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Three Strikes: Velasquez shines for Phillies, White’s remarkable start

Vince Velasquez pitches a gem as Phillies get their first win, behind Tyler White’s unexpectedly hot start for the Astros and more.

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V for Victory

The Philadelphia Phillies won their first game of the 2016 season Saturday night, snapping the four-game losing streak with which they started the season by beating the defending National League champion Mets 1-0 on a frigid night in New York. Even more significantly, that win was in large part due to an outstanding Phillies debut by 23-year-old righty Vincent Velasquez, who was arguably the best player acquired in December’s Ken Giles trade.

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Having posted the worst record in the majors last year and continued their rebuilding efforts during the off-season, most notably by trading relief ace Giles, the Phillies entered the new season with little hope of showing on-field improvement. Nonetheless, having cashed in the last of their valuable veterans, the Phillies are rapidly approaching the turning point at the nadir of their rebuild. That turning point will arrive via the maturation of young players such as Velasquez, 23-year-old third baseman Maikel Franco, 24-year-old centerfielder Odubel Herrera (both of whom went 1 for 4 in this game) and 22-year-old ace-to-be Aaron Nola, who dominated the Reds on Wednesday, as well as yet-to-arrive prospects such as shortstop J.P. Crawford, outfielders Nick Williams and Roman Quinn, catcher Jorge Alfaro and pitchers Jake Thompson and Mark Appel, all of whom could be in the major leagues by next season.

Velasquez, who made seven starts and 12 relief appearances for the Astros last year but arrived in Philadelphia with all six of his team-controlled years remaining, looked very mature indeed in his 2016 debut, holding last year’s pennant winners scoreless over six innings while striking out nine, allowing just two singles, a double and three walks. Mixing a wicked curve with mid-90s fastballs and a mid-80s changeup, Velasquez out-dueled wily Mets veteran Bartolo Colon, a pitcher 19 years his senior, passing a 1–0 lead to the Phillies bullpen. Though it had allowed 15 runs in 10 2/3 innings of work through the first four games of the season, not counting the two inherited runners it allowed to score on Wednesday, on this occasion, the Phillies’ relief corps did its job. Hector Neris and lefty Rule 5 pick Daniel Stumpf combined for a scoreless seventh. Veteran David Hernandez worked a perfect eighth, striking out two, and journeyman Jeanmar Gomez needed just six pitches to pick up his second career save in the ninth.

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The victory leaves the Braves, who dropped to 0–4 with a 12–2 loss to the Cardinals, and Twins, who fell to 0–5 via a 7–0 shutout at the hands of the Royals in Ian Kennedy’s Kansas City debut, as the last winless teams in the majors this year. The real victory for the Phillies, however, wasn’t finally filling the win column in the standings. It was seeing Velasquez, who had to battle for the fifth spot in the Philadelphia rotation in spring training, pitch up to his potential against one of the best teams in the league. If he can continue to be the pitcher the Mets had to contend with Saturday, the Giles trade will be a success due to his contributions alone.

The Other Story

Quick, who is leading the majors in hitting in this young season. Trevor Story? Robinson Cano? Starlin Castro? Jean Segura? Wrong on all accounts, it’s the Astros rookie first baseman Tyler White, who went 1 for 2 with a walk in the Astros 6–4 win over the Brewers Saturday night and is now hitting .667 (10 for 15) on the season and slugging 1.400 for a 2.067 OPS. Did I mention that White’s lone hit Saturday night was a 427-foot home run off the batter’s eye in Miller Park’s centerfield, making Saturday night’s contest his third straight game with a home run? Story has been the sensation of the first week of the regular season for good reason, but White is arguably an even better story.

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The Rockies’ shortstop, who went 1 for 5 Saturday night, his first major-league game without a home run, was a first supplemental-round pick in 2011 (45th overall, compensation for losing Octavio Dotel to free agency) and a top-100 prospect prior to the 2013 season. His stock fell after a poor 2013 season, but he was still Troy Tulowitzki’s heir apparent at the time of last year’s trade and the clear choice to replace Jose Reyes at shortstop for the Rockies once it became clear that Reyes’s legal problems would keep him out of camp this spring.

