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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Soulful Second Season

Hard to believe that the Cubs were the first National League team to secure a spot in the National League Division Series. Harder still to believe that neither San Diego nor New York will be there. I'm past predictions.

Prince Fielder has rocket-launched his final moonshot of 2007. Curtis Granderson has chased down his final scorching line drive. Russell Martin is finally, hopefully, going to give his weary knees a rest. Brandon Phillips, Jose Reyes, and Barry Bonds are all headed home. Don't fret, this is an opportunity. Get to know best of the rest. Here's your guide to the most soulful players still in contention.

Mike Lowell - 3B - Boston Red Sox

Two years ago, after a season which has proved to be an utter aberration, the Marlins made Mike Lowell a throw-in, alongside Josh Beckett, in the trade that brought them Hanley Ramirez. One cannot fault them for this move, however, I doubt anybody in Florida (or Boston, for that matter) would have predicted that Lowell would finish any season with more RBIs (124) and a higher batting average (.324) than Miguel Cabrera. His RBIs set a Red Sox record. He made Manny Ramirez' late-season DL stint largely inconsequential.

Chris Young - CF - Arizona Diamondbacks

He finished only three stolen bases short of becoming the first rookie to ever join the 30/30 club. Even if he had made it, he probably wouldn't have won the Rookie of the Year because of Troy Tulowitski and Ryan Braun. He had five multi-homer games. He is the best bet to have a Prince Fielder-like sophomore season. He might start as early as Wednesday. Every facet of his game improved as the season progressed.

Livan Hernandez - SP - Arizona Diamondbacks

He's easily forgotten these days. Casual fans will be surprised to see him when he trots out to the mound in Game 3 of the NLDS between Chicago and Arizona. He's been "reduced" to nothing more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter on what was supposed to be a middle-of-the-division team, a team that failed to score as many runs as their opponents, but somehow won more games than anybody in the National League. But he's a middle-of-the-rotation starter who's logged 200 innings in ten consecutive seasons, and 11 or more wins for eight in a row. He is a middle-of-the-rotation starter who has a 4-0 record and a 1.99 ERA in the NLDS and NLCS, a NLCS MVP, and a World Series MVP. He was undefeated in the postseason (6-0) until the World Series in 2002. He is a middle-of-the-rotation starter with a career 2.96 ERA in 9 starts at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Livan has quietly become one of the most reliable pitchers of his generation. He never tires, and somehow he always seems to be able to reach back for something extra when it matters most.

Daisuke Matsuzaka - SP - Boston Red Sox

Nobody east of McCovey Cove has had more attention directed his way during the 2007 season than Dice-K. In addition to the media frenzy, Dice-K was introduced to a different theory of pitching, a different size of ball, and, let us not forget, a different level of hitter in the world's best baseball division, the AL East. His performance was very uneven during his rookie year, but he did achieve 15 wins, 200 Ks, and 200 innings (only six other pitchers managed as much), marks that would have been more than sufficient for any other rookie. During one six-start stretch in June and July, Dice-K had a 1.29 ERA with 51 K in 42 IP. When Dice-K stays in the strikezone, away from the big inning, he can be as dominant as any pitcher in the postseason. One thing is for certain, he is just as exciting as advertised.

Alfonso Soriano - LF - Chicago Cubs

Fonzi began the season in much the same way as fellow Hundred Million Dollar Men, Barry Zito and Vernon Wells. Unlike BZ and VW, Soriano followed his .270/0 HR April by batting .303 with 33 HR the rest of the way, including a historic September which carried the Cubbies into the postseason. If his quad injury hadn't cost him his speed and much of August, Soriano would be on pace to match most of the gaudy numbers from 2006 that gained him his massive contract.

