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May 16, 2013

On the Beat

The Most Improved Players

by John Perrotto

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It’s too bad for Jean Segara that there isn’t an award for the Most Improved Player in the major leagues. The Brewers shortstop would be the early favorite. However, Segura is at least going to be able to settle for a spot on the National League team in the All-Star Game with the way he has played his first 37 games.

Segura is hitting .349/.392/.575 in 158 plate appearances with seven home runs and 13 stolen bases. That has been good for 2.1 WARP. Last season, after being acquired from the Angels along with two other prospects in the Zack Greinke trade, Segura held his own in making the jump from Double-A to the major leagues but gave no portend of quickly blossoming into a star player. He played at replacement-player level—0.0 WARP—while hitting .264/.321/.331 in 163 plate appearances with no homers and seven steals.

"What you see from him this year, he's doing everything right; we didn't see that player last year,” Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. “This is a great player. This is a guy that I don't want to ever take him out of the lineup. I keep talking about how I want to get him a day off, and he plays so well I can't take him out, and he doesn't want out. He's one of the best players in the league."

Like any young player traded for the first time, Segura did not know what to expect when he got the news last July that he had been traded. However, he knew that the Angels had shortstop Erick Aybar under contract for 2016, blocking his path to a starting job. Then, after playing just eight games for Double-A Huntsville, Segura got the call to the major leagues. Now, the Brewers are so happy with Segura that they have had very preliminary discussions with his agent about a long-term contract extension. At 23, Segura doesn’t know much about contract negotiations, but he is flattered the Brewers would like him to be part of their future.

“Sometimes trades can be good for a young player like me, and it has worked out really well with the Brewers,” Segura said. “They have given me a chance to play in the major leagues. That’s been my dream all of my life. I have very good teammates. The management has been nice to me. I like playing for the Brewers, and it makes me feel good that they think they might want me to be here for a long time.”

The most surprisingly aspect of Segura’s start this season has been his power. In addition to not hitting any home runs last season at the major-league level, he went deep just 26 times in 1,755 minor-league plate appearances, though he slugged .439.

“I’m not going to hit 30-40 homers a season, but I am feeling confident that I can hit some balls hard now,” Segura said. “Last year, I was just trying to put the ball in play when I got to the major leagues. I was new and I was trying not to do too much. I didn’t want to strike out a lot. This year, I’m trying to drive the ball when the pitcher gives me that opportunity.”

Segura has been a bright spot for the Brewers, who are having a miserable May, losing 11 of 13 games. Their overall record is 16-22, just two years after advancing to the National League Championship Series where they lost to the Cardinals, despite reeling off nine straight wins from April 14-23.

"This game is not a lot of fun when you're not winning," left fielder Ryan Braun said. "Hopefully we turn it around. We started off the year pretty poorly, then we went on a good streak. Hopefully we will find a way to turn it around here soon. We really haven't done many things well—offensively, defensively, fundamentally, there's a lot of things we need to do better. We need to play more consistent to win some more games."

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Mariners center fielder Michael Saunders would be another challenger for Most Improved Player, as he is hitting .278/.359/.506 with four homers and six steals in 93 plate appearances. Saunders had a fine stint with Canada in the World Baseball Classic in March after tallying 21 home runs and 19 stolen bases last season. That has given Mariners’ management hope that he could blossom into a 30/30 player.

“He’s out there hunting it,” manager Eric Wedge said. “That’s the way he plays the game. He’s hunting the ball when he’s at home plate. He’s hunting the bag when on the bases. He’s hunting the ball when he’s in center field. That’s one of the reasons why he has a chance to be a special player in time.”

Ironically, timidity is one of the reasons why the Mariners once worried Saunders might never reach his full potential. However, the 26-year-old has started to come out of his shell and credits first-base coach Mike Brumley for helping him to learn to assert himself more, especially on the basepaths.

“Every game, I’m looking to take the extra base whenever I can,” Saunders said. “I’m looking to turn walks and singles into doubles. I feel that’s really the only way to play the game. You get better reads on balls in the dirt if you’re aggressive and looking for those. I’m always looking for the extra base.”

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One scout who watched the replays of Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper crashing into the fence at Dodger Stadium earlier this week had this assessment: “He looked like a kamikaze pilot from World War II. He looked like he was intentionally trying to run into the fence as hard as he could. I don’t know if he didn’t realize what he was doing, but he never slowed down at all, like he didn’t realize he had hit the warning track. It was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That led to the question of whether the Nationals should put the reins on Harper and convince the 20-year-old take a more cautious approach to playing the outfield and running the bases. The opinion of a half-dozen baseball people quickly surveyed unanimously said the Nationals have no choice but to leave Harper alone.

“How do you tell the kid to slow down?” the scout said. “The way he plays the game, that all-out hustle helps make him who he is. I just think you risk having the kid lose that aggressiveness and not be the same player. He’s probably going to suffer some injuries in his career. You just hope none of them are too severe and hold your breath that nothing is ever career-ending. That’s just going to be part of the package with him.”

