SweetSpot: Toronto Blue Jays
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.
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.
1. Now that the Nationals have signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract, will the Nats look to trade impending free agent Jordan Zimmermann? A rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez certainly has the ability to be one of the best we’ve seen in recent years, and that doesn’t even include Tanner Roark, who quietly went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA last year.
2. If the Nationals do look to move Zimmermann (or Fister, also a free agent at season’s end), will they use that trade to help restock the farm system or acquire depth in the bullpen? The pen looks a little thin after they traded setup man extraordinaire Tyler Clippard and lost Rafael Soriano to free agency.
3. Where will James Shields go? The one difference-making free agent who is still unsigned, Shields reportedly turned down $110 million from a team he apparently didn’t want to play for. Or maybe that was just posturing to try to ramp up the offers.
4. Will the Marlins trade Dan Haren? The veteran right-hander, set to make $10 million, had threatened to retire if he wasn’t traded back to a California team. But the Dodgers just traded him to the Marlins and don’t have room in their rotation, and the Los Angels also added rotation depth in the offseason. The Dodgers gave the Marlins $10 million to offset Haren’s salary, which they keep even if Haren doesn’t play. It looks like the ball may be in Haren’s court, as you know Jeffrey Loria would be more than happy to keep the cash.
5. Is Billy Beane done wheeling and dealing? It’s been a whirlwind offseason for the Oakland A's general manager, who has traded away Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, John Jaso and others, while acquiring Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, Clippard and other young players and prospects. Yunel Escobar was even acquired from the Rays and quickly dealt to the Nationals for Clippard.
6. Are Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer done wheeling and dealing for the Cubs? They just picked up Dexter Fowler from the Astros, giving the club a more legitimate center fielder than converted infielder Arismendy Alcantara. With the addition of Fowler, the Cubs' lineup could look like this:
Starlin Castro SS
Jorge Soler RF
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Kris Bryant 3B
Miguel Montero C
Chris Coghlan LF
Javier Baez 2B
That lineup has potential, and it's backed up with a rotation featuring Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood. But with Fowler signed only through 2015, maybe the Cubs will make one more big move to draw closer on paper to the Cardinals and Pirates. Maybe Shields, to bolster the rotation even more?
8. Will the Reds sign Aroldis Chapman to a long-term contract? Like Cueto, Chapman is a free agent after 2015. The Reds are hosting the 2015 All-Star Game, so don’t expect them to trade either player -- at least until after the All-Star Game and only if the Reds are well out of the pennant race.
9. Are the Cardinals satisfied with their rotation? They had been rumored to be interested in signing Scherzer or maybe acquiring David Price from the Tigers, but Price is certainly unavailable now -- not that he was in the first place -- with Scherzer out of the Detroit picture. The Cardinals did sign Lance Lynn to a three-year extension. But the health concerns of Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia and the uncertainty of young arms such as Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzalez means the Cardinals have question marks within their depth.
10. Are the Braves really committed to keeping Craig Kimbrel? After trading away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, the Braves have all but admitted they’re building for 2017 when they open their new park. General manager John Hart insists the club can still compete in 2015, but the projection systems argue otherwise and say the Braves will be one of the worst teams in the majors. The smart move would be to cash in Kimbrel now.
11. Speaking of ... are the Tigers going to do anything about the bullpen?
12. Speaking of ... Francisco Rodriguez is still a free agent. And probably with good reason, considering he led all relievers in home runs allowed in 2014. Still, he posted a 3.04 ERA and recorded 44 saves for the Brewers, so some team may be willing to give him a shot at closing. Especially a team that had major issues up and down the bullpen last year, including in the postseason.
13. Will the Mets acquire a shortstop? I think we’re all a bit tired of this story by now. Mets fans seem to want a new shortstop. The New York media definitely believes the team needs a shortstop. Sandy Alderson would probably like a new shortstop. Troy Tulowitzki may want to become the new Mets shortstop. Meanwhile, the Wilpons are probably too busy watching old films of the Brooklyn Dodgers to care.
14. Will the Diamondbacks trade Mark Trumbo? This is probably more of a spring training decision, depending on whether Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas can handle third base. If he can’t, he'll move to left field and the D-backs have to shop Trumbo.
15. Will Dave Stewart give us more quotes about "real" baseball teams and those apparently fake teams that worry too much about analytics?
16. Will the Mariners acquire a right-handed bat? Right now, the M’s have Nelson Cruz penciled in at DH, Logan Morrison at first base, and a right-field platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano (with lefty-swinging Dustin Ackley in left field). Jesus Montero is still around, but a right-handed bat who can play first base or DH against southpaws (with Cruz moving to the outfield) would create more balance in the lineup.
17. Will the Phillies release Ryan Howard? At this point, it’s probably best for all if Ruben Amaro just puts Howard on waivers. Nobody is going to trade for Howard, but that doesn’t mean you need to create a negative distraction by inviting him to spring training. It’s a sunk cost. Let it sink and see if any team wants to give Howard a shot to DH.
18. Who will be the first columnist to point out Howard’s RBI total from last year? Like, in a good way.
19. Will the Red Sox make a move for their rotation? While the Red Sox actually project to have a decent rotation, according to some projections, it’s also difficult to buy completely into Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson.
21. What’s going on with Dan Duquette? The only noise the Orioles’ president has made this offseason has been with the rumors that he’s leaving Baltimore to take over the presidency of the Blue Jays. If this was going to happen, it should have been resolved by now, as Duquette’s lack of activity in Baltimore could have the appearance of a conflict of interest.
22. Will the Orioles bring in a right fielder? Colby Rasmus is the best free agent out there and would be the easiest option, if inelegant. There are also unappealing trade options such as Andre Ethier or Carlos Quentin.
23. Which young star will get locked up by a long-term extension? Small-market teams have been able to remain competitive in recent years in part by signing their young stars to team-friendly extensions -- think Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh or Evan Longoria in Tampa Bay -- but as premium free agents continue to get $100-million plus contracts, there’s going to be less incentive for young players to potentially leave tens of millions on the table.
24. Where will the other free-agent relievers sign? Casey Janssen and Soriano are two relievers out there with closing experience. Soriano averaged 39 saves the past three seasons but lost his closer job with the Nationals late last season, while Janssen missed time with a back injury and saw his strikeout rate decline. Besides the Tigers, the Dodgers are seeking relief help.
25. Are the World Series champs done? The Giants just signed Norichika Aoki, although he and Gregor Blanco don’t make for a traditional platoon since both hit left-handed. They struck out on signing Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval and trading for Justin Upton. The Giants could still be in on Shields, or could bring back Ryan Vogelsong for rotation depth.
26. Back to the Nationals: Could they trade shortstop Ian Desmond? It seems unlikely, but Desmond is a free agent after 2015 and reportedly turned down a $100 million extension. And the club did trade for Yunel Escobar, although moving him to shortstop would create a hole at second base. The team perhaps most desperate for a shortstop is the Mets, but they’re a division rival.
27. Arbitration tracker: Who’s left? While a lot of players have already signed, the most interesting remaining unsigned players are those who are still several years from free agency and who could potentially negotiate multiyear deals (similar to the one Lynn signed with the Cardinals). This group includes Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays; Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford of the Giants; Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain of the Royals; Devin Mesoraco of the Reds; and Garrett Richards of the Angels.
28. What will happen with highly touted Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada? The 19-year-old switch-hitter is projected as a power-speed combo who will likely end up at second or third base. The Giants recently held a private workout with him, and the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals and Marlins are among those teams reported to have strong interest and financial means. MLB has declared Moncada a free agent, but he needs to be cleared by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control before he’s eligible to sign.
29. Who will join Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs in guaranteeing his team will win a division title?
30. Who will be the first player to report early to spring training in the best shape of his life?
So here's my all-time all-underrated team. It skews toward more recent decades, but these are the decades that players have failed to fairly represent in Cooperstown.
C: Ted Simmons (1968-1988)
Stats: .285/.348/.437, 248 HR, 1,389 RBI, 2,472 H
Career WAR: 50.1
Higher WAR than ... Ernie Lombardi, Roy Campanella, Ray Schalk
The Hall of Fame voters and Veterans Committee has drawn its line at Simmons. He ranks 10th in WAR among catchers; seven of the guys ahead of him are Hall of Famers and the other two are Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza. Only Yogi Berra drove in more runs. Simmons was a big name when he played -- he was an eight-time All-Star -- but a couple of factors worked against his historical standing: Johnny Bench was his contemporary and Simmons loses that comparison; he wasn't regarded as a strong defensive catcher while active although his career caught stealing rate of 34 percent is actually league average.
