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Friday, November 21, 2008

Quartet One

First of all, welcome a brand-new incarnation of the Hippeaux blog, updated to incorporate a wider variety of Americana. Baseball fans, however, can rest assured that my allegiance to that sport above all others remains undeterred. So, I will bare my 'seauxl' for the first time on the topic of the 2009 free agent class. Here are, in my opinion, the top twelve available players this offseason and a subjective view of which teams might make the best fit.

1. C. C. Sabathia - SP

Although he didn't win another Cy Young, Sabathia was even more dominant this time around then he was in Cleveland a year ago. He became to first pitcher to record 10 complete games and 5 shutouts since Randy Johnson did it ten years ago (interestingly, '98 was the season the Big Unit was traded from the AL to the NL midseason). At only 28, Sabathia has already played in eight full big-league seasons and has never pitched less than 180 innings or tallied less than eleven wins. While I would find it hard to argue that he is a more valuable pitcher than Johan Santana, I think it is now safe to say that they are the only two pitchers in the discussion. The extremes ends of the Sabathia contract have already been delineated. The Brewers offering 5 yrs./$100 Million and the Yankees countering with 6 yrs./$140 Million. However, if money were the only issue, I think it is safe to say we'd already have picture of the big guy holding up pinstripes. Sabathia has thrived the past two seasons as the recognized leader of young, successful teams. Besides the much-discussed factors of wanting to remain in the NL and wanting to be closer to his home on the west coast, I think C. C. is reluctant to play third or fourth or fifth or sixth fiddle to long-time Yankees like Jeter, A-Rod, Posada, Rivera, and Pettitte. It is clear that he thrives as the workhorse and clubhouse chairperson of an underdog franchise. I'm not saying that Sabathia is a egomaniac who needs to be constantly in the limelight - if her were, obviously, New York would be the place for him - merely that he might prefer a franchise where he has more opportunity to lead.

With that in mind, recent rumors that the Giants are preparing an offer somewhere between what is on the table from Milwaukee and New York seem compelling. On the one hand, the Giants already possess a formidable rotation and would seem best served by committing their free agent dollars to the pursuit of more offense. But, you can never have too much quality starting pitching and Sabathia would be the likable, long-term replacement for Barry Bonds in a way which Barry Zito clearly failed to be and big-ticket bats like Manny Ramirez and Mark Texeira might have trouble duplicating. With Sabathia in the fold, the Giants would also have the option of trading Matt Cain or Jonathan Sanchez for that middle of the order thunder. Or, they could try to be the San Diego Padres - a hyperbolic emphasis on pitching and defense at the expense of offense - a formula which had a considerable history of success prior to this season.

2. Manny Ramirez - LF/DH

There may be only one place in the country where it is safe to say that Manny won't end up. Obviously, low-budget bottom-feeders like Pittsburgh and Kansas City would be unwise to pursue one player at the expense of filling a multitude of holes, but I could see a wide variety of GMs convincing themselves and their ownership that Manny Ramirez represents the quickest avenue to contention. They need look no further than their recent memories. He carried the Dodgers to the NLCS by batting nearly .400 with a Bonds-like OPS (1232) during the last 2+ months of the regular season, then hit over .500 in October. Only a year prior to that he carried the Red Sox to the World Series by driving in 16 runs during the ALDS and ALCS. Postseason runs are scarce, yet during his 43 playoff games with the Red Sox, Manny accumulated 38 RBI. There is really no case against such a hitter. There are logical openings for him in Seattle, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Texas, Washington, and Baltimore, where he could provide a boost for the fan base and make playoff aspirations seem legitimate. In places like Detroit, Tampa Bay, and all teams in New York, Chicago, and L.A., Manny could be the piece that turns perennial contention into championship fulfillment.

I think it will be a team from the latter group which finally pulls the trigger, becomes willing to offer four years rather than three. And, although I will not rule out of possibility of seeing Manny heading home to NYC, the best fit seem to be the Dodgers, where his eccentric personality was immediately embraced by the franchise and the community, and especially the young, talented players, many of whom probably owned a Ramirez jersey in high school. The front office will defer to Torre, who has plenty of experience dealing with prima donnas.

3. Mark Texeira - 1B

The last two seasons, Texeira has been like a freelance bodyguard. While he put up great numbers of his own after joining Atlanta in '07 and the Angels this season, he was brought on to provide protection for a superstar, Chipper Jones and Vladimir Guerrero, respectively. I expect this pattern to continue. The Angels, obviously, would like to retain his services, as Torii Hunter is the closest thing they have to a cleanup hitter. Boston would like to fill that gaping hole behind Big Papi, because, although Youkilis, Pedroia, Bay, and Drew are all great hitters, none of them profiles with Texeira's (or Ramirez') power. The Yankees will be parting ways with Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, while the health of Posada and Matsui remains in question, so they appear to have gaping holes on either side of A-Rod in the lineup. I expect this to devolve into a New York vs. Boston bidding war, such that Texeira may get the biggest payday this offseason even though he might not be the most valuable player. If Boston wins, New York will redouble their pursuit of Ramirez or, perhaps, try to sign Adam Dunn to play first base. If New York wins, I expect Theo Epstein to look for creative trade possibilities. With Jon Lest, Dice-K, and Beckett ingrained in the rotation, he may be willing to move Clay Buchholz and/or Justin Masterson.

4. Rafael Furcal - SS

Others may disagree, but it is my contention that an excellent defensive shortstop, who can hit near .300 batting leadoff, steal bases, and walk as often as he strikes out is more valuable than a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher like A. J. Burnett or Derek Lowe. I need look no further than Billy Beane's aggressive pursuit of Furcal to know there's some truth to this. Beane is not known for his interest in expensive free agents.

Sure, we can't expect Furcal to hit like he did in April and May (before he got injured) over the course of a full season, but even while shaking off the rust during the playoffs he looked like a solid igniter. Oakland won't be the only team interested and as the price goes up, I expect Beane's eagerness to subside. Joe Torre repeatedly applauded Furcal, even while he was going through his prolonged rehabilitation, so I think it's reasonable to think he might resign with L.A.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bay Believer

During his four and a half seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates - on the verge of becoming the lowliest franchise in major league history - Jason Bay hardly played a meaningful game after his perennial appearance as the team's sole representative to the All-Star Game in early July.  While the more appealing story may continue to be the postseason heroics of the man(ny) who used to play left field in Boston, his replacement, Bay, is playing as if possessed with a fury not unlike that of Barry Bonds, another former Pirate left-fielder, during 2002, the only year he made it to the World Series.  In the first six playoff games of his career he is batting .458 with 3 HR, 9 RBI, and 5 Runs Scored.  Additionally, he has played an exceptional outfield, cutting off balls in the gap and throwing out runners who try to advance.  I find it hard to applaud Theo Epstein's continued attempts at white-washing the BoSox clubhouse, but Jason Bay is helping him once again look like a genius.   

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

October 1 Notes

  • For C. C. Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, Gary Sheffield, and others who have been promoting MLB's inner-city baseball programs (namely R.B.I.) and drawing attention to the waning presence of African Americans in the major leagues, this postseason should be a source of great pride and cause for further diligence on that front. In a time when there are only an average of about two black players per active roster, five teams are taking three or more African Americans with them into October. Four of the five teams who boast five or more black regulars advanced, with only the Tigers being left out of the playoffs. The Brewers, having added C. C. Sabathian and Ray Durham midseason, boast the largest percentage of African American players, with 7.
  • Those who aren't eager for a centennial World Series appearance for the Cubs are probably anticipating the possibility of Manny Ramirez facing off against his old club, the defending Champion Boston Red Sox. However, in addition to the drama of Manny's return to Fenway, having carried his NL West leaders through the second half, there are other Dodgers with axes to grind with the BoSox. Dodger manager Joe Torre hasn't faced the BoSox in the postseason since they reeled off four wins in a row against his Yankees en route to the 2004 World Series. Derek Lowe, the Dodger ace, went 3-0 for the Red Sox during that same postseason, but Boston chose not to resign him. Nomar Garciaparra was also a member of the BoSox in 2004, though not for long enough to see October baseball. He was traded to the Cubs in July. Nomar quietly disdained the way he was treated by the Boston organization in his final years with them, as he struggled with injuries and Manny cited the dismissals of Garciaparra and Lowe as among his reasons for seeking to leave the Red Sox during the tumultuous weeks leading up to his trade.
  • The Dodgers are by no means the same team this October that was responsible for their modest record from April to August. Not only has Manny changed the face of the lineup, as will be constantly eluded to by the commentators, and not without due cause (Manny was responsible for approximately a third of the Dodger runs after he joined the team). The Dodgers also add Rafeal Furcal, who hasn't been a regular since May, at which time he was hitting .367. Furcal, if fully healthy, gives L.A. a top-flight leadoff hitter and a massively talented defensive shortstop. The difference between Furcal at 80% and Angel Berroa at 100% is notable. The Dodger also added Casey Blake at 3B, allowing them to move Blake DeWitt to 2B, and relegating Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra to the bench. I would be willing to bet that one or both of them will make a splash pinch-hitting in a critical situation.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

What September means for April...

There are two teams in the AL this September that nobody wants to face.  No, not the Red Sox, nor the Angels.  These two teams don't have any chance at making the postseason.  The New York Yankees are not one of them, nor the Detroit Tigers, despite the powerful lineups they boast.  The hottest teams in baseball at the moment are the Cleveland Indians and the Toronto Blue Jays.  Sure, the extended winning streaks they've put up in recent weeks are a bit fluky, but serious fantasy baseball players should be taking note of the performances which might fly a bit under the radar, but have serious implications for 2009.

Everybody knows about Toronto's pitching staff.  You aren't going to sneak Roy Halladay through your auction or draft, nor A. J. Burnett, nor probably Shawn Marcum, Dustin McGowan, or even Jesse Litsch.  What made the Blue Jays highly beatable in the first half of the season was their paltry offense.  Vernon Wells was injured, as was Scott Rolen.  Alex Rios and Lyle Overbay slumped.  John Gibbons chose to go with mediocre veterans like Brad Wilkerson and Shannon Stewart instead of trust young players like Adam Lind.  Cito Gaston has not had the same problem.  And the Blue Jays are showing that scoring runs may not be a big an issue for them come 2009.  As a team, the Jays scored 20 more runs in August than in any previous month (that's almost a 20% spike) and they are batting .311 so far in September.   Alex Rios is batting .312 with 9 HR during the All-Star Break, much to the delight of those who "wasted" an early round pick on him.  One of Gaston's first acts as manager was inserting Lind into the lineup everyday.  Lind has rewarded him by hitting .317 with 9 HR, 39 RBI, and an 868 OPS in 64 games since, suggesting that he is definitely a candidate for a breakout season when he turns 25 in 2009.  Vernon Wells has only played about half a season's worth of games, but has managed 16 HR and 66 RBI in that half, proving that his disappointing 2007 was merely a fluke.  Joe Inglett and Travis Snider have also been impressive in limited action.  Expect them to take on larger roles in 2009.  

