SweetSpot: Toronto Blue Jays

And we're off! Spring training is here, pitchers and catchers will be doing pitching and catching kind of activities, and we're all breathlessly waiting to see who has reported in the best shape of his life.

One of my favorite things to do on the first day of spring training is see which players not on a 40-man roster have been invited to spring training. This includes a team's top prospects, some extra catchers to help with the catching activities, veterans on their last gasp, guys returning from injuries, and maybe another player or two who actually has a chance at making the team.

Let's look at some of the interesting non-roster names, starting with the American League East.

OriolesBaltimore Orioles

Mark Hendrickson is 40 years old, last pitched in the majors in 2011, and has a 5.03 career ERA. So why is here? He's become a sidearmer and posted a 1.54 ERA in 52.2 innings in the Atlantic League in 2014. ... J.P. Arencibia hit .189 over the past two seasons and draws a walk about once every full moon. Even if Matt Wieters can't catch at the start of the season, the O's have Caleb Joseph and Steve Clevenger, so Arencibia probably won't make the team (O's fans should hope not). But he'll probably pop up somewhere in the majors at some point because that's what catchers do. ... Nolan Reimold and Chris Parmelee were once prospects, or prospects who were once supposed to be something. I don't see room for them on the 25-man roster, but they could be good Triple-A fodder.

Red SoxBoston Red Sox

Some fun names here. Remember Bryan LaHair, an All-Star for the Cubs in 2012 when he hit a few home runs in April? He played in Japan in 2013 and in the minors last year. ... Jemile Weeks hit .303 as a rookie for the A's in 2011 and then stopped hitting. He did post a .392 OBP in Triple-A last year, but there's already a crowded picture here for position players. ... Mitchell Boggs had some decent seasons in relief for the Cardinals before getting injured, but he's way down the bullpen depth chart. ... The two to watch closely are minor league lefties Henry Owens and Brian Johnson; each has a good chance of surfacing in the majors at some point.

YankeesNew York Yankees

The Yankees primarily stayed away from the retread veteran route, although Scott Baker (5.47 ERA for the Rangers) provides some insurance rotation. ... Lefty reliever Jacob Lindgren, a second-round pick last June out of Mississippi State, could crack the bullpen -- thanks to his power stuff, which produced 48 strikeouts in 24.2 minor league innings. ... Andrew Bailey was a two-time All-Star. We last saw him in the majors with Boston in 2013.

RaysTampa Bay Rays

Juan Francisco hit 16 home runs with the Blue Jays in a part-time role in 2014, but his best position is DH and the Rays traded for John Jaso to fill the left-handed platoon side there. ... Outfielder Boog Powell -- no relation to the former Oriole -- is worth mentioning just to get his name listed here. He came over from the A's and hit .343/.451/.435 in Class A but has no power and was just 16-for-31 as a base stealer, so I'm not sure if he's fast either. ... Brandon Gomes or Ronald Belisario could earn a spot in the bullpen.

Blue JaysToronto Blue Jays

Ramon Santiago, Andy Dirks, Ezequiel Carrera: It's like a Detroit Tigers reunion. Dirks or Carrera could make the squad, as the Jays list just four outfielders on their 40-man roster and there's always the chance they could send Dalton Pompey to Triple-A to start the season. ... Fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki is back to battle for the utility infielder slot. ... Daric Barton will always have that year (2010) when he led the AL in walks. ... Devon Travis came over from the Tigers and could be the regular second baseman by midseason. ... Veteran lefty Jeff Francis keeps getting chances but hasn't had an ERA under 4.80 since 2007.

Pitchers helped by new catchers

February, 18, 2015
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Everybody's talking about pitch framing these days. Last week on Grantland, Ben Lindbergh had an interesting piece on the art of framing that detailed his internship with the Yankees several years ago and the internal discussion of catching Jorge Posada versus Jose Molina. Posada was a poor receiver, Molina a superb one. Ben also discussed framing with Tigers manager Brad Ausmus -- one of the best in his days -- and pointed out that while statistical analysts at the time criticized Ausmus for continuing to get playing time despite his poor bat, we now have tools that can better estimate the value of a good pitch-framing catcher.

