SweetSpot: Atlanta Braves


Before I did a news hit about B.J. Upton announcing he wants to go by his given name of Melvin Upton Jr., I looked into some numbers to see what has caused his troubles since he joined the Braves two seasons ago.

To no surprise, he's striking out more -- not a good thing considering that he already had a high strikeout rate with the Rays. But even when Upton does make contact, he's hitting fewer fly balls, thus the decline in isolated power as well as batting average. Here:

Rays, 2011-2012
Strikeout rate: 25.9 percent
Swing-and-miss rate: 28.9 percent
Fly-ball rate: 41.1 percent
Home run/fly-ball rate: 15.0 percent
Walk rate: 9.1 percent
Line-drive rate: 17.8 percent
BABIP: .296

Braves, 2013-2014
Strikeout rate: 31.5 percent
Swing-and-miss rate: 33.9 percent
Fly-ball rate: 34.6 percent
Home run/fly-ball rate: 9.9 percent
Walk rate: 9.8 percent
Line-drive rate: 20.1 percent
BABIP: .277

More strikeouts, more overall swings and misses, fewer home runs on the fly balls he does hit, a lower batting average on balls in play ... there are many reasons why Upton has hit .198 in his two seasons with the Braves. One number does offer a small ray of optimism, however: His line-drive rate on contact has actually been higher with the Braves -- although his batting hasn't been quite as good. He hit .676 on line drives with the Rays in 2011-12 and has hit .606 with the Braves. So he's probably been a little unlucky on line drives; still, a few extra hits wouldn't have changed his overall batting line all that much.

If there's one area that explains Upton's decline, aside from the increased strikeouts, it's his production on fly balls:

With Braves: .170 AVG/.166 OBP/.500 SLG
With Rays: .249/.241/.774

Here's the weird thing. His average fly-ball distance with Tampa was 399 feet; with the Braves, it's 398 feet. With the Rays, he hit 46 home runs out of 315 fly balls; with the Braves, just 17 out of 205. And no, it's not a ballpark issue. According to "The Bill James Handbook," Tampa Bay rated as a tougher home run park for right-handed batters from 2012-14 than Atlanta did. (In 2011 and '12, Upton hit 26 of his 51 home runs at home, so he wasn't necessarily benefiting from the other AL East parks, either.)

Upton pulls most of his home runs. He just hasn't been able to pull the ball often enough with the Braves. Here are his fly-ball charts from his final two years with the Rays and his two with the Braves:

Melvin UptonESPN

His inability to pull the ball is a reflection of his overall struggles against inside pitches:

Rays, 2011-12 versus inside: .276/.375/.526
Braves, 2013-14 versus inside: .207/.303/.396

Considering Upton has always struggled against outer-edge stuff, if he's not hitting the inside stuff, he's not hitting.

So, that's the problem. Is there a solution? Is it a mechanical issue? A mental issue? Just a slower bat? He's only 30, so it's not necessarily a bat-speed issue. In the past, Upton has talked about using his legs more. Last spring, it was about developing a shorter swing. Some have suggested he open his stance up.

New Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer -- Atlanta's fourth in six seasons -- is known from his Kansas City and Toronto days for stressing contact and using the whole field. He's already spent some time working with Upton in the offseason and indicated that they're working on a mechanical tweak and shorter swing. Sounds like last spring.

My best guess? Upton has had two awful seasons, and expecting a return to his previous level is optimistic thinking at this point. He likely had a comfort zone in Tampa with Joe Maddon, one that can't be replicated. With every strikeout, the pressure mounts. Maybe a little tweak will fix things, but if it was that simple, it's two years later and we're still seeking that tweak. Maybe a good start will get him going. The Braves have to hope so -- he still has three years remaining on his contract.
After looking at which players not on a 40-man roster have been invited to spring training in the AL East, AL Central and AL West, it's time to move to the National League. Only a few of these guys will crack Opening Day rosters, but many will end up playing important roles at some point once the injuries start to pile up.

BravesAtlanta Braves

Considering that the Braves are in a state of transition, you might expect to see some interesting names here ... and you'd be right. Wandy Rodriguez made just six starts last year because of a knee injury -- and just 12 in 2013 thanks to some arm problems -- but his ERA was under 3.80 every season from 2008 through 2013. ... The Braves' outfield is kind of a mess, so Eric Young Jr., who led the NL in steals in 2013, has a chance to stick. ... Kelly Johnson is back where he started. He could win a backup job in the infield. ... Sugar Ray Marimon has to be singled out just for his name. He's a right-handed pitcher and that's his given name, not a nickname. ... Eric Stults hopes to be this year's Aaron Harang. ... Jose Veras moves on to his ninth team, always pitching just well enough to get a job somewhere. ... Chien-Ming Wang once won 19 games in back-to-back seasons with the Yankees, but that was a long time ago. ... Bet you didn't know Matt Capps was the winning pitcher in the 2010 All-Star Game. ... John Buck isn't on the 40-man roster, but A.J. Pierzynski is. At this point, you don't really want either guy to play too much.

MarlinsMiami Marlins

Reed Johnson is back after 201 plate appearances with the Marlins last year. But considering his .266 OBP, his days as a right-handed pinch hitter/backup outfielder may have expired. ... Outfielder Tyler Colvin has had spurts of production, but didn't hit last year with either the Giants or Triple-A Fresno. ... Scott Sizemore has seen his career ruined by knee injuries. ... Wait, the Tigers let Don Kelly get away? ... Jordany Valdespin split time between the Marlins and Triple-A last year and will probably do the same this year. ... Vin Mazzaro had a decent season in relief for the Pirates in 2013 but spent most of 2014 in Triple-A.

MetsNew York Mets

Not only did the Mets do very little this offseason after they signed Michael Cuddyer, they didn't even seem interested in bringing in non-roster guys. I guess they believe they already have enough depth on their 40-man roster and in the upper minors to not worry about bringing in some of those 4-A players. Scott Rice is left-handed and has made 105 appearances for the Mets over the past two seasons. ... Buddy Carlyle had a 1.45 ERA in 31 innings with the Mets, along with an impressive 28-5 strikeout-walk ratio. He was nonetheless booted off the 40-man roster after the season. ... Infielder Matt Reynolds hit .355 at Double-A and .333 at Triple-A. He's played shortstop and second but profiles best at second. There's not a ton of power here -- and everybody hits at Las Vegas -- but Reynolds looks like he could make the club as a utility guy or an early call-up and maybe even get some time at shortstop if Wilmer Flores struggles. ... Catcher Kevin Plawecki reached Triple-A in 2014 and will likely make his debut at some point and then push Travis d'Arnaud for a starting job in 2016.

PhilliesPhiladelphia Phillies

Jeff Francoeur wasn't even that good when he was good. ... Kevin Slowey spent time with the Marlins the past two seasons, and while he rarely walks anyone he got hit pretty hard. ... Former pitcher-turned-outfielder Brian Bogusevic was last in the majors in 2013. ... Infielder Chris Nelson has spent parts of the past five seasons in the majors but hasn't hit outside of one season in Colorado -- and even then he didn't really do that much, considering it was Colorado. ... Xavier Paul will battle Francoeur and Bogusevic for a potential roster spot. ... Jeanmar Gomez is the best bet to make the team. He had a 3.28 ERA the past two seasons with the Pirates. ... Catcher Koyie Hill has forged a career as a Triple-A insurance policy.

NationalsWashington Nationals

I can't see Dan Uggla actually making the team, but reports in the offseason said that he had played through an undiagnosed concussion in 2014. That doesn't explain the .179 average in 2013 and the defense that makes it difficult to play him no matter what he hits. ... Mike Carp got a World Series ring with the Red Sox in 2013, when he hit .296/.362/.523. But he fell to .175/.289/.230 last year. ... Ian Stewart was once rated the No. 4 prospect in the game, a burden he perhaps has never been able to escape. ... First baseman Kila Ka'aihue has long been a favorite of statheads for his ability to get on base in the minors. He has been in Japan the past two years. ... Second baseman Cutter Dykstra is the son of Lenny and fiancÚ of "Sopranos" actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler. He hit .274/.349/.391 at Double-A. ... Heath Bell dropped 40 pounds in the offseason in an attempt to better position himself for a bullpen job. Maybe he should have done that in 2013 or 2014, when he was making $9 million per season and pitching poorly. Really, he hasn't been effective since leaving the Padres after 2011, but the Nationals' pen may have an opening if he looks good in camp.

It's time for my second annual pre-spring training power rankings. You love them, you hate them, you laugh, you cry. But they stir up debate and get us thinking about baseball with spring training right around the corner.

Arizona30. Arizona Diamondbacks

Big offseason moves: Hired Chip Hale as manager; signed Cuban 3B/LF Yasmany Tomas to six-year, $68.5 million contract; traded LHP Wade Miley to the Red Sox for RHPs Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa and a minor leaguer; traded C Miguel Montero to the Cubs for two minor leaguers; acquired RHP Jeremy Hellickson from the Rays; acquired LHP Robbie Ray from the Tigers in a three-team deal that sent SS Didi Gregorius to the Yankees; signed Cuban RHP Yoan Lopez for an $8.25 million bonus.

Most intriguing player: Expectations will be high for Tomas following the success of fellow Cubans Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu the past two seasons. But Tomas isn't viewed as an all-around player like Puig or a polished hitter like Abreu. He has power potential, but the first test will be to see whether he can handle third base; many scouts view him as a left fielder but the Diamondbacks will give him a shot at third.

Due for a better year: Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo, projected to perhaps combine for 70 home runs, both missed large chunks of time and instead combined for just 33 as they missed a combined 127 games.

Due for a worse year: Outfielder Ender Inciarte, pressed into service after a slew of injuries, didn't hit much but the defensive metrics loved him, pushing his WAR to 3.7, third best on the team behind Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. He's likely to serve in a bench role this year, especially if Tomas ends up in the outfield.

I'm just the messenger: New general manager Dave Stewart, hired by chief baseball officer Tony La Russa in late September to clean up the mess that Kevin Towers left behind, remains a bit of a mystery. It didn't help his reputation, especially among statistical analysts, when he said in January that the Diamondbacks may be viewed as more of a "true baseball team versus some of the other teams out here that are geared more toward analytics and those type of things." It was also a bit curious that La Russa hired a veterinarian named Dr. Ed Lewis, whom he has known for 30 years and worked with in the past, as the team's director of analytics. There are certainly different ways of doing things but this regime doesn't look all that different so far from the previous one that espoused grit and toughness.

The final word: Stewart's first moves brought in some interesting young arms but this is still a rotation that doesn't look much better than the group that ranked 27th in the majors in ERA in 2014. Offensively, the D-backs plan to rely on the power of Goldschmidt, Trumbo and Tomas. The issues here are even if Trumbo hits 30 home runs, he owns a .298 career OBP and he's a big defensive liability in the outfield; Tomas may end up profiling similar to Trumbo as a guy with a low OBP who doesn't project as a plus defender at either third base or left field. Catcher is currently a black hole -- Tuffy Gosewisch, come on down -- and the whole lineup aside from Goldschmidt has an aversion to taking walks.

Prediction: 66-96

Philadelphia Phillies29. Philadelphia Phillies

Big offseason moves: Traded SS Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers for two minor leaguers; traded OF Marlon Byrd to the Reds for minor league P Ben Lively; umm ... signed OF Jeff Francoeur, which even as an act of desperation is a curious act of desperation; have shopped LHP Cole Hamels, RHP Jonathan Papelbon and 1B Ryan Howard; signed RHPs Aaron Harang and Chad Billingsley.

Most intriguing player: Hamels, obviously. He may start the season with the Phillies but nobody expects him to end it there.

Due for a better year: Domonic Brown gets what is maybe his final chance to prove himself as a big league regular. An All-Star in 2013 when he hit 27 home runs, he fell apart in 2014 with a .235/.285/.349 line. There's still some talent here, but how much?

Due for a worse year: Ruben Amaro Jr.


How many games to the Phillies win?


Discuss (Total votes: 13,837)

I'm just the messenger: Everyone has been predicting the decline of the Phillies for a few years and Amaro finally admitted that a rebuilding was in order. He's been asking for a ransom for Hamels, understandably so because he's really the only valuable commodity he has, unless Chase Utley agrees to a trade or Cliff Lee comes back and proves he's healthy. The past two seasons were painful for Phillies fans, but 2015 could be their worst season since losing 97 games in 2000.

The final word: Hey, on the bright side the Phillies outperformed my prediction last year by seven wins .. and still won just 73 games. If there's a bright spot, it's the bullpen, led by closer-in-waiting Ken Giles (1.18 ERA as a rookie), which should be solid even if Papelbon is traded.