After trading David Eckstein and Matt Stairs late in the season, Toronto will definitely be in the market for a shortstop and a 1B/OF/DH-type during the offseason, but it is a team with great depth in pitching and very few obvious holes.  Toronto, of course, has the misfortune of playing in the AL East, but I expect them to carry their late-season momentum into next year and make a serious run at contention.

Cleveland also plays in a deep division.  They have been alternating good and bad years since '05.  If the pattern holds, they'll be due for upwards of 90 wins in 2009.  Despite the loss of Sabathia and Byrd, the Indians still have two Aces atop their rotation in Cliff Lee and Fausto Carmona, plus a stockpile of high-potential young arms.  They can focus their free agent dollars on solving their bullpen issues and improving the offense, an offense which hasn't been that bad.  They are eighth in the AL in scoring, but that's without Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner.  No team can be expected to be at their best without two middle-of-the-order caliber hitters.  Ben Francisco has had a fairly successful rookie campaign, hitting 14 HR with 51 RBI in only 400 AB.  Asdrubel Cabrera and Franklin Guttierrez took modest steps backward, but still look like promising players.  Sizemore is a legit MVP candidate and Jhonny Peralta is among the most underrated players in baseball.  All of these guys should be on your radar next spring, as should Matt LaPorta and Michael Aubrey, prospects that might earn starting roles early next year.  

Monday, September 08, 2008

Some Unlikely MVPs

Cliff Lee has all but cinched the AL Cy Young, while the trio of Brandon Webb, Tim Lincecum, and C. C. Sabathia provides plenty of excellent options for NL voters.  Geovany Soto is clearly the NL's top rookie, with all respect to Joey Votto and Jair Jurrjens.  In the AL, Evan Longoria's late-season injury may have opened up a opportunity for Armando Galarraga and Alexei Ramirez.  The biggest questions remain, however, in the races for Most Valuable player in both leagues.  This year provides us with no Alex Rodriguez or Barry Bonds type performances, head and shoulders above the competition.  Ryan Howard leads the NL in two critical categories, HR and RBI, but is batting a mere .237 and is headed for upwards of 200 strikeouts.  Josh Hamilton's march toward the RBI crown has slowed slightly in the second half and, of course, he is playing on a team which was out of contention early in August.  Carlos Quentin carried the White Sox offense at various times throughout the season, but an unfortunate, fluky hand injury has left him sitting on 36 HR and 100 RBI, numbers which will merely seem reminders of what could have been. 

The scarcity of traditional choices has allowed Dustin Pedroia to emerge as a fashionable favorite in early September.  He has been very valuable to a Red Sox team which has suffered extended injuries to David Ortiz, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, and J. D. Drew, as well as that whole Manny Ramirez ordeal.  Pedroia is leading the AL in runs scored (111), hits (193), and batting average (.330) and has very admirable numbers across the board, but though he has batted cleanup recently, he isn't particularly strong in the traditional MVP categories, HR (17) and RBI (74).  His run production numbers would be the lowest for an MVP since Ichiro won the award in 2001.  Besides Pedroia, whose popularity as a candidate is largely due to the ubiquity of the Red Sox, their are some other darkhorses worth considering this November.

C. C. Sabathia - SP - Milwaukee Brewers

I, personally, believe Sabathia should be given the NL Cy Young.  Although Webb and Lincecum have had fine seasons, Sabathia has dominated the league since his arrival in early July to a degree we've not seen since Randy Johnson was at the top of his game in the late nineties and early aughts.  He is 9-0 since joining the Brew Crew, the rest of the staff is 23-21.  C. C. also leads NL pitchers in innings, strikeouts, ERA, quality starts, and, of course, complete games since July 8, his first start.  If the voters demure from giving C. C. his second consecutive Cy, due to his late arrival, they might consider adding him the somewhat weaker MVP field.  A pitcher has not won the MVP since Dennis Eckersley did it in 1992 and, in the NL, the fete has not been accomplished until 1968.  But by all accounts, C. C. immediately became a clubhouse leader in Milwaukee and, of course, one cannot argue with the team's performance on the days he pitches.  They are 11-1 in his starts.  Few candidates have the advantage of such a stark assertion of "value."

Grady Sizemore - CF - Cleveland Indians

The Indians, despite a second-half resurgence, are not likely to finish within ten games of the postseason.  However, their leadoff hitter is leading the AL in Runs Created and his stats are certainly comparable, even superior, to those of Dustin Pedroia, as he will probably get close to 100 runs and 100 RBI, as well as around 35 HR and 40 SB.  Sizemore and Hanley Ramirez are the only 30/30 players in 2008, but more importantly, he is among the most intimidating hitters in the league and also plays gold-glove caliber defense at a critical position.  Working against Sizemore is not only his team (which is going to be a winning franchise after all), but also his .268 batting average.

Joe Mauer - C - Minnesota Twins

Speaking of defensive contributions...Mr. Mauer has made only two errors in upwards of 1000 innings this season, has the best CS% in the AL, and captains the young Minnesota staff which has surprisingly kept the Twins in competition deep into the season.  Oh, and he is also hitting .326 with a .416 OBP.  Much like 2006, Justin Morneau has Mauer to thank for keeping his name in the MVP conversation.

Kevin Youkilis - 1B - Boston Red Sox

Why are BoSox fans getting behind Pedroia, but not Youk?  Youkilis is better in HR (25), RBI (98), OPS (949), OBP, and SLG.  Moreover, he plays wizard defense at two positions.  He took a few days off early in September to nurse a minor injury, but like Pedroia, he has been one of the few Red Sox available every day and, unlike Pedroia, he's available to play corner spot on both the infield and in the outfield.  He doesn't exactly have Dustin's rugged good looks, but Youkilis has just as much to do with Boston's ability stay in the race.

Arguments could also be made based on Mark DeRosa's versatility, Aramis Ramirez' clutch hitting, Carlos Delgado's resurgence, and Ryan Ludwick's ascendence.  All this aside, however, I'll tell you who I would vote for if they gave me a ballot: Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Whatever happened to Gyro-ball mania?!?...And other stories of oversight in 2008.

A year ago, the world, and especially ESPN, could not get enough of Daisuke Matsuzaka.  As a result he was the most watched pitcher with a 4.40 ERA.  His overall numbers were respectable (15-12, 201 K), but he was prone to high pitch counts and the meltdown inning, especially in the second half (5-6, 5.19 ERA).  On most nights he looked like a legitimate #3 starter, but very rarely like a $100 Million man.

This year Dice-K is getting less attention than Jed Lowrie, but he's pitching like he invented the fastball.  If his lead holds up this evening against the Orioles, he'll pick up his 15th win of the season, equaling his total from last year, despite the fact that it is only the middle of August and he missed most of June.  More importantly, those fifteen victories are balanced by only two losses and an ERA (2.72) that will rank in the top ten in baseball once he gets a few more innings.  

It's true that a Dice-K start is still a bit stressful for Red Sox fans.  He doesn't seem to like to pitch from the wind-up and he always seems to throw a hundred pitches by the fifth inning.  But it is hard to argue with the results and although he's giving up even more walks than he did in 2007, he is extraordinarily stingy with the base hits.  His Opponent's Batting Average, .208, is the best in baseball for pitchers with 120+ innings.  It's time to start acknowledging that he is something pretty special.  These are the numbers of a legitimate Ace.  Dice-K headlines my team of underrated performers from 2008.

Yadier Molina - C - St. Louis Cardinals

This is the youngest Molina's fourth full season and he is still just 25.  He has long been considered among the top defensive backstops in the baseball and seem primed to pick up his first Gold Glove at the end of the season.  Even more exciting for Cardinals fans is that Yadier has significantly improved his offensive contribution for the third consecutive season, hitting over .300 and posting the lowest strikeout rate in the MLB (14.6 PA/K).  It remains to be seen whether he will develop power (6 HR in 2008), but regardless, Yadier now possesses enough tools to be a starting catcher in the big leagues for a decade or more, which is no small feat.

Jason Giambi - 1B - New York Yankees

Joe Girardi refuses to make him a full-time first baseman or give him consistent starts against lefties, but the Giambino has once again recovered from a modest April to post very solid overall numbers.  This will be the third season since his steroid-confessing cancer-shortened 2004 in which he gets to 30 HR and post an OPS over 900.  He may not be worth $20 Million, but there are very few players in baseball who can do what he does in 140 games.  Next year he'll probably be doing it somewhere other than New York and I bet the mighty Yankees will have trouble filling his shoes.  

Mark DeRosa - 2B/UT - Chicago Cubs

One has to wonder: if the Cubs had managed to trade for Brian Roberts this past offseason, would Mark DeRosa have seen in fewer at-bats?  DeRosa has played 71 games at second base...and 72 at other places on the diamond.  He has a better OPS when he plays 3B or LF than when he's up the middle, so his lack of position security hasn't really effected his hitting.  DeRosa already has career highs in Runs (79), HR (14), BB (60), SB (5), and OPS (828), and needs only three more RBI to tie his career best (74).  DeRosa's consistency and flexibility have allowed the Cubs to whether injuries to Soriano and Lee, as well as spell Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome.  Jim Hendry was heavily criticized when he gave DeRosa $13 Million for three years going into 2007, but DeRosa has had the two best years of his career, all things considered, and looks like a deal this season ($4.5 Million) compared to Orlando Hudson ($6.25 M), Brian Roberts ($6.3 M), and Jeff Kent ($9 M).  

An honorable mention needs to be made for Placido Polanco, perennially underrated, who is once again hitting well above .300 for Detroit and playing stellar defense for the same price as DeRosa.

Melvin Mora - 3B - Baltimore Orioles

After a second consecutive sub-par season in 2007, it looked like Mora's days as a regular might be nearing their end, but he has rebounded in a big way this year, helping to Orioles to remain respectable during their significant rebuilding process.  He is going to attain the 100-RBI plateau for only the second time in his career and the first since 2004 and may make a run at his career mark for homers (27) as well.  At this time last year, Mora looked like more contract baggage that the Orioles would be unable to unload, but if he can match this numbers for only $9 Million in 2009, Mora would be a outright steal for a contender who needs 3B help (Dodgers, Twins, Mariners, etc.).