Those studies examine pitch data and location to arrive at a runs saved value. For example, the researchers will assign a value for framing a 1-1 pitch that would normally be called a ball. Hitters have dramatically different expected results based on a 2-1 count versus a 1-2 count. Multiply those various scenarios times thousands of pitches received over a full season for a full-time catcher and you can arrive at an estimated total of runs saved.

There is some disagreement on how many runs are actually saved, with the high being about 40 runs over a season for the best framers. Others argue that it's not that high. Certainly, major league teams aren't paying huge dollars yet for catchers who can frame at that level, otherwise Russell Martin may have received a $164 million contract instead of $82 million and Jonathan Lucroy would be in line to become the game's highest-paid player.

But teams with an analytical bent are certainly making decisions based on a catcher's ability to frame pitchers. Look at the offseason moves from some of the teams most recognized for front offices that emphasize analytics:

Dodgers: Acquired Yasmani Grandal, a better framer than A.J. Ellis.

Cubs: Acquired Miguel Montero, who led the majors in runs saved in 2014 via framing, according to StatCorner.com, which has the only publicly available rating of framing that I'm aware of. He replaces Welington Castillo, who rated second worst in the majors. Signed David Ross as well.

Astros: Acquired Hank Conger, who rated the best on a per-game basis.

Rays: With Molina out of the picture, they traded Ryan Hanigan (generally regarded as an above-average framer) but acquired Rene Rivera, who ranked fifth overall on StatCorner's list for 2014.

Pirates: They lost Martin as a free agent but quickly traded for Francisco Cervelli, who has rated well.

It's no coincidence these teams went after these catchers. They regard framing as an important skill. (This isn't anything new, of course; there's a reason a guy like Ausmus played forever. Teams have always emphasized good defensive catchers, much more than the analysts did. In a sense, the analysts are only now catching up to the old-school beliefs, albeit with an attempt to accurately assess the value of framing.)

With that in mind, let's look at some pitchers who may benefit from a new catcher.

Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays: Martin replaces Dioner Navarro, who did not rate well in 2014, as the Jays' starter. Hutchison tends to throw his fastball up in the zone, but Martin could really help his slider on that low outside corner against right-handed batter. Stroman already displayed pretty good command as a rookie; he's a good bet to have a good sophomore season as Martin gets him a few more called strikes.

Jon Lester, Cubs: Well, all Cubs pitchers. Lester changed his approach a bit last year -- more cutters, fewer changeups -- but also wasn't pitching to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who usually rates poorly as a framer. Expect another strong season from him with help from Montero. Ditto for Jake Arrieta.

Zack Greinke, Dodgers: Greinke doesn't walk many batters, but his rate of called strikes on takes was actually less than the MLB average -- which is a little surprising given his command. That could be by design but Grandal should be an asset here for Greinke and ... well, it's scary to think Clayton Kershaw can get much better.

Rick Porcello, Tigers: He goes from Alex Avila, who didn't rate well in 2014 (although was better in 2013), to Christian Vazquez, who rated well in a smaller sample size as a rookie, and Hanigan.

Brad Peacock, Astros: Jason Castro actually rated decently last year, although not as well in the past. If Conger ends up catching regularly, it could help Peacock curb some of his control issues (4.8 walks per nine), as well as help Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh maintain their 2014 breakout performances.

J.A. Happ, Mariners: He moves from Navarro to Mike Zunino, No. 2 on StatCorner's list for 2014.

Mind you, these gains may not be huge. If a good catching tandem saves 40 runs at the max level, a 200-inning pitcher may only be getting five or six runs "saved" per year. But every little bit counts and maybe there are ripple effects (more confidence to throw a particular pitch, for example) that can't be measured.

