SweetSpot: Oakland Athletics

After looking at which players not on a 40-man roster have been invited to spring training in the AL East and AL Central, here's a look at the AL West. We'll do the National League on Friday.

AstrosHouston Astros

I don't quite get the hype about Mark Appel as a top prospect. As a polished, four-year college guy who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2014, he should have blown away minor leaguers. His numbers at Class A Lancaster were embarrassing (9.74 ERA), and while he pitched better after a controversial call-up to Double-A, label me a skeptic. ... Roberto Hernandez had a 4.10 ERA for the Phillies and Dodgers last year. He's battling Brett Oberholtzer, Dan Straily and Brad Peacock for the final two spots in the rotation. ... Joe Thatcher has had success as a LOOGY in the past. ... Carlos Correa, No. 3 on Keith Law's top 100 prospects, is ready for spring training after fracturing his fibula last June. He'll get a quick look in the major league camp before going back down. ... Veteran 4-A first baseman Dan Johnson is still hanging around at age 35. ... Right-hander James Hoyt struck out 77 in 59 innings in the Braves' system a year ago.

AngelsLos Angeles Angels

Not too much interest here, as the Angels already look pretty set. Mark Krauss got some time with the Astros the past two seasons but hit .200 as a left fielder/first baseman. ... Matt Lindstrom was with the White Sox last year but wasn't too effective. His fastball velocity was down to 93 mph, a far cry from the days he touched 100. ... Alex Yarbrough is supposedly a prospect -- and the Angels need a second baseman -- but he struck out 124 times while drawing just 33 walks and hitting five home runs in Double-A. ... I had no idea that outfielder Alfredo Marte had 114 plate appearances with the Diamondbacks last year. Maybe because he hit .170 with a .221 OBP.

AthleticsOakland Athletics

The A's don't yet list Barry Zito as an invitee on their website, but it was reported a couple of days ago that he signed a minor league deal. He's reportedly back up to 88 mph and has altered his mechanics a bit as well. He took all of last year off after posting a 5.74 ERA with the Giants in 2013. He's 36 and never relied on big velocity, so I guess you never know. ... Pat Venditte is listed as a left-handed pitcher but actually pitches with both arms. No, really. He had a 3.36 ERA with the Yankees' Triple-A club in 2014, so it's not impossible that he gets called up at some point. ... Billy Beane spent the offseason adding depth to his 40-man roster, so there's not much of an opportunity for non-roster guys to make the club.

MarinersSeattle Mariners

Yep, he's back: Franklin Gutierrez sat out all of 2014 after a relapse of the gastrointestinal issues that bothered him in 2013. Plus, he's had other injuries. He did hit 10 home runs in 145 at-bats in 2013. ... Yep, he's back, too: Endy Chavez actually had a non-horrible season for the Mariners last year, hitting .276/.317/.371 in 80 games. He's squeezed out for now by the acquisitions of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano, but he'll no doubt surface at some point, especially if Austin Jackson has forgotten how to hit. ... Prospect D.J. Peterson probably gets a long look in spring training as he's a possible midseason call-up if he continues bashing in the minors. ... John Baker is around to provide catching depth.

RangersTexas Rangers

Go watch Joey Gallo take some BP. After bashing 42 home runs in the minors and reaching Double-A, he could be in line for a late-season promotion. ... I suppose veteran Ryan Ludwick has a chance to stick as a platoon left fielder/DH. ... Nate Schierholtz has been a solid fourth outfielder at times during his career but hit just .195 last season with the Cubs and Nationals. ... Jamey Wright is now 40 and is potential back-of-the-bullpen fodder after a 4.35 ERA with the Dodgers in 2014. ... Juan Carlos Oviedo is the guy who spent three years as the Marlins' closer when he was known as Leo Nunez. He pitched 31.2 innings with Tampa last year, with uninspiring results. ... Outfielder/DH Carlos Peguero has huge raw power (30 home runs at Omaha) but too much swing-and-miss. ... Kyle Blanks is also here. Looks as though a lot of agents directed their left field/DH types to the Rangers.
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I know, I know. With Jason Giambi it's hard to ignore the guy once looked like this and then, a few years later, looked like this.

That Sports Illustrated cover was dated July 17, 2000, and heralded "The New Face of Baseball: How the Home Run Has Changed the Game."

Ahh, more innocent times.

Five years later, in the same magazine, Gary Smith was writing less nostalgic about an era we were still trying to understand.
"When that magical summer of '98 ended I went home, put all these photographs into an album, etched captions beneath them so that one day someone else would understand the significance of what I'd seen and felt ... then sealed my moments beneath protective plastic so they'd never be smudged. ...

"My eyes shift to the other faces in the snapshot. Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?"


What do we do? Here's what baseball did. It forgave. Maybe not Barry Bonds. He was unable to find a job after posting a .480 OBP in his final season. Nobody wanted to give work to a guy with a .480 OBP? But the others? Mark McGwire has coached for the Cardinals and now the Dodgers. Jason Giambi, the new face of baseball, was so beloved and admired in clubhouses that he found work until he was 43 years old and hitting under .200. The Colorado Rockies interviewed him for their managerial opening two offseasons ago, when he was still an active player. After Giambi announced his retirement on Monday, Indians president Mark Shapiro tweeted, "An honor to have had G in the Tribe. A generous, wise spirit with so much to offer. True pro."

Many of the writers, of course, haven't moved on. Bonds, McGwire, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa have been voted down on their Hall of Fame candidacies.

Giambi isn't a Hall of Fame candidate on their level (50.8 career WAR, similar to guys like Fred McGriff and Lance Berkman), but he sort of stands alongside that group as the face of a generation. From 1999 to 2002, he had a four-year run that rivaled that of just about any first baseman in baseball history, hitting .326/.452/.612 while averaging 39 home runs, 126 RBIs and 120 walks per season. He won the 2000 MVP Award -- that was the year he hit .396 in September with 13 home runs and 32 RBIs as he carried the A's to the AL West division title. The next year, he finished second in the MVP voting.

He signed with the Yankees in 2002, testified before the BALCO grand jury in December 2003, admitting to using steroids, and then had some more good years -- although his 2004 season was derailed by a mysterious intestinal parasite and you wonder if he'd been healthy that year and played in the postseason whether Boston's magic ride to a World Series title would have happened.

When he testified before the grand jury, he was asked whether he'd still be using steroids if not for the investigation. "I didn't actually notice a huge difference, to be honest with you," Giambi said. "I, of course, got injured this year. So that's not a fair assessment, either. Maybe, yes, no, I don’t know."

The truth is that Giambi's numbers did decline once baseball starting testing for PEDs, whether it was due to the fact he quit using or the natural decline of age. In 2003, he hit 41 home runs and led the American League in walks for the third time, but hit just .250. Then came the lost 2004 season. In 2005, he hit .271 with 32 home runs, but again led the AL in walks and on-base percentage. Giambi was a smart hitter. He never seemed to get enough credit for that. That's why the Rockies and Indians kept him around at the end of his career, as a mentor for younger players. Even when he was no longer hitting .300, he was still producing runs with his power and on-base ability. He hit 37 home runs and drove in 113 runs in 2006. He played two more years in New York after that; the Yankees never won a World Series with him -- they won the year after he left -- and I don't think they'll be retiring his uniform number.

I view Giambi as a product of his generation. He was allowed to get away with it. The road down from my house is a two-lane back road that winds through trees. There are no sidewalks, not much room on the sides. People walk their dogs or ride bikes along it. The speed limit is 35, but nobody drives 35. They go 50, 60 mph -- there are no speed bumps, no policing. They can get away with it, so they do.

That was the Giambi generation. You can choose to hate and throw the memories away and pretend it never existed. I'm sure A's fans will choose to remember that wet, greased hair that we'd see whenever he removed his helmet after a home run, the high fives in the dugout, that monster September in 2000. The good memories.

Ranking the teams: 18 through 13

February, 11, 2015
Feb 11
11:28
AM ET
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It's the third day of pre-spring training power rankings! We're getting to the serious playoff contenders now, teams that have more depth and few question marks. But I know fans of a couple of the teams below aren't going to agree with the ranking. But that's why we do this. Get those debates going.

