SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

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

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

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

Obvious young players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.
Ichiro Suzuki Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesIchiro Suzuki won 10 Gold Gloves during his days with the Mariners.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, the table ...



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

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

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

By the way, as I looked into this, I found at least one more great right fielder, even though he never won a Gold Glove and never got the hype while active: Brian Jordan. His defensive metrics are outstanding. Remember, he was fast enough to play safety in the NFL. Check out his year-by-year fielding runs from 1994 to 2002: +8 (in just 53 games), +20, +28, +12 (injured), +25, +17, +15, +21, +8 (35 years old). Over his career he averaged 16.5 runs saved above average per 1,200 innings.

Defensive storylines of the offseason: NL

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8
10:15
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Getty ImagesJason Heyward, Miguel Montero and Howie Kendrick are notable defense-minded acquisitions.

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

Here's a look at the National League:

 

NL East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NL Central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NL West

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

Can Yasmany Tomas handle third base?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Panik rated about average at second base in a 70-game look in 2014, though he looked better than that in the postseason. He should get a full-time look there in 2015.
In any given season, there are more future Hall of Famers than you probably realize at first glance. Take 1994. Eighteen current Hall of Famers played that season, which was a strike-shortened one that didn't include any late-season call-ups. So did Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio, who should get elected this year. And John Smoltz, who may get in the Hall in 2015. Future locks like Ken Griffey Jr. (eligible in 2016) and Jim Thome (2018), as well as strong candidates currently on the ballot like Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina also played in 1994. So did guys not yet on the ballot, such as Vladimir Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel.

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

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

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

1954? Thirty Hall of Famers.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SportsNation

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

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    27%
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    4%
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    27%
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    38%
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    4%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,603)

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

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

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    7%
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    18%
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    43%
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    4%
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    28%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,459)

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

Then we have the younger set -- Kershaw, Mike Trout, Madison Bumgarner, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton and so on. It's too early to tell on these guys, although Kershaw's career WAR is already over 40. They've certainly all established Hall of Fame potential.

Picks to click: 2015 breakout hitters

December, 27, 2014
12/27/14
12:53
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Manny MachadoJonathan Ernst/Getty ImagesAfter two injury-abbreviated seasons, will Manny Machado break out big in 2015?


With 2015 around the corner, it’s easy to focus on what’s new -- new players on your teams, new rookies, new chances. But how about those guys who might be ready to ratchet up a whole new level of production? It is, as Mike Royko put it describing his joy on seeing Cubs shortstop Shawon Dunston learn to lay off an outside breaking ball, part of what being a fan is all about, because you get to see someone already good enough to be one of the best players on the planet become greater still.

Diving into a list of guys who should break out in 2015, let’s set aside the rookies we know are going to make some noise. Yes, Kris Bryant, Joc Pederson, Byron Buxton, Jorge Soler, Rusney Castillo -- we all expect big things in what ought to be a bumper crop of first-year players, but let’s set them aside for a different conversation. Instead, think of this as yesterday’s top prospects coming into their own now that their new-guy hype has faded, while including ACTA's Bill James projections and what Steamer at FanGraphs suggest they’ll do in the season to come.

1. Manny Machado, Orioles: .747 career OPS | 2015 James .765, Steamer .758

Including Machado might seem like a bit of a gimme, considering he’s now headed into his fourth season in the majors and has only shown incremental progress, picking up a couple of points on OPS each year. But his first spin was an in-season call-up, his second featured a big second-half fade (.807 OPS before the break, .647 after) and a season-ending knee injury, and his third was slowed by his recovery (taking the field in May without spring training), then ended early by reinjuring his right knee. But for all that, the guy only just turned 22 last summer, and despite that stack of setbacks, he’s already been productive. The projections are modest, but overlook the backstory; with health and a clean start, this could be the first year of many when he cranks out 80 extra-base hits.

2. George Springer, Astros: .804 career OPS | 2015 James .854, Steamer .772

He’s sort of like putting one scoop of Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig and one of teammate Chris Carter in the same sundae, because you get the athleticism and the power to pound a league-leading tally in homers -- and strike out 200 times -- all in one baseball helmet dish. The fulcrum that will propel his career one way or another is his mastery of the strike zone, because after a swinging strike clip that’s almost twice big-league average (31.9 to 16.3 percent) as a rookie, if he sorts out what he needs to lay off of, he could go from impressive to dominant in short order.