Jhonny Peralta - SS - Cleveland Indians 

Only Hanley Ramirez (929) and Jose Reyes (851) have posted better OPS numbers than Jhonny Picks (815) in 2008.  He is way ahead of AL All-Star favorites Derek Jeter (760) and Michael Young (751).  He is second among shortstops in HR (19) and tops in RBI (67), despite playing for a team that has really struggled to score runs at times this season.  There has been some speculation about how much longer Peralta will remain a shortstop, with slick-fielding Asdrubel Cabrera already looking fairly comfortable at the major-league level, but Peralta fielding statistics have been well above the league average the last two seasons.  He is under contract until 2010 for a very reasonable price and he is only 26.  If the Indians want to supplant him, they could probably get a great return on the trade market while allowing him to remain at his favored position.

Raul Ibanez - LF - Seattle Mariners

Ibanez seems to be a candidate for the all-underrated team every season, partially because his impressive tools don't include the 30-HR power common amongst corner outfielders.  Ibanez is, however, on his way to his third consecutive 100-RBI season, despite the Mariners terrible offense and he may set career marks in doubles, average, and OPS.  Ibanez will be a free agent this offseason and his age (36) might scare teams away from a long-term contract.  But, he clearly still has a lot to offer on offense, especially for a team who won't rely on him as their primary middle-of-the-order presence.  

Curtis Granderson - CF - Detroit Tigers

It would be hard to duplicate the season he had in 2007, but because of Detroit's disappointing performance as a team and his early-season injury, people seem to have completely forgotten about one of the most exciting young players in the game.  In some ways, Granderson is actually showing improvement over last year (a scary thought) as his walk rate and OBP have gone up, while his strikeout rate has gone down, and his average and slugging have remained essentially the same.  In far fewer at-bats than last year, he's still on pace for around 20 HR and 100 runs scored.

Andre Ethier - RF - Los Angeles Dodgers

He's the least well-known name in the flabbergasting Dodger outfield rotation that now features Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, Matt Kemp, and Juan Pierre, but with the exception of Manny, who hit most of his dingers in Boston, Ethier has as manny homers as any of them (tied with Kemp for the team lead at 15).  Ethier doesn't have Kemp's raw tools, but he has better plate discipline (38 BB/66 K/393 AB compared to 35/123/463 for Kemp) and shows a fair amount of power.  Unlike Grady Little, who never seemed to believe in Ethier, Joe Torre has continued to favor him over his veteran alternatives (Pierre and Jones).

Fred Lewis - DH/OF - San Francisco Giants

As a bit of an honorable mention, I'd like to bring Fred Lewis to your attention.  He's been asked to fill some pretty big shoes, taking over for Barry Bonds in left field.  Last season, many scouts thought he was a pretty borderline prospect, even after his much-publicized cycle.  However, the Giants chose to give him an everyday shot this season (what did they have to lose?) and it seems to have paid off.  He looks like Granderson-lite, hitting out of the leadoff spot.  He's got great speed, power to all fields, and hits for a decent average (.284), but also has a propensity to strikeout (114 K).  Granderson raised his OBP in each of his first three seasons.  If Lewis can do the same, while developing 15-20 HR power, he will be a very valuable part of San Francisco's new look.

 

Friday, August 01, 2008

He looks good in blue!

It won't go down as the worst trade in their history (there was that fat bitch that built a house in the Bronx), but when you give up a future hall-of-famer who hit .348 last October and has an OPS over 1000 against that Arch-rival AND a pair of major-league ready prospects for a second-tier outfielder who's never played on team that finished above .500...and did I mention you paid for all of it, then you've been had.  Manny's going to sweep the floor with the paltry NL West, while the BoSox scratch for the Wild Card with an injured Papi and a beleaguered bunch of white boys who have no business batting anywhere but fifth.

But let's focus on the positive.  Life is beginning to look real good for the Dodgers.  What's been missing from their lineup for the last two seasons, that intimidating presence, arrived in a big way on Friday night (even though he grounded into a double play in the 9th).  That's not all.  They also got the second consecutive very quality start from the teen phenom, Clayton Kershaw.  The Dodgers already had a lot to be thankful for.  In Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, and James Loney, they have the best trio of 25-and-under hitters outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  They've got the best team ERA in the NL and the second-best bullpen ERA in baseball. They've got Joe Torre and his history of late-season surges.  They've got Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones riding the pine, as the most expensive pinch-hitting/defensive-replacement combo in the history of baseball.  They've got Brad Penny, Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, and Takashi Saito due back from the disabled list by the end of the month; a re-infusion of talent unlike anything that's going be passing through the waiver wires.  Most importantly, perhaps, they're playing in a division which can be had for 85 wins.

This is a team which, despite its massive market, has flown under the radar all season, thanks largely to their frankly mediocre play.  Still, they are a mere two games out with two games still to go in a series against division-leading Arizona, whose big deadline acquisition was Tony Clark.  Kemp and Loney are both showing signs of equaling the extraordinary post-break production they put up in 2007, when they combined for a .325 average, 19 HR, and 80 RBI.  Joe Torre's habit of resting Russell Martin by playing him at third base has not only kept his bat in the lineup, but should have him fresher for the stretch drive.  All will benefit from having a cleanup hitter who isn't Jeff Kent.  One would assume, Jeff Kent might also benefit from a little less pressure.

Getting to the postseason, of course, is little more than half the battle.  In Manny, they've got themselves a playoff monster.  But, more importantly, they already had a deep rotation.  Even though they don't possess the 1-2 punch of Milwaukee, Arizona, or Chicago, this team could be a force in October

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

See C.C.'s Crew

As a Cubs fan, I must say this through clenched teeth, but the Brewers may be the most soulful team in baseball, and their great team chemistry, bolstered by the additions of C. C. Sabathia and Ray Durham, combined with enormous talent, has made them into the most dangerous team in the National League the second half of the season.  Since acquiring the reigning A.L. Cy Young winner, the Brew Crew has gone 9-4 (and they're leading the Cardinals in the third game of a four-game set as I write this).  Sabathia has been no mere confidence booster.  He is 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA and 24 K in 24 innings coming into tonight, and has yet to allow a hit in five innings this evening.  However, his "confidence-boosting" may be even more critical.  Since he arrived in Milwaukee on July 6th, these are the numbers for some of the critical Brewers, not all of whom were running hot throughout the second half.  

Bill Hall (3B): .361, 9 R, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB, 1117 OPS
Ryan Braun (LF): .339, 9 R, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 1 SB, 1087 OPS
Prince Fielder (1B): .327, 6 R, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 1 SB, 1054 OPS
J. J. Hardy (SS): .321, 11 R, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 956 OPS  
Rickie Weeks (2B): .295, 14 R, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 3 SB, 881 OPS

I would like to draw special attention to Bill Hall, who lost his starting role to Russell Branyan in June, but is now back to playing every day and hit game-winning homers in each of the first two days of the critical Cardinals series, putting the Brewers alone in second place in the NL Central.  Hall, apparently a close friend of Sabathia, is looking like this year's version of Jacque Jones (whose huge second-half improvement bolstered the Cubs into last year's playoffs).  

This is also a good time to salute Doug Melvin, Ned Yost, and the Milwaukee Brewers organization, who now have six African-American players on their active roster.  Sadly, that's the most of any team in baseball.  Undoubtedly you will be reading in the coming months that the Brewers rely on "natural athletes," get by purely "on talent," won't be able to "handle the pressure," and are "disrespecting the game" by untucking their shirts when they shake hands after a win, the aphorisms which expose the not-so-subtle racism which is still very much a part of the baseball sportswriting and broadcasting establishment.  Don't be misled!  The Brewers "untucked" tradition is a testament to Mike Cameron's father, symbolic of a hard day's work and a job well done.  Cameron, Hall, and Ray Durham are grizzled veterans who have made long big league careers thanks in large part to their work ethic, diligence, studiousness, and willingness to do whatever necessary to help their team.  None of them was drafted higher than the 5th round.  Hall has play four different positions (2B, 3B, SS, CF) in the last three seasons, all of them demanding.  Cameron is a three-time gold-glover winner, esteemed around the league both for his personality and contributions on and off the field.  His Cam4Kids foundation, established in 2001 is dedicated to helping inner-city kids.  He is active is several other charity organizations as well.  Many though Durham's career was over after he hit .218 with the Giants in 2007, but he has brought is average back above .290 and his OBP above .380 in '08, right in line with his career numbers.  Despite spending his entire career as a starter, he immediately accepted his role as utility infielder and pinch hitter for the Brewers, embracing the opportunity to mentor Rickie Weeks and get long sought-after opportunity to go deep into the playoffs.  Since Durham arrived, Weeks is batting .400 with 6 runs, 2 extra-base hits, and 4 RBI, in four games.  

I've sung the praises of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun for almost two years now, so you already know I consider them the most talented duo in all of baseball.  But there are now many more reasons to Beware the Brewers!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Gaping Holes

It's already been a blockbuster trade season, with Aces C. C. Sabathia and Rich Harden joining NL Central contenders Milwaukee and Chicago respectively, but the deadline is still three weeks away.  It isn't quite clear exactly who is on the market yet, but here are a couple teams that have postseason aspirations who have obvious needs.

Detroit Tigers - Starting Pitching

The Tigers have clawed their way back to .500 going into the All-Star break, clearly still in contention for both the Wild Card and the AL Central crowd, although they will have to play very, very well in the second half.  Their vaunted offense is starting to click and the return of Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya may solve their bullpen woes, but Detroit will have to improve their rotation to have any chance of sniffing the postseason.  It looks as though Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman are done for the year.  Justin Verlander has turned his season around recently, winning his last three decisions and lowering his ERA in six consecutive starts.  Armando Galarraga (7-2, 3.27) has been a nice surprise, but, as a rookie, he shouldn't be counted on for quality innings down the stretch.  Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson can no longer be counted on as better than .500 pitchers or even innings eaters.  So, the Tigers need at least a #2 quality guy, and now it can't be C. C. Sabathia or Rich Harden.  Expect Detroit to pursue Joe Blanton, Aaron Cook, and possibly even Cliff Lee, whose value has never been higher and is signed through 2010.  The Indians could expect a Dan Haren-esque package in return.

New York Mets - Catcher, Left Field, Right Field, & Bullpen...Whew!!!

