SweetSpot: Atlanta Braves

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
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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.

WINNERS

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.

LOSERS

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.


In any given season, there are more future Hall of Famers than you probably realize at first glance. Take 1994. Eighteen current Hall of Famers played that season, which was a strike-shortened one that didn't include any late-season call-ups. So did Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio, who should get elected this year. And John Smoltz, who may get in the Hall in 2015. Future locks like Ken Griffey Jr. (eligible in 2016) and Jim Thome (2018), as well as strong candidates currently on the ballot like Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina also played in 1994. So did guys not yet on the ballot, such as Vladimir Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel.

That's already more than 30 players, and I haven't even mentioned the steroids guys.

What about the 1984 season? Thirty-two Hall of Famers played then.

1974? Thirty-eight Hall of Famers, not including Joe Torre, who was elected as a manager.

1954? Thirty Hall of Famers.

1934? Forty-eight Hall of Famers, not including 15 Negro Leaguers.

You get the idea. And, yes, there were about half as many teams in 1934 and 1954 (16) as compared to now (30), so some quick math reveals that the 1930s are represented in the HOF way above and beyond what we see now.

As for the present ... we're in an interesting era regarding potential Hall of Famers because there are so few obvious active candidates. In 2014, we had just four no-doubt future Hall of Famers -- the now-retired Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Ichiro Suzuki.

You can probably devise an argument against Cabrera or Suzuki, but both have excelled at things that have been barometers of Hall of Fame success -- RBIs, hits, batting titles, MVP awards. Both have been transcendent figures in the game in their own way and Cabrera certainly still has good years ahead. So I'd consider them locks. Alex Rodriguez, inactive in 2014, would be another sure Hall of Famer based on his statistical résumé, but of course won't get elected unless a change occurs in current voting trends regarding steroid users.

So which active players are good Hall of Fame bets? In addition to those mentioned above, let's look at the top 15 players in career Baseball-Reference WAR. Keep this number in mind: Of the 115 players whom the Baseball Writers Association has elected, the median career WAR is around 70 -- half are above that and half are below.


1. Adrian Beltre (Career WAR: 77.8)
Beltre has been a tremendous player since he turned 31. His late-career peak has turned him into a strong Hall of Fame candidate. Over the past five seasons, Beltre has hit .316, averaging 29 home runs and 96 RBIs and ranking third among all position players in WAR (trailing only Robinson Cano and Miguel Cabrera). That stretch as one of the game's best, combined with his career WAR easily pushes him above typical Hall of Fame standards -- but I don't see him as a lock just yet. A large percentage of his WAR results from superb fielding metrics, and while Beltre is widely acknowledged as a good fielder (he has won four Gold Gloves), his reputation isn't in the Brooks Robinson/Ozzie Smith class that would push him right into Cooperstown.

Beltre is also approaching those career milestones that voters love. He has 395 home runs, 1,384 RBIs and 2,604 hits. He's entering his age-36 season and still playing well, giving him a good chance at 3,000 hits. If he gets there, he's a lock.

2. Carlos Beltran (Career WAR: 67.5)
Beltran's career WAR is close to what should be automatic territory -- but often isn't. Some players with a similar WAR cruise into Cooperstown, while others are quickly dismissed. Look at a list of players since 1970 with a career WAR between 65 and 70:

In: Barry Larkin, Gary Carter, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Carlton Fisk, Ryne Sandberg, Don Sutton, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio (well, soon to be in).

Out: Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Kevin Brown, Edgar Martinez, Kenny Lofton, Graig Nettles, Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant, Buddy Bell, Willie Randolph.

Hall of Famers with a career WAR just below 65: Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield.

Which camp does Beltran seem most similar to? It's the second one, right? The "Yeah, he was a very good player, but he was never The Guy" kind of player (except for that wondrous 2004 postseason). Each of the guys in the first group were at one time regarded as the best player at their best position (except Sutton, but he won 300 games). Has that ever been said of Beltran? The players in the second group were (A) underrated during their careers, and (B) achieved value from less-heralded components of the game like defense or walks.

Beltran fits into the all-around player category like Alomar or Sandberg or Dawson did, but has just two top-10 MVP finishes (a fourth and a ninth); a .281 career average that won't jump out at voters; won't reach 3,000 hits (he has 2,322) and is digging to get to 400 career home runs (he has 373). The Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor score has Beltran at 70 points. James says if a player is above that mark he has a realistic shot at the Hall. Like Beltre, I'd consider Beltran a Hall of Famer; I'm just not sure how he'll resonate with voters, especially the large number of voters who aren't into advanced metrics or haven't covered the game in years.


SportsNation

Which of these players in their 30s will have the best Hall of Fame case?

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    27%
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    4%
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    27%
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    38%
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    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,603)

3. Chase Utley (Career WAR: 61.5)
Despite a high WAR score and an enormous peak value from 2005 to 2009, when he was second in the majors only to Pujols in cumulative WAR, Utley's Hall chances are very slim because of his mediocre career counting stats. He does score 63 points on the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor and, at 36, could have a few good years left. But Utley has only 1,569 career hits and the excellent defensive metrics that boost his WAR numbers didn't translate into any Gold Gloves.