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

A's18. Oakland Athletics

Big offseason moves: I'm trying to remember if the A's made any transactions ... traded 3B Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for 3B Brett Lawrie, LHP Sean Nolin, RHP Kendall Graveman and SS Franklin Barreto; acquired 1B Ike Davis from the Pirates; traded RHP Jeff Samardzija and RHP Michael Ynoa to the White Sox for SS Marcus Semien, RHP Chris Bassitt, C Josh Phegley and 1B Rangel Ravelo; signed DH Billy Butler; traded 1B/OF Brandon Moss to the Indians for 2B Joe Wendle; acquired RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP R.J. Alvarez from the Padres for C Derek Norris and RHP Seth Streich; acquired 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar from the Rays for SS Daniel Robertson, C/DH John Jaso and OF Boog Powell; traded Escobar to the Nationals for RHP Tyler Clippard; lost Jon Lester, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, Jason Hammel, Jonny Gomes and Geovany Soto via free agency; released Nick Punto, which probably doesn't qualify as a big offseason move.

Most intriguing player: Billy Beane certainly remains the most intriguing player in this organization after that frenetic offseason makeover.

Due for a better year: The A's traded for Lawrie certainly hoping he has a better year. The third baseman hasn't been able to stay healthy in his three seasons in the majors, going from 125 games played to 105 to 70. It's worth noting that he has hit much better in Toronto in his career than on the road -- .815 OPS versus .683.

Due for a worse year: Scott Kazmir went 15-9 with a 3.55 ERA in pitching his most innings since 2007, but also faded down the stretch. Can he stay healthy and remain productive again for 30-plus starts?

I'm just the messenger: The A's traded away their most valuable player in Donaldson and have lost essentially one ace-level of production in Lester and Samardzija (who made 27 starts for the A's). Their top three home run hitters from 2014 -- Donaldson, Moss and Yoenis Cespedes -- are gone and they hit 71 of the team's 146 home runs. A's catchers also ranked third in the majors in wOBA in 2014 and now they're counting on Stephen Vogt, who underwent foot surgery in the offseason, and Phegley, who was blown away at the major league level in 2013. The Butler signing was curious, especially because he was bad last season. On the other hand, Zobrist is a definite upgrade over Eric Sogard.

The final word: I touched on the A's last week when I wrote my A's-Giants comparison. The projection systems are actually pretty optimistic about the A's and while they do have nice depth across their 40-man roster, I worry about the power and run scoring and the rotation if Kazmir doesn't have a strong season. I'm predicting a record under .500 in a tough AL West, although it wouldn't surprise me if A's surprise us. They usually do.

Prediction: 79-83


A's17. Kansas City Royals

Big offseason moves: Lost RHP James Shields, DH Billy Butler and OF Norichika Aoki via free agency; signed RHP Edinson Volquez; signed DH Kendrys Morales; signed RF Alex Rios; re-signed RHPs Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar; traded RHP Aaron Crow to the Marlins; signed RHP Kris Medlen.

Most intriguing player: Yordano Ventura. Now that Shields has departed, Ventura assumes the role of staff ace. How he fares after a pretty sizable workload as a rookie will be a big test.

Due for a better year: Eric Hosmer. He hit .351/.439/.544 in 16 postseason games, looking like the star everyone projected after his strong rookie season in 2011. Did he simply get hot for a few games? After all, he had just two doubles and no home runs over his final 11 postseason games. Anyway, he had just nine home runs in 2014. He's at least capable of rebounding to his 2013 numbers when he hit .302/.353/.448.

Due for a worse year: Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera will once again be a formidable trio, but do they go 14-8 with a 1.28 ERA and just three home runs allowed in 204.3 innings?

I'm just the messenger: Yes, the Royals struck out the fewest times in the American League. They also hit the fewest home runs and drew the fewest walks and managed to finish ninth in runs scored. Yes, the speed and baserunning helped a bit there, but it's tough to have a consistent offense that's built around batting average. The Royals will need real improvement from some position players to avoid an offensive decline.

The final word: No team had a less stimulating offseason than the Royals. They lost Shields and replaced him with Volquez, who was worth 2.5 WAR for the Pirates last year but minus-2.5 WAR from 2010 through 2013. They lost fan favorite Butler because they didn't want to pick up his $12.5 million option but then signed Morales -- who was even worse than Butler in 2014 -- for $17 million over two years. They lost Aoki but signed Rios -- who was awful in 2014. Is this any way to follow up your first playoff trip in 29 years? Shame on you, David Glass.

Prediction: 80-82

Padres16. San Diego Padres

Big offseason moves: Named A.J. Preller general manager; acquired OF Matt Kemp and C Tim Federowicz from the Dodgers C Yasmani Grandal, RHP Joe Wieland and RHP Zach Eflin; acquired OF Justin Upton from the Braves for four minor leaguers; signed RHP James Shields; acquired OF Wil Myers, C Ryan Hanigan and two minor leaguers from the Rays for C Rene Rivera, RHP Joe Ross, RHP Burch Smith and 1B Jake Bauers as part of a three-team deal; acquired C Derek Norris and RHP Seth Streich from the A's for RHP Jesse Hahn and RHP R.J. Alvarez; traded Hanigan to the Red Sox for 3B Will Middlebrooks; traded OF Seth Smith to the Mariners for RHP Brandon Maurer; signed RHPs Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow; signed SS Clint Barmes; the only thing they didn't do was bring back the old brown uniforms.

Most intriguing player: I'm going with Kemp. Was his strong second-half performance with the Dodgers a sign that he's finally healthy from shoulder, foot and ankle injuries? Will he be extra motivated after getting traded to a division rival? Will he hit in Petco Park (he actually has a higher career OPS there than at Dodger Stadium)? How will he do on defense?

Due for a better year: Myers. He was hurt and unproductive as a sophomore, hitting a woeful .222/.294/.320. The Padres will be expecting at least 50 more points of OBP and 150 points of slugging.

Due for a worse year: I'll take the over on Joaquin Benoit posting a 1.49 ERA and I'd be wary about Tyson Ross posting a 2.81 over 195 innings again.

I'm just the messenger: A quick little study. The projected outfield of Upton, Myers and Kemp is going to be shaky defensively unless Myers adapts to center and Kemp finds his 25-year-old legs. How the teams with the five worst defensive outfields (via defensive runs saved) have fared over the past three seasons:

2014
Twins (-50) -- 70-92
Indians (-37) -- 85-77
Tigers (-33) -- 90-72
Phillies (-27) -- 73-89
Dodgers (-25) -- 94-68
Cubs (-25) -- 73-89

2013
Mariners (-70) -- 71-91
Phillies (-46) -- 73-89
Twins (-35) -- 66-96
Astros (-32) -- 51-111
Rockies (-30) -- 74-88

2012
Mets (-35) -- 74-88
Orioles (-23) -- 93-69
Marlins (-21) -- 69-93
Nationals (-20) -- 98-64
Cubs (-19) -- 61-101

Average record: 76-86.

SportsNation

How many games do the Padres win?

  •  
    6%
  •  
    16%
  •  
    35%
  •  
    31%
  •  
    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 15,751)

This isn't proof of anything. For one thing, we don't know if the Padres' outfield will be bad defensively, although there certainly are reasons to expect it will be bad as opposed to good. Plus, a quarter of the 16 teams did win 90 games, so outfield defense is hardly the defining force to a team's win-loss record. But it can be an important element and it's a reason to be concerned.

The final word: Everybody's excited about the Padres. I'm excited about the Padres. That's good and I hope they're in the playoff race all season. The Shields signing was big, giving them an innings eater and extending the depth of the rotation. But right now the infield looks like a mess, even if Jedd Gyorko bounces back, and you have to worry about the injury histories of Ross and Andrew Cashner. My prediction is certainly on the low end but if the rotation stays healthy or they get surprise contributions from guys such as Morrow or Johnson, 90 wins is certainly possible.

Prediction: 80-82


Astros15. Houston Astros

Big offseason moves: Hired A.J. Hinch as manager; signed SS Jed Lowrie and RHPs Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek; acquired 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily from the Cubs for CF Dexter Fowler; acquired C Evan Gattis and RHP James Hoyt from the Braves for RHP Michael Foltynewicz, 3B Rio Ruiz and RHP Andrew Thurman; signed OF Colby Rasmus.