3. Eric Hosmer, Royals: .747 career OPS | 2015 James .773, Steamer .779

There’s a decent cadre of semidisappointing first basemen to choose from, guys you might be hoping might take a big, Anthony Rizzo-level step forward, as Rizzo did last year. Yonder Alonso might be too far along and need a change of venue, while Brandon Belt has the bat but may not be durable enough. Hosmer is the guy in this group who’s younger than Rizzo, just heading into his age-25 season and into the beginning of what you’d consider to be a normal peak range for a hitter. If Hosmer’s performance down the stretch and into the postseason (.841 OPS in September, .983 in October) while working with new hitting coach Dale Sveum is any indication, he might finally start delivering in kind on the huge expectations Royals fans have piled on him for the last four years.

4. Yasmani Grandal, Dodgers: .763 career OPS | 2015 James .809, Steamer .735

Between getting dealt by the Reds before reaching the homer haven they call home, missing most of 2013 with a 50-game PED suspension and a knee injury, and the general anonymity that gets slathered onto all Padres, Grandal has yet to live up to the prospect billing that made him a 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft. But he’s only just begun, hitting 15 homers last year, and has already delivered an .802 career OPS on the road. Now that he’s escaped from the bat-sapping effects of Petco Park and is headed to a friendlier power environment in Dodger Stadium and into his prime age-26 season, expect the Dodgers to come off well on their side of the Matt Kemp swap.

5. Oswaldo Arcia, Twins: .743 career OPS | 2015 James .844, Steamer .790

Did you know Arcia hit 20 homers in a partial season last year, as a 23-year-old? Or that Bill James also pegged him for 30 homers this season? Blame the flyover market, blame all the prospect maven attention getting lavished on names like Buxton or Sano (not that there’s anything wrong with that), or blame the Twins’ four-year run of losing seasons, but Arcia is going to be a big part of the reason why the Twins’ brief run of irrelevance ends soon. Add in an AL Central where nobody should be a slam-dunk pick to win 90 games, and Arcia will be the new star slugger on a surprise contender.

6. Travis d’Arnaud, Mets: .683 career OPS | 2015 James .805, Steamer .744

The Mets have been used as a punchline for so long that it’s worth remembering that some of their long-term moves are about to start delivering, starting with d’Arnaud behind the plate. Another example that youth will be served, d’Arnaud is also headed into the heart of a normal peak range with his age-26 season on tap. After settling in last year as the Mets’ regular backstop, he posted a .787 OPS in the second half despite playing with a bum elbow. Lucas Duda was last year’s breakout Met; d’Arnaud will be that guy in 2015.

SportsNation

Which hitter will have the biggest breakout in 2015?

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    24%
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    21%
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    22%
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    8%
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    25%

Discuss (Total votes: 7,848)

7. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox: .662 career OPS | 2015 James .735, Steamer .732

No more distractions, he’s a shortstop and gets to settle in. Given that he’s already yesterday’s news while the focus switches to the excitement over adding Pablo Sandoval, Mookie Betts and Castillo to the everyday lineup, it’s going to be fun to watch as Bogaerts quietly clouts 50 extra-base hits and closes the book on last year’s front-office-driven mayhem. Last year, MLB shortstops averaged a .678 OPS, and only five shortstops (including new Sox left fielder Hanley Ramirez) posted a better OPS than Bogaerts’ projection. Skip any disappointment, his stardom begins now.

8. Marcell Ozuna, Marlins: .746 career OPS | 2015 James .804, Steamer .744

When I turned to resident projection expert Dan Szymborski for his thoughts, he tabbed Ozuna, and it’s easy to understand why. Despite essentially skipping past Double-A and Triple-A on his way to the majors in 2013, Ozuna has shown off solid growth in his first two big-league seasons, posting a .772 OPS last year while ripping 23 homers. Headed into his age-24 season, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him take a big step forward.

9. Avisail Garcia, White Sox: .722 career OPS | 2015 James .783, Steamer .743

Remember him, that top Tigers prospect of yesteryear flipped to the South Side before he’d even settled in? Well, after missing most of 2014 with a shoulder injury, he’s back, healthy and still shy of his 24th birthday. And he gets to call The Cell home? That’s Christmas 81 times a season if you’re a right-handed power prospect. Blasting past 20 homers (as James projects) in his first full season seems like a reasonable expectation; don’t be surprised if he blows by that by August.

