SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

The best part about the first few days of spring training is that the players are feeling good, they're happy to be back on the baseball field, they're full of confidence and optimism and many of them are in the best shape of their lives. They also forget to turn the filter on, giving us some of the best quotes of the year. For example, take San Diego Padres outfielder Matt Kemp. MLB.com columnist Lyle Spencer writes:
"Who," (Kemp) said, "do you think has the best outfield in the game now?"

The visitor gave it some thought before nominating the American League champion Royals for defensive purposes and the Pirates or Marlins for all-around excellence.

Kemp shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "It's right here. Right here in San Diego. You can write it down -- and print it."


Now, Kemp could turn out to be correct. Certainly the combination of his offensive potential, plus that of Justin Upton and Wil Myers, is as good as any in the game. Here are the top teams in outfield production in 2014, ranked by wOBA (weighted on-base average):

1. Dodgers: .354
2. Pirates: .351
3. Marlins: .347
4. Rockies: .344
5. Blue Jays: .339

After that you had the Orioles, Nationals, Angels, Brewers and Tigers. The Dodgers have lost Kemp, replacing him with rookie Joc Pederson. The Pirates will have a full season from Gregory Polanco to go with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. The Marlins' trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich remains intact; the Rockies' numbers are boosted by Coors Field (they ranked 29th in road wOBA).

The Blue Jays had a productive outfield led by Jose Bautista, but lost Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus, and trade acquisition Michael Saunders just hurt his knee and is likely out until the All-Star break. The Orioles lost Nick Markakis and part-time outfielder Nelson Cruz.

So yes, maybe Kemp isn't being ridiculous. In 2014, he had a .362 wOBA and Upton had a .357 wOBA, both ranking in the top 30 in the majors (keep in mind that wOBA isn't park-adjusted). Myers was hurt but as a rookie in 2013 posted a .354 wOBA. So you're looking at three guys who all have the potential to be top-25 hitters in the majors.

Of course, hitting is only part of the equation. Defensively, the Upton-Myers-Kemp trio doesn't compare to the Pirates or the Marlins, even if you're optimistic about Myers' ability to play center and Kemp's ability to reverse his declining defensive metrics. Let's turn to FanGraphs for projected WAR. Here's where it ranks each of the Padres' outfield positions (factoring in some bench time after the projected playing time for the starters):

Left field: sixth in the majors
Center field: 21st
Right field: 16th

Does that look like the best outfield in the majors? Based on overall WAR projections, the top 10 outfields:

SportsNation

Which team has the best outfield in the majors?

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1. Angels, 13.4 (includes 1.4 WAR from Josh Hamilton)
2. Marlins, 12.0
3. Pirates, 10.7
4. Cardinals, 10.3
5. Red Sox, 9.7
(tie) Nationals, 9.7
(tie) Dodgers, 9.7
8. Royals, 9.1
9. Yankees, 8.7
10. Brewers, 8.2

The Padres come in 15th, at 7.1.

What do you think? Do the Padres have the best outfield in the game? I say no. I'd probably go Marlins, Pirates and Angels as my top three (even if Hamilton gets suspended, Matt Joyce would be fine in left field and maybe better). If Bryce Harper breaks out, then the Nationals would have a superstar outfielder to go with Jayson Werth and Denard Span and they could crack the top three as well. Same with the Brewers if Ryan Braun bounces back from two years of injuries.

Not the best outfield: Braves and Phillies.
We continue our scroll through some of the interesting non-roster names invited to spring training. In case you missed 'em, here are the AL East, AL Central, AL West and NL East.

CubsChicago Cubs

Kris Bryant will be added to the 40-man roster once he gets called up, probably a few weeks into April to save a season on his service time. ... Addison Russell reached Double-A last year, so don't be surprised if he also surfaces this season, especially if he plays well and Javier Baez struggles again. ... Daniel Bard has ties to Theo Epstein going back to their Red Sox days, but this is kind of a sad story. Bard pitched two-thirds of an inning in the minors last year and walked nine guys and hit seven (that's not a misprint). ... Reliever Gonzalez Germen was with the Mets the past two seasons. ... Pierce Johnson is another good prospect, lower on the radar than Bryant and Russell. The right-hander allowed just 60 hits in 91.2 innings in Double-A. He needs to improve his control to get a chance at a call-up. ... Outfielder Mike Baxter looks like Triple-A insurance.


