There are just over two weeks left of the 2011 regular season and many of the races for playoff spots are already as good as over.
The Los Angeles Angels are putting pressure on the Texas Rangers in the AL West, while both the St. Louis Cardinals and possibly even the Tampa Bay Rays are hanging in there ready to take advantage of any late-season meltdowns suffered by the Milwaukee Brewers and Boston Red Sox. However, there’s a good chance that the eight teams currently in the playoff spots will be battling it out in October.
Despite this, there are still plenty of reasons to take an interest in the games played by the non-contenders. Some of these teams have players that are trying to finish the season with a flourish in the hope of picking up an award or two: the Dodgers being a great example with Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw being in the running for MVP and Cy Young honours.
Additionally, all teams will take advantage of the expanded rosters allowed in September to call up some younger players and let them gain experience in playing at the Big League level. Short spells in the Major Leagues like this are often referred to as the player getting a ‘cup of coffee’, but from a European baseball perspective the focus is on one player getting a cup of cappuccino.
In the early hours of last Tuesday European time, the Seattle Mariners issued a press release announcing that they had called up three players to their Major League roster. With all due respect to Michael Saunders and Steve Delabar, the name that jumped out was that of Alessandro ‘Alex’ Liddi.
Alex Liddi is a 23-year old third baseman and he is an Italian baseball player. He’s not Italian on account of a distant relative’s passport or because his uncle runs a pizza parlour. He was born and raised in San Remo, Italy and – most importantly – developed as a ballplayer in his homeland until the Mariners signed him as a free agent in 2005.
Liddi made his Major League debut on Wednesday 7 September against the Angels – collecting his first hit on Friday against the Kansas City Royals – and it was the source of much celebration and pride in the European baseball community. While this was first and foremost a considerable personal achievement by Liddi, it was also a validation of a wider initiative designed to create a pathway for the best European talent into Major League organizations.
The Major League Baseball European Academy takes place every year, bringing together young players from the continent for three weeks of expert coaching. This year’s event took place in Italy during August and the 48 players worked with coaches such as Art Howe, John McLaren, Bruce Hurst, Lee Smith, Felix Milan, German Geigel and Wally Joyner. Not only does it give those players excellent tuition, it also gives them a platform on which to impress scouts.
Liddi was signed by the Mariners following his attendance at the first ever staging of the Academy back in 2005. He has worked his way through the levels in professional baseball Stateside, starting in the Rookie league as a 17 year old in 2006 up to his full season in Triple-A this year.
Can Liddi make it in the Majors and be part of an exciting young Mariners infield with Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley?
One thing is clear, the 6ft 4 inch tall, 230 lb Italian can hit a baseball a long way. He showcased his power in Spring Training with two grand slams and hit 30 longballs in Triple-A this season, including three in one game. Power is always a valuable commodity, so that gives him a good chance.
Liddi’s career as a Major Leaguer will now depend on his development in terms of making consistent contact against Big League pitchers. His 30 homers in Triple-A were accompanied by 170 strikeouts and a .332 on-base percentage, so an impartial observer would say that he has a fair way to go before proving that he can be a regular in the Majors.
However, as a baseball fan in Europe, I’m not impartial when it comes to Liddi. He has shown incredible commitment to make it this far as a professional ballplayer and here’s hoping that he can take the next big step.
There is plenty of healthy rivalry between Italy and the Netherlands when it comes to baseball supremacy, so in the name of diplomacy it’s worth picking up on some positive Dutch news. Back in March, I wrote about plans to build a new ballpark in Hoofddorp and to bring some Major League baseball to Europe. Mister-Baseball reports that a delegation was due to fly to New York last week to present the final bidbook to MLB.
Alex Liddi’s September call-up is big news among European baseball fans, but even we have to admit it is not quite as big a story as the return of Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery. Two starts in and the signs are encouraging that the last twelve months will simply be a slight bump in the road for an extraordinary talent. With Jordan Zimmerman making a positive comeback from the same surgery this year and Bryce Harper expected by many to make his Major League debut at some point next season, things could be getting exciting in Washington very soon.
While we’re on the subject of teams providing hope for their fans, can we still see the 2011 season as being a positive year for Kansas City? The win-loss record still makes for depressing reading, but that’s to be expected with so many youngsters making their way in the Majors. Their fans can at least see a brighter future and Alex Gordon’s good season has been great to see after the former top prospect struggled over the last couple of years.