A plethora of under-the-radar transactions take place every offseason. One you might have missed happened last week when Stephen Fife signed with the Chicago Cubs. The 29-year-old right-hander, fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, was inked to a minor-league deal that includes a spring training invite to big-league camp.
If you’re not a Dodgers diehard, you probably aren’t aware that Fife was one of six Los Angeles pitchers to start 10-or-more games for the 2013 NL West champions. He finished that year 4-4 with a 3.86 ERA, but was unceremoniously left off the postseason roster. Come playoff time, he was told he wasn’t welcome in the dugout, although he could come to the games and watch from the stands.
Originally in the Red Sox organization, Fife came to LA as part of a three-team trade in July 2011. According to Fife, he turned a corner the following season with the help of Josh Bard. The newly-named Dodgers bullpen coach was one of the club’s catchers that season, and he told Fife that adjustments were in order.
“We moved me from the third base side of the rubber to the first base side and started to go with more four-seam fastballs,” Fife told me recently. “I’d never really thrown a four-seam before, and it turned out to be a good pitch for me.”
Unlike many hurlers, Fife’s doesn’t use the pitch to paint. His four-seam fastball is effective because it has a mind of its own.
“I’m one of those guys where every time I throw a fastball, the ball moves a different way,” explained Fife. “That’s something I need to embrace. What I do is try to steer the ball into thirds of the plate and let the action speak. It’s generally going to cut, although I don’t know if it’s going to cut flat or go down. Either way, the action usually takes the ball off the barrel and I get a lot of ground balls.”
“Greg Maddux could probably tell you exactly where his fingers were and what the pressure was on each finger to get the ball to do what he wanted it to do,” said Fife. “Chris Sale — not that I pitch like him — is different. From watching him, the way his hips move and drift, and the way everything is really late and violent, where his arm comes through isn’t as precise as it is with some guys. That probably affects how his ball moves.”
Fife has a more traditional delivery, but he nonetheless ended up under the knife. A flexor strain — “It was the carpi ulnerus, basically the pinky side flexor muscle” — put him on the shelf for six weeks in 2014. He subsequently had an elbow ligament partially detach after being pushed to get back on the mound.
Fife is finally back. He returned to action in Venezuela this past October, starting 13 games for Aguilas del Zulia. A few months from now, he’ll report to spring training with the Cubs in hopes of resurrecting his career in his age-29 season. On paper he’s a long shot to contribute to what looks like one of baseball’s best teams, but that was the case going into 2013, as well.
“There were seven or eight guys ahead of me, but in June I was in the big leagues,” said Fife. “I ended up helping the team, although I’m not sure too many people even know that.”
The acquisition of Dansby Swanson, along with two other players, from the Arizona Diamondbacks in exchange for Shelby Miller is being championed as a coup for the Atlanta Braves. The first-overall pick in this year’s draft, Swanson is close to big-league ready, and he has a chance to be a star.
According to John Coppolella, there was “great synergy” between Atlanta’s scouting and analytics groups when Swanson was assessed and subsequently acquired. They were so bullish on the 21-year old shortstop that he was targeted before Andrelton Simmons was swapped to Anaheim.
“We’ve been in talks with Arizona since the end of the 2015 season,” explained the Braves’ GM. “We hoped to get Swanson, but we didn’t know if, or how, the deal would materialize. We saw him as a fit for us, whether we made the Simmons trade or not. We just want really good players and he’s a really good player.”
Per industry chatter, the Diamondbacks had earlier come close to making trades with the Indians and Marlins. According to Coppolella, either deal would have squelched their chances of landing the Vanderbilt product.
“I don’t know if Swanson would have been involved had the Diamondbacks made a deal with one of those teams,” Coppolella told me. “But if they had gotten a starting pitcher from one of them, they probably wouldn’t have made the trade with us. We wouldn’t have ended up with Swanson.”
A few weeks ago, this column included the story of how Tampa Bay pitching prospect Taylor Guerrieri met hockey legend Bobby Orr on a golf course. Today, we catch a glimpse of Guerrieri’s development, both on the mound and as a person.
For those of you unfamiliar with his background, the 23-year-old right-hander was drafted 24th overall by the Rays in 2011 out of a Columbia, South Carolina high school. Two years later, he underwent Tommy John surgery. While rehabbing, he received a 50-game suspension for a drug of abuse.
“That forced me to grow up,” Guerrieri told me earlier this month. “Coming out of high school, I wasn’t really ready for everything I was handed. And I think I showed that. I was immature. Young athletes sometimes make bad decisions, and when you do, you end up suffering the consequences. I’ve moved past that now.”
He’s also moved past the injury. Back at full strength, Guerrieri logged a 1.85 ERA this past season in 20 games between high-A Charlotte and Double-A Montgomery. Pleased with his progress, the Rays added him to their 40-man roster.
Guerrieri has plus stuff, but he doesn’t envision himself a power pitcher. Featuring a classic three-pitch mix — fastball, curveball, changeup — he “tries to move the ball around and hit the corners.” His low-90s fastball is a two-seamer, so he primarily focuses on keeping the ball down in the zone.
“I grew up throwing a two-seamer,” explained Guerrieri. “It’s usually the other way around — most guys grow up throwing a four-seam — but a two-seam has always felt more comfortable in my hand. What I do is put my middle finger and index finger inside the two seams, so my fingers are actually touching together. I usually get pretty good sink.”