RedsCincinnati Reds

Jason Marquis is still pitching? Yes he is. He had 72 strikeouts and 68 walks when he was last in the majors with the Padres in 2013. That ratio barely cut it in 1975, let alone 2015. ... Kevin Gregg is still pitching? Yes he is. He threw nine innings with the Marlins last year. He somehow has racked up 177 career saves despite never having an ERA below 3.40 in a full season. ... Neftali Soto was once a prospect of some note after hitting 30 homers at Double-A in 2011 at age 22, but now he's down to non-roster status. ... Outfielder Brennan Boesch raked at Salt Lake last season. ... Felix Perez is a Cuban outfielder you've never heard of. He hit .280/.325/.450 at Louisville. ... Hard-throwing Robert Stephenson is the club's top prospect and could surface in the rotation later in the season if he starts throwing more strikes.


BrewersMilwaukee Brewers

It has been nine years since Dontrelle Willis was last an effective major league pitcher but he's still hanging around, playing the sport he loves. He was last seen in the majors in 2011. ... Chris Perez has gone from All-Star closer to non-roster status in just a couple of years. He had a 4.27 ERA with the Dodgers in 2014 and has been plagued with home run issues in recent seasons. The lack of depth in the Milwaukee pen gives him a chance to make the team. ... Hunter Morris is a first baseman who hit 28 home runs in Double-A in 2012 and 24 in Triple-A in 2013, but just 11 last year in 330 at-bats. He also doesn't walk much or hit for a high enough average. Where have all the first-base prospects gone? ... The Dodgers acquired outfielder/second baseman/third baseman Matt Long from the Angels and then traded him to the Brewers. He hit .249/.340/.384 between Double-A and Triple-A and he's 28, so I'm not quite sure what the attraction is other than the positional flexibility.


PiratesPittsburgh Pirates

Remember when the Pirates signed Jose Tabata to that long-term extension? They're still on the hook for $4 million this year and $4.5 million next year. He's theoretically fighting Corey Hart for a job as a right-handed bat off the bench, but Hart is on the 40-man roster so he'll probably win the job out of spring training. ... Tyler Glasnow is one of the top pitching prospects in the minors. He's only 21, hasn't pitched yet above Class A and the Pirates don't like to rush their pitchers -- but the rotation depth isn't all that great so don't be shocked to see him reach the majors if he dominates Double-A. ... Clayton Richard twice won 14 games for the Padres. ... Steve Lombardozzi got a lot of playing time with the Nationals in 2012-13 but didn't hit much at Norfolk in 2014.



CardinalsSt. Louis Cardinals

Carlos Villanueva hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 since ... 2007. He's the only major leaguer who can claim that feat while pitching in each of the past seven seasons. ... Stephen Piscotty is regarded as a top-100 prospect, but he looks like a fourth outfielder to me. He does make good contact but doesn't do much with it, hitting .288 with nine home runs at Triple-A. ... Minor league vet Scott Moore is now 31 and didn't hit much at Memphis in 2014. I always thought he deserved a better chance, but he's too old now. ... Lefty Tim Cooney is a back-end rotation candidate but could stick in the bullpen as well.

Ranking the teams: 6 through 1

February, 13, 2015
Feb 13
12:25
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video

It's Day 5, and we're down to the top six teams. I've written nearly 15,000 words on these pre-spring training power rankings, about one-tenth the length of a decent novel. Thanks for reading.

Team rankings: Nos. 30-25
Team rankings: Nos. 24-19
Team rankings: Nos. 18-13
Team rankings: Nos. 12-7

Mariners6. Seattle Mariners

Big offseason moves: Signed DH/OF Nelson Cruz; acquired OF Seth Smith from the Padres for RHP Brandon Maurer; acquired OF Justin Ruggiano from the Cubs for RHP Matt Brazis; traded OF Michael Saunders to the Blue Jays for LHP J.A. Happ; signed DH/2B Rickie Weeks; lost 1B Justin Smoak and RHP Chris Young to free agency.

Most intriguing player: The spotlight is on Cruz, coming off a big 40-homer season with the Orioles. The Mariners were tied for 28th in the majors in home runs by right-handed batters and next-to-last in the majors in wOBA against left-handed pitchers, so they were desperate for right-handed power. Cruz spent a lot of time at Safeco Field while with the Rangers and his career OPS there is .749 (.234/.309/.440). Uh-oh.

Due for a better year: I have an ongoing debate with some fellow Mariners fans about Brad Miller. I think he's going to be better. They believe he can't hit or field. In reality, Miller and Chris Taylor make for a perfect platoon (although Taylor has hit righties better throughout his minor league career). However it shakes out, I expect the Mariners to get better results from shortstop, although I wonder: Has a team ever won a pennant platooning shortstops?

