July 15, 2024

Rickwood Field game was baseball perfection, plus quick 2024 MLB Draft primer

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Baseball at Rickwood Field was pure magic. Plus: Luis Robert Jr.’s trade market, a peek at this year’s draft and the baseball card of the week! I’m Levi Weaver, here with Ken Rosenthal, welcome to The Windup!

Rickwood Field delivers in every way

It was always going to be special. How could it not be? Birmingham’s Rickwood Field was built in 1910. That’s older than Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, and it’s where Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson and countless others played in Negro Leagues games. The history alone was enough to make it a beautiful night.

But doing it just days into remembrances of Willie Mays, who also began his professional career at Rickwood in 1948 … whew. It felt too big to fully process or even take in. No sport comes close to baseball for this kind of string-section, big-emotion grandeur, and this was that, at its best. The highlights:

  • Credit to planners — the pre-game show was done to perfection, as Jon Batiste (who I have previously suggested should perform at a Super Bowl) played a three-song set, wearing a Birmingham Black Barons jersey while dozens of players from the Negro Leagues were ushered in by members of the Giants and Cardinals.
  • Then Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Willie’s son Michael Mays made their way to the microphone. Mays spoke to the crowd: “Birmingham, I’ve been telling y’all, if there was any way on Earth my father could be here, he would. Well, he’s found another way …  Let him hear you, he’s listening. Make all the noise you can.”
  • The crowd obliged, chanting “Wil-lie” until Batiste & Co. began playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (often referred to as the Black National Anthem) before segueing directly into “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

By the time 99-year-old former Birmingham Black Barons and St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Bill Greason threw out the first pitch, it felt like a live stage rendition of a Ken Burns documentary. I’ve tried to think of a more fitting word than “beautiful,” but that’s the one I keep coming back to. It was just … beautiful.

Oh, and Greason’s Cardinals beat Mays’ Giants, 6-5.

More Mays and Rickwood:

Ken’s Notebook: The industry’s read on Luis Robert Jr.

Multiple high-ranking rival evaluators see Chicago White Sox outfielder Luis Robert Jr. as the kind of dynamic player who can improve any team, but for as talented as he is, he’s also someone who carries concerns.

Availability is one. His low walk and high strikeout rates are another. And even Robert’s three additional years of club control beyond this season come with a caveat — his two $20 million club options will only be appropriately priced if he stays on the field.

Last season was Robert’s first with more than 100 games played (he appeared in 145 games), and a right hip flexor strain has limited him to just 21 games so far in 2024. However, Robert played in all but four games during 2020’s 60-game season, finishing runner-up for Rookie of the Year and winning a Gold Glove Award. In 2023, Robert showcased his talents by becoming an All-Star for the first time with 38 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a .857 OPS. Rival evaluators prefer to see him do it again.

FanGraphs valued Robert in 2023 with 4.9 wins above replacement, and front offices rate him similarly when healthy; obtaining him would have to come at the “right price,” one general manager said. Rival evaluators say Robert can be pitched to. While his chase rate is down from last season, it is still relatively high.

Robert has played exclusively in center field over his career with the White Sox, but he wouldn’t play that position for every team. The Seattle Mariners, for instance, almost certainly would stick with Julio Rodriguez in center. Certain other contending teams would be in a similar position with their center fielders, perhaps reducing their interest in Robert.

Yet, given Robert’s status as the White Sox’s best player, some in the industry expect general manager Chris Getz to overvalue him. Robert, who turns 27 in August, is not exactly cheap, earning $12.5 million this season and $15 million next season before his two club options. At those salaries, suitors might be reluctant to part with premium prospects.

Given Robert’s talent and club control, two high-ranking rival officials said Chicago has no urgent need to move him despite the club’s undesirable state. The general feeling within the industry is that the White Sox are in no rush to deal him, either. They can wait until the offseason when teams are in more flexible positions with their rosters.

More trade deadline: Ready for your team to pull off that midsummer blockbuster? It’s not as easy as it used to be, says Zack Meisel.

Previewing the 2024 draft

Believe it or not, the MLB Draft is less than a month away. Let’s take a peek at this year’s draft class (we’ll use Keith Law’s mock draft 2.0 from a couple of days ago as a guide).

The two best players in the draft are generally believed to be OF Charlie Condon (Georgia) and 2B Travis Bazzana (Oregon State). The state of Ohio has dibs on the first two picks — Cleveland first, then Cincinnati — and if each takes the best player available, you’d expect these prospects to go 1-2, in some order.

Of course, as Law points out, it’s possible that one of the two teams could get fancy and draft someone else, which would allow them to sign that player for below slot value (here’s an explainer on “slot value”). Law suggests SS/OF Konnor Griffin (Mississippi high school) or middle infielder JJ Wetherholt (West Virginia) as possibilities for Cleveland, and RHP Chase Burns (Wake Forest) as one for the Reds — the latter would be less about slot value machinations, and more to do with the Reds deciding he’s their guy.

Other names we’ve heard a lot about over the last year or two:

  • 1B/LHP Jac Caglianone (Florida) has been a two-way player in college, but while his pitching numbers haven’t been awful, his hitting has only gotten better each year. He finished this season with 35 home runs (second only to Condon’s 37) and a 1.419 OPS in 316 plate appearances.
  • RHP/LHP (both!) Jurrangelo Cijntje (Mississippi St.) isn’t expected to be a top-10 pick, but we haven’t seen a both-handed pitcher in the big leagues since Pat Venditte.
  • SS Kellon Lindsey (Hardee HS, FL) / 1B Jared Jones (LSU): Rather than subject you to my research, I’d rather give you Melissa Lockard’s full write-up on these two (and others) from this week’s draft combine in Phoenix.

Baseball card of the week

When I looked for Mays cards in the past, there just weren’t any in my price range. Unlike last week’s Harmon Killebrew card, which I got for cheap because it had a pinhole in it, everyone seemed to want to hold on to their Mays cards. I get it.

I still don’t have the budget for anything from his early years, but the 1972 Topps set has always been a favorite of mine (part of the image above is from Twitter, because my copy is still in the mail), and anyway, I like the idea of a card from a time when he was closer to my age. There’s a foreboding inevitability in the lines on his face, and a monument of numbers on the back that a young man wouldn’t have had the time to compile.

I think the last player on my “need one card from their playing days” list is, uh — clears throat — Honus Wagner? So if anyone has one of those lying around for under $50, hit me up.

If it seems like offense is down across the league: it is. Jayson Stark and Eno Sarris dig deep to explain.

Tyler Kepner’s “Sliders” asks an interesting question: With Mays’ passing, who’s the greatest living Hall of Famer?

Short on pitchers, the Astros are calling up Jake Bloss, last year’s third-round draft pick. He hasn’t pitched in Triple A yet, but has a 1.74 ERA between High A and (just eight starts in) Double A.

It’s a question we’ve been asking for most of the season: Are the Orioles better than the Yankees?

The Twins offense is heating up (again).

The latest banger in the Mets clubhouse after a win? It was written by one of their own players (but you can’t hear it until July 3).

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(Top photo: John David Mercer / USA Today)