Chone Figgins - Anywhere & Everywhere - Los Angeles Angels

On the morning of May 31, Chone was batting .133. His manager had been forced to sit him for two important games against Seattle in favor of a power-hitting utilityman, Robb Quinlan, and promising rookie infielder, Erick Aybar. The Angels won both games. If Chone wanted to start on a contending team, he was going to have to step it up. He had three hits on May 31 and three more on June 1. From that point until September 22, a span of 83 games, he hit .405, scored 69 runs, and stole 37 bases. He also started at four different positions. Despite playing only 115 games, he finished with some of the best overall numbers of his career. His play-anywhere, do-anything, take-whatever-they'll-give-you-and-more style epitomizes Scioscia's Angels.

Kenny Lofton - LF - Cleveland Indians

The active triples and stolen base leader, K-Lo, has played for nine different teams in the past six years, a stretch which inspired a DHL commercial and makes Reggie Sanders' career seem like the picture of stability. Like Sanders, Lofton's transience is inexplicable. During those six seasons he's batted .293, averaged 80 runs and 24 stolen bases per year, and made four trips to the postseason, all while playing solid defense and being an unmistakably positive veteran presence in the clubhouse. Now, he's finally back where he belongs, in Cleveland, where he was a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner between '93 and '99. No Indian will be more eager to break Cleveland's 59-year World Series drought. Lofton has 349 postseason at-bats. The rest of the Indians have combined for 61. Since acquiring Lofton, the Indians are 54-35. Kenny probably won't be making starts against tough lefties this October, but against righthanders this season Lofton is batting .313 with an 838 OPS, so you can bet he'll be the left-fielder against the likes of Clemens, Wang, and Mussina in the Division Series.

Derrek Lee - 1B - Chicago Cubs

Like Alfonso, D-Lee got hot at the right time. He followed his first-half power outage (6 HR) by hitting as many homers (17 HR) after the All-Star Break as Adam Dunn, Albert Pujols, or Miguel Cabrera. He hit .365 in September, which bodes well for October. D-Lee is the face of the Cubs, the "new look" Cubs. Ironically, as a Marlin, he was a big part of destroying the Cubs chances the last time they made it this far, in 2003. Hopefully he can impart that never-say-die attitude upon his new teammates, many of whom have little or no postseason experience.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Cleveland Indians

Just don't miss his start on Thursday afternoon. Baseball's best pitcher facing baseball's best lineup in a playoff situation. This is when the soul rises.

Jimmy Rollins - SS - Philadelphia Phillies

On July 8th, at a time when neither team could really imagine themselves facing off in the postseason, the Phillies were playing the Rockies. In the third inning, with the Rockies leading 4-2, driving rain and gusty wind forced a delay. The Colorado grounds crew had trouble with the tarp, one member being tossed around and dragged by sudden bursts of powerful high-altitude winds. Jimmy Rollins led his entire team out onto the field and, rainsoaked, they helped the opposing grounds crew secure the tarp. At the end of the delay the Phillies mounted a comeback, led by Rollins going 3-for-3 with 2 RBI. Not enough can possible be said about Rollins' historic MVP season, in which, among other things, he will play upwards of 165 games at the sports' most demanding position. He has led the Phillies wire-to-wire and into the playoffs, just as he predicted. Don't expect this to be the last of his heroics.

Jimmy History

Though J-Roll has recently become the fashionable pick for NL MVP among sportswriters and ESPN analysts, and they have duly noted his historical 20-20-20-20 season, but they've failed to recognize just how historical it is. Yes, there have been only four 4:20 seasons, but one of these things is not quite like the others. Let's line them up side-by-side.

1. Frank Sculte (1911) .300/.384/.534 105 R, 30 2B, 21 3B, 21 HR, 23 SB, 107 RBI
2. Willie Mays (1957) .333/.407/.626 112 R, 26 2B, 20 3B, 35 HR, 38 SB, 97 RBI
3. Curtis Granderson (2007) .302/.361/.552/ 122 R, 38 2B, 23 3B, 23 HR, 26 SB, 74 RBI
4. Jimmy Rollins (2007) .296/.344/.531 139 R, 38 2B, 20 3B, 30 HR, 41 SB, 94 RBI

While I grant that J-Roll is last in this quartet in all of the percentage stats, his counting stats are significantly better than the rest. Rollins didn't just go 20-20-20-20, he went 30-20-30-40. There aren't just very few seasons like it. There are none.

