Top 100 Baseball Blog

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Ryan Westmoreland: Former Boston Red Sox Top Prospect Talks Playing Career and New Focus

For serious fans of the Boston Red Sox, Harry Agganis and Tony Conigliaro are familiar names. Both were top young players who saw their promising careers curtailed by tragedy and unforeseen circumstance (Conigliaro was severely injured by a beanball and Agganis died as the result of a pulmonary embolism). Another top prospect for the team was outfielder Ryan Westmoreland, who seemed destined for stardom before a serious injury forced him to prematurely end his playing career. However, he has remained involved in the game and is pursuing new avenues to keep him connected to baseball in other ways.

Westmoreland was  a coveted two-way player coming out of high school he passed up a scholarship to play for Vanderbilt University to sign with the Boston Red Sox after being selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. An outfielder and a pitcher, he gave up the mound upon joining the Sox and playing the 2009 season for the Short-Season Lowell Spinners. In 60 games he hit .296 with seven home runs and 35 RBIs and 19 stolen bases, cementing his status as one of the most exciting players in a stocked system.

Before the 2010 season started he was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation at his brain stem. The resulting multiple surgeries allowed him to make great strides in his recovery, but he was not able to get where he needed to be physically to return as a player.

Westmoreland joins the list of talented Boston players who were robbed of near-certain lengthy playing careers because of medical issues. Fortunately, he has been able to continue contributing his significant abilities to the game, coaching and instructing as he embarks on the next phase of his career.

Although he certainly doesn’t remember me, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting and having a conversation with Westmoreland after one of his 60 professional game. Without a doubt he was one of the most poised, intelligent and kind individuals I have ever come across in the game. Possessing qualities like those, he was already a winner without ever having to step on the field. He may not have become the next Ted Williams, but he is forging ahead with establishing a rich legacy of his own on a slightly different path than he may have originally envisioned.

Ryan Westmoreland Interview

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite player growing up was Pedro Martinez. I was really impressed how even though he wasn’t big for a pitcher, he threw like he was 6’6 and wasn’t afraid of anyone. The way he went out and dominated the best hitters in baseball at that time was extremely impressive.

Can you describe your draft experience with the Boston Red Sox in 2008- How did you find out you had been selected?: My draft experience was very much like a roller coaster ride. I went from not even being on some mock drafts, to hearing on draft day I may be selected in the first round. So, I was very unsure about if/when I’d get taken. I knew what teams were interested, but I didn’t know where I’d go in the draft.  At the beginning of the Red Sox pick in the fifth round, Theo Epstein who was the GM at that time gave me a call to tell me they (the Red Sox) we’re going to take me.

Did you do anything special for yourself/family/friends after signing, and if so, do you mind sharing what that was?: I don’t remember the signing day, but on draft day my family and friends were at my house watching the draft on TV. It was awesome. There was about 40 people over.

What do you remember most about your professional debut?: At my pro debut, I remember being very nervous. I had only played in high school in front of families, and here I was about to take the field in front of thousands. But after I saw the first pitch, the nerves settled and I just realized it was the same game I’ve always played and loved.

In your opinion, who was the most talented player you ever played with or against? What made them stand out so much?: John Smoltz was definitely the best player I ever played with. When he briefly spent time with the Sox, I got to face him in a simulated game down in Ft Myers, Florida. What made him stand out so much was how he went about his day very business-like. Even though it was in a very informal setting, he acted like he was getting ready for the World Series. I knew who he was obviously, but he was so kind and genuine and that meant a ton to me- as a 19 year old kid.

Who is one pitcher, current or from the past, you would like to face and how would you approach the at bat?: I would’ve loved to face Chris Sale. My approach would be to try to take a fastball to the opposite field. His slider is so hard and breaks so late I would want to see the ball as long as possible and not try to do too much. A base hit off of Chris Sale is hard to do but I would’ve loved the chance to try.

You were an outstanding high school pitcher. Although you played professionally as an outfielder, do you believe you could have pitched at the major league level?: I may have been able to pitch at the MLB level, although I loved hitting and the opportunity to play every day. But I had a pretty good arm and good breaking pitches- so with the right coaching I might have been able to have a future on the mound. But again, I definitely wanted to be a position player.

What are your thoughts about baseball card and autograph collecting?: Personally, I don’t collect cards or autographs, but I think it’s a cool hobby. Cards go back to the early days of baseball, so I think collecting a bit of history is pretty cool. As a player, I really didn’t like signing autographs and seeing it up for sale a day or two later. I loved signing for people that genuinely collected them and kept the autographs they got.
Was the high level of attention you received while you were undergoing surgeries and rehab more of a distraction or a positive for you?: It was definitely a positive. To know that so many people were wishing me well and supporting me from all around the world was really awesome. I got to feel like people cared about me beyond baseball, and I’m truly grateful for that.

