A “Big Hit” for the Future of Baseball?

March Madness. We love it. We live it. We breathe it. We drive our families and friends crazy with talk of brackets and upsets. For three weeks in March, it’s the ONLY thing that matters, until it’s over. At that point, the annual, “Oh no, what now?” feeling kicks in.

What’s next is baseball. Spring training is already in full swing. Opening day of the regular baseball season is just two weeks away and it’s time to start planning your fantasy league and dreaming of that breakout offensive season that no one else picked.

This year, there might be a LOT of increased offensive production if what I’m hearing about a new baseball bat is true. Baden Sports–you may be more familiar with their basketballs–has recently introduced a new baseball bat called the Axe. This is the first major change to the shape of a bat in over a century.

I spoke with the company and one of the first things they told me was that Ted Williams says in his book, “The Science of Hitting,” that swinging a baseball bat is like swinging an axe. Apparently, an axe handle guides your hand into a proper position that fits flush at the bottom and increases leverage through the swing–something that a traditional baseball bat doesn’t do.

Baden says: “The Axe bat promotes an ergonomically correct grip, a better fit, a less restricted swing and greater bat speed through the hitting zone.”

Who’s using it and what are the results?

Rollins hit a deep solo home run over the left field fence with the new Axe baseball bat from Baden. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Since this is such a new bat, big league players are just being introduced to it. It’s been approved for use in MLB games in 2012, so the company is currently working with players at spring training. They can’t “name names,” but they will say that players from every club are taking at least practice swings and becoming familiar with the bat.

Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies hit a monster home run–his first of the season—on March 12 against the Pirates with the Axe bat. He’d been practicing with it, and his first time to the plate with the Axe someone from the dugout yelled, “Let loose with that bat, Jimmy!” He did, and hit it DEEP over the left field wall.

That was the first “official” home run, but I’ve done some digging and found a reliable report that among others, Oakland As first baseman Brandon Allen enjoyed his first outing with the Axe. On opening day of spring training, Allen hit a grand slam, a two-run double and drove in the go-ahead run in the 9th … all with the Axe. 7 RBIs. Not bad.

So maybe there’s something to this new Axe baseball bat. Time will tell, but since my basketball team didn’t even make March Madness this year, my tears are close to drying and I’m getting a jump start on putting a miserable basketball season behind me.

Baseball will fill my sports cravings over the next 6 months, and I’m paying close attention to what’s happening with the Axe bat.

Two Questions: NL West

EJSIC’s MLB preview has visited 5 of the 6 divisions and today, we drop in on the last one, the National League West.

Arizona Diamondbacks
1. Do the Dbacks have the pitching needed to contend in the division? If you think about the NL West the past few divisions, it has been filled with great pitching. It will have it again this season. The Diamondbacks were lead by Dan Haren last season, but the organization is looking to surround him with more. Former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb will return at some point this season, but it remains to be seen how effective he will be after starting on the DL. Arizona also traded for AL All-Star Edwin Jackson (from Detroit) and Ian Kennedy (from New York) to help Haren.

2. Can Adam Laroche add protection for Mark Reynolds in the lineup? Reynolds lead the team home runs, runs scored, RBIs, and stolen bases last season which landed him a spot on the NL All-Star team. Now, Arizona has added the left-handed first baseman Laroche who has hit at least 20 homers in each of the past 5 seasons. Laroche will provide some protection in the lineup, but to expect him to change the dynamic of their offense is too much.

Colorado Rockies
1. Can the Rockies keep their momentum from last season? In baseball, it is difficult to keep the chemistry and pace from one season to the next. The Rockies were unbelievable after firing manager Clint Hurdle and replacing him with Jim Tracy. After June 3, Tracy led the team on an unbelievable streak in which the Rockies were 9 games better than any other NL team. Can they recreate that magic and win the division?

2. Is Ubaldo Jimenez a Cy Young candidate? Jimenez has ascended to the role of ace in the Rockies organization. He has all of the tools including a fastball in the upper 90s as well as nasty breaking pitches. He’s entering the prime of his career and is poised to become a household name across the country.

Los Angeles Dodgers
1. Do the Dodgers get 2008 Manny or 2009 version? When the Dodgers acquired Manny from the Red Sox in 2008, he was a monster in the two month stretch run. He started hot in 2009, but was never the same after his 50 game suspension. He’s in the last season of his contract with Los Angeles and has already publicly stated he will not be back in 2011. Does Manny return to his old form and help the Dodgers win the division for a third straight season or is the 38 year old slugger finally reaching the downside of his career?

