Tuesday July 7th, 2015

1. Lester finally connects

Cubs ace Jon Lester finally collected the first base hit of his major league career on Monday night, ending a record-setting streak of futility.

Lester started his major league career 0-for-66, with the first 36 of those hitless at-bats coming in his nine seasons with the Red Sox and two months with the Athletics. That stretch included 22 strikeouts, one walk, one sacrifice fly and five sacrifice bunts—pathetic, yes, but understandable given the designated hitter rule that kept him from accumulating more than seven plate appearances in a given regular season.

After signing a $155 million deal with Chicago this past off-season, Lester has been forced to take the bat in his hands with more regularity, and the previously unfamiliar wood implement has become his arch-nemesis. Through his first 14 starts—none of which have been in interleague play—he went 0-for-30 with 15 strikeouts and nothing else, not even a single sacrifice of any stripe. On May 27, he broke the record of 57 hitless at-bats to start a career held by former Padres pitcher Joey Hamilton.

In the second inning of Monday night's game against the Cardinals in Chicago, Lester finally broke through at the expense of John Lackey. With two outs and runners on first and second, he laced a comebacker that deflected off Lackey's right foot and was too far out of the reach of shortstop Jhonny Peralta for him to make a play:

Not only did Lester receive a huge ovation from the Wrigley Field crowd, he pointed skyward with both fingers, as one does on the occasion of ending an 0-for-66 slump. Via STATS LLC, the longest streaks of hitless plate appearances to start a career belong to pitchers Lester (73), Hamilton (66, 1994–95), Ron Herbel (63, 1964–65), Luke Walker (56, 1966–70), Don Carman (53, 1984–87) and Steve Stone (50, 1971–72).

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Alas, Lester's big knock went for naught. With the bases loaded, the next batter, Addison Russell, struck out, and the Cubs never did plate a run against Lackey and company. Lester took a no-hitter into the seventh inning and yielded only two runs across seven innings, but St. Louis went onto a 6–0 win. With his subsequent groundout, the 31-year-old southpaw’s career battling line is now .015/.029/.015 for a -88 OPS+. In other words, he basically broke the metric; to explain what a -88 OPS+ represents, I would have to pull out your tongue.

As for Lester's pitching, he's rounding into form. Rocked for a 6.23 ERA in his four April starts, he's posted a 2.76 mark since, lowering his season mark to 3.48, accompanied by a 3.31 FIP. His ERA only equates to a 108 ERA+, 12 points below his career mark, but as Monday night proved, he's making strides in adapting to his new surroundings.

As for Lackey, who's been even better for the Cardinals (3.09 ERA, 3.37 FIP), he got in a playful jab at his former Red Sox teammate. Via the St. Louis Post-Dispach's Derrick Goold:

Asked if he would autograph the ball from Lester’s first hit, Lackey nodded.

“I’ll autograph it,” Lackey said before meeting Lester later Monday night after the game, “and I’ll put, ‘You lost,’ too.”

John Locher/AP

2. Seager tops midseason prospect lists

While much of the baseball world has been focused on the All-Star selections, Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America published their midseason top-50 prospects lists on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. While the two differ in most spots, they agree on who's No. 1: Corey Seager, currently playing shortstop for the Dodgers' Triple A Oklahoma City affiliate.

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The brother of Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager and the 18th pick of the 2012 draft out of a North Carolina high school, Seager entered the year ranked No. 5 by BA and No. 7 by BP. He began the season at Double A Tulsa and was promoted after 20 games in which he hit .375/.407/.675 with five home runs in 86 PA. Since then, he's had his ups and downs at OKC, hitting .280/.331/.466 with eight homers in 254 PA.

For as strong as his bat has been, his defense has opened eyes as well. Though he's played 12 games at third base to give the Dodgers more options in the near term, the general consensus now is that the 6'4", 215-pounder is solid enough to stick at shortstop for the foreseeable future. That said, Los Angeles is in no rush to promote him even given Jimmy Rollins' struggles (.212/.266/.324, -0.8 WAR).