Prediction: 67-95

Atlanta Braves28. Atlanta Braves

Big offseason moves: Hired former Indians GM John Hart as president of baseball operations; traded OF Jason Heyward and RHP Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for RHPs Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins; traded OF Justin Upton to the Padres; traded C/OF Evan Gattis to the Astros; signed OF Nick Markakis, OF Jonny Gomes, RHP Jason Grilli, IF Kelly Johnson and IF Alberto Callaspo; lost free-agent Ps Ervin Santana, Aaron Harang and Kris Medlen.

Most intriguing player: Hart is gambling on Miller putting everything together after two solid but inconsistent seasons with the Cardinals. The 24-year-old righty had a 2.92 ERA in the second half after he started using a sinker to go along with his four-seamer. If he proves to be a solid No. 2-type starter, the Braves will be happy with the return they got for Heyward.

Due for a better year: Andrelton Simmons makes too much contact to hit .244 and saw his extra-base hit total fall from 50 to 29, a big reason his WAR dropped from 6.9 to 3.5 despite another Gold Glove season at shortstop.

Due for a worse year: It wouldn't be nice if I said B.J. Upton. Alex Wood went 11-11 with a 2.78 ERA, using that funky delivery to hold batters to a .239 average. The peripherals are solid (3.25 FIP), so this doesn't scream out "fluke" to me, but natural regression suggests he won't post a 2.78 ERA again and I worry about an injury with that delivery.

I'm just the messenger: The Braves have been pretty public about what they did this offseason, so there's no reason to pile on. Instead of trying to compete with the Nationals, fall short, and then lose Heyward and Upton to free agency, they decided to rebuild and aim for 2017 when the new ballpark opens. The issue is whether Hart did well in the trades he made and there's no way of knowing that for several years, because most of the prospects he got in return won't be major league ready in 2015.

The final word: The Braves haven't had back-to-back losing seasons since the pre-dynastic seasons of 1989 and 1990, but that's going to happen in 2015. The rotation could actually be pretty solid with Julio Teheran, Miller, Wood and a back-to-form Mike Minor, and funny things can happen with a good rotation. But the offense is going to be horrific. The Braves were next-to-last in the NL in runs last season and they've traded away three of the four good hitters they did have. They'll head into 2015 with one good hitter in Freddie Freeman and one average-ish hitter in Markakis, who is coming off neck surgery. So good luck. But at least they won't strike out as much.

Prediction: 68-94

Minnesota Twins27. Minnesota Twins

Big offseason moves: Named Paul Molitor manager; signed RHP Ervin Santana and OF Torii Hunter; signed RHP Tim Stauffer; umm ... Tom Milone changed his number.

Most intriguing player: Center fielder Byron Buxton was baseball's top prospect entering 2014 but suffered a series of injuries -- wrist, dislocated finger, concussion -- that limited him to 31 minor league games in the regular season before a stint in the Arizona Fall League. He's still a potential superstar (Keith Law has him ranked as his No. 2 prospect in baseball) and could reach the majors this season.

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
AP Photo/Craig LassigJoe Mauer hit just four homers in 120 games last season.
Due for a better year: Joe Mauer's move to first base was supposed to get him in the lineup more often; instead he played just 120 games and he hit just .277, the lowest of his career. He turns 32 in April so there's no guarantee he gets back to hitting .300, especially considering his walk-to-strikeout ratio has decreased from better than even just two seasons ago to 60 walks and 96 K's in 2014 (still a strong ratio compared to the MLB average, but this is a guy who walked more than he struck out most of his career).

Due for a worse year: Danny Santana hit .319/.353/.472 as a rookie, fueled by a .405 BABIP -- the highest by a player with 400 plate appearances since Rod Carew in 1977. Santana never hit .300 in the minors so look for a sizable decline.

I'm just the messenger: I know a lot of Twins fans are kind of excited by the rotation -- well, at least compared to recent Twins rotations: Phil Hughes had a breakout year, they signed Ervin Santana, Kyle Gibson won 13 games in his first full season, Alex Meyer appears ready for a shot and Ricky Nolasco can't be that bad again. Well, Nolasco can be that bad again and I'm skeptical about the Santana signing. He had a 3.95 ERA with the Braves (3.39 FIP) but now moves over to the American League and won't have Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons playing behind him. Plus, there's this problem: Torii Hunter and Oswaldo Arcia are penciled in as two starting outfielders, two guys who would have trouble covering enough ground in a beer league softball outfield. Hunter had minus-18 defensive runs saved and Arcia minus-10 (in about half a season of playing time). The Twins ranked as the second-worst defensive team in the majors via defensive runs saved in 2014 and that's going to be a big issue again.

The final word: There is potential here on offense, which ranked fifth in the league in runs. But I don't see any improvement coming there as players such as Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have likely peaked and Santana regresses. The defense is still a problem and the rotation -- which had the worst ERA in the majors in 2014 -- still doesn't do a lot for me. It looks like another holding year as the Twins wait for Buxton and Miguel Sano to arrive.

Prediction: 68-94

Colorado Rockies26. Colorado Rockies

Big offseason moves: Promoted Jeff Bridich to general manager; signed RHP Kyle Kendrick; signed IF Daniel Descalso; traded 2B Josh Rutledge to the Angels for RHP Jairo Diaz; lost OF Michael Cuddyer, LHP Brett Anderson and RHP Matt Belisle to free agency; some other minor moves that probably won't turn the Rockies into the 1927 Yankees.

Most intriguing player: Troy Tulowitzki. Isn't he always the most intriguing Rockies player? He was having an MVP-level season last year until he predictably landed on the DL. Bridich resisted the temptation to deal Tulowitzki or outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, but if the Rockies are way back come in July, you have to wonder if those two will be back on the trading block.

Due for a better year: Gonzalez played just 70 games and hit .238/.292/.431.

Due for a worse year: Charlie Blackmon made the All-Star team on the basis of hitting .374 in April with a 1.034 OPS, but his highest OPS in any month after that was .806. He had a .269 OBP on the road. In a neutral park, he's probably a borderline starter and he'll platoon with Drew Stubbs assuming Gonzalez and Corey Dickerson stay healthy.

I'm just the messenger: Same old Rockies. The rotation isn't good -- and don't blame Coors Field, as the Rockies had the worst road ERA in the majors. The offense is overrated -- maybe you can blame Coors Field, as the Rockies led the NL in runs but barely outhit the Padres on the road with a .228 average. Tulo and CarGo have to stay healthy. The young starters have to stay healthy.

The final word: Everyone also focuses on the pitching problems with the Rockies and it's certainly not good that 26 pitchers have started for the Rockies over the past two seasons. But Bridich must also properly evaluate the offense; the Rockies are always going to score runs because of Coors Field but they're not going to be competitive unless they score more runs on the road. They were 45-36 at home but a miserable 21-60 on the road. Winning at altitude isn't the issue; it's winning away from altitude.

Prediction: 71-91

Texas Rangers25. Texas Rangers

Big offseason moves: Named Jeff Banister manager; acquired RHP Yovani Gallardo from the Brewers; acquired LHP Ross Detwiler from the Nationals; traded LHP Robbie Ross to the Red Sox for RHP Anthony Ranaudo; re-signed RHP Colby Lewis; acquired C Carlos Corporan from the Astros; lost OF Alex Rios to free agency.

Most intriguing player: Prince Fielder. He says he's happy and healthy after neck surgery but he appeared to be a player in decline before coming over to the Rangers.

Due for a better year: Well, the Rangers led the majors in days spent on the disabled list, so pick your injured player of choice.


How many games do the Rangers win?


Discuss (Total votes: 11,907)

Due for a worse year: No obvious candidates, although Adrian Beltre has to start showing his age one of these years and his home runs did drop to 19 after topping 30 the three previous seasons.

I'm just the messenger: The Rangers ran through a mind-numbing 64 players in 2014, including -- is this right? -- 40 different pitchers if you count position players Mitch Moreland, J.P. Arencibia and Chris Gimenez. So, yes, you can easily dismiss the disaster of 2014. But I can't just as easily dismiss a starting rotation that looks shaky behind Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. Gallardo's strikeout rates have plummeted the past two seasons and now he goes to the league with deeper lineups and a park where the ball flies out to right field. The Nos. 4 and 5 spots are up for grabs. The bullpen is full of question marks, starting with closer Neftali Feliz, who had a 1.99 ERA in 31.2 innings ... but a 4.90 FIP. He's hardly a sure thing and hasn't pitched a full season since 2011.

The final word: The Rangers are probably the most difficult team in the majors to evaluate. I could be way off here and Banister should certainly be an upgrade on the strategic front over Ron Washington, but I see too many unknowns on the pitching staff, a tough division and concerns about the overall value of Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo.

Prediction: 72-90
So Andruw Jones is looking for a job in the majors after playing the past two years in Japan.

1. The 10 best center fielders I've seen, off the top of my head:

1. Andruw Jones
2. Mike Cameron
3. Devon White
4. Franklin Gutierrez, that one year.
5. Juan Lagares. Mostly via highlights because I can't admit to watching a lot of Mets games the past two seasons.
6. Kenny Lofton
7. Gary Pettis
8. Jim Edmonds
9. Ken Griffey Jr. A little overrated.
10. Andy Van Slyke

Three Mariners and three Angels. AL West bias.

2. John Smoltz once told me that having Jones behind him helped him relax as a pitcher -- knowing he could make a mistake and Jones could still run it down, or that he could throw a 2-0 pitch down the middle knowing he had good defense behind him.

3. Who can forget those two home runs -- as a 19-year-old -- in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series?

4. OK, from Baseball-Reference, most runs saved on defense for center fielders since 1954:

1. Andruw Jones, 224
2. Willie Mays, 175
3. Paul Blair, 171
4. Jim Piersall, 128
5. Kenny Lofton, 115
6. Devon White, 112
7. Willie Davis, 103
8. Curt Flood, 99
9. Garry Maddox, 98
10. Chet Lemon, 96

Cameron, Edmonds and Pettis are all in the top 15.

5. Jones was known for taking a play off every now and then -- Bobby Cox once removed him in the middle of an inning -- but he rarely took a game off. From 1997 to 2007 he averaged 157 games per season.

6. He wasn't a one-dimensional player. He's hit 434 home runs and topped 30 seven times. Only five center fielders have had at least seven 30-homer seasons: Mays (11), Mickey Mantle (9), Ken Griffey Jr. (8), Joe DiMaggio (7) and Jones. Only three others have even had five -- Duke Snider, Edmonds and Dale Murphy.

7. Again via Baseball-Reference, top 10 seasons in Fielding Runs for center fielders:

1. Darin Erstad, 2002: 38.7
2. Carlos Gomez, 2013: 38.0
3. Andruw Jones, 1999: 35.7
4. Andruw Jones, 1998: 35.3
5. Devon White, 1992: 32.5
6. Ken Griffey Jr., 1996: 32.2
7. Franklin Gutierrez, 2009: 32.0
8. Jim Piersall, 1956: 31.1
9. Juan Lagares, 2013: 30.0
10. Michael Bourn, 2010: 30.0

Erstad did win a Gold Glove that year -- the year the Angels won the World Series. He made 3.39 plays per nine innings that year compared to a league average of 2.77. Pretty impressive. On the surface, it does appear to be a historic defensive season, although I don't think many remember him as well as some others.

8. From 1998 to 2006, Jones averaged 6.1 WAR per season. Which is good.

9. Unfortunately, he then got fat and his last good season came at age 29.

10. He probably has no chance at the Hall of Fame, despite his obvious defensive reputation and 400-plus home runs. Some of the negatives will weigh on voters as well his lack of production after turning 30; in other words, they'll remember the fat Andruw that wasn't good as much as the lithe, young defensive demon. His career WAR of 62.8 makes him a borderline Hall of Famer and a better candidate than Omar Vizquel, another defense-first player who I would say has a better chance of getting in simply because he had a different aging pattern than Jones, if not as valuable.

Anyway, Jones turns 38 in April, so while a comeback would appear slim -- he hit .232 with 50 home runs his two years in Japan after hitting .197 with the Yankees in 2012 -- I suppose he could get a spring training invite. But there's not much need these days for slow, right-handed ... and this is sad to report ... designated hitters.
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at the top prospects from 2005. Has it already been 10 years since 2005? Yes it has! We'll use Baseball America's list and, as always, we're not criticizing the list. Evaluating prospects is part art, part science and a lot of unknown.

The Top 10
1. Joe Mauer, Twins
2. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
3. Delmon Young, Devil Rays
4. Ian Stewart, Rockies
5. Joel Guzman, Dodgers
6. Casey Kotchman, Angels
7. Scott Kazmir, Devil Rays
8. Rickie Weeks, Brewers
9. Andy Marte, Braves
10. Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox

Just a reminder: Not all top-10 players become All-Stars, let alone future Hall of Famers, and many don't develop at all. Young, who rose to the No. 1 overall prospect in 2006, has had a long major league career but at barely replacement level (2.5 career WAR), making him one of the most disappointing prospects of the past decade. His aggressive approach that existed in the minors has proven to be a fatal flaw in the majors, but he's also been a poor defender and his athleticism declined rapidly.

