SweetSpot: New York Mets

After looking at which players not on a 40-man roster have been invited to spring training in the AL East, AL Central and AL West, it's time to move to the National League. Only a few of these guys will crack Opening Day rosters, but many will end up playing important roles at some point once the injuries start to pile up.

BravesAtlanta Braves

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


MarlinsMiami Marlins

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


MetsNew York Mets

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



PhilliesPhiladelphia Phillies

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


NationalsWashington Nationals

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

Ranking the teams: 12 through 7

February, 12, 2015
Feb 12
11:45
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video

It's Day 4 of the pre-spring training power rankings! Read them and rejoice. Or weep. We have three AL East teams included in this edition, which shows how close that division race looks to be. We're also entering playoff territory, including one team that will be a controversial playoff pick.

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25
Team rankings: Nos. 24-19
Team rankings: Nos. 18-13

Red Sox12. Boston Red Sox

Big offseason moves: Signed 3B Pablo Sandoval; signed LF Hanley Ramirez; acquired RHP Rick Porcello from the Tigers for OF Yoenis Cespedes, RHP Alex Wilson and LHP Gabe Speier; acquired LHP Wade Miley from the Diamondbacks for RHP Rubby De La Rosa, RHP Allen Webster and SS Raymel Flores; signed RHP Justin Masterson; acquired C Ryan Hanigan from the Padres for 3B Will Middlebrooks; acquired LHP Robbie Ross from the Rangers for RHP Anthony Ranaudo; acquired RHP Anthony Varvaro from the Braves; re-signed LHP Craig Breslow.

Most intriguing player: I'm going with Mookie Betts. Great name, great game. He's going to hit for a high average and get on base and steal bases and should be Boston's regular leadoff hitter. As Gordon Edes noted, Betts has the highest projected WAR via Baseball Prospectus of any player on the team. "You would think Sox fans would be cautious about anointing a rookie a star before his time," Gordon wrote, "especially after the struggles of [Xander] Bogaerts and [Jackie] Bradley, but Betts' impressive debut last summer has folks believing that good times will continue in 2015. Few players mark progress in a straight line, but that's the expectation for Mookie -- and it's not just the fans."

Due for a better year: Bogaerts got off to a great start in his rookie season, hitting .304/.397/.438 through May but then cratered, right about the time he moved from shortstop to third base to accommodate Stephen Drew. He's back at shortstop, just 22 years old, and still projects as a future All-Star.

Due for a worse year: David Ortiz finished fifth in the AL in home runs, sixth in RBIs and ninth in slugging percentage, although his average did drop to .263 after topping .300 the previous three seasons. But it was also his most home runs and RBIs since 2007. He's 39. He's going to get old one of these years, right?

I'm just the messenger: The Red Sox don't have an ace, which everybody has pointed out a gazillion times, although Clay Buchholz has pitched like one at times. But the question most of the pundits won't answer: Do you need an ace? Let's check all the playoff teams from the past three seasons to see the pitcher with the highest WAR on the team (via Baseball-Reference).

2014
Nationals -- Tanner Roark (5.1)
Dodgers -- Clayton Kershaw (7.5)
Cardinals -- Adam Wainwright (6.1)
Pirates -- Tony Watson/Edinson Volquez (2.5)
Giants -- Madison Bumgarner (4.0)

Angels -- Garrett Richards (4.4)
Orioles -- Zach Britton (2.5)
Tigers -- Max Scherzer (6.0)
Royals -- Wade Davis (3.7)
Athletics -- Jon Lester (4.5)*

* Total with Red Sox and Athletics.

Well, pretty interesting. We had three relievers who led their teams in WAR. The Orioles and Pirates made the playoffs without a 3-WAR starter -- and the Orioles won 96 games.

2013
Cardinals -- Adam Wainwright (6.2)
Braves -- Kris Medlen/Craig Kimbrel (3.3)
Pirates -- Francisco Liriano (3.0)
Dodgers -- Clayton Kershaw (7.8)
Reds -- Mat Latos (3.8)

Red Sox -- Clay Buchholz (4.3)
A's -- Bartolo Colon (5.0)
Tigers -- Max Scherzer (6.7)
Indians -- Justin Masterson (3.4)
Rays -- Alex Cobb (3.9)

Worth noting are Johnny Cueto of the Reds and David Price of the Rays are widely considered aces, but both missed time in 2013 and didn't lead their staffs in WAR. The Pirates won 94 games without a dominant starter and Buchholz was great (1.74 ERA) but made just 16 starts.

2012
Nationals -- Gio Gonzalez (4.9)
Reds -- Johnny Cueto (5.9)
Giants -- Matt Cain (3.9)
Braves -- Kris Medlen (4.5)
Cardinals -- Kyle Lohse (4.3)

Yankees -- Hiroki Kuroda (5.5)
A's -- Jarrod Parker (3.9)
Orioles -- Miguel Gonzalez (3.1)
Rangers -- Matt Harrison (6.1)
Tigers -- Justin Verlander (7.8)

Nobody had a sub-3 WAR pitcher, but some of these guys are hardly pitchers you would classify as aces. Big picture: No rule of thumb here. An ace obviously helps but isn't necessary. Porcello is coming off of a 3.43 ERA/4.0-WAR season. Miley had a 3.5-WAR season in 2012, although his walk rate has since doubled. Buchholz has been good at times and bad times. There's potential here that the depth plays out. But there's also potential that Masterson is bad again, Buchholz can't stay healthy, Miley is mediocre and Porcello's 2014 was simply a peak season.

The final word: The projection systems like the Red Sox. FanGraphs has them as the best team in the AL East. Baseball Prospectus has them as the best team in the AL East. Mainly, the Red Sox have solid depth across the roster, and that's important. You've seen me stressing that through these articles. But I do worry about the lack of a big gun in the rotation, and I'm not completely sold on this ground ball group of starters. I worry about Ortiz's age and Dustin Pedroia's ability to stay on the field and Ramirez's ability to adjust to left and stay on the field. Sandoval is a big name but not really a big star. It's a good team. Could easily win 90 to 95 games. But I'm picking the Red Sox third in the division.

Prediction: 84-78


Giants11. San Francisco Giants

Big offseason moves: Lost 3B Pablo Sandoval to free agency; re-signed RHPs Jake Peavy, Sergio Romo and Ryan Vogelsong; acquired 3B Casey McGehee from the Marlins; lost OF Michael Morse to free agency; signed OF Norichika Aoki.

Most intriguing player: Madison Bumgarner. Can he replicate his postseason dominance over 30-something starts? Will the Giants handle him differently early in the season after pitching 270 innings between the regular season and postseason in 2014? Will he hit four home runs again?

Due for a better year: Brandon Belt played just 61 games and hit just .243. But he did crack 12 home runs in 214 at-bats, indicating he could hit 20 to 25 home runs if he stays on the field.

Due for a worse year: Joe Panik was a career .293 hitter in the minors but hit .305 with the Giants. He does put the ball in play, but don't expect another .300 season -- especially if he tries to add some power to his game.

I'm just the messenger: My least favorite acquisition of the offseason was McGehee. The Giants do love their vets. McGehee had an acceptable year with the Marlins, mainly because of an above-average OBP. But buried in that was a lack of power (four home runs), a ton of double plays hit into (31) and a lack of range at third. If he doesn't hit .287 again, his value dips to replacement level and the Giants will be looking for a different third baseman.

SportsNation

How many games do the Giants win?

