Baseball 2017: All the Jewish major leaguers to watch
In baseball, they say time begins on Opening Day. Everyone has a chance for a fresh start. Most of the old familiar names are back, although some have new addresses. If you count Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, there are nine Jews who begin the year on Major League rosters. But then there’s the question of what to do about Ty Kelly of the New York Mets: Is he or isn’t he? That’s still a matter of debate among those who decide on such matters.
The 28-year-old utility player was added to the roster just before Monday’s opener against the Atlanta Braves won by the Mets, 6-0. Kelly, who has a Jewish mother and Catholic father, was a member of Israel’s surprisingly strong team in the World Baseball Classic and one of 11 American ballplayers to participate in a get-acquainted trip to Israel in January. He made his debut with the Mets last season, but without the fanfare usually afforded the rare Jewish athlete.
If the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun has a decent season, he will become the third Jewish major leaguer to have more than 300 home runs and 1,000 runs batted in. The 33-year-old outfielder currently trails Hank Greenberg (331, 1,276) and Shawn Green (328, 1,070) on the all-time lists. He has been dealing with some health issues over the last three seasons, missing a total of 76 games. A six-time All-Star, Braun was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2007 and Most Valuable Player four years later, but was suspended for part of the 2013 season for using performance-enhancing drugs. He was hitless in four at-bats in the Brewers’ 7-5 Opening Day loss to the Colorado Rockies.
Many Jewish fans would probably tell you that Ian Kinsler of the Detroit Tigers was the hero of Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. His two-run homer in the finals against Puerto Rico gave the Americans the only runs they would need in an 8-0 victory. Kinsler, 34, cracked the 200-home run mark (212) last season with 28 round-trippers, the most he’s had since 2011. That put him fourth in the Jewish record book. A few more good seasons will most likely increase his Hall of Fame consideration. To date, out of 317 members of baseball’s Valhalla in Cooperstown, only 20 are second basemen.
This might be a make-or-break year for Kinsler’s manager. Ausmus, now in his fourth year at the helm, has been something of a disappointment to Tigers fans. The team has been considered a perennial pennant contender in the American League but have little to show for it. Ausmus led the Tigers to a first-place finish in his rookie season (2014), but they were ousted in the first round of the playoffs. The Tigers opener against the Chicago White Sox was postponed by rain.
Joc Pederson topped the Los Angeles Dodgers in spring training with six home runs. That power carried over into Opening Day when the lefty swinger blasted a grand slam to help his club to a 14-3 rout of the San Diego Padres. The 24-year-old outfielder worked hard on his bat control with a goal of cutting back on his strikeouts, but still had 20 K’s this spring, tied for the team high. Pederson, a center fielder, is considered one of the better defenders in the game.
Like Kinsler, Alex Bregman, the third baseman for the Houston Astros, decided to play with for the United States in the WBC rather than Israel. Unlike Kinsler, however, he had little impact, appearing in just two games. The Astros, as well as baseball cognoscenti in general, expect great things from the 23-year-old sophomore, the second overall pick in the 2015 draft out of Louisiana State. He started slowly after making his Major League debut last June, but adjusted to “The Show” and finished with eight home runs and 34 RBIs in 49 games. In the Astros’ 3-0 Opening Day victory over the Seattle Mariners, Bregman had a hit, scored a run and stole a base.
Danny Valencia, 32, begins 2017 as the starting first baseman for the Mariners, his seventh team in eight Major League seasons. Last year he saw action at five positions, including designated hitter, for the Oakland A’s. He enjoyed career highs in several categories, including games, hits and home runs. He went hitless in three at-bats with one walk in the loss to Houston.
Kevin Pillar had a strong spring for the Toronto Blue Jays as he worked on his approach to hitting, improving his bunting skills and exhibiting more patience at the plate. Will this be the year he finally wins recognition for his outstanding outfield defense with a Gold Glove? (He won a Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015). He was 1-for-4 with a walk and a run scored in the Jays’ 11-inning, 3-2 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.
Scott Feldman of the Cincinnati Reds made a most unlikely candidate for the coveted Opening Day starting assignment. He had more than his share of difficulties, giving up three runs on seven hits, including two home runs, in a 4-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies. On the bright side, he struck out six. Feldman, 34, had declined to play for Team Israel because he wanted to focus on making the Reds, who signed him as a free agent in January. He has a lifetime record of 71-78 record over 12 seasons.
Reliever Craig Breslow returns to the majors with the Minnesota Twins, his team in 2008-09. The oldest of the Jewish major leaguers at 36, the Yale graduate has a lifetime record of 22-29 with eight saves over 11 seasons. The lefty reliever appeared in 15 games for the Miami Marlins before they released him in July. The Texas Rangers picked him up but he never took the mound for them. Breslow signed with the Twins as a free agent in February.
Ron Kaplan is the author of the forthcoming book “Hank Greenberg in 1938: Hatred and Home Runs in the Shadow of War” and writes Kaplan’s Korner, a blog about Jews and sports.