(*) PT TOMORROW: AL East — Easy come, easy Verdugo?

Boston Red Sox

As revealed by the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier, Alex Verdugo (OF, BOS) was benched against a right-handed starter August 5 — José Berríos (RHP, TOR) — for showing up to the ballpark hours late, which caused manager Alex Cora’s long-simmering dissatisfaction with Verdugo’s effort to boil over. 

Verdugo returned to the lineup the following day and collected three hits in four at-bats — all singles — though those hits were ineffectual in pulling the team out of a weekend nosedive as the Red Sox were swept by the team they are at least theoretically chasing for a wild card spot, the Blue Jays. 

Verdugo came to spring training slimmed down and proceeded to hit four April home runs, teasing fantasy managers that he might be on the cusp of taking his power production to a new level. But he has hit only four more home runs in the three-plus months since.

Verdugo, who has historically maintained contact rates in the low-to-mid 80s, dipped to 78% in July. Speier’s story documented how the Red Sox had been surprisingly proactive in their efforts to find Verdugo a new home at the trade deadline but had come up dry, perhaps due in large part to what Speier said was a prevalent view among scouts that Verdugo was “checked out.”

While Verdugo could certainly respond to this wake-up call and check back in — if only to entice a trade suitor to help him get a change of scenery in the off-season — Cora may also not need much of an excuse to again turn to Adam Duvall (OF, BOS) in Verdugo’s stead, given Duvall’s reverse splits in 2023 and equal effectiveness against righties and lefties over the course of his long career.


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Baltimore Orioles

For the better part of three months, the race was on. Who would reach the majors first: Jordan Westburg (2B, BAL) or Colton Cowser (OF, BAL)?

Westburg broke the tape first, on June 26, with Cowser’s promotion coming about 10 days later, on July 5. 

But while the two players seemed to be on parallel tracks for a while, those tracks have diverged in the months since.

Slowly but surely, Westburg seems to be nudging his way into an equal timeshare or better with Adam Frazier (2B, BAL) at second base for the Orioles, handedness notwithstanding. While the schedule has given Baltimore an inordinate number of southpaws of late, Westburg has also started two of the team’s last three games against righties, though Frazier did start one of those games in left field as well.

While the results have not popped off the page just yet, Westburg is making consistent hard contact and seems to have worked himself into a key role in Baltimore’s playoff push, whether at second base or periodically spelling Ramón Urías (3B, BAL) at third.

Cowser, meanwhile, appears to be on the fast track back to AAA-Norfolk, perhaps upon the imminent return of Cedric Mullins (OF, BAL). Despite injuries in the Baltimore outfield — Aaron Hicks (OF, BAL) is on his way back, too — Cowser has watched Ryan McKenna (OF, BAL) — usually a weak-side platoon player — get the center field nod against a couple of right-handed pitchers within the last week.

Cowser has struggled to make quality contact in his first tour of the majors. However, his 16% walk rate offers a glimmer of hope that his plate skills may coalesce at some point, though the lack of consistent playing time cannot be helping him find his groove, either. That type of steady work simply is not available on a first-place team, and will even be less available soon, when Mullins and Hicks return.

By next spring, Baltimore may have cleared an obstacle or two out of Cowser’s path. But for the balance of 2023, don’t count on much.

 

New York Yankees

Between the injury to Carlos Rodón (LHP, NYY) and the apparent desire of manager Aaron Boone to send the ineffective Luis Severino (RHP, NYY) to the bullpen, the Yankees may soon have room in their rotation for both Randy Vásquez (RHP, NYY) and Jhony Brito (RHP, NYY) — even though each has an xERA north of 5.

If Boone follows through on the Severino-to-the-pen plan, and if either of Vásquez or Brito cannot rise to the challenge, is anyone waiting in the wings?

One player to watch might be Clayton Beeter (RHP, NYY), the 66th overall pick in the 2020 MLB draft, who earned a first-time promotion to Triple-A after posting a 2.08 ERA and 1.25 WHIP (76/30 K/BB in 60.2 IP) in a dozen starts at AA-Somerset.