Due for a worse year: Cruz. Or Fernando Rodney. The arrow is fun, but everything leading up to the arrow makes Mariners fans very nervous.

I'm just the messenger: OK, center field. Austin Jackson came over from the Tigers at the trade deadline and was immediately infected with a severe case of Safecoitis and suddenly lost the ability to hit. Jackson hit .256/.308/.347 with the Tigers and slumped to .229/.267/.260 with the Mariners, with only six extra-base hits in 223 at-bats. Even though he's only 28, Jackson's problem may not be fixable; in a league with more hard-throwers than ever, he struggles against fastballs. His isolated power against fastballs has declined to a nonexistent .073 from .103 in 2013 and .220 in 2012. And it's not as if his defense makes up for the lack of offense. His defensive runs saved totals have dropped from plus-29 in 2011 to plus-5 in 2012 to plus-3 in 2013 to zero last season. The backup plan? The familiar names of Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez have been invited to spring training.

SportsNation

Which team wins the AL West?

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The final word: The Mariners fare very favorably in the projection systems. FanGraphs has them as the best team in the American League and third in baseball behind the Nationals and Dodgers. Baseball Prospectus has them as the No. 3 team in the AL. These aren't strong predictions -- 89 and 87 wins, respectively -- but there is talent here and the Mariners are coming off a strong 87-win season. They've addressed the right-handed issue with Cruz, Ruggiano and Weeks, giving manager Lloyd McClendon more flexibility with his lineup and platoons. The team is heavily dependent on Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, so an injury to any of the three would be devastating. The bullpen, wonderfully handled a season ago by McClendon, should be a strength once again. It has been 14 years since the Mariners made the postseason. It's time.

Prediction: 88-74


Cardinals5. St. Louis Cardinals

Big offseason moves: Acquired RF Jason Heyward and RHP Jordan Walden from the Braves for RHP Shelby Miller and RHP Tyrell Jenkins; signed 1B Mark Reynolds and RHP Matt Belisle; lost RHPs Pat Neshek and Justin Masterson to free agency.

Most intriguing player: Heyward was one of my favorite transactions of the winter, a Gold Glove right fielder -- and Gold Glove in the Roberto Clemente sense, not Jay Buhner. Heyward will bring improved production to right field, where the Cardinals had the worst wOBA in the majors. Maybe Heyward's not the 30-homer guy once projected of him, but he has hit 27 before and should hit more than the 11 he totaled in 2014.

Due for a better year: Closer Trevor Rosenthal fought his control all season, walking 5.4 batters per nine innings compared to 2.4 in 2013. He went 45-for-51 in save chances but also had a 2-6 record. The fastball is still top shelf and he should provide more consistent ninth-inning work.

Due for a worse year: Adam Wainwright went 20-9 with a career-best 2.38 ERA but had minor elbow surgery to trim some cartilage. He's expected to be fine, but you never know.

I'm just the messenger: The Cardinals have done a nice job of blending in some youth with the likes of Heyward, Matt Adams and Kolten Wong, but they're still relying on 30-somethings Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta, not to mention Wainwright. Molina and Holliday slipped a bit last year, and Peralta will be hard-pressed to repeat his season. There's enough age here that the potential for a collapse is possible. We're so used to the Cardinals winning that we just expect them to keep winning.

The final word: Of course, I'm not predicting that to happen. The addition of Heyward gives them a solid lineup from one through eight with the potential for a better bench than they've had the past two years. Yes, you have to worry a little bit about the health of Wainwright and a lot about the health of Michael Wacha, but the rotation is deep enough to counter the loss of either guy. The Cardinals should return to the postseason for a fifth straight season.

Prediction: 88-74



Indians4. Cleveland Indians

Big offseason moves: Acquired 1B/OF Brandon Moss from the A's for 2B Joe Wendle; signed RHP Gavin Floyd.

Most intriguing player: Corey Kluber beat out Felix Hernandez for the American League Cy Young Award, becoming one of the least likely winners in the award's history. Simple question: Can he do it again?

Due for a better year: Jason Kipnis was an All-Star in 2013 and finished 11th in the MVP voting but suffered an oblique injury in April and played through it all season. He also hurt his finger working out in December and had surgery but is expected to be ready for spring training. After creating about 101 runs in 2013 he slipped to 53 in 2014. Expect a nice bounce back.