When he was drafted, he pictured himself a shooting star. A teenager with a first-round pedigree, he expected to reach Tampa in short order.
“I thought I’d be there in two years,” admitted Guerreri. “I think I even said that in an interview one time. I was really naive. I thought I was close to ready to pitch in the big leagues, but I obviously wasn’t. I had a lot to learn.”
A minor league manager’s day isn’t done when the final out is recorded. He might unwind with a postgame beer in his office, but responsibilities remain. Baseball, like most professions, requires a lot of paperwork.
The following, per a player-development staff member, is a brief explanation of those duties.
“The manager at each affiliate fills out a report after every game. The hitting coaches sometimes add comments on what the hitters did. The same for the pitching coaches on what the pitchers did. There will usually be a snippet on every player who appeared in that game.
“Above the pitcher’s line, it might say, ‘Threw really well. Held his delivery better. Is starting to show progress on what we talked about.’ For a hitter it might be, ‘Very good day at the plate. On-time swings. Went 0 for 4 but hit four balls hard.’
“The report is basically a snapshot on how the player performed, and maybe something he’s working on mechanically or approach-wise. These are done daily and distributed to the farm director, the roving instructors, and the front office.”
From a hitting perspective, Craig Counsell considers the high strikeout rates in today’s game somewhat of “a pendulum.” The Brewers’ manager said in Nashville that he anticipates players will begin making adjustments “when they start understanding that maybe there’s some value in contact.” He also said the Brewers play in a park that “rewards hitting fly balls,” and that GM David Stearns “takes that in mind when we’re considering players.”
Last Sunday’s column was going to include a paragraph on Larry Walker, but I ended up deciding to hold it for today. As fate would have it, Adam Darowski covered my main point — and much more — in a fantastic piece that ran in The Hardball Times two days ago. Adam’s article is a must-read if you care about the Hall of Fame. As for my snippet on the Hall-worthy Walker, here it is in its overshadowed splendor:
Hall of Fame voters who don’t put a checkmark next to Larry Walker’s name on their ballot often cite his inflated numbers at Coors Field. What many of them don’t seem to realize is that Walker played 70 percent of his career games in ballparks other than Coors. Not only that, his 141 OPS+ accounts for park factors, and there are currently close to 100 position players in the Hall with a lower OPS+. Oh, and he won seven Gold Gloves.
The power production of Miguel Sano and Byung Ho Park will go a long way toward determining the success of the Minnesota Twins in 2016. The club lacks boppers, and both are capable are putting up big numbers in the home run department. Capable is the operative word. Sano had a strong rookie season, but with only 80 big league games under his belt, the 260-pound slugger is largely unproven. Park, signed out of South Korea, has yet to swing a bat in North America.
Terry Ryan has high hopes for both, in part because he’s confident they’re capable of handling the inevitable bumps in the road. When I asked the Twins GM if they’ll be patient with Sano if he struggles out the gate in 2016, he answered in the affirmative.
“We’ll stay with him,” said Ryan. “It’s just like any development phase. The kid is 22. Robin Ventura, the year he came up, was 0 for 41. If a player stays with it — if he’s not giving up on himself, — more often than not, neither will the manager. There does come a time where you have to be careful about losing someone entirely, but it’s not like our manager hasn’t had a feel of what it’s like to struggle.”
According to Ryan, the organization has a good feel for Parks’ psyche.
“We have a guy on the ground over there, in Korea, who is very close to that Nexen Heroes club,” said Ryan. “From everything our man has told us, he’s a quality guy. He knows what it’s all about. He’s 29 — he’s not 19 — and he’s gone through some difficult times. He was traded, because he wasn’t having much luck with the LG Twins. He’s struggled in life, so I’d say this guy will be able to handle some of these things. And I don’t doubt that he’s going to go through some transition phases here.
“We went in with our eyes wide open to evaluate him and figure out if he can make this transition, and our opinion was yes. I know that a lot of other club’s opinion was yes. We’re going to give it a try.”
I’m a fan of former-player “shirseys” (not so much the word) and can occasionally be seen donning a Brian Daubach, Tim Naehring or Pokey Reese. There’s an “El Guapo” — the nickname of retired reliever Rich Garces — in my closet as well.
The names of numerous bygone Cubs caught my eye at Wrigley Field during this year’s NLCS. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of Santos and Banks adorning the backs of fans. What stood out for me were the Wrigley equivalents of Daubach and El Guapo.
Enamored, I decide to catalogue the names I saw prior to Game 4:
Alou, Banks, Berryhill, Choi, Dawson, DeRosa, Dunston, Fukudome, Garciaparra, Grace, Lee, Lilly, Maddux, Patterson, Piniella, Prior, Ramirez, Sandberg, Soriano, Sosa, Theriot, Wells, Williams, Wood, Zambrano.
That’s 25 names, the bulk of which were observed in a 15-minute stretch from a vantage point overlooking the main concourse as fans filed through. Kudos Cubs fans for your appreciation of not only historical greats, but also the Berryhills and Theriots.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Among pitchers who threw the pitch at least 150 time, Cole Hamels had the highest swing-and-miss rate (46.1%) on changeups.
Three Atlanta Braves pitchers combined to win six National League Cy Young awards from 1991-1998. The Cincinnati Reds have never had a Cy Young winner.
On this date in 1926, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Rogers Hornsby to the New York Giants for Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring. Hornsby had led the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage every year from 1920-1925.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.