Most intriguing player: George Springer. I had him in this spot last year and put him here again. Breakout potential remains large. Note: Most fun player remains Jose Altuve.

Due for a better year: The bullpen. Gregerson and Neshek should help a pen that had the worst ERA in the majors and the second-most blown saves.

Due for a worse year: Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh are the logical candidates, although I like both pitchers to come close to their 2014 results.

I'm just the messenger: There's an obvious concern here: It's Altuve and a Costco warehouse of strikeouts. Springer, Chris Carter and Gattis may combine for 90 home runs and nearly 600 strikeouts, which could push the lineup into prolonged slumps of whiffs and scoreless innings.

The final word: I like the Astros more than most -- calling them the surprise team of 2015 -- and pointed out that they had the worst production in the majors last year at first base, third base and left field. So improvement at those positions will be vital. Yes, a lot is riding on Keuchel and McHugh to be very good again but I believe they will be. The Astros' plan is coming together, augmented with some free-agent signings, and they're going to be competitive for the first time in years.

Prediction: 83-79


Tigers14. Detroit Tigers

Big offseason moves: Lost RHP Max Scherzer via free agency; re-signed DH Victor Martinez; acquired OF Yoenis Cespedes from the Red Sox for RHP Rick Porcello; acquired RHP Alfredo Simon from the Reds for SS Eugenio Suarez and RHP Jonathon Crawford; acquired CF Anthony Gose from the Blue Jays for 2B Devon Travis; acquired RHP Shane Greene from the Yankees.

Most intriguing player: Justin Verlander. There were 149 pitchers in 2014 who threw at least 100 innings; Verlander ranked 126th in ERA. Career crisis or just a bad season after surgery on his core muscles last offseason? While he had a 4.54 ERA, he had a 3.74 FIP, suggesting his peripherals were still solid, if not Verlander-esque. On the other hand, his strikeout rate was way down and he was 135th out of those 149 pitches in OPS allowed in hitters' counts. Does the stuff come back?

Due for a better year: Well, Jose Iglesias is penciled in as the starting shortstop after missing all of 2014. The Tigers were last in the majors in wOBA from their shortstops, so as long he plays good defense the Tigers will be happy.

Due for a worse year: Victor Martinez had the best season of his career with a .974 OPS -- just the second time he's topped .900. At 36, he wasn't a good bet to hit .335 with 32 home runs again, and that was before the knee injury he suffered last week.

I'm just the messenger: Well ... 27th in bullpen ERA in 2014; 24th in bullpen ERA in 2013; 18th in bullpen ERA in 2012; 25th in bullpen ERA in 2011. "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." Edmund Burke. Or was that Dave Dombrowski? I forget.

SportsNation

How many games do the Tigers win?

  •  
    8%
  •  
    19%
  •  
    38%
  •  
    28%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 16,927)

The final word: The Tigers have won four straight AL Central titles and they'll be the favorites to capture a fifth. It's easy to see the arguments: David Price essentially replaces Scherzer, Verlander bounces back, Cespedes adds even more power, Simon replaces Porcello, even Miguel Cabrera is capable of better numbers. OK, the bullpen is shaky, but that hasn't prevented the Tigers from winning the division in the past. This is still a team that will score runs and have a good-to-great rotation. Maybe ... but I see the Tigers' window starting to close this year. There's more competition in the division, I have some doubts about Verlander and now Martinez, Simon isn't as good as Porcello was last year and the bullpen will hurt the team. At least, that's what I'm predicting.

Prediction: 83-79

Cubs13. Chicago Cubs

Big offseason moves: Hired Joe Maddon as manager; signed free-agent LHP Jon Lester; signed RHP Jason Hammel; acquired C Miguel Montero from the Diamondbacks for RHP Jeferson Mejia and RHP Zack Godley; traded OF Justin Ruggiano to the Mariners for RHP Matt Brazis; acquired CF Dexter Fowler from the Astros for 3B Luis Valbuena and RHP Dan Straily; signed OF Chris Denorfia.

Most intriguing player: Rookie third baseman Kris Bryant likely spends a few weeks in the minors to save the Cubs on service time, but there's a reason he's the No. 1 prospect in baseball. He and Anthony Rizzo are going to be a dominant 3-4 combination for years to come ... and maybe as soon as 2015.

Due for a better year: Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara both struggled in their rookie seasons, Baez with a .227 OBP and a season's worth of strikeouts in 52 games and Alcantara with a .254 OBP and a strikeout rate nearly as absurd. Alcantara was slated to be the Cubs' utility guy, playing both outfield and infield, but the acquisition of Fowler means he could battle Baez for the starting job at second base.

Due for a worse year: Kyle Hendricks went 7-2 with a 2.46 ERA in 13 starts down the stretch. He doesn't throw hard or strike out a lot of batters as he relies on an upper-80s sinker. The projection systems see a guy with an ERA around 4.00 -- that low K rate -- and while I like him, it's likely his ERA rises a run or so.

SportsNation

Do the Cubs make the playoffs?

  •  
    54%
  •  
    34%
  •  
    12%

Discuss (Total votes: 30,292)

I'm just the messenger: Just pointing out that Lester had a 4.82 ERA in 2012 and 3.75 in 2013. Yes, big 2014, new league, no DH and more cutters instead of four-seamers and he could be even better. But you never know. He may not be as good as he was last year. And then there's Jake Arrieta, former faded prospect turned rotation anchor. He looks like the real deal but ... again ... you never know. Hey, I'm trying. I like the Cubs! I have them ranked 13th!

The final word: If I had more guts I'd predict them to win the division, but they have two strong clubs ahead of them and even the Brewers or Reds are capable of 90 wins. The Cubs are still sorting a few things out and waiting for some of the young guys to mature. Sometimes, teams do break through right away; if Bryant and Jorge Soler are 3-4 win players as rookies and Lester and Arrieta throw 400-plus innings of great baseball, the Cubs could be the big surprise of 2015.

Prediction: 84-78
One team won 88 games and had a colossal disaster of a season. The other team won 88 games and became a dynasty.

There is no love lost between the rich-kid Giants and their ballpark on the cove and the poor A's from the wrong side of the tracks with their stadium that smells of sewage.

But which club will be better in 2015?

Catcher: Josh Phegley/Stephen Vogt versus Buster Posey

Let's move on.

Edge: Giants

First base: Ike Davis versus Brandon Belt

SportsNation

Who will have the better season in 2015?

  •  
    81%
  •  
    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,403)

I've remained a believer in Belt and I think we need to dismiss his injury-riddled 2014. He hit .289/.360/.481 in 2013 and I think he'll do that again, with maybe a slight uptick. Davis was an interesting buy-low acquisition for the A's, although it seems most people have lost interest in him by now. At worst, he'll at least post a respectable OBP in a platoon role and maybe he finds some of that power from 2012, when he hit 32 home runs for the Mets.

Edge: Giants.

Second base: Ben Zobrist versus Joe Panik

Let's pencil Zobrist in here, although he'll likely play some shortstop and outfield as needed. Look, I know Panik had a nice rookie debut, hitting .305 and making some key defensive plays in the postseason. But he has to hit .305 to be a useful player. He doesn't have any power. He didn't steal a base in 73 games. He didn't walk much. The Steamer projection system has him hitting .255; ZiPS projects .264. Maybe the projection systems are wrong and he can come close to a .343 BABIP again.

Edge: A's.

Third base: Brett Lawrie versus Casey McGehee

Both teams have new third basemen and I know which one I don't like. McGehee drove in 76 runs for the Marlins and drew a lot of praise for that because too much attention is still given to RBIs. He started 127 games of his 160 games in the cleanup spot; of course he knocked in 76 runs. It's not that hard to do hitting cleanup. He still hit just four home runs. He grounded into 31 double plays. He doesn't have much range at third. Look, Pablo Sandoval wasn't exactly Mike Schmidt -- well, at least in the regular season -- but McGehee hit .223 in 2011 and .217 in 2012. There's a good chance the Giants are looking for a new third baseman by July.

Edge: A's.

Shortstop: Marcus Semien versus Brandon Crawford

Watch This, or this.

Edge: Giants.