Due for a worse year: Michael Brantley hit .317/.385/.506 and finished third in the MVP voting. While I'm believing in most of the power uptick, he was a .277 hitter entering the season. He should be good again, but I would expect something closer to a 5-WAR season than a 7-WAR one.

I'm just the messenger: The Indians did not have a good defensive outfield in 2014, ranking 29th in the majors in defensive runs saved at minus-37. They ranked last in ultimate zone rating at minus-39.9 runs, so different metrics agree that they were lousy in the outfield. Have they fixed the problem? Not necessarily. The biggest culprit was David Murphy at minus-17 DRS; Michael Bourn was rated at minus-6 and Brantley at minus-3. Of the various subs, all rated below average except Tyler Holt. Bourn and Brantley are slated to start again in center and left, but right field is open. Considering Murphy didn't hit either, it seems unlikely he wins the job on a regular basis. Brandon Moss can play out there and he's rated at plus-3 runs over the past three seasons, but he's also coming off hip surgery. Cleveland's best bet is for better performances from Bourn and Brantley but don't be surprised if Holt ends up getting a lot of time in the outfield.

The final word: Picking the Indians to win the Central isn't really a radical pick -- they won 85 games last season and 92 in 2013. The offense should be above average, especially if Kipnis and Moss are healthy. And while the defense is questionable (last in the majors in overall DRS), the young rotation has come together. Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar and T.J. House should be an excellent five-man group, with depth from Floyd and Zach McAllister. Second-half stats aren't always predictive, but the Indians had the best rotation ERA in the AL after the All-Star break. Jose Ramirez or rookie Francisco Lindor will be an upgrade defensively at shortstop. Brantley, Carlos Santana, Kipnis and Yan Gomes are right in their peak years. Go support your team, Cleveland.

Prediction: 90-72



Pirates3. Pittsburgh Pirates

Big offseason moves: Lost C Russell Martin and RHP Edinson Volquez to free agency; re-signed LHP Francisco Liriano; signed RHP A.J. Burnett; traded 1B Ike Davis to the A's; acquired C Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees for LHP Justin Wilson; acquired LHP Antonio Bastardo from the Phillies; signed Korean SS Jung Ho Kang; traded OF Travis Snider to the Orioles; acquired INF Sean Rodriguez from the Rays.

Most intriguing player: Gerrit Cole now has 41 major league starts with a 3.45 ERA. It's time for the former No. 1 overall pick to make the leap from mid-rotation starter to a No. 2 guy -- and maybe an ace who throws 200-plus innings with a sub-3.00 ERA. The stuff is there, the fastball is there and I think he'll have a breakout season.

SportsNation

Which team wins the NL Central?

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Due for a better year: After tying for the NL lead in home runs in 2013, not much went right for Pedro Alvarez in 2014. He had throwing problems at third base and dropped off to 18 home runs before his season ended in late August because of a stress reaction in his foot. He moves to first base and should challenge 30-plus home runs.

Due for a worse year: Relievers Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Jared Hughes all posted ERAs under 2.00. Melancon's peripherals support his ERA, but Watson (2.69 FIP) and Hughes (3.99 FIP) -- who went a combined 17-7 -- may have difficulty preventing runs at the same level again. Expect at least a little regression from this trio. The Pirates will have to replace 122 innings in the bullpen from Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez as well. Maybe late-season callup John Holdzkom and his upper-90s fastball plays a prominent role.

I'm just the messenger: The Pirates ranked last in FanGraphs WAR for starting pitchers in 2014. Was the rotation really that bad? Well, the Pirates ranked 10th in strikeout percentage and 14th in walk percentage. But there is some method to all of this. The Pirates' starters did lead the majors in ground ball percentage; of course, the Pirates also shift a lot and do a good job pitching to the shift. Not surprisingly, they allowed a .222 average on grounders, third best in the NL. Sure, an ace would be nice, but the Pirates also have done just fine the past two seasons without one.

The final word: The Pirates have played the Cardinals tough the past two seasons -- three wins behind in 2013, two last year. Pittsburgh scored 682 runs last season (48 more than 2013), and it wouldn't surprise me if they score even more in 2015. They've got a deep lineup. The loss of Martin is a big blow, not only for his .400 OBP in 2014 but his defense, though Cervelli is regarded as a strong defensive catcher. The outfield of MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco may be the best all-around group in the game, Neil Walker is an underrated second baseman and Kang could challenge Jordy Mercer for the starting job. They have talent, depth, defense, a smart front office and a smart field staff. They finally leap over St. Louis.

