ESPN MLB analysts Curt Schilling and John Kruk (Sunday Night Baseball) participated in ESPN’s MLB Opening Night/Opening Day media conference call earlier today. Schilling and Kruk will serve as analysts for ESPN2’s exclusive presentation of MLB Opening Night presented by Scotts – St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs – on Sunday, April 5, at 8 p.m. ET. ESPN will also televise an Opening Day quadruple header on Monday, April 6, with more than 13 hours of continuous coverage. For more details, please visit ESPN Media Zone. Here are the highlights from today’s call:
On Chicago Cubs Addison Russell, Kris Bryant, and Javier Baez
JOHN KRUK: I think with Javier Baez, I think it’s just a matter of can he make enough contact to stay in the Big Leagues or get back to the Big Leagues and stay there. It’s completely up to him. The thing with Kris Bryant, it’s a numbers thing. They want to keep him for that extra year, and his agent wants him to get to the Big Leagues as quickly as possible, which all agents wish that for their clients, but lose that year of free agency by starting him in Chicago to start the season. I think as soon as Bryant is eligible, I think he comes up.
But again, let’s see how he does. Let’s see how he does in the Minor Leagues. I know he has nothing to prove. He had an unbelievable year last year, but sometimes I think even though this kid has a chance to be great, you never really know until he does it, and I think that’s the wait‑and‑see thing with me is when he comes up, can he perform and not put the pressure on himself to stay there. I think with Baez, again, it’s just ‑‑ you can’t strike out as much as he does and expect to stay in the Big Leagues unless you’re going to hit 40 or 50 homers. He has the power potential, but he doesn’t make enough contact to do it. To me, the Cubs want him in the Big Leagues because of what he can supply offensively, but they can’t put him in the Big Leagues if he’s going to strike out 250, 300 times in a year.
CURT SCHILLING: I’ve seen enough of Kris Bryant from a pitcher’s perspective that in my opinion he’s ready. I get why they’re doing what they’re doing. That’s what you do; if you’re Theo Epstein you use the rules and you look as forward as you can, and he’s a forward‑thinking guy. He’s looking at 2021. My perspective on that is as a player. As a player, 2015 is the only season I care about, and if the 25 guys headed north aren’t the best 25, then I’m probably going to have a meeting with someone and say something about that because that’s one of those situations where as a player, you know they expect you to give everything you have to win, which is fine, but I expect the same thing from my front office, and so I need to find out if we’re truly supposed to contend this year, which I think they believe they can, what are you telling us by the fact that you’re not bringing this kid with us. I think he’s ready.
I think Addison Russell probably impressed me almost as much as anybody this spring with his consistency. He’s a lot better than I thought. That’s not saying ‑‑ I’m a pitcher. What I saw from him on the field and at the plate, I think he’s mature beyond his years.
On the National League Central
CURT SCHILLING: I think I said it the other day, the NL Central, whoever finishes in last I don’t think is going to be a last‑place team. I think much like the AL Central, for the most part, all of the clubs are kind of ‑‑ well, other than St. Louis and Pittsburgh, who I think are ahead of the curve, all the clubs seem to be coming around somewhat at the same time. I wonder about Cincinnati. If Votto is healthy and Cueto is Cueto and they get a couple surprises, they could be in contention; they could be a five‑team race. For me I want to see how they all get out of Spring Training from a health perspective.
JOHN KRUK: I think it’s St. Louis and Pittsburgh and then the others are playing for third, just on paper. But I think the thing with Pittsburgh is they have to stay healthy and Andrew McCutchen is the main guy. He has to stay healthy. You don’t know what you’re going to get from Pedro Alvarez, and the Cardinals are just the Cardinals; every year you think, well, maybe they’re not as good as you think they are. They’re better than what you think they are, and they just know how to win.
That culture that they’ve built with starting with Tony LaRussa passing down to Matheny and Adam Wainwright getting it from Chris Carpenter, they just know how to win and they know how to pitch. They’ll play better defense.
So to say that the Cubs and the Reds and the Brewers are on par with the Cardinals right now would be kind of silly, but again, like Curt said, stranger things have happened and teams that you didn’t think could contend all of a sudden jump in it and they believe in themselves.
On New York Yankees’ Dellin Betances
CURT SCHILLING: Listen, with few exceptions, I don’t ever remember throwing as hard in Spring Training as I did during the regular season. You know, I always look at starters for the most part in Spring Training and relievers and I add anywhere from three to five miles an hour once the lights come on.