Runner-up: Bill Freehan. Perennial All-Star for the Tigers in the '60s.
1B: John Olerud (1989-2005)
Stats: .295/.398/.465, 255 HR, 1,230 RBI, 2,239 H
Career WAR: 58.0
Higher WAR than ... Bill Terry, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda
For all the talk this past week about Fred McGriff and Carlos Delgado, Olerud was a better all-around player than either of those two, at least according to the advanced metrics. But first basemen are judged by power, and Olerud's 20 home runs per season and 255 career home runs didn't match up to the power numbers some of his contemporaries in the steroids era put up.
He made up for that with consistently high on-base percentages (six times over .400) and excellent defense (Baseball-Reference has him with the third-most fielding runs ever at first base, behind only Albert Pujols and Keith Hernandez). Olerud also had two monster MVP-caliber seasons with the Blue Jays in 1993 when he hit .363 and won the batting title and with the Mets in 1998 when he hit .354.
Runner-up: Will Clark. He could have hung around a few more years to build a stronger Hall of Fame case -- he hit .319/.418/.546 in his final season -- but instead retired. Of course, he was a pretty big star while active. But, like Olerud, he got booted off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year.
2B: Lou Whitaker (1977-1995)
Stats: .276/.363/.426, 244 HR, 1,084 RBI, 2,369 H
Career WAR: 74.9
Higher WAR than ... Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio
Whitaker's one-and-done status on the Hall of Fame ballot was pretty surprising considering his career numbers are very similar to Sandberg's, his 1980s National League counterpart who was elected on his third try. Whitaker didn't hit quite as many home runs as Sandberg but had a higher on-base percentage and was no slouch on defense, winning three Gold Gloves.
Whitaker has the highest career WAR of any player not in the Hall of Fame who isn't still on the ballot, not yet eligible, didn't bet on baseball and didn't play in the 1800s. So why the lack of respect? Well, the things Whitaker did are those things that make most of these players underrated: He drew walks, he played good defense, he had medium-range power (although pretty good for a second baseman).
Sandberg, by comparison, was certainly flashier than Whitaker -- more home runs, more steals, a better defensive reputation. And to be fair, Sandberg at his peak was better than Whitaker at his peak. Whitaker then had some very strong seasons at the end of his career when he was used as a platoon player, but nobody realized how good he still was because (A) he was being platooned, which held down some of his counting numbers; (B) the Tigers were terrible by then; and (C) Alomar had arrived and was the widely acclaimed new best second baseman in baseball.
Whitaker has yet to appear on a Veterans Committee ballot. I suspect he'll remain a hard sell even then, since his consistent excellence is easy to overlook.
Runner-up: Bobby Grich. Put up excellent offensive numbers in the 1970s and early '80s -- walks, medium-range power -- when most middle infielders were inept at the plate. While not completely overlooked while active -- he made six All-Star teams and had two top-10 MVP finishes -- the fact that he didn't hit for a higher average in an era when that's what people paid attention to certainly made him underrated at the time.
3B: Graig Nettles (1967-1988)
Stats: .248/.329/.421, 390 HR, 1,314 RBI, 2,225 H
Career WAR: 68.0
Higher WAR than ... Home Run Baker, Pie Traynor, George Kell
As with Simmons, Nettles ranks 10th all time at his position in career WAR. Nettles was a superb defensive third baseman who played a long time and hit some home runs. Voters have always had trouble figuring out what to do with third basemen. Ron Santo had to get in the Hall of Fame through the back door. It will be interesting what happens with Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen, both in the top 10 in career WAR among third basemen, when they become eligible.
Nettles never had a chance at the Hall of Fame. Brooks Robinson had already secured the legacy of best defensive third baseman of all time, so it didn't matter how good Nettles was. He was actually Robinson's equal as an offensive player, just with a different scope: more power but a lower average. I'm not sure I'd advocate Nettles as a Hall of Famer -- he'd have lined up behind Rolen, Beltre and maybe Ken Boyer -- but he certainly had some Hall of Fame-caliber seasons.
Runner-up: Boyer. He peaked at 25 percent on the BBWAA ballot. He was on the recent Veterans Committee ballot but received fewer than three of the 16 votes -- fewer than Jim Kaat or Maury Wills, even though Boyer was a better player than either one.
Stats: .285/.352/.415, 185 HR, 1,003 RBI, 2,365 H
Career WAR: 70.4
Higher WAR than ... Barry Larkin, Joe Cronin, Luis Aparicio
Whitaker's long-time teammate is probably the stronger Hall of Fame candidate due to a higher peak level of play. I touched a bit on Trammell here. Trammell is eighth all time in WAR among shortstops, sandwiched between Derek Jeter and Larkin. The comparison to Larkin explains why Trammell is underrated: He had nearly exact career numbers but Larkin was elected to the Hall of Fame his third time on the ballot while Trammell has languished for 14 years. The weird thing is while Cal Ripken was certainly the star American League shortstop of the 1980s, it's not like Trammell wasn't recognized as one of the best players in the game at the time. But as soon as he retired, people forgot about him.
Runner-up: Arky Vaughan. He's actually in the Hall of Fame but this 1930s star remains one of the most unknown great players in the game's history.
LF: Jose Cruz Sr. (1970-1988)
Stats: .284/.354/.420, 165 HR, 1,077 RBI, 2,251 H
Career WAR: 54.2
Higher WAR than ... Ralph Kiner, Jim Rice, Lou Brock
Yes, Tim Raines could go here as well, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him finally get elected to Cooperstown in his final two years on the ballot. As for Cruz, it took a while for his career to get going -- he didn't have his breakout season until he was 28 -- but he was a tremendous player for a long time with the Astros. It was impossible to hit home runs in the Astrodome back then -- one year, Cruz hit 12 home runs on the road and none at home -- so Cruz didn't have big power numbers. But he hit .300 six times, drew walks and stole as many as 44 bases in a season (1977). He had three top-eight MVP votes, but if he'd come up in the 1990s instead of the '70s and played in a different park, he could have been a 3,000-hit guy.
Runner-up: Minnie Minoso. He should be in the Hall of Fame.
CF: Kenny Lofton (1991-2007)
Stats: .299/.372/.423, 622 SB, 1,528 R, 2,428 H
Career WAR: 68.2
Higher WAR than ... Duke Snider, Richie Ashburn, Kirby Puckett
Here's something that may shock you: Among players who played at least 50 percent of their career games in center field since 1901, Lofton ranks seventh in all-time WAR, behind only the legends -- Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. and Joe DiMaggio. But he was one-and-done on the Hall of Fame ballot. I'd say that makes him underrated.
Runner-up: Bernie Williams? Hard for a Yankee to be underrated, but the crowded ballot bumped him off on his second try in 2013. Borderline Hall of Famer at best, but usually players on great teams have a better shot at getting elected.
RF: Dwight Evans (1972-1991)
Stats: .272/.370/.470, 385 HR, 1,384 RBI, 2,446 H
Career WAR: 66.9
Higher WAR than ... Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield, Vladimir Guerrero
And certainly higher than Rice, his Red Sox teammate. He was better in his 30s than in his 20s and, like others here, was good at some of the unrecognized things like getting on base and drawing walks. He hit more home runs than Rice and his OBP is 18 points higher even though Rice hit .298 versus Evans' .272. Would love to see him get on a Veterans Committee ballot one of these years.
Runner-up: Bobby Bonds. Not as good as his son, Barry, and not quite a Hall of Famer, but his career WAR is in the top 20 all time among right fielders.
P: Kevin Brown (1986-2005)
Stats: 211-144, 3.28 ERA, 3,256 IP, 3,079 H, 2,397 SO
Career WAR: 68.5
Higher WAR than ... Jim Palmer, Carl Hubbell, John Smoltz
But he didn't spend three years as a closer! From 1996 through 2001, in the midst of the steroid era, Brown posted a 2.53 ERA. And he had a 2.39 ERA in 2003. And a 21-win season in 1992. He certainly deserved to get more of a hearing from the voters than one ballot.
Runner-up: Rick Reuschel. Played for a lot of bad and mediocre Cubs teams in the '70s, otherwise would have won more than 214 games.
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.
So I was on an email chain with some friends the other day, and my friend Messina joked about when the first middle reliever will get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Which led somebody else to ask, "Who are the best middle relievers of all time?" I suggested Jeff Nelson. Somebody else suggested Kent Tekulve.
