There's a market, just a few miles from my house, where I do a lot of my grocery shopping. It's a small market, one of those odd relics from the Pleasantville version of our world, with an honest-to-god meat counter and everything. That meat counter is the primary reason I shop there. I can get anything I need cut to order. They carry Miller hams and Piekutowski krakow. It's like stepping back into a gourmet version of the 50s.
There's another reason I shop there, and that's because the owner of this little market happens to be a friend of the family. Whenever I stop in if he's around we say hello, he inquires after my mother, I inquire after business. Again, picture me grocery shopping in black and white.
Anyhow, the other day I was talking with the owner and buying salmon, and I asked him how business was. He shook his head sadly and said he was honestly considering closing the place down. He had tried to keep his head above water for as long as possible, but things have gotten to the point he's not sure how much longer they can keep going. There's a Schnucks store less than three miles away, a Dierbergs within two exits off the highway, and the great behemoth Wal-Mart off the same exit. Steve and his tiny little grocery store are being squeezed out.
I felt some dismay upon hearing of their plight, both out of concern for a man I can remember giving me Chocolate Soldier sodas when I was little and concern for my own food-buying habits. I certainly can't go to the supercenter and find boutique cured meat. Needless to say I was a bit bummed out walking to the car.
It got me to thinking, don't you sometimes wish life were more like sports? Sports represents the closest thing to a true meritocracy we have in life, a place where you win because you're good. In sports you never get pushed out in spite of the friendliest employees and the highest quality products because you simply can't compete with the bigger guys. If you're good enough, you can win.
The Red Sox and Yankees would beg to differ, of course; they've built their empires on being the biggest and simply outspending the competition. Even so, there's always the Rays or the Twins winning because they're smart.
Reality is far less forgiving, and you don't win in life even when you deserve to. Sometimes the best rise to the top, and sometimes they don't. Life just isn't fair. If it were, my friend Steve's market would be the Twins, competing year after year without the resources of the chain stores.
We love it when the mid-major schools win, even when it ruins our brackets. Seeing the underdog win is fun. Sports are fun because they are, in a very fundamental way we rarely get to experience in life, fair. We love seeing the Red Sox and Yankees fail because it proves there are still some things in life you have to earn, rather than buy.
I wonder if maybe that's the reason it bothers so many people so much when the issue of steroids comes in to the picture. You wouldn't think cheating in a meaningless athletic competition would upset anyone all the much, but it does. Maybe it's because sport is artificially fair, and when you take that away, when you start beating everyone else not because you're better but because you weren't playing by the same set of rules, then sport suddenly becomes life. And life is what we're all trying to get away from.
Scouting reports. Jump. You know the drill.
We're swinging for the fences this week, with a trio of ultra-high upside players for your edification.
Bubba Starling, OF/RHP, Gardner Edgerton High School (Kansas)
6'5", 200 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Bubba Starling is a folk hero. He's Paul Bunyan in cleats. A force of nature, with a big blue ox and a baseball bat he uses to smash big rocks into little rocks.
You think I'm kidding. You think Bubba Starling is just another high school outfield prospect with some good tools who's being hyped up as the next big thing before he's accomplished anything at all. And, well, you might be right. A little. Then again, you would also be wrong.
See, Bubba Starling isn't just another prospect. He's a freak, a true five-tool prospect who makes the term 'five-tool prospect' seem too weak somehow. From a pure talent perspective, Starling's closest comparable just might be Josh Hamilton, only from the other side of the plate. He has that same combination of size, strength, and speed that made Hamilton such a coveted commodity on his way into the draft.
Another, perhaps closer to home, comp would be Austin Wilson. Wilson, you'll remember, was the ultra-toolsy outfielder the Cards drafted in the 12th round last year and tried to lure away from a Stanford commitment. They were ultimately unsuccessful, of course, a fact lamented in all corners of the land.
Starling and Wilson have something besides their tools in common, the thing which makes them perhaps even more equivalent than a player like Hamilton. Both have extremely strong commitments to colleges which take their respective draft statuses from sure thing to wild card. Starling is committed to play football at the University of Nebraska. And baseball at Nebraska. And possibly basketball at Nebraska, too, if he can find time in between his other sports, banging the head cheerleader, and curing cancer with his tears.