2. Does LA have enough starting pitching to win? Randy Wolf was allowed to leave via free agency this season which leaves the Dodgers with questions of rotational depth. The young Clayton Kershaw will be the ace, but after him is four question marks: Chad Billingsley, Hiroki Kuroda, Vicente Padilla, and Ramon Ortiz. The Dodgers pitching could be really good or really bad.

San Diego Padres
1. Will Adrian Gonzalez be traded? Gonzalez’s name has been circulated in trade rumors since the beginning of last season. It only makes sense that he will eventually leave San Diego as the organization has undergone a full youth movement. And every team in need of a bat for a playoff run will be calling.

2. How bad will it get? In a rebuilding franchise, it often gets worst before it gets better. The Padres no longer have ace Jake Peavy after a mid-season trade to the White Sox which leaves their starting rotation with five unknowns. Couple the pitching mess with the 29th best offense from a year ago and the Padres are in for a long season.

San Francisco Giants
1. Do they have enough offense? Baseball writers and pundits have been asking the same question for the past few seasons. The offense improved last season with the help of Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, but it still was not enough. The front office brought in veterans Mark Derosa and Aubrey Huff to bolster the lineup, but it still may not be enough with the offenses of the Dodgers and Rockies in the division.

2. Is the starting rotation the best in baseball? Everyone knows what Tim Lincecum can do after winning consecutive Cy Young awards. Matt Cain was terrific last season as the number two starter. Even Mr. 100 Million Dollars Barry Zito regained some of his former self. If Zito recaptures the way he pitched at the end of 2009 and Jonathan Sanchez gains consistency, the Giants have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

Two Questions: NL Central

EJSIC’s baseball preview travels to the Midwest where the largest division in Major League Baseball resides. It is the National League Central.

Chicago Cubs


1. Can they bounce back? The Cubs were the preseason favorites to win their third straight Central division title last year, but they were horrible. They did not even challenge the rival Cardinals down the stretch. But manager Lou Piniella is looking for resurgences from Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto, and ace Carlos Zambrano. All three will need a strong 2010 campaign to keep the Cubs in the race.

2. Does the departure of Milton Bradley help? Bradley is a talented player, but he never fit in Chicago. The fans booed him, he struggled hitting in the National League, etc. He’s gone to Seattle now which brings up the question of team chemistry. Will the Cubs be better without him?

Cincinnati Reds


1. Will the Reds offense come through? General Manager Walt Jockety made a few moves in the off-season, mainly focusing on position players. Orlando Cabrera will be the everyday Short Stop and the disappointing Willy Taveras is gone. The Reds will be relying on Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Scott Rolen, and Brandon Phillips to provide the power in a hitter-friendly ballpark.

2. Will Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman pitch in the majors this season? The Reds outbid the big market teams for the lefty phenom. There is still a possibility that Chapman may make the starting rotation out of Spring Training, but it seems more certain that he’ll start in the minors. His outings during the spring have been solid though. If he does make his debut before June, I’ve got August 15th as the day his arm falls off due to manager Dusty Baker overusing him.

Houston Astros


1. What does Roy Oswalt have left? Oswalt has been the Astros ace for the past few seasons, but 2009 was a career worst for him. Some questioned if the heavy workload was finally hurting him. Oswalt can regain his status as a dominant pitcher with a good season in 2010.

2. Do the Astros have enough offense to compete in the division? Miguel Tejada has returned to Baltimore and Lance Berkman is entering the last guaranteed season of his contract. Berkman is also coming off the worst season of his career. The Astros will be counting on Berkman’s bat to return as well as a bounce back from LF Carlos Lee. Hunter Pence’s continued development into a power hitter is also something to watch.

Milwaukee Brewers


1. Is Randy Wolf enough to improve the rotation? The Brewers have a future ace in Yovani Gallardo, but the rest of the rotation was horrible last season. Wolf was brought in to be a veteran presence. The Brewers also traded for Doug Davis from Arizona to strengthen the rotation.

2. Does Corey Hart return to form? Right fielder Hart was an all-star a few seasons ago, but he struggled in 2009. He’s not a dominating player, but he’s very solid. He fields his position well, he can hit for power or percentage, etc. The Brewers are a better team when he’s on his game. He provides protection for Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.

Pittsburgh Pirates


1. How good can Andrew McCutchen be? The Pirates center fielder was dynamic last season as a rookie in 108 games. Now that he’s got some experience and a full season ahead, the guy will delight fans in the Steel City. He’s a five tool player who will soon be a perennial all-star.

2. Can the Pirates finish above .500? They haven’t accomplished that feat in an American professional sports record in 17 years. That’s right, no American professional team has endured as many consecutive losing seasons as the Pirates. They have a good enough lineup to accomplish the goal, but pitching will determine their outcome.