4. Mark Buehrle (Career WAR: 58.3)
He's kind of the Don Sutton of this generation -- except that pitchers of this generation don't get as many decisions, so Buehrle, who turns 36 in March, is closing in on 200 wins instead of 300. A look at both pitchers' career numbers through age 35:

Buehrle: 199-152, 3084 IP, 3.81 ERA, 117 ERA+, 58.3 WAR
Sutton: 230-175, 3729 IP, 3.07 ERA, 111 ERA+, 50.8 WAR

Sutton has the lower ERA thanks to pitching in a different era and primarily in a pitcher's ballpark, but he wasn't really any better overall (Buehrle has the better adjusted ERA). Sutton pitched until he was 43 with about a league-average ERA from age 36 on, but he was good enough to win 94 more games. Buehrle is viewed as a compiler so, like Sutton, may have to get 300 wins to get in. Bill James estimates his chances at 6 percent.

5. Tim Hudson (Career WAR: 56.9)
Hudson leads active pitchers with 214 wins, but considering that Kevin Brown got booted after one year on the ballot and Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina haven't received much support -- and all three were better than Hudson at their best -- Hudson's potential case would seem to rest on pitching several more years and getting past 250 wins.


6. CC Sabathia (Career WAR: 54.7)
He looked like a strong candidate a couple of years ago, but injuries and decline have dimmed that likelihood. Sabathia is still young enough, at 34, to bounce back and add to his 208 wins if he can get healthy. His peak performance was higher than Hudson's or Buehrle's, so he'll have a better case than those two if he can string together a few more good seasons.


7. Robinson Cano (Career WAR: 51.5)
Did you realize he's had five consecutive top-six MVP finishes? How many other players have done that? Cano is getting close. He's already at 74 points on the Bill James Monitor and is nearing the career counting stats that are needed for admission to the Hall. He's durable, has been the best player at his position at times and, assuming a normal decline phase for a player of his ability, I'd say he has the best chance of getting to the Hall of Fame of any player on this list.


8. Jason Giambi (Career WAR: 50.8)
I guess he hasn't officially retired yet. Nice career. No shot at Cooperstown.

9. Torii Hunter (Career WAR:50.3)
I'm surprised that his career WAR is that high, but he has lasted a long time, aged well and continued to contribute at the plate, in the field and on the bases. Hunter is not a strong Hall of Fame candidate -- he has only one top-10 MVP finish and only one season with a WAR above 5.0 -- but he has been a valuable player.

10. David Wright (Career WAR: 49.6)
Where have the years gone? Seems like he was a young star only a few seasons ago -- and now he has 11 years in the majors. Despite his inconsistency the past few seasons, Wright has a pretty strong résumé for his age (he's entering his age-32 season). But last year was a big red flag. He needs to bounce back.

11. Mark Teixeira (Career WAR: 48.6)
Three years ago he looked like a strong candidate to get to 500 home runs, but now he's just trying to stay in the league.

12. David Ortiz (Career WAR: 47.7)
His eventual Hall of Fame debate is going to be a fun and heated one. The Edgar Martinez supporters -- assuming Martinez hasn't been elected by then -- will point out that Ortiz's career WAR is well short of Martinez's mark. The Ortiz supporters will point to the home runs (he's at 466), RBIs, clutch hits and World Series rings. The steroid allegations will be tossed around. Others won't vote for Ortiz because he has been a DH. Based on career totals, larger-than-life personality and postseason play, you'd think he'd be a lock, but I have no idea how voters will treat the PED rumors.

13. Joe Mauer (Career WAR: 46.4)
He's in a similar place as Wright. He'll be 32 this season but coming off a 1.5-WAR season. Still, he's a catcher who won three batting titles, an MVP Award and three Gold Gloves. On the other hand, he lacks power numbers and the move to first base may lengthen his career but hurt his Hall of Fame chances.

SportsNation

Which of these players in their 20s will have the best Hall of Fame case?

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    7%
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    18%
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    43%
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    4%
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    28%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,459)

14. Felix Hernandez (Career WAR: 45.7)
Playing on lousy offensive teams has hurt his win total -- he's at 125 overall and has won 15 games in a season only twice -- but he'll get in if he stays healthy. Bill James estimates Hernandez's chance at 300 wins at 26 percent, second-highest among active pitchers to Clayton Kershaw's 31 percent, not that either percentage is very high. As James writes in The 2015 Bill James Handbook, "Sportswriters were saying that 300-game winners were going extinct when this was obviously untrue, if you looked at pitchers' ages and their career wins. It isn't obviously untrue now."

15. Jimmy Rollins (Career WAR: 45.6)
Rollins will be an interesting case. His career WAR suggests that he's not really Hall of Fame-caliber, but he has done a lot of things voters like and he won an MVP Award. He's at 66 points on the Hall of Fame Monitor, which makes him a strong candidate.

(Note: Bobby Abreu played in 2014 but has since retired. He has a career WAR of 59.9 but won't get elected by the BBWAA.)

* * * *

We won't go in-depth into the other guys, but here are the top 10 remaining active candidates listed in order of their Hall of Fame Monitor points and then their career WAR. I'm going to skip relievers, because Joe Nathan and Francisco Rodriguez rate the highest and I don't think the system works for relievers.