I don’t know from an average perspective how much he’s down, but that’s one of the things I’m not worried about as long as it’s three, four, five miles an hour. That comes when opening day comes. I always believe you go through stages as a pitcher, and it’s a long toss from the mound to a bullpen, from the bullpen to batting practice, batting practice to Spring Training games, and then Spring Training games to regular season. And every one of those leaps your velocity moves a little bit and the biggest one is the last one. That last one, that Spring Training to the season is the one you just can’t ‑‑ there’s nowhere you can go to get that other than a Big League diamond.
On whether the Boston Red Sox have an ace
CURT SCHILLING: Well, there are five starters good enough to get them from April to September, I think, as long as they stay healthy. I think that any time you have to pause to answer that question, you team doesn’t have a legit No. 1. If Lester was here, you’d say Jon Lester. But it’s not going to be Clay Buchholz. I don’t know the other guys ‑‑ I think Joe Kelly has a chance if he’s healthy.
But I think that’s why ‑‑ you’ve seen the last couple years, you’ve seen teams win 96, 97 games and go three‑and‑out in the playoffs because they don’t have a ball ‑‑ they don’t have that guy to hand the ball to and say, okay, this guy is pitching ‑‑ they don’t have their Madison Bumgarner, and if you don’t have that, I think it makes October tougher.
JOHN KRUK: You can get through with five good starters, but when it comes down to we have to win this big game, you know, if you’re matching up against another team’s No. 1 who can shut you down, you can’t count on the offense to give you five or six runs, you’re going to be in trouble, and that’s why I think Boston is going to be in trouble. Like Curt said, they don’t have one guy you can look at and say, okay, he’s our guy. He’s our guy. If we have a four‑game losing streak he’s the one that’s going to stop it or if we have a three‑game winning streak he’s the one that’s going to continue it. That guy is not there.
If you’re a Red Sox fan would you love to see them go out and get Cole Hamels or whoever is available that could be that guy? Absolutely, and if they did, you’d have to think, okay, now they’re the No. 1 ‑‑ as far as on paper goes, they’re the team to beat in the American League East, but they don’t, and that’s why to me they’re right there with everyone else. I don’t think there’s one team in that division you can look at and say, wow, they are going to be unbelievable this year. I think the American League East has taken a step back. I think every team is a good team but not a great team.
CURT SCHILLING: When you look at the really good general managers and the good organizations, they leave Spring Training with a plan, and that plan involves, hey, we’ll make a move at the deadline if we’re in this situation. I think if the Red Sox are in a situation at the deadline to make a move, they’re in probably as good if not a better position than anybody to make that Cole Hamels move.
On Pete Rose
JOHN KRUK: If they’re smart. What better time to do it. I’ve read different things where it’s going to be ‑‑ he’d have to abide by a restricted role in Major League Baseball. It’s not like he’s got free reign to coach or manage or do whatever. He’s going to have limited things he’s allowed to do through the rules of Major League Baseball. But I think, look, he’s served his time. He’s done what he’s had to do, his made his amends. Even though it took a while to admit what a lot of people thought he was doing, you know, it’s over. He’s a great ambassador. Let him back in.
CURT SCHILLING: I’m going to probably go a little different direction here. If they’re going to do it, do it, but at the end of the day, for me, given the Lance Armstrong type ordeal we spent decades listening to, if you can guarantee me he didn’t bet on his own team, fine, but I don’t know that anybody can make that guarantee.
On Johnny Cueto’s future with the Cincinnati Reds
JOHN KRUK: He’s a legit top‑of‑the‑rotation pitcher, so any team can use him. Again, Curt said it, the trade deadline, if Cole Hamels decides maybe I don’t want to go to Boston, Johnny Cueto is available, if he’s available. I think the Reds are going to play it out and see. If they’re in it, then you’ve got to keep him and ride it and see how far he can take you, but if they’re 10 games out at the break, you might say, okay, maybe it’s time now to move him and get some pieces for 2016.
CURT SCHILLING: If the Reds are in it, I think they keep him and probably try to do something. If they’re not, it comes down to who can pay the best price and who’s willing to pay the best price, because it seems like with the new way the game is structured, trades at the deadline are dictated as much by dollars as they are by talent if not more so. If you’re going to trade for Johnny Cueto, you trade for him to make the playoffs this year.