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White, on the other hand, was a 33rd round pick in 2013. The best 33rd round picks in draft history were slick-fielding second baseman Orlando Hudson and journeyman right-hander Walt Terrell. Of the few others who even made the majors, most were non-closer relief pitchers or bench players. In camp as a non-roster invitee this spring, White wasn’t even supposed to be in the majors this year. His comment in Baseball Prospectus 2016 concludes, “Even if the bat were real, he’s at the back of a fairly long line, and doesn’t need to be added to the 40-man until next winter.” The competition for the Astros’ first base job this spring was supposed to be between Jon Singleton and top hitting prospect A.J. Reed. In highlighting Reed in our AL West Spring Training Preview, Jay Jaffe suggested that the alternative to those two was, “cobbling together a job share from among the likes of Preston Tucker, Matt Duffy, Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena.” White didn’t earn a mention.

Then White did in spring training what he has done at every opportunity in his professional career: rake. A .311/.422/.489 hitter in the minor leagues who hit .362/.467/.559 in 259 plate appearances in his first exposure to Triple A last year, White hit .353/.443/.588 this spring to climb over Singleton, who continued to struggle, Reed, who had never played at Triple A, Duffy, who made the team as a backup corner infielder, and the rest. Gonzalez drew the Opening Day start and went 0 for 4, while the right-handed hitting White came off the bench to pinch-hit for left-handed designated hitter Tucker and singled in his first major league at-bat. He has started every game since at first base, going 2 for 4 with a double on Wednesday, 3 for 4 with a homer on Thursday, 3 for 4 with a homer and a double on Friday and adding another home run and a walk on Saturday.

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This is all small-sample theater, to be sure, and the first base job will likely still be Reed’s in the long run. However, the 25-year-old White is making a case to be a part of the Astros’ future in a way he was never expected to be. His most likely role would be as a right-handed designated hitter, making him a younger, cheaper replacement for Evan Gattis, who will turn 30 in August and has a $5.2 million option for next year, one with less power than Gattis but a far greater ability to hit for average and get on base. Until Reed forces the Astros’ hand, however, White has solidified his grip on the first base job for a team heavily favored to make the playoffs and, as of the conclusion of Saturday night’s action, he was also statistically the best hitter in the major leagues for the 2016 season.

Cinching Their Belt

Brandon Belt has a far firmer grip on the first base job in San Francisco, as he and the Giants came to terms on Saturday on a new five-year contract that will keep Belt with the Giants through his age-33 season in 2021. Belt was due to reach free agency after the 2017 season, but with this new deal, the Giants have added four years of team control at $16 million apiece for a total value of $72.8 million over the next five years, with Belt maintaining his $6.2 million salary for the current season.

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A fifth-round pick out of the University of Texas in 2009, Belt launched himself into the prospect stratosphere with an absurd professional debut in 2010 split among the top three levels of the minor leagues. The Giants’ Opening Day first baseman in 2011, Belt’s emergence in the majors has been far more gradual as he battled first a position crunch with the Giants’ retention of Aubrey Huff after their championship season in 2010, then injury—a wrist fracture that June, a fractured thumb and reoccurring concussion symptoms in 2014. He has also battled the Giants’ pitching-friendly ballpark and the unrealistic expectations set by his 2010 season, but has nonetheless been the starting first baseman on two subsequent World Series winners and has been a four-win player in each of his last two healthy seasons. Belt has never hit 20 home runs or driven in even 70 runs in a season, but last year he largely replicated his 2013 performance, establishing a .280/.360/.480 line as his apparent level, which is well north of league average for a first baseman (.260/.338/.452 in 2015) even before correcting for Belt’s home ballpark.

Using our What’s He Really Worth formula to evaluate those four post-free-agency seasons, if Belt can stay healthy, he’ll be worth $73.2 million for those four seasons alone, even if his decline begins next year, based on a 2016 projection of 4.0 wins above replacement. That suggests that this is a good investment for the Giants, who now control the entirety of their homegrown infield through at least 2020. Second and third basemen Joe Panik and Matt Duffy aren’t due to hit free agency until after the 2020 season. Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford, who signed an extension for comparable money in November, are signed through 2021. In addition, catcher Buster Posey, the team’s best player, is under team control through 2022 via a club option for that season, his age-35 campaign. That’s a tremendous core of talent that should keep the Giants in contention for the remainder of Belt’s new contract both by virtue of their own contributions and the team’s resulting financial stability and flexibility, which will continue to enable spending elsewhere on the roster, such as this off-season’s pitching outlay.