Which gets us to this post. Tekulve, the skinny, bespectacled submariner with the Pirates and Phillies in the 1970s and '80s, spent much too time as a closer to qualify for this list -- 184 career saves. I want guys who were true middle relievers their entire careers. I set these parameters: at least 80 percent of career games in relief, fewer than 50 saves and the highest career WAR.
Let's see who we get ...
10. Scot Shields (12.2 WAR) -- Shields was a rookie on the 2002 World Series champion Angels and did make 13 starts in 2003 before going on a nice run in the bullpen. From 2002 to 2008, he posted a 2.98 ERA when offense was still high, and he threw 105.1 innings in 2004 (only one reliever since has topped 100 innings, Scott Proctor in 2006).
9. Matt Thornton (12.7 WAR) -- Thornton was a first-round pick of the Mariners in 1998 but didn't reach the majors until 2004. Too wild as a starter, the hard-throwing lefty made one start as a rookie but has been in relief ever since and has just 23 career saves. He did get a chance to be the White Sox's closer at the start of 2011 but blew saves in four of his five appearances and was moved back to a setup role. He has a career 3.43 ERA and even made the 2010 All-Star team.
8. Eric Plunk (13.4 WAR) -- A big right-hander who helped set up Dennis Eckersley with the A's in 1988 and '89, Plunk had a good stretch of work from '88 through '96 with the A's, Yankees and Indians, posting a 3.19 ERA over 722 innings. Known for his thick glasses, Plunk was also involved in two different trades for Rickey Henderson (he went to the A's when the Yankees got Henderson and then went to the Yankees when the A's got Henderson back), which is at least the answer to a trivia question.
7. Larry Andersen (13.7 WAR) -- Yes, Andersen with an "e." Andersen has an even more infamous trade background: He was the guy the Astros sent to the Red Sox to acquire a minor leaguer named Jeff Bagwell. Now a broadcaster with the Phillies, Andersen had a tremendous two-year peak in '89 and '90 (when he was traded) with ERAs under 2.00 both years while pitching a combined 183.1 innings.
6. Jeff Nelson (14.8 WAR) -- So I had a good guess. A 6-foot-8 guy who came from the side with a hard, sweeping slider (maybe the biggest-breaking slider I've ever seen), Nellie was death to right-handers. I don't know how right-handed batters ever hit it. He came up with the Mariners and went to the Yankees along with Tino Martinez in a bad trade by the Mariners. He was a key guy for the Yankees as they won four titles in five years, posting a 3.24 ERA in the postseason over those five seasons in 36 appearances.
5. Joaquin Benoit (14.8 WAR) -- Benoit is up to 48 career saves, so he might get bumped off this list next year. Not that we'll run this list again next year. I forgot that the Rangers kept trying to make him a starter when he first came up; he made 55 starts early in his career before moving to the bullpen (he had a 6.06 career ERA as a starter, so that time didn't help his WAR total).
4. Arthur Rhodes (15.0 WAR) -- Rhodes was a top pitching prospect in the minors who reached the majors right at the dawn of the steroids era. Maybe if he'd come up at another time he'd have eventually settled in; the mid-'90s ruined many young pitching prospects. Rhodes lasted until he was 41, pitching for nine teams, mostly with the Orioles and Mariners. He joined the Cardinals at the end of 2011 in his final season and won a ring with them.
3. Steve Reed (17.7 WAR) -- Another sidearmer/submariner, Reed's best years came with the Rockies in the mid-'90s, so his dominant seasons look better once you factor in Coors Field. He had a 2.15 ERA in 84 innings in 1995, valued at 4.1 WAR, and a career 3.63 ERA.
2. Paul Quantrill (18.0 WAR) -- This is getting exciting! Quantrill spent his first few years starting and relieving before taking his sinker permanently to the bullpen in 1997. In the heart of the steroids era, he had a 2.81 ERA from 1997 to 2003 with the Blue Jays and Dodgers. The rubber-armed Quantrill led his league in appearances each season from 2001 to 2004. That was his last good year, as Joe Torre ran him into the ground with 86 games and 95 innings. In Game 4 of the ALCS, it was Quantrill who gave up David Ortiz's 12th-inning walk-off home run.
1. Mark Eichhorn (19.3 WAR) -- Fittingly, we end with another sidearmer. How he became a sidearmer is interesting. He reached the majors with Toronto in 1982 with a conventional style and made seven starts but hurt his shoulder, forcing him to eventually drop down with a release point below his belt. He didn't make it back to the majors until 1986, when he had one of the great relief seasons of all time with the Blue Jays. He went 14-6 with a 1.72 ERA and 10 saves while pitching 157 innings -- all in relief -- with 166 strikeouts (Eichhorn didn't have quite enough innings to qualify, but no starter averaged more strikeouts per nine in the AL that year). At 7.4, Baseball-Reference ranks it only behind Goose Gossage's 1975 season and John Hiller's 1973 season for single-season relief WAR. The next year, Eichhorn pitched 89 games and 127.2 innings. He had other fine seasons like a 1.98 ERA in 82 innings for the Angels in 1991 before finishing up his career in 1996.
So there you go. Just in case you want to impress your friends with obscure baseball knowledge.
Josh Donaldson is unlikely to become a Hall of Famer, but he's certainly in the midst of one of the most unusual careers I can remember. Look at where Donaldson stood entering the 2013 season. The one-time minor league catcher, who had been acquired from the Cubs in 2008, was entering his age-27 season and had appeared briefly with the A's in 2010 and then hit .241/.289/.398 in 75 games in 2012, playing regularly at third base down the stretch. Still, that batting line hardly indicated a player who was about to blossom into one of the best players in the league.
Donaldson became Oakland's starting third baseman in 2013 and hit .301/.384/.499 with 24 home runs and 93 RBIs while flashing outstanding defense at third base. He finished fourth in the MVP voting that season. Freed from the constraints of catching -- he's talked about how being a backstop in the minors was stressful because he worried about how to handle the pitching staff -- his bat finally developed. He showed surprising quickness and athleticism at third base. In 2014, he had another strong season, hitting .255/.342/.456 with 29 home runs and 98 RBIs, and finished eighth in the MVP voting.
The analytical methods loved Donaldson's two standout seasons. Baseball-Reference values Donaldson at 15.4 WAR over those two years, second among position players behind only Mike Trout; FanGraphs rates him third behind Trout and Andrew McCutchen. The MVP voters agreed that Donaldson has been one of the league's elite performers.
Then the A's traded him to the Blue Jays in November, a controversial deal considering that Donaldson is just entering his first year of arbitration and has four seasons remaining until free agency. Why would Oakland GM Billy Beane trade a still-inexpensive player, one of the best in the league?
The primary reason was that the A's wanted roster depth, so they acquired four players, three of whom could help in 2015. The second reason is more speculative: Does Beane think Donaldson has peaked? Some suggest that because Donaldson was a late bloomer he's also likely to decline more quickly. As the old Branch Rickey saying goes, trade him a year too early rather than a year too late.
The trouble with proving or disproving the hypothesis he has already peaked is that Donaldson's career arc is so unusual that there just aren't other players like him. I went searching for players since 1950 who were among the best in baseball in their age 27-28 seasons but who hadn't done much before that to see if there was somebody comparable -- and then to see how those players aged.
First, I was surprised to see where Donaldson ranked: His 15.4 WAR puts him tied for 13th in age 27-28 value with Chuck Knoblauch, just behind Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Eddie Mathews and just ahead of Chase Utley, Mike Schmidt and Joe Morgan. Most of the players in the top 50 are Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers or near Hall of Famers such as Dave Parker and Dale Murphy.
Anyway, I did find a few similar players. Let's take a look.
George Foster (14.3 WAR at 27-28): Foster is a bit of a stretch to include here. He actually made his debut with the Giants in 1969 when he was just 20 and got a chance to play regularly in 1971 when he was traded to the Reds. He didn't play well, played sparingly in 1972 and spent most of 1973 in the minors. He had his breakout season in 1975, when he was 26, not 27, and also had played well in a part-time role in 1974 -- thus my reluctance to include him. Anyway, he remained a good player through age 32, when he signed with the Mets as a free agent and went downhill (as Mets fans well know).
Alex Gordon (13.5 WAR at 27-28): Gordon did have his first big season in 2011 at age 27, but had spent all or parts of the previous four years in the majors and was worth 4.8 WAR over his first two seasons. So he didn't exactly come out of nowhere, although he had spent much of 2010 in the minors. Gordon has continued to play well at age 29-30, although has batting numbers haven't quite matched his age-27 level of production.
