn't you love to see him try that in Minneapolis?
The Little Engine That Could
It wasn't quite as shocking as Prince Fielder making an appearance in ESPN The Magazine's "The Body" issue, but Dozier's selection comes as a bit of a surprise, given his relatively humble beginnings as an eighth-round pick out of the University of Southern Mississippi.
In 2011, Dozier was listed by Baseball America as the Twins' No. 30 prospect, and he was praised for his fundamentally sound approach at the plate and his ability to hit to all fields. "His biggest weakness is his lack of power," BA wrote, "as he doesn't project to hit more than five to 10 homers annually."
Dozier hit all of 16 homers in 1,613 minor league plate appearances, but he's found his power stroke in Minnesota. Since June 1, 2013, he ranks 20th in the majors with 32 home runs. Seven players who trail him, with 31 homers each: Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Adrian Beltre, Jay Bruce, Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes and Troy Tulowitzki.
Against all odds, Dozier will try to make a statement before a supportive crowd in the Twin Cities next week. Fortunately for him, no one at the Home Run Derby cares how far they go. It all comes down to how many.
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