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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ryan Church Answers Some Questions

Ryan Church is the perfect example of a baseball player who was never destined for stardom, but worked hard and got the best out of his abilities in making a solid major league career. A lefty throwing and hitting outfielder, Church was taken in the 14th round of the 2000 MLB Draft by the Cleveland Indians, after completing his collegiate career with the University of Nevada at Reno.

Church put up solid numbers in each of his first seasons in the minors, but was unable to crack the Cleveland lineup. Finally, in 2004, he was traded with Maicer Izturis to the Montreal Expos for reliever Scott Stewart. Church ended up playing 30 games with the Expos, mainly off the bench.

The Expos became the Washington Nationals in time for the 2005 season and brought Church along. The one season Church had with Washington as an undisputed starter was in 2007, and he responded by hitting .272 with 15 home runs and 70 RBI in 144 games. He was also considered a good defender who played all three positions in the outfield.

Church was traded to the New York Mets in November, 2007 and spent the remainder of his career bouncing around between the Mets, Braves, Pirates, and Diamondbacks. Although he typically received significant playing time, he never returned to his status as a full time starter over the course of a full season.

While with the Mets in 2008, Church suffered a series of concussions that kept him out for a lengthy amount of time. He did get into 90 games that year, and played well with a .276 batting average and 12 home runs. He also made the last ever out at Shea Stadium when he flied out deep to center field on September 28th in a loss against Matt Lindstrom and the Florida Marlins.

Church last played in the major leagues in 2010. He has not officially retired, but has not caught on with another team as of the writing of this piece. In 7 big league season, he has hit .264 over 654 games with 56 home runs and 267 RBI. More information about his career statistics is available at

Ryan Church Questionnaire:

If you could do anything about your playing career differently, what that be?:
I wouldn't change a thing! I gave everything I had every game.

What was the strangest play you ever saw on the baseball diamond?:
A triple play, and being part of a no-hitter in the minors.

Who was your favorite coach or manager?:
Bobby Cox, by far!

What was the best prank you ever saw in baseball?:
Not much of a prank, but dressing all the rookies up at the end of the year never got old!


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Friday, December 30, 2011

Jake Lowery Interview

Check out my most recent submission to It is an interview with Cleveland Indians minor leaguer, Jake Lowery. He is one of baseball's next big catching prospect.


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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Red Sox Make Quality Move in Acquiring Andrew Bailey

Finally! After months of relative dormancy, it appears that GM Ben Cherington and the Red Sox have made a transaction of some significance. Buster Olney of ESPN is reporting that the team has acquired closer Andrew Bailey and outfielder Ryan Sweeney from the Oakland A’s in exchange for Josh Reddick and minor league players Miles Head and Raul Alcantara. In light of the hauls other young pitchers like Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Mat Latos have commanded in trades this offseason, the Red Sox look like they have made a very nice deal.

Bailey will be just 27 at the start of the 2012 season, and is a former Rookie of the Year winner, who has 75 saves, a 2.07 ERA, and exactly one strikeout per inning over his first three major league seasons. Most importantly, he is under team control for three more seasons, and easily slides into the vacant closer role, allowing Mark Melancon and Bobby Jenks to settle into defined set-up roles. In the high priced world of the American League East, this is a quality move, on both talent and financial levels.

Ryan Sweeney is a decent throw-in for the Red Sox. He is a light hitting, good fielding outfielder, who can play all three positions. He won’t be a star or probably even play that much, but he will fit nicely as a late inning defensive replacement and 5th outfielder.

The players the Red Sox gave up were all eminently expendable. Reddick has improved with each year, but projects as nothing more than an average major league regular. The Red Sox figure to platoon Ryan Kalish (an all-around better version of Kalish) and possibly Mike Aviles in right field this coming season.

Miles Head is a young first baseman in the lower levels of the Boston system, who hit .299 with 22 home runs in 2011. However, with Adrian Gonzalez locked up for the next seven seasons, Head was never going to make it in Boston. Using him in a deal like this is a wise allocation of resources.

Raul Alcantara is the most intriguing piece that the Red Sox relinquish in this trade. He is a raw 19 year old right handed pitcher from the Dominican who already throws in the low-to-mid 90’s, though with reportedly shaky command. Despite only appearing in 26 games over his first two professional seasons, he has already shown excellent control (84 strikeouts and 20 walks in 125.1 innings) and could develop into a special pitcher if everything goes right. But given the long road expected for his development, the Red Sox could afford to include him in this trade.

After constantly being picked at by critics (including myself), Ben Cherington has come up big with this trade. He has turned raw prospects and a spare part into a quality major league closer and a nice piece for his bench. The trade not only solidifies the Red Sox bullpen, but it dramatically decreases pressure on Daniel Bard, who will now have the luxury of a much longer leash in the starting rotation, without the specter of being  returned to the back of the bullpen looming over his head.