This, of course, doesn't even factor in the fact that Rollins' final two stolen bases and his last triple were critical plays in the season's final game which clinched the Phillies division title over the Mets. Rollins famously predicted, almost six months ago, that Philadelphia was "the team to beat."

Friday, September 28, 2007

Hu's on first? Second? Third?

The Dodger's second-half collapse does include a few sources of optimism. Most obviously one can look to the performances of outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, and first baseman James Loney, all of whom should probably have been given starting assignments earlier in the season.

Loney's 32 RBIs in September is best in all of baseball, and his overall numbers (.337 - 15 - 67) would have undoubtedly garnered him some MVP consideration if he weren't barely ineligible (102 AB in 2006). The 6' 3" Loney is an athletic first baseman who has always hit for average, increasingly for power, works the count, and plays excellent defense. He is very reminiscent of Derrek Lee, and could be even better than D-Lee, who developed rather slowly at the big league level, seeing as Loney is only 23.

Kemp (.333 - 10 - 40) matured dramatically over the course of the last season. He will probably never be a particularly patient hitter, but his plate coverage means he doesn't have to be, and he is no longer chasing everything from his nose to his toes, as he did during his up-and-down tenure with the Dodger in 2006. Kemp is also just 23-years-old, so it is not unfair to expect another dramatic improvement given a full season at the major league level.

Ethier spent the entirety of the 2007 season with the Dodgers, unlike Kemp and Loney, but for some reason Grady Little has been reluctant to make Andre an everyday player. His modest numbers (.288 - 13 - 64) look better when considering that he got only 441 ABs, posted a strong .352 OBP, and had an identical average against righties and lefties. Next year he will have the first shot as the starting left-fielder, with Gonzo undoubtedly moving on, but he will still have to prove himself, as Delwyn Young has looked pretty good during his August/September cup-'0-coffee.

The Dodgers primary problem has been the rotation. No Jason Schmidt. No Randy Wolf. No Hong-Chih Kuo. The staff ERA since the All-Star Break is 4.61. Surprisingly, of their emergency acquisitions, it has been David Wells who has been stronger (4-1) than Esteban Loaiza (1-4). Nonetheless, a healthy Loaiza could comprise the back-end of an excellent rotation in 2008. Hopefully Schmidt and Kuo will return. Brad Penny has turned himself into a perennial Cy Young candidate. Derek Lowe is the prototype workhorse, registering 32 starts and at least 12 wins for six consecutive years. And there will be high expectations for the young Chad Billingsley who has gone 8-5 with a 2.71 ERA since the beginning of July.

The biggest question this offseason could be whether or not the Dodgers should pick up Jeff Kent's $9,000,000 option. Kent is still a productive player when he's in the lineup. In 2007 he has 20 HR, 78 R, and 79 RBI, with a .302 AVG and 875 OPS. Only Chase Utley, Brandon Phillips, and Robinson Cano are obviously better offensive option at second base, while Kent falls squarely in a class with Placido Polanco, Brian Roberts, Orlando Hudson, and Dan Uggla. If he want to, Kent will play somewhere in 2008. Will it be Los Angeles?

They don't have any obvious replacements. However, they do have the 2007 Futures Game MVP, Chin-Lung Hu, an excellent defensive shortstop, who hit .364 in 127 minor league games this season between AA and AAA. Will he have to wait for Rafael Furcal's contract to expire at the end of next year? Or will he perhaps share time with Wilson Valdez at 2B and Andy LaRoche at 3B in 2008?

One thing is certain, the Dodgers need a power boost.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Soulful Soriano September

Amid accusations of being selfish, lazy, overrated, and overpaid, Alfonso Soriano is quietly carrying the Chicago Cubs through the season's final month. With two homers this afternoon, Soriano has an even dozen with seven September games remaining.