On Randy Johnson’s Hall of Fame career
JOHN KRUK: Are we wondering if he’s a Hall of Famer? I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. The thing with Randy is his career was very similar to Nolan Ryan’s. Control issues when he first came up. Actually I guess Nolan was the one who helped him figure that thing out, and once he did, you know, Rafael Palmeiro said it best, he goes, I’ll play 160 games a year, but he said the two times we face him, there’s no use putting me out there because I know I’m going 0‑fer, and I would feel the same way. Just the one at‑bat that I’ve had off him, and I still have yet to see one pitch he’s thrown, I just can’t see it getting any better. I was glad I never had to face him again. But he’s intimidating, he’s 6’10”, he throws 100 miles an hour with that slider. I mean, he’s as good as it gets for a left‑handed pitcher in the history of baseball.
CURT SCHILLING: You may have seen some lefties like Koufax with a better run, but I think he’s the most dominating left‑hander that ever played the game, given the era which he pitched in. Randy ‑‑ he was hard to get along with because he was just a different cat. One of the things that made him different was he was taller and threw harder than anybody ever. He was 6’11”, he had about a 12‑foot wingspan, and while that’s not enough, that gave him an advantage over everybody, and he had a desire to be great. And I think at the end of the day, his focus, his intensity was, A, the reason I think it was hard for him to enjoy it while he did it, but B, why he was so good. We got along right up until probably sometime in 2003 when we kind of stopped. We weren’t as close when I left there as we were when I got there. It was hard.
On Clay Buchholz as an ace
CURT SCHILLING: Well, I don’t think he wants to be one. I think there’s a level of commitment mentally and physically you have to have, and there’s a ‑‑ you have to have a little bit of a dark side, I think, in the sense that losing has to hurt so bad that you do whatever you can do to make sure it never happens again. I’ve never felt like that was ‑‑ Clay is just kind of, hey, I’m going to pitch today. He’s unbelievably talented, obviously, physically, but there’s another level to the game, and I think that the reason he’s been inconsistent, Cy Young potential in numbers one year to what the hell happened next year is upstairs. I think it’s all above his shoulders.
On the importance of a pitcher’s familiarity with a catcher
CURT SCHILLING: That’s very pitcher-dependent. I relied on my catcher, and my catcher was such a big part of what I did, until he couldn’t be. There are times when I threw to people that I wasn’t normally throwing to. You make out of it what you have to make out of it. It is what it is. I don’t know that there’s anybody on that staff that was Vazquez or bust, but to me, I would always take the guy that could call a game and throw over the guy that could hit because I just figured I wasn’t going to give up any if my catcher was really good, so I need my catcher to be good. Luckily, I had both for a lot of years.
On Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello
JOHN KRUK: Well, again, he fits in with pretty much every starter they have right now. He’s a legitimate No. 3 guy, possibly a 2. We talked about it earlier on this call, that they really don’t have a No. 1. Whoever pitches opening day, I guess they announced Buchholz was going to pitch opening day. I think that’s just because he’s been there longer than anyone else. I don’t think it’s a reward for great performance from the past.
And again, I think Rick Porcello, I love the fact that he turned the corner last year. His changeup was a lot better, secondary pitches were better. I think any time ‑‑ you can say what you want about any ballpark, but a guy who keeps the ball down in the strike zone, a sinkerball pitcher has a better chance in Fenway than I think ‑‑ Curt was an anomaly because he was a high fastball power pitcher who could pitch in any ballpark with his stuff because he trusted it so much. I think a guy like Porcello you have to have that great sink on his ball, but he did start elevating the ball last year with a four‑seamer that was one to watch because it was unexpected, but I think he’s going to put up another strong year because he’s going to get a lot of offensive support from the Red Sox’ offense like he did in Detroit.
On the American League Central and Minnesota Twins
CURT SCHILLING: I think their division is probably one of, if not the most competitive. I don’t think anybody looks at that division and sees Minnesota, at least I don’t, anywhere but fifth. I don’t know that they have the roster to be a .500 club given the competition in that division. There’s some good young talent. They’re doing some things. Ervin Santana, I like Ervin Santana, he’s got good stuff, but if that’s the guy hanging your hat on, like hey, this is what we did last winter, I think you’ve got a ways to go.