Edgar Martinez (11.6 WAR at 27-28): This is the best match on the list. A late bloomer in the minors, Martinez was then held in Triple-A for an extra couple of years as the Mariners played Jim Presley at third base because they didn't think Martinez had the arm to play there. Finally given a chance to start in 1990 at age 27, he hit .302 and then .307 in 1991 and then won a batting title, with a .343 average, in 1992. He was one of the best hitters in the league for many years after that.
Brian Giles (10.6 WAR at 27-28): Again, a bit of a stretch. He hit .355 in 121 at-bats at age 25 with Cleveland and then hit .268/.368/.450 at 26 in 451 plate appearances. He posted a .396 OBP at 27, got traded to the Pirates and had a stretch of monster seasons from ages 28 through 32 -- and several more good ones after that.
Ben Zobrist (9.5 WAR at 27-28): We're getting further away from Donaldson's WAR -- Zobrist ranks 134th on the list of age 27-28 value -- but this is a pretty good match. Zobrist hit .200 in 80 games at ages 25-26 and then played well in a part-time role at 27. He had his big breakout season for the Rays at age 28 in 2009 and has averaged 5.8 WAR per season from 29 through 33.
So, in the past 60-plus years, there have been two really good comps for Donaldson: Martinez and Zobrist. One guy (Martinez) went on to have a Hall of Fame-caliber career and the other has been an extremely valuable player the past five seasons, probably the most underrated player in the game. I didn't find anyone who was a big star at 27-28 after having done nothing before that and then flamed out rather quickly. (Note: I'm not saying there haven't been excellent players who declined after 28, just no player who matches Donaldson's career arc.)
This suggests that Donaldson should once again be a potential MVP candidate for the Blue Jays in 2015 and remain a very good player into his early 30s.
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.
The major-league baseball offseason still has a ways to go, but we thought we’d take a look at how teams have changed defensively heading into 2015. Here’s our look at the American League:
AL EASTBaltimore Orioles
The Orioles lost Gold Glove right fielder Nick Markakis, but there have been questions as to just how effective he is defensively, as the metrics (-13 Runs Saved in right field the past three seasons) never matched the eye test.
Baltimore should be better with the return of Manny Machado at third base and Matt Wieters behind the plate, though they're already formidable in the latter spot with Caleb Joseph. Baltimore ranked first in Defensive Runs Saved as a team in 2014 and with those two back and the re-signing of J.J. Hardy, they could be just as good again in 2015.
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox changed the look of their pitching staff such that it’s very groundball friendly. That works given what Boston has at first base, second base and third base, with Mike Napoli, Dustin Pedroia and newly signed Pablo Sandoval (four Runs Saved last season). But Boston's biggest goal should be to do what it can to develop Xander Bogaerts, who had -10 Runs Saved at shortstop last season.
Hanley Ramirez in left field will be an interesting adventure and the first few times he plays a ball off the Green Monster will be worth watching. The Red Sox still have some decisions to make with Shane Victorino, Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Daniel Nava among those fighting for the other two outfield spots.
Behind the plate, they expect big things from Christian Vazquez, who possesses an excellent throwing arm and showed himself to be a solid pitch framer in his 54 games behind the plate. He'll be further mentored by another solid defensive catcher in new acquisition Ryan Hanigan.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays significantly boosted the offense they'll get out of the catching spot with the departures of Hanigan and Jose Molina and the addition of Rene Rivera and they won't lose anything defensively because Rivera rates as Molina's equal in terms of pitch framing and is a more effective basestealing deterrent.
It's not fair to judge Steven Souza by one miraculous catch to end a no-hitter, but if he's that good in the outfield, the Rays will catch a lot of fly balls that others won't, so long as Desmond Jennings stays healthy and Kevin Kiermaier hits enough to stay in the lineup. The defense won't miss Wil Myers and his -11 Runs Saved in two seasons in right field.
New York Yankees
Didi Gregorius is no Derek Jeter, but Jeter is no Gregorius when it comes to defensive play. The Yankees finished with -12 Defensive Runs Saved last season and we'd expect them to improve by at least 10 runs there, especially given the full-time presence stellar-fielding Chase Headley, who was terrific after his acquisition from the Padres.
The big question mark will be at second base where scouts have concerns about Rob Refsnyder, the leading candidate to be the everyday guy there, which is why the Yankees agreed to a deal with Stephen Drew.
Toronto Blue Jays
So long as Russell Martin can handle R.A. Dickey's knuckleball, the Blue Jays made a huge upgrade at catcher both offensively and defensively. Martin, judged by some to be the game's best pitch framer, is the type of catcher who can lower a staff's ERA by himself (so long as he's healthy).
At third base, Josh Donaldson covers a tremendous amount of ground. Donaldson has been better than the guy he's replacing, Brett Lawrie, though at their best, there probably isn't as big of a gap as last year's numbers might indicate, given Donaldson's adventurous throwing arm.
The big question will be who plays center field. Right now, it's slated to be rookie Dalton Pompey, who had a couple of Web Gems in a brief stint. If he rates major-league average, that'll be an upgrade from what the Blue Jays got from Colby Rasmus and company last season.
AL CENTRALChicago White Sox
The White Sox made big moves to upgrade their team, though defense wasn't their center of attention. Melky Cabrera is a below-average left fielder (-5 Runs Saved each of the last two seasons). Adam LaRoche may end up DHing, but if the White Sox want to put the best defensive team out there, they'd play him at first base and let Jose Abreu just hit. There is a considerable difference between the two.
The White Sox should also have Avisail Garcia every day in right field. He still has something to learn based on the -10 Runs Saved he accumulated in 400 innings there last season (due mostly to his failure to catch balls hit to the deepest parts of the park).
The departure of Asdrubal Cabrera clears the way for a better shortstop (Cabrera's flash was terrific the rest of his defensive work didn't match up statistically). Jose Ramirez already showed he's more than adequate there (four Runs Saved in just under 500 innings) but he may just be keeping the position warm for Francisco Lindor.
There may also be a surprise upgrade in the outfield if the Indians decide not to DH Brandon Moss, as he's shown a modest amount of success in past tries in right field.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals haven't done much to their lineup this offseason, other than swap out Nori Aoki for Alex Rios and there's little difference between the two stat-wise. Expect to see lots of Jarrod Dyson serving as Rios' late-game caddy.
The Tigers should be better defensively having let Torii Hunter walk while acquiring Yoenis Cespedes in trade from the Red Sox. Austin Jackson had amazing numbers for his first two seasons, but then his defense became rather ordinary, according to the metrics. Anthony Gose figures to be the new center fielder and he rates about average from what the numbers have shown so far.
The return of Jose Iglesias could do wonders to the Tigers infield, given his penchant for Web Gem-caliber plays. This is a big one to keep an eye out for.
The Tigers have also committed to using more shifts, particularly against right-handed hitters, considering they got great value from their (not-often used) shifting in 2014.
General manager Terry Ryan is adamant that Torii Hunter is still capable of playing a good right field. The defensive metrics (-28 Runs Saved the last two seasons) beg to differ. That could lead to some interesting decisions for new manager Paul Molitor and his staff.
AL WESTHouston Astros
One of the offseason's earliest acquisitions was the Astros netting Hank Conger in trade from the Angels and there was definitely a defensive motivation behind that. By our calculations, Conger netted more called strikes above average than any other catcher in baseball last season (in other words, he's really good at framing pitches).
The acquisition of Jed Lowrie was a case of prioritizing offense over defense at shortstop. Lowrie has totaled -28 Runs Saved at shortstop the past two seasons.
Lastly, it will be interesting to see where the Astros slot Jake Marisnick, who could end up in left field, though a case could be made for moving him to center. Marisnick has 16 career Runs Saved in just over 500 innings in center field. Current Astros center fielder Dexter Fowler had -20 Defensive Runs Saved last season.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels shipped reliable second baseman Howie Kendrick across town to the Dodgers, and could go with either Josh Rutledge or Grant Green there. Both probably won't fare as well as Kendrick did.
The acquisition of Matt Joyce from the Rays may have a positive defensive effect if it slides Josh Hamilton (-9 Runs Saved in the outfield last season) into an everyday DH spot.
The Athletics infield underwent a major makeover this offseason, with the new look featuring Brett Lawrie at third base, Marcus Semien at shortstop and Ike Davis at first base (with holdover Eric Sogard at second).
Lawrie could be as good as Josh Donaldson if he stays healthy, which has been a challenge. Davis rated above average as a rookie but has been average to below average since then. Semien is a question mark.