Left field: Sam Fuld/Craig Gentry versus Gregor Blanco/Norichika Aoki

Whatever happened to the classic left fielder? You know, statue-like defense, 30-homer power, growls at reporters and complains when he gets moved down to fifth in the order? Both teams have defense-first left fielders. The A's have a natural left/right platoon while the Giants have two lefties who actually hit lefties pretty well last year. The Giants had Mike Morse sharing time with Blanco in left field in 2014, but his defense was so bad I don't think the Giants will miss all that much.

Edge: Giants. Although I can't say I'd be willing to argue anyone over this.

Center field: Coco Crisp versus Angel Pagan

This is all about Pagan's back surgery and if he'll be good to go. When he rejoined the Giants as a spectator during the World Series following surgery, he said he wasn't in pain and would be ready to go for spring training. But he's also 33 and you have to wonder how he'll hold up and if he'll still have the range to play center. But Crisp had his own health issues last season, playing through a neck injury (and also hurting his hamstring in the wild-card game). He's 35. They're similar players with near identical projections.

Edge: Athletics. Only because Pagan seems a little more of an unknown.

Right field: Josh Reddick versus Hunter Pence

It's Hunter Pence's world and we all just live in it.

Edge: Giants.

Bench

Of course, we've listed a lot of the Oakland bench players already. Really, it's the depth that Billy Beane is counting on more than anything to give his club a good offense, sort of a sum greater than its parts. Zobrist, Lawrie and Reddick and designated hitter Billy Butler are the four guys you can pencil in every day; the other five will be a rotating cast of platoons.

The Giants' bench has been an issue in recent years, although Travis Ishikawa and Blanco stepped up in the 2014 playoffs. This could be their best bench in years. Andrew Susac projects as a solid backup catcher, allowing Posey to take some days off from catching and play first base or DH in games in American League parks. Aoki will play some left, allowing Blanco to move over to center for Pagan from time to time. Infielder Matt Duffy doesn't have any power, but he hit .332 in Double-A.

Edge: Athletics.

No. 1 starter: Sonny Gray versus Madison Bumgarner

Just throwing this out there*:

Baseball-Reference WAR: Bumgarner 3.6, Gray 3.5
FanGraphs WAR: Bumgarner 3.6, Gray 3.3

* Does not include postseason.

Edge: Giants.

No. 2 starter: Scott Kazmir versus Matt Cain

SportsNation

Who will have the better season in 2015?

  •  
    63%
  •  
    37%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,853)

These two guys will be huge keys for both teams. Cain made 15 starts last year before getting his elbow cleaned up. He's a combined 10-17 with a 4.06 ERA the past two seasons and while he's just 30, he's logged a lot of major league innings at a young age and you wonder if his best days are behind him.

The good news for Kazmir is that he made his most starts (32) and pitched his most innings (190.1) since 2007 last year. He certainly appeared to tire as the season wore on: 11-3, 2.38 in the first half with 108 strikeouts and 27 walks versus second-half numbers of 4-6, 5.42, 56/23.

When evaluating the Giants' rotation, you have to keep in mind the big benefits their pitchers get from AT&T Park. Check out the home/road splits of their rotation over the past five years:

Home: 3.38
Road: 4.09

Of course, Oakland is also a pitcher's park, although not as extreme.

Anyway, I'll take Kazmir for 2015.

Edge: Athletics.

No. 3 starter: Jesse Chavez versus Tim Hudson

I'll pencil in Chavez as the No. 3 guy for Oakland right now, although it wouldn't surprise if ends up back in the pen or in a hybrid role. He started off strong last year, but tired and was eventually moved to a relief role after the club acquired Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. He has a five-pitch arsenal and while none of his pitches rates as a big plus by themselves, he's learned to move the ball around and his cutter and changeup actually made him more effective against left-handers in 2014.

Hudson turns 40 in July, but the active career leader with 214 wins keeps rolling along, posting a 3.57 ERA last year. Like Kazmir, he hit the wall in September (0-4, 8.72) although he did have a good start against the Nationals in the Division Series. The Giants would probably be wise to limit him to 25 starts instead of 30-plus -- and having Yusmeiro Petit provides them that luxury.

Edge: Giants.

No. 4/5 starters: Drew Pomeranz/Jesse Hahn/others versus Jake Peavy/Tim Lincecum/Ryan Vogelsong

I have no idea who ends up here for the A's, but they have depth to get excellent production from the back end of the rotation. Pomeranz had a 2.35 ERA in 69 innings last year, although he had a 3.77 FIP, so the ERA was a little lucky. But he was a good find for Oakland, a young lefty with a good arm who just needed to get out of Colorado. I liked the Hahn pickup from San Diego for Derek Norris; he's a big righty with mid-rotation stuff but is a wild card as he was often injured in the minors. Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin, acquired in the Josh Donaldson trade with the Blue Jays, could also get starts here and Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin could be ready by midseason from their Tommy John surgeries.

The Giants re-signed Peavy and Vogelsong, which tells me that Lincecum isn't a lock for the rotation. And he shouldn't be, not with a 4.76 ERA the past three seasons -- 5.55 on the road.

Edge: Athletics.

Bullpen

This is pretty even: The A's had a 2.91 ERA last year and added Tyler Clippard from the Nationals (while losing Luke Gregerson); the Giants had a 3.01 ERA and bring everyone back. Considering the rapid turnover of most bullpens, it's amazing how long Bruce Bochy has been able to stick with his core group of Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez. Petit and Jean Machi provide depth.

Edge: Giants. If only because A's closer Sean Doolittle is questionable for Opening Day with a rotator cuff injury.

SportsNation

Which team wins more games in 2015?

  •  
    42%
  •  
    58%

Discuss (Total votes: 38,997)

The projection system at FanGraphs likes the A's at 84 wins, the Giants at 83. Beane has built a team that lacks star power on paper but makes up for it with 25-man roster depth. Maybe that will be enough, but there are a lot of moving parts here and I think they're going to miss Donaldson's bat and glove and I don't see the outfield providing enough offense. Gray, if not already an ace is close to one, and the rotation has a chance to be sneaky good, but it could also collapse if Kazmir doesn't produce and the young guys don't come through.

The Giants have the big names: MadBum, Posey, Pence. Losing Sandoval will hurt, not so much that he was a big star but that I didn't like the McGehee acquisition. There's no power beyond Posey, Pence and perhaps Belt and while they've proven they can win without home runs, it certainly makes things more difficult. In the end, I see a team that won 88 games last year, but didn't improve itself in the offseason.

The A's are in a tough division. While I wouldn't be shocked to see them win it, I'm not quite as optimistic as the projection system and see them finishing with 79 wins. I have the Giants dropping a few wins to 85 ... and missing the playoffs.
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.



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

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


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

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

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

The great thing about this: There's no "correct" answer. So we can keep arguing. All I know, as Giants fans like to point out, is that they have three rings to wear.
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After the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, I wrote a post titled "Baseball's imperfect dynasty." Within that post, I asked readers if they considered the Giants a dynasty and 84 percent said yes.

So if the Giants are a dynasty, where do they rank among baseball's other dynasties? They became just the ninth team to win three World Series in a five-year span. Many of baseball's greatest franchises never accomplished that feat: The Big Red Machine of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose won back-to-back titles but not three in five years; the great Orioles teams of the late '60s and early '70s won in 1966 and 1970 but lost World Series in 1969 and 1971; the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale Dodgers won two titles in the '60s (and another in 1959, before Koufax became KOUFAX); the Braves of the '90s and early 2000s appeared in 14 consecutive postseasons but won just one World Series. Those teams certainly qualify as dynasties in my book, but we'll leave them to another discussion.

Let's compare the Giants to the other eight three-in-five dynasties. The table below lists each franchise's overall record during that five-year span, World Series titles, their place in the standings compared to all teams in the majors over those five years, their postseason record, cumulative pitching and position player WAR over five years via FanGraphs (with overall MLB rank in parenthesis) and wRC+, an offense-only measure that is park-adjusted.



Notice how these dynasties tend to be built more around the position players than the pitchers. Even the Giants, regarded as a team with a strong pitching staff, rank only 19th in pitching WAR in the majors over these past five years. That total is dragged down a bit by a poor 2013 season when the team finished under .500, but while the 2010 champions were built around a stellar rotation, the Giants have had a solid offense and excellent defense through the years, with some of that offense masked due to playing in a pitcher-friendly AT&T Park.

