All aboard the Vogey Train. Next stop … October?
That’s the hope in Seattle, where the surging M’s are hoping to laugh in the face of Vegas and everyone else that dismissed them as an AL West afterthought. Fresh off another one of GM Jerry Dipoto’s offseason trading sprees, Westgate Sportsbook set the Mariners’ win total at an aggressively mediocre 72.5. Through two weeks of regular-season baseball (three if you include the Mariners’ brief stopover in Tokyo), they’re on pace for 140.
Now that won’t happen, but surely the Mariners would settle for making the postseason, a destination they haven’t reached since Bret Boone’s bat-flipping heyday in 2001. Daniel Vogelbach, who was eight years old when Seattle won its last division title, has quietly emerged as the Mariners’ secret weapon. The former Cubs second-round pick was expected to ride the pine this year but skipper Scott Servais scrapped that plan in a hurry and for good reason—all he’s done is rake.
That wasn’t the case for Vogelbach early in his career—he entered the year with a .197 average over 127 lifetime at-bats. But these things take time. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were many of the sport’s top hitters. Aaron Judge’s first big league cup of coffee was the stuff of nightmares (.179 AVG, 42 strikeouts in 84 at-bats in 2016). It took Alex Bregman 19 at-bats just to get his first hit upon arriving in 2016. Even the Millville Meteor Mike Trout went through growing pains en route to becoming the most feared slugger of his generation (.220/.281/.390 in 2011).
And who knows? Maybe this is all a mirage. Maybe the Vogey Train will roll off a cliff tomorrow and we’ll forget this ever happened. But when Seattle needed a lift Thursday in Kansas City, the portly DH answered the bell with his scorching-hot bat. Vogelbach put a charge into Glenn Sparkman’s one-out offering in the tenth, breaking a 6-6 tie by launching a 427-foot rocket to center field for his sixth home run of 2019. That capped a furious comeback for the M’s, who trailed 6-3 entering the eighth inning. The 7-6 victory was Seattle’s sixth straight.
That’s the kind of year it’s been for the never-say-die Mariners. Down to their last out in the ninth inning, the M’s needed a miracle and they got one when the usually sure-handed Billy Hamilton couldn’t snatch up Mitch Haniger’s drive to deep center, plating Dee Gordon with the game-tying run. Hamilton, who had come on as a defensive replacement, took an ugly spill, crashing full-speed into the center field fence. The speedy outfielder was carted off but luckily his MRI revealed only a sprained left knee. The Royals are calling him day-to-day.
It may say “Vogelbach” on the back of his jersey but looking at his crooked stats, the 26-year-old could easily pass for Barry Bonds. Thursday’s go-ahead homer marked Vogelbach’s sixth long ball in his last seven games. And unlike teammate Jay Bruce, a "three true outcomes" specialist in the mold of Adam Dunn (.204 AVG with seven homers and 17 strikeouts in 49 at-bats), the Florida native is also hitting for average. Thursday’s 1-for-4 effort actually dropped his average from an otherworldly .423 to a comparatively mortal .400. It’s a small sample size to be sure (30 at-bats) and we probably won’t see much of him against lefties, but after being exiled from the Cubs and see-sawing between Tacoma (the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate) and Seattle for the better part of three years, it’s good to see the former top prospect finally get his due. Vogelbach was a prolific stat compiler in the minors but until this year, many still questioned whether his offensive prowess would translate to the bigs. His April power binge has ended the debate once and for all, with the answer being an emphatic “yes.”
Dipoto’s habit of offseason tinkering reached a new extreme this winter as the GM took Seattle’s 89-win team from a year ago and turned it into something unrecognizable. Robinson Cano, Alex Colome, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton and Jean Segura all changed addresses this winter while giving way to a herd of newcomers headlined by Jay Bruce, Tim Beckham, Edwin Encarnacion, Yusei Kikuchi, Domingo Santana, Mallex Smith and Hunter Strickland. That’s a lot of redecorating but so far everything’s come up roses for the new-look M’s, who boast the league’s best record at 13-2 while also leading the majors in runs (117), hits (161), home runs (36), RBI (116), steals (17), average (.295), slugging percentage (.565) and OPS (.935). The Mariners also made a bit of history on Thursday, becoming the first team ever to homer in each of their first 15 games. After feasting on the lowly likes of Chicago and Kansas City, Seattle will face its stiffest challenge yet when the Astros, fresh off a series sweep of the Yankees, visit Friday night for the start of a three-game set.
Thursday’s defeat was especially painful for Royals second baseman/outfielder Whit Merrifield, who watched his team fall in excruciating fashion while also having the flame extinguished on his 31-game hitting streak. His mark was the longest in club history, eclipsing the 30-game run set by Hall of Famer George Brett in 1980, nine years before Merrifield was born. The 30-year-old was gracious in defeat, thanking fans on Twitter for supporting him throughout his streak. The Royals have been a catastrophe with a league-worst 2-10 record but Merrifield has been a bright spot, leaping out to a .302 average with four thefts on six stolen base attempts in the early going.
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Braves Extend Albies
A week after striking an eight-year, $100 million deal with reigning Rookie of the Year Ronald Acuna, the Braves continued their spending spree by inking All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies to a seven-year, $35 million extension. The deal will keep Albies, who broke out for 24 jacks, 40 doubles and 14 steals a year ago, in Atlanta through 2025 and potentially longer if the Braves exercise either of his club options.