Ranking the teams: 12 through 7

February, 12, 2015
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video

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

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

Red Sox12. Boston Red Sox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Total with Red Sox and Athletics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 84-78


Giants11. San Francisco Giants

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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

How many games do the Giants win?

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    13%
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    33%
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    41%
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    13%

Discuss (Total votes: 13,852)

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

Prediction: 85-77



Mets10. New York Mets

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

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

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

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

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

SportsNation

How many games do the Mets win?

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    10%
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    20%
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    28%
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    33%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 19,643)

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

Prediction: 86-76


Orioles9. Baltimore Orioles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 86-76


Angels8. Los Angeles Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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


Prediction: 87-75



Blue Jays7. Toronto Blue Jays

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

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

SportsNation

Who wins the AL East?

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    31%
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    25%
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    2%
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    33%
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    9%

Discuss (Total votes: 23,714)

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

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

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

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

Prediction: 87-75
With Keith Law unveiling his top 100 prospects this week, I thought it would be fun to look back at the top prospects from 2005. Has it already been 10 years since 2005? Yes it has! We'll use Baseball America's list and, as always, we're not criticizing the list. Evaluating prospects is part art, part science and a lot of unknown.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

The great thing about this: There's no "correct" answer. So we can keep arguing. All I know, as Giants fans like to point out, is that they have three rings to wear.
During my chats this offseason, one question that always comes up: Who do you like as a breakout performer? There are certainly obvious candidates to that question. The harder part is coming up with guys like Josh Donaldson or Josh Harrison or Dallas Keuchel or Collin McHugh.

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

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

Obvious young players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eugenio Suarez, Reds (0.3 WAR) -- He came up with Detroit last year and I liked the swing and approach and think there's a little power there for a middle infielder. He may not have a regular gig with the Reds, but if they tire of Zack Cozart's lack of offense then Suarez could get a chance to play.
Jordan ZimmermanEvan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJordan Zimmerman will be a free agent following the 2015 season. Will he end up on the trade block?
We’re a month away from the official start of spring training, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some unresolved issues and potential news items still out there in baseball land. Here are 30 things to keep an eye on:

1. Now that the Nationals have signed Max Scherzer to a seven-year contract, will the Nats look to trade impending free agent Jordan Zimmermann? A rotation of Scherzer, Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez certainly has the ability to be one of the best we’ve seen in recent years, and that doesn’t even include Tanner Roark, who quietly went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA last year.

2. If the Nationals do look to move Zimmermann (or Fister, also a free agent at season’s end), will they use that trade to help restock the farm system or acquire depth in the bullpen? The pen looks a little thin after they traded setup man extraordinaire Tyler Clippard and lost Rafael Soriano to free agency.

3. Where will James Shields go? The one difference-making free agent who is still unsigned, Shields reportedly turned down $110 million from a team he apparently didn’t want to play for. Or maybe that was just posturing to try to ramp up the offers.

4. Will the Marlins trade Dan Haren? The veteran right-hander, set to make $10 million, had threatened to retire if he wasn’t traded back to a California team. But the Dodgers just traded him to the Marlins and don’t have room in their rotation, and the Los Angels also added rotation depth in the offseason. The Dodgers gave the Marlins $10 million to offset Haren’s salary, which they keep even if Haren doesn’t play. It looks like the ball may be in Haren’s court, as you know Jeffrey Loria would be more than happy to keep the cash.

5. Is Billy Beane done wheeling and dealing? It’s been a whirlwind offseason for the Oakland A's general manager, who has traded away Josh Donaldson, Jeff Samardzija, Derek Norris, John Jaso and others, while acquiring Ben Zobrist, Brett Lawrie, Clippard and other young players and prospects. Yunel Escobar was even acquired from the Rays and quickly dealt to the Nationals for Clippard.