The Giants are 20 wins behind the best team in baseball over the past five seasons (the Yankees have the most wins) and certainly have the worst winning percentage by a large margin, but note that they aren't the only dynasty not to have the most wins. The 1996-2000 Yankees were 14 wins behind the Braves and the 1971-75 A's were three wins behind the Reds. Even the 1949-53 Yankees were just three wins ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yes, the Giants' overall winning percentage is well behind the others', but we're also in an age of parity. It's much more difficult to win 100 games than it was even in the late '90s.

Anyway, let's take a quick look at each dynasty and then we'll rank them at the end.

Giants2010-2014 Giants
Potential Hall of Famers: Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner
Other key players: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford
Best player: Posey (23.3 WAR)
Best pitcher: Bumgarner (15.0 WAR)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Six position players, zero pitchers
Manager: Bruce Bochy

The most impressive thing about the Giants is their postseason record of 34-14 -- that's a 115-win pace over 162 games. And they've done it with a significant amount of roster turnover through the years. Really, only Posey, Bumgarner, Sandoval and some of the relievers were key contributors on all three teams.

The postseason grind of modern baseball works two ways: You have to win more series but you also can benefit from playing a weaker opponent if playoff upsets occur. That's certainly been the case with the Giants in the World Series, as they defeated the 2010 Rangers (90-72), 2012 Tigers (88-74) and 2014 Royals (89-73). Hey, you can only play the hand you're dealt.

The secret weapon for the Giants in the postseason has been their bullpen, which has gone 13-2 with a 2.42 ERA. You may remember Bumgarner's Game 7 performance a couple months ago.



Yankees1996-2000 Yankees
Hall of Famers: Wade Boggs
Potential Hall of Famers: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Tim Raines
Other key players: David Cone, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, Jorge Posada, Scott Brosius
Best player: Jeter (28.3 WAR), Williams (25.3)
Best pitcher: Pettitte (22.3 WAR), Cone (17.7), Rivera (17.5)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 10 position players, five pitchers
Manager: Joe Torre

Like the Giants, the Yankees had a remarkable postseason winning percentage in their five years -- a 122-win pace over 162 games. The only postseason series they lost was to the Indians in the 1997 Division Series.

The Yankees ranked third in pitching and sixth in position players. Some of the rotation changed -- Jimmy Key was replaced by David Wells in 1997 and then Clemens replaced Wells in 1999; El Duque joined in 1998 -- but the Yankees always had solid pitching in an era when few teams did. Jeter, Williams, O'Neill and Martinez were the stalwarts in the offense. The Yankees didn't win a single MVP or Cy Young Award in these five years, a testament to the depth of the entire roster.



A's1971-75 A's
Hall of Famers: Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers
Other key players: Vida Blue, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Ken Holtzman, Gene Tenace, Bill North
Best player: Jackson (32.2 WAR), Bando (27.0), Campaneris (21.7)
Best pitcher: Blue (18.5), Hunter (17.0)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 15 position players, three pitchers
Manager: Dick Williams (1971-73), Alvin Dark (1974-75)

The A's won five straight division titles and went 4-0 in ultimate games in the 1972 and '73 ALCS and World Series. Like the Giants, they played in a pitcher-friendly park that helped mask that this was really a team built around its offense more than its pitching staff.

Reggie won the 1973 MVP award but in many ways the hard-nosed Bando was the heart and soul of this team. He's not remembered much these days but he was a borderline Hall of Famer and finished second, fourth and third in the MVP voting in '71, '73 and '74.

The Oakland dynasty could have rolled on even longer if Charlie Finley hadn't let the team break up. Hunter signed with the Yankees as a free agent after 1974, Reggie was traded to the Orioles in 1976 and then Bando, Rudi, Tenace and Campaneris all left as free agents after 1976. Blue was the last star to leave, traded to the Giants in 1978.


Yankees1958-62 Yankees
Hall of Famers: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford
Other key players: Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Bill Skowron, Bob Turley, Ralph Terry, Bobby Richardson
Best player: Mantle (38.0 WAR)
Best pitcher: Ford (17.8)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Eight position players, one pitcher
Manager: Casey Stengel (1958-60), Ralph Houk (1961-62)

The Yankees took advantage of the lack of a consistent rival in this time. The powerful Indians teams of the '50s had faded, the Dodgers were between the Brooklyn Bums and Koufax/Drysdale era, the Mays/Marichal/McCovey Giants were just getting going in 1962 and the White Sox (1959 AL pennant winners) couldn't quite get past the Yankees after that. The Milwaukee Braves, who had faced the Yankees in the 1957 and '58 World Series should have been the NL's dominant team in these years but were always messing things up. The Yankees also took advantage of the 1961 expansion to win 109 games.

So even though Ford was the only pitcher to accumulate even 10.0 WAR over these five years, the Yankees won four pennants in five years and it could have been four World Series titles instead of three if not for Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 home run in 1960. Maris won MVP awards in 1960 and '61, although Mantle was clearly the team's superstar (he was the 1962 MVP and Howard won in 1963).


Yankees1949-53 Yankees
Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize
Other key players: Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds, Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin
Best player: Berra (23.2 WAR), Rizzuto (22.4)
Best pitcher: Lopat (15.1),
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Seven position players, zero pitchers
Manager: Casey Stengel

The only team to win five World Series titles in a row, the Yankees did it with lots of depth more than anything and a lot of platooning and matching up from Stengel, who took over in 1949 after a third-place finish in 1948. DiMaggio largely battled injuries in 1949 and 1951 and then retired. Mantle joined the team in 1951 and became a star in 1952 but not a huge star until 1954 or 1955. Rizzuto and Yogi won MVP awards in 1950 and '51.

The pitching was solid if unspectacular with junk-throwing lefty Lopat leading the staff in WAR over these five years. Raschi won 21 games each year from 1949 to 1951 while Reynolds was Casey's go-to big-game starter in the World Series, starting Game 1 in 1949, 1951, 1952 and 1953.


Cardinals1942-46 Cardinals
Hall of Famers: Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst
Other key players: Walker Cooper, Mort Cooper, Marty Marion, Whitey Kurowski, Max Lanier, Harry Brecheen
Best player: Musial (32.1 WAR), Marion (20.6)
Best pitcher: Mort Cooper (20.2), Brecheen (15.9)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Seven position players, six pitchers
Manager: Billy Southworth

This team gets forgotten because much of its success came during the war years, but they won the World Series in 1942, when most players were still in the majors instead of the military, and then won again in 1946, when everyone had returned.

As you can see from the table, they had great balance between pitching and position players. Marion was a superb shortstop and the 1944 MVP, who actually drew some very good Hall of Fame support when he was on the ballot. The Cooper brothers were a terrific battery and Mort was the 1942 MVP when he went 22-7 with a 1.78 ERA and 10 shutouts. Musial, of course, was the big star and he missed just the 1945 season. Slaughter missed 1943-45. That does make it more difficult to evaluate this team but it was a legitimate powerhouse, war or no war.


Yankees1935-39 Yankees
Hall of Famers: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Lefty Gomez
Other key players: Red Rolfe, George Selkirk, Frank Crosetti, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Monte Pearson
Best player: Gehrig (29.5 WAR), DiMaggio (26.3), Dickey (24.3)
Best pitcher: Ruffing (23.8), Gomez (22.6)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 13 position players, three pitchers
Manager: Joe McCarthy

No team had a four-year run like the Yankees from 1936 to 1939 and many consider the 1939 club that went 106-45 the greatest team in major league history. Remarkably, they won 106 games even though that was the year Lou Gehrig got sick. Imagine if he'd still been productive. They crushed their opposition in the World Series, going 16-3, and were loaded with big stars and Hall of Famers.

They were so strong that they replaced Hall of Famer Lazzeri at second base in 1938 with another Hall of Famer in Gordon. DiMaggio joined the club in 1936 and from 1936-39 hit .341 while averaging 34 home runs and 140 RBIs. Gehrig was the 1936 MVP when he hit .354 with 49 home runs. Dickey hit .326 from 1936-39.

While the more flamboyant and quotable Gomez probably got more attention, Ruffing was the staff ace, winning 20 games all four of the World Series seasons. Pearson came over in 1936 and would won all four his World Series starts (one per Series), allowing a total of five runs in 35.2 innings.