Cherington has transformed this offseason from among the quietest in recent memory, to one that will be remembered for the dirt cheap quality he brought to the team. Kudos to him for being more patient and apparently smarter than the rest of us, and waiting until the right moment came along to make his move. I had said that Cherington needed a signature moment or transaction to separate himself from the shadow of Theo Epstein. I think he may have finally done that.


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Decision to Sign Prince Fielder Should Weigh Heavy on Teams

Now that Albert Pujols has signed with the Angels and making the trek to Los Angeles on a road paved with gold, the top remaining free agent is Prince Fielder. Fielder is seeking to make a financial strike matching or exceeding the approximate 254 million dollars received by Pujols, but prospective buyers need to think long and hard before making such a commitment to the slugging first baseman. The elephant in the room (no pun intended) when it comes to this decision should be Fielder’s weight and his ability to hold up over the course of a long term deal.

Fielder’s weight has been picked at from the moment he entered professional baseball. Along with his enormous power, it is something he inherited from his father, Cecil, aka “Big Daddy.” There is no doubt that Fielder is a fantastic player who has put up staggering numbers in his six full major league seasons, but smart teams truly have to question how much they are willing to invest in him. Many baseball people say that Fielder’s weight is a tired subject, and point to his career production as the reason why there should be no issue. However, such rationale is flawed and not a good way to predict future success. 

Officially, Fielder is listed at 275 pounds, but that is clearly a driver’s license weight and not the true figure. There is little doubt that he is somewhere north of 300 pounds, and has been there for quite some time. He has always had a big body type, even when he was an 11 year old blasting home runs over the roof at old Tiger Stadium. While he has carried his weight about as well as could be expected thus far in his career, how much longer can that be expected?

How many of who carry a few extra pounds of our own can honestly say that as we have gotten older we have gained agility and athletic ability? The answer is none of us. Although Fielder will enter the 2012 season at the age of 28, his athleticism will regress as he gets older, but to what extent is unknown, and a major reason why signing him to a rich long term contract is a very bad idea.

Fielder is already a below average defensive first baseman, and it can be reasonably surmised that by the time he reaches the end of a mega contract, when he is in his mid to late 30’s, he would no longer be playable in the field. These are fears teams even explored about Pujols, who is a good defender. Players who are going to get huge money can’t have the kind of doubt surrounding them that Fielder has. At least such doubts should prevent National League teams from making a serious run at Fielder, because of their inability to hid him at DH if the need arises.

You will not hear me say that Fielder is a bad player. In fact, I think he is one of the two or three most feared hitters in the game, and seems to be an all-around good guy. My opposition to a team giving him a big deal is because it’s clearly a bad business decision. Outside of sports, no other company would consider spending as much as a quarter of a billion dollars for an asset with so many doubts. Baseball is not known for savvy owners, but it doesn’t take a great deal of acumen to understand the risk posed by Fielder. 

Despite the red flags, Fielder will be signed prior to spring training by some team who is willing to take a financial gamble in an effort to improve their franchise. Sadly, such moves are rarely worth it. Here’s hoping that Fielder gets his money and lives up to the contract, but if I was running a team, it wouldn’t be coming from me.


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Monday, December 26, 2011

Al Neiger: The Pride of Delaware

Al Neiger is one of the finest athletes to ever hail from Delaware. His athletic acumen is enforced by his enshrinement in both the University of Delaware Athletics and the Delaware Sports Museum Hall of Fames. Baseball was the sport in which he excelled, and while he did not play there long, he was good enough to make the major leagues; one of just 50 Delaware born players to make that claim.

A left-handed pitcher, Neiger was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1959, after a very successful college career. He pitched well in the minors in 1959 and the first half of 1960, which earned him a call-up to Philadelphia, where he made his debut on July 30, 1960.

The Phillies were a miserable team in 1960. They finished the season with a 59-95 record, and their pitching staff was in tatters. Besides an aging Robin Roberts, there was a collection of young, but largely unproven pitchers. Neiger was another of the prospects brought up to see what he could do. Unfortunately, he was not given much of an opportunity to impress, which likely impacted his ability to stick in the majors.

Neiger appeared in a total of six major league games in 1960; all in relief. All were games that the Phillies lost by at least 3 runs, indicating they were only willing to use the rookie in mop-up situations. It would have been difficult to gain any momentum while pitching in such confinements.

Neiger’s shining moment came in a game against the eventual World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. Philadelphia starter Jim Owens couldn’t make it out of the first inning, and Neiger was brought on in relief. Although the Phillies ended up losing 11-2, the rookie pitched well, allowing 7 hits and 3 runs over 6.1 innings. He punctuated his performance by getting his only major league hit, a single, off Pirates’ starter Bob Friend.