St. Louis Cardinals


1. Can the Cardinals reach the World Series? St. Louis is the only NL Central team with championship aspirations at this point in the season and rightfully so. They have Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball, Matt Holliday inked a 7 year deal in the off-season to stay, the Cards boast two aces in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, and, finally, they have one of the best managers ever. The Cardinals know the season is long, but they’re on the short list of pennant contenders.

2. Will McGwire fanfare distract the team? Former slugger Mark McGwire was hired to be the Cardinal’s hitting coach in the off-season. In accepting the job, McGwire also had to come clean about his steroid use. So far, the McGwire fanfare has been quiet. But will that continue throughout the season? He’s sure to face questions outside of St. Louis (most notably in New York). Will it be a distraction?

Two Questions: NL East

Last week, EJSIC previewed the Major League Baseball season by looking at two questions surrounding the American League teams. Now, we’ll check out the Senior Circuit and begin with the NL East.

Atlanta Braves

null1. How good will Jason Heyward be? At the beginning of March, this question was actually, Will Jason Heyward make the team out of Spring Training? Now that manager Bobby Cox has announced he will be the starting right fielder, how well will the twenty year old phenom perform? If Spring Training is any indication, he will make the transition relatively smooth. He has posted a .347 batting average with a .467 on-base percentage. Perhaps the best stat has been his patient approach at the plate with 9 walks.

2. Do the Braves have enough offense? Atlanta has one of the best pitching staffs in the majors, but the offense is not as potent. Franchise player Chipper Jones will need to have a come back season after his struggle for most of the second half in 2009. The Braves are also hoping for a healthy Troy Glaus at first base. If they get some more consistency and power in the lineup, the Braves will be contenders for the NL East crown.

Florida Marlins

null1. Does Chris Coghlan pick up from his rookie season? Coghlan won the NL Rookie of the Year award last season after a spectacular offensive campaign. He routinely got on base and portrayed great base running skills. The Marlins need him to get on base consistently again this season. He sets the table well for MVP candidate Hanley Ramirez.

2. Do the Marlins have enough rotational depth to catch the Phillies? Florida has a good rotation mixed with young talent and settled veterans. But to catch the Phillies, the Marlins will need the consistency at the lower end of the rotation. Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco are set at the top. Can Anibal Sanchez, Chris Volstad, and Andrew Miller step up?

New York Mets

null1. How healthy are the Mets? There’s no doubt that the Mets have talent on the team, but rarely were fans treated to a full lineup at Citi Field last season. Jose Reyes missed most of last season and has experienced thyroid problems in Spring Training. The Mets offense is just not the same without him at the top of the lineup.

2. Does ace Johan Santana get any help? Santana was hurt a lot last season, but when he’s healthy, he’s one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Truthfully, he’s the only pitcher in the Mets rotation that is consistent. Mike Pelfrey, John Maine, and Oliver Perez need to step up.

Philadelphia Phillies

null1. Can the Phillies make it to three straight World Series? No National League team has accomplished the feat since the 1942 to ’44 St. Louis Cardinals. The addition of Roy Halladay makes it seem more of a possibility. Plus, the Phils have one of the best offenses that is hard to shut down for 9 innings.

2. Does Cole Hamels return to form? In 2008, Hamels was dominant all season and it culminated in the World Series victory. He was a disappointment in 2009 however. Now, he has Roy Halladay all season for help. If Hamels can pitch effectively, it gives the Phils a lefty-righty combo at the top of the lineup that can shut down any team.

Washington Nationals

null1. How soon do we see Stephen Strasburg? The Nationals were in the headlines positively before last summer’s amateur draft. Will they take Strasburg and if they do, can they sign him? They took the Scott Boras client and they signed him. He’ll start in the minor leagues, but if he performs as well as some envision him, he may be pitching in D.C. by late summer.

2. Does the defense improve? The Nationals had a lot of problems last season, but their offense was serviceable for most of the season. They really struggled in the field though, committing 143 errors. Baseball has seen a resurgence in emphasis on pitching and defense. The Nats can help themselves by improving with the leather.

Two Questions: AL Central

As part of EJSIC’s coverage of the national pastime, today will focus on the American League Central division which could be won by a number of teams by the time September arrives.

Chicago White Sox


1. Does having Jake Peavy a whole season tilt the division in their favor? Jake Peavy is one of the true elite pitchers in baseball, but he’s been stuck on a rebuilding Padres team over the past few seasons. Now his starts will be more meaningful. Plus, he’s no longer the do-it-all pitcher he was before. Peavy has another top starter in Mark Buerhle as well as a mix of young talent and veteran experience throughout the rest of the rotation. They should all benefit one another as the White Sox arguably have the best rotation in the division.