Red Sox1914-18 Red Sox
Hall of Famers: Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper
Other key players: Carl Mays, Ernie Shore, Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, Duffy Lewis, Larry Gardner, Everett Scott
Best player: Hooper (18.6 WAR)
Best pitcher: Leonard (23.1), Ruth (20.0)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Three position players, seven pitchers
Manager: Bill Carrigan (1914-16), Jack Barry (1917), Ed Barrow (1918)

Yes, a Babe Ruth team makes our list -- but not the Ruth-led Yankees. This team featured a great rotation -- Ruth joined it in 1915 -- and won World Series in 1915, 1916 and 1918 while finishing in second place in 1914 and 1917. Speaker was the team's best player but he was traded to Cleveland after the 1915 season in a contract dispute -- club president Joe Lannin wanted to cut Speaker's salary from $18,000 to $9,000 because his batting average had declined three seasons in a row. Speaker held out and was traded. Boston won the World Series anyway.

The strength of this team was arguably its defense. Hooper is a marginal Hall of Famer, a decent hitter but known as a great outfielder. Speaker was one of the great center fielders in the game's history. Shortstop Scott probably would have won Gold Gloves had they had them back then.

And then there was Ruth. He won 18 games in 1915, 23 in 1916 while leading the AL in ERA and then 24 in 1917 while throwing 35 complete games. In 1918, he split his time between pitching and hitting, leading the AL with 11 home runs and a .555 slugging percentage and going 13-7 on the mound.



1910-14 Athletics
Hall of Famers: Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender
Other key players: Stuffy McInnis, Jack Barry, Rube Oldring, Amos Strunk, Jack Coombs, Danny Murphy
Best player: Collins (43.8), Baker (36.2)
Best pitcher: Bender (21.5), Plank (17.6)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 12 position players, four pitchers
Manager: Connie Mack

The Athletics won titles in 1910, 1911 and 1913 before getting upset in the 1914 World Series by the Miracle Boston Braves. Mack, upset by the sweep and perhaps believing his team didn't give its all (some have suggested they possibly threw the Series), broke up his team, selling off most of his stars and the A's went 43-109 in 1915.

Anyway, this was certainly a great team, an offensive powerhouse led by Collins, one of the game's great early starts, and Baker, a slugging third baseman. The infield of McInnis, Collins, Barry and Baker was so impressive it earned the nickname "The $100,00 infield." Yes, times have changed.

Bender was Mack's ace (he started Game 1 of the World Series all four years), although Plank, who won 326 games, beat him into the Hall of Fame.

SportsNation

OK. Your turn. Which is the best team to win three titles in five years?

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How to rank these nine dynasties? I'd go like this:

1. 1949-1953 Yankees -- Hey, five titles is five titles.
2. 1996-2000 Yankees -- Dominant postseason winning percentage, star power, hitting and pitching balance.
3. 1935-1939 Yankees -- Statistically, better than the 1949-53 teams.
4. 1910-1914 A's -- If only Mack hadn't broken them up.
5. 1971-1975 A's -- Only team with three straight titles in 1960s, '70s or '80s.
6. 1942-1946 Cardinals -- History's most underrated dynasty.
7. 2010-2014 Giants -- Unbeatable in the postseason.
8. 1958-1962 Yankees -- Lack of pitching depth downgrades them.
9. 1914-1918 Red Sox -- Let's make a time machine and go watch Ruth pitch.
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 importance of team depth

January, 14, 2015
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From Dan Szymborski's ESPN Insider piece, writing about the A's after they acquired Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar:
With Zobrist and Escobar now in the mix, ZiPS now estimates (in very early returns) that the A's are an 87- to 88-win team in an AL West that has quality teams, but no real juggernauts. Winning the division won't be easy, but the A's look to enter the season with a serious shot. That's an impressive feat in an offseason in which you trade away your best position player and a top starting pitcher, not to mention lose a few key players via free agency.


Each week in my chat session, I'm asked: What is Billy Beane up to this offseason? My stock answer is: He's building as much 40-man roster depth as possible, hoping depth will win out over having a lack of big stars.

But how do you measure depth? Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has a piece up titled "A Quick Attempted Measure of Team Depth" that includes a pretty little graphic. Jeff simply looked at how many players on each team's roster are projected as 1.0 WAR players in 2015 via the Steamer projection system. This probably shortchanges bullpen depth as few relievers are projected as 1-win players and the A's have a pretty solid bullpen. Anyway, under this quick-and-dirty measure of depth, the A's rank fourth in the majors, behind the Red Sox, Pirates and ... Twins. Nobody is predicting big things from the Twins, but maybe this is reason to think of them as a potential sleeper team for 2015.

Near the bottom are the Tigers, still going with the stars-and-scrubs approach. It's worked to the tune of four straight division titles, but the AL Central should be tougher than it's been in years. The Marlins are fourth from the bottom; they could be a playoff contender if they stay healthy, but the lack of depth is cause for concern. The bottom two teams are the Braves and Phillies, not surprising when you take stock of their rosters.

An interesting team is the Nationals, who ranked in the bottom half in this method. Jeff writes,
Real quick, I will take the chance to point out the Nationals. They’re a somewhat unusual team, in that they have a ton of talent, condensed into a few handfuls of positions. They’re overloaded with quality talent, and relatively weak in terms of secondary, supportive talent. One injury won’t be enough to sink the Nationals, but two or three at the same time would be pretty taxing, depending on duration. If the Mets or the Marlins want to have a chance at winning the division, they'll almost certainly need for the Nationals to rack up a few DL stints, and Jayson Werth has gotten things off to an early start.


Generally speaking, we have more parity across the sport than we've perhaps ever had. That makes this chart of team depth informative and valuable. Every team will suffer injuries at some point; Beane is counting on his team's ability to plug in quality reserves when that happens to his club.

The current all-underrated team

January, 13, 2015
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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.
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.
Yes, nothing much is going on in baseball unless you want to complain about the Yankees' payroll, but that's an old topic.

So I was on an email chain with some friends the other day, and my friend Messina joked about when the first middle reliever will get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Which led somebody else to ask, "Who are the best middle relievers of all time?" I suggested Jeff Nelson. Somebody else suggested Kent Tekulve.

Which gets us to this post. Tekulve, the skinny, bespectacled submariner with the Pirates and Phillies in the 1970s and '80s, spent much too time as a closer to qualify for this list -- 184 career saves. I want guys who were true middle relievers their entire careers. I set these parameters: at least 80 percent of career games in relief, fewer than 50 saves and the highest career WAR.

Let's see who we get ...

10. Scot Shields (12.2 WAR) -- Shields was a rookie on the 2002 World Series champion Angels and did make 13 starts in 2003 before going on a nice run in the bullpen. From 2002 to 2008, he posted a 2.98 ERA when offense was still high, and he threw 105.1 innings in 2004 (only one reliever since has topped 100 innings, Scott Proctor in 2006).

9. Matt Thornton (12.7 WAR) -- Thornton was a first-round pick of the Mariners in 1998 but didn't reach the majors until 2004. Too wild as a starter, the hard-throwing lefty made one start as a rookie but has been in relief ever since and has just 23 career saves. He did get a chance to be the White Sox's closer at the start of 2011 but blew saves in four of his five appearances and was moved back to a setup role. He has a career 3.43 ERA and even made the 2010 All-Star team.

8. Eric Plunk (13.4 WAR) -- A big right-hander who helped set up Dennis Eckersley with the A's in 1988 and '89, Plunk had a good stretch of work from '88 through '96 with the A's, Yankees and Indians, posting a 3.19 ERA over 722 innings. Known for his thick glasses, Plunk was also involved in two different trades for Rickey Henderson (he went to the A's when the Yankees got Henderson and then went to the Yankees when the A's got Henderson back), which is at least the answer to a trivia question.

7. Larry Andersen (13.7 WAR) -- Yes, Andersen with an "e." Andersen has an even more infamous trade background: He was the guy the Astros sent to the Red Sox to acquire a minor leaguer named Jeff Bagwell. Now a broadcaster with the Phillies, Andersen had a tremendous two-year peak in '89 and '90 (when he was traded) with ERAs under 2.00 both years while pitching a combined 183.1 innings.