The Mariners haven't done much to alter their defense from last season, the one adjustment being the addition of Seth Smith, who rates decently (a combined six Defensive Runs Saved in 2014) but doesn't necessarily wow.
Prince Fielder returns though it's worth wondering if the Rangers would be better off making him a full-time DH since he has always rated poorly in the field and Mitch Moreland at least represents an average first baseman.
Elvis Andrus hit an odd bump in the road last season, as his defensive numbers, which had been top-10 caliber at shortstop from 2011 to 2013 fell to bottom-5 (-13 Runs Saved) in 2014. That was probably just a fluke, but 2015 will go a ways in determining if Andrus has slipped.
Anyway, if I did have a vote, I've come around to using "wins above average" as a good starting point for examining Hall of Fame candidates. I'm a little more interested in peak performance than pure longevity. Obviously, the easy Hall of Fame choices such as Randy Johnson had both. Sometimes, a guy such as Pedro Martinez had such a dominant peak that he's an easy choice, as well.
By looking at wins above average instead of wins above replacement, we focus more on Hall of Fame-level seasons and give less credit or no credit to seasons where the player was more or less just compiling counting statistics. An average player is worth about 2.0 WAR per season, so we're looking at value above that level. Some guys -- such as Mike Mussina or Fred McGriff -- seem to be dismissed for being judged as "compilers" rather than big stars. But is that perception or reality?
Here are the wins above average totals for the 20 strong Hall of Fame candidates on this year's ballot, via Baseball-Reference.com. (Doesn't include Lee Smith, as relievers need to be judged differently.) I also included each player's career WAR, the difference between WAR and WAA, and then the percentage of each player's career value that could labeled "peak" value.
(In some ways, this is similar to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which combines two aspects of a player's career to arrive at a JAWS score: his best seven seasons and his career value.)
Anyway, what can we learn from this chart? The biggest compiler here is Craig Biggio, with only 44 percent of his career value coming from wins above average. Mussina did have a lot of "non-peak" value, but his career wins above average still ranks in the top 10. In fact, he should be viewed as less of a compiler than John Smoltz, who may get elected this year while Mussina struggles to get even one-third of the votes.
McGriff, on the other hand, rates low across the board, both in wins above average and percentage peak value. McGriff's proponents like to argue that he hit 493 home runs and did it clean. That's the difficult part of judging this era if you're going to factor in PEDs: Do you give McGriff extra credit because there are no steroid rumors attached to him, and thus he compares favorably to Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey?
The player perhaps most helped by this method is Larry Walker, which makes sense. He had a relatively short career, in part due to myriad injuries, but his career WAR is high, with 66 percent of that value coming from wins above average. I'm still skeptical about Walker due to the short career and the Coors Field boost. Yes, WAR makes park adjustments, but I don't believe it accurately accounts for how much a good hitter is boosted by playing in Coors. Edgar Martinez may have hit .400 if he'd played there.
So if I had a ballot, which 10 guys would I vote for? I would vote for PED guys and I'd vote for my top 10 players, regardless of trying to rig the ballot to help certain players: Bonds, Clemens, Johnson, Pedro, Bagwell, Schilling, Piazza, Mussina, Trammell, Edgar.
Others I'd classify as Hall of Famers: Smoltz, Biggio, Raines, McGwire.
On the fence: Kent, Walker, Sheffield, Sosa, McGriff.
Not a Hall of Famer: Delgado, Smith.
It also wasn't completely true to history. One of the key plot points involves Turing designing and building a machine -- an early version of a computer -- to break Enigma. In truth, Turing's machine was an improvement on a Polish device. And Turing didn't collaborate solely with a small team to break the German code; there were thousands of people working on it.
What obligation does a movie -- even one "based on a true story" -- have to historical accuracy? After all, it's just a movie. As I researched Turing and thought of this, I realized a similar problem exists with the Hall of Fame and its voting process.
What's the obligation of Hall of Fame voters? We know the Hall of Fame is supposed to tell the story of baseball, through exhibits and artifacts and plaques honoring the game's best players, managers and important contributors. But that's where it gets complicated. Hall of Fame voters are allowed to tell the story they choose, with little to no direction on the ultimate objectives beyond the vague idea of electing the best players. But how many players? What makes a Hall of Famer? Can voters erase the careers of Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds? That's why we have these heated debates every year.
Anyway, I had vowed to stay away from writing about the Hall of Fame this year but ... well, people love to read about the Hall of Fame. Mostly, of course, people just like to argue. Here are six issues with the current system -- and a potential solution:
1. The 10-person ballot is clearly a flawed concept.
Think about it: What are Hall of Fame voters -- active or honorary members of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- asked to do? They are presented a ballot with a list of candidates, with the purpose of electing recently retired players to the Hall of Fame. Candidates who receive 75 percent of the votes will earn election. The voters are instructed to vote for the "candidate[s] of your choice." This year's ballot includes 34 names. Simple enough. Voters, however, are restricted to voting for a maximum of 10 players, implying a ranking or hierarchy of players must necessarily be involved. But no such wording exists on the ballot. Voters don't list their choices in order. Players are either "in" or "out."
The fact that the BBWAA has failed to understand and fix this flawed logic has led to ballots like this one:
Yes, I left Randy, Pedro off my ballot. Counting on fellow BBWAA voters to elect. Trammell, Walker needed me more. pic.twitter.com/z6OnfJtZAf— Mike Berardino (@MikeBerardino) December 29, 2014
I'm not knocking Mike, but he's decided to not vote for two of the most accomplished players on the ballot. If voters were instructed to vote for the best players, Mike would have voted for Johnson and Pedro. He's not the only one who has been forced to strategize his ballot because he wants to vote for more than 10 players. Others like Buster Olney decided to abstain from voting this year, hoping instead the 10-player limit gets changed in the future.
2. A lack of understanding of ballot history.
The reasoning for not changing the rule is, I suppose, that the limit on the number of players has always been there or that no more than a handful are ever elected in a given year anyway.
Consider this, however: Every Hall of Fame ballot contains more Hall of Famers than are elected that year. Some random examples:
1998: Seven (one elected)
1991: Eight (three elected)
1990: Eight (two elected)
1982: 14 (two elected)
1973: 15 (one elected)
1964: 19 (one elected in a special run-off)
3. That said, the 10-player limit may not be keeping anyone out of the Hall of Fame.
Well, it may have kept Craig Biggio out last year, when he missed election by two votes. He will likely get in this year, however. But the average Hall of Fame ballot contains fewer than 10 votes:
Even last year's crowded ballot, with newcomers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas alongside all the strong leftover candidates and the steroid-suspicion-tainted guys, didn't quite approach 10 players per voter and was a big increase over recent averages. We may get a similar result this year, with high-profile newcomers like Johnson, Martinez and John Smoltz, but the list of automatic new candidates thins a bit after that.
But there is a potential ripple effect going on here. Clearly, with an average of 8.4 votes per ballot, many of the 571 voters last year did turn in a full ballot, and presumably some of those would have voted for more than 10. So that holds down vote totals for candidates like Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez or Curt Schilling, and those players fail to develop the "momentum" that helps propel disputed candidates forward to election.
The anti-steroids voters have won this debate so far, at least in the cases of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, with some effect on the totals for Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell. Here are the two sides of the debate from two of the most prominent BBWAA members.
As written in this space many times, I think all players should be judged within the context of the era in which they played, and during McGwire's career, the sport was saturated with performance-enhancing drugs, largely because over the period of about 15 years, no one within the institution of baseball -- not the union leaders, not MLB owners, not the commissioner, not the clean players, nor the media that covered the sport -- aggressively addressed the growing problem. Through that inaction, what evolved was a chemical Frankenstein of a game. Like it or not, that's what the sport was in that time: no drug testing, lots of drug use, lots of drug users, lots of money being made by everybody. (And by the way, no team, baseball executive or player has offered to give back the money made in that time.)Tom Verducci:
The idea of retroactive morality is ridiculous, especially given that the folks in the sport had a strong idea by the mid-'90s that there was a growing problem, and nobody did anything about it. Here's Jose Canseco being asked about his steroid use on national television before the 1988 playoffs, right after Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal. And here's a Bob Nightengale story from 1995 in which then-interim commissioner Bud Selig was asked about the problem, making mention of a "private meeting" the year before. Yet serious testing and penalties really weren't in place until 2006.