Obviously, it is unlikely that the Mets are going to pick up four impact players prior to the deadline, but if they are going to make a serious run at the playoffs, they need to compensate for some of the offense they have lost due to injuries (Moises Alou, Ryan Church, Luis Castillo) and lack of productivity (Brian Schneider, Carlos Delgado, Aaron Heilman).

The good news for the Mets is that despite the soap opera surrounding the unconscionable firing of Willie Randolph, they are only two games back of the equally inconsistent Phillies and Jose Reyes is in the midst of one of his prolonged hot streaks.  Carlos Beltran, Carlos Delgado, and Johan Santana all have reputations for second-half dominance, so the Mets may only need one or two spare parts.  However, I can't see them opening the World Series with Endy Chavez and Fernando Tatis starting in the outfield.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Noteworthy

  • Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez netted his 31st save of the season on Monday evening against the Nationals, putting him on pace for 65 saves, which would obliterate the current single-season record held by Bobby Thigpen (57).  K-Rod's career-high is 47, accrued in 2006.
  • The firing of John Gibbons and the hiring of Cito Gaston bodes well for Blue Jays...and their top prospect, Adam Lind, who fell out of favor with Gibbons after only a brief stint at the big-league level in late April.  Gibbons decision to bench Lind (eventually leading to his demotion) in favor of the highly unproductive tri-toon of Shannon Stewart, Brad Wilkerson, and Kevin Mench, probably had something to do with his dismissal.  In 131 games at AAA, the 25-year-old Lind hit .333 with 19 HR and 96 RBI.
  • Somehow the Cardinals survived interleague play and the Albert Pujols injury without falling out of contention.  Pujols will return on Thursday.  In the interim the Redbirds went 5-6 total and 4-2 against division-leading opponents Philadelphia and Boston.  Pujols return follows that of Jason Isringhausen, who hasn't allowed a run in four appearances, and precedes that of Adam Wainwright, Mark Mulder, Chris Carpenter, Anthony Reyes, and possibly Matt Clement in the coming weeks.  With those kind of reinforcements joining a team which already possesses the fifth best record in baseball, if seems safe to say that St. Louis is "for real."
  • The Pittsburgh Pirates, buried in what may be the toughest division in baseball this year, are quietly moving closer and closer to .500 and the end of what could have been a record-breaking stretch of losing seasons.  Pittsburgh is third in the NL in runs scored thanks in large part to the outfield of Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, and Jason Bay.  If the high-potential pitching trio of Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny can find their stride in the second half (currently they are a dismal 12-17), Pittsburgh could be a very troublesome matchup their contending divisional rivals.
  • Some noteworthy releases seemed destined to happen in the coming weeks.  Richie Sexson continues to frustrate the Mariners, but he could be a tempting addition for either of the New York teams, Cleveland, or Texas.  Cincinnati will likely part ways with Corey Patterson, now that Jay Bruce in entrenched in center field.  His speed and defense might be a good fit in a part-time role with the White Sox, Marlins, or even his former franchise, the Cubs, depending upon whether Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson can stay healthy.
  • One can't help questioning how the Minnesota Twins will deal with the trade deadline.  A few weeks ago I predicted they might deal some of their pitching at a high price for offensive prospects, but after a six game winning streak they are only a game back of the White Sox.  Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are starting to look like the MVP-caliber combo they were in 2006 and one must assume that Delmon Young and Michael Cuddyer will only be better in the second half.  The Brendan Harris - Mike Lamb experiment on the left side of the infield needs to come to an end, so the Twins could be in the market for major-league quality talent.  Jack Wilson, Bill Hall, and Adrian Beltre could be good fits.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hippeaux endorses...(NL Infield)

I'm going to acknowledge my bias right here.  I will never endorse a caucasian player who plays for the perennially lily-white, holier-than-thou, confederate Braves or Astros.  So, sorry Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones, you're having great years, but I just can't bring myself to vote for you.  That said, here's me NL ballot.

1B - Derrek Lee - Chicago Cubs (.294-93-30-84-897-6)

I explained why Berkman's not an option and Albert Pujols is likely to still be on the D.L. come July, so the OPS leaders among NL first-basemen since the 2007 break are both out of the picture.  The top five is rounded out by Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, and - would you believe it? - Conor Jackson!?!  Fielder and Howard have both suffered much publicized slumps early in this year's campaign, but their numbers are still mighty respectable.  Adrian Gonzalez, on fire the past month, is also a legitimate choice.  Counting Berkman, Texeira, and Prince Albert, eight NL first basemen deserve a trip to Yankee Stadium more than the best choice in the American League (Kevin Youkilis).  I endorse Lee, not only out of loyalty to the Cubs, but because besides being a huge catalyst for Chicago's offensive explosion this season, he saves runs consistently on defense, making spectacular "hot-corner" dives and harnessing the erratic arms of Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Theriot, Ronny Cedeno, and Mark DeRosa.

Runner-Up: Ryan Howard - Philadelphia Phillies (.250-104-45-131-914-2)

2B - Chase Utley - Philadelphia Phillies (.317-96-29-97-997-9)

I'd love to make a case for Brandon Phillips, who remains among the most underrated players in baseball, but in truth, it's not even close.  Utley has been downright fantastic in the last eleven months, leading NL second-basemen in RBI, average, OBP, SLG, and OPS
(he leads by more than a hundred points).  He finishes a close second to Dan Uggla in HR and Runs Scored, and to Phillips in hits.  And, as the Baseball Tonight crew is constantly reminding us, he's made himself into quite an impressive fielder as well.

Runner-Up: Brandon Phillips - Cincinnati Reds (.283-88-26-86-817-28)

3B - David Wright - New York Mets (.319-107-26-108-956-24)

It would be nice to vote for Aramis Ramirez, but I just can't.  Wright is superior in every statistical category, at least Ramirez' equal on defense, and he can run the bases.  Wright is pretty much the only Met who has maintained his production and focus throughout the unbelievably distracting witch-hunt which has consumed their season.  If New York can turn things around in the wake of Willie Randolph (I highly doubt it), Wright still finds himself primed to make a run at the MVP.  He's in the top 25 in the NL in runs, hits, homers, RBI, and OPS.

Runner-Up: Aramis Ramirez (.302-84-21-95-909-1)

SS - Jimmy Rollins - Philadelphia Phillies (.301-101-20-66-876-39)

This is one of the toughest decisions on the ballot.  You've got the reigning NL MVP, Jimmy Rollins; a guy who's hit thirty homers and stolen forty bases since the last All-Star Game, Hanley Ramirez; the leagues biggest stolen base threat and possibly most dynamic player, Jose Reyes; and a resurgent former AL MVP, Miguel Tejada.  For me, it really comes down to Ramirez and Rollins.  Ramirez has the slight edge statistically, but they may be largely due to Rollins DL stint in April.  For the most part they are nearly in a dead heat.  I give Rollins the advantage because he is definitely a better defender (2007 Gold Glove Winner) and he is a little more consistent (although when Ramirez is playing well, there really isn't any comparison offensively).

Runner-Up: Hanley Ramirez - Florida Marlins (.311-113-30-78-930-40)

C - Russell Martin - Los Angeles Dodgers (.293-70-14-59-830-11)

Geovany Soto deserves a trip to New York almost as much a Martin.  But while Sweet Lou has the luxury of plugging Soto into the six-hole every day, and can rest easy when he takes an 0-fer or needs a day of rest, because he's got Fonso, D-Lee, A-Ram, and Fukudome, Joe Torre depends on Coltrane to be his offensive and defensive catalyst, especially while Rafael Furcal is on the DL, Matt Kemp and James Loney adjust to the league, and Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones appear washed up.  Int the last year, Martin has significant at-bats second, third, cleanup, fifth, and sixth in the lineup, he's won a Gold Glove at catcher, but, oh yes, he plays third base on his "off days" because Torre needs his bat.  He's stolen three times as many bases as any catcher in the NL and masterfully handled a difficult pitching staff.   Dodger fans need to focus these next few weeks on sending the face of their franchise to his second consecutive All-Star start.

Runner-Up: Geovany Soto - Chicago Cubs (.303-37-14-50-926-0)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Hippeaux endorses...(AL)


It may not be as big of a story as Hillary falling in line behind Obama or Romney endorsing McCain, but I'd like to offer my advice on another upcoming ballot, that for the 2008 All-Star Game in New York. The Break is still a month away, but if you, like me, plan on voting about a hundred times again this year, and not exactly consistently, you'd best be getting started.

One thing to keep in mind: I believe that All-Stars should be based not only on the rather short-term performance of the first ten weeks of 2008, but also on the backstretch of the preceding season, which is why the potentially fluky seasons from the likes of Nate McLouth won't influence my vote...not this year. That said, here's my most common ballot.

American League

1B - Kevin Youkilis - Boston Red Sox (.267 AVG-75 R-16 HR-78 RBI-808 OPS-5 SB)

His dugout tantrums haven't endeared him to Manny, which certainly doesn't earn him any extra credit, but you can't argue with Youk's on-field performance. Since the middle of 2007 he's played 117 games at first, eighteen at third, and two in right field and has made a grand total of three errors. Youkilis has been pretty strong at the plate as well, sporting an 808 OPS during that span.

Youk has climbed in front of Justin Morneau by a pretty significant margin in the early voting, so it seems likely that the fans will get this one right, but Youk's biggest advantage, besides playing for the Red Sox, is the surprisingly weak field of first-baggers in the AL. Since July 12 of last season, only one AL first baseman has more than 22 HR and/or more than 84 RBI, that's Carlos Pena, who racked up most of those totals at the end of last year and is currently on the DL. After Youkilis and Pena, the best options are guys like Jason Giambi and Casey Kotchman.

Runner-Up: Carlos Pena - Tampa Bay Rays (.255-81-37-104-934-1)

2B - Ian Kinsler - Texas Rangers (.310-102-14-64-827-29)

As much as I'd like to see half-a-dozen Red Sox take the field at Yankee Stadium for the All-Star game, I can't endorse a player who's 8th in the AL in OPS among second-baseman in 2008 and 11th taking into account the second half of last season. Dustin Pedroia is a fine player, but he isn't the best the league has to offer, not by a long shot.

In about five hundred at-bats since the middle of last season, Kinsler has racked up 102 runs (1st), 14 homers (4th), and 29 stolen bases (2nd), to go with an 827 OPS (1st). Pedroia in those categories: 90 (2nd), 9 (7th), 12 (4th), and 742 (11th). Kinsler's is one of the most overlooked performances in the majors this past year, which is why he is 300,000 votes back of Pedroia and barely holding off Robinson Cano. This is an underdog who should be on every ballot you cast.

