Sunday, April 17, 2011

'Yogi Berra Plan' a Cure for Mauer's 'Cyberchondria'

Whether sidelined Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer suffers from so-called 'cyberchondria' the early stages of arthritic knee or merely a virus, one thing is for certain: There is no cure better than the 'Yogi Berra Plan.'

The plan -- being advanced by Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Patrick Reusse -- brings to mind the creativity of the New York Yankees some 50 years ago when the team wanted to work emerging young catcher Elston Howard into the lineup.

Because Howard was blocked by Yogi Berra behind the plate, Berra was moved to left field. The Twins could do likewise with Mauer, who has undergone invasive knee surgery and currently is out of the lineup due to "bilateral leg weakness,' potentially linked to neurological and spinal complications involving structural deficiencies related to an arthritic knee.

Because Mauer's contract binds him to the club for the next six years, his absence from the lineup set off a round of blogosphere 'cyberchondria,' a newly termed phenomenon in which commentators, pundits and prognosticators peruse online medical texts to determine his pronosis.

 Look, take it from Doctor X, a licensed physician: Joe Mauer suffers from the advanced manifestations of a trauma-induced arthritic knee, a condition that will grow worse and worse until is fairly safe to predict that barring a miracle, if Mauer finishes his career in a Twinkies uniform, he certainly won't be wearing it behind the plate.

 Does that mean he can't finish this season as a catcher?  No. What it means is that Mauer's time is running out, and the sooner he stops spending a couple hours a day squatting the better off he'll be.

It also means that because outfielder Delmon Young's contract is coming up, a potentially costly negotiation, it is time to trade Young in a deal that will bring back a young catcher, and to move Mauer to Young's spot in the outfield.

 For the Twins, it's a matter of health.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Blue Jays Weigh Brett Lawrie's Readiness for Majors

If former Toronto Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez had anything to say about it --  top organizational minor league prospect Brett Lawrie would be in the majors already.

"If it were up to me,  I'd take him north,"  Martinez told his former colleagues at Sirrius-XM Radio after watching Lawrie closely at the conclusion of spring training.

Now working as a Blue Jays television announcer,  Martinez, however,  must leave the decision entirely to a committee of others,  none less important than Marty Brown,  Lawrie's manager with the Triple A Las Vegas 51s.  Brown sees things differently.

Hitting at a .441 clip in the early going,  Lawrie is doing all that can be expected of him in the Pacific Coast League, at least at the plate. But he has four errors,  and neither Brown nor anyone else seems willing to rush him into the field before he's ready.

"He's pretty special," Brown recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "(His bat) is what's going to take him wherever he needs to go.  But we have to make sure, when he gets his opportunity to go, he's prepared to play third base."

Some observers have speculated it may take at least two months before he can be considered capable of playing the hot corner without embarrassing himself.  Others,  such as Blue Jays announcer Alan Ashby,  a former Toronto catcher, think he is ready today despite what might be considered anomalous errors.

A Canadian native,  Lawrie, 21, was traded from Milwaukee to Toronto on Dec. 6 for pitcher Shaun Marcum. He is a former No. 16 overall pick, and has seen time at second base and the outfield during his brief career,  reps which might better have been spent learning third base,  seeing as the Blue Jays are determined to convert him.  Coaches are working on Lawrie's footwork and throwing.

Favoring Lawrie for a quicker callup is the fact that so far this season, it appears that he can't do much worse than anyone else Toronto has at third, especially struggling third base starter Edwin Encarnacion.   Need, it should be remembered, is the tie that binds.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Small Sample Enough to Bench Royals 1B Ka'aihue

Royals first baseman Kila Ka'aihue was given only 13 at-bats against left-handed pitchers before being benched against them by manager Ned Yost; it was a small sample,  but evidence abounds that Ka'aihue  up until now has been greatly overmatched in such assignments at the major league level.

Having flailed helplessly against marginal Tigers lefty Phil Coke in three, recent successive plate appearances, it was clear Ka'aihue needed time off to gather himself and find a way to demonstrate that he has the potential to be anything more than a platoon player at best.

Yost sat Ka'aihue with the excuse of giving him "a break" against Twins lefties Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano,  but with the Royals playing with surprising competiveness,  it's likely Yost wanted to avoid having a rally killer clogging the offense in the middle of the lineup.

 Though he has a walk-off homer,  Ka'aihue is hitting just .176 overall and .154 against lefties. Hitting coach Kevin Seitzer,  a master at the plate during his career,  has taken Ka'aihue under his wing.  In the meantime,  Royals top prospect first baseman Eric Hosmer awaits at Triple A Omaha.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Trial Continues for Punchless 1B Kila Ka'aihue

The Kansas City Royals trial by immersion continues for struggling prospect Kila Ka'haihue -- whose vulnerabilities have been laid bare by left-handed pitching as evidenced by his .154 average against them over the first eight games of the season.

Ka'aihue, a late bloomer at age 27, was made to look ridiculous in a recent confrontation with Tigers lefty Phil Coke, who fed him a dozen curve balls that held the so-called "Hawaiian Punch" punchless with three swinging strikeouts, all on pitches that cut the plate. Not a fastball in the bunch, and all from a hurler who is not exactly Sandy Koufax.