1. Matt Holliday, 60 (43.9)
2. (tie) Victor Martinez, 56 (34.4)
Adrian Gonzalez, 56 (38.2)
4. Ryan Braun, 55 (36.0)
5. Ryan Howard, 54 (17.9)
6. (tie) Justin Verlander, 51 (41.4)
Aramis Ramirez, 51 (33.0)
8. (tie) Yadier Molina, 50 (29.4)
Hanley Ramirez, 50 (36.5)
10. Dustin Pedroia, 48 (43.2)

I'm not sure any of these guys are strong candidates right now. Maybe Molina, who will be considered in that Brooks Robinson/Ozzie Smith-category for defense.

Then we have the younger set -- Kershaw, Mike Trout, Madison Bumgarner, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton and so on. It's too early to tell on these guys, although Kershaw's career WAR is already over 40. They've certainly all established Hall of Fame potential.
Over the weekend, I saw "The Imitation Game," the story of British mathematician Alan Turing. Turing helped crack the German Enigma code machine during World War II, allowing the Allies to decipher German secret messages and help bring an earlier end to the war. The movie was sophisticated and compelling and is a definite Oscar contender.

It also wasn't completely true to history. One of the key plot points involves Turing designing and building a machine -- an early version of a computer -- to break Enigma. In truth, Turing's machine was an improvement on a Polish device. And Turing didn't collaborate solely with a small team to break the German code; there were thousands of people working on it.

What obligation does a movie -- even one "based on a true story" -- have to historical accuracy? After all, it's just a movie. As I researched Turing and thought of this, I realized a similar problem exists with the Hall of Fame and its voting process.

What's the obligation of Hall of Fame voters? We know the Hall of Fame is supposed to tell the story of baseball, through exhibits and artifacts and plaques honoring the game's best players, managers and important contributors. But that's where it gets complicated. Hall of Fame voters are allowed to tell the story they choose, with little to no direction on the ultimate objectives beyond the vague idea of electing the best players. But how many players? What makes a Hall of Famer? Can voters erase the careers of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? That's why we have these heated debates every year.

Anyway, I had vowed to stay away from writing about the Hall of Fame this year but ... well, people love to read about the Hall of Fame. Mostly, of course, people just like to argue. Here are six issues with the current system -- and a potential solution:


1. The 10-person ballot is clearly a flawed concept.

Think about it: What are Hall of Fame voters -- active or honorary members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- asked to do? They are presented a ballot with a list of candidates, with the purpose of electing recently retired players to the Hall of Fame. Candidates who receive 75 percent of the votes will earn election. The voters are instructed to vote for the "candidate[s] of your choice." This year's ballot includes 34 names. Simple enough. Voters, however, are restricted to voting for a maximum of 10 players, implying a ranking or hierarchy of players must necessarily be involved. But no such wording exists on the ballot. Voters don't list their choices in order. Players are either "in" or "out."

The fact that the BBWAA has failed to understand and fix this flawed logic has led to ballots like this one:


I'm not knocking Mike, but he's decided to not vote for two of the most accomplished players on the ballot. If voters were instructed to vote for the best players, Mike would have voted for Johnson and Pedro. He's not the only one who has been forced to strategize his ballot because he wants to vote for more than 10 players. Others like Buster Olney decided to abstain from voting this year, hoping instead the 10-player limit gets changed in the future.

2. A lack of understanding of ballot history.

The reasoning for not changing the rule is, I suppose, that the limit on the number of players has always been there or that no more than a handful are ever elected in a given year anyway.

Consider this, however: Every Hall of Fame ballot contains more Hall of Famers than are elected that year. Some random examples:

SportsNation

In general, how many Hall of Famers would you like to see elected each year?

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    3%
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    13%
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    33%
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    32%
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    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,922)

2005: Seven (two elected)
1998: Seven (one elected)
1991: Eight (three elected)
1990: Eight (two elected)
1982: 14 (two elected)
1973: 15 (one elected)
1964: 19 (one elected in a special run-off)

3. That said, the 10-player limit may not be keeping anyone out of the Hall of Fame.

Well, it may have kept Craig Biggio out last year, when he missed election by two votes. He will likely get in this year, however. But the average Hall of Fame ballot contains fewer than 10 votes:

2014: 8.4
2013: 6.6
2012: 5.1
2011: 6.0
2010: 5.7

Even last year's crowded ballot, with newcomers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas alongside all the strong leftover candidates and the steroid-suspicion-tainted guys, didn't quite approach 10 players per voter and was a big increase over recent averages. We may get a similar result this year, with high-profile newcomers like Johnson, Martinez and John Smoltz, but the list of automatic new candidates thins a bit after that.

But there is a potential ripple effect going on here. Clearly, with an average of 8.4 votes per ballot, many of the 571 voters last year did turn in a full ballot, and presumably some of those would have voted for more than 10. So that holds down vote totals for candidates like Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez or Curt Schilling, and those players fail to develop the "momentum" that helps propel disputed candidates forward to election.

4. Steroids.

The anti-steroids voters have won this debate so far, at least in the cases of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, with some effect on the totals for Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell. Here are the two sides of the debate from two of the most prominent BBWAA members.