Runner-Up: Brian Roberts - Baltimore Orioles (.262-82-11-54-777-41)

3B - Alex Rodriguez - New York Yankees (.313-93-34-102-1021-21)

Even despite the injury and the modest start (for him) this season, nobody comes close. A-Rod leads all AL players at the hot corner in runs, home runs, RBIs, walks, slugging, and OPS, finishes second in stolen bases and OBP (Chone Figgins) and third in average (Figgins and Mike Lowell).

Runner-Up: Adrian Beltre - Seattle Mariners (.253-76-26-84-763-13)

SS - Micheal Young - Texas Rangers (.326-86-11-76-827-11)

It goes without saying the Derek Jeter is going to take the field in front of his home crowd in mid-July, but Young has been better than him in almost every statistical category, both offensively and defensively, this year especially. Young just wrapped up a 23-game hitting streak during which he hit .339. During the same span Jeter batted .218. This will be Jeter's third consecutive All-Star start. I doubt that I'm the only one hoping it will be his last.

Runner-Up: Derek Jeter - New York Yankees (.291-78-10-56-758-12)

C - Dioner Navarro - Tampa Bay Rays (.310-48-11-56-820-2)

I know this is going to surprise a lot of you, but over the last eleven months Dioner Navarro ranks 2nd among AL Catchers in batting average, RBI, slugging, and OPS, and 3rd in home runs and on-base percentage. Only Jorge Posada is also in the top three in all those categories and his injury may prevent him from catching on his home turf in July. Navarro has been a big part of solidifying the surprising Rays both offensively and defensively, helping to groom and very productive young pitching staff. He deserves recognition, at least as the alternate.

Runner-Up: Joe Mauer - Minnesota Twins (.301-61-5-50-798-2)

OF - Magglio Ordonez - Detroit Tigers (.337-83-24-109-944-2), Manny Ramirez - Boston Red Sox (.310-81-24-91-943-1), Josh Hamilton - Texas Rangers (.316-61-22-88-941-2)

It works out quite well for AL manager, Terry Francona, who has a natural left, center, and right fielder to start the game. Manny and Hamilton are nice sentimental picks who have the numbers to back it up and are currently first and second in the voting. Instead of voting in Ichiro or Vlad during somewhat down seasons merely based on reputation, let's go with the guys who's been hands-down the best outfielder in the AL over the past year. Despite his team's struggles so far this year, Magglio has continued to quietly tear the cover off the ball. Since last year's All-Star Game (when he started in left field), Magglio has more RBIs than any player in the AL. More than A-Rod. More than Big Papi. More than everybody in major league baseball except Ryan Braun and Ryan Howard. Among players with at least 400 plate appearances in the AL since the middle of last season he ranks first in batting average and third in OPS (A-Rod, Papi).

Runners-Up: Milton Bradley - Texas Rangers (.328-77-25-75-1063-7)
Nick Markakis - Baltimore Orioles (.311-85-24-90-912-17)
B. J. Upton - Tampa Bay Rays (.289-90-20-89-856-29)

DH - David Ortiz - Boston Red Sox (.307-97-34-108-1013-2)

Big Papi may not return from the DL in time for the All-Star festivities. Milton Bradley would be the perfect replacement, but unfortunately his name isn't on the ballot for the DH position. The runner up will probably be Jim Thome, who also has respectable numbers for the last eleven months.

Runner-Up: Jim Thome - Chicago White Sox (.248-77-34-85-885-1)

That's right, I've got three Rangers, as well as three Red Sox, on my 2008 AL All-Star ballot. The do, after all, lead all of baseball in runs scored. In addition, I expect Milton Bradley to be among the alternates (you hear me, Francona!). As of right now, all but one of my suggestion are ranked one or two (or among the top six outfielders) at their respective positions, so start punching those chads, stuffing those ballot boxes, and creating those fake email addresses. Let's get these guys to New York in July!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Don't Jump Off Cliff

After starting the season with a ridiculous stretch of seven starts in which he allowed only four earned runs, Cliff Lee has raised his ERA from 0.67 to 2.52 in his last five appearances, allowing nineteen earned runs in that span.  It would appear that the time has come (and possibly gone) to sell high.  I discourage you from doing so.  In fact, if an owner is shopping Cliff Lee, I would recommend bidding for him.  First of all, despite yielding a troublesome number of runs during this recent stretch, Lee has won four out of five.  He only got really roughed up (allowing more than four runs) in two starts and those were at Texas and in Cincinnati, two of the hardest places to pitch in all of baseball.  He managed to go at least five innings every time out and maintained a solid K/BB rate (26/10).  He has dealt with some additional extraneous factors as well: rain delays, especially tight zones (both teams were raising hell during the Texas game which finished with a score of 15-9), good offenses (Reds, Tigers, Rangers), and pitching on the road (4 out of 5).  By going five innings against the Tigers, despite a prolonged rain delay, and yielding only two runs, while fanning five, Lee proved his toughness.  Pick him up now as he heads into a stretch leading up to the All-Star Break where he faces the Padres, Dodgers, and Giants, teams which rank 12th, 13th, and 15th in the NL in runs scored.  Also, in 2005 and 2006, Lee's best seasons, he actually improved in the second half.  With ten wins already and Cleveland's offense bound to improve, I consider him the AL's best bet for 20+ victories.  Don't lose faith and take advantage of those owners that do.     

Monday, June 09, 2008

A month ago, it was still appropriate to spout platitudes like "It's still early," "It's a long season," and "Let's not be hasty," but with more than a third of the season in the books, the draft completed, and the All-Star Break less than a month away, it is time for GMs to give serious consideration to the State of the Franchise.

The good news is, at the start of the second week of June, only four franchises have no option but to start looking toward next year: the Washington Nationals, the Kansas City Royals, the Colorado Rockies, and the Seattle Mariners. Of those four, only the Mariners and Rockies entered the season with any serious hope of contention, although, one could argue, the Royals are also underachieving.

It is also good news that two out of every three franchises in MLB are within two games of .500, meaning the vast majority of fans still have plenty of reasons for optimism. Even some of the significantly under .500 teams - Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland, and San Diego - have enough talent and have played well enough for prolonged stretches to keep hope alive. The Padres, for example, looked buried only a couple weeks ago, but a 10-4 stretch which included a four game sweep of the Mets has them 6 1/2 games back of the scuffling Diamondbacks, with Jake Peavy due back at the end of the week. Kevin Kouzmanoff and Khalil Greene, two Friar's biggest offensive disappointments thus far, both historically perform better in the second half. It remains to be seen whether San Diego will be buying or selling over the next two months.

On the other hand, some teams would be best served to start looking ahead sooner rather than later, even though they still appear to be within striking distance of contention. Texas (32-33, 7.5 GB), San Francisco (28-35, 5.5 GB), Houston (32-32, 8 GB), and Baltimore (32-32, 7 GB) have all given their fans reason to be more optimistic than they might have been a couple months ago, but each has holes so gaping there is no hope of fixing them with a mid-season makeover. The Rangers and Astros are both at least three quality pitchers short of a respectable starting rotation, while San Francisco and Baltimore are both near the bottom of their respective leagues in scoring because they both are stuck using minor-league quality players at multiple positions. I'm not recommending that any of these teams resort to wholesale house-cleaning, which may be necessary in Colorado and Seattle, but they could probably sell off spare parts like Randy Winn, Ty Wigginton, Marlon Byrd, and Kevin Millar for more than they are really worth.

Last year the eventual final four - Arizona, Boston, Cleveland, and Colorado - all stood pat at the deadline. Of the playoff teams, only the Cubs (Jason Kendall) and Yankees (Roger Clemens) made significant deadline acquisitions. This year promises to be quite different. A rash of Red Sox injuries and the annual Yankee pitching ineffectiveness makes both teams likely buyers. The Mets and the Tigers, both franchises scuffling badly, but designed to win now, are likely to be prone to rash decisions. Ozzie Guillen recently demanded some new faces for his first-place White Sox. Atlanta's got real pitching problems with Smoltz done for the season. The Cubs don't have any glaring holes, but Jim Hendry is known for making midseason trades and fans around Wrigley are finally smelling a legitimate championship contender.

The biggest question may be how this season's bevy of surprisingly strong clubs - the Marlins, Rays, Cardinals, and Athletics - will respond to the stretch drive. The Rays, especially, despite the strength of their division, seem to have enough pieces to stay in contention to the end. They have a deep farm system, which makes them one of the teams best suited to make a blockbuster. A front-of-the-rotation arm or middle-of-the-order bat could be enough to put them over the top. On the other hand, many predicted that Billy Beane would spend the whole season cutting ties with his most valuable assets. Being in second-place might not change that approach, as it likely only raises the value of Joe Blanton, Huston Street, Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, Mark Ellis, and Eric Chavez. The Cardinals biggest question mark, starting pitching, may be buoyed by the return of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and Matt Clement in the coming month or so. If all come back strong, they Cards, currently positioned to be the NL Wild Card, might be buying.

Here are the most sought after commodities in the next six weeks and the teams which will be seeking them, broken into Suckers (franchises whose desperation will lead them to mortgage the farm), Sellers (teams likely to drop out of the race and start making deals), and Sleepers (teams whose performance in the next three weeks could lead them to make a surprise deal at the deadline).

1. Starting Pitching

Suckers: Yankees, Tigers, Mets, Phillies, Braves
Sellers: Athletics (Joe Blanton, Rich Harden), Padres (Greg Maddux, Randy Wolf), Mariners (Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista), Rockies (Aaron Cook), Rangers (Kevin Millwood)
Sleepers: Cubs, Rays, Brewers, Cardinals, Indians (C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee), Twins (Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Livan Hernandez)

Like every year, the most common weakness is all the greatest necessity for postseason success, starting pitching. This year, however, there is more quality on the market than normal, especially if the Indians elect to deal Sabathia and/or Lee. Sabthia, Bedard, and Hardne are all top-tier Aces who could set a rotation up nicely for playoff dominance, but the price will be very steep and one has to question whether the Yankees can afford to give up Melky Cabrera or Robinson Cano, whether the Mets would be willing to deal Fernando Martinez, and whether the Tigers have anything left to auction off for such a big-name player.

In the end, the best move might be made by a team that already has a frontline starter or two, but secures depth in the form of Joe Blanton, Greg Maddux, or Aaron Cook. Also, like the Athletics, look for the Twins to consider making moves even if they are still hovering close to contention. Nothing gets the big boys salivating like young high-potential starting pitching. Minnesota has lots of it in the majors and high minors: Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Phillip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Anthony Swarzak. There isn't enough room in their rotation for all of these guys. Liriano is probably the only one that is untouchable.