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    13%
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    33%
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    41%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,852)

The final word: It was obviously a bit of a strange offseason for the champs, who were reportedly interested in signing Jon Lester and then James Shields, but failed to bring either guy to San Francisco, instead re-signing Peavy and Vogelsong and hoping Matt Cain returns from his elbow surgery. In analyzing the Giants, I'm left wondering: How they are going to get better? And they barely made the playoffs last year. The offense should be solid with Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and an improved Belt. Brandon Crawford is a superb defender at short and the bullpen should once again be deep and effective. But the rotation behind Bumgarner is shaky: Cain's health, Tim Hudson's age, Tim Lincecum's ineffectiveness and Peavy's age/health are all legitimate issues. I don't foresee a sub-.500 season like 2013, but I do see the Dodgers as the clear favorite in the NL West.

Prediction: 85-77



Mets10. New York Mets

Big offseason moves: Signed OF/1B Michael Cuddyer; signed OF John Mayberry Jr.; did not acquire Troy Tulowitzki, Ozzie Smith or Honus Wagner.

Most intriguing player: Matt Harvey. Back from Tommy John surgery, Harvey was as good as any pitcher in baseball in 2013 before his injury. He'll be ready Opening Day. But will he be Matt Harvey, Cy Young contender?

Due for a better year: David Wright played through a shoulder problem -- a bruised rotator cuff that sapped his power and finally forced him to shut things down in September. From 2009 to 2013, he hit .323/.412/.536 against fastballs; in 2014, he hit .281/.337/.363. A healthy Wright should be worth three to four extra wins for the Mets.

Due for a worse year: I'll take the under on Lucas Duda hitting 30 home runs again. Although I think he'll come close and be a pretty valuable contributor. It's one reason I like the Mets -- the lack of obvious decline candidates.

I'm just the messenger: The problem with the Cuddyer signing is obvious: He doesn't have much range in right field, he's coming of a season in which he played just 49 games and while he hit .332 and .331 the past two seasons, he'd never hit .300 before going to the Rockies. And he turns 36 in March. The Mets signed Cuddyer and then apparently the Wilpons ran out of money because Sandy Alderson could have gone on vacation the rest of the winter.

SportsNation

How many games do the Mets win?

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    10%
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    20%
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    28%
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    33%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 19,643)

The final word: And yet ... I'm picking the Mets to win a wild card! My gut says either the Mets or the Marlins win a wild card, thanks in part to how bad the Phillies and Braves may be. I like the Mets better because of the depth in the rotation. Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom is the real deal and Zack Wheeler has the arm strength and now the experience to take a leap forward. Obviously, a lot hinges on the comeback of Harvey and return to form of Wright. Everybody's concerned about Wilmer Flores at shortstop, but he doesn't project to be as terrible as everyone thinks. Anyway, every year there's at least one team that climbs from under .500 into the postseason (actually, there were two last season and three in 2013). The Mets are my pick for 2015.

Prediction: 86-76


Orioles9. Baltimore Orioles

Big offseason moves: Lost OFs Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis and LHP Andrew Miller via free agency; re-signed DH Delmon Young; acquired OF Travis Snider from the Pirates; signed LHP Wesley Wright; and GM Dan Duquette flirted with taking over as president of the Blue Jays.

Most intriguing player: Manny Machado. He's had two knee surgeries in two seasons, one on each knee. The Orioles need his defense and his bat.

Due for a better year: Chris Davis will miss Opening Day due to the final game of his PED suspension and then settle back in at first base, where he may not hit 53 home runs and drive in 138 runs again, but should hit much better than .196/.300/.404.

Due for a worse year: Steve Pearce was a 31-year-old journeyman whom the Orioles actually released April 27 and then re-signed two days later when Davis went on the DL with an oblique injury. Pearce hit .293/.373/.556 with 21 home runs in 338 at-bats, after hitting 17 in 743 previous major league at-bats. It may not be a complete fluke; he shortened his stride, which worked to shorten his swing and tap into the power he showed early in his minor league career (33 home runs in 2007). With the departure of Cruz, Pearce will get a chance to play every day, probably shuttling between DH and the outfield.

I'm just the messenger: Orioles fans are a little sensitive about this, because they have won 96, 85 and 93 games the past three seasons: The analytics don't care much for the O's, especially the starting rotation. Basically, the metrics argue that the Orioles' collection of No. 3 and No. 4 starters isn't that good. That even though the Orioles were fifth in the AL in ERA last season, they were just 11th in strikeout percentage and 13th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Just because the rotation was solid in 2014 doesn't mean it will be similarly effective in 2015, given the middling peripherals. FanGraphs forecasts the Orioles finishing last in the AL East, under .500. Baseball Prospectus forecasts them finishing last in the AL East, under .500. You can disagree with the computers, but that's what the computers say.

The final word: But I'm not a computer! I like the O's to finish above .500. If Machado returns and Matt Wieters gets back behind the plate on a regular basis, that will help; but even if he doesn't, Caleb Joseph threw out a league-leading 40 percent of base stealers. They lose Cruz's power but Davis will have a better year. And, like the Red Sox, maybe the rotation lacks an ace, but it has depth -- especially if Kevin Gausman can produce 30 starts in his first full season. Don't sleep on Chris Tillman, who had a 2.33 ERA in the second half with a much-improved strikeout rate. The defense and bullpen are both solid and no manager is more prepared than Buck Showalter.

Prediction: 86-76


Angels8. Los Angeles Angels

Big offseason moves: Traded 2B Howie Kendrick to the Dodgers for LHP Andrew Heaney; acquired OF Matt Joyce from the Rays for RHP Kevin Jepsen; acquired RHP Nick Tropeano and C Carlos Perez from the Astros for C Hank Conger; signed Cuban INF Roberto Baldoquin; acquired 2B Josh Rutledge from the Rockies for RHP Jairo Diaz.

Most intriguing player: Mike Trout. He won the MVP award with his worst season. Which tells you how good he is. But will he learn to adjust to all those high fastballs he'll be seeing after pitchers learned his weakness?

Due for a better year: No obvious candidate. I’d suggest Josh Hamilton but he’s already injured, out six to eight weeks after surgery on his shoulder. That puts him ready right around Opening Day. But even if he’s ready, will he hit?

Due for a worse year: Matt Shoemaker was one of the biggest surprises in the majors, a pitcher with uninspiring minor league numbers who made the team out of spring training but was sent down after three relief appearances. Called back up in May to join the rotation, Shoemaker went 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA, including a 1.87 ERA in the second half as the Angels surged past the A’s. I think he’ll be pretty good thanks to a terrific splitter/changeup that batters hit just .160 against with one home run in 173 plate appearances, but I’m not sure he’s this good.

I'm just the messenger: This is where I’m supposed to say something bad. OK, the Howie Kendrick trade made sense because they picked up young left-hander Andrew Heaney, who has potential to develop into a No. 2-type starter. The Angels needed rotation depth, preferably an inexpensive young starter, but losing Kendrick does hurt in the short term as the team lacks an obvious quality replacement; they did pick up Rutledge, although keep an eye on Cuban free agent Roberto Baldoquin. More than anything, however, we're just looking at regression: You win 98 games because a lot of things go right; not as many things will likely go right in 2015.

The final word: The Angels probably have the highest floor of any team in the American League. They’re a safe bet to finish over .500. The lineup has Trout, a still-effective Albert Pujols and solid depth with underrated players such as Kole Calhoun and Chris Iannetta. There’s a little more uncertainty in the rotation with Shoemaker, Garrett Richards coming back from his knee injury, the wear and tear on Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson’s control issues. In the end, I see the Angels returning to the postseason and battling the Mariners in a tough AL West.