Sure, he refused to relinquish the leadoff spot to Ryan Theriot when he returned from a quadriceps injury which is still clearly affecting his running, but he is demonstrating those skills which give him the hutzpah to make such demands. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a Cubs fan who'd want to change a single thing about Soriano these last couple weeks. He's scored 19 runs and driven in 23 since returning from his injury on August 28th. No, he hasn't stolen a base during that span, assuring that he will fall well short of his third straight 30/30 season, but his production is hard to argue with.

Morover, he seems to have jump-started a Cubs lineup that sputtered at times during his absence. Since August 28, Aramis Ramirez is batting .335 with 8 HR and 21 RBI, Derrek Lee is batting .351, and the Cubs are on pace to have by far their best offensive month at the time when it matters most, something which north-siders certainly aren't accustomed to. All in all, the Cubs are 16-10 since Soriano's return, and perhaps most importantly, 7-2 in 1-run games.

Despite an extended stay on the disabled list, Soriano has accumulated 31 HR this season, has a good chance of scoring 100 runs for the third year in a row and the fifth time in his career, and has his best batting average (.297) since 2002. We'd all like to see those numbers go up in a fully healthy season next year, but down the stretch he's already looking very much like a $100 Million man.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

MVP? (or NYC)

I like David Wright. I certainly like him a lot more than Derek Jeter. But with all the promotion of him for NL MVP, I'd have to say he's benefiting from the Jeter treatment (or, if you prefer, "the New York media bias"). Wright is more deserving of consideration than Jeter was last year, but he should by no means be the favorite.

It is essentially a four-horse race for the NL's premier award (much more intriguing than the one-horse race in the AL). The injury to Albert Pujols and the Cardinals collapse eliminates a perennial MVP favorite. Ryan Howard made a push to defend his 2006 crown, but a 7-for-45 stretch at the beginning of September probably put his campaign to rest. Hanley Ramirez will no doubt garner some much-deserved votes, but it is difficult to get elected league MVP when your team's record is worse than the Washington Nationals. That leaves Prince Fielder, Matt Holliday, Jimmy Rollins, and Wright. All four play for teams that are still in contention with a week to play, although it is reasonable to suspect that only Wright's Mets will actually advance, which may be his biggest advantage.

If you're looking for offensive statistics, Holliday is clearly your man. The 2007 winner of the Jay Buhner look-alike contest leads the NL in average (.341), RBI (131), Hits (205), and 2B (48). He is 2nd is SLG (.616), 3rd in OPS (1.017), 4th in HR (36) and Runs (112). Whether it is fair or not, those gaudy numbers will be viewed with suspicion because of Colorado's notoriously hitter-friendly conditions. It is true that Holliday pace away from Coors Field is a little more modest, though still admirable (.303-22 HR-108 RBI-867 OPS).

Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, the runaway 2007 NL HR-King, is powerful everywhere he goes, with 24 homers in his friendly confines and 23 on the road. He's batted a respectable .291 with 117 RBI, 107 R, and a 1.007 OPS. I've heard several commentators suggest that Fielder's MVP chances ride upon Milwaukee getting into the playoffs. I find this logic somewhat flawed, seeing as players like Wright and Rollins take already potent offenses and make them into powerhouses, while Fielder makes an at-best league average offense into a serious contender. Every year, MVP discussions revolve around the success of a player's franchise. Notably, last year Albert Pujols criticized voters for electing Howard because the Phillies didn't make it into October. If Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Colorado all scuffle this week, does that mean Wright should be the default MVP, even if he takes a ten-day O-fer? Personally, I agree that players like Hanley Ramirez can be ruled out of the equation (unless they have truly superlative seasons) because they never played a meaningful game after July, but anybody who is tested by the pennant race, whether their team makes it or not, deserves equal consideration.