First, you must understand the voting process. A ballot is sent to me in the mail -- a personal ballot, just as it is sent to about 570 baseball writers eligible to vote. This is not an SAT test or a trivia contest. There are no "right" and "wrong" answers. This one ballot is my judgment. Yes, I am being asked to be "judge" or juror, in the parlance of some writers uncomfortable with responsibility, but I am only one of many hundreds.
When I vote for a player, I am upholding him for the highest individual honor possible. My vote is an endorsement of a career, not part of it, and how it was achieved. Voting for a known steroid user is endorsing steroid use. Having spent too much of the past two decades or so covering baseball on the subject of steroids -- what they do, how the game was subverted by them, and how those who stayed away from them were disadvantaged -- I cannot endorse it.
The Hall of Fame itself has refused to weigh in on the issue, leaving the voters to make their own judgment on history.
5. Are we even debating the right issue?
In a recent article on Bill James Online titled "Fixing the Hall," Bill James made an interesting point:
The first thing that should be noted, about the Hall of Fame's selection process, is that more than 99 percent of the shoddy work has been done not by the BBWAA, but by the various and sundry and mundry committees that have acted on the Hall of Fame's behalf.
It is an odd thing, that:
1) MOST of the people who are in the Hall of Fame were not actually selected by the BBWAA ...
2) ALL or virtually all of the unworthy selections to the Hall of Fame were not made by the BBWAA, and yet ...
3) Discussion about the Hall of Fame selection process is 90 percent focused on the BBWAA voting process.
James is right. The BBWAA has elected 115 players, but there are 305 men -- and one woman -- in the Hall of Fame. The various and sundry committees have elected 96 major league players (and 35 Negro Leaguers). The BBWAA hasn't helped itself in recent years, however, by electing some of its weakest members (Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice) while leaving out more worthy candidates.
6. The BBWAA doesn't elect enough players.
Aside from steroids, this is the issue that gets fans most riled up, that the BBWAA is simply too tough, that its standards are too high considering the caliber of players already enshrined, that their favorite player is getting passed over.
That's true; as a collective voting bloc, the BBWAA is tough. A low point came two years ago when nobody got elected. But look at the average number of votes per ballot. Individually, voters do want to see more players get elected. Other than obvious choices like Maddux and Glavine, they just have trouble agreeing on whom to elect. There were enough votes last year to elect 11 candidates, but only three got in.
This isn't surprising. If we look at the 115 Hall of Famers elected by the BBWAA, the midway point in career WAR is right around 70: Half the Hall of Famers are above that, half are below. (If we included all Hall of Fame players, it's way below 70.) Anyway, this year's ballot contains 15 players with between 55 and 85 career WAR. Pedro Martinez may seem like an easy selection, but it's the other 14 that we argue about, and while they are strong candidates, few are getting in right now.
Solution: Elect a minimum number of players each year.
It's the one thing most of us do agree on: We want more Hall of Famers. Yet the writers haven't elected at least two candidates in back-to-back years since 2005. Meanwhile, we managers and umpires and team owners and players from the 1800s keep getting enshrined.
Bill James again:
The first thing that needs to be done, to fix the Hall of Fame system, is: Terminate all of the side committees. Close all of the back doors and side doors and windows and air vents or however the hell it was that Alex Pompez and Travis Jackson and Dracula got into the building. Get rid of those, and promise us that there will never, ever, ever be any more of them. That's a good start.
Next, establish a rule that four persons must be selected to the Hall of Fame in each year; not four persons MAY be selected; four persons MUST be selected.
A regular flow of entries of a fixed and steady number -- coming out of a consistent and well-defined process -- creates standards. The Hall of Fame suffers from indefinite standards because inconsistent and incompatible processes are used to make the selections. Travis Jackson is in; Alan Trammell -- obviously a better player than Travis Jackson -- is out. This is because those passing judgment on Alan Trammell's career are different in every way than those who plucked Travis Jackson from the lost island of New York Giants history. If four candidates and only four candidates could be selected each year in a well-thought-out public process, Rick Ferrell, Alex Pompez, Eppa Rixey and Dracula would never have been selected because they could never have fought their way past the better-qualified candidates who have been left out.
James proposed a radical tournament-style election that would have 32 candidates running off against each other in a playoff, one candidate nominated from each team plus two at-large candidates from remaining players, managers and executives. I love the idea, in part because it asks voters to weigh in on history: Was Edgar Martinez better than Larry Walker? Was Jeff Bagwell better than Tim Raines? It forces voters to at least consider all the candidates and creates a more defined goal.
Of course, the idea is way too fun to ever be considered.
The important point is that the current process doesn't work. As James writes, "The BBWAA has little history of selecting unqualified candidates, but the BBWAA has passed on -- rejected -- a large number of well-qualified candidates. The BBWAA whiffed on Joe Torre, Ron Santo, Nellie Fox, Tim Raines, Luis Tiant, Dwight Evans and others. These are failures, too. These failures create pressure to open the alternative admissions process -- and the alternative admissions process is a dart board."
On Jan. 6, this year's election results will be announced. I expect Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Craig Biggio to get elected. While we'll celebrate their achievements and careers, we'll also criticize a system that failed to elect Raines or Bagwell or Schilling.
Then we'll start up again next December.
1. Danny Salazar, Indians: 4.17 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.61 ERA, Steamer 3.63
Corey Kluber isn’t going to be the last bit of good news in the Indians’ rotation. While you could pick Carlos Carrasco or Trevor Bauer for this list as well (especially if we took it beyond 10 pitchers), Salazar should be the best of the Tribe’s gaggle of up-and-comers. There’s no question about his mid-90s heat, his slider generates lots of ground-ball opportunities, and he has added a good swing-and-miss change of pace to give himself a three-pitch arsenal. But even a guy whiffing 10 men per nine needs a little help from his friends. After earning an early demotion, upon his return Salazar got a big benefit from the Indians’ in-season improvements on defense after a historically awful start on D. Assuming the Indians are done stress-testing the limits of defensive possibility, Salazar should be able to settle in and do his thing over a full season as one of the best young starters in the league.
2. Michael Pineda, Yankees: 3.42 RA9 career | 2015 James 2.74 ERA, Steamer 3.91
It may be even easier to nominate Pineda for this list than it was to name Machado among the hitters, but before you cry foul, think on this: Newly minted teammate Nathan Eovaldi is a year younger and already has nearly twice as many career big league starts (79) as Pineda does (41). Pineda has pitched only in parts of two seasons in the majors -- most of 2011 for the Mariners and his 13 starts last year as a Yankee; I don’t know if we’ve talked this much about a guy who hasn’t pitched all that much since Joe Magrane 25 years ago. We can’t just chalk it up to New York navel-gazing. As Pineda promptly proved, the talent is there, reflected in last year’s 8-1 K-BB ratio. So let’s skip over last year’s suspension and the years lost to injury and focus on the idea that his first 30-start season is going to be something special.
3. Zack Wheeler, Mets: 4.08 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.57 ERA, Steamer 3.90
He doesn’t have Jake deGrom’s hair or Matt Harvey’s panache, but the Mets will happily “settle” for another top-shelf starting pitcher in what might quickly develop into the best rotation in the division within the next year or two. (Yes, including the Nationals. Or the Marlins’ rotation of the moment, assuming everyone’s healthy.) In the second half, Wheeler really came into his own, goosing his whiff rate beyond one per inning, and he generates a lot of ground-ball outs on his hard slider, curve and four-seam fastball (you read that right). If the Mets had a premium glove at shortstop (not least to compensate for Daniel Murphy’s shortcomings at second), Wheeler would be a quick, easy bet for dominance. In the meantime, count on better run support in 2015 to help him generate a better record as he comes into his own.
4. Drew Smyly, Rays: 3.45 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.30 ERA, Steamer 3.47
He’s the immediate payoff for putting David Price in Detroit, and the timing could not be better for the Rays, as they will control the next four years of Smyly’s time just as he hits the age range when he’s primed for regular rotation work. With a nice fastball/cutter mix, he generates a lot of swinging strikes, and working in front of the intensely defense-minded Rays, he shone down the stretch before being shut down. The brass may have scrammed from Tampa Bay, but with Smyly joining a rotation stocked with Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and eventually Matt Moore, there’s still plenty of gold on the roster.
