Sunday, July 23, 2017

People, Get Ready

Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs AAA ballclub, sits at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers in downtown Des Moines, Iowa.  Under the big midwestern sky, with the golden dome of the State Capitol building dominating the skyline to the east, surrounded by winding riverside hiking and biking trails, easily accessible in any number of ways, it's not only a fine place to watch a ballgame, it's one of many genuine landmark destinations in this surprisingly vibrant small city-- surprisingly, that is, to outsiders and newcomers, anyway.

And to Giants fans, which number in the high single digits here. The world champion Chicago Cubs' Triple-A affiliate is, like almost all Iowans, welcoming, pleasant, and unassuming. It's something of a shame, then, that this piece will focus not so much on the hometown Cubs and their heroics, but mostly on the Oklahoma City Dodgers, today's visitors, the Triple-A affiliate of the hottest team in baseball. This decision is made not from choice, but from necessity. Friends and Giants fans, it's with a heavy heart we tell you that, from all appearances, our arch-rival's AAA team is loaded for bear-- which means the major-league franchise looks to be stocked with outstanding players for years to come.

Consider 21-year-old Alex Verdugo, OKC's center fielder and leadoff man. The stat line will show you that he went 1-for-4 with a run scored, hardly the gaudiest entry on a day when his team scored nine runs. What it doesn't show you is that he walked twice, hit the ball hard two other times, and that at age 21 he is playing with, and out-performing, teammates and rivals who've played in the big leagues, and playing with a mature player's skill. He was 20 when the season began, he carries a .347/.423/.518 slash line, and he's walked 41 times in 331 at-bats with only 35 strikeouts. We'll bet half our fingers and all our firewood that this young man, barring some catastrophe, will be starting in the major leagues before this decade is out.

After several of Verdugo's veteran, "AAAA-style" teammates had pushed across four runs in the seventh to take the lead, Iowa battled back to make it 4-3 in the bottom of the frame. Same score, top of the ninth, as 22-year-old second baseman Willie Calhoun-- a native of Vallejo, it grieves us to say-- stepped to the plate with two on and two out. Quiet until that moment, Calhoun launched a no-doubt-about-it missile in the general direction of Marshalltown, Cap Anson's birthplace, to break the game wide open. He's hit 22 bombs in 93 games, 357 at-bats. He's at .300/.351/.584. Of course, minor league numbers need normalizing before you can begin to project them out to major-league equivalents, but this young man can play. He's 5'8", 170, plays second base, hits for average and power... hmmmm. Will he be in a broadcast booth 30 years from now? Just kidding. We think.

Edwin Rios turned 23 in April. He's carrying a .876 OPS and playing mostly third base, which means he is currently blocked by Justin Turner, who's having a MVP-quality season despite missing a lot of playing time with injuries... but then, Rios started in left field for OKC today.

Now, we've done our best to beat the drum for the Giants' youngsters who've played well in spots this season with the big club-- Arroyo and Slater, primarily-- but this is a concentration of talent, all at key positions, that gives LA tremendous leverage in the decisions they have to make over the next few seasons. Doggone it, it just ain't fair, is it?

We won't say "Be afraid," but we will say, "Be concerned, Giants fans. Be very concerned."

It's somewhat rare for a major-league club to carry most of its brightest prospects at Triple-A these days; this is the level where big-leaguers go to 'rehab" their game ( welcome back, Pablo Sandoval!) , and where "AAAA" level players camp out and extend their careers, good enough to help the affiliate win games while waiting-- hoping-- praying for one more shot at the big time. OKC is unusually well-stocked with outstanding youngsters in this context; either because there's even more talent down at AA and A level, or because somebody thinks the fans back at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark-- and ain't that a great name, though?-- deserve a winner. For this outfit, anyway, MiLB's boast-- "The Stars of Tomorrow"-- looks to ring true at the AAA level.  

Catcher Kyle Farmer impressed us early in the game with his speed, alertly stretching a lazy gapper single into a double. Farmer's one of these guys who's 26, has played for six minor-league teams in five years since being drafted by LA in 2013, and has never gotten even a cuppa cawfee in The Show. Evidently the parent club is just fine with Yasmani Grandal and his batman, Austin Barnes. (Well, wouldn't you be, too?) Perhaps Farmer could take a lesson from a former Giant, Bob Brenly, and start working himself in at other positions. No longer a prospect, he can hit a little-- .322/.382/.485 in full-time play. Somebody could use him, you think?

So in the main, both teams today were dominated by minor-league veterans, guys between 27 and 32 who've had their shot at the brass ring and know they'll never be MLB regulars. The best they can hope for now is maybe a season, or half a season, as a utility guy, a fill-in on the big club, and perhaps a chance at October heroics. Yes indeed, we remember you, Travis Ishikawa. These teams were filled with Ishikawas. Here's former Giant Chris Dominguez, now 30, holding down first base for Iowa while Anthony Rizzo, three years younger, has a shot at 30 homers and 100 RBI for the big club. Dominguez had all of 17 AB's for the Giants in 2014 and he's never gotten back upstairs; his .339 average tells Chicago that yes, they've got a fill-in should something drastic happen.  Today's starting pitcher for Iowa, Aaron Brooks, had brief trials with the Royals and the A's a couple years back; he's currently lugging around a 6.11 ERA at age 27. His opposite number, Justin Masterson, you probably remember; in his 7-year MLB career he won 64 games, including a 14-10 campaign for the wild-card Indians in 2013. Almost a decade ago, he won a postseason game in relief for the Red Sox. Now he's 32, two years removed from the Show, and if you wonder why, we'll point mutely to the stat line: 109 IP, 50 BB. Today, he pitched well, though: seven innings without a walk, five shutout innings, one rough inning, and he got the win. He's 9-4. How healthy is the LA pitching staff these days?

Another career minor-leaguer with a tiny MLB resume, Steve Geltz, relieved Masterson, and in the ninth Geltz himself yielded to a pinch-hitter who drew a four-pitch walk... yes, it was Charlie Culberson, the Giant who was traded to Colorado for Marco Scutaro back in 2012. We guess we can still rate that trade an "A"; Culberson's career high in MLB games played is 99. He's hitting .252 in the PCL.

And what a pleasant surprise to see that in the home ballpark of a National League affiliate, there was no trace of the dread DH!  Nor should there be; OKC pitcher Masterson was 2-for-3 and drove in two of his team's nine runs.

The sidelines were teeming with former Giants, sort of. There's Matt Herges, now 47, coaching the pitchers for OKC to a team ERA of 4.13, second-best in this hit-happy league and three-quarters of a run better than league average. (We never knew ya had it in ya!)  On the Iowa side, Ryne Sandberg used to manage this club; it's now headed by Marty Pevey, who batted 41 times for the Montreal Expos in 1989 and can thus relate to many of his players. His hitting coach is 6-foot 7-inch Desi Wilson, who spent his entire big league career with the San Francisco Giants-- all 41 games of it, in 1996, compiling a 271/.338/.339.  This gets you a hitting coach's job? We may have missed our calling.