What are you up to since retiring from playing?: Since retiring, I’ve been coaching different levels in baseball and giving hitting lessons. I’m currently looking into the sport more and seeing what’s out there for me in the professional baseball world.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Sunday, January 6, 2019

2019 Boston Red Sox: Questions to Ponder and Things to Look Forward To

Believe it or not, the start of the 2019 baseball season will kick off with the commencement of spring training next month. Fresh off their dominant regular season last year and their World Series victory, the Boston Red Sox will have a tough job of exceeding what they just accomplished. They are still in the midst of the Hot Stove League, but there are already some things to look forward to and some questions to ask as the trucks start to get packed up for the trip south to Florida to start another season.

Look Forward To: The continued development and improvement of third baseman Rafael Devers.

Now 22 and about to enter his third major league season, this could be the coming-out party that the team and fans have been waiting for. To be fair, he has already hit .254 with 31 home runs over his first 179 games, but the general consensus is that there is more there; potentially much more. Conditioning has been an issue in the past and now that he is a “grizzled” veteran of a championship team it will be interesting to see if the maturity of his play and preparedness follows him as he gets older. The projections used by FanGraphs forecasts a healthy bump in his production in 2019, so stay tuned to see if this comes to fruition.

Need to Question: What does second baseman Dustin Pedroia have left?

Once a franchise cornerstone, the 35-year-old infielder has become somewhat of an afterthought after playing just three games in 2018, which followed missing approximately two months of the 2017 campaign—all because of injuries.

If Pedroia can get anywhere near his 2016 season, where he produced 201 hits and 15 home runs, the team should be ecstatic. However, that seems incredibly optimistic. While he still has three years and $40 million remaining on his contract, the pressure should be relatively light for him to show what he can still do, as the team is loaded with potential replacements if his body fails him yet again. Brock Holt and Eduardo Nunez are primary candidates to hold down second if needed, or the team could choose to go the way of a youngster like Tzu-Wei Lin.

Need to Question: Is Matt Barnes the next closer?

With the possible exit of free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, Boston will need a new pitcher to close down games in the ninth inning. Many signs indicate this may be the right-handed Barnes, who has pitched well, but not great, in middle relief for the team over the last four seasons.

Like Kimbrel, Barnes can suffer from lapses of control. Although he throws hard and has a good slider, he doesn’t have quite the same raw stuff of the man he may replace. He has a 4.14 ERA and two saves for his career, so the lack of a track record may work against his candidacy for a new role. On the other hand, the market for available closers seems to be dwindling. Even Kimbrel, who was once rumored to desire a new contract that would pay him Scrooge McDuck money, has reportedly seen his market shrivel up to the point that a return to Boston may not be out of the question.

Look Forward To: How much better can Mookie Betts be?

The reigning 2018 American League MVP had a season for the ages, hitting a league-leading .346 with 32 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 129 runs scored; all while playing generationally great defense in right field. The crazy thing is that he still may have room to improve.

Betts will play the entire 2019 season at the age of 26. Stats also show that as he has aged he is making better and harder contact and putting the ball in the air more, which has all contributed to his star production.  With an excellent lineup around him, he also has the luxury of not having to carry the team on a daily basis. Finally, the plan to drop him to second in the lineup should only open up even more opportunities for him to put his myriad skills to use.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Friday, December 21, 2018

Mark Gubicza Talks About His Baseball Career and Time with the Kansas City Royals

Some babies are born with a particular skill set to play baseball. Mark Gubicza was born to pitch. He parlayed his natural talent into a 14-year major league career spent primarily with the Kansas City Royals, where he achieved great success and contributed to him still being involved in the game years after he threw his last pitch.

The right-handed Gubicza was drafted out of William Penn Chart School in Philadelphia in the second round (34th overall selection) by Kansas City in 1981. He found immediate success and come 1983 won 14 games in Double-A, showing he had little left to prove in the minors. He was promoted to the Royals the following year and never looked back.

He won 10 games as a rookie and was a cog in the Kansas City rotation for years. His best season came in 1988 when he was 20-8 with a 3.04 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 269.2 innings, finishing third in Cy Young Award voting.

Beginning in 1990, Gubicza battled some injuries that hampered his effectiveness and he won more than 10 games in a season just once after 1989. After 13 years with the Royals he was traded to the California Angels in advance of the 1997 season. He lasted just two games with them and although he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers the following year, he never appeared in another major league game again.

In his 14 seasons, Gubicza was a combined 132-136 with a 3.96 ERA and 1,371 strikeouts. He was a member of two All Star teams and was a key part of the 1985 Royals, who won that year’s World Series.

Since hanging up his glove as a player he has coached high school ball and most recently is working as a television broadcaster for Angels’ games. He recently took some time to answer some questions about his career in baseball.

Mark Gubicza Interview

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up, and why?: My favorite player(s) growing up was a tie between Jim Palmer and Steve Carlton.