5. Danny Duffy, Royals: 3.99 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.67, Steamer 4.00
The Royals may never have to face the kind of second-guessing the Nationals did over shutting down Stephen Strasburg in 2012, but you can’t tell me Duffy wouldn’t have been a better choice to start a postseason game than Jeremy Guthrie, even allowing for questions about his health after he missed most of September. That’s because southpaw starters with heat that sits at 94 mph don’t grow on trees, and pairing that with Duffy’s biting curve is just tasty for everyone who doesn’t have to face him. Last year was Duffy’s first shot at a full-time rotation gig since 2011 after losing much of 2012 and 2013 to Tommy John surgery and recovery, but the league didn’t catch up to him down the stretch, eking out a .602 second-half OPS after putting up a .607 OPS in the first half. Armed with any kind of run support, he’ll have a big year.
6. Kevin Gausman, Orioles: 4.36 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.69 ERA, Steamer 4.19
You can argue with me over whether Chris Tillman has already had his big breakthrough, but after an awesome stretch run from him, I’m looking forward to the next breakout in Baltimore. Like Salazar, Gausman cooks with gas, throwing mid-90s heat while mixing in a sweet splitter as a swing-and-miss pitch. Pulled in and out of the rotation on an as-needed basis, Gausman was adaptable, but I’m giving him some benefit of the doubt that, handed a regular role instead of being skipped or shipped out, he’ll break out in his age-24 season.
Tony Cingrani, Reds: 3.69 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.46 ERA, Steamer 3.75
The Reds traded from their rotation depth this winter, and while some of that was frustration that their formula for success hadn’t generated that much of it, the knowledge that they would be getting Homer Bailey back from the DL and had Cingrani ready to step into a full-time gig didn’t hurt. Pitching in the homer-happy Gap, the venue will never be the lefty Cingrani’s friend, not unless he improves his ground-ball rate. But he has the tools to help himself: consistent low-90s heat and a slider hitters pound into the ground. The hope is that reps will help him improve his touch and separation on his changeup, because he could use better depth in his off-speed arsenal to upset hitters’ timing.
8. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: 3.86 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.28, Steamer 3.75
This is going to be fun. Just standing there, Stroman is not the sort of guy whom prospect mavens drool over. Righties standing 5-foot-9 almost automatically get written off as relievers-to-be, not rotation regulars. But between good velocity (fastball sits around 93-94 mph) and a solid five-pitch assortment, he fills the bottom half of the zone with strikes and brings the game down to his level, posting a 4-1 K-BB ratio. You can add in that his already excellent debut season could have been even better with stronger defensive support (2.84 FIP), while ESPN Stats & Information’s Mark Simon reports that Stroman posted the third-lowest hard-hit rate in the majors among pitchers who threw 100 innings last season, just 10.9 percent. Back in the day, a lot of people said that Tim Lincecum was too short, and while there’s only one Freak, we may end up saying there’s only one Marcus Stroman too.
9. Kyle Gibson, Twins: 5.04 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.99 ERA, Steamer 4.55
This may not be as easy a case to make, but he is a prime example of what has become an organizational type for the Twins, a huge strike-thrower who pounds away low and outside and keeps his infield busy, sort of a bigger version of Scott Erickson with even better command. As ESPN Stats & Info’s Mark Simon tweeted earlier this month, Gibson kept some pretty extraordinary company last year, tying for second in the majors in starts with seven or more innings pitched and no runs allowed with six. If the Twins’ infield defense jells this year, he’ll stay on that list.
10. Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees: 4.38 RA9 career | 2015 James 3.65 ERA, Steamer 4.44
Eovaldi is already in his third organization before he has even faced his first spin with arbitration, which to keep the cup half-full says something about his desirability. It’s easy to love someone with a high-70s curve, high-80s slider and high-90s fastball, but as Keith Law has pointed out, despite a good amount of experience he’s still very much a work in progress, looking to gain touch on his curve and change. He faded badly down the stretch after carrying a heavy first-half workload, but per FanGraphs he was also let down by his defense, ranking seventh in the majors in differential between his FIP and ERA in 2014. Pitching in New York against tough American League East lineups with the DH won’t make matters any easier, but handled with care, he could blossom into a workhorse.
Relievers to mention because they’re people too: Neil Ramirez of the Cubs and Carter Capps of the Marlins. Yes, high-90s heat is always going to turn heads, and yes, they might be one injury away from racking up big saves totals for those of you who worry about that sort of thing.
Finally, I really want to put Tyler Matzek of the Rockies on this list because of his talent, but in the history of formulas for frustration, say you start with a top-shelf young pitching prospect, add Coors Field and you get ... well, here’s hoping things turn out better than they have so far for Jhoulys Chacin. They are both on the list of guys all non-Rockies baseball fans would probably love to see pitching anywhere else but Denver.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.
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.
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.
Yes, you can get all the basic stats you need and many more at sites like Baseball-Reference.com, but sometimes it's much easier to flip through a book than to type in "Adeiny Hechavarria" or "Jarrod Saltalamacchia." Plus, the book includes much more than a player's basic year-by-year stats. It's loaded with fun stuff like Bill James' starting pitching rankings for each month (Clayton Kershaw started the season at No. 1 and remained there all season), average velocity through the years for pitchers, individual and team baserunning data, pitchers' repertoires, manager tendencies, leaderboards, left/right data, 2015 projections, Bill James specialties like Win Shares and his Hall of Fame monitor, and much more.
Here are 10 random things I learned from flipping through the book:
1. The Kansas City Royals were only the 10th-best baserunning team in the majors.
BIS uses extra bases taken (such as first to third on a single), outs made while advancing, times doubled off, double plays grounded into and stolen base gain to arrive at an overall "net gain" of bases. The Nationals were No. 1 at +113 while the Royals were +52. Kansas City did rank No. 1 in stolen base gain at +81, but were -29 on the bases otherwise, thanks in large part to Billy Butler. At -31 bases, he ranked tied with Alex Avila as the worst baserunner in the majors. (Butler went first to third on a single once all season.) The best? Ben Revere of the Phillies had a net gain of +54, followed by Leonys Martin of the Rangers at +42.
2. Two starting pitchers didn't allow a single stolen base: Hisashi Iwakuma and Doug Fister.
Baserunners were 0-for-8 stealing Iwakuma and just 0-for-1 against Fister. Scott Feldman of the Astros allowed the most stolen bases with 35. He allowed 30 the year before when he was with the Cubs and Orioles, so it wasn't just an Astros catchers couldn't throw out runners type of deal.
3. There were 33 home run robberies in 2014.
Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez each had two. Johnny Cueto and Bartolo Colon both benefited from two robberies. And poor Rene Rivera was the only hitter to lose two would-be home runs.
4. Brock Holt led the American League with a .349 average in "close and late" situations.
And Munenori Kawasaki was second at .346.
5. Josh Tomlin had the AL's best start of the year.
Against Seattle on June 28, the Cleveland right-hander allowed one hit with 11 K's and no walks for a Game Score of 96. Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout no-hitter scored 102 (the second-best nine-inning Game Score ever, behind Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout one-hitter).
6. Nathan Eovaldi led the NL in hits allowed .. and percentage of pitches in the strike zone.
7. Nolan Arenado hit 18 home runs -- 16 at home.
That's certainly one of the biggest home/road splits I've ever seen.
8. The Nationals went 15-4 against the Mets.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers did the same against the Diamondbacks, for the most wins one team had over another.
9. Giancarlo Stanton is projected to hit 40 home runs.
Jose Abreu is projected to lead the AL with 38 ... along with George Springer.
10. Terry Francona led the majors in intentional walks that backfired.
BIS kept track of all intentional walks and labeled them as good and not good, with the "not goods" further broken down into "bombs" -- when multiple runs scored after the IW. Francona led the majors with 51 intentional walks, 22 not goods and 13 bombs. Compare that to Ned Yost, who issued just 14 intentional walks.
Anyway, that's the kind of fun stuff you can find in the book. Check it out.
You have to say this about Billy Beane: The guy isn't afraid to make big trades.
The Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays completed an intriguing challenge trade on Friday night, in which the A's sent All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays for third baseman Brett Lawrie and three unproven players -- pitchers Sean Nolin and Kendall Graveman and minor league shortstop Franklin Barreto.
Most of the reactions on the Internet were like these ones:
Can't be shocked by the A's trading Josh Donaldson. They're going to trade everybody at some point. That's what they do.— Tim Kawakami (@timkawakami) November 29, 2014
How does Oakland give up the best 3B in the game, and a potential franchise player, in Josh Donaldson for any price? This blows my mind.— Steve E. (@KevinBassStache) November 29, 2014
the other crazy thing about the Josh Donaldson trade is that he's probably still only the third best hitter on the Blue Jays— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) November 29, 2014
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos adds one of the best all-around players in the majors in Donaldson, who has finished fourth and eighth in the American League MVP voting the past two seasons. Baseball-Reference WAR rates Donaldson the second-most valuable position player in the majors over the past two seasons at 15.4, behind only Mike Trout and ahead of Andrew McCutchen and Robinson Cano. Donaldson hit .255/.342/.456 in 2014 with 29 home runs and excellent defensive metrics.