2. Center Fielder

Suckers: Cubs, Braves, White Sox, Padres
Sellers: Royals (David DeJesus), Rockies (Willy Taveras), Athletics (Ryan Sweeney, Rajai Daivs), Red Sox (Coco Crisp), Reds (Corey Patterson, Norris Hopper, Ryan Freel)
Sleepers: Dodgers (Juan Pierre), Yankees (Melky Cabrera)

At the beginning of the season it looked like Coco Crisp would be the hottest commodity on the market come June. A premier defensive outfielder with great speed, flashes of power, and switch-hitting ability would surely yield a pretty strong return from a team like Cubs or Padres with no true center-fielder. And, he still might. However, the injury to Big Papi, combined with a nagging injury to Jacoby Ellsbury, and the always tender J. D. Drew and Manny Ramirez, makes it very difficult for the Red Sox to justify dealing Crisp. What they need is bats and gloves (what with the depth of the pitching corps) and Crisp isn't likely to return anything much better than what he himself possesses. So, if appears that David DeJesus and Willy Taveras will the cream of the center-field crop. DeJesus matches best with the Cubs, who would prefer a left-handed hitter and a guy who could hit lower in the order. Taveras is a pure leadoff hitter, while DeJesus has a little bit of power (.444 SLG) to go along with his OBP skills (.362). What the Cubs really want is a guy who could bat fifth, allowing Fukudome to move up in the order, but such a player doesn't appear likely to become available, unless perhaps Hendry could engineer a Melky Cabrera for Rich Hill swap.

The White Sox would really like to move Swisher to a corner spot, first base, or DH, but they are filled up around the horn (Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, or Jim Thome), which could mean that Swisher becomes available...

3. Corner Outfielders

Suckers: Mets, Tigers, Blue Jays, Indians, Padres
Sellers: Reds (Adam Dunn, Ken Griffy Jr.), Pirates (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady), White Sox (Nick Swisher), Mariners (Raul Ibanez)
Sleepers: Rays, Rockies (Matt Holliday), Dodgers (Andre Ethier), Cardinals (Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker)

This is only position at which there might be some potent bats available. The Reds and Pirates seem likely to drop out of contention soon. Cincinnati has been shopping Dunn and Griffey for years, and Pittsburgh will need to make room for Andrew McCutcheon and Steven Pearce in the near future. The Cardinals will eventually hand center field to Colby Rasmus and move Rick Ankiel to right. One has to wonder whether the value for Ludwick or Schumaker will ever be higher. If the Rockies make Holliday available, many more big-market teams will get into the mix, but that seems unlikely. With that exception, if a team give up two quality prospects for any one of these guys, they're getting ripped off.

4. Relief Pitching

Suckers: Yankees, Tigers, Braves, Brewers, Indians
Sellers: Athletics (Huston Street, Keith Foulke, Alan Embree), Rockies (Brian Fuentes, Taylor Buchholz), Pirates (Damaso Marte, John Grabow), Giants (Tyler Walker, Jack Taschner, Brad Hennessey)
Sleepers: Mets (Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoenweis)

If the season were to end today, of the eight teams qualifying for the postseason, five would be in the top ten in MLB in bullpen ERA, and three in the top five. The other three - the Red Sox, Angels, and Cardinals - are likely to climb upward, especially the Red Sox and Angels which each feature a trio of reputable relievers at the back end of games. Papelbon, Okajim, and Delcarmen in Boston. K-Rod, Shield, and Speier in Anaheim. Cleveland and Detroit rank 28th and 29th in bullpen ERA, which is the biggest explanation for their disappointing seasons so far. The return of Borowski, Rodney, and Zumaya to those pens could spark a second-half resurgence.

Good teams are very unlikely to deal away any of their depth, but bad teams may sell off their entire relief corps. It's a good way to acquire value (i.e. Eric Gagne for Kason Gabbard and David Murphy last season).

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Fantasy Notes

  • Don't Pay For Steals: A couple of early round options, Ryan Braun and Russell Martin, have both gotten hot at the plate after slow starts, but they are still falling short in the category that provoked many roto owners to take them in the top two or three rounds.  Martin has stolen only four bases, putting him on pace for ten on the year, still great for a catcher, but half as many as he nabbed in 2007.  Braun has stolen only two, after grabbing fifteen in two-thirds of a season last year.  Many owners went into 2008 thinking he would have a legitimate shot at 30/30.  Granted, both of these players are massively valuable, regardless of whether they are stealing bases, but both were selected higher because of their high five-category expectations.
  • The Worst Offense of the Modern Era: Many pundits, including myself, predicted that the San Francisco Giants lineup would be among the worst we could remember.  Let me be clear, they haven't been good (14th in the NL and 27th in MLB in runs scored), but they have had some very pleasant surprises.  First off, Aaron Rowand, who appeared to be grossly overpaid, moving from the cozy confines of Philadelphia to the wide-open spaces of PNC Park, where you need superhuman Barry Bonds-like strength to hit the ball out from gap to gap.  The home-runs have not exactly been easy to come by (he's got 8), but he is tied for 4th in the league (with teammate Ben Molina) in hitting, at .328.  He's driven in 36 runs and has a 924 OPS.  Molina's numbers (.328-6-38) are also very strong for a player expected to be a low-round option.  However, both of these guys were probably selected in your draft, or picked up shortly thereafter.  The Giant who is still available in many leagues is hitting .279 with 37 runs scored.  He's been getting on base at an impressive .363 clip, has decent power (12 2B, 6 3B, 4 HR), and has stolen eleven bases, that's good for eighth in the National League.  Those steals make him extremely valuable in just about any format.  The player: Fred Lewis.  Keeper league owners especially need to start paying attention.  Lewis is in his second season and is 27, moving into his baseball prime.  It seem likely that, if the Giants are wise (big IF), Lewis will stabilize left field and the leadoff spot, allowing them to focus their off-season free agent search on right-fielders and corner infielders.
  • Triple Crown in Texas?: There's been much discussion of the season Josh Hamilton is having, as their should be.  What nobody's mentioning is that while he was first in the AL in average, homers, and RBI, he's second in the AL and on his own team in OPS.  He has had the great benefit of hitting in front of the Toymaker, Milton Bradley, who is batting .328 with a dozen dingers, 38 RBIs, and a league-leading 1050 OPS.  Bradley's talent is beyond dispute and now, with the opportunity to DH at least part of the time, the Rangers can protect his injury-prone body.  Hamilton and Bradley both represent the beauty of recovering from adversity.  Ron Washington has appeared to be a calming presence on both of them.  If the Rangers approach .500, they both could be legitimate MVP contenders.   

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Sweet Lou Bullpen Program

This week I'd like to highlight a relatively new strategical development in Major League Baseball.  Manager and general managers have realized that the "closer mentality" doesn't have to be limited to the 9th inning.  More and more teams have, especially competitive teams, have added a set-up man who is as dominant, if not more dominant, than their stopper.  

At one point, of course, every pitcher who put on a uniform considered himself a starter.  He only reconciled himself to a life of bullpen work once it had been proven that he was ineffective when overexposed.  And even then, he longed for the opportunity to get himself back in the rotation.  Then, along came Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley, and closing down games appeared to be a more unlikely, but still a potential path to baseball immortality, especially for players with only one or two quality pitches, instead of three or four.  Still, however, there was only room in the bullpen for one star.  The other guys, they were just mop-up men, the unfortunate, but necessary risks which must be taken when the starter fails to turn the ball over directly to the closer. 

In recent years, the logic of relievers is changing yet again.  Partially, of course, because pitch-count limitations and improved patience from hitters is making it more difficult for even the best starters to consistently get past six or seven innings.  It took some time, but managers and general managers have reacted by finding ways to "shorten the game" with two or three outstanding relievers.  Lou Pinella has been at the forefront of this development.  In 1990, he won a World Series largely on the backs of the "Nasty Boys," a closer-by-committee trio composed of Norm Charlton (50 IP, 3.02 ERA, 2 SV, 57 K), Rob Dibble (98 IP, 1.74 ERA, 11 SV, 136 K), and Randy Myers (87 IP, 2.08 ERA, 31 SV, 98 K).  Two lefties and one right-handed who could be employed in any late inning and in any order.  In 2001, when Seattle tied an MLB record for wins, Pinella adapted to more defined bullpen roles, but again depended on a combination of strong relievers, two left-handed and two right-handed: Norm Charlton (48 IP, 3.02 ERA, 1 SV, 48 K), Jeff Nelson (65 IP, 2.76 ERA, 4 SV, 88 K), Arthur Rhodes (68 IP, 1.72 ERA, 3 SV, 83 K), and Kaz Sasaki (67 IP, 3.24 ERA, 45 SV, 62 K).  

This year, Pinella again has the ingredients for his favorite recipe, with Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Bobby Howry, Scott Eyre, and Michael Wuertz in the Cubs bullpen.  And, so far, the Cubs have the best record in baseball.  Most of the best managers - Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre, Mike Scioscia, etc. - have adopted Lou's program, and to great success.  LaRussa, arguably the inventor of the hydra-headed bullpen monster depended upon Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt to lead many of his late-'80s, early-'90s Athletics contenders.  Torre moved from Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland to Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Mariano Rivera as part of the '90s Yankee Dynasty.  The Angels World Series run in 2002 was dependent upon Troy Percival, Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Ben Weber, and Brendan Donnelly.  

The success of the these teams has increased the notoriety of the dominant set-up man.  In 2001, Torre put Paul Quantrill, at the time posting a 2.13 ERA and 7 relief wins on the AL All-Star Team.  Bob Brenly followed suit the following season for the NL, adding Atlanta's Mike Remlinger (50 IP, 2.88, 68 K) among much criticism.  In all but one season since, at least one set-up man has been an All-Star.  Considering that arguably the best closer in history, Lee Smith, is still awaiting induction, it may be a very long time before middle relievers get any consideration for the Hall of Fame.  But, baseball theorist would do well to consider the particular challenges the set-up man faces.  Unlike the starter, for whom the quality start is six innings pitched, three earned runs, and the closer, who is successful so long as he holds onto a lead, the only successful outcome for a middle reliever is to come into the game (often with men on base) and get through the inning, or partial inning, without allowing any runs.  A run is a failure.  The heavy pressure of these situations may explain why managers like Pinella, Eric Wedge, and Jim Leyland have elected to put their most dominant pitchers - Rafael Perez, Joel Zumaya, Carlos Marmol, etc. - in middle relief roles, while handing the closer duties to guys like Joe Borowski and Todd Jones, whose stuff is not nearly as electric.  The closer usually has the advantage of entering the game with nobody on.