Stewart was coming off a 30-homer season in low A ball at age 19 in which he also hit .319 with some walks and he certainly looked like a future star. He did have a 25-homer season with the Rockies in 2009 but has never been able to make enough contact or hit left-handers. Guzman was a big, 6-foot-7 shortstop who wasn't likely to stay there but had put up good numbers as a 19-year-old, albeit with a poor strikeout-to-walk rate. It was really the only season he hit like a top prospect in the minors and he made the majors for just 24 games.

Kotchman was a much different hitter than Young, Stewart or Guzman, a sweet-swinging first baseman who walked more than he struck out and projected to hit for a high average, but he never should have been a top-10 prospect. He had been injury-prone in the minors and didn't hit for much power and first basemen without power aren't top-10 overall prospects. In the majors, he was injury-prone and didn't hit for much power.

Weeks was that rare second-base prospect to crack the top 10. He's been worth 12.3 career WAR even though he has power and patience as he's only hit .249 despite his quick bat and his defense has been historically awful. At the time, Baseball America admitted he "had a lot of work to do with the glove." Ten years later, the defense never did improve and he can't find a job this offseason because of that liability.

Then there's Marte, one of the more famous prospect flops in recent years. "His potential as an all-around impact player is unquestioned," wrote Baseball America. Even though he was described as mature for his age in the BA scouting report, Marte's work ethic was later questioned and he added some weight, a concern cited even in 2005. He's hit .218 in 308 career major league games and is still scuffling around, appearing in six games for the Diamondbacks last year.

Nos. 11-25
11. Lastings Milledge, Mets
12. Dallas McPherson, Angels
13. Matt Cain, Giants
14. Jeff Francoeur, Braves
15. Prince Fielder, Brewers
16. Adam Miller, Indians
17. Jason Kubel, Twins
18. Jeremy Hermida, Marlins
19. Chad Billingsley, Dodgers
20. Jeff Niemann, Devil Rays
21. Brian Dopirak, Cubs
22. Carlos Quentin, Diamondbacks
23. Jeff Francis, Rockies
24. Nick Swisher, Athletics
25. Jose Capellan, Brewers

Three hits with Cain, Fielder and Swisher and a half-hit with Billingsley, who is trying to rebound from two years of injuries and just signed with the Phillies. Kubel was a hit-first prospect who ranked 17th on the list even though he had torn up his knee in the Arizona Fall League, after reaching the majors at the end of 2004. Already considered slow in the outfield before the injury, he had some good years at the plate in the majors but was best suited to DH, and it's possible he was never the same player after the injury. Quentin has also seen his career interrupted by various injuries through the years.

The interesting guy here is Hermida, who rose to the No. 4 overall prospect in 2006. He was supposed to be a can't-miss hitter, due to excellent plate discipline and a nice lefty stroke with medium-range power and good makeup. He had a good year for the Marlins in 2007, hitting .296/.369/.501 but the bat went downhill from there. There were some nagging injuries and a trade to Boston, a collision with Adrian Beltre and then a bunch of years as a 4-A player. He's spent all of the two past years in Triple-A.

Nos. 26-50
Best hits: No. 27 Ryan Howard, No. 28 J.J. Hardy, No. 30 Edwin Jackson, No. 35 Gavin Floyd, No. 39 Erick Aybar, No. 44 Brian McCann, No. 48 Homer Bailey, No. 49 Brandon McCarthy.

And by "best hits" I mean only hits. Well, there's Yusmeiro Petit and Zach Duke and Ryan Sweeney and Anthony Reyes had that one good start for the Cardinals in the World Series.

Nos. 51-75
Best hits: No. 51 Shin-Soo Choo, No. 54 Franklin Gutierrez, No. 56 Edwin Encarnacion, No. 57 Curtis Granderson, No. 59 John Danks, No. 62 James Loney, No. 64 Aaron Hill, No. 65 Nick Markakis, No. 71 Cole Hamels, No. 72 Brandon Moss, No. 75 Billy Butler.

Even with Mauer and Hernandez, it looks like this block of 25 has produced more value than the top 25.

Nos. 76-100
Best hits: No. 76 Kendrys Morales, No. 81 Neil Walker, No. 82 Ubaldo Jimenez, No. 91 Jonathan Papelbon, No. 97 Huston Street, No. 98 Ian Kinsler.

Kinsler had a monster year in the minors in 2004, hitting .345 with 20 home runs, 51 doubles, 23 steals and good contract rates. I'm guessing he was ranked so low because he had been just a 17th-round pick the year before and caught everyone by surprise (although Baseball America mentioned an offseason strength training program and hitting instruction from Rangers coaches that led to the breakout performance).

Ten best prospects not in the top 100
Here are the top guys by career WAR not included in the top 100

1. Robinson Cano (51.5) -- Baseball America did rate him as the Yankees' No. 2 prospect (behind Eric Duncan) but had concerns about his ability to hit left-handers, his speed and his range at second. He'd hit .283/.339/.457 between Double-A and Triple-A at age 21 and obviously continued to get better.

2. Dustin Pedroia (43.2) -- He'd been a second-round pick in June of 2004 and hit .357 in the low minors. He'd crack the top 100 the next year at No. 77.

3. Adrian Gonzalez (38.4) -- He had a cup of coffee with the Rangers in 2004 and even though the Marlins had made him the No. 1 overall pick in 2000, was left out of the top 100 after hitting .304/.364/457 at Triple-A at age 22. The power started developing more in 2005, although the Rangers traded him after that season to the Padres.

4. Ben Zobrist (36.6) -- He certainly wouldn't have been on anyone's prospect radar after being a sixth-round pick out of Dallas Baptist in June of 2004, although he'd hit .339/.438/.463 with more walks than strikeouts in the New York-Penn League. The Rays got him from the Astros in 2006 and he reached the majors that season.

5. Jon Lester (32.6) -- Lester had been a second-round pick in 2002 but had ho-hum numbers in the Florida State League, with a 4.28 ERA and 97 strikeouts and 37 walks in 90 innings. The scouting report was positive: 92-93 mph and hitting 96, with Baseball America noting his secondary stuff needed refinement. He had also missed some time with shoulder tightness. Still, considering the size and arm strength, a little surprising he didn't crack the top 100.

6. Adam Wainwright (32.5) -- This one made more sense. He made just 12 starts in Triple-A because of an elbow strain and posted a 5.37 ERA. Baseball America did note that his "curveball may be his best pitch." Yeah, maybe.

7. Shane Victorino (30.2) -- He'd actually been a Rule 5 pick by the Padres from the Dodgers in 2003 and had 73 plate appearances in the majors before the Padres returned him. The Phillies then made him a Rule 5 pick again after the 2004 season. Despite his plus speed and a solid season in Double-A in 2004, he was listed as just the 19th-best prospect for the Phillies.

8. Russell Martin (30.1) -- He'd hit .250 with 15 home runs in Class A and had been catching for just two years, although he had positive reviews for his defense. He wasn't overlooked -- No. 6 among Dodgers prospects -- and it's noteworthy that he did have a good hitting approach even then, with 72 walks against 54 strikeouts.

9. Jose Bautista (29.6) -- He was easy to miss because he'd spent 2004 as a Rule 5 pick, going from the Pirates to the Orioles to the Devil Rays (off waivers) to the Royals (sold) to the Mets (for Justin Huber) and then back to the Pirates in another trade. All told, he batted just 88 times. And that was after playing sparingly in 2003 after breaking his hand punching a garbage can. Baseball America did note his athleticism and ability to play third base or outfield in naming him Pittsburgh's No. 12 prospect.

10. James Shields (28.7) -- He was really just an organizational player at this point in the minors, a 16th-round pick who wasn't listed among Tampa Bay's top 30 prospects or even in a longer depth chart of right-handed pitchers. He'd had a 4.72 ERA between Class A and Double-A with 106 strikeouts in 135 innings.

Who's better, Freeman or Rizzo?

January, 29, 2015
Jan 29
Keith Law came out with his top 100 prospects Thursday, and the list lacks impact first basemen (the highest-ranking first baseman is D.J. Peterson of the Mariners at No. 61, and he's actually played mostly third in the minors), continuing a trend of declining offense from a position that is supposed to provide it. Since 2009, the overall wOBA (weighted on-base average) in MLB has declined 20 points to .305 from .325, but the wOBA for first basemen has declined 34 points to .328 from .362.

Luckily, we do have two outstanding young first basemen in the National League to appreciate: Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs. We talked briefly about these two in Tuesday's chat, but let's put it to a vote: Who do you like better for 2015? Both are entering their age-25 seasons and coming off excellent seasons. Freeman has a longer track record of success, but Rizzo took a big leap forward in 2014.

Some quick numbers:

2014: .288/.386/.461, 18 HR, 2.9 bWAR, 4.2 fWAR
2015 Steamer projection: .284/.375/.480, 24 HR, 4.1 WAR

2014: .286/.386/.527, 32 HR, 4.9 bWAR, 5.6 fWAR
2015 Steamer projection: .271/.360/.503, 32 HR, 4.7 WAR

By the advanced metrics, Rizzo had the better season with a 2-win edge in Baseball-Reference WAR and 1.4-win advantage in FanGraphs WAR. Rizzo's power advantage certainly helped there, but he also rated as the much better defensive first baseman. That's particularly interesting because Freeman is viewed as a good first baseman, especially by Braves fans.

[+] EnlargeFreddie Freeman hit chart
ESPN Stats & Info
Using defensive runs saved, Freeman rated at minus-7 runs and Rizzo at plus-6; that 13-run difference is worth more than a win in Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, which uses defensive runs saved for its defense evaluation. Rizzo has rated well throughout his career via DRS, but 2014 may simply have been an aberration for Freeman, as he was plus-7 in 2013 and plus-3 in 2012.

In looking at the data from Baseball Info Solutions, the two were similar in their ratio of "good fielding plays" and "misplays" with Rizzo at 63 and 20 (plus nine errors) and Freeman at 57 and 20 (plus five errors). The difference comes in the evaluation of range, with Freeman rated particularly poorly going to his left (minus-7 runs). For what it's worth, FanGraphs uses ultimate zone rating, which rated Rizzo six runs better in 2014.

Anyway, first basemen are paid to hit, not for their defense. The big difference between the two at the plate was their power: Rizzo hit 32 home runs in 524 at-bats last season, Freeman 18 in 607 at-bats (Freeman had nearly 100 more plate appearances as Rizzo missed 20 games while Freeman played all 162). Freeman did hit more doubles but that wasn't enough to make up for Rizzo's advantage in knocking the ball over the fence. Both showed excellent walk rates, with Rizzo at 11.9 percent and Freeman at 12.7 percent, both ranking in the top 20 among all qualified hitters.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Rizzo
ESPN Stats & Info
Braves fans will point out two things: Freeman is young enough to still have a power spike (he hit 23 home runs in both 2012 and 2013) and he hit .319 in 2013. A power spike is certainly possible, but I wonder if Freeman would have to change his swing and start pulling the ball more. Compare his hit chart to Rizzo's: Freeman sprays the ball around the field, while Rizzo has the more classic power hitter's pull approach.

As for that .319 average in 2013, Freeman had a very high .371 average on balls in play. Even though he had a higher rate of line drives in 2014 (31 percent compared to 25 percent), his BABIP dropped to .351. To hit .300, Freeman would have to cut down on his strikeouts (145 in 2014). His strikeout rate was 20.5 percent; 69 regulars struck out at least 18 percent of the time in 2014 and Jose Abreu was the only one to hit .300. It's difficult to hit .300 consistently when you strike out as much as Freeman does, even when you're as adept at moving the ball around the field like he is.


Who will have the better season in 2015?


Discuss (Total votes: 2,575)

I've made the John Olerud comparison with Freeman before; both are tall first basemen, more line-drive hitters than power guys, couldn't run. Olerud never had that power spike but was able to hit around .300 while drawing a lot of walks. But he struck out less than the league average for his time. If Freeman is going to get better on offense, he's going to have to add power, which could come at the expense of his batting average, or improve his average by striking out less, which probably means we won't see that 30-homer season materialize.

If all this is pointing to me saying I think Rizzo is the better player, you're right. I believe in last year's improvement and wouldn't be shocked if there are a few more home runs to unlock. He has good patience and his strikeout rate was actually lower than Freeman's. If the Cubs are the surprise contenders that many believe they can be, Rizzo could be your sleeper National League MVP candidate for 2015.

Fine print, my friends, read the fine print. I only considered teams that won three World Series in a five-year span, so the 1975-76 Reds weren't included.