The acquisition now gives the Blue Jays one of the strongest trios of hitters in the majors as Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion all ranked in the top 10 in the AL in home runs in 2014 with a combined 98. On top of the that, they added Russell Martin, who posted a .400 on-base percentage with the Pirates. Their lineup right now would look something like this:
SS Jose Reyes
C Russell Martin
DH Dioner Navarro/John Mayberry Jr.
LF Andy Dirks/Kevin Pillar
2B Maicer Izturis/Steve Tolleson
CF Dalton Pompey
For a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1993 -- the longest playoff drought in the majors -- you have to love the top of that order. It certainly projects to be one of the best lineups in the league. The Blue Jays were fourth in the AL in runs scored last year with their third basemen hitting .234/.287/.400. Donaldson would project to be about a 30-run improvement at the plate over what the Jays received in 2014. Donaldson is arbitration-eligible for the first time and is set to receive a big raise to the neighborhood of $4.5 million, but he's still under team control for four more seasons.
Manager John Gibbons also has lineup flexibility with the likes of Danny Valencia and Justin Smoak and second baseman Devon Travis, acquired from the Tigers for Anthony Gose, who could crack the lineup at some point during the season as well. The lineup leans right-handed with Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion and Martin all hitting from that side, so maybe the Jays could still attempt to re-sign switch-hitter Melky Cabrera for left field. It's all about winning now, with Bautista and Encarnacion still two of the best hitters in the league but on the other side of 30 and both with two years remaining on their contracts, plus rotation anchors Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey likely nearing the end of their production years.
The rotation currently looks like this:
SP Marcus Stroman
SP Drew Hutchison
SP J.A. Happ/Daniel Norris
Norris is one of the top pitching prospects in the game, a power lefty who climbed from Class A ball to the majors. If he's ready to make an impact, it could be a solid rotation with second-year righty Stroman perhaps ready to become the staff ace. And the Jays could still look to add another veteran arm here to add depth (although I like Stroman and Hutchison to improve in 2015).
All in all, it's a good deal for the Jays, who are making a big upgrade at third base without giving up players who figured to have a big impact in the next two seasons (other than losing Lawrie).
It's hard to see how this trade improves the A's for 2015. Lawrie, who turns 25 in January, is actually about four years younger than Donaldson but has more service time and is under team control for three more years. But he's nowhere near as good as Donaldson, although there's the chance he's worth 3-4 wins if he stays on the field for 140 games. After a strong 43-game stint as a rookie in 2011 during which he slugged .580, Lawrie hasn't hit as much as expected and has had trouble staying healthy. He's played just 177 games the past two seasons, hitting .252/.310/.406.
For the A's, then, it's also about the other players in the trade. Nolin, a 24-year-old left-hander has pitched two games in the majors, and Graveman, a right-hander drafted in the eighth round in 2013 who rose from Class A to the majors in 2014, were both starters in the minors. Neither were rated among Toronto's top 10 prospects in Baseball America's recent list but are viewed as major league-ready and so could compete for spots in the Oakland rotation.
Barreto, Toronto's No. 5 prospect, is the key to the deal for Beane, the one player with star potential. Barreto hit an impressive .311/.384/.481 with 29 steals in 73 games at short-season Vancouver, playing as an 18-year-old in a league consisting mostly of recent college draftees.
Oakland's lineup now looks something like this:
CF Coco Crisp
LF Brandon Moss
DH Billy Butler
RF Josh Reddick
C Derek Norris/Stephen Vogt
1B Ike Davis
2B Eric Sogard
SS Andy Parrino or other
Craig Gentry and Sam Fuld are also around as a potential left-field platoon if they want to slide Moss back to first base. Of course, the A's will mix and match as always, with John Jaso around to DH or Butler sliding over to play some first base. The rotation, minus Jon Lester, now checks in as:
1. Sonny Gray
2. Jeff Samardzija
3. Scott Kazmir
4-5. Jesse Chavez, Nolin, Graveman, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin
Without a shortstop who can hit -- Parrino is considered a plus defender -- the lineup is counting on a big comeback season for Butler and Moss to recover from the hip injury (and offseason surgery) that bothered him in the second half. The rotation has a solid front three, but Nolin and Graveman are unproven and Parker and Griffin are trying to come back from Tommy John surgery.
You wonder if there is another deal in the works with Samardzija, who has one season left until free agency. Certainly, at least one A's player thinks so:
Josh Reddick says it's clear to him and other #Athletics players that team is now in rebuilding mode.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) November 29, 2014
I don't know if that's necessarily true. Players tend to overrate the value one teammate brings to the win-loss ledger. Still, Donaldson to Lawrie is probably a downgrade of at least 3-4 wins, so the A's will have to improve in other areas just to maintain 2014's status quo.
I wouldn't count out the A's just yet, but I'm certainly counting on the Blue Jays to be a force -- maybe the force in the AL East.
Let's do one more half-full, half-empty look: left fielder Melky Cabrera, who hit .301/.351/.458 with 16 home runs in 139 games with the Blue Jays.
Jim Bowden predicts a four-year, $64 million deal for Cabrera.
Let's see if he'd be worth it.
Cabrera can hit, simple as that. Over the past four seasons, he's hit .309 and topped .300 in three different seasons. The one year he didn't hit .300 was 2013, when he battled a knee injury and his season ended early when he had surgery to remove a benign tumor from his back. You try hitting .300 with a tumor in your back.
In this age of batters striking out with increasing frequency, Cabrera is a solid contact hitter who had the 12th-lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2014. In some regards, he's like Pablo Sandoval in that Cabrera is a switch-hitter with an aggressive approach, but he's not the same free swinger that Sandoval is. While Sandoval led the majors with a chase percentage on pitches outside the strike zone of 43.5, Cabrera's chase rate of 30.7 percent ranked 45th, the same as Victor Martinez. In other words, Cabrera isn't a hacker up there.
So while Cabrera doesn't draw a lot of walks, he doesn't get himself out a lot, either. That's why he's a .300 hitter and projects to continue hitting around .300 into the future. As you can see from the heat map, he's also one of the best high-ball hitters in the majors:
Cabrera hit .386 on pitches up in the zone in 2014 -- best in the majors. His 1.178 OPS ranked second behind only Jose Abreu. Not surprisingly, Cabrera is a good fastball hitter -- .315 in 2014, .326 over the past four years. But he's also hit .290 against "soft" stuff, so there is no easy pattern to get Cabrera out with. Again, this suggests a good pure hitter who should age well into his 30s.
In case you still have doubts about the bat, Cabrera ranked fourth among American League outfielders in OPS (or fifth if you want to include Nelson Cruz). Unlike Sandoval, Cabrera is also equally effective from both sides of the plate, with an .827 OPS versus left-handers and an .802 versus right-handers over the past four seasons. That makes him a valuable asset if you want to plug him between two hitters of the same side.
Cabrera's range isn't great in left field, but he's relatively error-free and had 13 assists in 2014, second among AL left fielders.
Sure, Cabrera can hit for average, and while that's a nice trick, he's kind of a one-trick pony. He doesn't hit for a ton of power; he's never hit 20 home runs in a season. He doesn't draw many walks, is a below-average defender and a below-average baserunner, and has a PED suspension in his past. Plus, his body is more body by Pablo than body by Jake.
That means a lot of Cabrera's value is tied up in his batting average. So if he hits .279, as he did in 2013, he doesn't really bring a lot to the table except some singles and a few extra-base hits. If you give him $15-16 million a season, you're expecting him to continue to hit .300 over the length of the contract.
And that defense ... it's already below average (minus-6 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons). What's it going to be in two years, let alone four? And you have to worry about a player's knees if he's suggesting he doesn't want to play on turf. While he slots in as a top-of-the-order hitter, he's a below-average runner on the bases; you'd certainly prefer more speed from your No. 1 or 2 hitter.
Cabrera was worth 3.1 WAR in 2014. Sure, if he can maintain that, $16 million sounds about right. But it's difficult to envision him putting up bigger numbers -- unless you're buying into that 2012 season -- and it's more likely that he'll regress over the life of a long-term contract, making a three- or four-year contract a bit of a gamble.
What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?