Prediction: 87-75



Blue Jays7. Toronto Blue Jays

Big offseason moves: Acquired 3B Josh Donaldson from the A's for 3B Brett Lawrie, RHP Kendall Graveman, LHP Sean Nolin and SS Franklin Barreto; signed C Russell Martin; acquired OF Michael Saunders from the Mariners for LHP J.A. Happ; acquired RHP Marco Estrada from the Brewers for 1B Adam Lind; signed 1B Justin Smoak; acquired 2B Devon Travis from the Tigers for OF Anthony Gose; lost OFs Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus and RHPs Casey Janssen and Brandon Morrow via free agency; invited IF Munenori Kawasaki to spring training. Hey, he's a fan favorite!

Most intriguing player: Donaldson comes over in a blockbuster deal, and I can't wait to see how the middle of the order fares with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Donaldson.

SportsNation

Who wins the AL East?

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    31%
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    25%
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    2%
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    33%
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Discuss (Total votes: 23,714)

Due for a better year: This is how much I like Marcus Stroman. After going 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA as a rookie, he's going to be even better as a sophomore.

Due for a worse year: Martin signed a five-year, $82 million contract (heavily backloaded) and while I like the acquisition, he's coming off the best offensive season of his career with a .402 OBP that was fueled by a .290 batting average after hitting .211 and .226 the previous two seasons.

I'm just the messenger: For a contending team, the Jays enter spring with some questions to answer: Is Dalton Pompey ready to take over center field after starting 2014 in Class A? Who wins the second-base job? Who's the closer? Is Smoak really going to play regularly at first base? Is Stroman ready to take over as staff ace? How much of a concern is Jose Reyes' declining defense? Usually, the team you pick to win a division doesn't come with so many unknowns.

The final word: The Jays have fooled us before. In 2013, they were a popular World Series pick but went 74-88. Last season, they went 21-9 in May and led the division by six games in early June before stumbling. But I love the Donaldson and Martin pickups, and don't sleep on Saunders. People question the rotation, but I do believe in Stroman and expect Drew Hutchison to improve as well. Maybe they sign Rafael Soriano to close or maybe they give the job to Aaron Sanchez, who came up and allowed just 14 hits in 33 innings. I get that you don't want to give up on Sanchez as a starter, but he fills a need in the bullpen right now. The Jays will score plenty of runs, maybe the most in the league. The longest playoff drought in the majors ends.

Prediction: 87-75

Who's better: Yankees or Mets?

February, 3, 2015
Feb 3
10:40
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We're going to continue our little series of positional comparisons by looking at another crosstown rivalry. The Mets were 79-83 in 2014, but they outscored their opponents by 11 runs. They added Michael Cuddyer as a free agent and did not add a shortstop, much to the consternation of Mets fans. The Yankees were 84-78, but they were outscored by their opponents by 31 runs. They did acquire Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks to replace Derek Jeter, but for the most part they're relying on the same cast of veterans.

Of course, Alex Rodriguez returns ... much to the consternation of Yankees fans.

Let's go position by position in the battle for the hearts of Big Apple baseball fans.

Catcher: Brian McCann versus Travis d'Arnaud

McCann had a disappointing season in 2014 after signing with the Yankees, hitting 23 home runs but posting a crummy .286 OBP. McCann used to have more variance to his offensive game, twice hitting .300 with the Braves, drawing as many 74 walks and hitting as many as 42 doubles. Now it's pretty much homer or nothing as he rarely hits doubles and had the lowest walk rate of his career. He hit just .215 against fastballs in 2014, a sign of a guy with a slow bat who can still pop a long one when he guesses correctly. I like d'Arnaud's potential with the bat although he needs to improve all facets of his defensive game.

Edge: Mets. McCann's veteran leadership and pitch framing are important, but I don't see much hope for a turnaround at the plate from him.

First base: Mark Teixeira versus Lucas Duda

Teixeira is 35 and has been getting worse for years. There's no reason to expect better numbers in 2015. Duda got to play regularly for the first time in his career last season and popped 30 home runs. He's still useless against lefties (.180/.264/.252) and if the Mets are smart they'll platoon Cuddyer with him, which also helps the club by getting Cuddyer out of the outfield.

Edge: Mets. I don't know if Duda hits 30 homers again, but I think Duda plus Cuddyer is an edge over the fading Tex.

Second base: Stephen Drew versus Daniel Murphy

Murphy isn't as good as Mets fans seem to think -- he's averaged 1.7 WAR the past three seasons, hardly a star even if he did make the All-Star team in 2014 -- as he lacks range and doesn't get on base as much as you'd like from a guy who hits close to .300. Drew had a good season playing shortstop for the Red Sox in 2013, but got jilted in the free-agent market last year. He limped back to Boston in June and proceeded to hit .162, the fifth-lowest average ever for a player with 300 plate appearances. For some reason, the Yankees wanted him back. He'll do better, but he's 32 and I have no idea how much better.

Edge: Mets.

Third base: Chase Headley versus David Wright

As with Drew, the Yankees re-signed Headley after trading for him during the 2014 season. He had the big season in 2012 with the Padres when he led the National League in RBIs but that looks more and more like a fluke after he's averaged .246/.338/.387 the past two seasons. Getting out of Petco Park could help his power numbers but some of his value is tied to his above-average defense and, at 31, you wonder how long he'll remain a plus defender.

SportsNation

Who has the better 2015?

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    23%
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    77%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,082)

Wright is one of the key guys in the entire league. He played through a shoulder injury last year before finally shutting it down in early September and hit .269 with just eight home runs in 134 games. The injury clearly affected him, especially his ability to turn with authority on fastballs. Check out his numbers through the years against fastballs:

2010: .316/.396/.565
2011: .309/.414/.521
2012: .343/.424/.541
2013: .329/.413/.603
2014: .281/.337/.363

Assuming good health, Wright should bounce back. He was worth 5.8 WAR in 2013 and 7.0 in 2012 and could get back to that level as one of the best third basemen in the game.

Edge: Mets.

Shortstop: Didi Gregorius versus Wilmer Flores

Mets fans treat Flores as if he's the Ebola virus. Look, the Mets weren't going to get Troy Tulowitzki and there wasn't much else out there. Flores projects as a slightly below-average shortstop -- Steamer has him at 1.7 WAR, as a shortstop with a little pop, mediocre defense and a sub-.300 OBP. I liked Gregorius when he first came up with Arizona in 2013, but he struggled at the plate last year and can't hit left-handers, so he probably works in a platoon with Brendan Ryan. At the minimum, the pair will be a big defensive upgrade on Jeter.

Edge: Do I have to pick?

Left field: Brett Gardner versus Curtis Granderson

Gardner added some power to his game in 2014, hitting 17 home runs, but you wonder if he got a little homer-happy in the second half because his average dropped to .217. His walk rate has also dropped 5 percent from his 2010 breakout. He would be better served working the count a little more and sacrificing a few home runs to get on base more. Anyway, not counting 2012, when he was injured, Gardner's WAR totals since 2010: 7.3, 4.1, 4.0, 4.5. He's a good player, if not quite the elite defender of a few years ago, a solid, all-around contributor. He's a better player now than his former teammate.

Edge: Yankees.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury versus Juan Lagares

Numbers from 2014:

Ellsbury: .271/.328/.419, 39 SB, -5 defensive runs saved, 3.0 WAR
Lagares: .281/.321/.382, 13 SB, +28 defensive runs saved, 5.2 WAR

Projections for 2015:

Ellsbury: .271/.329/.418, 32 SB, 3.7 WAR
Lagares: .249/.291/.352, 12 SB, 2.5 WAR

Lagares had an otherworldly year on defense and his bat played better than expected, with an OBP that nearly matched Ellsbury's. You probably should expect both players to regress a little and that gives the edge to the more predictable player.

Edge: Yankees.