Buster Olney:
As written in this space many times, I think all players should be judged within the context of the era in which they played, and during McGwire's career, the sport was saturated with performance-enhancing drugs, largely because over the period of about 15 years, no one within the institution of baseball -- not the union leaders, not MLB owners, not the commissioner, not the clean players, nor the media that covered the sport -- aggressively addressed the growing problem. Through that inaction, what evolved was a chemical Frankenstein of a game. Like it or not, that's what the sport was in that time: no drug testing, lots of drug use, lots of drug users, lots of money being made by everybody. (And by the way, no team, baseball executive or player has offered to give back the money made in that time.)

The idea of retroactive morality is ridiculous, especially given that the folks in the sport had a strong idea by the mid-'90s that there was a growing problem, and nobody did anything about it. Here's Jose Canseco being asked about his steroid use on national television before the 1988 playoffs, right after Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal. And here's a Bob Nightengale story from 1995 in which then-interim commissioner Bud Selig was asked about the problem, making mention of a "private meeting" the year before. Yet serious testing and penalties really weren't in place until 2006.
Tom Verducci:
First, you must understand the voting process. A ballot is sent to me in the mail -- a personal ballot, just as it is sent to about 570 baseball writers eligible to vote. This is not an SAT test or a trivia contest. There are no "right" and "wrong" answers. This one ballot is my judgment. Yes, I am being asked to be "judge" or juror, in the parlance of some writers uncomfortable with responsibility, but I am only one of many hundreds.

When I vote for a player, I am upholding him for the highest individual honor possible. My vote is an endorsement of a career, not part of it, and how it was achieved. Voting for a known steroid user is endorsing steroid use. Having spent too much of the past two decades or so covering baseball on the subject of steroids -- what they do, how the game was subverted by them, and how those who stayed away from them were disadvantaged -- I cannot endorse it.


The Hall of Fame itself has refused to weigh in on the issue, leaving the voters to make their own judgment on history.

5. Are we even debating the right issue?

In a recent article on Bill James Online titled "Fixing the Hall," Bill James made an interesting point:
The first thing that should be noted, about the Hall of Fame's selection process, is that more than 99 percent of the shoddy work has been done not by the BBWAA, but by the various and sundry and mundry committees that have acted on the Hall of Fame's behalf.

It is an odd thing, that:

1) MOST of the people who are in the Hall of Fame were not actually selected by the BBWAA ...

2) ALL or virtually all of the unworthy selections to the Hall of Fame were not made by the BBWAA, and yet ...

3) Discussion about the Hall of Fame selection process is 90 percent focused on the BBWAA voting process.


James is right. The BBWAA has elected 115 players, but there are 305 men -- and one woman -- in the Hall of Fame. The various and sundry committees have elected 96 major league players (and 35 Negro Leaguers). The BBWAA hasn't helped itself in recent years, however, by electing some of its weakest members (Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice) while leaving out more worthy candidates.

6. The BBWAA doesn't elect enough players.

Aside from steroids, this is the issue that gets fans most riled up, that the BBWAA is simply too tough, that its standards are too high considering the caliber of players already enshrined, that their favorite player is getting passed over.

That's true; as a collective voting bloc, the BBWAA is tough. A low point came two years ago when nobody got elected. But look at the average number of votes per ballot. Individually, voters do want to see more players get elected. Other than obvious choices like Maddux and Glavine, they just have trouble agreeing on whom to elect. There were enough votes last year to elect 11 candidates, but only three got in.

This isn't surprising. If we look at the 115 Hall of Famers elected by the BBWAA, the midway point in career WAR is right around 70: Half the Hall of Famers are above that, half are below. (If we included all Hall of Fame players, it's way below 70.) Anyway, this year's ballot contains 15 players with between 55 and 85 career WAR. Pedro Martinez may seem like an easy selection, but it's the other 14 that we argue about, and while they are strong candidates, few are getting in right now.

Solution: Elect a minimum number of players each year.

It's the one thing most of us do agree on: We want more Hall of Famers. Yet the writers haven't elected at least two candidates in back-to-back years since 2005. Meanwhile, we managers and umpires and team owners and players from the 1800s keep getting enshrined.

Bill James again:
The first thing that needs to be done, to fix the Hall of Fame system, is: Terminate all of the side committees. Close all of the back doors and side doors and windows and air vents or however the hell it was that Alex Pompez and Travis Jackson and Dracula got into the building. Get rid of those, and promise us that there will never, ever, ever be any more of them. That's a good start.

Next, establish a rule that four persons must be selected to the Hall of Fame in each year; not four persons MAY be selected; four persons MUST be selected.

A regular flow of entries of a fixed and steady number -- coming out of a consistent and well-defined process -- creates standards. The Hall of Fame suffers from indefinite standards because inconsistent and incompatible processes are used to make the selections. Travis Jackson is in; Alan Trammell -- obviously a better player than Travis Jackson -- is out. This is because those passing judgment on Alan Trammell's career are different in every way than those who plucked Travis Jackson from the lost island of New York Giants history. If four candidates and only four candidates could be selected each year in a well-thought-out public process, Rick Ferrell, Alex Pompez, Eppa Rixey and Dracula would never have been selected because they could never have fought their way past the better-qualified candidates who have been left out.