10. Michael Saunders, Blue Jays: .685 career OPS | 2015 James .726, Steamer .748

Saunders escaped from Seattle this winter after suffering through a 74-point OPS differential in his career home/road split, although he did put up a career-best .791 OPS in 2014. Now that he’s finally out of Seattle, a Canadian headed to Canada’s team, topping that may be tough to reproduce, but he’s brought his strikeout rate down toward 20 percent while keeping his walks around 10 percent. Between the scarcity of offensive help on the market and the fact it only took fifth-starter type J.A. Happ to get him, Saunders could be one of the best pickups of the winter.

Honorable mention: Starling Marte, Pirates. I’ll admit, there’s a bit of fan reach on my part here, simply because Marte is one of my favorite guys to watch play. But only up to a point, because he delivered a huge second half (.975 OPS) when he was healthy. He’s another guy headed into his age-26 season, so take it as just my vibe that he’s got a single-season 30-10-20 line or better for doubles, triples and homers in him sometime in the very near future.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
Some thoughts on recent transactions and other stuff ...
  • The Twins agreed with Phil Hughes on a three-year extension through 2019 even though he had two years remaining on his current contract. It's a little strange to extend a pitcher two full seasons before free agency but in this case I can understand the reasoning. Hughes came over from the Yankees and had the best season of his career, turning into a strike-throwing machine with just 16 walks in 32 starts and going 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA. If Hughes has that kind of season again, he gets a lot more expensive and probably just plays out his contract and hits free agency. So the Twins are betting that his 2014 season is for real and I like the bet, usual pitcher health risks notwithstanding. Hughes returned to throwing his cutter after essentially ditching it in 2012 and 2013. That seemed to help him generate more groundballs and helped cut his home run rate. Away from the short porch at Yankee Stadium, he pitched inside more often, with less fear about being burned by a cheap home run down the line.
  • Speaking of the Yankees, I love the acquisition of Nathan Eovaldi from the Marlins, a young right-hander with a big fastball who hasn't put everything together yet. He had a 4.37 ERA with the Marlins and led the National League in hits allowed, primarily because he tries to just blow fastballs past hitters -- but his fastball was too straight and too often thrown down the middle. The positives here are that throwing strikes wasn't a problem and he had the third-best fastball velocity among starters, behind only Yordano Ventura and Garrett Richards. He needs to improve his secondary stuff -- or trust it more -- and improve against left-handers, especially with that short porch out there, but it's a great upside play for the Yankees at the cost of a two-win player in Martin Prado. (The Yankees also got Garrett Jones in the trade and he should become a nice bench player for them, with David Phelps going to the Marlins.)
  • For the Marlins, it looked like Prado would bring a nice versatile addition to the club -- he can play third, second and outfield -- but they immediately traded away Casey McGehee to the Giants. With the Yankees picking up some of Prado's salary, this actually looks like a trade to trim some payroll as much anything. Minus McGehee and Jones, the Marlins are left with one of the worst benches in the league, have an injury-prone first baseman in Mike Morse and no backup outfielder even listed on their 40-man roster. The rotation would include injury risks Mat Latos, Dan Haren and Henderson Alvarez, aside from the rehabbing Jose Fernandez. There is reason to get excited about this club -- and Prado is an upgrade over McGehee -- but there's a good chance the lack of depth bites them big in the end.
  • As for McGehee going to the Giants, I guess he's better than Joaquin Arias, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Giants are looking for a new third baseman by the All-Star break. McGehee hit .287 in 2014 after returning from Japan, but hit just four home runs and grounded into 31 double plays. Ugh. He was terrible in the majors in 2011 and 2012. Not sure he's really going to help much and if he doesn't hit .287 again or regain some power, he's a zero on offense.
  • The Pirates were the surprise winners in the bidding for Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang, who tore apart the Korean League with 40 home runs and a 1.198 OPS. They now have 30 days to sign him and reports are he's looking for a four-year, $20 million contract. Seems like a good risk for the Pirates. If their total investment is $25 million, even if he ends up being a good backup infielder it's not a waste of money and there's the chance they hit the lottery and have an above-average player. Most scouts project Kang as a second baseman, although the Pirates are set there with Neil Walker.
  • I told myself I was going to stay away from Hall of Fame stuff this year as we're really just beating the same drums as the past several years. But I know I can't help myself. One article I intend to write at some point is the similarity between Curt Schilling and John Smoltz. Schilling received just 29 percent of the vote last year, while many expect Smoltz to make it in on his first year on the ballot. I don't get the love for Smoltz over Schilling. Anyway, Matthew Pouliot has a take on those two (and Mike Mussina) at Hardball Talk.
  • Cole Hamels to the Padres? Why not. The Padres probably only have Justin Upton for one year. Matt Kemp's defense isn't going to get better and neither are his supposedly arthritic hips. Who knows if the arms of Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross will hold up. They may catch the Dodgers and Giants in slight transition years.