Right field: Carlos Beltran versus Michael Cuddyer

One old, sort of broken-down right fielder versus ... an old, sort of broken-down right fielder. Beltran hit .233/.301/.402 in 109 games after signing as a free agent last year and you can attribute that line to a bone spur in his elbow or to the fact that he was 37. Or a little of both. Now he's 38 and says he has to prove himself all over again. Cuddyer was a controversial free-agent signing as the Mets sacrificed their first-round pick to sign him to a two-year, $21 million contract. He's a defensive liability, especially now at 36, and while he hit a combined .331 the past two seasons with the Rockies, he also played just 49 games last year and he never hit higher than .284 before going to Colorado.

Edge: Yankees. Betting on a comeback of sorts from Beltran.

Bench

The Yankees have Rodriguez and Garrett Jones to serve as DHs and backups at third and first while Chris Young will give Beltran some off days in right field. The Mets' bench will include John Mayberry Jr., Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Ruben Tejada and Anthony Recker, but keep an eye on second baseman Dilson Herrera. He doesn't have a job right now with Murphy, but he can hit.

Edge: Looks pretty even, barring a miraculous comeback from A-Rod.

No. 1 starter: Masahiro Tanaka versus Matt Harvey

SportsNation

Which pitcher would you rather have for 2015?

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Discuss (Total votes: 8,009)

It's a little unfair to expect Harvey to come back from Tommy John surgery and pitch as well he did in 2013. Plus, the Mets will monitor his workload, saying they'll skip a start here and there. But the expectations seem to be that Harvey won't skip a beat. There's no guarantee Tanaka will stay healthy as well after missing time with his own elbow issues last season. If healthy, both are Cy Young contenders, but both will enter 2015 as big question marks.

Edge: Assuming both are healthy and make 30 starts, who do you like? Based on his 2013 numbers -- 2.27 ERA/2.01 FIP, 191 strikeouts and 31 walks in 178.1 innings -- I give the edge to Harvey.

No. 2 starter: CC Sabathia versus Jacob deGrom

DeGrom came out of nowhere to win Rookie of the Year honors. There's nothing in his numbers that screams fluke and his stuff is legit with a four-seam fastball that touches 95 mph, a good sinker plus a changeup, slider and curveball. Among 127 pitchers who threw at least 125 innings last season, he ranked 12th in strikeout rate. Even accounting for some regression, he's the better bet at this point than Sabathia, who made just eight starts before undergoing season-ending knee surgery in 2014.

Edge: Mets.

No. 3 starter: Michael Pineda versus Zack Wheeler

This is a fun one. Can Pineda stay healthy? Can Wheeler cut down on his walks and make The Leap with his great stuff?

Edge: It's all about risk. I like Pineda a little better but remember: He missed time in the minors, he had the shoulder surgery in 2012 that wiped out two seasons and then he missed nearly four months with a muscle strain in his back in 2014 (but posted a 1.89 ERA in the 13 starts he did make). Wheeler's stuff is ace-like, but his control isn't. I still see him as a solid No. 3 as opposed to a breakout performer.

No. 4/5 starters: Nathan Eovaldi/Chris Capuano versus Jonathon Niese/Bartolo Colon/Dillon Gee

Eovaldi, acquired from the Marlins, is a potential breakout candidate as well with his great arm, but the Mets have more depth here with top prospect Noah Syndergaard waiting for an opportunity to pitch as well.

Edge: Mets.

Bullpen

The Yankees lost closer David Robertson but replaced him with lefty Andrew Miller, giving them an imposing 1-2 combo with Miller and Dellin Betances, the most valuable reliever in baseball last year. Assuming Betances takes over as the closer, it will be interesting to see how Joe Girardi uses him. He pitched 90 innings last year as the setup guy to Robertson, but closers usually top out around 70. The Yankees also picked up Justin Wilson and David Carpenter in the offseason. The Mets had the eighth-best bullpen ERA last season, but had the 24th-best strikeout-to-walk ratio (they were 28th in walk rate). It's a mediocre pen at best and potentially a bad one.

Edge: Yankees.

SportsNation

Which team wins more games in 2015?

  •  
    56%
  •  
    44%

Discuss (Total votes: 14,953)

Where does that leave us? I see the Yankees as having as wide a range of possible outcomes as any team in the majors, owing to the age of the lineup and the health of Tanaka, Sabathia and Pineda. They could win 90; they could lose 90. Yes, everything could work out: The old guys play well, McCann and Ellsbury are better in their second year in the Bronx, Gregorius and Headley make the defense better, the rotation stays intact and Betances and Miller are the best bullpen duo in the majors.

That's a lot of ifs. The Mets maybe don't have the same upside, but I do love their depth in the starting rotation. If Wright bounces back and Duda produces close to what he did last year, the offense should be at least league average and maybe better. They're in a weak division with the Phillies and Braves and that will help.

Mets general manager Sandy Alderson believes the club has the potential to improve by 10 wins. I'm not going quite that high, but I think the Mets will be in the wild-card race with 85 to 87 wins ... about seven more than the Yankees, who will suffer their first losing season since 1992.
In honor of Pete Carroll's decision in the Super Bowl -- you know the one, already cemented in history as the worst play call in Super Bowl history (although maybe it wasn't a horrible call) -- let's have a little fun with a list of the worst decisions in World Series history.

Dave Cameron reports that the Seahawks had an 88 percent chance of winning when facing second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. He tried to find a similar equivalent in baseball, although a similar scenario is difficult to match in baseball. Even a team with the tying run on third and winning run on second with no outs would have a win expectancy of only 71 percent, aside from the strengths of the hitters and pitchers involved.

We can increase the odds by instead focusing on the defensive team. When the Red Sox led the Mets 5-3 in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the 10th, their win expectancy was 99 percent -- maybe a little less if you factor in that Calvin Schiraldi was pitching. When Mariano Rivera took the mound in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 in 2001 with a 2-1 lead, the Yankees' win expectancy was 86 percent -- and a little higher with Rivera pitching.

Anyway, this list isn't based on mathematical probability but simply looks at some managerial decisions in key moments of the World Series that didn't work out.

1986, Game 6: Buckner stays in the game

Speaking of the Red Sox and Mets, John McNamara left in Bill Buckner in that fateful 10th inning even though he had used Dave Stapleton as a defensive substitute in all seven of Boston's previous postseason wins. Mookie Wilson's grounder went through Buckner's legs and the Mets won the game -- although keep in mind the Mets had already tied it before Buckner's error ... and the Red Sox still had a chance to win the series in Game 7.

1986, Game 7: Too much Schiraldi

Less remembered but worthy of its own criticism is McNamara's decision to bring in Schiraldi in the seventh inning of Game 7 with the score tied 3-3. Ray Knight, the first batter he faced, hit a go-ahead home run, and the next two batters singled and eventually scored. The Red Sox did have a thin bullpen that year, but Schiraldi was a rookie coming off a horrific loss in Game 6 who had also faced 16 batters in that game. Although there was a rainout between Games 6 and 7, he had probably thrown 60 to 70 pitches in Game 6. On the other hand, McNamara didn't have a lot of good choices after starter Bruce Hurst. Roger Clemens had started Game 6, and "Oil Can" Boyd, his No. 3 starter, wasn't exactly available since he was drunk and strung out on crack.

1925, Game 7: The Big Train goes the distance

Game 7 between the Senators and Pirates was played on a cold and rainy day in Pittsburgh, and it would grow colder and wetter as the game went along. Hall of Famer Walter Johnson started for Washington. He was 37 years old and on his last legs as a pitcher, but still had enough zip on his fastball to go 20-7 with a 3.07 ERA in the regular season. He already had won twice in the series, and Senators manager Bucky Harris was determined to ride his star. Washington scored four runs in the top of the first, but the Pirates chipped away, getting to within 4-3, then 6-4 and then tying the score at 6-6. Johnson stayed in the game, as the grounds crew spread sawdust on the mud-slick mound. The Senators took the lead in the eighth, but the Pirates scored three runs in the bottom of the inning -- all with two outs -- to win 9-7. Johnson went the distance and allowed 15 hits. Yes, it was Walter Johnson and his defense let him down with two errors, including a crucial one in the eighth. Still ... who gets left in to allow 15 hits in Game 7?