2. Can Alex Rios return to form? The Blue Jays flat out dropped Rios last year despite the hefty price tag. The White Sox gambled by signing him. He’s still under that contract, so the question remains, can he return to form and produce the numbers that got him the deal in the first place? The White Sox need a consistent power guy behind Carlos Quentin who will drive in Alexei Ramirez and new acquisition Juan Pierre.

Cleveland Indians


1. What’s left of the starting rotation? In the last two seasons, the Indians have traded away C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee when each one was the defending American League Cy Young award winner. The remains are Jake Westbrook, Justin Masterson, Fausto Carmona, David Huff, and about 4 other guys vying for one spot. That’s not exactly a fearful staring five and winning games begins with solid pitching. The Indians are in need of some upgrades.

2. Can Grady Sizemore stay healthy? Sizemore is one of my favorite players to watch. He’s a five tool talent. But last season, he struggled to stay healthy and his performance reflected it. His team struggled as well. Sizemore is the key for the Indians staying out of the basement.

Detroit Tigers


1. How good can Johnny Damon be? Watching the playoffs last season, there’s no doubt that Johnny Damon still brings value to a team. But his home and away splits last year weren’t the best. He shined at the hitting paradise of New Yankee Stadium, but did not perform as well away from it. Now, he’s in a new ballpark with less protection in the lineup. He needs to be an on-base guy for the Tigers in the mold of departed Curtis Granderson.

2. Does Rick Porcello have a sophomore slump? Porcello was a 20 year old rookie last season who posted a 14-9 record to go along with a 3.96 ERA. He was easily the Tigers second best pitcher behind ace Justin Verlander. Does he take a step back this season? It’s common for young players to regress slightly.

Kansas City Royals


1. What happened to Alex Gordon? A few years back, third baseman Alex Gordon dazzled scouts all season long into the College World Series. He was the next great third baseman. The Royals drafted him and he shot through the minor league system. But since making it to the big league, it’s been nothing but struggles for the young man which culminated in last season’s .232 average with 6 home runs and 22 RBIs (and some serious time on the DL for a hip injury). The Royals front office appears to be losing some faith as they brought in White Sox third baseman Josh Fields to compete for the job this spring.

2. Can Zach Grienke repeat his Cy Young performance? Grienke is the organization’s bright spot. He pitched tremendously well last season despite the oftentimes putrid run support. I don’t expect the Royals to be competing for the division, but if the young Grienke continues his success, the Royals will have a starter to continue to build around.

Minnesota Twins


1. Can Orlando Hudson make the Twins a World Series contender? The O-Dog, as he is commonly called, played well for the Dodgers at the beginning of last season until an injury set him back. He never appeared to regain the trust of manager Joe Torre and watched most of the playoffs from the pine. Hudson does not lack confidence however. He brings a solid bat, good foot speed, and gold glove caliber defense to the Twins. I doubt he makes them better than the Yankees, but they are better overall with him.

2. Is the starting rotation enough? The Twins do not have the ace pitcher lurking every five days. Instead, they have a solid group who fits into their style of baseball. Guys like Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, and Nick Blackburn do the little things right. One name to keep an eye on is Francisco Liriano. A few years back, he formed a deadly 1-2 combo with Johan Santana, but elbow surgery has dampened the effectiveness of a once devastating slider. If he regains it, he could become a top of the rotation starter again.

Two Questions: AL East Edition

While the NCAA Tournament suspends play until Thursday, EJSIC is here to provide a Major League Baseball preview in the form of two questions for each team prior to the start of the season. Today, we will start with the American League East before working our way through the rest of the American League this week and into the National League next week. It will all culminate in my predictions for the season which are guaranteed to be no better or worse than any other predictions you may read before the start of the season.

New York Yankees


1. Can the Yankees repeat? New York fans want a ring every season, but with the additions of Curtis Granderson and Nick Johnson in the everyday lineup along with what GM Brian Cashman hopes is an improved Javier Vazquez as the fourth starter, the Yankees seem poised to win the AL East for the second consecutive season. Joba Chamberlain will likely return to the bullpen providing a devastating one-two punch for the eighth and ninth innings with Mariano Rivera.

2. Is Javier Vazquez a different pitcher? Last time Vazquez pitched for the Yankees, he was unreliable. Now, manager Joe Girardi doesn’t need him to be a top of the rotation guy, but rather a pitcher who can take the mound every five days and eat innings which is exactly what he did last season for the Atlanta Braves. The Yankees need pitching depth as they used a three man rotation exclusively in last year’s postseason. A solid Vazquez just makes this team even deeper.