James proposed a radical tournament-style election that would have 32 candidates running off against each other in a playoff, one candidate nominated from each team plus two at-large candidates from remaining players, managers and executives. I love the idea, in part because it asks voters to weigh in on history: Was Edgar Martinez better than Larry Walker? Was Jeff Bagwell better than Tim Raines? It forces voters to at least consider all the candidates and creates a more defined goal.

Of course, the idea is way too fun to ever be considered.

The important point is that the current process doesn't work. As James writes, "The BBWAA has little history of selecting unqualified candidates, but the BBWAA has passed on -- rejected -- a large number of well-qualified candidates. The BBWAA whiffed on Joe Torre, Ron Santo, Nellie Fox, Tim Raines, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans and others. These are failures, too. These failures create pressure to open the alternative admissions process -- and the alternative admissions process is a dart board."

On Jan. 6, this year's election results will be announced. I expect Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio to get elected. While we'll celebrate their achievements and careers, we'll also criticize a system that failed to elect Raines or Bagwell or Schilling.

Then we'll start up again next December.



A lot of stuff out there about Justin Upton. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and Mark Bowman of MLB.com report that the Padres are still hot for Upton. Rosenthal writes:
The Braves, according to major-league sources, want more for Upton than they did for Jason Heyward, whom they traded to the Cardinals with reliever Jordan Walden for right-handers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.

For the Padres, that seemingly would translate to a controllable starter -- say, righty Tyson Ross -- and a prospect. But the Pads, now that they’re acquiring Kemp, do not want to trade Ross, Ian Kennedy or Andrew Cashner, sources say.

Perhaps the Braves, following the Howie Kendrick-for-Andrew Heaney template, would take a top prospect such as catcher Austin Hedges or right-hander Matt Wisler. The Pads then could get a draft pick for Upton if they made him a qualifying offer at the end of the season.


The Padres also don't want to trade Ross or Cashner for Upton because those guys are good, under team control for more than one season and less expensive than Upton, who will make $14.5 million in 2015. Similarly, the Mariners don't want to give up Taijuan Walker or James Paxton. The Braves would like Walker or Paxton, but if the Mariners were willing to give them up, a trade would have already happened.

The idea that Upton is worth more than Heyward, as the Braves reportedly believe, is silly. Here is each player's Baseball-Reference (left column) and FanGraphs WAR the past three seasons:

2014
Heyward: 6.3, 5.1
Upton: 3.3, 3.9

2013
Heyward: 3.4, 3.4
Upton: 2.4, 3.1

2012
Heyward: 5.8, 6.3
Upton: 2.5, 2.1

True, Upton was an MVP candidate in 2011, when he was valued at 6.1/6.1 WAR. And true, maybe WAR is overrating Heyward's defense and underrating Upton's lineup presence or fear factor or something. But Upton hasn't slugged .500 since 2011 and the evidence suggests he's a good player, not a superstar. He's been durable, has power, plays an adequate corner outfield. He's not worth more than Heyward, however, and he isn't going to bring the Braves a top young pitcher like Ross or Walker, which is why Jim Bowden's list of five trade possibilities for Upton (Padres, Mariners, Rangers, Royals and Giants) includes lesser prospects.

Maybe John Hart decides to roll the dice and just keep Upton and hope the Braves rediscover their offense. As Mike Petriello of FanGraphs writes, it's not really in the Braves' best interest to make a Yoenis Cespedes-like trade for a one-year stopgap for the rotation. If Upton is traded, it will be for players/prospects the Braves will have under team control for at least several years (like Shelby Miller, acquired in the Heyward trade).

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Should the Braves trade Justin Upton?

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It's amazing how much can change in one year. In 2013, the Braves allowed 540 runs; that's the second-lowest total since 1990 in a non-strike season, behind only the 2011 Phillies. Now, they seem desperate for pitching. But the offense was worse than the pitching staff in 2014. Are they desperate to trade Upton, and content to move Evan Gattis to left field?

With their current roster, I don't see the Braves as likely contenders. But I can see Hart just keeping Upton and playing out the season. You can always deal him at the deadline if you're not in the race (although he probably returns less value then) or keep him and at least get a draft pick if he signs elsewhere.

What do you think? Should the Braves trade Upton, knowing the market for him may be thinner than the Braves would like?


A year ago, Ervin Santana entered free agency coming off a 9-10 season with the Royals, but with a 3.24 ERA and 211 innings pitched. He reportedly asked for big money, scared teams away with those demands and had to settle for a one-year, $14.1 million contract from the Braves.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
Once again, he enters free agency attached to a qualifying offer, so the team that signs him will lose either its first-round pick (unless it's a top-10 protected pick) or a later pick. That will lessen the enthusiasm for Santana, who went 14-10 with the Braves but with a so-so 3.95 ERA.

Jim Bowden predicts a three-year, $42 million contract for Santana. Consider him a much less expensive and not as good option behind guys like Max Scherzer, Jon Lester or Cole Hamels.

Let's do our half-full, half-empty look at Santana.