Fielder will also be criticized because he is a defensive hack. That's absolutely valid. Defense should be taken into consideration when MVP awards are being handed out, by definition. However, if you're ready to anoint David Wright on those grounds, you need to look past reputation. Sure, Wright makes some spectacular highlight-reel plays (much like that Yankee shortstop). But, those of us who keep watching Baseball Tonight after we see the New York scores know that he isn't the only third baseman in the NL capable of creating Web Gems. Moreover, he isn't nearly as consistent as Scott Rolen, Aramis Ramirez, Chipper Jones, and Pedro Feliz. Wright is a league-average third baseman. Granted, in a league of very good third basemen. Should he receive some credit for that? Sure. Is it equivalent to 10 HR and 20 RBI? No way. (By the way, it should be noted that Matt Holliday has been a very solid outfielder this year. In fact, if Gold Gloves were still handed out to left-fielders, he would probably be running neck-and-neck with Arizona's Eric Byrnes.)

In another aside, Bill James invented a fashionable statistic a few years back, Runs Created. It is supposed to assess a players overall worth. I don't understand how it works exactly, but it seems to be a pretty competent method of assessment. It is interesting to note that Wright, Fielder, and Holliday rank 4, 5, and 6 in the NL in Runs Created per 27 Outs. (They rank behind Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, and Chase Utley, all of whom would be in this discussion if they didn't miss so many games) All of them have been worth between 8.43 and 8.48 RC/27, which is a good indication of how close this race really is.

That brings us to the long-shot case for Jimmy Rollins. Rollins has a lot going against him. In the last 25 years, only three position players have won the MVP who weren't prototypical middle-of-the-order/power hitters: Ichiro Suzuki (2001), Rickey Henderson (1990), and Willie McGee (1985). Making his road more difficult is the fact that only three MVPs in the last fifteen years have come from teams on which another player finished in the top 5 in voting: Ichiro (2001), Jeff Kent (2000), and Ivan Rodriguez (1999). Rollins will undoubtedly lose a few critical votes to teammates Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Rollins will not have a top-ten finish in average (.293), HR (28), RBI (88), OPS (869), or RC/27 (6.73). However, when you add some of his peripheral numbers to very respectable totals in those core categories, you realize that his season has truly been something special. He leads the league in runs (129) and 3B (18) by a sizable margin. He's second in hits (197). He will get serious consideration for the Gold Glove at shortstop. And he's stolen 37 (5th in NL) bases in 43 attempts. Much has been made of Curtis Granderson's 20-20-20-20 season, as should be the case seeing as it is only the third in baseball history. Nobody seems to have noticed that Rollins needs only two more triples and two more homers to go 30-20-30-30. Not a single player has ever done that.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Why is my team spending $5,000,000 on a middle reliever? (Part 2)

Last offseason the Baltimore Orioles committed $41.5 Million toward improving their bullpen in front of young closer, Chris Ray, over the next three seasons. That money bought them Danys Baez, Jamie Walker, and Chad Bradford.

How has it worked out so far?

All three are in the top 20 in the AL in Holds; that is, preserving their teams lead in the middle innings. Especially impressive considering how dreadful the Orioles have been and how rarely they've had leads to preserve. They've each thrown upward of fifty innings, a pretty solid workload for a reliever at this point. They've also vultured 8 saves (in 19 opportunities). Walker's ERA is excellent (2.91). Bradford's is respectable (3.63). Only Baez, ironically the most expensive of the three, has been a real disappointment (0-6, 6.29).

All in all, a moderately good return on Baltimore's investments, here in the early stages of their contracts. However, one does wonder, why the Orioles would spend so much on veteran relievers the year after they gave a record-breaking contract to a legendary pitching coach, Leo Mazzone, who made his reputation largely based on his ability to turn anonymous B-level prospects and washed-up former starters into valuable bullpen arms.

Among Mazzone's success stories:

Chris Reitsma

In two years under Mazzone's tutelage Reitsma posted a 9-10 record, 4.00 ERA, 3.00 K/BB, 1.32 WHIP, 0.71 HR/9, 44 Holds, and 12 Saves. In other words, besides the Holds, he was pretty much a league-average middle reliever. What's so spectacular about that? In the three seasons prior to arriving in Atlanta and the two since Mazzone's departure, Reitsma's numbers don't even look anywhere near mediocr: 23-36, 4.93 ERA, 1.98 K/BB, 1.67 WHIP, 1.28 HR/9, 13 HLD, and 20 SV.