JOHN KRUK: And when you’re playing in a tough division, especially with some teams that can swing the bats, you’ve got to catch the ball. I mean, you look at what it did to Cleveland last year. Cleveland was one of the worst defensive teams last year, and it showed, and that’s why they had to fight and scrap to stay competitive. You can’t ask your pitching to get four outs an inning, you can’t ask your offense to score six runs a game to make up for your lousy defense. The Twins have to catch the ball, and that’s always been a staple of them, but last year it seemed like to be a lot of mistakes. Of course they had a lot of youth in their lineup.
I’m very good friends with the guy who was Double‑A manager the last few years is now going to be back in A‑Ball, Jeff Smith, and he had all those young kids coming up, and he said the potential is there, it’s just to take time because they’re all so young. But he said they are talented and they can hit. He said, can they catch the ball, that’s the big question. If they catch it, they’ll be competitive. If they don’t, like Curt said, you’ve got to look at fifth place.
On the Baltimore Orioles
JOHN KRUK: I don’t know if Chris Davis is coming back from injury or just forgot to get his doctor’s permission slip. You know, look, talk to Buck. Of course Wieters has been slowed up, but he says Machado is looking good, he says Davis is looking really good. How do you replace what Nelson Cruz did? But you have to remember Nelson Cruz had an unbelievable year. Chris Davis did nothing. So if Chris Davis can get back to what he was in 2013, you’ve replaced Nelson Cruz’s offense. I think the big thing is who’s going to be their lead‑off hitter now that Markakis is gone? Who bats lead‑off for this team? That’s always been an issue.
CURT SCHILLING: I always go to the fact that Buck Showalter is going to be worth three or four or five wins in the division no matter what. I think he’s one of the best game managers – he’s the best game manager I ever played for, played with or played against. But those guys coming back, they did what they did last year without any of them. Now you have Tillman a year older, Kevin Gausman, who I think is a potential kind of a Matt Harvey in the American League, and I think they’re going to see them probably go from the pen to the rotation with him. They’ve got young arms. For me that team, it’s going to be just like last year, it’s going to be about health. I think Chris Davis ends up getting back to who he was, and if they win it by 12 games, I wouldn’t be shocked.
On intriguing MLB storylines for 2015
JOHN KRUK: It’s always intriguing how the American League East is going to play out, but to me it’s the National League West. This is the Giants’ odd year, so what do we expect from them? You know, everyone is talking about the Padres with all the moves they made, but really their defense isn’t going to be very good, and yet they do have pitching. But can they score enough runs in that division in big ballparks? To say that they’re going to be a favorite ‑‑ everyone is counting them among the top ten teams in baseball, I think that to me is a wait‑and‑see because they’re not as good as the Dodgers, and you know, again, it’s just going to be interesting to see if they can catch the ball enough to stay competitive.
CURT SCHILLING: For me all the story lines this year center on the same thing, and that’s the influx of incredibly talented young players. They’re on the mound, at the plate, everywhere. The amount of talent coming to the Big Leagues is staggering to me. I think pitching, young pitching is as good as it’s ever been, as deep as it’s ever been. I think this is the year Mike Trout becomes national. He should already be, but I think this is the year where people look and good, yeah, he probably could be the greatest player we’ve ever seen. I’m looking for Matt Harvey to be that guy, and again, Gausman and all the Cubs’ young players. There’s just so much young talent. It’s exciting.
On the Los Angeles Dodgers
CURT SCHILLING: I think they can go all the way. I think they could have gone all the way last year. My question is going to be who’s running that clubhouse and how are they running that clubhouse. They’ve got Yasiel Puig who the sky is the limit for what he can do on the field, and unfortunately I think the sky’s the limit for what he can do off the field, too. Do they have a presence to keep that under wraps and to keep him kind of within ‑‑ in between the hash marks? They’re going to pitch; they’re going to be amazing on the mound. I think they’re also going to be players for Cole Hamels given the way that they’re spending money and have made it clear they will spend money. They have some talent. I think they’re in it unless something devastating happens physically for them.
JOHN KRUK: I think they’re going to have trouble replacing Jansen for the first part of the season, but you know, they’re just so talented with their starting staff, great news about Ryu that it’s nothing serious with his shoulder or elbow or whatever it was, and they still have the best pitcher on the planet, even though he struggled in the postseason. He’s still the best pitcher on the planet, and I don’t think his postseason last year is going to affect how he pitches opening day and every start throughout the season. But they have to stay healthy, and if they do, they’re as good as anyone in baseball if they stay healthy and they play up to their potential. Yeah, they can go all the way or they can be like they were last year and fall short in the postseason again.