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

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

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

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

HALF-FULL

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

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

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

ESPN Stats & Info


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

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

HALF-EMPTY

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

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

SportsNation

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

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    59%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,132)

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

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

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

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?
A.J. Burnett turned down a $12.75 million player option with the Phillies to enter free agency and agreed to a one-year deal with the Pirates for $8.5 million. How bad are the Phillies? Well, Burnett gave up $4.25 million not to play for them.

Anyway, after two solid seasons with the Pirates in 2012 and 2013 -- he went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA -- Burnett signed with the Phillies and went 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA. The Phillies' defense certainly didn't help, but Burnett also walked 96 batters as his walk rate increased from 7.8 percent in 2012-13 to 10.3 percent in 2014.

[+] EnlargeBurnett
AP Photo/Matt SlocumVeteran right-hander A.J. Burnett returns to Pittsburgh on a one-year, $8.5 million deal.
Burnett's success in Pittsburgh can be attributed to a couple of factors:

1. His ground-ball rate with the Pirates was 58 percent both seasons. With the Yankees in 2011, it was 51 percent; with the Phillies last season, it was 53. So those extra ground balls probably helped, in particular because the Pirates became one of the biggest proponents of shifting in 2013. (Although it should be noted that Burnett's BABIP was .310 in 2013 and .307 in 2014.)

2. The park. PNC Park is a much better pitchers' park -- especially in limiting home runs -- than Citizens Bank Park. Burnett allowed 11 home runs in 2013, 20 in 2014.

3. Russell Martin. He caught Burnett for only one year, but Martin is considered an excellent game caller and pitch framer. Burnett's strikeout rate spiked in 2013 with Martin behind the plate.

4. Low-pressure environment. Burnett never thrived in New York, and Philly wasn't a much better media situation. In Pittsburgh, he won't be expected to carry the rotation.

At $8.5 million, the Pirates would be expecting Burnett to produce about 1.5 WAR of value -- about what he did in 2013 (1.7). He turns 38 in January but has made 30-plus starts in each of the past seven seasons, so he's as good a bet as you can make on an older pitcher.

He seems like a reasonable replacement for Edinson Volquez (or Francisco Liriano, both free agents). Remember, Volquez had been the worst regular starter in the majors in 2013 with a 5.71 ERA. The Pirates signed him and he posted a 3.04 ERA. Liriano's story was similar. The Pirates have certainly worked wonders the past two seasons with those reclamation projects; Burnett isn't quite in the same category, but if anyone will get the best out of him it's pitching coach Ray Searage.

The Pittsburgh rotation would now line up as Gerrit Cole, Vance Worley, Burnett, Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton (who had hip surgery in September and is likely to miss part of the regular season), with Brandon Cumpton in reserve. It's a pretty thin group, relying on Worley to prove his 2014 season wasn't a fluke and Locke to put together two good halves. You have to think the Pirates will still be looking to sign one more starter, whether it's Liriano, Volquez or somebody else.
video
Most Valuable Player voting is often about the narrative that develops during the long march of the season as much as the numbers -- in some cases the narrative may be more important than the numbers. In the American League, there was really only one narrative to consider this season: Mike Trout. He was the obvious choice and the voters made him just the 18th unanimous MVP winner and the first in the AL since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.

In the National League, there were season-long debates between Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton and then Andrew McCutchen -- who made a late push, hitting .347 with five home runs in September as the Pirates surged into the playoffs. There were those in the analytical regions of the Internet pushing for Jonathan Lucroy, who had a terrific offensive season as a catcher for the Brewers while getting recognition as one of the best pitch framers in the business.