​Seager isn't the only Dodger on the upper reaches of the two lists. Julio Urias, an 18-year-old lefty, ranks No. 3 by BP and No. 4 by BA. He's made just seven appearances this year as he works his way back from a midsummer break at Tulsa to have elective surgery to remove a growth from his left eyelid. Nevertheless, he's shown enough for BA to gush, "Scouts and coaches can’t believe someone this polished is only 18 years old."

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​Now in his third professional season, Urias has more than held his own at every level despite being roughly six years younger than his leagues’ average hitter. After pitching to a 2.48 ERA in short-season A ball in 2013 and a 2.36 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine at Class A Rancho Cucamonga as a 17-year-old (!) in '14, Urias has posted a 3.00 ERA with 11.5 K/9 and a 5.1 K/BB ratio in 36 innings at Tulsa this year. By shutting him down temporarily, the Dodgers have left open the possibility that he could contribute innings at the major league level later this season without blowing through an innings limit.

The two lists both exclude players currently in the majors, even if they're still technically rookies, so the likes of Minnesota's Byron Buxton (who ranked No. 1 by BP and No. 2 by BA in the spring) and Cleveland's Francisco Lindor (No. 4 and No. 9, respectively) are ineligible, as are those who have achieved enough at-bats or innings to no longer be considered prospects, such as the Cubs' Kris Bryant (No. 5 and No. 1, respectively); meanwhile, recently demoted Rangers prospect Joey Gallo is still eligible. Here are the two top 10s:

Rank Baseball America Baseball Prospectus
1 Corey Seager, Dodgers, SS Corey Seager, Dodgers, SS
2 Lucas Giolito, Nationals, RHP Lucas Giolito, Nationals, RHP
3 Joey Gallo, Rangers, 3B Julio Urias, Dodgers, LHP
4 Julio Urias, Dodgers, LHP J.P. Crawford, Phillies, SS
5 J.P. Crawford, Phillies, SS Joey Gallo, Rangers, 3B
6 Kyle Schwarber, Cubs, C/OF Nomar Mazara, Rangers, OF
7 Tyler Glasnow, Pirates, RHP Aaron Nola, Phillies, RHP
8 Orlando Arcia, Brewers, SS Kyle Schwarber, Cubs, C/OF
9 Trea Turner, Nationals, SS Daniel Norris, Blue Jays, LHP
10 Alex Reyes, Cardinals, RHP Jose Berrios, Twins, RHP

As you can see, there's a lot of agreement toward the top, and it continues further down; Red Sox second base prospect Yoan Moncada is 11th on both lists. Norris began the year in the Blue Jays' rotation and could return there later this season, while Schwarber got a brief taste of big league action during interleague play a few weeks back.

Via BP's list, the biggest gainers since their spring Top 101 are Schwarber (77th then), Nola (60th), Berrios (48th) and Mazara (40th). Those jumps are nothing compared to that of Arcia—the younger brother of Twins outfielder Oswaldo—who was 94th in the spring. Schwarber, Nola and Turner (who previously was 65th on BA's list) were all 2014 first-round picks whose quick development has boosted their stocks considerably.

In terms of bulk, the Rangers placed an MLB-high five players on BP's list: Gallo, Mazara, outfielder Nick Williams (21st), righty Jake Thompson (30th) and catcher Jorge Alfaro (34th); all but Gallo play for the team's Double A Frisco affiliate. The Red Sox led BA's list with five: Moncada, third baseman Rafael Devers (15th), outfielder Manuel Margot (24th) and lefties Brian Johnson (38th) and Henry Owens (47th).

While prospects constitute something of an abstract notion to most MLB-focused fans, this coming Sunday affords a grand opportunity to see some of these players via the All-Star Futures Game in Cincinnati. Crawford, Giolito, Nola, Schwarber, Turner and Williams are all on the U.S. team roster, while Arcia, Berrios, Devers, Margot and Mazara will be on that of the World Team. The game airs at 3 p.m. on MLB Network.

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