Kevin Gryboski

The Braves selected Gryboski by the Mariners in the 16th round of the '95 draft. The Braves acquired him in 2002, at which point his ERA in AAA was well above 4.00, not likely to translate well to the major leagues. Nonetheless, he arrived as a longshot deep bullpen guy that season and over the next three years Gryboski pitched in 221 games, logging an 11-7 record with 41 Holds and an impressive 3.32 ERA. Before he could reach free agency, the Braves passed him on to the Rangers. Since the trade he's (almost two full seasons), he's thrown only fifteen major league innings, with a 12.07 ERA. In the minors? That's right, he's made 75 appearances in AAA, with an ERA just above 4.00.

Kyle Farnsworth

Farnsworth was a tall, broad 100-mph flamethrower out of the Cubs system who never seemed to be able to harness his fire power. He had a couple solid seasons with the Cubs, including 82 IP with a 2.74 ERA in 2001. Before arriving in Atlanta as a midseason acquisition in 2005, Farnsworth had 10 career saves with a 4.57 ERA. In his two months with Mazzone, Farnsworth posted 10 saves with a 1.98 ERA. Based on that performance alone, the Yankees inked him to a 3-year, $17 Million contract. With two seasons of that deal nearly done, Farnsworth has posted 6 saves with a 4.31 ERA. In other words, almost exactly what he was before Mazzone.

Chris Hammond

Hammond had a long career, pitching for eight teams between 1990 and 2006. He had a few decent seasons: 9-6 with a 3.80 ERA in 161 IP for the Marlins in '95, a 2.86 ERA with 17 Holds for the Yankees in '03, and a 2.68 ERA over 54 innings with Oakland in '04. But one season particularly stands out. In 2002, his only season with the Braves, Hammond pitched a heavy relief workload, 72 innings, recorded 7 Wins and 17 Holds, allowed only one home run, and, most amazingly, finished the year with a 0.95 ERA. This from a guy who was 36, had not pitched in the major leagues for more than three seasons due to injury, and in his three most recent healthy seasons, prior to meeting Leo Mazzone, had posted ERAs of 6.56, 5.92, and 6.59.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Surprising Abundance

As potential Comeback Player of the Year Oliver Perez battles Braves Ace, Tim Hudson, I am surprised to observe that the September Mets, once thought to have a glaring Achilles heal in the starting rotation, now seem to face some tough decisions due to an excess of strong, healthy arms heading into the playoffs. This, despite the face the Omar Minaya did not go out and acquire a starter at the trade deadline, as many suspected he might. While the Mets do not have anybody with numbers dominant enough to compare with Jake Peavy or Brandon Webb, or even Carlos Zambrano, they do have four pitchers who will record double digits in wins and almost undoubtedly finish significantly above .500. Willie Randolph may choose to build a playoff rotation which does not include his biggest winner, John Maine, who is 14-9 with a 3.80 ERA on the season, but only 4-5 with a 5.86 ERA since the All-Star Break. Meanwhile, over that same span, Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez, Oliver Perez, and the recently activated Pedro Martinez have gone a very impressive 17-3. Health issues may make Randolph's decision somewhat easier, as both Hernandez and Martinez have been strictly limited at times. But it will be difficult to exclude any of his trio of super-veterans considering those second half numbers which show no signs of fatigue and their postseason records. Pedro is 6-2 with a 3.40 ERA in 11 playoff starts. Tom Glavine has made an amazing 35 playoff appearances, going a modest 14-16 with a 3.42 ERA, but that does include a World Series MVP. And, of course, the infamous El Duque will be going for a World Series thumb ring, having covered all his fingers, by going 9-3 with a 2.55 ERA in 14 postseason starts. Considering such a collection of gravitas, as well as the Mets deep bullpen and much-lauded offense, few teams, especially in the National League, seem likely to match up well with them in a short series. The Padres, their most likely first-round opponent at this point, can take some solace in the fact that they have taken four of six from the Mets this season in two very hard-fought second-half series.