Can you describe your draft experience with the Kansas City Royals in 1981- How did you find out you had been selected?: I was playing stick ball in the schoolyard by my house in Philly when my dad came driving by to tell me I was drafted by the Kansas City Royals! Kansas City and Philly had just played in the 1980 World Series versus each other. I was at the clincher with my dad. Ironic that I got drafted by the team I was rooting against eight months later. Turned out perfectly for me though.

In your opinion, who was the most talented player you ever played with or against? What made them stand out so much?: George Brett was the most talented ball player I ever played with. And Bo Jackson was the best athlete I ever played with or ever saw in my life. They both had tremendous work ethics and drive.

What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: Winning the 1985 World Series is easy to say, but making the 1988 All-Star team with all those future Hall-of-Famers on it was the tops!

Who was the most impactful veteran you played with and why do you choose them?: Dennis Leonard was the player I learned the most from. He was a former 20 game winner with Kansas City, but had to endure a major injury to come back to being a great pitching again. Sat with him and talked to him about life, baseball and future every day.

What is one thing about your career you would like to do differently?: My only real regret in my career is that I didn’t pitch well for the Angels. When I was traded to them, I wanted to be a dominant pitcher again and get them to the playoffs. I got hurt that year and shortly thereafter retired from baseball. Still to this day bummed I didn’t pitch better for them.

What are you up to since retiring as a player?: After I retired, I became the head coach of the Chaminade High School baseball team. Continue to help them out till this day. Joined Fox Sports in 2000 and have worked for them since. I’ve been the Angels Color Analyst for the last 13 years on TV.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Rooftop Ruppert" Jones and His 12-Year Ride in Major League Baseball

Ruppert Jones has one of the coolest nicknames in baseball history; “Rooftop Ruppert.” This was due to his proclivity in hitting tape measure home runs in Tiger Stadium during his lone season with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. However, this is just one part of a greater 12-year major league career enjoyed by the former outfielder.

The left-handed Jones was a voracious athlete growing up in Berkeley, California. He played baseball, basketball and football, and was good enough to earn scholarship offers to play wide receiver from major football powerhouses such as the University of Southern California and Arizona State University.

Given how he was regarded as a prospect, he decided to pursue baseball instead and was selected in the third round of the 1973 draft by the Kansas City Royals, who immediately started the 18-year-old off on his professional journey in the minor leagues. He responded quickly, hitting .301 and .320 in his first two years. He made his major league debut in 1976 at the age of 21, hitting .216 with a home run and seven RBIs in 28 games.

For whatever reason, the Royals did not protect Jones ion that off season’s expansion draft and the newly minted Seattle Mariners snapped him up with the first pick. It was a wise moved, as he was an All Star the next season in 1977, hitting .263 with 24 home runs and 76 RBIs in 160 games.

Jones played three seasons with the Mariners and went on to also play for the New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, aforementioned Tigers and the California Angels. All told, in his 12 seasons he hit a combined .250 with 1,103 hits, 147 home runs, 579 RBIs and 143 stolen bases. He also added another All Star appearance in 1982 with the Padres.

As his career unfolded, he slid into more of a platoon role, as he fared much better against right-handed pitcher (.264/.348/.448) than he did against southpaws (.212/.281/.328). His final major league season was in 1987, with the Angels. He hung on to play another two years in the minors and in Japan, but retired as a player following the 1989 season due to a torn rotator cuff.

I was recently able to connect with Jones to ask him about his career. Keep reading for more about “Rooftop Ruppert” and his memories of his time in baseball.

Ruppert Jones Interview:

Who was your favorite player when you were growing up?: Willie Mays.

Can you describe your draft experience with the Kansas City Royals in 1973- How did you find out you had been selected?: I went to the public library to get updates on the draft where I found out Kansas City drafted me in third round.

What do you remember most about your major league debut?: I got a hit my first at bat against Gaylord Perry.

What is your favorite moment from your baseball career?: Winning the World Series in 1984 as a member of the Detroit Tigers.

The 1985 California Angels included future Hall of Famers Reggie Jackson, Don Sutton and Rod Carew on the roster. What kind of influence did they have on the team?: I played against all those gentlemen for years and it was a  pleasure. Being their teammate is something I remember to this day. Also being around them, I quickly found out why they were so special as players.

Who was the toughest, nastiest pitcher you ever faced?: The Frank Tanana I faced in 1977.

If there is anything you could go back and do differently about your baseball career, what would that be?: I wish I would have not sustained so many injuries and truly discovered what kind of player I may have become.

What are you up to since retiring as a player?: I worked for a great company, The Boon Group, located in Austin, Texas. I sold employee benefits to government contractors that work on Prevailing Wage, Davis-Bacon and Service Contracts. These contracts have a built in hourly amount for health and pension benefits on their contracts. Most contracts that are funded with Federal and State dollars require contractors to pay hourly benefits. Believe it or not the contractors actually save money using those hourly dollars and purchasing benefits for their employees.

You can check me out on Facebook or follow me on Twitter @historianandrew