Now the six-foot-four, 235-pound first baseman's challenge intensifies as he must face three lefties this week, Brian Duensing and Francisco Liriano of the Twins, and Eric Bedard of the Mariners. By the time they get through with him, he might be happy to see a righty except for one thing: It will be Bedard's teammate Felix Hernandez, the fireballing ace. Though Ka'aihue has impressive minor league numbers, he put them up in the hit-happy Pacific Coast League, where today rival Eric Hosmer is off to a hot start, hitting 3-6 in the early going. The 50th state native must turn it up now if he wants to be considered anything more than a place-keeper until Hosmer arrives around June 1.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Josh Fields Wastes No Time Making Impression

Former major leaguer Josh Fields -- best remembered for hitting 23 homers in 373 at-bats as a surprise replacement for the 2007 White Sox -- wasted no time making an impression in his debut with Triple A Colorado Springs, going 1-3 with a walk, three RBI and a towering homer in an 18-14 loss to Tucson.

Heading a cast of 11 former major leaguers vieing for callups to the parent club -- Fields, 26, finds himself in a strong comeback position as he has been cast as a deep reserve for struggling Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart, 26, who has yet to play this year coming off knee and hamstring injuries. Fields is also backing up super utility man Ty Wigginton, 33, who is seeing reps at third, first and the outfield in Denver. Fields' homer came off former Padres major leaguer Wade LeBlanc, 26,, who gave up 10 hits and eight earned runs in 4.33 innings.

LeBlanc, who won eight games against 12 losses in 26 major league starts last year, is making a bid to return to San Diego. Another Colorado Springs standout was former major league speedster Willy Taveras, 27, master of the bunt single, who went 3-5 with a bag. Fields and Taveras could turn out to be useful spare parts at the major league level before the year is out.

Another interesting puzzle piece is former Mets first baseman Mike Jacobs, 30, who hit at a .300 clip with power when originally called up in New York six years ago, and cannot be ruled out as a potential backup to aging All Star first baseman Todd Helton, 36. Eric Young Jr., 25 -- son of original Colorado Rockies outfielder Eric Sr. -- has been up and down between Triple A and Denver over the past two years, and likely as not will supplant Jose Lopez, who is keeping second base open for him in Denver. Former Rockies infielder Chris Nelson is also with the Sky Sox.

Other ex-big leaguers at Colorado Springs include catcher Mike Pagnozzi formerly of the Cardinals and pitchers Billy Buckner formerly of the Diamondbacks, Clay Mortensen formerly of the Athletics and Sean White formerly of the Mariners.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Kouz Gets Day Off; Why, Wally Pipp's Birthday?

Oakland Athletics manager Bob Geren has given Kevin Kouzmanoff the day off to rest after the starting third baseman committed three errors. Gee, thanks, skipper, where should I lie down, on the railroad tracks?

It's hard to imagine Kouz will be able to relax very much with a steaming locomotive gaining on him in the person of former Dodgers top infield prospect Andy La Roche, who in a brief trial is exhibiting all the characteristics of a post-hype, late bloomer.

Though La Roche hit an impressive .333 with 13 RBI and four homers in little more than 60 spring at-bats, realistically, it's much, much too soon to suggest that Kouzmanoff is actually going to be pipped, to use that arcane slang verb recalling Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp. Mister Pipp, as you remember, sat out for a day in 1926 and lost his job to some guy named Lou Gehrig.

Still, La Roche, who came to camp as a lowly, long-shot non-roster invitee, has not wasted his opportunity, hitting 3-6, a .500 clip, in two consecutive starts. Statistics in a small sample can be misleading, but there are a few noteworthy items in La Roche's pedigree that cannot be ignored:

No.1: he has a strong arm, big glove and has major league experience not only at third base but second and first.

No. 2: when he came up, scouts regarded him as an even better prospect than his brother, Adam La Roche, who owns a .271 career average and more than 160 homers in eight major league seasons.

No. 3: he is every bit as good as his brother defensively, and formerly had been regarded as better offensively after he hit .333, .322, .309, .309 in four of his 10 minor league stops before reaching the majors.

To be fair, Kouzmanoff is not chopped liver, having hit .260 with 23 homers for San Diego in 2008, though not otherwise distinguishing himself much. Still, it must be said that La Roche is blocked at third. More interesting are La Roche's possibilities at second base, where incubent journeyman Mark Ellis, who will be 34 in June, has missed significant time due to injury in nine major league seasons, never having had more than 500 at-bats but once.

For the record, Ellis missed the entire 2004 season among his five trips to the disabled list, and currently benched for his most novel malady to date, dizziness due to an inner ear problem. Also working in La Roche's favor in his bid for playing time is the fact that light-hitting starting first baseman Daric Barton, a left-hander who has hit only 26 homers in 371 major league at-bats, might give up a few plate appearances against tough left-handed pitching.

Any way you slice it, La Roche should be given ample opportunity to exhibit his talent this year, and may yet appear on the platform even if he has missed the train.