6. Are Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer done wheeling and dealing for the Cubs? They just picked up Dexter Fowler from the Astros, giving the club a more legitimate center fielder than converted infielder Arismendy Alcantara. With the addition of Fowler, the Cubs' lineup could look like this:

Fowler CF
Starlin Castro SS
Jorge Soler RF
Anthony Rizzo 1B
Kris Bryant 3B
Miguel Montero C
Chris Coghlan LF
Javier Baez 2B

That lineup has potential, and it's backed up with a rotation featuring Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, Kyle Hendricks and Travis Wood. But with Fowler signed only through 2015, maybe the Cubs will make one more big move to draw closer on paper to the Cardinals and Pirates. Maybe Shields, to bolster the rotation even more?

[+] EnlargeJohnny Cueto
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJohnny Cueto was second in the National League in 2014 with a 2.25 ERA.
7. Will the Reds sign Johnny Cueto to a long-term contract? Cueto will be expensive to sign, and while he may not command Scherzer money due Cueto's injury history, he’s coming off a season that would have won the Cy Young Award in most years. The long-term commitments the Reds have already made to Joey Votto and Homer Bailey may mean that a third $100 million-plus player doesn’t fit into their budget.

8. Will the Reds sign Aroldis Chapman to a long-term contract? Like Cueto, Chapman is a free agent after 2015. The Reds are hosting the 2015 All-Star Game, so don’t expect them to trade either player -- at least until after the All-Star Game and only if the Reds are well out of the pennant race.

9. Are the Cardinals satisfied with their rotation? They had been rumored to be interested in signing Scherzer or maybe acquiring David Price from the Tigers, but Price is certainly unavailable now -- not that he was in the first place -- with Scherzer out of the Detroit picture. The Cardinals did sign Lance Lynn to a three-year extension. But the health concerns of Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Jaime Garcia and the uncertainty of young arms such as Carlos Martinez and Marco Gonzalez means the Cardinals have question marks within their depth.

10. Are the Braves really committed to keeping Craig Kimbrel? After trading away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, the Braves have all but admitted they’re building for 2017 when they open their new park. General manager John Hart insists the club can still compete in 2015, but the projection systems argue otherwise and say the Braves will be one of the worst teams in the majors. The smart move would be to cash in Kimbrel now.

11. Speaking of ... are the Tigers going to do anything about the bullpen?

12. Speaking of ... Francisco Rodriguez is still a free agent. And probably with good reason, considering he led all relievers in home runs allowed in 2014. Still, he posted a 3.04 ERA and recorded 44 saves for the Brewers, so some team may be willing to give him a shot at closing. Especially a team that had major issues up and down the bullpen last year, including in the postseason.

13. Will the Mets acquire a shortstop? I think we’re all a bit tired of this story by now. Mets fans seem to want a new shortstop. The New York media definitely believes the team needs a shortstop. Sandy Alderson would probably like a new shortstop. Troy Tulowitzki may want to become the new Mets shortstop. Meanwhile, the Wilpons are probably too busy watching old films of the Brooklyn Dodgers to care.

14. Will the Diamondbacks trade Mark Trumbo? This is probably more of a spring training decision, depending on whether Cuban free agent Yasmany Tomas can handle third base. If he can’t, he'll move to left field and the D-backs have to shop Trumbo.

15. Will Dave Stewart give us more quotes about "real" baseball teams and those apparently fake teams that worry too much about analytics?

16. Will the Mariners acquire a right-handed bat? Right now, the M’s have Nelson Cruz penciled in at DH, Logan Morrison at first base, and a right-field platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano (with lefty-swinging Dustin Ackley in left field). Jesus Montero is still around, but a right-handed bat who can play first base or DH against southpaws (with Cruz moving to the outfield) would create more balance in the lineup.

17. Will the Phillies release Ryan Howard? At this point, it’s probably best for all if Ruben Amaro just puts Howard on waivers. Nobody is going to trade for Howard, but that doesn’t mean you need to create a negative distraction by inviting him to spring training. It’s a sunk cost. Let it sink and see if any team wants to give Howard a shot to DH.