6. Jeff Nelson (14.8 WAR) -- So I had a good guess. A 6-foot-8 guy who came from the side with a hard, sweeping slider (maybe the biggest-breaking slider I've ever seen), Nellie was death to right-handers. I don't know how right-handed batters ever hit it. He came up with the Mariners and went to the Yankees along with Tino Martinez in a bad trade by the Mariners. He was a key guy for the Yankees as they won four titles in five years, posting a 3.24 ERA in the postseason over those five seasons in 36 appearances.

5. Joaquin Benoit (14.8 WAR) -- Benoit is up to 48 career saves, so he might get bumped off this list next year. Not that we'll run this list again next year. I forgot that the Rangers kept trying to make him a starter when he first came up; he made 55 starts early in his career before moving to the bullpen (he had a 6.06 career ERA as a starter, so that time didn't help his WAR total).

4. Arthur Rhodes (15.0 WAR) -- Rhodes was a top pitching prospect in the minors who reached the majors right at the dawn of the steroids era. Maybe if he'd come up at another time he'd have eventually settled in; the mid-'90s ruined many young pitching prospects. Rhodes lasted until he was 41, pitching for nine teams, mostly with the Orioles and Mariners. He joined the Cardinals at the end of 2011 in his final season and won a ring with them.

3. Steve Reed (17.7 WAR) -- Another sidearmer/submariner, Reed's best years came with the Rockies in the mid-'90s, so his dominant seasons look better once you factor in Coors Field. He had a 2.15 ERA in 84 innings in 1995, valued at 4.1 WAR, and a career 3.63 ERA.

2. Paul Quantrill (18.0 WAR) -- This is getting exciting! Quantrill spent his first few years starting and relieving before taking his sinker permanently to the bullpen in 1997. In the heart of the steroids era, he had a 2.81 ERA from 1997 to 2003 with the Blue Jays and Dodgers. The rubber-armed Quantrill led his league in appearances each season from 2001 to 2004. That was his last good year, as Joe Torre ran him into the ground with 86 games and 95 innings. In Game 4 of the ALCS, it was Quantrill who gave up David Ortiz's 12th-inning walk-off home run.

1. Mark Eichhorn (19.3 WAR) -- Fittingly, we end with another sidearmer. How he became a sidearmer is interesting. He reached the majors with Toronto in 1982 with a conventional style and made seven starts but hurt his shoulder, forcing him to eventually drop down with a release point below his belt. He didn't make it back to the majors until 1986, when he had one of the great relief seasons of all time with the Blue Jays. He went 14-6 with a 1.72 ERA and 10 saves while pitching 157 innings -- all in relief -- with 166 strikeouts (Eichhorn didn't have quite enough innings to qualify, but no starter averaged more strikeouts per nine in the AL that year). At 7.4, Baseball-Reference ranks it only behind Goose Gossage's 1975 season and John Hiller's 1973 season for single-season relief WAR. The next year, Eichhorn pitched 89 games and 127.2 innings. He had other fine seasons like a 1.98 ERA in 82 innings for the Angels in 1991 before finishing up his career in 1996.

So there you go. Just in case you want to impress your friends with obscure baseball knowledge.
Josh DonaldsonBrad Mangin/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesDid A's GM Billy Beane deal Josh Donaldson because he believes the third baseman has peaked?
As the recent Hall of Fame elections show us, evaluating baseball talent -- even Hall of Fame talent -- remains an imperfect, tricky science. John Smoltz, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were all traded as young players: Smoltz while still in the minors, Johnson after his brief major league debut with the Expos and Martinez after his rookie season with the Dodgers. (Yes, the Expos could have had Johnson and Martinez in their rotation.)

Josh Donaldson is unlikely to become a Hall of Famer, but he's certainly in the midst of one of the most unusual careers I can remember. Look at where Donaldson stood entering the 2013 season. The one-time minor league catcher, who had been acquired from the Cubs in 2008, was entering his age-27 season and had appeared briefly with the A's in 2010 and then hit .241/.289/.398 in 75 games in 2012, playing regularly at third base down the stretch. Still, that batting line hardly indicated a player who was about to blossom into one of the best players in the league.

Donaldson became Oakland's starting third baseman in 2013 and hit .301/.384/.499 with 24 home runs and 93 RBIs while flashing outstanding defense at third base. He finished fourth in the MVP voting that season. Freed from the constraints of catching -- he's talked about how being a backstop in the minors was stressful because he worried about how to handle the pitching staff -- his bat finally developed. He showed surprising quickness and athleticism at third base. In 2014, he had another strong season, hitting .255/.342/.456 with 29 home runs and 98 RBIs, and finished eighth in the MVP voting.

The analytical methods loved Donaldson's two standout seasons. Baseball-Reference values Donaldson at 15.4 WAR over those two years, second among position players behind only Mike Trout; FanGraphs rates him third behind Trout and Andrew McCutchen. The MVP voters agreed that Donaldson has been one of the league's elite performers.

Then the A's traded him to the Blue Jays in November, a controversial deal considering that Donaldson is just entering his first year of arbitration and has four seasons remaining until free agency. Why would Oakland GM Billy Beane trade a still-inexpensive player, one of the best in the league?

The primary reason was that the A's wanted roster depth, so they acquired four players, three of whom could help in 2015. The second reason is more speculative: Does Beane think Donaldson has peaked? Some suggest that because Donaldson was a late bloomer he's also likely to decline more quickly. As the old Branch Rickey saying goes, trade him a year too early rather than a year too late.

The trouble with proving or disproving the hypothesis he has already peaked is that Donaldson's career arc is so unusual that there just aren't other players like him. I went searching for players since 1950 who were among the best in baseball in their age 27-28 seasons but who hadn't done much before that to see if there was somebody comparable -- and then to see how those players aged.

First, I was surprised to see where Donaldson ranked: His 15.4 WAR puts him tied for 13th in age 27-28 value with Chuck Knoblauch, just behind Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Eddie Mathews and just ahead of Chase Utley, Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan. Most of the players in the top 50 are Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers or near Hall of Famers such as Dave Parker and Dale Murphy.

Anyway, I did find a few similar players. Let's take a look.

George Foster (14.3 WAR at 27-28): Foster is a bit of a stretch to include here. He actually made his debut with the Giants in 1969 when he was just 20 and got a chance to play regularly in 1971 when he was traded to the Reds. He didn't play well, played sparingly in 1972 and spent most of 1973 in the minors. He had his breakout season in 1975, when he was 26, not 27, and also had played well in a part-time role in 1974 -- thus my reluctance to include him. Anyway, he remained a good player through age 32, when he signed with the Mets as a free agent and went downhill (as Mets fans well know).

Alex Gordon (13.5 WAR at 27-28): Gordon did have his first big season in 2011 at age 27, but had spent all or parts of the previous four years in the majors and was worth 4.8 WAR over his first two seasons. So he didn't exactly come out of nowhere, although he had spent much of 2010 in the minors. Gordon has continued to play well at age 29-30, although has batting numbers haven't quite matched his age-27 level of production.

Edgar Martinez (11.6 WAR at 27-28): This is the best match on the list. A late bloomer in the minors, Martinez was then held in Triple-A for an extra couple of years as the Mariners played Jim Presley at third base because they didn't think Martinez had the arm to play there. Finally given a chance to start in 1990 at age 27, he hit .302 and then .307 in 1991 and then won a batting title, with a .343 average, in 1992. He was one of the best hitters in the league for many years after that.

Brian Giles (10.6 WAR at 27-28): Again, a bit of a stretch. He hit .355 in 121 at-bats at age 25 with Cleveland and then hit .268/.368/.450 at 26 in 451 plate appearances. He posted a .396 OBP at 27, got traded to the Pirates and had a stretch of monster seasons from ages 28 through 32 -- and several more good ones after that.

Ben Zobrist (9.5 WAR at 27-28): We're getting further away from Donaldson's WAR -- Zobrist ranks 134th on the list of age 27-28 value -- but this is a pretty good match. Zobrist hit .200 in 80 games at ages 25-26 and then played well in a part-time role at 27. He had his big breakout season for the Rays at age 28 in 2009 and has averaged 5.8 WAR per season from 29 through 33.

