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April 1, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Answer Me These Questions Three

by Mike Ferrin

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Mike Ferrin is the host of MLB Roundtrip on Sirius-XM MLB Network Radio, airing at midnight on weeknights and after the games on weekends on channels XM 175 and Sirius 210. He also makes killer country-style ribs in his smoker.

Hi, I’m Mike. First-time writer, longtime reader. It’s fitting that after years of pilfering Baseball Prospectus ideas for my show on MLB Network Radio, I was asked to pen a guest column for April Fools' Day. Despite the editors trying to put one over on me, I’m still honored to be here among my baseball-loving brethren.

For some teams, the hopes of spring quickly dissolve into the realities of ineffective bullpens and sophomore slumps, but for a select few, the summer will be spent “living the dream.” For that to happen for the Rockies, Orioles, and Dodgers, each team may need one player in particular to take his game to the next level. One young star, one former top prospect, and a coach and baseball guru top my list of three people to watch this year.

If I could be one player for a day, it would be Carlos Gonzalez. Teammates from Aaron Cook to Ubaldo Jimenez feel much the same way. Gonzalez has a rare combination of ability and likeability that makes him a budding superstar, so it’s hard to believe that on Opening Day 2009, he found himself with his third team in as many seasons.

“Those were difficult times for me,” says Gonzalez, “moving from one organization to another. It was hard to adjust. That’s why I think it was difficult for me when I came to Colorado, but now, I feel at home.”

Gonzalez moved into the upper echelon of baseball stardom with a .336/.376/.598 breakout last year, landing a seven-year, $80 million extension. This despite fewer than 1300 plate appearances in the majors and a road split of .281/.328/.458 since joining Colorado.

“I only have one full year in the big leagues, so it’s definitely an honor for me, because they gave me an opportunity to play. I got every opportunity with Colorado, and they gave me confidence. They trust in my skills and trust in me as a person.”

Gonzalez is a player whose previous employers questioned his effort, but Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd has formed the opposite impression.

“I think he’s gained a level of trust in our organization because he was embraced from the beginning. We were so patient with his struggles ... We hung with him. I think that got him over the hump and created some confidence. Now, we’re seeing him blossom as a teammate, a leader, and the standard of play for everybody else.”

Gonzalez feels he’s ready, taking his cue from the undisputed face of the Rockies franchise: Todd Helton.

“[Helton] knows better than anyone else how it’s going to be for me for the next couple of years," Gonzalez says. "It’s all about working hard, and [not getting] comfortable with everything from the past year. Now, we’ve got to continue to be consistent. I’m still learning a lot. When you’re young you’re always trying to get better. You always look at the really good players and how they play the game, and that’s what I’ve been doing. Just show up, respect the game, and play hard.”

While Gonzalez's breakout was slowly building over 18 months, one AL East player was supposed to be battling for MVP awards from the moment he stepped on the field. A best-selling t-shirt of Matt Wieters showed him holding a bat that was actually the famous Baltimore Smokestack. Another said, “Even Athiests Believe in Matt Wieters.” Heck, ESPN.com’s Keith Law couldn’t resist hawking a “Sliced Bread is the Greatest Thing since Matt Wieters” tee.

MattWietersFacts.com hasn’t had much traffic lately. The website’s last statistical update on “Orange Jesus” comes from May 9th, when Wieters was hitting .241 with 4 HR, a far cry from his Norrisian tout. Fast forward to the present, and the bloom is thoroughly off the Wieters rose. After a .249/.319/.377 line in his first full season, the tenor of the forecasts for Wieters' future has changed. For what it’s worth, Wieters has the respect of his teammates. Opening Day starter Jeremy Guthrie has seen real growth. “I feel like when I’m out there, and he’s calling pitches, that he’s done it for 10 or 12 years," says Guthrie. "And that’s something I didn’t feel initially.”

Manager Buck Showalter is also squarely in Wieters' corner: “He’s a special young man. On my list of things to worry about, [Matt Wieters] being as good as he’s capable of isn’t one of them.”

Wieters' focus has been less on offense at the big-league level, and more on working on defense. “Calling a game is something I’ve always thought [about]," he says. "Last year I was able to start reading some swings and see what hitters are doing at the plate. You can go into a game with a game plan and know what pitches will normally work against a hitter, but until you actually see a guy's swing and see what he’s thinking that day, that’s when you’re going to have to make the adjustments on the fly. Last year I was definitely able to improve in that aspect.”