18. Who will be the first columnist to point out Howard’s RBI total from last year? Like, in a good way.

19. Will the Red Sox make a move for their rotation? While the Red Sox actually project to have a decent rotation, according to some projections, it’s also difficult to buy completely into Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Joe Kelly and Justin Masterson.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
AP Photo/Alex BrandonCole Hamels was in the top 10 in the National League last season in ERA (2.46) and strikeouts (198).
20. Will Cole Hamels be traded? Hamels may be worth more at the trade deadline than he is now, so don’t be surprised if Hamels is starting on Opening Day for the Phillies. But if he does get traded, the Red Sox and Padres still seem likely destinations; the Red Sox have a slew of prospects and the Padres have catching prospect Austin Hedges.

21. What’s going on with Dan Duquette? The only noise the Orioles’ president has made this offseason has been with the rumors that he’s leaving Baltimore to take over the presidency of the Blue Jays. If this was going to happen, it should have been resolved by now, as Duquette’s lack of activity in Baltimore could have the appearance of a conflict of interest.

22. Will the Orioles bring in a right fielder? Colby Rasmus is the best free agent out there and would be the easiest option, if inelegant. There are also unappealing trade options such as Andre Ethier or Carlos Quentin.

23. Which young star will get locked up by a long-term extension? Small-market teams have been able to remain competitive in recent years in part by signing their young stars to team-friendly extensions -- think Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh or Evan Longoria in Tampa Bay -- but as premium free agents continue to get $100-million plus contracts, there’s going to be less incentive for young players to potentially leave tens of millions on the table.

24. Where will the other free-agent relievers sign? Casey Janssen and Soriano are two relievers out there with closing experience. Soriano averaged 39 saves the past three seasons but lost his closer job with the Nationals late last season, while Janssen missed time with a back injury and saw his strikeout rate decline. Besides the Tigers, the Dodgers are seeking relief help.

25. Are the World Series champs done? The Giants just signed Norichika Aoki, although he and Gregor Blanco don’t make for a traditional platoon since both hit left-handed. They struck out on signing Jon Lester and Pablo Sandoval and trading for Justin Upton. The Giants could still be in on Shields, or could bring back Ryan Vogelsong for rotation depth.

26. Back to the Nationals: Could they trade shortstop Ian Desmond? It seems unlikely, but Desmond is a free agent after 2015 and reportedly turned down a $100 million extension. And the club did trade for Yunel Escobar, although moving him to shortstop would create a hole at second base. The team perhaps most desperate for a shortstop is the Mets, but they’re a division rival.

27. Arbitration tracker: Who’s left? While a lot of players have already signed, the most interesting remaining unsigned players are those who are still several years from free agency and who could potentially negotiate multiyear deals (similar to the one Lynn signed with the Cardinals). This group includes Josh Donaldson of the Blue Jays; Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford of the Giants; Greg Holland, Kelvin Herrera, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain of the Royals; Devin Mesoraco of the Reds; and Garrett Richards of the Angels.

28. What will happen with highly touted Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada? The 19-year-old switch-hitter is projected as a power-speed combo who will likely end up at second or third base. The Giants recently held a private workout with him, and the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Nationals and Marlins are among those teams reported to have strong interest and financial means. MLB has declared Moncada a free agent, but he needs to be cleared by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control before he’s eligible to sign.

29. Who will join Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs in guaranteeing his team will win a division title?

30. Who will be the first player to report early to spring training in the best shape of his life?



The recent Hall of Fame elections serve two important purposes. One, it's a chance to recognize the superstars of the recent past and how many memories Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio provided us. But the elections also serve as a reminder to remember those underappreciated players of the past, those who deserved better support in Hall of Fame voting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runner-up: Rick Reuschel. Played for a lot of bad and mediocre Cubs teams in the '70s, otherwise would have won more than 214 games.
Jason KipnisOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJason Kipnis is posed for a big rebound -- and, barring injuries, could be an All-Star in 2015.
It's been a slow few weeks in the world of baseball. So here are some random thoughts going through my mind as we wait for Max Scherzer to sign ... and wait ... and wait ...