Obviously, the three-in-five scenario was used to include the Giants and also to limit the number of teams in the discussion. By doing that, we eliminated some teams that certainly deserve the label of dynasty:
  • 1991-2005 Braves: They won 14 consecutive division titles -- not including the 1994 strike year, when the Expos led when the season was canceled -- and reached five World Series in a nine-year span. They also played in nine of the 10 NLCS between 1991 and 2001, an absolutely remarkable run. But they won just one World Series, in 1995.
  • 1989-1993 Blue Jays: Toronto won four division titles in five years and then back-to-back World Series title in 1992 and 1993.
  • 1988-1992 A's: Oakland won four division titles in five years and won 103 and 104 games in 1988 and 1990 -- but lost the World Series both those years, sandwiched around a championship in 1989.
  • 1970-1976 Reds: The Reds won five division titles in seven years (and won 98 games one year they didn't win the division). They lost World Series in 1970 and 1972 before winning back-to-back in 1975 and 1976. The '76 squad had the most balanced offense of all time, leading the NL in runs, hits, doubles, triples, home runs, steals and walks (and also in strikeouts, interestingly enough).
  • 1966-1971 Orioles: The O's won the World Series in 1966 and 1970 but lost in 1969 and 1971. Really, the Orioles' dominance stretched even longer. From 1964-83, they won 90-plus games 16 times in 20 seasons and two of the seasons they didn't win 90 were strike-shortened seasons.
  • 1964-1968 Cardinals: Appeared in three World Series in five years but lost the third one in 1968.
  • 1959-1966 Dodgers: Advanced to four World Series in eight years and won three, but not three in five years. These were the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers. Before that, of course, the Dodgers had a long run of success in the late '40s and '50s (the 1959 club was kind of a hangover from that dynasty; it was actually one of the weakest World Series winners ever).
  • 1928-1932 A's: The 1929-31 A's were among baseball's great teams, winning three straight AL pennants with records of 104-46, 102-52 and 107-45. They won two World Series but lost in 1931 in seven games.
  • 1921-1928 Yankees: The Bronx Bombers of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig won back-to-back World Series in 1927 and 1928 -- sweeping both times -- but lost in 1926. Before Gehrig arrived, they played in three in a row from 1921-23, winning the third one.
  • 1921-1924 Giants: Won four consecutive NL pennants and two World Series.
  • 1906-1910 Cubs: Captured four NL pennants in five years and won two World Series. The 1906 team went 116-36 but lost to the "Hitless Wonder" White Sox in one of the biggest upsets in World Series history.

All these franchises had great runs of five years (or longer). And there's no doubt that, at their best, these teams arguably were better within their era than any of the recent Giants squads. But they didn't win three titles in five years.

It's all on how you want to weigh things. Do World Series titles trump all? The sport is different now than when pennant winners advanced directly to the World Series. Does having to go through three rounds (plus a wild-card game in 2014) make the Giants' titles more impressive? Maybe. You certainly have to give them credit for that 34-14 record in the postseason. On the other hand, maybe not. The Giants also have benefited from the new system; they were a wild-card team this year and they've also played weaker World Series opponents since the best team from the other league doesn't always advance.

Keep in mind that we also have more parity now. It's more difficult to build those 100-win teams that were more frequent in decades past -- let alone to sustain them.

The great thing about this: There's no "correct" answer. So we can keep arguing. All I know, as Giants fans like to point out, is that they have three rings to wear.
Jordan ZimmermanEvan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJordan Zimmerman will be a free agent following the 2015 season. Will he end up on the trade block?
We’re a month away from the official start of spring training, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some unresolved issues and potential news items still out there in baseball land. Here are 30 things to keep an eye on:

1. Now that the Nationals have signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract, will the Nats look to trade impending free agent Jordan Zimmermann? A rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez certainly has the ability to be one of the best we’ve seen in recent years, and that doesn’t even include Tanner Roark, who quietly went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA last year.

2. If the Nationals do look to move Zimmermann (or Fister, also a free agent at season’s end), will they use that trade to help restock the farm system or acquire depth in the bullpen? The pen looks a little thin after they traded setup man extraordinaire Tyler Clippard and lost Rafael Soriano to free agency.

3. Where will James Shields go? The one difference-making free agent who is still unsigned, Shields reportedly turned down $110 million from a team he apparently didn’t want to play for. Or maybe that was just posturing to try to ramp up the offers.

4. Will the Marlins trade Dan Haren? The veteran right-hander, set to make $10 million, had threatened to retire if he wasn’t traded back to a California team. But the Dodgers just traded him to the Marlins and don’t have room in their rotation, and the Los Angels also added rotation depth in the offseason. The Dodgers gave the Marlins $10 million to offset Haren’s salary, which they keep even if Haren doesn’t play. It looks like the ball may be in Haren’s court, as you know Jeffrey Loria would be more than happy to keep the cash.

5. Is Billy Beane done wheeling and dealing? It’s been a whirlwind offseason for the Oakland A's general manager, who has traded away Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, John Jaso and others, while acquiring Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, Clippard and other young players and prospects. Yunel Escobar was even acquired from the Rays and quickly dealt to the Nationals for Clippard.

6. Are Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer done wheeling and dealing for the Cubs? They just picked up Dexter Fowler from the Astros, giving the club a more legitimate center fielder than converted infielder Arismendy Alcantara. With the addition of Fowler, the Cubs' lineup could look like this:

Fowler CF
Starlin Castro SS
Jorge Soler RF
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Kris Bryant 3B
Miguel Montero C
Chris Coghlan LF
Javier Baez 2B

That lineup has potential, and it's backed up with a rotation featuring Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood. But with Fowler signed only through 2015, maybe the Cubs will make one more big move to draw closer on paper to the Cardinals and Pirates. Maybe Shields, to bolster the rotation even more?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto was second in the National League in 2014 with a 2.25 ERA.
7. Will the Reds sign Johnny Cueto to a long-term contract? Cueto will be expensive to sign, and while he may not command Scherzer money due Cueto's injury history, he’s coming off a season that would have won the Cy Young Award in most years. The long-term commitments the Reds have already made to Joey Votto and Homer Bailey may mean that a third $100 million-plus player doesn’t fit into their budget.

8. Will the Reds sign Aroldis Chapman to a long-term contract? Like Cueto, Chapman is a free agent after 2015. The Reds are hosting the 2015 All-Star Game, so don’t expect them to trade either player -- at least until after the All-Star Game and only if the Reds are well out of the pennant race.

9. Are the Cardinals satisfied with their rotation? They had been rumored to be interested in signing Scherzer or maybe acquiring David Price from the Tigers, but Price is certainly unavailable now -- not that he was in the first place -- with Scherzer out of the Detroit picture. The Cardinals did sign Lance Lynn to a three-year extension. But the health concerns of Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia and the uncertainty of young arms such as Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzalez means the Cardinals have question marks within their depth.

10. Are the Braves really committed to keeping Craig Kimbrel? After trading away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, the Braves have all but admitted they’re building for 2017 when they open their new park. General manager John Hart insists the club can still compete in 2015, but the projection systems argue otherwise and say the Braves will be one of the worst teams in the majors. The smart move would be to cash in Kimbrel now.

11. Speaking of ... are the Tigers going to do anything about the bullpen?

12. Speaking of ... Francisco Rodriguez is still a free agent. And probably with good reason, considering he led all relievers in home runs allowed in 2014. Still, he posted a 3.04 ERA and recorded 44 saves for the Brewers, so some team may be willing to give him a shot at closing. Especially a team that had major issues up and down the bullpen last year, including in the postseason.

13. Will the Mets acquire a shortstop? I think we’re all a bit tired of this story by now. Mets fans seem to want a new shortstop. The New York media definitely believes the team needs a shortstop. Sandy Alderson would probably like a new shortstop. Troy Tulowitzki may want to become the new Mets shortstop. Meanwhile, the Wilpons are probably too busy watching old films of the Brooklyn Dodgers to care.

14. Will the Diamondbacks trade Mark Trumbo? This is probably more of a spring training decision, depending on whether Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas can handle third base. If he can’t, he'll move to left field and the D-backs have to shop Trumbo.

15. Will Dave Stewart give us more quotes about "real" baseball teams and those apparently fake teams that worry too much about analytics?

16. Will the Mariners acquire a right-handed bat? Right now, the M’s have Nelson Cruz penciled in at DH, Logan Morrison at first base, and a right-field platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano (with lefty-swinging Dustin Ackley in left field). Jesus Montero is still around, but a right-handed bat who can play first base or DH against southpaws (with Cruz moving to the outfield) would create more balance in the lineup.

17. Will the Phillies release Ryan Howard? At this point, it’s probably best for all if Ruben Amaro just puts Howard on waivers. Nobody is going to trade for Howard, but that doesn’t mean you need to create a negative distraction by inviting him to spring training. It’s a sunk cost. Let it sink and see if any team wants to give Howard a shot to DH.

18. Who will be the first columnist to point out Howard’s RBI total from last year? Like, in a good way.

19. Will the Red Sox make a move for their rotation? While the Red Sox actually project to have a decent rotation, according to some projections, it’s also difficult to buy completely into Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Alex BrandonCole Hamels was in the top 10 in the National League last season in ERA (2.46) and strikeouts (198).
20. Will Cole Hamels be traded? Hamels may be worth more at the trade deadline than he is now, so don’t be surprised if Hamels is starting on Opening Day for the Phillies. But if he does get traded, the Red Sox and Padres still seem likely destinations; the Red Sox have a slew of prospects and the Padres have catching prospect Austin Hedges.

21. What’s going on with Dan Duquette? The only noise the Orioles’ president has made this offseason has been with the rumors that he’s leaving Baltimore to take over the presidency of the Blue Jays. If this was going to happen, it should have been resolved by now, as Duquette’s lack of activity in Baltimore could have the appearance of a conflict of interest.

22. Will the Orioles bring in a right fielder? Colby Rasmus is the best free agent out there and would be the easiest option, if inelegant. There are also unappealing trade options such as Andre Ethier or Carlos Quentin.

23. Which young star will get locked up by a long-term extension? Small-market teams have been able to remain competitive in recent years in part by signing their young stars to team-friendly extensions -- think Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh or Evan Longoria in Tampa Bay -- but as premium free agents continue to get $100-million plus contracts, there’s going to be less incentive for young players to potentially leave tens of millions on the table.

24. Where will the other free-agent relievers sign? Casey Janssen and Soriano are two relievers out there with closing experience. Soriano averaged 39 saves the past three seasons but lost his closer job with the Nationals late last season, while Janssen missed time with a back injury and saw his strikeout rate decline. Besides the Tigers, the Dodgers are seeking relief help.

25. Are the World Series champs done? The Giants just signed Norichika Aoki, although he and Gregor Blanco don’t make for a traditional platoon since both hit left-handed. They struck out on signing Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval and trading for Justin Upton. The Giants could still be in on Shields, or could bring back Ryan Vogelsong for rotation depth.

26. Back to the Nationals: Could they trade shortstop Ian Desmond? It seems unlikely, but Desmond is a free agent after 2015 and reportedly turned down a $100 million extension. And the club did trade for Yunel Escobar, although moving him to shortstop would create a hole at second base. The team perhaps most desperate for a shortstop is the Mets, but they’re a division rival.

27. Arbitration tracker: Who’s left? While a lot of players have already signed, the most interesting remaining unsigned players are those who are still several years from free agency and who could potentially negotiate multiyear deals (similar to the one Lynn signed with the Cardinals). This group includes Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays; Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford of the Giants; Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain of the Royals; Devin Mesoraco of the Reds; and Garrett Richards of the Angels.

28. What will happen with highly touted Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada? The 19-year-old switch-hitter is projected as a power-speed combo who will likely end up at second or third base. The Giants recently held a private workout with him, and the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals and Marlins are among those teams reported to have strong interest and financial means. MLB has declared Moncada a free agent, but he needs to be cleared by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control before he’s eligible to sign.

29. Who will join Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs in guaranteeing his team will win a division title?

30. Who will be the first player to report early to spring training in the best shape of his life?

Jason KipnisOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJason Kipnis is posed for a big rebound -- and, barring injuries, could be an All-Star in 2015.
It's been a slow few weeks in the world of baseball. So here are some random thoughts going through my mind as we wait for Max Scherzer to sign ... and wait ... and wait ...

1. I still don't understand the lack of support that Mike Mussina has received in the Hall of Fame voting. Well, I do understand: The majority of voters aren't analyzing their ballots much beyond a certain level of gut instinct. If they did, they'd realize Mussina should be a no-brainer Hall of Famer. He isn't in the Tommy John/Jim Kaat class.

2. Heard Chris "Mad Dog" Russo arguing that Jeff Kent was clearly better than Craig Biggio. I mean, sure, if you ignore little things like defense, baserunning and getting on base.