[+] EnlargeClayton Kershaw
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has now won three Cy Youngs and an MVP award, and he's only 26.
But, really, those other narratives never took off. Stanton had the big power numbers, but it wasn't enough to separate him from McCutchen or Lucroy as the clear top candidate among position players. Even if Stanton hadn't been hit in the face and missed the final two weeks of the season, I don't think he would've won, as no player from a losing team has won an MVP award since Alex Rodriguez in 2003. McCutchen had slightly better offensive numbers than 2013; he improved his slugging percentage from .508 to .542 -- but the Pirates weren't the same surprise story as 2013 and McCutchen's 25 home runs and 83 RBIs don't jump out.

Stanton and McCutchen were great; just not great enough. Kershaw collected 18 of the 30 first-place votes, placed second on nine other ballots and easily outdistanced the runner-up, Stanton.

It's easy to see why. Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. At one point, the Dodgers had won 20 of 21 games he started. He was the best pitcher in the majors in 2013 and he got better in 2014, improving his strikeout/walk ratio from 4.46 to 7.71. After his one bad outing of the season -- he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings to Arizona on May 17 -- he posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 regular-season outings. That start against the D-backs was his only one all season in which he allowed more than three runs. The numbers were so juicy that even though he pitched just 198 innings in 27 starts, the voters couldn't deny him MVP honors.

The debate heading into the MVP vote was whether Kershaw could overcome the pitcher bias existent in MVP balloting; no NL pitcher had won MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Justin Verlander's win in 2011 was the first for a starting pitcher in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986 and just the second since 1971.

The advanced metrics tell us Kershaw was the most valuable player in the NL in 2014. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR at 8.0, topping Cole Hamels (6.9), Lucroy (6.7), Stanton (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.5). He led in FanGraphs WAR at 7.6, topping McCutchen (6.8), Rendon (6.6), Lucroy (6.3) and Stanton (6.1).

But Kershaw didn't win because of those metrics. He won because of the narrative. He won because he went 21-3. (He actually had a higher WAR in 2013 but finished seventh in the voting as he went just 16-9.) He won because he was clearly the most dominant player in the league.

Even if he was a pitcher.

* * *


The past two American League MVP races were hotly contested debates between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- well, hotly contested in cyberspace. When the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association actually got around to turning in their ballots the results weren't close at all: Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes in 2012 and 23 of 30 in 2013.

Trout's obvious advantages in advanced metrics, defense and baserunning were trumped by Cabrera's Triple Crown and RBIs and the fact that Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't (although Trout's team actually won more games in 2012).

Anyway, in 2014, Cabrera didn't put up the monster offensive numbers, the Angels had the best record in the majors and Trout led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. The writers couldn't mess it up this year.

The ironic part of Trout's win -- he became the third Angels player to win after Don Baylor in 1979 and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 -- is that by the advanced metrics that us stat guys love, Trout had his worst season:

2012: 10.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.1 FanGraphs WAR
2013: 8.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.5 FanGraphs WAR
2014: 7.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.8 FanGraphs WAR

Now, that 7.9 WAR was still the best in the league, making Trout the obvious choice on top of his conventional numbers. The main reason for the decline in WAR was a drop in defensive and baserunning value. In 2012, he was credited with 21 defensive runs saved (which Baseball-Reference uses) while that figure has been -9 the past two seasons. He's also declined in FanGraphs' defensive metric, ultimate zone rating (-8.4 runs). His steals have dropped from 49 to 33 to 16.

Of course, Trout didn't win because of advanced metrics. The fact that Victor Martinez -- who started 116 games at designated hitter -- finished second in the voting shows the voters still place an emphasis on offensive numbers while essentially ignoring the value of things like defense, position and baserunning. Martinez had a terrific season, but he wasn't the second-best player in the AL. On the other hand, it was nice that the voters recognized the great season that Michael Brantley had by putting him third in the voting even though the Indians didn't reach the playoffs.

Otherwise, it was scattershot results in the voting, as expected. Martinez did receive 16 second-place votes, but seven different players were placed there on the ballot. Ten different players received third-place votes.

Anyway, I have the feeling this won't be Mike Trout's only MVP award.video

SweetSpot TV: MVP preview

November, 13, 2014
11/13/14
11:08
AM ET


Eric and I discuss the MVP races in both leagues. Mike Trout appears to be a lock in the AL but what will happen in the NL?