2003, Game 4: Where's Rivera?

The Yankees were a game up on the Marlins and had tied Game 4 on Ruben Sierra's two-run triple in the ninth inning with two outs. The game rolled along. Jose Contreras pitched the ninth and 10th innings for the Yankees. Jeff Weaver then pitched a scoreless 11th. Joe Torre sent him back out for the bottom of the 12th, but Weaver gave up a leadoff home run to Alex Gonzalez. The series was tied, and the Marlins took the next two games to upset the Yankees.

How do you lose a crucial game without using the best closer of all time? Torre said he couldn't use Rivera because it was a tie game on the road. "I had no options," he said. "People say bring in Mariano. I had no options. It was an extra-inning game on the road. There was never consideration of other options." By choosing to wait for a save situation and limit Rivera to one inning, however, Torre ignored what he had done throughout Rivera's postseason career, which was to often use him for more than one inning and, at times, in tie games. Rivera had pitched two innings the day before -- throwing 23 pitches -- but that shouldn't have been reason to use Weaver without first getting Rivera into the game.

2009, Game 4: Manuel sticks with Lidge

Closer Brad Lidge had been one of the heroes of the Phillies' 2008 World Series champions -- converting all 41 of his save chances in the regular season and all seven in the postseason. But 2009 was a nightmare season for Lidge: 0-8, 7.21 ERA, with a lot of hits, home runs and walks allowed. The Phillies were able to overcome his ineffectiveness to win 93 games, but manager Charlie Manuel stubbornly stuck with Lidge as his closer. You knew it would eventually blow up in a big way in the postseason, and it did in Game 4 when Lidge entered in a 4-4 tie in the ninth inning and coughed up three runs. The Yankees won the series in six games.

1958, Game 7: Frank Torre hits third

The Milwaukee Braves of the late '50s and early '60s were an enormously talented team. They won one World Series title in 1957 and reached Game 7 in 1958, but they should have dominated the National League for a longer stretch. Fred Haney managed the club from 1956 through 1959, and, in '58, he platooned Frank Torre (Joe's brother) with Joe Adcock at first base. Torre was a better glove and did hit .309 in 1958 that year, but he hit just six home runs in 372 at-bats. Eddie Mathews didn't have a great year in '58, hitting .251/.349/.458, but he did hit 31 home runs. And Wes Covington hit .330/.380/.622 in 324 plate appearances.

In Game 7, Haney hit Red Schoendienst (.313 OBP) leadoff, Bill Bruton (.336 OBP) second, Torre third, Henry Aaron cleanup, Covington fifth and Mathews sixth. Imagine if a manager rolled out a lineup like that today. In the first inning, after Schoendienst and Bruton reached on a single and a walk against a shaky Don Larsen, Haney had his No. 3 hitter ... bunt. You're not bunting there with Mathews or Covington. Mathews was later intentionally walked in the inning as Del Crandall left the bases loaded. Instead of playing for a big inning, the Braves scored just one run. The score was tied 2-2 in the eighth when the Yankees scored four runs with two outs.

2001, Game 5: Brenly turns to Kim ... again

After Byung-hyun Kim served up home runs to Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter in Game 4 -- throwing 61 pitches -- for some reason Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly thought it was a good idea to have him close out Game 5. I was in the auxiliary press box for that one and remember all the writers criticizing the move before seeing what happened next -- Scott Brosius hit the tying home run (and who can forget Kim crouched on the mound in despair) and the Yankees won in 12 innings. Brenly survived the blunder as the Diamondbacks won Games 6 and 7.

1947, Game 4: Almost a no-hitter

Yankees right-hander Bill Bevens threw hard, but he also had no idea where the ball was going. In Game 4 of the '47 World Series against Brooklyn, he took a 2-1 lead and a no-hitter into the bottom of the ninth. But he'd also walked eight batters. He walked Carl Furillo with one out in the ninth, then pinch runner Al Gionfriddo stole second with two outs. Yankees manager Bucky Harris -- yes, the same guy from 1925 -- then ordered Pete Reiser intentionally walked, going against convention that you don't put the go-ahead run on base. Pinch hitter Cookie Lavagetto then hit a game-winning two-run double. That tied the series up at two games apiece, although Harris and the Yankees went on to win Game 7.

Those are just a few, and I didn't even get to Ron Washington's performance in the 2011 World Series (let alone some of the decisions from other rounds of the playoffs). Next time...
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at the top prospects from 2005. Has it already been 10 years since 2005? Yes it has! We'll use Baseball America's list and, as always, we're not criticizing the list. Evaluating prospects is part art, part science and a lot of unknown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


During my chats this offseason, one question that always comes up: Who do you like as a breakout performer? There are certainly obvious candidates to that question. The harder part is coming up with guys like Josh Donaldson or Josh Harrison or Dallas Keuchel or Collin McHugh.

I'm not even sure what a breakout candidate means. Do you consider Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich breakout candidates? I certainly think they'll be better in 2015, but the young Marlins outfielders were already pretty good in 2014. So I'm not sure I'd include them here. Maybe a general rule of thumb would be a player capable of improving his WAR by at least 2.5 wins.

So here's a list of breakout candidates, broken into three categories, with 2014 WAR listed. Rookies were not considered.

Obvious young players

These are essentially the players everyone should have on their list of breakout candidates, so it's mostly a confirmation that I like these guys as well.

Mookie Betts, Red Sox (2.0 WAR) -- This isn't so much a prediction as an endorsement that Betts will, at the minimum, sustain his 2014 performance when he hit .291/.368/.444 in 213 plate appearances with the Red Sox. Considering he's just 22 with outstanding contact skills -- he had more walks than whiffs in the minors -- I suspect he'll improve. The home run power is the only question mark, but he did hit 16 between the minors and majors so I believe he can be a 15-homer guy.

Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (0.1 WAR) -- A highly touted rookie last year, Bogaerts hit well in April and May and then collapsed for three months, right about the time the Red Sox moved him from shortstop to third base. That's probably too easy an explanation for his struggles, but he'll be back at shortstop and a good September (.313, four home runs) at least meant he ended the season on a positive note. Like Betts, he's just 22, young enough to make a big leap forward.

Gerrit Cole, Pirates (1.2 WAR) -- He has 41 big league starts now with a 3.45 ERA, but there's ace potential in the former No. 1 overall pick. Armed with one of the best fastballs in the business, it's a matter of mastering his other pitches as his fastball can be a little straight at times. If his changeup develops -- he threw it just 111 times last year -- watch out. He also needs to remain healthy, missing time last year with a lat strain.

Kevin Gausman, Orioles (1.2 WAR) -- We saw his arm strength in the postseason, when he looked so good pitching out of the bullpen. After bouncing back and forth last year between the Orioles and Triple-A, making 20 starts in the majors, Gausman is ready to spend the entire year in Baltimore. He has developed into primarily a fastball/splitter guy, mixing in his slider and a few changeups, so while he may not rack up the strikeouts like Cole, he should do a good job keeping the ball in the park, which of course is essential for success in Camden Yards.

James Paxton, Mariners (1.5 WAR) -- For Paxton, a lefty with electric stuff (his four-seamer averaged 94.7 mph last season), it's all about staying healthy. He made just 13 starts in 2014 (posting a 3.04 ERA), missing a large chunk of time with a strained lat and then shoulder inflammation that developed while rehabbing the first injury. But he returned in August and made 11 starts down the stretch. Paxton also missed time while in the minors, so the injury history goes back several years.