Where Starling goes in this year's draft is really anyone's guess. Teams will struggle all spring, trying to decide if they can entice him away from running the option in favour of learning a curveball in the wilds of Low A ball. Perhaps, like Wilson, he will fall, as teams use their draft picks to bring in sure signs, rather than shooting for the moon with the kid who would be quarterback. Or maybe, like Hamilton, Starling will go off the board early in June and head off to a future as an all-star on Babe's back.
Blake Swihart, C, Cleveland High School (New Mexico)
6'1", 175 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
You can probably answer that question yourself if you look just a couple lines up. Swihart is a switch-hitting catcher, which makes him a rare commodity right off the bat. Even beyond that, though, he has the tools to be a monster down the line for the team lucky enough to land him in the draft.
Swihart is already a solid hitter, with an intelligent, mature approach at the plate and a sound swing from both sides. He's got plenty of power potential, too, particularly left-handed. His offensive potential alone rivals that of any player in the draft regardless of position, and when you add in the fact he should be able to remain a catcher his ceiling jumps up several very large notches.
Behind the plate Swihart is still learning the finer points of the craft, but he has all the raw materials to become a plus defensive catcher as well. His arm strength is a moderate plus, and he's quicker and more athletic in his movements than most catchers. He can even run a bit, though he's certainly not a burner. He's actually playing a little all over the diamond so far this spring, but I'm not sure why. Still, teams are going to be looking at him as a catcher, because the value of leaving him behind the plate is just so high.
Catcher always command a premium, whether it be in the form of dollars on a contract or the draft pick spent. Swihart is committed to play baseball at Texas, giving him even more leverage. It wouldn't surprise me to see him go in any number of draft spots in June, much like Starling. Depending on how tough a sign he looks to be, he could go anywhere from a top seven-ish pick to the bottom of the first round. Regardless of where he goes, though, Swihart represents a rare breed of player, one with the potential to make a huge impact in the majors one day. The Cardinals wouldn't seem to be in the market for a catcher in the near future, but a player with Swihart's ceiling would be tough to pass up for any team. Plus, Yadier Molina isn't going to be around forever, and it might not be a bad idea for El Birdos to start considering what life is going to look like in the post-Molina era.
Matt Purke, LHP, TCU
6'4", 180 lbs
So, what's so great about this guy?
Two years ago Purke was one of the most sought-after high school prospects in the country, going to the Texas Rangers in the first round. There was a bit of a contract snafu, which ended with the Rangers under MLB control and Purke going to TCU. It hasn't been worst thing in the world, as Purke has established himself as one of the premiere college pitchers in the nation and goes into the 2011 draft just as highly regarded as he was way back when.
The good with Purke is very, very good. When you watch him pitch, the player who most comes to mind is Jake Peavy. Or, at least, a mirror-image Peavy who pitches with his left arm and is even more impressive because of it. There are times Purke will throw a pitch that literally seems to defy the laws of physics the way it moves. He throws in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball consistently, and the run and sink on the pitch make it even better than the velocity alone. He features a plus breaking ball as well, a power curve that can still get a little slurvy at times. Some draft reports have him throwing a slider separate from his curve, but I have yet to see one on tape I could definitively say was a slider and not a curve that tilted a bit much.
The biggest difference between the 2011 model of Purke and the one coming out of high school is the changeup. It was a little-used pitch two years ago that showed promise but little in the way of consistency. Now Purke's change is much more developed (though he still doesn't throw it as often as you would like to see from a developmental standpoint), and gives him a legitimate third weapon. In fact, there are nights when I would say his changeup actually exceeds his breaking ball in quality, though it still wants to come and go at times.
The bad stuff about Purke is almost all tied to his arm action, which scares the living hell out of an awful lot of people. He's a slinger, with a whippy arm action that generates tons of power, along with tons of criticism. He's been durable to this point, but any team looking to invest in the future of Matt Purke would have to make up their minds just how concerned they are about his delivery.
The other real question mark on Purke has to do with his price tag. He turned down $6 million from the Rangers in 2009, and is a draft-eligible sophomore this year, giving him enormous leverage. Talent and production alone, he's probably a top-five player. Injury worries and signability, he could drop like a stone in June. Purke is currently making his way back from a finger blister, and plenty of eyes will be on him as he ramps things up this spring.
Well, that's all, folks. Next week I'll wrap up the spring surprises game and preview Opening Day. We're coming down to it in a hurry.
The Baron's Playlist for the 23rd of March, 2011: The 1990s in Video Form #3