End-of-season Haiku for every team

November, 7, 2014
11/07/14
10:35
AM ET
Congrats to the Giants on their World Series victory. Let's look back at the year on the diamond for all 30 teams, in regular season win total order, through traditional Japanese verse:

ANGELS
Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals

ORIOLES
Stoic Showalter
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East

NATIONALS
Fateful decision
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation

DODGERS
The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?

CARDINALS
Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central

TIGERS
Flammable bullpen
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart

ROYALS
Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!

ATHLETICS
Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work

GIANTS
Three titles -- five years
Bumgarner otherworldly
Can they keep Panda?

PIRATES
Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In

MARINERS
Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough

INDIANS
Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!

YANKEES
Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees

BLUE JAYS
All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses

BREWERS
Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops

BRAVES
Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel

METS
DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!

PADRES
Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt

MARLINS
Stayed competitive
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?

RAYS
Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?

REDS
Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy

WHITE SOX
Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!

CUBS
Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?

PHILLIES
Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place

RED SOX
Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed

ASTROS
Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken

TWINS
Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping

RANGERS
Pro-Obamacare
Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out

ROCKIES
League-worst ERA
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn

DIAMONDBACKS
Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!

Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
Here's the first part of our ranking of each team's worst position in 2014. We conclude with our final 15 teams and positions that might be looking to upgrade during the offseason.

16. Minnesota Twins LF/RF: 2.6 wins below average

Yes, Byron Buxton can't get here soon enough, although he'll eventually slot into center field, not a corner. Twins left fielders ranked 21st in wOBA -- they hit .238/.331/.332 -- but were dragged down by an MLB-worst minus-25 defensive runs saved. That shouldn't be a surprise as 11 different players got time out there with lead-footed Jason Kubel and Josh Willingham getting the most innings. Oswaldo Arcia got 399 PAs in right field; and while the Twins collectively ranked 15th among right fielders in wOBA, they also ranked worst in the majors in defensive runs saved, at minus-23. Arcia was minus-10 in his time there, while Chris Colabello and Chris Parmelee, in about half the playing time, were a combined minus-12. Twins pitchers weren't getting a lot of help from their outfield’s corners.

Fix for 2015: Minnesota can't continue to give so many innings to converted first basemen and DHs. Arcia will be the regular right fielder, but left and center are still wide open. Danny Santana finished the year in center, and he's a natural shortstop ... and Eduardo Escobar was OK there in 2014. Anyway, Jordan Schafer and Aaron Hicks are on the 40-man roster but aren't good starting options. Maybe Hicks gets one more chance to prove himself.

17. New York Yankees SS: 2.5 wins below average

Yes, that 2.5 ranked worst in the majors. It was time.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Elsa/Getty ImagesGreat career. But a not-so-great 2014 season. The numbers don't lie.

Fix for 2015: Brendan Ryan and Jose Pirela are on the 40-man roster; but Ryan can't hit and Pirela, .305/.351/.441 in Triple-A, didn't play much shortstop (eight games) at Scranton. So the replacement could come from the free agent ranks: Hanley Ramirez, Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew or Jed Lowrie. Drew hit .162 after missing the first two-plus months last year but is the best defensively and could probably be had on a one-year deal.

18. Kansas City Royals DH: 2.5 wins below average

The Royals declined the $12.5 million option on Billy Butler, who hit .271/.323/.379 as his power numbers continued to drop (nine home runs).

Fix for 2015: They'll probably try to bring Butler back, but on more team-friendly terms. A guy like Rickie Weeks may make sense as well, as he can hit lefties while also providing insurance at second base. Guys like Nelson Cruz and Victor Martinez are likely out of the Royals' price range.

19. Seattle Mariners DH: 2.4 wins below average

Seattle DHs hit a pathetic .189/.266/.302. In 2012, they hit .214/.286/.311. In 2011, they hit .225/.316/.333. In 2010, they hit .195/.270/.342. So, umm ... it's been an ongoing problem.

Fix for 2015: Is there a more perfect free-agent fit than Victor Martinez going to the Mariners? Otherwise, there's Cruz, another try with Kendrys Morales, a return of Mike Morse (the Mariners do need a right-handed batter) or finding a first baseman and moving Logan Morrison here.