3. That said, I expect Kent's case to start picking up momentum. Biggio's election probably helps Kent because voters can argue that Kent was the better hitter, plus he has more than 1,500 RBIs and more home runs (377) than any other second baseman.

4. I like what St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote about the Hall of Fame: "I don't like the idea that MLB and the Hall of Fame has left it up to the ball writers to serve as the police force on PEDs. Among other things, it's a conflict of interest. We're supposed to be covering the industry as an independent group of journalists. We're not supposed to be establishing the baseball industry's standards for morality."

5. Congrats to Randy Johnson on his election to the Hall. My favorite Johnson memory is Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series, but I'll always remember this home run he served up to Mark McGwire. Steroids or not, good lord.

6. I miss Dave Niehaus.

7. That home run gives me an excuse to link to the video of this home run that Glenallen Hill hit onto a rooftop beyond Wrigley Field. "It's gotta be the shoes!" Well, that or maybe something else.

8. I've always wondered whether the balls weren't just a bit juiced in that era. After all, how do you explain runs per game going from 4.12 in 1992 to 4.60 in 1993 to 4.92 in 1994? Yes, there was expansion in 1993, but that hardly explains that much of an increase. So unless you believe everybody started using steroids at once, there were other factors in play beyond PEDs.

9. Back to the present. Loved the Ben Zobrist/Yunel Escobar acquisition by the A's. GM Billy Beane has now given manager Bob Melvin the most flexible lineup of hitters in the league. Zobrist can move back and forth between the infield and outfield, Marcus Semien can fill in anywhere in the infield, and Oakland has several platoon options.

10. Speaking of Zobrist, I’ll write about my all-time all-underrated team on Monday and my current all-underrated team on Tuesday. Zobrist fits the classic profile of an underrated player: draws walks, is a good defender, is durable, has medium-range power. He’s been one of baseball’s best players the past six years.

11. Two keys for the A's: Brett Lawrie has to stay healthy and have a solid season at third base, and Escobar has to bounce back from 2014, when some minor injuries may have contributed to his poor defensive metrics.

12. Outfielder Josh Reddick, initially critical of the Josh Donaldson trade, has apparently jumped back on the Beane bandwagon. He can't wait for the season to start. Me, neither.

13. How about those Seahawks?!?!

14. With their win over the Panthers on Saturday, the Seahawks became the first defending Super Bowl champ since the 2005 Patriots to win a playoff game. Doesn't that seem a little weird? Does it mean that winning the Super Bowl, like winning the World Series, involves a certain amount of luck in the playoffs?

15. With all due respect to the great Kenny Easley, I don't think he was the same kind of force on defense as Kam Chancellor. Yes, that's an old Seahawks reference.

16. I'm not ready to jump on the Padres' bandwagon.

17. I mean, I love the boldness of new general manager A.J. Preller, but I don't like the idea of Wil Myers playing center; Will Middlebrooks just isn't that good. Plus, San Diego's first baseman has no power, and shortstop is an issue.

18. But the Padres are going to be interesting, which is certainly more than has been said about this team in years.

19. There's no reason not to believe in Matt Shoemaker, other than he wasn't good before 2014. But there's nothing that says "fluke" in his numbers: good strikeout rate, excellent control and that great changeup/splitter.

20. Chris Davis will have a much better season in 2015.

21. I'm not so sure about Josh Hamilton, however.

22. Signing Scherzer to a mega-contract doesn't seem like a Cardinals type of move, but they do have to be a little worried about the health of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.

23. I don't quite get the rumors about David Price. Shouldn't the Tigers just keep him and maybe sign Scherzer and put out their best team for 2015? How many more great years are they going to get from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez? Detroit's window is now.

24. Of course, I get that they don't want to cash in so many chips and then turn into the Phillies. But, at age 85, does Tigers owner Mike Ilitch really care about 2019?

25. Jayson Stark wrote about Carlos Delgado getting bumped off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year. I don't see Delgado as a Hall of Famer, and while he did have some monster seasons, he's also way down my list of first basemen with possible Hall of Fame cases. You have Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez and Will Clark to consider before you get to Delgado.

26. Juan Lagares made 2.85 outs per nine innings in 2014; the average center fielder made 2.48. That's .37 more plays per game. Willie Mays' career best was .24 plays above the MLB average per nine innings.

27. Let's hope Matt Harvey returns as the same pitcher we saw in 2013.

28. The Braves are going to be terrible. No Jayson Heyward, no Justin Upton. Having Evan Gattis in the outfield and Alberto Callaspo at second base will severely weaken the defense.

29. It's almost like John Hart was a general manager from a different era when he didn't have defensive metrics to examine.

30. If the Braves are indeed just building for 2017 and their new ballpark, why not look to trade Craig Kimbrel?

31. Go see "Selma." It's an important American film with a lesson that still resonates in many ways today.

32. King Felix's changeup makes me smile even in the middle of winter.

33. I've been meaning to write a Mookie Betts/Javier Baez piece, but FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan beat me to it.

34. The answer: Mookie.

35. Your 2015 American League home run champ: Chris Carter.

36. Speaking of the Astros, I predict a huge breakout season for George Springer. Get him on your fantasy team if you can.

37. Your 2015 National League home run champ: Giancarlo Stanton. I know, too easy.

38. I wonder if the Giants will be conservative with Madison Bumgarner's innings, at least in the first couple of months of the season. He ended up throwing 270 innings between the regular season and playoffs, well above the 223 he threw in 2012, when the Giants also won the World Series.

39. If I were to bet on the Yankees either winning the AL East or imploding, I'd go with the implosion.

40. Still, there are enough big names on their roster, and if the rotation stays healthy, it wouldn't shock me if the Yankees did win the division.

41. A young pitcher who could make a big leap forward this year: Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays.

42. Weren't the Rangers supposed to be in the middle of an AL West dynasty by now?

43. Wish the Indians would make one more move for a bat, but unfortunately they have a lot of bad money invested in Nick Swisher, David Murphy and Michael Bourn.

44. Yes, Corey Kluber will contend for another Cy Young Award.

45. Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004. That's still maybe the most impressive stat in baseball history.

46. Brandon McCarthy, everyone's favorite smart major league pitcher, thinks PED users should be admitted to Cooperstown. Give that man a vote!

47. Still don't quite understand why the Dodgers gave McCarthy $48 million, however -- considering that he's made more than 25 starts in a season just once during his career.

48. You know, Zobrist would have been a nice acquisition for the Nationals. Maybe they can pry Chase Utley away from the Phillies.

49. I think Yasiel Puig's power will bounce back this year. He might hit 25 home runs -- which would make him a very strong MVP candidate.

50. An important man in 2015: Red Sox outfield coach Arnie Beyeler, who will work with Hanley Ramirez and our man Mookie.

51. I have the March in Paris on TV in the background. Amazing.

52. You can never watch too many videos of puppies playing in snow.

53. A quiet offseason move that could pay nice dividends: Toronto getting Michael Saunders from Seattle. I'll be curious to see how his numbers increase as he escapes the AL West.

54. Of course, he has to stay healthy.

55. A trade that still makes sense: Mark Trumbo to the Mariners. Even if Yasmany Tomas proves he can handle third base for the Diamondbacks, we know Trumbo can't really play left field. The Mariners could still use another right-handed bat, and Trumbo would give them the flexibility to sit Logan Morrison against left-handers and use Nelson Cruz in the outfield at times.

56. I love watching Jonathan Schoop play defense. He can really turn two. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win a Gold Glove this year.

57. Will Stephen Strasburg take a leap forward this year?

58. I think Bryce Harper will make The Leap.

59. If you've never read "Ball Four," why not?

60. I'm enjoying Dan Epstein's "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76."

61. That was the first year I remember watching baseball, and as Epstein's book shows, although it's not remembered as a classic season -- mostly because the World Series was a four-game sweep -- it was a widely entertaining year and an important one. The reserve clause was struck, Charlie Finley fought with Bowie Kuhn, the Yankees fought with the Red Sox, and Bill Veeck had his White Sox players wear shorts.

62. Plus, Mark Fidrych.

63. Here's a good piece on how the Phillies reached this sorry state of affairs.

64. I predict that Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera will each give up at least one home run this season.

65. If you're bored, go watch some highlights of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Jarrod Dyson playing defense.

66. I know everybody is down on the Reds, but if Joey Votto is healthy, Jay Bruce returns to being Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton improves at the plate, it's not impossible to dream about them being competitive.

67. No, Tim Lincecum isn't going to be better. He's been below replacement level for three seasons now. There is no reason to expect him to turn things around. His road ERA is 5.55 over the past three years. Take him out of AT&T Park, and he's exposed.

68. Casey McGehee won't be the answer at third base for the Giants.

69. Would you take Clayton Kershaw or the field for NL Cy Young?

70. Another fun note about 1976: Joe Morgan led the NL with 1.020 OPS. No other hitter was within 100 points. And he played a key defensive position and won a Gold Glove. He also stole 60 bases in 69 attempts. You can argue that Morgan's level of play that year was as high as any position player's ever. The only knock against him is he missed 21 games.

71. I can't wait to see what Jorge Soler can do over a full season.

72. Also: Rusney Castillo.

73. Kolten Wong or Joe Panik moving forward? I'll take Wong.

74. If I'm drawing up a list of the most important players for 2015, I might start with Justin Verlander.

75. I'm going "Selma" over "Boyhood," "The Imitation Game" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" for best picture of 2015. Haven't seen "American Sniper" yet, although that could factor in the running as well.

76. Hollywood needs to make more movies about strong and courageous women. Is there a girl version of "Boyhood"? Why not?

77. I have the Pirates even with the Cardinals right now. Not sure why it seems like St. Louis is such a consensus favorite.

78. A signing that isn't going to work out: Torii Hunter and the Twins.

79. Joe Mauer will be better. Right?

80. An interesting thing to watch: How will Mike Trout adjust to all those high fastballs?

81. As that article points out, even as Trout started seeing more high fastballs as the season progressed, he still slugged .502 in the second half. But he also hit just .257 with a .347 OBP.

82. I hope you read Mark Simon's defensive storylines to watch for the National League and American League.

83. If you like spy novels, I recommend Alan Furst's work. Just discovered him last year. He writes hyper-realistic novels set in Europe in the days before World War II. You feel like you're in Paris or Warsaw with war looming.

84. Another guy I can't wait to see: Joc Pederson.

85. A waistline I can't wait to see: Bartolo Colon's.

86. How can you not love Jose Altuve?

87. I'm up to No 87 and haven't even mentioned James Shields yet. So I just did. No idea where he's going to sign. Giants? Red Sox? Cardinals?

88. Guy who will rebound in 2015: Jason Kipnis. He played through some injuries in 2014, so if he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the All-Star Game.

89. That said, he's up against a tough field of second basemen in the AL: Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Altuve, underrated Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Zobrist. At least Howie Kendrick got shipped over to the NL.

90. I'd like the Marlins better if Jose Fernandez were going to be ready at the start of the season.

91. A Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl would be the revenge of Pete Carroll. I want Bill Simmons to write a 25,000-word preview if we get this matchup.

92. I'd take Pedro in his prime over Koufax in his prime and not even hesitate about it.

93. I had the Rays as the sleeper team of 2015 before the Zobrist trade, but losing him is a big blow to the 2015 offense.

94. Chris Archer could be a breakout pitcher, however. If he can cut his walks just a bit, he's ready to become an elite starter.

95. Corey Dickerson > Charlie Blackmon.

96. Yes, the White Sox wore shorts for a game in 1976. How can you not love 1976?

97. Yes, I'll watch the final season of "Mad Men." I'm guessing Don Draper will drink a lot and not much will happen.

98. I rate the Dodgers as the favorites in the NL West, but they are relying on a lot of old players and injury-prone pitchers: Juan Uribe will be 36; Jimmy Rollins is 36; Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are 33; Howie Kendrick is 31; and McCarthy and Brett Anderson haven't been the picture of health. The Dodgers do have depth on the roster, but there's a good chance they'll need it.

99. Pirates' outfield or Marlins' outfield: Which do you like more?

100. Edgar Martinez is a deserving Hall of Famer. Come on, I've managed to work Edgar into just about everything else I've written lately! I promise this will be my last Edgar reference for ... well, OK, I don't want to make a guarantee I can't keep. Just check out his Baseball-Reference page.
Ichiro Suzuki Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesIchiro Suzuki won 10 Gold Gloves during his days with the Mariners.

I wrote a post on Wednesday tied into our Hall of 100 list, touching on whether Derek Jeter was ranked too high at No. 31. I argued that in order to get Jeter somewhere close to No. 31 you have to believe the defensive metrics are wrong about Jeter's defense.

