The question was posed to a dozen front-office types and scouts during the final days of spring training: Who is the best player in baseball that nobody knows about? The winner of the highly informal poll was a bit of a surprise, especially since he entered this season having played in just 43 major-league games. Yet there is a strong feeling that Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie won't be a secret much longer.
"He's not only going to be one of the best young players in the game this season, he's going to be one of the best players, period," said a scout from a National League organization. "I don't think people realize how good this kid is going to be. He was impressive last season when he came up to the major leagues, and he was even more impressive this spring. He's going to be one of those guys who will be a fixture at the All-Star Game and he'll probably win some MVP awards before his career is over. He's that good. He can do it all."
The 22-year-old Lawrie made an outstanding first impression in the majors last season when he hit .293/.373/.580 with nine home runs, seven stolen bases, a .338 TAv, and 3.3 WARP. PECOTA believes it was a small-sample fluke and projects Lawrie to have just a .264 TAv this season, but scouts believe the native of Langley, British Columbia was just getting started in 2011.
"He's still growing into his tools," said a scout from an American League team.. "He grew up in Canada. Even though he played in a number of high-level tournaments, he didn't play as much baseball as a lot of kids from the United States. He has more upside than most 22-year-olds. He is still learning how to turn on pitches, how to read pitchers’ pickoff moves, and things like that. Once he refines his game, the sky is the limit. You're talking about a guy who is going to be 30-30 at some point."
The Brewers saw enough of Lawrie as an amateur to select him in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft. However, Lawrie gained the reputation of being a diva in Milwaukee’s farm system, as he asked to begin his career as a catcher, then asked to be moved to second base.
However, Lawrie has not been a problem since the Blue Jays acquired him from the Brewers in a trade for right-hander Shaun Marcum at the Winter Meetings in December 2010. When asked what he thought about having great expectations placed upon him, Lawrie shrugged and said he hasn't felt any pressure since reaching the major leagues because he has great teammates who have made him feel comfortable in the clubhouse.
"I really don’t know what the expectations are of others," said Lawrie, who also has an entire nation hoping he can become the first native Canadian to blossom into a superstar for the Blue Jays. "If I fulfill the expectations that are on me in this clubhouse, then I know I'm doing what I am supposed to do. My biggest obligation is to my teammates. It's really not about me. It's about the team."
Blue Jays manager John Farrell prefers not to add pressure on a young player. However, Lawrie plays with such confidence and maturity that Farrell can't help but heap praise on his third baseman.
"I don't think it's just people associated with the Toronto Blue Jays and our fans who are excited about seeing what Brett Lawrie can do in a full season," Farrell said. "I think everybody in baseball is excited about Brett Lawrie. He's a very talented young player who is capable of doing special things. A player like Brett excites anyone who likes baseball.
"When you're around him every day, the only thing that is paramount to him is to win. He's a Type-A personality. He's an aggressive kid. He finds a way to impact the game, whether it's with the bat or in the field. We're watching a special young player who is coming into his own."
Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano: "You're looking at your first $100 million second baseman here. If Ian Kinsler got $75 million and Brandon Phillips got $72 million then Cano is obviously going to get at least $100 million. The Yankees will pay it, too, because they know he's a helluva player and, in a lot of ways, the backbone of their lineup."
Rays right-hander Wade Davis: "I know he's not happy about starting the season in the bullpen, but it could really work to his favor in the long run. His stuff starts to deteriorate around the fifth or sixth inning. Put him in a situation where he can go full bore for an inning or two and he could be a dominant short reliever, as a set-up man for sure, and maybe even a closer."
Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero: "He's quietly emerged as one of the better catchers in the game. He has pop and does a good job of handling that pitching staff. The Diamondbacks really need to try to keep him before he makes it to free agency after the season."
Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy: "He's not the greatest defensive second baseman in the world, but he's passable, and the Mets need all the offense they can get. They've moved the guy all over the field, and I'd like to see what he could do if he could just stay at one position and not have to worry about his defense."
Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan: "You can see why the guy wore out his welcome in St. Louis with Tony La Russa. He is so inconsistent that he drives me crazy, and he's not even my guy. He'll make an amazing play one inning and then let a ball go by that he should get to the next inning. Eric Wedge is a no-nonsense guy, and it doesn't sit well with him."
A few minutes with Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty:
On why the Nationals decided to pitch right-hander Stephen Strasburg on Opening Day even though he missed the first five months of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery on his elbow: "I've always believed you put your number-one guy out on the mound on Opening Day, regardless of the circumstances. Stephen is our number-one guy. We have a very talented pitching staff with Stephen, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ross Detwiler, and we added two outstanding pitchers over the winter in Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson. Nobody gives us a better chance to win than Stephen Strasburg, though. He's our number-one guy."
On how great of a competitor Strasburg is despite showing almost no emotion on the mound or in interviews with the media: "The only time he ever shows any emotion is when he gives up a hit and gets back to the dugout. I'm the guy he takes it out on. I'm the guy who's got to deal with it. He believes he should never give up a home run or even a hit. Baseball is a game built on failure where the best hitters fail seven out of every 10 times. If the idea is to throw a no-hitter every time out then a lot of dreams get ruined right after the national anthem. Stephen believes he should never give up a hit, though. That's the type of competitor he is."
On how Strasburg deals with great expectations from the outside: "He's never going to live up to the expectations to what the media has of him. It's just not going to happen. He's human and he's not going to get everybody out and win every game. He has to learn to accept that and not care about what other people think of him as a pitcher and he performs."
Three personal observations:
- I certainly have no love or respect for Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, but I also believe Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen isn't a Communist sympathizer. He might have made an incredibly dumb remark to Time magazine about "loving" Castro, but the cries for his firing from grandstanding politicians in South Florida is unfair. This is the United States and you have the right to say stupid things, as long as they aren't slanderous or libelous.
- I hate to be reactionary a week into the season, but these Phillies aren't the same Phillies that won the last five National League East division titles. The lineup sans Ryan Howard and Chase Utley looks a lot weaker in person than it does on paper, and the other four teams in the division have to feel this could be the year to unseat Philadelphia.
- In the spirit of the lead item in this column, here is another under-the-radar player to watch: Pirates left fielder Alex Presley. He can hit a ball into the gap, he will take a walk, and he can steal a base. His chances of becoming a star aren't nearly as great as Lawrie's, but Presley plays with great energy and should be a productive player.
Lost amidst the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the opening of Dodger Stadium this week is that an entire neighborhood was leveled to make room for the ballpark. The Los Angeles Times' Hector Becerra talks to some of those who were displaced in this week's Must Read and learned many remain bitter about being forced to leave Chavez Ravine.