20. Pittsburgh Pirates 1B: 2.4 wins below average

Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez formed an ineffective platoon. Davis at least had a decent .341 OBP; but overall, the Pirates' first sackers hit .226 with 17 home runs and below-average defense.

Fix for 2015: With supersub Josh Harrison emerging in 2014, the Pirates could give him the full-time job at third base and slide Pedro Alvarez over to first.

21. Arizona Diamondbacks 2B: 2.2 wins below average

Aaron Hill's OPS dropped 164 points from 2013. The Diamondbacks would probably like to trade him, but he's making $12 million each of the next two seasons.

Fix for 2015: Hill likely returns for his age-33 season. Or the D-backs give the job to one of the young shortstops, Chris Owings or Didi Gregorius. More likely, it's Hill at second with GM Dave Stewart looking to trade one of the shortstops for pitching or outfield help.

[+] EnlargeMorse
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsMichael Morse had some big postseason hits. Too bad he had to play the outfield some.
22. San Francisco Giants LF: 2.0 wins below average

This is a reflection of Mike Morse's statue-caliber defense, as Giants left fielders hit a respectable .257/.327/.440.

Fix for 2015: Morse is a free agent after signing a one-year, $6 million deal. He did slug .511 against lefties, and that right-handed bat was a nice fit lower in the order. Gregor Blanco is still around as a fourth outfielder and defensive caddy, or they could go the all-defense route with Blanco and Juan Perez and Travis Ishikawa filling in.


23. Los Angeles Angels 3B: 1.9 wins below average

David Freese had a tough year, as Angels third basemen ranked 24th in the majors in wOBA and 29th in defensive runs saved.

Fix for 2015: Freese still has one more season before free agency, so the job is his, with Gordon Beckham around as the backup.

24. Milwaukee Brewers SS: 1.7 wins below average

Who is the real Jean Segura?

First half, 2013: .325/.363/.487
Second half, 2013: .241/.268/.315
First half, 2014: .232/.266/.315
Second half, 2014: .271/.330/.345

Fix for 2015: Hope Segura is at least the player of the second half of 2015 and closer to the All-Star of the first half of 2013.

25. New York Mets C: 1.5 wins below average

Mets fans are probably shocked that left field, right field or shortstop didn't show up here. But while those positions were also all below-average, catcher was the worst. Mets catchers hit .226 with a sub-.300 OBP, but a big liability was Travis d'Arnaud's defense, which Baseball Info Solutions rated as the worst in the majors (minus-15 defensive runs saved).

Fix for 2015: D'Arnaud had a nice second half at the plate (.265/.313/.474) but threw out just 19 percent of base-stealers and led the NL with 12 passed balls. He does rate better on pitch framing. Anyway, he's the catcher, so the Mets will undoubtedly be looking to upgrade left field (.219/.306/.308) and shortstop.

26. Oakland Athletics 2B: 1.4 wins below average

Eric Sogard got the most time here with Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo filling in. They ranked 29th in the majors in wOBA.

Fix for 2015: The A's have a bigger hole to worry about at shortstop with Lowrie a free agent, so they may be forced to go again with Sogard and Punto, who at least provide solid-average defense.

27. Washington Nationals 2B: 1.2 wins below average

Danny Espinosa didn't hit. Then Asdrubal Cabrera came over, but his defensive metrics were terrible. The ranking would be even lower if Anthony Rendon hadn't played 28 games here.

[+] EnlargeAsdrubal Cabrera
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAsdrubal Cabrera joined the Nats at the trading deadline, but he didn't solve their defensive problems at second base.

Fix for 2015: With Ryan Zimmerman presumably moving over to first base to replace free agent Adam LaRoche and Rendon slotting in at third, where he's a plus defender, the Nationals could: (A) give Espinosa one more chance; (B) find a better contact guy; or (C) try to trade a pitcher for a second baseman. (One rumor you'll see is Howie Kendrick, who has one year until free agency.) Personally, I'd try to keep the pitching depth, especially with Jordan Zimmermann a free agent after 2015. If Espinosa doesn't do the job, you can always look for a trade deadline replacement.


28. Baltimore Orioles 2B: 0.9 wins below average

There were a lot of black holes at second on offense across the majors in 2014. The Orioles (primarily, rookie Jonathan Schoop) hit .216 here with an awful .259 OBP.