Beeter’s numbers for AAA-Scranton/Wilkes-Barre do not look that impressive overall, but they are skewed by one abysmal outing (11 ER in 3.2 IP on July 29). Beeter bounced right back from that performance, giving up just one earned run in six innings in his next start August 4 (five hits, no walks, seven strikeouts).

Beeter’s .241 OBA also compares favorably to his Railriders teammates, even with that 11-ER debacle in the mix.

Perhaps Rodón will make a quick return. Maybe Frankie Montas (RHP, NYY) will make it back for the final month. Maybe Severino will right the ship.

But if New York does have to dip back into the minors at some point beyond Vásquez and Brito, they may not be able to do better than Beeter.

 

Tampa Bay Rays

Publicly, the Rays are trying to temper expectations about the potential playing time of top prospect Curtis Mead (3B, TAM), saying the right-handed hitter will start against lefties but only play “occasionally” against righties while being available to serve as a pinch hitter.

Mead has struck out in five of his first eight at-bats, so perhaps it is premature and never quite come to pass that Mead pushes to expand his role. But if he does flash the kind of offensive potential that he had been showing at AAA-Durham — .355 with 10 doubles and a .998 OPS in 24 games — prior to his call-up, how would the Rays squeeze him into the lineup?

To the extent there is a soft spot in the lineup, it probably exists in the DH-right-and-center field mix currently occupied primarily by Josh Lowe (OF, TAM), Jose Siri (OF, TAM) and Luke Raley (OF, TAM), with RHB Harold Ramírez (DH, TAM) and Manuel Margot (OF, TAM) factoring in as well, but more against left-handed pitching than not.

While Siri’s center field defense keeps him in the lineup more often than not — and he flashes power regularly, even as the strikeouts mount — Lowe’s bat has cooled considerably after a hot start. Raley is contact challenged, while Ramirez’s batting average is fairly empty. Margot is far enough on the outs that the team was reportedly marketing him heavily at the trade deadline in the hopes of adding a more potent bat to its bench.

A Mead-plays-more lineup might cede the DH spot to an infielder instead — either Mead himself, or Isaac Paredes (3B, TAM) or Yandy Díaz (1B, TAM) getting the day off from defensive duties. There would then be one fewer spot for the OF-DH cadre to squeeze into.

But first, Mead would have to force the team’s hand, and that campaign is off to a slow start. 

 

Toronto Blue Jays

After posting a .275/.416/.553 line in 87 games at AAA-Buffalo, Davis Schneider (2B, TOR) burst onto the scene, going 9-for-13 with 2 HR as the Blue Jays swept division rival Boston in a weekend series.

The outburst bought him a fourth straight start August 7 — this one in left field — as Kevin Kiermaier (OF, TOR) took the night off after getting the worst of the collision with a Fenway Park wall, which opened a gash on his elbow that required stitches to close.

Kiermaier is not expected to need an IL stint, so while Schneider may well form the short side of a platoon with Kiermaier — Daulton Varsho (OF, TOR) can shift to center, opening left for Whit Merrifield (OF, TOR) or Schenider, whomever is not playing second — the question is where Schneider might fit against righties.

Kiermaier is valued for his center field defense and has been a surprising offense contributor. Merrifield has also been one of the team’s more consistent bats, even if his HctX casts some doubt about the sustainability of his performance.

So, if Schneider is going to pull at-bats away from anyone against RHP, it may be Varsho, though he, too, contributes with his glove. Still, of this group, his offensive contributions are the most meager (.227 xBA, slightly below-average power). 

Toronto might also be able to use the DH spot to free up a few at-bats for Schneider. But after a slow start to his Blue Jays career, Brandon Belt (DH, TOR) has picked up the pace and of late has been settling into the No. 2 spot in the lineup against righties, suggesting the team views him as one of its more potent bats.

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