At the end of the post, I mentioned Ichiro was ineligible to be voted on by the ESPN panel but certainly warranted consideration for the top 100 given his career Wins Above Replacement total in a major league career that didn't begin until he was 27 -- in other words, he entered in the middle of his peak, with many of his best seasons already used up in Japan.

I received this email from a reader: "Not sure you can fiddle with Jeter's defensive numbers and then take Ichiro's WAR at face value in the same piece. Both are extreme, in their own way."

Ichiro's career WAR of 58.9 at Baseball-Reference.com ranks him 190th all time and 125th among position players, higher if you don't include the 19th century guys, but not that far from the top 100 -- Gary Carter is No. 100 at 69.9 WAR, so Ichiro would have been about two prime Ichiro seasons from cracking the top 100.

What the reader was suggesting is that Ichiro, a hitter who played in a high-offense era and neither walked much nor hit with much power, is propped up by the same defensive metrics that drag down Jeter -- defensive metrics that aren't necessarily completely reliable, especially at the very top and very bottom of the ratings.

Well, let's dig into that; it's a legitimate issue/concern. There have been, I would suggest, seven great long-term defensive right fielders since 1950 -- Ichiro Suzuki, Larry Walker, Tony Gwynn, Jesse Barfield, Dwight Evans, Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente. Each won at least five Gold Gloves in right field. Jason Heyward will likely become the eighth guy on this list. (Dave Winfield won seven Gold Gloves, four as a right fielder and three as a left fielder, but he doesn't really compare to this group, Gold Gloves notwithstanding, his strong arm overshadowing his mediocre range. He was kind of a lumbering guy out there due to his size and the defensive metrics say he wasn't very good.)

The following table includes data used at Baseball-Reference: Career fielding runs above average, runs above average per 1,200 innings, the cumulative total of the player's five best seasons, their best single season and the number of seasons with 20 or more runs saved.

Two notes. We have different systems in play. For Ichiro, since 2003 (he debuted with the Mariners in 2001), B-R uses Defensive Runs Saved from Baseball Info Solutions, which you often see cited here, a measurement based on video review of every play; prior to that, the site uses Sean Smith's Total Zone rating, a historical estimate of defense based on various statistics and factors. Also, the numbers include all games in the outfield as all these guys played at least a little center field as well.

Anyway, the table ...

I don't see anything out of line with Ichiro. He rates about even with Walker on a per-inning basis but below Barfield -- look at his rating! -- Clemente and Kaline. I'd suggest that Ichiro fairly rates better than Evans, who had a great arm but not the same the speed. Gwynn rates far below the others but only because he got fat in his 30s and turned from a terrific right fielder into a lousy one. At his best, his top five seasons actually rank better than Ichiro's. As for Barfield, if you're too young to remember him, he had the greatest throwing arm I ever saw. His rating is also helped by the fact that he didn't have a decline phase to his career as his last full season came when he was 30.

Overall, I would say Ichiro's career WAR is not propped up by some out-of-line defensive metrics. His single-season high of 30 runs saved in 2004 does rate as the second-highest for any right fielder on Baseball-Reference -- behind Heyward's 32 in 2014 -- but that's also the only season he rated higher than 15 runs saved. Now, you may want to argue that he's nowhere in the class of these other right fielders, but I don't think you can find many people willing to make that argument.

One more important note about Ichiro. WAR and Fielding Runs are cumulative stats; the more you play, the more you accumulate. From 2001 to 2012, he averaged 159 games and 727 plate appearances per season. When you never miss a game and hit leadoff that adds up to a lot of extra PAs compared to a less durable player or even one who hits lower in the lineup. That durability has played a big factor in Ichiro's career WAR.

By the way, as I looked into this, I found at least one more great right fielder, even though he never won a Gold Glove and never got the hype while active: Brian Jordan. His defensive metrics are outstanding. Remember, he was fast enough to play safety in the NFL. Check out his year-by-year fielding runs from 1994 to 2002: +8 (in just 53 games), +20, +28, +12 (injured), +25, +17, +15, +21, +8 (35 years old). Over his career he averaged 16.5 runs saved above average per 1,200 innings.
Colleague and SweetSpot contributor Mark Simon had a fun idea: What were the 10 greatest games pitched by new Hall of Famers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz?

The easiest way to determine those 10 games is by searching Baseball-Reference for Game Score -- the metric Bill James designed as a simple way to measure the effectiveness of a pitcher’s start. James gives a point total based on the pitcher's innings, strikeouts and runs, hits and walks allowed. A Game Score of 90 is outstanding. There were just 21 such starts in the majors in 2014.

Not surprisingly, considering the volume of high-strikeout games in his career, Johnson has more 90-plus Game Scores (20) than Martinez (12) and Smoltz (6) combined.

But we can't go just on Game Score alone. Too boring. So, using some judgment on my part, here are the 10 greatest performances from these pitchers with a link to each box score:

10. Randy Johnson: Nov. 4, 2001
Fun Johnson facts: Perhaps the two most memorable outings of his career actually came in relief. The first came when he was with the Mariners. In Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series against the Yankees, Johnson entered in the ninth with two runners on and no outs -- and escaped the inning. He pitched the 10th and the 11th (giving up a run), but Edgar Martinez's double drove in Joey Cora and Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners won their first playoff series in history, saved baseball in Seattle, got Buck Showalter fired and got Joe Torre hired ... which all led to the Yankees dynasty that won four World Series in five years.

Then came Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, when Johnson, then with the Diamondbacks, threw the 17 most important pitches of his life. He had thrown seven innings the day before -- and 104 pitches -- but when Curt Schilling couldn't finish off Game 7, Johnson came on to get the final out of the eighth with a runner on and then tossed a 1-2-3 ninth. After the Diamondbacks rallied in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson had his third win of the series and his only World Series championship.

9. John Smoltz: Sept. 6, 1998
Smoltz's best Game Score was a 93, not in his Game 7 performances against the Pirates in the 1991 NLCS or the 1991 World Series against the Twins. Not Game 5 of the 1996 World Series against the Yankees. But rather this regular-season game against the Mets.

I've been to a few hundred Mets games, and this was definitely the best-pitched one I’ve seen in person. (My father could top me; he was at Jim Bunning’s perfect game.) Smoltz struck out 13, walked none and pitched a three-hitter that (at least according to my memory) could easily have been a perfect game.

The Mets had a bit of a rough lineup that night, with Lenny Harris hitting fifth and Jorge Fabregas hitting sixth, and Larry Vanover (to my recollection) had a very wide plate -- six of the strikeouts were looking -- but this 3-0 win was dominance at its finest. --Mark Simon

8. Johnson: Sept. 16, 1992
At some point in 1992, a young, wild Johnson had a talk with Nolan Ryan. Johnson points to that chat as a turning point for his career. While 1993 was Johnson's breakout season, he showed signs of what was to come during this late-season outing. In a duel against former Mariner Mark Langston, Johnson allowed just one hit in nine innings while striking out 15 and walking one, good for a Game Score of 97. The one hit was a ground-ball single to Hubie Brooks in the fourth, and an error later in the inning led to unearned run. Langston had a pretty fair game himself: He pitched 10 innings and struck out 12. Neither pitcher got a decision, though, as the game went 13 innings.

7. Smoltz: Oct. 17, 1991
As Mark mentioned, this wasn't the highest Game Score of Smoltz's career, nor even his highest postseason Game Score, but it came against the Pirates, on the road, in Game 7 of the NLCS. He pitched a six-hit shutout with eight K's in a 4-0 victory, good for a Game Score of 82. He threw 123 pitches, 82 for strikes, but more important this was the game that got the Braves' dynasty rolling and established Smoltz as the team's postseason ace.

6. Pedro Martinez: Oct. 11, 1999
Pedro had started Game 1 of the Division Series but left after four innings because of a bad back, which left him unable to start Game 5. But with the game tied 8-8 in the fourth, Martinez put his career on the line, entered the game and proceeded to throw six hitless innings against a scary Cleveland lineup that included Kenny Lofton, Roberto Alomar, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Harold Baines and Travis Fryman and had scored a combined 1,009 runs. Here are the highlights of this legendary relief appearance.

5. Johnson: May 8, 2001
This was Johnson's record-tying 20-strikeout game, good for a Game Score of 97. It came in Arizona, but I have to discount it just a bit: That was an ugly Reds lineup -- Donnie Sadler, Juan Castro and Alex Ochoa hit first, second and cleanup -- and Johnson also gave up a run, although he allowed just three hits with no walks. Here are the highlights.

Johnson ended up with a no-decision as the game went extra innings. Here's an interesting note: A starter has gone nine innings and earned a Game Score of 97 or higher in 63 games. The pitchers are 57-0 in those games. Two of the no-decisions belong to Johnson. Two also belong to Walter Johnson. (Matt Harvey and Van Mungo are the others.)

4. Martinez: June 3, 1995
Martinez never threw a no-hitter, but he came close for the Expos in this game against the Padres. He actually threw nine perfect innings but the score remained 0-0 as Joey Hamilton matched Pedro. The Expos scored in the top of the 10th, so Martinez went back out to the mound, but Bip Roberts led off with a double to right. Even though Martinez had thrown only 96 pitches, Felipe Alou went to the bullpen. Mel Rojas managed to get Montreal out of the inning, so at least Martinez got the win.

Here's young Pedro -- so skinny! -- getting his 27th out of that game and here's Roberts' double.

3. Martinez: Aug. 29, 2000
I remember watching this one on TV. Pedro nailed Gerald Williams of the Devil Rays to lead off the bottom of the first, triggering an ugly brawl. Williams may have knocked Pedro down during the fight, but Martinez showed that you don't mess with him. He pitched a one-hit shutout with 13 strikeouts, earning a Game Score of 98. The only hit was John Flaherty's leadoff single in the ninth.

2. Martinez: Sept. 10, 1999
When people talk about Pedro's greatest games, this -- or that relief outing against the Indians -- is usually the one they reference.

This game came against the powerful Yankees lineup that featured Chuck Knoblauch, Derek Jeter, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez. Pedro allowed just one hit, no walks and struck out 17, including the side in the bottom of the ninth, and tied his career best in strikeouts. (I was at the other game, a 1-0 loss to Steve Trachsel of Tampa Bay in 2000 in which Trachsel struck out 11 and allowed just three hits.) The Game Score of 98 matches Martinez's career high, set two other times. The only flaw: The one hit was a Chili Davis home run in the second inning, off what looked like a 1-1 changeup.

Here are highlights of the game. I love the Dominican flags waving at Yankee Stadium.

1. Johnson: May 18, 2004
This was Johnson's perfect game against the Braves. He had 13 strikeouts and a Game Score of 100 -- one of just 11 nine-inning games in history in which a pitcher recorded a Game Score of 100 or higher.

While 2004 was the first year players faced punishment for a positive steroids test, it was still in the middle of the high-offense/small-strike-zone era. In fact, 2004 saw slightly more runs scored per game than 2001, when Barry Bonds broke Mark McGwire's home run record, or 1998, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa eclipsed Roger Maris.

On the other hand, the Braves didn't roll out the toughest of lineups that night. They did have Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones hitting 3-4 and J.D. Drew sixth, but somebody named Jesse Garcia hit leadoff (I have zero recollection of him, but he played sparingly in seven different seasons with a career average of .216); 45-year-old Julio Franco, who actually hit .309 that year, batted second; and Mark DeRosa (who had some good years, but hit just .239 in 2004) batted seventh, followed by Nick Green. Johnson threw 117 pitches, 87 for strikes.

Johnson had 46 starts in which he struck out more than 13 batters, but a perfect game is a perfect game. It's hard to argue against this being his best ever. Here's the final out.

Defensive storylines of the offseason: NL

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
Getty ImagesJason Heyward, Miguel Montero and Howie Kendrick are notable defense-minded acquisitions.

The major league baseball offseason still has a way to go, but I thought I'd take a look at how teams have changed defensively heading into 2015.

Here's a look at the National League:


NL East

Atlanta Braves
Every move the Braves made this offseason weakened them considerably defensively.

First they traded the best defensive right fielder in baseball in Jason Heyward to the Cardinals (for fear of losing him in free agency next offseason) and signed Nick Markakis (now recovering from neck surgery) to replace him. The difference defensively may be a couple of wins alone (just for all the balls that Heyward chased down in the right-field corner that others don't reach).

They also traded Justin Upton with the intent of plugging the hole in left field with Evan Gattis. That could be dicey, given that Gattis chalked up -10 runs saved in 48 games in left field in 2013.

They signed Alberto Callaspo to play second base. He's accumulated -28 defensive runs saved there in the past six seasons.

And lastly, to mentor Christian Bethancourt, they signed A.J. Pierzynski. All Pierzynski did was rank 34th in defensive runs saved among the 35 catchers with the most innings played last season (-11).