Fix for 2015: Schoop has power (16 home runs), his defense was outstanding (he has a shortstop's arm) and he was rushed a bit to the majors. He might never give you the good plate discipline, but the O's can live with 20-homer power and Gold Glove-caliber defense if he boosts that OBP a bit.

29. Colorado Rockies 2B: 0.9 wins below average

As bad as the Rockies were, it's surprising their biggest position weakness didn't rate worse. DJ LeMahieu is one of the worst hitters in the majors -- his park-adjusted RC+ ranked 143rd out of 146 regulars -- but was a deserving winner of the Gold Glove.

Fix for 2015: Considering his defense, LeMahieu will be back as the Rockies try to plug holes on their pitching staff. On the other hand, they need to realize his empty .267 average is of little value in Coors Field.


30. Toronto Blue Jays C: 0.6 wins below average

Congrats, Blue Jays fans: You had the best worst position in the majors! This was actually a big upgrade from 2013, when J.P. Arencibia led the Jays to 2.6 wins below average at catcher. Blue Jays catchers ranked 19th in wOBA with average-ish defense.

Fix for 2015: Dioner Navarro and Josh Thole will return.

Hey, we weren't going to top the American League wild-card game. But we certainly hoped for a more exciting game than this one. Here are five things to think about in the San Francisco Giants' 8-0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

1. Madison Bumgarner: Ace.

He was dominant, efficient and in complete control from the first inning on. He finished with a four-hit shutout and 10 strikeouts, 109 pitches of excellence. The only pitcher in Giants history with a higher Game Score in a postseason game was Tim Lincecum in 2010, when he pitched a two-hit, 14-strikeout gem against the Atlanta Braves in the division series.



OK, that's pretty sweet.

2. Brandon Crawford's fourth-inning home run.

Brandon CrawfordJason Miller/Getty Images

As I wrote here, Crawford's grand slam off Edinson Volquez was preceded by an excellent plate appearance by Brandon Belt, taking a 2-2 curveball below the knees and then walking on a 3-2 fastball. Volquez had allowed a .136 average on 1-2 counts on the season; he just made a terrible pitch to Crawford, a curveball up in the zone that catcher Russell Martin wanted down and in, where Crawford would swing over the top of it.

Crawford's home run was the first grand slam by a shortstop in postseason history, which is kind of random but also kind of cool. It was just the fifth grand slam in a win-or-die game, joining Bill Skowron (Yankees, 1956 World Series), Troy O'Leary (Red Sox, 1999 division series), Johnny Damon (Red Sox, 2004 ALCS) and teammate Buster Posey (2012 division series).

3. Pirates decide to pitch Gerrit Cole on Sunday.

It may not have made a difference with the way Bumgarner pitched, but in some fashion this game turned when the Pirates made the decision to start Cole on Sunday, even though they had a slim chance of winning the division (they needed to beat Johnny Cueto and the Reds, hope the last-place Diamondbacks beat Adam Wainwright and then beat the Cardinals on Monday in a one-game playoff). It's understandable why the Pirates made the decision -- it's hard to turn away from giving your best effort to win a division -- and you can even argue that Volquez was every bit as good as Cole right now considering Volquez's 1.85 ERA over his final 17 starts and consecutive scoreless outings to end the season.



Despite that ERA, Volquez's peripherals aren't great, although his hard sinker is more of a ground-ball pitch than a strikeout pitch. Still, not many out there consider Volquez a better pitcher than Cole, as he's still prone to command issues. As our colleague Curt Schilling tweeted before the game:



That's exactly what happened on the pitch to Crawford. He missed big.

Of course, on the other hand, maybe this game showed why the Pirates were smart to go all-out in trying to win the division and avoid facing Bumgarner.

4. Panda's catch.

Just because.

5. The night's other big winner: The Nationals


OK, there weren't a lot of big moments in this game, so let's consider this: The Giants will now travel to Washington for the division series. I actually thought the Pirates would have provided a good test for the Nationals if they had won this game, given their deep lineup and that Cole would have been ready to start Game 1. Instead, the Nationals draw a depleted Giants lineup that is missing Angel Pagan and Mike Morse and Bumgarner will get only one start in the series. Big advantage to the Nationals. I am not saying the Giants don't have a chance, just that the series certainly lines up as well as possible for the Nationals.

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