So, in the past 60-plus years, there have been two really good comps for Donaldson: Martinez and Zobrist. One guy (Martinez) went on to have a Hall of Fame-caliber career and the other has been an extremely valuable player the past five seasons, probably the most underrated player in the game. I didn't find anyone who was a big star at 27-28 after having done nothing before that and then flamed out rather quickly. (Note: I'm not saying there haven't been excellent players who declined after 28, just no player who matches Donaldson's career arc.)

This suggests that Donaldson should once again be a potential MVP candidate for the Blue Jays in 2015 and remain a very good player into his early 30s.

Defensive storylines of the offseason: AL

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
10:10
AM ET
Getty ImagesRussell Martin, Didi Gregorius and Yoenis Cespedes are notable defense-minded acquisitions.

The major-league baseball offseason still has a ways to go, but we thought we’d take a look at how teams have changed defensively heading into 2015. Here’s our look at the American League:

 

AL EAST

Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles lost Gold Glove right fielder Nick Markakis, but there have been questions as to just how effective he is defensively, as the metrics (-13 Runs Saved in right field the past three seasons) never matched the eye test.

Baltimore should be better with the return of Manny Machado at third base and Matt Wieters behind the plate, though they're already formidable in the latter spot with Caleb Joseph. Baltimore ranked first in Defensive Runs Saved as a team in 2014 and with those two back and the re-signing of J.J. Hardy, they could be just as good again in 2015.

Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox changed the look of their pitching staff such that it’s very groundball friendly. That works given what Boston has at first base, second base and third base, with Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and newly signed Pablo Sandoval (four Runs Saved last season). But Boston's biggest goal should be to do what it can to develop Xander Bogaerts, who had -10 Runs Saved at shortstop last season.

Hanley Ramirez in left field will be an interesting adventure and the first few times he plays a ball off the Green Monster will be worth watching. The Red Sox still have some decisions to make with Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Daniel Nava among those fighting for the other two outfield spots.

Behind the plate, they expect big things from Christian Vazquez, who possesses an excellent throwing arm and showed himself to be a solid pitch framer in his 54 games behind the plate. He'll be further mentored by another solid defensive catcher in new acquisition Ryan Hanigan.

Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays significantly boosted the offense they'll get out of the catching spot with the departures of Hanigan and Jose Molina and the addition of Rene Rivera and they won't lose anything defensively because Rivera rates as Molina's equal in terms of pitch framing and is a more effective basestealing deterrent.

It's not fair to judge Steven Souza by one miraculous catch to end a no-hitter, but if he's that good in the outfield, the Rays will catch a lot of fly balls that others won't, so long as Desmond Jennings stays healthy and Kevin Kiermaier hits enough to stay in the lineup. The defense won't miss Wil Myers and his -11 Runs Saved in two seasons in right field.

New York Yankees
Didi Gregorius is no Derek Jeter, but Jeter is no Gregorius when it comes to defensive play. The Yankees finished with -12 Defensive Runs Saved last season and we'd expect them to improve by at least 10 runs there, especially given the full-time presence stellar-fielding Chase Headley, who was terrific after his acquisition from the Padres.

The big question mark will be at second base where scouts have concerns about Rob Refsnyder, the leading candidate to be the everyday guy there, which is why the Yankees agreed to a deal with Stephen Drew.

Toronto Blue Jays
So long as Russell Martin can handle R.A. Dickey's knuckleball, the Blue Jays made a huge upgrade at catcher both offensively and defensively. Martin, judged by some to be the game's best pitch framer, is the type of catcher who can lower a staff's ERA by himself (so long as he's healthy).

At third base, Josh Donaldson covers a tremendous amount of ground. Donaldson has been better than the guy he's replacing, Brett Lawrie, though at their best, there probably isn't as big of a gap as last year's numbers might indicate, given Donaldson's adventurous throwing arm.

The big question will be who plays center field. Right now, it's slated to be rookie Dalton Pompey, who had a couple of Web Gems in a brief stint. If he rates major-league average, that'll be an upgrade from what the Blue Jays got from Colby Rasmus and company last season.

 

AL CENTRAL

Chicago White Sox
The White Sox made big moves to upgrade their team, though defense wasn't their center of attention. Melky Cabrera is a below-average left fielder (-5 Runs Saved each of the last two seasons). Adam LaRoche may end up DHing, but if the White Sox want to put the best defensive team out there, they'd play him at first base and let Jose Abreu just hit. There is a considerable difference between the two.

The White Sox should also have Avisail Garcia every day in right field. He still has something to learn based on the -10 Runs Saved he accumulated in 400 innings there last season (due mostly to his failure to catch balls hit to the deepest parts of the park).

Cleveland Indians
The departure of Asdrubal Cabrera clears the way for a better shortstop (Cabrera's flash was terrific … the rest of his defensive work didn't match up statistically). Jose Ramirez already showed he's more than adequate there (four Runs Saved in just under 500 innings) but he may just be keeping the position warm for Francisco Lindor.

There may also be a surprise upgrade in the outfield if the Indians decide not to DH Brandon Moss, as he's shown a modest amount of success in past tries in right field.

Kansas City Royals
The Royals haven't done much to their lineup this offseason, other than swap out Nori Aoki for Alex Rios and there's little difference between the two stat-wise. Expect to see lots of Jarrod Dyson serving as Rios' late-game caddy.

Detroit Tigers
The Tigers should be better defensively having let Torii Hunter walk while acquiring Yoenis Cespedes in trade from the Red Sox. Austin Jackson had amazing numbers for his first two seasons, but then his defense became rather ordinary, according to the metrics. Anthony Gose figures to be the new center fielder and he rates about average from what the numbers have shown so far.

The return of Jose Iglesias could do wonders to the Tigers infield, given his penchant for Web Gem-caliber plays. This is a big one to keep an eye out for.

The Tigers have also committed to using more shifts, particularly against right-handed hitters, considering they got great value from their (not-often used) shifting in 2014.

Minnesota Twins
General manager Terry Ryan is adamant that Torii Hunter is still capable of playing a good right field. The defensive metrics (-28 Runs Saved the last two seasons) beg to differ. That could lead to some interesting decisions for new manager Paul Molitor and his staff.

 

AL WEST

Houston Astros
One of the offseason's earliest acquisitions was the Astros netting Hank Conger in trade from the Angels and there was definitely a defensive motivation behind that. By our calculations, Conger netted more called strikes above average than any other catcher in baseball last season (in other words, he's really good at framing pitches).

The acquisition of Jed Lowrie was a case of prioritizing offense over defense at shortstop. Lowrie has totaled -28 Runs Saved at shortstop the past two seasons.

Lastly, it will be interesting to see where the Astros slot Jake Marisnick, who could end up in left field, though a case could be made for moving him to center. Marisnick has 16 career Runs Saved in just over 500 innings in center field. Current Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler had -20 Defensive Runs Saved last season.

Los Angeles Angels
The Angels shipped reliable second baseman Howie Kendrick across town to the Dodgers, and could go with either Josh Rutledge or Grant Green there. Both probably won't fare as well as Kendrick did.

The acquisition of Matt Joyce from the Rays may have a positive defensive effect if it slides Josh Hamilton (-9 Runs Saved in the outfield last season) into an everyday DH spot.

Oakland Athletics
The Athletics infield underwent a major makeover this offseason, with the new look featuring Brett Lawrie at third base, Marcus Semien at shortstop and Ike Davis at first base (with holdover Eric Sogard at second).

Lawrie could be as good as Josh Donaldson if he stays healthy, which has been a challenge. Davis rated above average as a rookie but has been average to below average since then. Semien is a question mark.

Seattle Mariners
The Mariners haven't done much to alter their defense from last season, the one adjustment being the addition of Seth Smith, who rates decently (a combined six Defensive Runs Saved in 2014) but doesn't necessarily wow.

Texas Rangers
Prince Fielder returns though it's worth wondering if the Rangers would be better off making him a full-time DH since he has always rated poorly in the field and Mitch Moreland at least represents an average first baseman.

Elvis Andrus hit an odd bump in the road last season, as his defensive numbers, which had been top-10 caliber at shortstop from 2011 to 2013 fell to bottom-5 (-13 Runs Saved) in 2014. That was probably just a fluke, but 2015 will go a ways in determining if Andrus has slipped.
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.

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