It is often observed that very few pitchers are successful in the closer's role over a considerable duration of time.  Only three pitchers have ever registered 30 saves ten times: Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, and Mariano Rivera.  However, even fewer middle reliever succeed over the long haul.  Let's talk about those All-Stars.  Paul Quantrill had a solid seven-year run, of which his All-Star year was arguably the highlight (11-2, 3.04, 83 IP).  During this stretch his was 32-29, with 18 SV and a 2.82 ERA.  However, in 2004 he turned in a sub-par year with Torre's Yankees and was out of baseball by 2006.  Mike Remlinger was a bullpen staple in Atlanta and Chicago for six seasons from '99 to '04, during which he failed to make 70 appearances only once and never had an ERA above 3.65.  His record was an impressive 32-17.  But, like Quantrill, one sub-par season was the end of him.  He retired after '06.  In 2003, Mike Scioscia rewarded Brendan Donnelly with a trip to the All-Star Game.  Donnelly did not make the majors until the age of 30, but was a key part of the Angels bullpen from 2002 to 2006, although his effectiveness continued to dwindle for his final three seasons in Anaheim before he was eventually traded to Boston.  He was effective in the early months of 2007, but had to undergo Tommy John and is now trying to make his way back to the majors in the Indians organization.  Set-up man, Justin Duchscherer, represented Oakland in 2005.  He had three solid seasons as a middle reliever before suffering from nagging injuries last year.  The A's recently converted him to a starter.  As you can see, it is rare for a middle reliever to be effective for an extended period of time.  Often, at least in the past, the best set-up men have not found the right role until late in their careers or, if they do find it early, teams have attempted to convert them either to closers or starters.  However, as managers and GMs become more aware of the necessity of the 7th and 8th inning All-Stars, they will be in less of a hurry to make such alterations, as can be witnessed by Joe Giradi's reluctance to give in to the pressure to make Joba Chamberlain a starter.  Here are half-a-dozen of the best middle-men who we can likely look forward to seeing in that role for several years to come.

6. Tom Gordon - Philadelphia Phillies

This is the twentieth season for forty-year-old Flash Gordon, his twelfth as a reliever.  In his illustrious career he's netted 137 wins, 157 saves, and 117 holds.  Nobody in major league history has accumulated that combination of stats.  And, disregarding the Hold, a stat which didn't come into existence until the 1980s, Gordon joins Eckersley, Lindy McDaniel, Hoyt Wilhelm, and John Smoltz as the only players with 130 wins and 150 saves.  Very impressive company!  And, at 40, Gordon has proved that he's still quite a dominant set-up man.  Since giving up fiver earned runs in a third of an inning in his first appearance, Gordon has recorded one save and nine holds, striking out eighteen hitters in twenty innings, and compiling a 2.21 ERA.  

5. Tony Pena - Arizona Diamondbacks

Pena's future is closely intertwined with that of Brandon Lyon, the D-Backs current closer.  Lyon will be a free agent at the end of this season, while Pena will be under their control for four more seasons.  Lyon will make more than $3,000,000 in 2008 and ask for more if he continues to be successful (12 SV, 1.64 ERA so far!).  Pena will make $405,000 this year and then face arbitration.  If Arizona resigns Lyon, Pena can stay in the role which he has dominated thus far in his career.  He's been in the top ten in the MLB in Holds each of the past two seasons.  Doug Melvin is confident bringing him in any situation.  Leaving aside one bad outing in a game that was already out of reaching, Pena has ten holds and a save this season, to go along with a 2.28 ERA.  

4. Carlos Marmol - Chicago Cubs

In Marmol, Lou Pinella has found the reincarnation of Rob Dibble.  Like Pena, Marmol could eventually find himself closing games, but Pinella prefers the freedom to use him in whichevery late-inning situation requires strikeouts, whether it means bringing him in with men on base or matching him up with the opposition's middle-of-the-order.  Since Chicago turned him into a reliever after a dozen unsuccessful starts in 2006, Marmol has a 1.90 ERA with 161 K in 113 innings.  This year he already has 16 holds and 3 saves, as well as a 1.54 ERA.  Marmol is arguably the most dominant reliever in baseball, regardless of role.  

3. Rafeal Perez - Cleveland Indians

Because he is left-handed and because they have Rafael Betancourt, Masa Kobayashi, Jensen Lewis, and Joe Borowski the Indians will be reluctant to turn him into a closer, so Perez could be among the league-leaders in holds for years and years to come.  Last season he posted a 1.78 ERA and 62 K in 60 innings.  He has held left-handers to a .142 career average (and righties only hit .222).  

2. Hideki Okajima - Boston Red Sox

Okajima shoots toward the top of the list partially because he is buried behind a young closer who is among the most dominant in history, Jonathan Papelbon.  The Red Sox are unlikely to trade him, both because Hideki has been ridiculously effective thus far, and because his presence brings comfort to his very expensive countryman, Dice-K.  Okajima, however, has himself been a key piece of Boston's success the past two seasons.  He went to the All-Star Game in 2007 and finished the year with a 2.22 ERA, 5 SV, 27 HLD, and 63 K in 69 innings.  This year he has again started off on fire.  He's allowed only two earned runs in 24 innings (0.75 ERA).  Boston has a club option for 2009, an option which is, strangely, less expensive than the contracts for his first two seasons.  They'll pick that up in a hurry, one would bet.  At that point, Okajima will be 34-years-old.  If he hasn't shown any signs to slowing down, he could demand one of the largest contracts ever awarded a middle reliever.

1. Scot Shields - Los Angeles Angels

Shields signed a three-year, $15 Million contract before this season which pretty much assured that the 32-year-old would never make his mark as a closer.  He will be among the first players to make a very lucrative career almost entirely out of pitching the eighth inning.  He has racked up 30 or more holds in each of the past three seasons and is easily on pace to do it again this year.  He's got a 2.97 career ERA and 128 holds.  Unless K-Rod goes down with a serious injury, Shields will never have an opportunity to close regularly in Anaheim, even though he undoubtedly has the stuff to do so.  The Angels invested in the hydra-headed bullpen strategy when they signed Shields and Justin Speier to long, lucrative deals, investing nearly $30 Million in their services for the next three seasons.   

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Hall of Fame Questions

Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, and Mike Piazza have officially announced their retirements.  Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have been forced into exile.  John Smoltz, Ken Griffey Jr., Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux have expiring contracts and have been dropping occasional hints.  The heroes of my early teens will soon become managers, pitching coaches, bad broadcasters, and semi-anonymous multi-millionaires, so it seems like a good time to discuss the inevitable questions of Hall of Fame credentials.  

First of all, in my opinion, it is a given that all of the players mentioned above are shoo-in first ballot players.  As should be Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro.  It may be "The Steroid Era," and some of these guys may have benefitted for performance-enhancing drugs, but most, if not all, of them would've been enshrined regardless and I don't think there is anything more shameful about this "era" than "The Segregation Era," "The Anti-Semetism Era," "The Spitball Era," and "The Collusion Era" (has it ended?).  Unlike Bud Selig and the MLB marketing department, I am not attracted to baseball history by any illusion of Disney World purity.  Any good historian knows, accuracy is almost always more entertaining than myth.  

I would like to consider the cases of a few borderline players who are entering the twilight of their careers.

Derek Jeter - SS - New York Yankees

I am a board-certified Jeter-hater, as most of you know, but I am not so prejudiced as to be incapable of looking at him rationally.  If he gets to 3,000 hits, which seems a foregone conclusion, he deserves to get into the Hall.  Jeter is great contact hitter, I have never disputed that.  He is a postseason God, there can be no doubt.  What makes me think that he's dramatically overrated is his putrid defense and the fact that the infamous captain doesn't seem to have all that much positive sway in a clubhouse which is constantly in turmoil.  I also think that the fawning of commentators over his potential run at 4,000 hits is ridiculous.  Jeter is 34.  He would need more than 7 seasons of 200+ hits to get to 4,000.  He has only gotten to 200 hits in six of his first twelve full seasons.  Jeter's power is dramatically declining (fewer homers in each of the last four seasons), as is his speed (only 16 for 24 in stolen bases the last two years).  He will, naturally, be less of an iron-man as he ages, as demonstrated by a trip to the D.L. already this season (the first since 2003).  Jeter's future is uncertain in many ways.  His massive contract will expire after 2010.  One would expect he will remain a Yankee, though at a significant discount, but his role will have to be determined.  I think even Yankee fans and management are near to the realization that he won't be a shortstop for much longer.  His range and fielding percentage have declined every season since 2005.  He was arguably the worst in the AL in 2007 (last in Range Factor, last in Zone Rating, 6th in Fielding Percentage).  However, he doesn't profile as the kind of hitter the Yankees expect for their corner outfield positions.  They just signed a pretty good player to be their third baseman for the next decade.  So, are the Yankees going to let excellent young players like Robinson Cano and Melky Cabrera become free agents so that they can free up space for a declining singles-hitting captain who may not be particularly good at second or in center.  We'll have to wait and see.

Chipper Jones - 3B - Atlanta Braves

The long-time face of the evil Braves isn't exactly my favorite player, but I have to agree with Rob Neyer's article arguing for Jones' inevitable enshrinement.  Like Jeter, Jones has led many of his teams to postseason appearances and performed well when there (13 HR and 870 OPS in 92 games).  Unlike Jeter, he hasn't exactly been indestructible.  He hasn't played upwards of 140 games since 2003.  However, when he's been in the lineup, there's been no sign of decline.  He doesn't steal bases anymore, but he hasn't since he turned 30 (he's 36 now), and he actually seems to be getting better as a hitter.  His OPS has improved every year since 2004.  So, it seems safe to say he will improve on numbers which are already pretty noteworthy.  Among third baseman, only Mike Schmidt and Eddie Matthews have hit more home runs, and if he hits 25+ for four more years (not impossible), he might catch Matthews.  His career OPS is the best ever (for 3B).  He'll certainly reach 1500 RBI (moving him into the top 50 all-time) and has an outside shot at 3,000 hits.  Chipper won't get any assistance from his defense, but he shouldn't need it.  And, it goes without saying, this discussion isn't even necessary if he hits .400 this season.