Now that Albies and Acuna are in it for the long haul, the Braves, who are coming off a division title in 2018, should be a contender for years to come. In a cyclical game, winning clubs tend to wear out their welcome quickly, but thanks to some shrewd maneuvering by GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves may have a chance to buck that trend. With Albies and Acuna both signed to team-friendly deals, the Braves now have the financial flexibility to make further upgrades to what was already one of the league’s better rosters.
In one sense, what the Braves have done is genius and should keep them competitive for most of the next decade. But Atlanta’s early-bird signings also highlight a troubling epidemic that has spread across baseball. Instead of exploring free agency at the end of their rookie deals, Albies and Acuna will get instant gratification as well as a sense of financial security with their new contracts. But if both players pan out the way the Braves expect them to, they’ll be leaving millions on the table.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan laid out the dilemma perfectly in a series of tweets, noting that foreign players, most of them from impoverished, Latin American countries, are especially prone to accepting below-market deals, preferring the fast cash as a way to provide for their families back home. That seems to be the case for Albies, who hails from Curacao. In explaining his decision to cash in now instead of betting on himself and procuring a bigger payday at a later date, the 22-year-old said, “I took it because I want my family to be safe.”
Passan also cited a prevailing sense of “panic” that seems to be influencing some of the team-friendly deals we’ve seen in recent weeks. Certainly there have been enough free-agent horror stories, especially among players in their 30s—Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel have both heard crickets while it took a bargain-bin deal from Arizona to pry perennial All-Star Adam Jones off his couch—to warrant this unrest. Look at it through the lens of a player like Eloy Jimenez, who landed a six-year, $43 million extension before he even stepped on a big-league diamond. He’s set for life now and even if his career unravels in the years to come, he’ll always have that nest egg to fall back on. But by buying out two of his free agent years, Jimenez will be 30 by the time he hits the market, at which point, depending on how his career unfolds, the outfielder could be far less attractive to potential suitors.
While players may be at a disadvantage in this scenario, management only stands to benefit. Even if Albies’ star burns out early, $35 million isn’t a crippling, franchise-altering sum. But if he blows up the way many expect, that’s more money in the Braves’ pocket.
AL Quick Hits: Khris Davis continued his torrid start by leaving the yard twice in Thursday’s victory over Baltimore. That upped his season total to a league-leading nine homers. Playing in the same game, Chris Davis of the Orioles went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and a walk, continuing his season-long drought. The two-time home run champ is hitless in his last 53 at-bats, a major league record for non-pitchers, dating back to last season. … Jay Bruce was a spectator for Thursday’s game in Kansas City. He’s battling left Achilles tightness, though the Mariners aren’t expecting him to miss much time. … Nicholas Castellanos sat out Thursday’s series finale against Cleveland with a sprained big toe. He’ll have the day off Friday—the game has already been postponed due to wintry weather in Minnesota—but could be available to play later this weekend. … Mitch Moreland carried the Red Sox to a come-from-behind win over Toronto by delivering two hits including a game-tying double in the ninth inning. Four of Moreland’s five homers this year have come in his last five games. … The Yankees have called up catcher Kyle Higashioka from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. No corresponding move has been made, though it’s possible Higashioka is up to replace Gary Sanchez, who missed a start earlier this week due to leg tightness.
NL Quick Hits: Clayton Kershaw is slated to make his season debut Monday versus Cincinnati. The Dodgers ace, who spent much of spring training recovering from a shoulder injury, logged a 3.48 ERA over two rehab starts for Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma City. … Corey Seager exited Thursday’s matinee after being struck by a pitch from Cardinals reliever Giovanny Gallegos. He was later diagnosed with a bruised hamstring and is day-to-day. … Walker Buehler took it on the chin in Thursday’s loss to St. Louis (4 IP, 5 H, 5 ER) but still achieved a personal milestone by slugging a solo bomb off Michael Wacha in the second inning. That was his first homer in 46 big league at-bats. … Sonny Gray had his start cut short Thursday after taking a Miguel Rojas comeback off his left calf. The Reds right-hander escaped with just a bruise and should make his next start Wednesday against the Dodgers. … Yasiel Puig contributed a two-run double in his return to action Thursday against Miami. Puig served a two-game suspension earlier this week for his role in Sunday’s brawl with Pittsburgh. … Alex Wood has resumed throwing, though there’s still no timetable for the left-hander’s return. A back injury has bothered him since early in spring training. … Nick Senzel shed his walking boot earlier this week but Reds manager David Bell believes it will be another two weeks before he’s able to compete in a game. Rated as MLB.com’s No. 6 prospect, Senzel is still recovering from a sprained ankle he suffered last month. … Mike Foltynewicz is slated for another rehab start on Monday. The Braves ace was hoping to return sooner but was limited to 61 pitches in last week’s rain-shortened start for Triple-A Gwinnett. Elbow soreness plagued the right-hander throughout spring training. … Pete Alonso may be the early front-runner for NL Rookie of the Year. The Mets first baseman continued his blistering start by demolishing another home run, his sixth of the season, Thursday in New York’s 6-3 victory over Atlanta. Among big leaguers, Alonso ranks second in slugging percentage (.911), third in OPS (1.362) and third in RBI with 17.