HALF-FULL

Are you getting a Cy Young candidate in Santana? No. But you're getting a pitcher who has made 30-plus starts the past five seasons, making him a reliable 200-inning midrotation workhorse. He's averaged 1.7 WAR over those five seasons, but that includes a terrible 2012 season when he posted a 5.16 ERA. Otherwise, he's averaged 2.5 WAR in the other four seasons, which prices him at about $16 million per season in this market.

Santana's bread-and-butter pitch is a slider that generates a good number of swings-and-misses. Santana had the fifth-best strikeout percentage of any starter in the majors with his slider and the fourth-best swing-and-miss percentage behind only Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw and C.J. Wilson.

Overall, batters hit .176/.225/.300 against it with 120 strikeouts in 268 plate appearances. When he's on, he's locating that slider on the corner or just off the corner. Batters know it's coming and still can't hit it.

ESPN Stats & Info


Santana's four-seam fastball averages 92.3 mph, still above-average for a right-handed starter, and he also started using his changeup more often in 2014 against left-handers, with good results. If that pitch continues to develop, that helps neutralize some of the problems Santana has had against left-handed batters in the past. Overall, with the slider and above-average velocity, there's no reason to expect a sudden downturn in performance if he signs a three-year contract.

While Santana's ERA was higher than the year before, his peripherals were actually better, with a 3.39 FIP compared to 3.93 in 2013. His strikeout rate increased to his highest rate since 2008 and he cut his home runs from 26 to 16 in large part because his fly-ball percentage was the best of his career. This may actually be a pitcher maturing as he hits his 30s. The only reason his numbers weren't better was a .326 average on balls in play, much higher than the .285 mark he's had overall since 2009.

HALF-EMPTY

Well, sure, Santana's peripheral numbers got better -- he went from the American League to the National League; it's nice getting to face the opposing pitcher a couple of times a game. Santana also pitched in the NL East, a division that had some terrible offenses in 2014. Against No. 8 and No. 9 batters, he had 46 strikeouts and 10 walks and just one home run allowed. If he goes back to the AL, he won't have the same luxury of building up some fancy stats against the bottom of the lineup.

Plus, be careful about reading too much into one-year home run numbers. This is a guy who gave up 26 home runs in 2013 pitching in a tough home run park in Kansas City and 39 pitching in a tough home run park in Anaheim in 2012. Atlanta has been more neutral, but the bigger point: He's benefited his entire career by pitching in friendly ballparks. Don't buy high on those 16 home runs being a new level of talent.

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What's your view on Ervin Santana as a free agent?

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You also can't just ignore that 2012 season. It happened and it could happen again. As good as his slider is, his fastball just isn't a great weapon and it makes Santana hittable when he doesn't get into slider counts. Batters hit .322 against his fastball in 2014, which ranked 84th out of 88 qualified starters.

Keep in mind that he's also pitched in front of good defensive teams -- the 2012 Angels ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved, the 2013 Royals ranked first and the 2014 Braves ranked 11th. Again: New park, worse defense, a few more hanging sliders and you're looking at a back-of-the-rotation guy who will be getting paid like a front-of-the-rotation starter.

There's a reason Santana didn't get big money last year. He's a difficult guy to buy completely into at eight figures per season. He may get a three-year contract, but if he's asking for $50 million he's going to be left hanging again like last year.

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?
Randy JohnsonRich Pilling/Getty ImagesRandy Johnson should be a unanimous selection in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Hall of Fame season is kind of like Christmas season: It brings gifts and memories but also a lot of acrimony and stress, and it lasts way too long. Hall of Fame ballots were mailed out Monday to eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which means the next six weeks will feature many Hall of Fame columns, debates, analyses and other assorted name-calling and belligerence.

Here are 10 main questions of conversation this Hall of Fame season:

1. Who are the new names on the ballot?

Last year's star-studded ballot that featured the election of first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas is followed by another long list of intriguing newcomers: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Delgado are the top names.

2. How many of those guys get in?

Johnson should be a unanimous selection with his 303 career wins, five Cy Young Awards, four ERA titles, nine strikeout titles and six 300-strikeout seasons, but 16 of the 571 voters last year failed to vote for Maddux, so Johnson likely awaits the same slight and will get 95-plus percent of the vote but not 100 percent.

Martinez would certainly appear to be a lock to get the required 75 percent, but Hall voters tend to emphasize wins at the expense of everything else for starting pitchers and Martinez has just 219, so you never know. The BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with that few wins since Don Drysdale, who had 209, in 1984. Still, with the second-best winning percentage since 1900 of any pitcher with at least 150 wins (behind only Whitey Ford), three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles and the best adjusted ERA for any starting pitcher in history, Pedro should cruise to Cooperstown at well above the 75 percent line. Really, like the Unit, there is no reason not to vote for him.

Smoltz has a little more complicated case and may suffer in comparison to being on the same ballot with Johnson and Martinez. While Pedro was 219-100 with a 2.93 ERA, Smoltz was 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA. He did pick up 154 saves while serving as a closer for three-plus seasons and maybe that will resonate with voters. Smoltz also has a great postseason record -- 15-4, 2.67 ERA -- but similar postseason dominance didn't help Curt Schilling last year when he received just 29 percent of the votes. I believe Smoltz does much better than that, but I don't see why Schilling -- 216-146, 3.46 in his career with 79.9 WAR compared to Smoltz's 69.5 -- would receive just 29 percent and Smoltz 75 percent.