Although Neiger won 11 games in the minors in 1961, and another 13 in 1963, he was never again summoned to the majors. He ended his big league career with no decisions and a 5.68 ERA in 12.2 innings. He struck out 3 batters, and gave up 2 home runs; ironically both coming from the bat of Ken Boyer.  More information on Neiger’s career statistics is available at

Neiger retired from playing following the 1963 season. Despite not playing competitively for some time, he still enjoys talking about the game and his experiences in pro ball. I was lucky enough to have him answer some questions I had about his career.

Al Neiger Interview

How did you first become interested in baseball?: My Dad was an ex semi-pro catcher and had me throwing, catching and hitting a baseball on the streets of Wilmington, Delaware probably as soon as I could walk. He told me later that the first throw I made was left-handed, and he tried to get me to throw and hit right-handed, but I would have nothing to do with that idea. If I had changed I would probably have become a catcher.

Who was your favorite team and player growing up, and why?: Mine was Ferris Fain of the Philadelphia Athletics before they left Philadelphia. I thought I could be a first baseman like he was. Also, my Dad was a huge A's fan in those years, and later became friendly with a scout from the A's. 

My Dad was born in 1912, and his favorite player was Hall of Fame Catcher Mickey Cochran, who played originally with the A's from 1925 to 1933 before being traded to the Detroit Tigers in 1933.

What was the process like getting signed by the Phillies in 1959?: In 1959 there was no draft, so players could sign with anybody. The big deterrent to huge bonuses was a major league rule that stated if they gave a prospect more than $15,000; he had to be included on that team's major league roster.

As a 17 year old kid I most likely would have signed for nothing. Fortunately for me, I was a late bloomer and hadn't matured mentally or physically. I was 5'9 and weighed 160 pounds coming out of high school, and grew to 6' 0 and 190 pounds by my junior year.

My first offer to play pro ball came in 1958 after my sophomore year, from the A's for $15,000. My Dad and I decided to wait and finish my education. My next year (1959) was pretty much my break out year, when I made 1st Team All-American and put up "phenom" type numbers pitching. That year the Phillies were the first team to make an offer ($30,000 signing bonus + $500/month salary). My Dad wanted to give the A's a chance, and they offered me $35,000 and $700/month. He wanted me to sign with the A's, but I was a Phillies fan and also knew Bob Carpenter and his son Ruly.  Even though the Phillies had said the $30,000 was off the table when I didn't sign, we went back to the table and they upped the ante to $37,500 + $750/month. My Dad didn't think their offer was good enough and wanted to go back to the A's. I balked and after conferring with each other, we decided we would sign, providing they threw in a new car, which they did. I got a "brand new" 1959 Bel-Air Chevy. Our family car had been a 1950 Chevy.

They assigned me to Rookie Ball in Johnson City, Tennessee. My roommate was 17 year old Ray Culp, who had just received a $100,000 bonus and a 1959 Bonneville. Three weeks later I was moved up to Williamsport, and the rest is history.

Who was the biggest character you ever played with or against?: Every team had its characters, myself not excluded (being a left-handed pitcher). There were many I ran into in my brief career, but none of them were "off the charts."

What was your favorite moment from your playing career?: Being called up to the big leagues and not giving up a run in my debut. Also, getting a hit the first time up, off Bob Friend of the 1960 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates. 

Who was the toughest hitter that you ever faced?: I guess I would  have to go with Ken Boyer of St. Louis. I faced him only twice; once in St Louis and again in Philly, and he homered in both at bats.

Also, if it wasn't for my efforts, Roberto Clemente would have finished with only 2,998 hits instead of 3,000.

How difficult was the transition from going from a professional ballplayer to the "private sector"?: Looking back, I was only 25 years old when I decided to give up the game, due to family responsibilities. Fortunately I had completed my education and the job market was good in 1964. Also, I married well; 50 years last January, to my wife Barb, who raised our three daughters.

If you could do anything differently about your baseball career, what would it be?: It’s not healthy to second guess yourself.

What have you been up to since you stopped playing?: I retired in 2003 after 39 years with a manufacturing company. I continued to work part time in sales with a home insulation company. I love to fish and crab at our beach house in Fenwick Island, Delaware.

Do you still follow baseball, and if so, what do you think about the current game?: I follow the Phillies closely and renew many old acquaintances each year at the Phillies’ annual Alumni Game.

The Home Run is now King. When I played, by today's standards, every team played "small ball."

Fan's love home runs, and they and TV contracts pay the big salaries. With the game on the line most pitchers, I feel, would rather face a home run hitter than someone trying to just put the ball in play. Home run hitters were easier to pitch to than 'spray hitters.'


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