For Showalter, huge offensive production isn’t all that would move Wieters into the upper echelon. “Some people kind of miss the kind of things [Wieters] brings behind the scenes. He’s grasped, ‘I make between 100 and 200 decisions behind the plate every night, and I get four at-bats.’ You do the math. How is [he] going to impact the team more?”

Still, it wasn’t Wieters' defensive projections that landed him atop prospect lists—it was his bat. Wieters tried to spend the offseason taking that part of his game to the next level.

“For me it was to add some more strength, some more explosiveness. Last year, I was able to get a full season in." Now, he says he wants to try to "get a full season in with some better numbers going in the hot part of the summer.”

The Orioles revamped their bullpen and added four key pieces to their offense in an effort to surpass .500 for the first time since 1997. The responsibility for a potential move up the AL East leaderboard rests firmly on the shoulders of Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and the new Oriole prospect heartthrob, Zach Britton, but further offensive development from Wieters would provide a big boost. Baltimore Sun writer Jeff Zrebiec said Wieters had a “presence” about him this year. The entire Orioles staff, as well as the man who drafted Wieters, my colleague Jim Duquette, still believe a breakout is on the horizon.

Matt Kemp had his breakout for the Dodgers two years ago, but after a tumultuous 2010, a new coach may be the key to his reaching the next level. When I heard the news that Davey Lopes was joining the Dodgers staff, Kemp's was the first name that came into my head.

“It’s a little strange, to be honest with you," says Lopes. "I mean, it took me about 30 years to get back here. I guess I was going by stagecoach. It’s good to be back.”

Lopes' return to the Dodgers has little to do with nostalgia. The four-time all-star and former Brewers manager is an important part of new manager Don Mattingly’s coaching staff. Lopes was successful in more than 83 percent of his steal attempts as a player. In his time as baserunning coach for the Phillies, his players were safe nearly 85 percent of the time. “There’s an art to base stealing," he says. "A lot of people just correlate speed to base stealing. A lot of times it’s guesswork ... that causes that high ratio of getting thrown out. A lot of guesswork, I try to eliminate.” After finishing with a 64.8 percent success rate, the third-lowest figure in the majors, the Dodgers stand to benefit greatly from Lopes' instruction. However, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots on another factor that made Lopes a fit for the Dodgers: Kemp.

A year ago, Matt Kemp was widely viewed as a potential MVP candidate, but after he produced a season marked by a .760 OPS, 19 steals in 34 attempts, poor defense, a very public on-again, off-again courtship, and a prickly relationship with veteran coaches Larry Bowa and Bob Schaefer, GM Ned Colletti believed a different voice was needed.

“Watching [Lopes] in Philly, I think he changed the way [the first-base coach] is looked at," says Colletti. "I felt he could help us at first base, he could help us with our running game. And he and Dave Stewart [Kemp’s agent] are close friends, so the connection has a chance to be a benefit to us as well.”

For what it’s worth, in late August, Kemp came to Colletti to clear the air and try to figure out how to get over the top. Colletti believes it may not have been the message that Kemp had an issue with, but the manner in which it was delivered. Remember, it was Bowa who helped to transform Robinson Cano into a star with the Yankees.

Lopes is every bit the same hard-nosed, strong-willed, opinionated baseball man as his predecessors, but he’s taking the chance to evaluate Kemp with fresh eyes and ears. “What happened last year, I could care less about, because it’s irrelevant to what’s happening this season. He’s listening, he’s making the adjustments that I’ve suggested, and he’s feeling good about himself. I think he’s going to have a big year for us, and we need him to have a big year.”

This isn’t to say that Davey Lopes would deserve the blame if Kemp fails to fulfill his potential; Kemp himself would bear far more responsibility for that. However, if the pairing of Kemp and Lopes succeeds, Los Angeles will reap the benefits. We know the Dodgers can pitch. The question is: Can they hit? The 2011 model of Matt Kemp may hold the answer to the Dodgers' hopes in the West. For the Orioles, Rockies, and Dodgers, reality will likely come crashing down soon enough. But today, those teams, like their fans, can at least dream on what might be if guys like Gonzalez, Wieters, and Lopes impact their clubs the way they hope.

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