George Springer, Astros (2.3 WAR) -- The strikeout rates are cringe-worthy (114 in 345 PAs), but when the University of Connecticut product connects, the ball goes far. Even with all the strikeouts, he hit .231/.336/.468 as a rookie with 20 home run in 78 games. He has 40-homer potential and while he didn't run much last year (five steals), he swiped 45 in the minors in 2013, giving him 30-30 potential. Or 40-30 potential. Or lots of potential, no matter how you slice it.

Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays (1.8 WAR) -- Everybody says the Blue Jays lack an ace, but maybe they don't. The short right-hander may not have the physical presence of your typical No. 1 starter, but he has the stuff and went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA as a rookie. Those numbers included two terrible relief appearances in his first month in the majors (nine runs in three innings), but Stroman didn't let those outings get to him and when moved to the rotation.

Kolten Wong, Cardinals (2.1 WAR) -- He had a solid rookie season, showing a broad range of skills with some power, speed, solid defense and then a big postseason. He needs to improve his .249 average and .292 OBP. If he does that, he could be an All-Star second baseman.

Wild cards

This group has a few more flaws in their game and thus are less likely to emerge than the first group, but all have talent and several were once regarded as top prospects.

Trevor Bauer, Indians (1.1 WAR) -- The Diamondbacks didn't like Bauer's idiosyncratic approach to pitching and quickly traded him away. The third pick overall pick by Arizona in 2011 has had his ups and downs in his two years in Cleveland, but he's just 24 and still has a good arm. He needs to cut down on his walks -- some have suggested that backing off his six- or seven-pitch repertoire would help -- to lower his 4.18 ERA, but he's ready for his first full season in the majors and could make a big leap.

Brandon Belt, Giants (0.9 WAR) -- Belt was pretty good back in 2013 but battled a broken thumb and concussion in 2014, playing in just 61 games. He'll be 27 so I think he's primed for a big season, even better than 2013 when he hit .289 with 17 home runs.

Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (0.2 WAR) -- He gets lost with all the attention given the Mets' young starters and their search for a shortstop, but the young catcher had a solid rookie season, rebounding to hit .242 after scuffling to a .205 mark through June. He needs to improve his defense (just a 19 percent caught stealing rate and a league-leading 12 passed balls) and he was injury-prone in the minors, but there's All-Star potential in the bat.

Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees (0.7 WAR) -- He's got a big fastball and walked just 1.9 batters per nine with the Marlins, but he also led the National League in hits allowed. You worry about that short right-field porch and what it can do to a right-handed pitcher (see Phil Hughes). I wouldn't bet on a big season, but if Eovaldi can learn a new trick or two, he has the talent to make the Yankees look very smart.

Shane Greene, Tigers (0.6 WAR) -- Never regarded as much of a prospect coming up with the Yankees, Greene added a cutter and looked good in 14 starts (3.78 ERA, good strikeout rate) before getting traded to the Tigers in the offseason. He'll have to win a rotation spot and he's not Max Scherzer, but he's a guy I like.

Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (1.3 WAR) -- He came back from Tommy John surgery and made 32 starts with a 4.48 ERA and even better peripherals. Hutchison needs to improve against left-handers, who slugged .477 against him.

Carlos Martinez, Cardinals (0.2 WAR) -- I'm not actually a big fan since he hasn't dominated in relief, so I'm not exactly sure why people think he can transition to the rotation. But he has that explosive heater and many do like his potential as a starter.

Brad Miller, Mariners (1.5 WAR) -- He's athletic with some pop in his bat but frustratingly inconsistent, botching routine plays at shortstop and hitting just .204 in the first half last year. There's a lot of upside here if he puts it all together, and he's just 25 with two seasons of experience now.

Rougned Odor, Rangers (0.1 WAR) -- Rushed to the majors at 20 when the entire Texas lineup landed on the DL, he held his own. It may be a year early for a breakout season, but there's a lot of potential in the bat.

Danny Salazar, Indians (0.5 WAR) -- He had 120 strikeouts and 35 walks in 110 innings but also posted a mediocre 4.25 ERA and was sent to the minors for a spell. Oddly, he's struggled more against right-handers than lefties. That seems like a fixable solution if he can tighten up his slider.

Jonathan Schoop, Orioles (1.5 WAR) -- He's already a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman with a tremendous double-play pivot thanks to his strong arm. But will there be value in the bat? He has power but had a horrific 122 strikeout/walk ratio, leading to a .209 average and unacceptable .244 OBP. He could improve or the poor approach could end up sending him back to the minors or to the bench.

Guys I'll call long shots
How do you even go about predicting the next Donaldson or Keuchel? You can't. Luckily, some things in the sport remain unpredictable.

Tony Cingrani, Reds (-0.1 WAR) -- He was impressive as a rookie in 2013 with his unique arsenal of high fastballs from the left side but battled a sore shoulder in 2014. I'm not sure the delivery and lack of secondary pitches will play out in the long run, but you never know.

Khris Davis, Brewers (2.7 WAR) -- He hit 22 home runs and 37 doubles in his first full season and his defense was better than advertised, but he also posted a .299 OBP. If he can add 50 points of OBP -- good luck -- he's a star.

Rubby De La Rosa, Diamondbacks (0.8 WAR) -- Acquired from Boston in the Wade Miley trade, he's had Tommy John surgery but has a live arm; he averaged 93.9 mph on his fastball while touching 99. Sometimes these guys put it together, and moving to the National League will help as well.

Avisail Garcia, White Sox (-0.3 WAR) -- I've always felt he's been overhyped since coming up with Detroit. He's never walked and that poor approach will likely limit his numbers, but scouts have always liked his swing and power potential.

Eric Hosmer, Royals (0.7 WAR) -- Wait, hasn't he been around too long for this? Well, he wasn't that good last year except for October and he's still just 25, so maybe he finally learns to tap into his power. He's a much better bet than teammate Mike Moustakas to turn into a star.

Brandon Maurer, Padres (-0.4 WAR) -- He got hammered as a starter in Seattle in 2013 and 2014 but moved to the bullpen and was suddenly throwing in the upper 90s and posted a 2.17 ERA with a 38/5 SO/BB ratio. I'd keep him in relief, but the Padres may try to give him one more chance at starting.

Brad Peacock, Astros (-0.3 WAR) -- He has a 4.90 ERA in two seasons with Houston with way too many walks (4.8 per nine innings last year). But hey, Keuchel looked like this a year ago.

Eugenio Suarez, Reds (0.3 WAR) -- He came up with Detroit last year and I liked the swing and approach and think there's a little power there for a middle infielder. He may not have a regular gig with the Reds, but if they tire of Zack Cozart's lack of offense then Suarez could get a chance to play.
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?



The current all-underrated team

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13
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Ben ZobristKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBen Zobrist has hit 99 homers over the past six seasons.
There isn't really a scientific way to determine an all-underrated team. Certainly, if you own five fantasy teams, you know all about these guys, but my perception is these players are better than widely believed or haven't yet received the kind of attention you would expect given their value. For some, maybe they have had only one big year; for others, maybe it's because they play in a small market. Regardless, I expect all these guys to be productive regulars again in 2015.

C: Rene Rivera, Rays
You can bet if Tampa Bay trades for a player that he's probably underrated. Rivera has played with the Mariners, Twins and Padres in the majors and spent time in the minors with the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees. Not surprisingly, Rivera is an excellent pitch-framer -- hence, Tampa Bay's desire to get him from the Padres in the Wil Myers trade -- and he hit .252/.319/.432 with San Diego in 2014, good numbers for Petco Park. The question is if the bat was a fluke since it was just 329 plate appearances and Rivera hadn't hit much before that. But catchers are sometimes late bloomers at the plate.