Boston Red Sox


1. Do they have enough offense? Boston parted ways with veteran left fielder Jason Bay over the off-season, and signed free agent CF Mike Cameron and 3B Adrian Beltre. Neither one of those acquisitions are known for their hitting. Instead, Boston seems to be counting on pitching and defense to defeat the Yankees.

2. What is David Ortiz’s impact? Big Papi started last season in a horrible slump which prompted questions of his true age and whether or not he was finished as power hitter. He rebounded to finish well, but his batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS were the lowest they had been since 2001. The Red Sox need him to be the Big Papi of old and provide that reliable power needed in the division.

Tampa Bay Rays


1. Does David Price take the next step? Former Vanderbilt stud David Price was labeled a future ace while in college, but he has struggled at times. Perhaps, it was unfair expectations, but the kid is talented and he should show great improvement in his second full season in MLB along with an increased workload.

2. What is Carl Crawford’s future with the Rays? Five tool left fielder Carl Crawford is a free agent at the end of the season. The Rays would love to resign him, but he’s going to cost a lot of money. Plus, rumors of the big market teams, most notably the Yankees, being interested could spur a mid-season trade for prospects if the Rays struggle early and find themselves in an insurmountable deficit in the division standings.

Baltimore Orioles


1. How good is Matt Wieters? He played in 96 games for the Orioles last season and produced a .288 batting average, 9 home runs, and 43 RBIs. Solid for a rookie catcher who has the tough job of dealing with a young pitching staff as well. He’s considered a future star by many and should continue to showcase his talent.

2. Does the starting pitching step up? The Orioles have a good mix of young talent on the team, but one of their biggest weaknesses in 2009 was lack of starting pitching. The O’s starters averaged 5.5 innings per start (and only two complete games all season) which created a huge workload on the bullpen. If the Orioles want to improve their record, they’ll need their starters to go deeper into games.

Toronto Blue Jays


1. How bad will it get? The Blue Jays lost A.J. Burnett and Roy Halladay over the last two off-seasons leaving their starting rotation young and inexperienced. To go along with the loss in talent, Vernon Wells has demised since his $100 million contract. They still have good players in Aaron Hill and Adam Lind, but they’re not enough to carry the Blue Jays for an entire season.

2. How many other moves do they make? With the Halladay trade last off-season, the Blue Jays also dumped right fielder Alex Rios despite a massive contract and sent third baseman Scott Rolen to Cincinnati. It seems logical that Vernon Wells could be traded during the season. Other trades could be determined by how long the organization expects to be in “rebuilding mode.”

The argument for March

Thankfully, February is behind us (apologies to February babies and black people). But I hate February. I hate the 28 straight days of gray skies and brown grass. Mainly, I hate the cold. But now it is the first day of March and we can all rejoice.

March has so much more to offer than the previous two months of the calendar. In reality, it makes the argument for itself.
1. American Red Cross Month – Nothing provides a better feeling deep down inside than giving to charity. And giving to charity during warmer weather makes it that much better.

2. Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – Men, just get that tube stuck up your ass for a few minutes and get it over with. It’ll give you peace of mind, if nothing else.

3. Women’s History Month (United States) – We went from celebrating black people to women. Nothing wrong with that. Plus, this doesn’t discriminate against fat girls like Hollywood. And we all know, fat girls need lovin’ too.

4. Pi Day (March 14) – Remember 3.14 from grade school math class? Celebrate it on the 14th.

5. The Ides of March (15th) – The anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar by Brutus, Cassius, Casca, et al. If your significant other has a bad dream before this day, do NOT leave the house.
6. St. Patrick’s Day (17th) – Nothing like celebrating the patron saint of Ireland. Drink up!

7. Vernal Equinox (19th to 21st) – The date varies from year to year, but kiss winter goodbye and welcome spring. Warm weather is always better.

8. Good Friday and Easter – Christians across the world come together to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Apologies to the Jewish and Muslims among us.

9. Spring Training – The American past time is gearing back up which means summer and more warm weather. Who doesn’t enjoy a day at the ballpark (Jose need not answer)?
10. March Madness- The single greatest American sporting event (that’s scientific fact, no arguments please). Sixty-five teams and three straight weekends of college basketball. It’s upsets and heavy favorites.

As I said, it just makes the argument for itself. What’s not to like about these ten points? March is just the beginning of the great times to come: outdoor sports, warm weather (have I mentioned this enough?), grilling/bbqing/whatever you call it in your region of the country, and all around great times.