Jason Varitek - C - Boston Red Sox

Varitek is a great example of the kind of player who might be overlooked in an era of offensive production.  However, he is the first Red Sox catcher to capture two World Championships since Pinch Thomas (1915 & 1916) and his newsworthy record of being behind the plate for four no-hitters might help him garner some voter attention.  Varitek's talent behind the plate has been underestimated because he's played most of his career in the shadow of Pudge Rodriguez.  His only Gold Glove came in 2005.  His offensive numbers are nothing to be ashamed of.  Among players who have spent 90% of their careers behind the plate, Varitek is 8th in OPS.  Of the seven players in front of him, only Chris Hoiles has no shot at the Hall (4 are already in, Rodriguez is a shoo-in, and, speaking of catchers with handfuls of rings, Jorge Posada is another borderline selection).  If he were eligible tomorrow, I don't think I'd vote for him, but that doesn't mean a couple more BoSox championships wouldn't persuade me otherwise.

Mike Mussina - SP - New York Yankees

Moose hasn't been very good for the last few years, I know.  He's never won 20 games in a season or a Cy Young and a run at 300 wins isn't looking likely.  But he's got more strikeouts than Tom Glavine and only two players (Mickey Lolich & Frank Tanana) with as many strikeouts as the Moose are not in the Hall (or headed there).  He's got more wins than Curt Schilling and a better winning percentage than Schilling, Glavine, Smoltz, and Greg Maddux (!), all players from the same era who played for good teams and seem certainly headed for Cooperstown.  However, only one player (Red Ruffing) with an ERA as high as Mussina on his career (3.71) is in the Hall.  Mussina could be in the position to change the standards.  Baseball pundits seem confident that the 300 win plateau is going to be unrealistic for this generation's pitchers.  The 3.50 career ERA might be a similarly high expectation, considering the AL average in the last decade has been well above 4.50.  I'd say no to Mussina, but I bet a significant number of baseball writers will feel otherwise.

Trevor Hoffman - RP - San Diego Padres

I know, the game's all-time leader in saves should be a sure thing, right?  Well, it didn't work out that way for Lee Smith and he had more wins, more strikeouts, more innings pitched, and more All-Star appearances than Hoffman, with a similarly good career ERA (3.03 compared to 2.76) and several downright dominating seasons.  Like Smith, Hoffman never won a World Series and he only got there once.  More importantly, when Smith became eligible in 2002, he was still the reigning saves king, which would've seemed to help his case.  By the time Hoffman's name gets on the ballot, he probably will have been surpassed by Mariano Rivera, whose credentials are, frankly, much, much more impressive.  He already leads Hoffman in wins, ERA, innings, and All-Star appearances, not to mention that ridiculous postseason line: 8-1, 34 SV, 0.77 ERA, 91 K, 16 BB, 117 IP.  There are only four full-time relievers in the Hall, none of them with upwards of 400 saves.  They will be setting a new precedent when they enshrine a career closer.  Something tells me that Mo Rivera is destined to be that precedent (though Hoffman may follow him).   

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The New Nightmare

This weekend two of the best sluggers in baseball will be in Boston, taking aim at the Green Monster.  It's a 3-4 combo featuring a lanky, defensively-challenged, somewhat surly right-handed left-fielder and an intimidatingly large, but ever-smiling, defensively-challenged left-handed first baseman.  It might be one of the best hitting pairs in baseball history.  I know, you may be asking yourself, "Don't these guys play in Boston, like, every weekend?"

Well, no, because I'm talking about Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers.  Since Braun arrived in the majors just less than a year ago, he and Fielder have combined for 84 HR and 232 RBI, significantly more than Manny and Big Papi over the same span (55 HR, 196 RBI).  More than any 3-4 combo in baseball, for that matter, combos like A-Rod/Abreu (58 HR, 227 RBI), Berkman/El Cabayo (74 HR, 225 RBI), and D-Lee/Ramirez (50 HR, 176 RBI).  Moreover, while each of those pairs features two mature players, every one of them over the age of 30, Fielder and Braun have a combined age of 48 years, 6 months, and 3 days.
In other words, together they are younger than recently retired Julio Franco.  

Like Manny and Papi, they have a very strong supporting cast, especially on offense, most of whom are also quite young.  What the Brew Crew doesn't have, is pitching depth, which is why they are likely to get pummeled this weekend by the superior Red Sox team, who will send Beckett, Dice-K, and Wakefield to the mound to face Jeff Suppan, Dave Bush, and Carlos Villanueva.  Despite a dramatically overhauled mercenary bullpen (Gagne, Riske, Torres, and Mota all signed this past offseason), the Brewers are among the league's worst in blown saves and bullpen ERA (8 BS, 4.37 ERA).  Strangely, despite the continued dominance of Papelbon (2.41, 11 SV) and Okajima (0.93, 9 HLD, 1 SV), Boston's relief corps have been pretty putrid as well (8 BS, 4.56 ERA).  If starting pitching fails to contain these two potent offenses, we could see some real slugfests.  

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Bold Predictions: Employment Edition

  • Two veteran closers lost their jobs yesterday, Jason Isringhausen of the Cardinals and Eric Gagne of the Brewers.  Both manager, Tony LaRussa and Ned Yost (the teams were playing each other, ironically), promised a closer-by-committee situation.  But, we should take heed of who they turned to for their first opportunities.  On Saturday afternoon LaRussa handed the ball to Ryan Franklin in the 9th.  Franklin has a 1.89 ERA with 12 holds, so it's hard for me to imagine a situation in which he would not be a good choice.  It took him 14 pitches to dispense with the top of the Brewers order.  Today, Ned Yost turned the ball over to Salomon Torres.  Torres, a former closer for the Pirates, has gone 3-0 with a save, two holds, and a 2.74 ERA since arriving in Milwaukee.  He has a history of success and durability, pitching 90+ innings for Pittsburgh three seasons in a row from '04-'06 with an ERA below 3.00, 15 saves, and 58 holds.  While it is possible that LaRussa and Yost might opt for Russ Springer or Brian Shouse when they see an all left-handed lineup, those situations will be rare.  Fantasy owners should set their sights on Franklin and Torres.
  • For those playing in leagues that require two or more catchers, might I suggest taking a look at Miguel Olivo of the Royals. Olivo has made 15 starts already this season, either in favor of John Buck or as the DH.  He's got 4 HR and 10 RBI. Only seven backstops can match those numbers. Granted, it's a small sample, but this is a tough position to fill and sometimes you've got to take some risks. Olivo does have a history of decent power, hitting 16 HR in each of the last two seasons. So if you're currently carrying Buck, Josh Bard, Brian Schneider, or Chris Coste, you'd probably be better served by picking up Olivo.
  • The Tigers cut ties with Jacque Jones this week as part of their ongoing efforts to shake up the offense.  Detroit is second in the AL in scoring, so one must question whether they should really be punishing position players.  I might have considered sending a message through Nate Robertson (1-4, 6.64).  There are two points to be made here.  First, Jacque Jones is going to land elsewhere, probably as a starter.  Last year, after a slow start, Jones hit .332 with 46 RBI after the All-Star break.  He proved he could play respectably well at any outfield position, so there are plenty of potential suitors, including the Padres, Marlins, Blue Jays, and Twins.  He could be a very productive fourth or fifth outfielder in a deep fantasy league.  Additionally, Jones' release has resulted in more playing time for Marcus Thames and Matt Joyce, while Sheffield gets more playing time in left field.  However, Matt Joyce isn't going to be the Tiger's long-term solution.  Obviously, there has been a frenzy of media speculation about Barry Bonds.  It would be a logical match, undoubtedly, and one must wonder whether Detroit could do any better (certainly not for the price).  However, Tigers management has already angered some of their fellow Robber Barons by handing out several monster contracts in the last couple seasons, will they risk the additional spite from the commissioner's office by breaking the collusion agreement regarding Bonds?  It seems doubtful.  On the other hand, they ransacked their farm system in order to get Cabrera and Willis, so they probably don't have the right set of pieces for acquiring an left-handed impact guy like Andre Ethier (unless they deal Inge and eat much of his contract).  They may be forced to consider Bonds or Kenny Lofton (who might actually be the better fit).
  • One has to wonder how much longer John Gibbons will be managing the Toronto Blue Jays.  He has quite possibly the best pitching staff in all of baseball, but hasn't been able to climb out of the AL East cellar.  Sure, you can't blame Gibbons for injuries to Vernon Wells, David Eckstein, Jeremy Accardo, and John McDonald.  However, what you can blame Gibbons for is being too patient with his starting pitchers and not patient enough with his hitters.  Twice in the series with Cleveland he sent an Ace back out to the mound after he had thrown well over a hundred pitches (Halladay in the 7th on Friday, Burnett in the 8th today), only to be forced to remove him after he'd allowed several baserunners.  What I don't understand, especially, is that we're talking about a team that has a solid bullpen and starters who have already worked deep into the game.  If he was trying to push his horses to give him quality starts, it might be one thing, but these guys were clearly exhausted, having already done their jobs!  Hand the ball to Jesse Carlson, Scott Downs, Brian Tallet, and B. J. Ryan, all of whom have pitched excellently so far and had plenty of rest, because the Toronto rotation consistently pitches deep into games, even when Gibbons isn't forcing it on them.  They also has Jason Frasor and Shawn Camp (and Accardo, until recently) out there who haven't started the season very strong, but have histories of success.  There is plenty of depth, but Gibbons only seems to trust his Aces.  I don't think anybody's mismanaged a quality pitching staff this badly since Grady Little got booted out of Boston.  Additionally, Gibbons' has also had a much-publicized confrontation with Frank Thomas, which resulted in the Big Hurt heading to Oakland where he has a .391 OBP and 10 RBI in 17 games.  The only guys with 10 RBI for Toronto during that span is, you guessed it, Vernon Wells, who won't be taking the field again for two months.  Without Thomas or Wells, Alex Rios will have to move to center field, and the corner outfield spots and DH with presumably be shared by some combination of Shannon Stewart, Brad Wilkerson, Kevin Mench, and Matt Stairs.  Stairs has played quite well, but Stewart, Wilkerson, and Mench have combined for 7 runs, 0 HR, and 11 RBI in close to 200 ABs so far.  Meanwhile, Adam Lind, a bonafide top prospect toils at AAA, where he is hitting .329 with a 903 OPS.  But, since he didn't produce in the first three games after they released Thomas, Gibbons benched him and eventually he had to be sent back so he could get regular playing time.  The Jays had very high expectation going into the season and they still aren't that far back in the crowed AL East.  Any team with this much pitching can get hot and make a run, as the Padres prove almost every year, but I think Toronto is going to need to spur it by firing their hot-headed manager and bringing in a fresh perspective.  Hey, I think Jack McKeon is available.