1B: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Rizzo is probably the biggest name here, but I would suggest that many fans don't realize how good he was in 2014. He had a higher OBP and slugging percentage than Miguel Cabrera. He had a higher FanGraphs WAR than Jose Abreu of the crosstown White Sox but certainly didn't get the same level of national attention. He finished behind Adrian Gonzalez in the MVP voting because he didn't drive in as many runs. He has more power than Freddie Freeman, a young first baseman who gets more recognition. The best part: He's just 25.

2B: Brian Dozier, Twins
Dozier came up as a shortstop in 2012 but has moved over to second base and gets lost among all the quality second basemen in the American League (playing on the Twins doesn't help), but what a season he had: 23 home runs, 57 extra-base hits, 89 walks, 21 stolen bases, solid defense and 112 runs scored, second in the majors behind Mike Trout. Dozier will continue to be underrated in part because he hit just .242, but he still had a higher OBP than Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler.

3B: Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager was never a highly rated prospect coming up through the Mariners system -- projected as a utility infielder -- so sometimes it takes a few years for everyone to buy into a player like that. Well, the Mariners have bought in, giving Seager a seven-year, $100 million contract extension. He made his first All-Star team in 2014 and won a Gold Glove, and his 25 home runs and 96 RBIs are even more impressive considering the difficult hitting environments of the AL West.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJhonny Peralta was second among NL shortstops last season with 21 homers.
SS: Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
It's odd for a veteran like Peralta to make a list like this, but he has always been underappreciated -- although I did sense a little more, "Oh, yeah, that guy's pretty good," in 2014 as he even picked up some down-the-ballot MVP votes for the first time in his career. Maybe playing for the Cardinals helped. He led all major league shortstops in WAR in 2014, ranking 15th among all position players on Baseball Reference and 17th on FanGraphs. The key is that Peralta has always been viewed as a shortstop without a lot of range, but the metrics have consistently rated him about average (and a little above in 2014). He has a strong arm and makes few mistakes.

LF: Corey Dickerson, Rockies
Charlie Blackmon was the Rockies outfielder who made the All-Star team in 2014, but Dickerson is the one to watch moving forward. He hit .312/.364/.567 with 24 home runs in 478 plate appearances, and that's not just a Coors-inflated line. He is slated to play left field this year with Carlos Gonzalez moving over to right. The Rockies platooned Dickerson last year, but he deserves the chance to see if he can hold his own against left-handers.

CF: Juan Lagares, Mets
Lagares has certainly received recognition as perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the majors -- winning his first Gold Glove in 2014 -- but because he's not a big basher at the plate, he still seems undervalued overall. And he's not a zero on offense. He hit .281/.321/.382, nothing great, but that makes him about a league average hitter. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with 28 defensive runs saved in 2014, and some speculated that maybe he's not that good. Willie Mays, for example, peaked (under a different system for evaluating) at 21 runs, according to Baseball Reference. Consider this, however: Lagares made 2.85 plays per nine innings in 2014, compared to the league average of 2.48 for center fielders. That's 0.37 more plays per game, which adds up to 49 additional outs over 1,200 innings; Mays' career-best was 0.27 more plays per game.

RF: Kole Calhoun, Angels
Like others on this list, Calhoun was never a top prospect. But all he has done is hit. In his first full season, he hit .272/.325/.450 with 17 home runs and 31 doubles while scoring 90 runs in 127 games. He should have another strong year as the Angels' leadoff hitter.

UT: Ben Zobrist, A's
If there's a captain on the all-underrated team, this guy is it. He does all those things that maybe aren't flashy. He draws walks, hits for some power, plays good defense (at multiple positions) and is durable. Since his breakout season in 2009, he is third among position players in Baseball Reference WAR behind Robinson Cano and Cabrera (second behind Cabrera on FanGraphs).

SP: Doug Fister, Nationals
I've written about Fister enough that maybe he's no longer underrated. He doesn't get a lot of attention pitching in the same rotation as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, but he's nearly their equal.

SP: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
After getting punched around his first two seasons in the majors, Keuchel looked like a lefty without enough fastball to succeed at the big league level. But he put everything together in 2014, going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA. I don't think it was a fluke.

SP: Jose Quintana, White Sox
The White Sox rotation goes deeper than Chris Sale and now Jeff Samardzija. Quintana has been one of the best starters in the AL the past two seasons, throwing 200 innings both years with ERAs of 3.51 and 3.32 in a park where fly balls really fly. There's nothing too fancy about Quintana, but he has a complete repertoire of pitches with a curveball, changeup and slider and knows how to pitch.

[+] EnlargeRyu
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonHyun-jin Ryu is 28-15 with a 3.17 ERA in two seasons with the Dodgers.
SP: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers
Similar to Quintana, Ryu is another lefty with a full arsenal of pitches. Ryu throws strikes and limits home runs -- just 23 in 344 career innings in the majors. He missed some time late last year but returned to throw a strong game in the division series. The next step for him is to get up to 200 innings and prove he can be more of a workhorse behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

SP: Alex Cobb, Rays
With David Price gone, Cobb is now the undisputed ace of the Tampa Bay staff. Like Ryu, he just needs to remain healthy, as he has made 22 and 27 starts the past two seasons, although he posted a sub-3.00 ERA both years. With Cobb leading the way, Tampa Bay's young rotation is a good reason why the Rays could be the sleeper team to watch in 2015.

RP: Steve Cishek, Marlins
The sidearmer doesn't blow you away like many closers, but there's no questioning his effectiveness. In four seasons in the majors he owns a 2.65 ERA and has allowed just 10 home runs in 257 2/3 innings as he rarely throws anything above the knees.

RP: Tony Watson, Pirates
Our lefty reliever has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Pirates, going 10-2 with a 1.63 ERA in 2014 (and making the All-Star team). Lacking command when he first reached the majors, Watson walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings last season while setting a career high in strikeout rate. With a fastball that averages 94 mph, he's a power lefty who could end up a closer someday.
The recent Hall of Fame elections serve two important purposes. One, it's a chance to recognize the superstars of the recent past and how many memories Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio provided us. But the elections also serve as a reminder to remember those underappreciated players of the past, those who deserved better support in Hall of Fame voting.

So here's my all-time all-underrated team. It skews toward more recent decades, but these are the decades that players have failed to fairly represent in Cooperstown.

C: Ted Simmons (1968-1988)
Stats: .285/.348/.437, 248 HR, 1,389 RBI, 2,472 H
Career WAR: 50.1
Higher WAR than ... Ernie Lombardi, Roy Campanella, Ray Schalk

The Hall of Fame voters and Veterans Committee has drawn its line at Simmons. He ranks 10th in WAR among catchers; seven of the guys ahead of him are Hall of Famers and the other two are Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza. Only Yogi Berra drove in more runs. Simmons was a big name when he played -- he was an eight-time All-Star -- but a couple of factors worked against his historical standing: Johnny Bench was his contemporary and Simmons loses that comparison; he wasn't regarded as a strong defensive catcher while active although his career caught stealing rate of 34 percent is actually league average.

Runner-up: Bill Freehan. Perennial All-Star for the Tigers in the '60s.

1B: John Olerud (1989-2005)
Stats: .295/.398/.465, 255 HR, 1,230 RBI, 2,239 H
Career WAR: 58.0
Higher WAR than ... Bill Terry, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda

For all the talk this past week about Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado, Olerud was a better all-around player than either of those two, at least according to the advanced metrics. But first basemen are judged by power, and Olerud's 20 home runs per season and 255 career home runs didn't match up to the power numbers some of his contemporaries in the steroids era put up.