Sheffield, with the PED allegations, has no chance despite 509 career home runs and over 1,600 RBIs and runs. Delgado put up big numbers in an era when a lot of guys were putting up big numbers, and his 473 career home runs with 1,512 RBIs may not be enough to even keep him on the ballot (you need to receive 5 percent to remain on).

3. Does Craig Biggio get in this year?

He fell just two votes short last year on his second time on the ballot, so you have to think at least two voters will add him, assuming some of the holdovers don't change their minds. Biggio's Hall of Fame case is kind of ironic in that he was probably one of the more underrated players in the league while active. He finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting three times (10th, fifth, fourth), but the same writers who once dismissed him as an MVP candidate will now be putting him in the Hall of Fame. He's a deserving candidate, but if he hadn't played that final season when he was terrible and cleared 3,000 career hits, you wonder if he'd be even this close. Voters love their round numbers.

4. What's the new 10-year rule?

Candidates will now be allowed to remain on the ballot for only 10 years instead of 15. Three current candidates -- Don Mattingly (in his 15th season), Alan Trammell (14th) and Lee Smith (13th) were allowed to remain on the ballot.

For the first time, the names of all voters will also be made public, although neither the Hall of Fame nor BBWAA will not reveal an individual's ballot.

5. Who will be most affected by this?

Well, all the steroids guys, obviously. Mark McGwire, for example, is on the ballot for his ninth year, not enough time in case voter attitudes toward PEDs starts reversing course. Aside from that group, Tim Raines is on the ballot for the eighth year. He received 46 percent of the vote last year; that was actually a drop from the 52 percent he had in 2013. Historically, nearly every player who received 50 percent of the vote from the BBWAA eventually got elected, but now Raines has just three years left and was affected by the crowded ballot last year.

6. But the ballot is still crowded, right?

Yep. Remember, voters are allowed to vote for up to 10 players -- although most ballots don't get to 10, so the "crowded" ballot is somewhat of an overrated issue. Still, it's there, and several players saw their vote totals decrease last year. Anyway, I would argue there are as many as 22 or 23 players who have some semblance of a Hall of Fame case based on historical precedent. In order of career Baseball-Reference WAR: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Trammell, Smoltz, Raines, Edgar Martinez, Biggio, McGwire, Sheffield, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, Delgado, Lee Smith. Plus arguably Nomar Garciaparra and Mattingly, who had high peak levels of performance but short careers.

Anyway, those who believe in a big ballot will once again have to make some tough choices on whom to leave off.

7. For which players is this an important year?

Raines needs a big increase this year, but it's starting to look slim for him. That makes Bagwell and Piazza two of the more interesting names. Piazza was at 62 percent last year on his second year, a 4.4 percent increase from 2013. If he sees another vote increase, we can assume he's on his way to election; but if he holds at the same percentage, we can probably assume there are enough voters who put him in the PED category and are thus keeping him permanently under that 75 percent threshold. Similar issue with Bagwell; he was 54 percent last year, actually down from 59.6 percent in 2013. If he gets back up over 60 percent, he may be back on a Cooperstown trek.

8. Hey, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling look like pretty good candidates.

That's not a question, but, yes, yes they are. Mussina (270 wins, 82.6 WAR) and Schilling are overwhelmingly qualified by Hall of Fame standards, even by BBWAA-only standards, especially when factoring in Schilling's postseason success. That both received fewer than 30 percent of the vote in their first year on the ballot was a little shocking and definitely disappointing.

9. What about the steroids guys?

No changes -- or progress, if you prefer -- here. Clemens (35.4 percent) and Bonds (34.7 percent) both received fewer votes than the year before. Rafael Palmeiro already fell off the ballot, and I suspect Sosa (7.2 percent) falls off this time.

10. What about Jack Morris?

Mercifully, Morris is no longer on the ballot so we don't have to spend all December arguing his case yet again. His candidacy goes over to the Expansion Era committee, which will next vote in 2016. I suspect Morris gets in then.
Now that the Atlanta Braves have sent the message that they're rebuilding, they'll probably trade Justin Upton, who is a free agent after the 2015 season.

Two offseasons ago, the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks had agreed to a trade built around Upton and pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, only to have Upton veto the trade when he invoked his limited no-trade clause.

[+] EnlargeJustin Upton
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJustin Upton, who has one year left on his current contract, is a player the Braves could trade in the weeks ahead.

Well, two years later, the Mariners still need a right-handed-hitting outfielder and Upton has reportedly removed the Mariners from his no-trade list.

So maybe general manager Jack Zduriencik re-kindles the Walker-for-Upton idea. Clearly, the Braves are looking for cost-controlled young players, as evidenced by the Jason Heyward trade. The Mariners wouldn't trade Walker for Upton at this point, considering Walker is under team control for six seasons versus one for Upton, so the trade would have to be expanded.