Miami Marlins
The Marlins remade their infield, though not in a great way with Michael Morse penned in at first base (-5 career runs saved there) and Dee Gordon at second (-5 runs saved). Gordon at least looked comfortable at the position and there's potential for improvement there. Martin Prado was a good get from the Yankees. He has 24 runs saved at third base dating back to the start of the 2010 season and is definitely an improvement over Casey McGehee.

New York Mets
The Mets don't necessarily have their shortstop yet, and who that is could go a long way in determining their level of offseason success. It could end up being Wilmer Flores by default. Flores had minimal range in a tryout there last season, but proved skilled at converting outs on balls hit at him and at turning double plays.

The corner outfield also could be a bit shaky. Michael Cuddyer typically rates among the worst defensive outfielders in baseball and his and Curtis Granderson's aging legs in right and left field respectively could create a lot of extra ground for amazing center fielder Juan Lagares to cover.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phillies need to find some defensive skill among their young players, as they traded two of the few players on their roster who were decent defensively in Marlon Byrd and Jimmy Rollins. Looks like we'll find out if Freddy Galvis can play shortstop full-time. In 41 games there, he's at -4 defensive runs saved.

Washington Nationals
The much anticipated move of Ryan Zimmerman to first base will finally come to fruition now that Adam LaRoche has signed with the White Sox. Zimmerman, a former Web Gem champ at third, hasn't been the same since he hurt his right shoulder, limiting his throwing ability.

The Nationals also signed Dan Uggla to a minor league deal. His usage should anything happen to Danny Espinosa could be problematic. Twice in the past four seasons, Uggla has ranked last among second basemen in defensive runs saved. Perhaps he could get a look at first base as well.


NL Central

Chicago Cubs
The Cubs' most visible defensive overhaul comes behind the plate, where Miguel Montero and David Ross, both excellent in the pitch-framing department, replace Welington Castillo, who ranked among the worst in that area.

"Framing is something [Montero] does well, especially in the low part of the zone which is important for us," said Cubs president Theo Epstein. "We have a lot of guys that pitch down there. He had outstanding framing numbers last season which jibes with the narrative of Henry Blanco working with him [in Arizona]. They really focused on that. It's a nice thing to have. He can steal a couple strikes here and there for your pitching staff."

Cincinnati Reds
The Reds had done little this offseason that tinkered with their defense until trading for Marlon Byrd.

Byrd should be a nice fit in left field for a year, though he's played only two games there in the past five seasons. He's been credited with 18 defensive runs saved the past two seasons in right field, which is currently occupied by Jay Bruce.

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers finally found a first baseman to replace Prince Fielder by trading for Adam Lind, but he's a shaky defender there (-13 career runs saved). There is an addition by subtraction element with the departure of second baseman Rickie Weeks, but Scooter Gennett needs to improve, lest he'll give the team below average production at that position. In short, this could be a very shaky infield. But at least the Brewers have Carlos Gomez and (at least sometimes) Gerardo Parra in the outfield to make up for it.

Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates couldn't afford Russell Martin, so they went back to the well that yielded him and Chris Stewart by trading for another good pitch framer (though one likely not in Martin's class) in Francisco Cervelli. The Stewart/Cervelli platoon will make for an interesting experiment.

Pittsburgh also will have a new first baseman with the move of Pedro Alvarez there and Corey Hart as his backup. Sean Rodriguez, in his jack-of-all-trades role, could also see time there, as he's someone capable of filling in defensively just about anywhere.

St. Louis Cardinals
The team with the most defensive runs saved in baseball last season just got better with the outstanding Jason Heyward patrolling right field. His defense could add a couple of wins by itself, considering Cardinals outfielders combined for -4 runs saved there last season.


NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks face two questions regarding their defense heading into spring training.

Can Yasmany Tomas handle third base?

Who is going to catch with the trade of Miguel Montero to the Cubs?

The answer to each is unknown. What is known is that Mark Trumbo is not a great fit in such a spacious outfield (to his credit, he is a good first baseman), but he'll be given another shot in left field.

Colorado Rockies
It sounds like the Rockies are going to try to see if former Gold Glove winner Carlos Gonzalez can shift to right field full-time, with Corey Dickerson now in left. The sample size on Gonzalez is less than 1,000 career innings there, but the results are decent (9 runs saved).

Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers will look very different on the defensive side with a new double-play combination in Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick (described by team president Andrew Friedman as "dynamic players on both sides of the ball"), rookie Joc Pederson in center and a stellar pitch framer in Yasmani Grandal behind the plate.

"There's no question we're going to be significantly better defensively. I think it's going to help on the run-prevention side quite a bit," Friedman said earlier this offseason.

San Diego Padres
The Padres have an all-new outfield with some combination of Matt Kemp (most likely in right), Wil Myers (most likely in center) and Justin Upton (most likely in left).

The hope will have to be that they hit more than they let in. Kemp doesn't rate well at any of the three outfield spots, so it's a matter of finding where he'll do the least damage. Myers is basically stuck playing center by default, but given that he was at -11 runs saved over two seasons in right field, who knows how that will go.

Upton is great at getting to balls, but there's only so far he can go playing left field, and his throwing arm tends to spray balls all over the place.

The one thing the Padres do have going for them is that they can put a better defensive team on the field late in games, with Cameron Maybin and newly acquired infielder Clint Barmes serving a useful role on the bench.

San Francisco Giants
The big thing to watch will be how much the Giants miss the presence of Pablo Sandoval, who was actually a very good defensive third baseman when he was in good shape (such as last season). Casey McGehee has never rated particularly well at the position and we'll see how big a drop-off he represents.

Joe Panik rated about average at second base in a 70-game look in 2014, though he looked better than that in the postseason. He should get a full-time look there in 2015.
videoFor all the debates and arguments and anger spilled over the past few weeks over the Hall of Fame election and its process, this is a great day to celebrate the sport. For the first time since 1955, the Baseball Writers' Association of America has elected four members to the Hall of Fame: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.

Johnson and Martinez never started a game against each other -- not even an All-Star Game -- but the two all-time greats will be seated next to each other on the podium in Cooperstown in July as members of the Hall of Fame class of 2015.

Really, the only question regarding the voting results was whether either pitcher would surpass Tom Seaver's record of being named on 98.8 percent of the ballots. Johnson came close with 97.3 percent of the vote, while Martinez surprisingly received only 91.1 percent. A few writers who publicly posted their votes had said they weren't voting for Johnson or Martinez since they knew they'd get in and wanted to use their 10-person ballots on other players. This likely prevented Johnson from beating Seaver's percentage. As for Martinez, it's probable that a larger number of voters didn't vote for him because he didn't win 300 games.

Johnson is arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time, combining the longevity of Warren Spahn with the dominance of Sandy Koufax. Only Lefty Grove can offer up a strong case against Johnson. The Big Unit won five Cy Young Awards and finished second in the voting three other times, and he racked up all kinds of strikeout records. His performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series, when he won three games, including Game 6 and then Game 7 in relief, was the stuff of legend.

The amazing thing about Johnson's career is where he was at the age of 28. He was 49-48 with a 3.95 career ERA, a guy who threw 100 mph and had absolutely no idea where the ball was going. I grew up Seattle and saw just about every Johnson start in those days, in person or on TV. Believe me, there wasn't one Mariners who thought he'd turn into a Hall of Famer; we just hoped he wouldn't kill anybody. He grew so frustrated he contemplated quitting the game, but a talk with Nolan Ryan -- a man familiar with control problems -- in 1992 helped turn Johnson's career around, a reference point Johnson would make on Tuesday after his election.

He had his breakout season in 1993 and then helped save baseball in Seattle in 1995. Literally. The Mariners had never made the playoffs and were trying to get a new stadium built. Ken Griffey Jr. missed two months with a broken wrist and the Mariners were well behind in the pennant race. In early September, the state legislature voted down a new ballpark proposal. Baseball in Seattle appeared doomed. Then the Mariners mounted a miraculous comeback -- Johnson went 18-2 with a 2.48 ERA that year -- and Johnson beat the Angels in a tiebreaker for the AL West title, and Seattle had acquired baseball fever. The legislature later decided to fund a new ballpark.

As great as Johnson was, Pedro's peak performance may have been the best ever for a pitcher. From 1997 to 2003, Pedro went 118-36 with a 2.20 ERA and won three Cy Young Awards and five ERA titles. While Johnson relied on his blazing fastball and slider, Pedro had a blazing fastball and a devastating curveball and maybe the best changeup of all time. He was as unhittable a pitcher as I've ever seen -- batters hit .198 against him over those seven years -- and made things even scarier for hitters with an occasional ball that was a little up and in. Anyone who saw Pedro pitch in Fenway during his prime with the Red Sox will agree that there have been few places more exciting than that ballpark in that period, with the Dominican flags waving proudly and fans chanting throughout the game.

In the end, percentages don't really matter, but it would have been fun to see Johnson break Seaver's record and, really, both Johnson and Martinez are inner-circle Hall of Famers, guys who deserved to have been placed on every ballot.

After falling two votes short last year, Biggio got in with a comfortable 82.7 percent. If you dissect the numbers, he's probably a borderline Hall of Famer, a player who had a tremendous peak from 1995 to 1999 when he was one of the best players in the game and then held on long enough to get 3,000 hits.

John Smoltz, with 82.9 percent of the vote, is a deserving Hall of Famer, although I remain surprised at how much support he received his first year on the ballot in comparison to Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling, two similar pitchers with slightly more career value.

Now, let's look at some of the winners and losers of today's results.


Mike Piazza: He received 69.9 percent of the vote, up from 62.2 percent last year. That's great news, a sign that he isn't being held back by steroid rumors. Since seven players have been cleared off the ballot in the past two votes, and only Ken Griffey Jr. is an obvious first-timer joining the ballot next year, Piazza should continue to see his percentage increase and get elected next year.

Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina: Both saw their percentages increase from last year, although Schilling is still at just 39 percent and Mussina at 24 percent. The good news is that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Johnson, Martinez and Smoltz have been cleared off the ballot. So Schilling and Mussina have no competition from other starting pitchers for the next five years and should see their vote totals increase. Hall of Fame election is often about timing; their timing now improves.

It's interesting to note that both Schilling and Mussina fared much higher from voters who revealed their ballots before Tuesday's announcement. Baseball Think Factory tracked public ballots (202 out of the actual total of 549) and Schilling was at 50 percent and Mussina 35. Most of the public ballots are from still-active beat writers and columnists compared to the former or retired writers who make up a large percentage of voters. These still-active writers -- who include big names in the industry -- have the forum to start stumping the cases for Schilling and Mussina.

Gary Sheffield: He at least stayed on the ballot. I was sure he would fail to receive the 5 percent needed to stay on. Then again, maybe it would be better if a guy like him got booted off the ballot and over to the Veterans Committee.

Everyone else, potentially: With four players getting elected and Don Mattingly now off the ballot, nearly 2,000 votes will be excised from this year's ballot. That could help some of the borderline guys, such as Jeff Kent and Larry Walker, to build some momentum or at least get their cases discussed.


Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa: The only surprise here is that Sosa managed to remain on the ballot with 6.6 percent of the vote.

Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines: Both saw small increases from last year -- Bagwell up to 55.7 percent and Raines up to 55 percent -- but they still have a long ways to go, and Raines has only two years left on the ballot. Bagwell is actually below the percentages he received in 2012 and 2013, so the lack of momentum is bad news. He's down to five years left. Maybe a slightly less crowded ballot will help him, but he needs to find a wave of support.

Edgar Martinez: He received 36 percent of the vote his first year on the ballot, a starting point from which many Hall of Famers have eventually been elected. But he’s been a big victim of the crowded ballot, stalling at 25 percent last year and now 27 percent. Pedro Martinez just called him the toughest batter he ever faced. Start stumping, Pedro!
I don't have a Hall of Fame vote since I've been a BBWAA member for only one year. Will there even be a Hall of Fame in nine years when I'll be eligible to vote?

Anyway, if I did have a vote, I've come around to using "wins above average" as a good starting point for examining Hall of Fame candidates. I'm a little more interested in peak performance than pure longevity. Obviously, the easy Hall of Fame choices such as Randy Johnson had both. Sometimes, a guy such as Pedro Martinez had such a dominant peak that he's an easy choice, as well.

By looking at wins above average instead of wins above replacement, we focus more on Hall of Fame-level seasons and give less credit or no credit to seasons where the player was more or less just compiling counting statistics. An average player is worth about 2.0 WAR per season, so we're looking at value above that level. Some guys -- such as Mike Mussina or Fred McGriff -- seem to be dismissed for being judged as "compilers" rather than big stars. But is that perception or reality?

Here are the wins above average totals for the 20 strong Hall of Fame candidates on this year's ballot, via Baseball-Reference.com. (Doesn't include Lee Smith, as relievers need to be judged differently.) I also included each player's career WAR, the difference between WAR and WAA, and then the percentage of each player's career value that could labeled "peak" value.