Prediction: 91-71



Dodgers2. Los Angeles Dodgers

Big offseason moves: Hired Andrew Friedman as president of baseball operations and Farhan Zaidi as general manager; traded OF Matt Kemp and C Tim Federowicz to the Padres for C Yasmani Grandal, RHP Joe Wieland and RHP Zach Eflin; lost SS Hanley Ramirez to free agency; signed RHP Brandon McCarthy and LHP Brett Anderson; traded 2B Dee Gordon, RHP Dan Haren and SS Miguel Rojas to the Marlins for LHP Andrew Heaney, RHP Chris Hatcher, 2B Enrique Hernandez and C Austin Barnes; traded Heaney to the Angels for 2B Howie Kendrick; acquired SS Jimmy Rollins from the Phillies; acquired RHP Joel Peralta and LHP Adam Liberatore from the Rays for RHPs Juan Dominguez and Greg Harris.

Most intriguing player: Yasiel Puig, Year 3. Is this the year he remains consistent, cleans up the mistakes, keeps the power going and becomes an MVP candidate? Or does he settle in as a very good player? Either way, we'll all be watching.

Due for a better year: Clayton Kershaw ... in the postseason. Hard to top 21-3, 1.77 with Cy Young and MVP trophies. In just 27 starts.

Due for a worse year: Juan Uribe hit .300 for the first time since he was a rookie with the Rockies in 2001 and posted a career-high .337 OBP.

I'm just the messenger: The Dodgers spent a lot of money to bring in McCarthy and Anderson as their fourth and fifth starters. They're convinced McCarthy is capable of another 30-start, 200-inning season even though that was the first time he has reached either mark in his career (previous highs: 25 starts, 170 innings). Anderson is still a talented lefty when he gets out on the mound, but he has made only 32 starts the past four seasons. There isn't a lot of depth here. Joe Wieland and Juan Nicasio could be next in line. Erik Bedard has been invited to spring training. If Kershaw or Zack Greinke suffer a long-term injury, the rotation could have issues.

The final word: It's not often you see a 94-win team get such a big makeover, but the new regime is rebuilding on the fly. The Dodgers had to clear space in the outfield for rookie center fielder Joc Pederson and they had to get better defensively up the middle. They'll have a new middle infield -- a much better defensive one with Rollins and Kendrick. In fact, all of the Dodgers' moves were done in part to improve the defense, including catcher, where Grandal is rated as a good framer. A better pitcher than analyst, Greinke didn't give rave reviews to the moves. This is a good team, one that should coast to a division title.

Prediction: 93-69


Nationals1. Washington Nationals

Big offseason moves: Signed RHP Max Scherzer for a lot of money; lost 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Rafael Soriano and 2B Asdrubal Cabrera to free agency; traded OF Steven Souza to the Rays in a three-way deal that netted RHP Joe Ross and SS Trea Turner; acquired INF Yunel Escobar from the A's for RHP Tyler Clippard; signed RHP Casey Janssen.

Most intriguing player: Bryce Harper. He's a grizzled veteran of 22 now. We saw in the postseason what he can do when he's healthy and everything is clicking. I think it clicks this year.

Due for a better year: Ryan Zimmerman played only 61 games and hit five home runs. He moves over to first base and hopefully stays on the field for 140 games.

Due for a worse year: Tanner Roark went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA and actually edged Jordan Zimmermann for the team lead in WAR among pitchers. His reward? A likely trip to the bullpen with the signing of Scherzer. He was a good bet to regress a bit anyway (3.49 FIP).

SportsNation

Which team wins the AL West?

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I'm just the messenger: The one area of concern is the bullpen. I didn't like the Clippard trade on the heels of letting Soriano walk as a free agent, even if they did need a second baseman. Clippard has been a hugely vital setup guy the past five years and now you worry about the depth behind closer Drew Storen. And then in the postseason, you worry about Storen.

The final word: No surprise here. The Nationals have the potential for a historically dominant rotation. The lineup has no holes and one clear MVP candidate in Anthony Rendon and possibly another in Harper if he matures. Scherzer gets to go to the league where pitchers hit and with a better defense behind him than he had in Detroit; he could see his ERA drop half a run or more. A 100-win season is possible.

Prediction: 98-64
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at the top prospects from 2005. Has it already been 10 years since 2005? Yes it has! We'll use Baseball America's list and, as always, we're not criticizing the list. Evaluating prospects is part art, part science and a lot of unknown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Obvious young players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
AM ET
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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    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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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.
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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

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