The Braves need a second baseman. The Mariners happen to have two shortstops in Brad Miller and Chris Taylor but are rumored to be interested in Hanley Ramirez. So here's an idea: Walker and one of the shortstops for Upton and Evan Gattis (the Mariners also need a designated hitter). The Mariners then sign Ramirez to play shortstop. With a hole in the rotation, they sign a second-tier starter like Chris Young or Jason Hammel, or splurge a little more on Ervin Santana.

Seattle's lineup would then look something like this:

CF Austin Jackson
3B Kyle Seager
2B Robinson Cano
RF Justin Upton
SS Hanley Ramirez
1B Logan Morrison
DH Evan Gattis
C Mike Zunino
LF Dustin Ackley

That's a pretty deep lineup in this era and the Mariners fix their righty-lefty imbalance that plagued them last year by bringing in three good right-handed hitters.

The rotation would have Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Roenis Elias and the veteran starter. The bullpen, one of the best and deepest in the majors in 2014, returns everybody except free agent Joe Beimel (who could re-sign). That rotation is a little thin, so the Mariners could shop Michael Saunders -- a solid-if-injury-prone outfielder and not a favorite of Zduriencik or manager Lloyd McClendon -- for another back-of-the-rotation type.

Does all that fit into Seattle's payroll? Baseball-Reference estimates the Mariners' payroll right now at $100.5 million (almost half of that for Cano and Hernandez), including estimates for arbitration-eligible players. Upton makes $14.5 million. Ramirez may require an average annual salary of $18 million or so, but the Mariners could backload that and pay him, say, $14 million in 2015. A pitcher like Young or Hammel would cost about $6 million to $8 million on a one-year deal. Gattis isn't even arbitration-eligible until 2016, so he's still making less than a million.

You'd be looking at a $135 million payroll or so, after sitting at about $90 million in 2014. That's a big hike but considering Cano and Hernandez aren't going to get any better, and considering the American League hasn't been so wide open in years, the Mariners' window to strike may be right now.

It's amazing how quickly things can turn in baseball. In 2013, the Atlanta Braves won 96 games. They were built around a young core of players that included Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, Craig Kimbrel, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor. None was older than 25. It looked like the Braves would be playoff contenders for the foreseeable future. Instead, the team fell to 79 wins in 2014, and now with the trade of Heyward to the St. Louis Cardinals, new president of baseball operations John Hart has started what looks to be an overhaul of the franchise.

With Heyward gone, Upton is likely the next to go. Like Heyward, Upton will be a free agent after the 2015 season, so there's no reason to keep him on the roster unless you sign him to a long-term extension (or if you think you're a playoff contender, but the Heyward trade signifies that the Braves don't view themselves as contenders in 2015). If Hart can get another young, cost-controlled player like Shelby Miller (here's Keith Law's analysis of the trade), he'll deal Upton. He might even look to trade Evan Gattis while his stock is high. With Christian Bethancourt ready to take over at catcher, the Heyward trade pushes Gattis to left field, where he becomes the classic overrated player: a slugger with terrible defense and a mediocre on-base skills. Gattis' power bat is certainly a plus and he's a fan favorite in Atlanta, but his defense in left on a regular basis would be a scary sight.

The other reason to trade Gattis is that the Braves have taken a step back with the Heyward trade. Heyward was their best player in 2014, although he seems to be often viewed under the lens of a disappointment ("Where's the power?") instead of a Gold Glove right fielder who has an above-average OBP. Maybe he never turned into that middle-of-the-order cleanup hitter he was once envisioned to become, but he's still a good guy to have at the top of the lineup and his defensive metrics have always been outstanding. Anyway, he's gone. You probably trade Upton; you still have B.J. Upton and Chris Johnson soaking up plate appearances; and second base is now in the hands of Philip Gosselin, who did hit .344 at Triple-A in 2014 but doesn't have much power and never hit in the minors before this past season.

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Should the Braves trade Justin Upton and/or Evan Gattis?

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Meanwhile, the rotation has added Miller, who is overrated at this point in his career, but is currently without free agents Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who made a combined 64 starts for the Braves in 2014. Yes, maybe they'll get Kris Medlen and/or Brandon Beachy back at some point after they both had Tommy John surgery, but those two will be question marks heading into 2015. As for Miller, his 3.74 ERA with the Cardinals ranked 45th among 73 National League pitchers who pitched at least 100 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio ranked 70th out of those 73 pitchers. Miller did finish strong with a 2.92 ERA and .201 batting average allowed in the second half, so maybe he made some adjustments that led to the improvement. (He threw his two-seam fastball a lot more in the second half after rarely using it before the break, so maybe that will be a big difference-maker for him, but a .215 BABIP suggests there was some good luck involved as well.)

So it looks like the Braves will be building for 2017, when they move into their new park in suburban Cobb County. Freeman is signed through 2021, Simmons through 2020 and Teheran through at least 2019, so that is the foundation. The Braves could even consider trading Kimbrel, who is signed through 2017 with a 2018 club option. You don't need an elite closer on a bad or mediocre team, and Kimbrel has been the game's most dominant reliever for four years. Trading him could bring back a nice haul of young talent to help restock a weak farm system.

Add it up, factor in that the Nationals, Mets and possibly the Marlins should be strong playoff contenders in 2015, and the Braves could go from 96 wins in 2013 to 90 losses in 2015.

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