(In some ways, this is similar to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which combines two aspects of a player's career to arrive at a JAWS score: his best seven seasons and his career value.)

Anyway, what can we learn from this chart? The biggest compiler here is Craig Biggio, with only 44 percent of his career value coming from wins above average. Mussina did have a lot of "non-peak" value, but his career wins above average still ranks in the top 10. In fact, he should be viewed as less of a compiler than John Smoltz, who may get elected this year while Mussina struggles to get even one-third of the votes.

McGriff, on the other hand, rates low across the board, both in wins above average and percentage peak value. McGriff's proponents like to argue that he hit 493 home runs and did it clean. That's the difficult part of judging this era if you're going to factor in PEDs: Do you give McGriff extra credit because there are no steroid rumors attached to him, and thus he compares favorably to Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey?

The player perhaps most helped by this method is Larry Walker, which makes sense. He had a relatively short career, in part due to myriad injuries, but his career WAR is high, with 66 percent of that value coming from wins above average. I'm still skeptical about Walker due to the short career and the Coors Field boost. Yes, WAR makes park adjustments, but I don't believe it accurately accounts for how much a good hitter is boosted by playing in Coors. Edgar Martinez may have hit .400 if he'd played there.

So if I had a ballot, which 10 guys would I vote for? I would vote for PED guys and I'd vote for my top 10 players, regardless of trying to rig the ballot to help certain players: Bonds, Clemens, Johnson, Pedro, Bagwell, Schilling, Piazza, Mussina, Trammell, Edgar.

Others I'd classify as Hall of Famers: Smoltz, Biggio, Raines, McGwire.

On the fence: Kent, Walker, Sheffield, Sosa, McGriff.

Not a Hall of Famer: Delgado, Smith.
The other night I was watching MLB Network's Hall of Fame discussion show when Marty Noble, longtime writer and columnist for Newsday and now a contributor to MLB.com, explained why his ballot this year would include only Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, saying something like, "You don't even have to think about those three or do any research. You just know they're Hall of Famers."

As it turns out, Noble has used this thought process before. Just last year, in voting for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Jack Morris, he wrote, "The candidacies of Maddux and Glavine made this vote easy and enjoyable. No angst. They're automatic; there was no need for research or investigation. Morris never has approached automatic status, but he clearly deserves the benefit of the doubt."

You just know. Automatic.

OK. Can you tell the difference between these pitchers?

Pitcher A: 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 3,562.2 IP, 2,813 SO
Pitcher B: 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 3,261 IP, 3,116 SO
Pitcher C: 194-126, 3.46 ERA, 2,898.2 IP, 2,668 SO
Pitcher D: 213-155, 3.33 ERA, 3,473 IP, 3,084 SO
Pitcher E: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 3,256.1 IP, 2,397 SO

Pretty hard to differentiate among the five, right? Pitcher A has the highest ERA but won the most games and pitched the most innings. Pitcher B has the same ERA as Pitcher C but won more games -- and also lost more games. Pitcher B has about the same win-loss record and innings pitched as Pitcher E but has more strikeouts while Pitcher E has the better ERA. Pitcher A won 57 more games than Pitcher D while losing only two fewer. Pitchers B, C, D and E all played on World Series winners while pitchers A, B and D were the best performers in the postseason -- although Pitcher C was 8-3 in the postseason. Pitchers C, D and E all won Cy Young Awards, but Pitcher B has the highest total of Cy Young award shares (percentage of points available). Whew.

Pitcher A is Mike Mussina. Pitcher B is Curt Schilling. Pitcher C is David Cone. Pitcher D is John Smoltz. Pitcher E is Kevin Brown. Cone and Brown combined to receive just 33 votes in their one year on the ballot, their Hall of Fame cases quickly dismissed. Mussina and Schilling both received less than 30 percent of the vote last year.

But Smoltz? According to this tabulation at Baseball Think Factory that tracks all public Hall of Fame votes, as of Friday morning, Smoltz's percentage stands at 89 percent, meaning he'll easily sail into Cooperstown in his first year on the ballot.

Apparently, Marty Noble isn't the only one who just knows Smoltz is a Hall of Famer.

Call me confused.

Now, I'm guessing the percentages listed at Baseball Think Factory are higher than what the actual vote totals will be; active members/beat writers of the Baseball Writers Association who publicly list their ballots tend to have more "yes" votes than the inactive members who haven't covered baseball in years. That page lists Schilling at 58 percent and Mussina at 44 percent, both players doubling their percentage from a year ago, which seems unlikely.

So why Smoltz instead of the others? In terms of career pitching wins above replacement via Baseball-Reference.com, Smoltz doesn't appear to be the best of this group:

Mussina: 82.7
Schilling: 80.7
Brown: 68.5
Smoltz: 66.5
Cone: 61.7

You can certainly boost Smoltz ahead of Brown based on Smoltz's postseason numbers, and I guess you can try to boost Smoltz ahead of Mussina based on the same logic (although Mussina was a solid postseason pitcher with a 3.42 ERA), but that doesn't work when comparing Smoltz to Schilling, considering they are two of the greatest postseason pitchers of all time. (Smoltz was 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA while Schilling was 11-2, 2.23 ERA. Schilling also won three World Series titles compared with just one for Smoltz.)

Now, I've left something out. Smoltz spent three years as a closer from 2002 to 2004, recording 144 saves (plus 10 more in 2001). Is that what's swaying voters? Ben Lindbergh of Grantland has an in-depth analysis of the Smoltz phenomenon and points out 14 of the 99 public ballots he had seen at the time of his article mentioned versatility as a reason they were voting for Smoltz.

Ben suggests this is a key factor for Smoltz's support:
The portrayal of Smoltz as a Swiss Army ace relies on shaky logic: Every elite starter has the ability to be a dominant closer, and Smoltz shouldn’t get extra credit for the fragility that temporarily forced his team to use him in a less valuable role. After all, Mussina wouldn’t be a better candidate if he’d taken a sabbatical from starting to pitch out of the bullpen for Baltimore.

While Schilling, Mussina, and Smoltz were all great starters, Smoltz’s story has a hook: As many voters mentioned, he did something unprecedented, becoming the first pitcher to win 200 games and save 150 more. And while he didn’t come close to the magic milestone of 300 wins, 200 plus 150 equals 350, which is greater than 300. That’s the kind of math that even the most WAR-averse voters don’t mind.

I don't know if that's what voters are doing, but if they are, they're certainly overrating the value of Smoltz's tenure in the bullpen. Just compare his three years in the bullpen with some other closers during those same seasons:

Eric Gagne: 13-7, 1.79 ERA, 152 saves (6 blown saves)
Smoltz: 3-5, 2.47 ERA, 144 saves (13)
Mariano Rivera: 10-8, 2.03 ERA, 121 saves (14)
Armando Benitez: 7-6, 2.19 ERA, 101 saves (16)
Jason Isringhausen: 7-5, 2.61 ERA, 101 saves (15)
Billy Wagner: 9-6, 2.19 ERA, 100 saves (13)
Keith Foulke: 16-8, 2.37 ERA, 86 saves (15)
Trevor Hoffman: 5-8, 2.49 ERA, 79 saves (7)
Francisco Cordero: 10-12, 2.39 ERA, 74 saves (17)

I'm not dismissing Smoltz's performance; he was arguably the second-best closer in that period behind Gagne. But you can see there are many other relievers who posted a similar stingy ERA. And those are just the years 2002-2004. You can find many other closers who had great three-year runs of dominance. It's just not a unique accomplishment.

I think there's something else going on, something more simplistic: I think voters are just overrating Smoltz. Think about it: The Braves won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 to 2005, not counting the 1994 strike season. Smoltz was there the entire time. The Braves won before Maddux joined the team; they won after Glavine left the team. They won after both Glavine and Maddux had left. Meanwhile, Smoltz remained. (Of course, they also won in 2000 when Smoltz missed the entire season and 2001 when he pitched sparingly, but you get the point: Smoltz was always there.)

So that's what it became: Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux. The Big Three. Interchangeable to a degree. Plus, Smoltz was better than those two in the postseason, clouding the perception of how good he was in the regular season. Here's what I mean. These are the best regular-season performances by Braves pitchers during that 1991-2005 run:

1. Maddux, 1995: 9.7 WAR
2. Maddux, 1994: 8.5
3. Glavine, 1991: 8.5
4. Maddux, 1997: 7.8
5. Smoltz, 1996: 7.3
6. Maddux, 1996: 7.1
7. Maddux, 2000: 6.6
8. Maddux, 1998: 6.6
9. Kevin Millwood, 1999: 6.1
10. Glavine, 1998: 6.1
11. Glavine, 1996: 5.8
12. Maddux, 1993: 5.8
13. Glavine, 1997: 5.5
14. Smoltz, 1991: 5.4
15. Steve Avery, 1991: 5.2

Maddux has seven seasons in the top 15, Glavine four and Smoltz two. (Smoltz also had a 5.9-WAR season in 2006 after the title run came to an end.)

We can do a similar comparison with our group of five pitchers listed earlier. Here are all their seasons with a WAR of 5.0 or higher:

1. Schilling, 2001: 8.8
2. Schilling, 2002: 8.7
3. Brown, 1998: 8.6
4. Mussina, 1992: 8.2
5. Brown, 1996: 8.0
6. Schilling, 2004: 7.9
7. Smoltz, 1996: 7.3
8. Brown, 2000: 7.2
8. Cone, 1993: 7.2
10. Mussina, 2001: 7.1
11. Brown, 1997: 7.0
12. Cone, 1994: 6.8
12. Cone 1997: 6.8
14. Mussina, 2003: 6.6
15. Schilling, 1997: 6.3
16. Schilling, 1998: 6.2
16. Brown, 1999: 6.2
18. Mussina, 1995: 6.1
19. Schilling, 2003: 6.0
20. Schilling, 1992: 5.9
20. Smoltz, 2006: 5.9
22. Cone, 1988: 5.6
22. Mussina, 2000: 5.6
24. Schilling, 2006: 5.5
24. Mussina, 1997: 5.5
26. Mussina: 1994: 5.4
26. Smoltz, 1991: 5.4
28. Mussina, 2008: 5.2
29. Cone, 1991: 5.1
30. Mussina, 1998: 5.0
30. Mussina, 2006: 5.0

"Great" seasons is one way to evaluate Hall of Famers, and Smoltz just didn't have quite as many Cy Young-caliber seasons as the other pitchers. Now, some of this is hidden in the numbers, which is why his ERA is a little lower than Schilling's or Mussina's. Smoltz pitched in the National League and in more neutral parks, whereas Mussina spent his entire career in the American League in two good hitter's parks in Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium. Schilling pitched in better hitter's parks in Philadelphia (old Veterans Stadium) and Arizona.

Schilling is also hurt, I think, by some of the interruptions and timing in his career. He was a postseason hero for the Phillies in 1993 but missed time in 1994 and 1995. He struck out 300 batters in 1997 and 1998 but played on bad Phillies teams and was underrated at the time. He then missed some time in 1999. In 2001, 2002 and 2004 with the Diamondbacks and then the Red Sox he won 22, 23 and 21 games ... but finished second in the Cy Young voting each year. In 2003, however, he was injured again and went just 8-9 (although he pitched well). He was injured again in 2005 and pitched poorly before finishing off his career with a World Series win in 2007.

As Dan Szymborski wrote the other day on ESPN Insider,
ERA, while a better stat than pitcher wins, suffers a great deal in many cases when context is added. Schilling played almost entirely in a high-offense era and retired before that era ended. In the parks and leagues Schilling pitched in, a league-average ERA over his career would have been 4.39. Contrast that with a pitcher like Don Drysdale, who pitched a lot in Dodger Stadium in the 1960s, resulting in a 3.53 ERA being league-average over the course of his career. ERA+ compares ERA to league average and Schilling's 127 meets Hall of Fame standards -- the other pitchers with more than 3000 innings and an ERA+ between 125 and 129 are Schilling, four Hall of Famers (Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Stan Coveleski) and Kevin Brown.

So even if the seasons all end in September, Schilling would have a strong argument for Hall of Fame induction. However, the postseason is an important part of Schilling's career highlight, and for all the great tools we have to support arguments these days, sabermetrics hasn't done a whole lot with playoff performance. Yet the story of Schilling's career is woefully incomplete without it.

All this isn't meant to knock Smoltz. In my book, he is a deserving Hall of Famer. But Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina are more deserving. If I had to line them up, I'd go:

1. Schilling
2. Mussina
3. Smoltz
4. Brown
5. Cone

I'll be happy if Smoltz is on stage in July next to the Big Unit and Pedro. I'd just like to see Schilling and Mussina with him.