He made up for that with consistently high on-base percentages (six times over .400) and excellent defense (Baseball-Reference has him with the third-most fielding runs ever at first base, behind only Albert Pujols and Keith Hernandez). Olerud also had two monster MVP-caliber seasons with the Blue Jays in 1993 when he hit .363 and won the batting title and with the Mets in 1998 when he hit .354.

Runner-up: Will Clark. He could have hung around a few more years to build a stronger Hall of Fame case -- he hit .319/.418/.546 in his final season -- but instead retired. Of course, he was a pretty big star while active. But, like Olerud, he got booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year.

2B: Lou Whitaker (1977-1995)
Stats: .276/.363/.426, 244 HR, 1,084 RBI, 2,369 H
Career WAR: 74.9
Higher WAR than ... Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio

Whitaker's one-and-done status on the Hall of Fame ballot was pretty surprising considering his career numbers are very similar to Sandberg's, his 1980s National League counterpart who was elected on his third try. Whitaker didn't hit quite as many home runs as Sandberg but had a higher on-base percentage and was no slouch on defense, winning three Gold Gloves.

Whitaker has the highest career WAR of any player not in the Hall of Fame who isn't still on the ballot, not yet eligible, didn't bet on baseball and didn't play in the 1800s. So why the lack of respect? Well, the things Whitaker did are those things that make most of these players underrated: He drew walks, he played good defense, he had medium-range power (although pretty good for a second baseman).

Sandberg, by comparison, was certainly flashier than Whitaker -- more home runs, more steals, a better defensive reputation. And to be fair, Sandberg at his peak was better than Whitaker at his peak. Whitaker then had some very strong seasons at the end of his career when he was used as a platoon player, but nobody realized how good he still was because (A) he was being platooned, which held down some of his counting numbers; (B) the Tigers were terrible by then; and (C) Alomar had arrived and was the widely acclaimed new best second baseman in baseball.

Whitaker has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot. I suspect he'll remain a hard sell even then, since his consistent excellence is easy to overlook.

Runner-up: Bobby Grich. Put up excellent offensive numbers in the 1970s and early '80s -- walks, medium-range power -- when most middle infielders were inept at the plate. While not completely overlooked while active -- he made six All-Star teams and had two top-10 MVP finishes -- the fact that he didn't hit for a higher average in an era when that's what people paid attention to certainly made him underrated at the time.

3B: Graig Nettles (1967-1988)
Stats: .248/.329/.421, 390 HR, 1,314 RBI, 2,225 H
Career WAR: 68.0
Higher WAR than ... Home Run Baker, Pie Traynor, George Kell

As with Simmons, Nettles ranks 10th all time at his position in career WAR. Nettles was a superb defensive third baseman who played a long time and hit some home runs. Voters have always had trouble figuring out what to do with third basemen. Ron Santo had to get in the Hall of Fame through the back door. It will be interesting what happens with Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen, both in the top 10 in career WAR among third basemen, when they become eligible.

Nettles never had a chance at the Hall of Fame. Brooks Robinson had already secured the legacy of best defensive third baseman of all time, so it didn't matter how good Nettles was. He was actually Robinson's equal as an offensive player, just with a different scope: more power but a lower average. I'm not sure I'd advocate Nettles as a Hall of Famer -- he'd have lined up behind Rolen, Beltre and maybe Ken Boyer -- but he certainly had some Hall of Fame-caliber seasons.

Runner-up: Boyer. He peaked at 25 percent on the BBWAA ballot. He was on the recent Veterans Committee ballot but received fewer than three of the 16 votes -- fewer than Jim Kaat or Maury Wills, even though Boyer was a better player than either one.

[+] EnlargeAlan Trammell
USA TODAY Sports Alan Trammell played 20 years in the majors and had a career .352 on base percentage.
SS: Alan Trammell (1977-1996)
Stats: .285/.352/.415, 185 HR, 1,003 RBI, 2,365 H
Career WAR: 70.4
Higher WAR than ... Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, Luis Aparicio

Whitaker's long-time teammate is probably the stronger Hall of Fame candidate due to a higher peak level of play. I touched a bit on Trammell here. Trammell is eighth all time in WAR among shortstops, sandwiched between Derek Jeter and Larkin. The comparison to Larkin explains why Trammell is underrated: He had nearly exact career numbers but Larkin was elected to the Hall of Fame his third time on the ballot while Trammell has languished for 14 years. The weird thing is while Cal Ripken was certainly the star American League shortstop of the 1980s, it's not like Trammell wasn't recognized as one of the best players in the game at the time. But as soon as he retired, people forgot about him.

Runner-up: Arky Vaughan. He's actually in the Hall of Fame but this 1930s star remains one of the most unknown great players in the game's history.

LF: Jose Cruz Sr. (1970-1988)
Stats: .284/.354/.420, 165 HR, 1,077 RBI, 2,251 H
Career WAR: 54.2
Higher WAR than ... Ralph Kiner, Jim Rice, Lou Brock

Yes, Tim Raines could go here as well, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him finally get elected to Cooperstown in his final two years on the ballot. As for Cruz, it took a while for his career to get going -- he didn't have his breakout season until he was 28 -- but he was a tremendous player for a long time with the Astros. It was impossible to hit home runs in the Astrodome back then -- one year, Cruz hit 12 home runs on the road and none at home -- so Cruz didn't have big power numbers. But he hit .300 six times, drew walks and stole as many as 44 bases in a season (1977). He had three top-eight MVP votes, but if he'd come up in the 1990s instead of the '70s and played in a different park, he could have been a 3,000-hit guy.

Runner-up: Minnie Minoso. He should be in the Hall of Fame.

CF: Kenny Lofton (1991-2007)
Stats: .299/.372/.423, 622 SB, 1,528 R, 2,428 H
Career WAR: 68.2
Higher WAR than ... Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Kirby Puckett

Here's something that may shock you: Among players who played at least 50 percent of their career games in center field since 1901, Lofton ranks seventh in all-time WAR, behind only the legends -- Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe DiMaggio. But he was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot. I'd say that makes him underrated.

Runner-up: Bernie Williams? Hard for a Yankee to be underrated, but the crowded ballot bumped him off on his second try in 2013. Borderline Hall of Famer at best, but usually players on great teams have a better shot at getting elected.

RF: Dwight Evans (1972-1991)
Stats: .272/.370/.470, 385 HR, 1,384 RBI, 2,446 H
Career WAR: 66.9
Higher WAR than ... Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, Vladimir Guerrero

And certainly higher than Rice, his Red Sox teammate. He was better in his 30s than in his 20s and, like others here, was good at some of the unrecognized things like getting on base and drawing walks. He hit more home runs than Rice and his OBP is 18 points higher even though Rice hit .298 versus Evans' .272. Would love to see him get on a Veterans Committee ballot one of these years.

Runner-up: Bobby Bonds. Not as good as his son, Barry, and not quite a Hall of Famer, but his career WAR is in the top 20 all time among right fielders.

P: Kevin Brown (1986-2005)
Stats: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 3,256 IP, 3,079 H, 2,397 SO
Career WAR: 68.5
Higher WAR than ... Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell, John Smoltz

But he didn't spend three years as a closer! From 1996 through 2001, in the midst of the steroid era, Brown posted a 2.53 ERA. And he had a 2.39 ERA in 2003. And a 21-win season in 1992. He certainly deserved to get more of a hearing from the voters than one ballot.

Runner-up: Rick Reuschel. Played for a lot of bad and mediocre Cubs teams in the '70s, otherwise would have won more than 214 games.
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.

Defensive storylines of the offseason: NL

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
10:15
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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.

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