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The Phillies’ signing of right-hander Carlos Zambrano to a minor-league contract has a hint of desperation to it at first blush. After all, no one signed Zambrano all winter after he had a 4.49 ERA and 4.51 FIP in 132 1/3 innings with the Marlins last season. Yet Zambrano is still just 31, and PECOTA pegs him for a 3.90 ERA in 121 1/3 innings in 2013.

“I think it’s a good gamble by the Phillies,” said one front-office type, who unsuccessfully pushed for his organization to sign Zambrano. “What do they have to lose? They hold all the leverage. He’s on a minor-league deal, and if he starts throwing tantrums, then they can just release him. He has to be smart enough to realize the situation he is in now, and I still think he’s got something left. I’m not saying he’s a Cy Young candidate, but I know he’s better than a number of pitchers who are pitching in major-league rotations right now.”

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Outfielder Rick Ankiel hit five home runs and slugged .484 in 65 plate appearances for the Astros, but even the team with the worst record in the major leagues could not live with his .231 on-base percentage and 35 strikeouts—he struck out in an amazing 53.8 percentage of his trips to the plate. Yet that did not prevent the Mets from signing Ankiel this week after the Astros released him.

However, one scout wasn’t laughing about the signing of Ankiel, especially when he pointed out that the Mets’ Opening Day outfield consisted of Lucas Duda in left field, Collin Cowgill in center field, and Marlon Byrd in right field. “If the Mets talked Cleon Jones out of retirement,” the scout said, “would their outfield be any worse?”

Jones is now 70 years old, though he did contribute 7.6 WARP in 1969 when the Mets won the World Series.

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Speaking of the Astros, they finally lost patience with right-hander Philip Humber last weekend and designated him for assignment after he posted a 9.59 ERA and 5.86 FIP in 35 2/3 innings while going 0-8. Yes, that is the same Humber who threw a perfect game for the White Sox on April 21, 2012, against the Mariners at Seattle.

“Twenty years from now, people are going to be looking at the list of pitchers who threw perfect games and go ‘Philip Humber? Who is Philip Humber?’” one front-office type said. “That perfect game might have been one of the most inexplicable moments in baseball history.”

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Scouts’ Views:

Braves closer Craig Kimbrel: “Everyone wants to know what’s wrong with Craig Kimbrel because he’s blown a couple of saves and given up a few home runs this year. Really, there’s nothing wrong with him. The velocity is still there, and the movement on his pitches is still there. He’s had bad location with a couple of pitches, and it’s cost him. He’s just been human and made a few mistakes, that’s all. He wasn’t very human the last couple of years.”

Mets right-hander Matt Harvey: “You hate to go overboard on any kid before he’s put together a decent body of work in the major leagues, but you can’t help but fall in love with him. For me, he’s a No. 1 starter right now. It’s not only that he throws hard and his stuff is great, but he carries himself like a 10-year veteran. The Mets can build around this kid.”

Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth: “He’s proven that what he did in the second half of last year was no fluke. He’s turned himself into a really good top-of-the-order hitter. He’ll work the count more now that he’s older, but he’s still a threat to hit the ball out of the park. In a lot of ways, he helps make that offense go.”

Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco: “He’s one of those guys who could quietly make a difference for a team in a pennant race. He’s not a No. 1 or No. 2, but I bet he would get a psychology lift from getting out of that mess down in Miami and be a nice pickup for someone at the trading deadline.”

Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma: “This guy is really good—really good. He gets overlooked because he’s pitching in Seattle and because King Felix is in the Mariners’ rotation, but he’s one of the best No. 2 starters in the big leagues.”

White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy: “The White Sox are in a great spot with Peavy. If they end up contending, I’d be willing to bet he comes up with some big performances in the pennant race. If they don’t contend, they should be able to get a lot for him in a trade since he’s signed through next year.”

Royals left fielder Alex Gordon: “I liked him as a leadoff hitter, but (manager) Ned Yost made the right move by dropping him down to the No. 3 hole. For me, he’s a run producer, and he’s going to make that offense go hitting out of the 3 hole.”

Astros second baseman Jose Altuve: “He continues to amaze me. The little guy can really hit, and he will take you deep if you aren’t careful. I know that’s an awful team, but he’s a real treat to watch. He’s special.”

Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish: For me, he’s the best pitcher in the game now. I’ll know I’ll get my share of arguments, but he’s downright filthy and throws seven different pitches for strikes. He’s made the cultural adjustment, and he looks a lot more comfortable than last year. He was pretty good last year as a rookie, but he’s dominant now.

Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz: “I know it’s easy to say the guy is juicing because he’s bounced back from some bad seasons and physical problems to hit well again. The bottom line, though, is the guy has resurrected his career, and from what I gather, he’s done it through hard work. Everyone who knows him says he is a first-class guy and a hard worker.”

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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