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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Boys of summer gearing up for new baseball season

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Ryan Braun

WINNIPEG — The weather is changing and once again it’s time for the Jewish boys of summer to turn their backs on winter and prepare for a new baseball season.

The regular season commences March 28-29, when Seattle plays Oakland in a pair of games in Tokyo.

But the Milwaukee Brewers are already winners upon learning in late February that “The Hebrew Hammer,” left-fielder Ryan Braun, last year’s National League MVP, had his 50-game suspension overturned by baseball arbitrator Shyam Das.

Shockingly, last fall in one of those “Say- it-ain’t-so, Joe” moments, the now-28-year-old highly regarded star tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. What a relief for a club which had already lost Prince Fielder to free agency for the princely sum of $214 million (all figures US) to Detroit.

The son of an Israeli-born Jewish father and a Catholic mother who made his fourth consecutive NL All-Star team when he hit .332, smacked 33 taters, drove in 111 runs and stole 33 bases is now the fourth Jewish player to capture the MVP award. He joins all-time greats Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, Hank Greenberg of the Tigers and Al Rosen of the Indians in holding the distinction.

Boston may possibly have three Jews in the lineup in 2012: Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Kalish and Ryan Lavarnway. Youkilis, 33, who can play first or third, has been injury-prone the past two years but will bat third or fourth in the Red Sox lineup after a year in which he had only 431 at-bats but whacked 32 doubles, 17 home runs and had 80 RBIs, but saw his batting average drop to .258 from .307, perhaps due to sports-hernia issues.

Kalish, 24, an outfielder, is presently on the 40-man roster, but due to injury in 2011 had only 86 at-bats and hit a paltry .209 at AAA Pawtucket. In 2010, however, he was with Boston where he managed 163 at-bats and hit .252, drove in 24 and slammed four homers.

Lavarnway, a 24-year-old catcher, was brought up late last season and went to the plate for the Red Sox only 39 times, hitting .231 and impressing with a pair of homers. The Yale grad earned the call-up when no other player in the Boston organization demonstrated more power. Between AA Portland and AAA Pawtucket, he went deep 32 times, drove in 93, and hit .290 in 116 games.

Cleveland second-sacker Jason Kipnis was a second-round pick in 2009 out of Arizona State. If all goes well, two days after his 25th birthday on April 3, he’ll start against the Blue Jays at home. He came up last July and in 136 at-bats hit a respectable .272 with nine doubles, seven homers and 19 RBIs. And here’s one for Ripley’s Believe it or Not: Kipnis became the first Indians’ second baseman to hit a homer in four consecutive games on Aug. 3. The only other Cleveland player to do so was Jewish third baseman Al Rosen in his rookie year. Precisely one week later, Kipnis had a five-hit, four-run game.

The Twins have added a second Jewish player to their roster to go along with third baseman Danny Valencia. Right-handed hurler Jason Marquis, who spent his entire 12-season major league career in the National League, is bringing his act to Minnesota to perform at pitcher-friendly Target Field.

The 33-year-old will likely be fourth or fifth in the rotation and, being a sinkerball pitcher, will keep his infielders constantly on alert. By today’s standards his one-year pact at $3 million is a bargain.

 Last season, Marquis went 8-5 with an ERA of 3.95 with the Washington Nationals before being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks on July 30, where he was 0-1 and saw his season ERA rise to 4.43. Now in the AL, he won’t have to go to the plate but, interestingly, he was one of the top hitting pitchers in the NL and was on occasion used as a pinch-hitter. Marquis missed the last six weeks of the season with a broken right leg after being hit by a line drive. 

Valencia, 27, is coming off a season in which he hit .246 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs. The Twins are hoping he can improve on his rookie season in 2010, when his batting average was .311 in 322 at-bats. He hits lefthanders much better than righties and is a dead pull hitter with outstanding bat speed. At six-foot-six and 220 pounds, he has lots of power potential. Valencia was raised in Boca Raton, Fla., and is the son of a Jewish mother and a Cuban father. He was raised Jewish, attended Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah.

Sam Fuld has finally, at age 30, found a home as a utility outfielder who brings excitement to the game. The five-foot-10 sparkplug can lead off, steal a base, and make eye-popping snags in left field. With Tampa Bay last season, he came to the plate 308 times and hit .240 with 18 doubles, five triples, three homers and 27 RBIs. He won’t strike fear into the hearts of opposition pitchers, but being an agitator and a base threat with speed that allowed him to steal 20 bases in 2011, he can distract and annoy entire infields.

A self-injecting diabetic – in dugouts during games – the former Cub is a fan favourite.

The Texas Rangers’ Jewish duo is back again with Ian Kinsler, 29, at second and Scott Feldman on the mound. You can’t define the former by his mediocre .255 batting average in 2011, since Kinsler, who is most often used as a leadoff hitter, had unusual power, going deep 32 times and adding 34 doubles along with 77 RBIs. Kinsler can also create havoc with his feet, having stolen 30 bases and scored 121 runs.

Feldman, now 29, was out much of last year, but in limited service, he went 2-1 and had an ERA of 3.94 in 11 games. A former starter, the Hawaiian resident occasionally comes on in relief and only took the ball as a starter twice last year while working 32 innings. Texas tried to trade Feldman last season, but his contract is heavy and its movement clauses are tight. He will most likely be their primary long man who does a fair amount of mopping up.

New York first baseman Ike Davis, the son of former major-league pitcher Ron Davis and Jewish mother Millie from Lithuania, will start at first base for the Mets and likely bat cleanup. He missed much of last season with a serious ankle injury after colliding with teammate David Wright in pursuit of a pop fly in May. He was off to what may have been an all-star season when with only 129 at bats he was hitting .302 and had eight doubles, seven homers and drove in 25 – which matches his present age. The moribund Mets, who finished 25 games out last year, need a healthy season from the six-foot-four, 230-pound Edina, Minn., native who, for his size, is sure-handed around the bag.

Arizona’s bullpen ranked 14th in the majors last season, and for relief in 2012, the Diamondbacks acquired left-handed reliever Craig Breslow, 31, from the Oakland A’s.

In the past Breslow quelled uprisings, or tried to, in Boston, Cleveland, and Minnesota. Last year, he was 0-2, but in 67 appearances he sported an ERA of 3.79. Hence, his salary on a one-year pact for the upcoming season is close to $1.8 million, which was negotiated without going to arbitration.

The New Haven, Conn., native is a strikeout pitcher who in his 295-game career has fanned 235 in 279 innings. He has one more asset: Breslow led all relievers in the majors with five pickoffs.

The Dodgers signed veteran Jewish left-handed reliever John Grabow to a minor-league contract this past winter. The 33-year-old went 3-1 last season with a 4.76 ERA in 62.1 innings with the Cubs. He works especially well with runners in scoring position.

Two other hopefuls on this year’s rosters to watch for are pitcher Michael Schwimer of the Phillies and infielder Josh Satin of the Mets, both of whom had a cup of coffee in the majors last season.

Play ball!

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