1. I still don't understand the lack of support that Mike Mussina has received in the Hall of Fame voting. Well, I do understand: The majority of voters aren't analyzing their ballots much beyond a certain level of gut instinct. If they did, they'd realize Mussina should be a no-brainer Hall of Famer. He isn't in the Tommy John/Jim Kaat class.

2. Heard Chris "Mad Dog" Russo arguing that Jeff Kent was clearly better than Craig Biggio. I mean, sure, if you ignore little things like defense, baserunning and getting on base.

3. That said, I expect Kent's case to start picking up momentum. Biggio's election probably helps Kent because voters can argue that Kent was the better hitter, plus he has more than 1,500 RBIs and more home runs (377) than any other second baseman.

4. I like what St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz wrote about the Hall of Fame: "I don't like the idea that MLB and the Hall of Fame has left it up to the ball writers to serve as the police force on PEDs. Among other things, it's a conflict of interest. We're supposed to be covering the industry as an independent group of journalists. We're not supposed to be establishing the baseball industry's standards for morality."

5. Congrats to Randy Johnson on his election to the Hall. My favorite Johnson memory is Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series, but I'll always remember this home run he served up to Mark McGwire. Steroids or not, good lord.

6. I miss Dave Niehaus.

7. That home run gives me an excuse to link to the video of this home run that Glenallen Hill hit onto a rooftop beyond Wrigley Field. "It's gotta be the shoes!" Well, that or maybe something else.

8. I've always wondered whether the balls weren't just a bit juiced in that era. After all, how do you explain runs per game going from 4.12 in 1992 to 4.60 in 1993 to 4.92 in 1994? Yes, there was expansion in 1993, but that hardly explains that much of an increase. So unless you believe everybody started using steroids at once, there were other factors in play beyond PEDs.

9. Back to the present. Loved the Ben Zobrist/Yunel Escobar acquisition by the A's. GM Billy Beane has now given manager Bob Melvin the most flexible lineup of hitters in the league. Zobrist can move back and forth between the infield and outfield, Marcus Semien can fill in anywhere in the infield, and Oakland has several platoon options.

10. Speaking of Zobrist, I’ll write about my all-time all-underrated team on Monday and my current all-underrated team on Tuesday. Zobrist fits the classic profile of an underrated player: draws walks, is a good defender, is durable, has medium-range power. He’s been one of baseball’s best players the past six years.

11. Two keys for the A's: Brett Lawrie has to stay healthy and have a solid season at third base, and Escobar has to bounce back from 2014, when some minor injuries may have contributed to his poor defensive metrics.

12. Outfielder Josh Reddick, initially critical of the Josh Donaldson trade, has apparently jumped back on the Beane bandwagon. He can't wait for the season to start. Me, neither.

13. How about those Seahawks?!?!

14. With their win over the Panthers on Saturday, the Seahawks became the first defending Super Bowl champ since the 2005 Patriots to win a playoff game. Doesn't that seem a little weird? Does it mean that winning the Super Bowl, like winning the World Series, involves a certain amount of luck in the playoffs?

15. With all due respect to the great Kenny Easley, I don't think he was the same kind of force on defense as Kam Chancellor. Yes, that's an old Seahawks reference.

16. I'm not ready to jump on the Padres' bandwagon.

17. I mean, I love the boldness of new general manager A.J. Preller, but I don't like the idea of Wil Myers playing center; Will Middlebrooks just isn't that good. Plus, San Diego's first baseman has no power, and shortstop is an issue.

18. But the Padres are going to be interesting, which is certainly more than has been said about this team in years.

19. There's no reason not to believe in Matt Shoemaker, other than he wasn't good before 2014. But there's nothing that says "fluke" in his numbers: good strikeout rate, excellent control and that great changeup/splitter.

20. Chris Davis will have a much better season in 2015.

21. I'm not so sure about Josh Hamilton, however.

22. Signing Scherzer to a mega-contract doesn't seem like a Cardinals type of move, but they do have to be a little worried about the health of Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.

23. I don't quite get the rumors about David Price. Shouldn't the Tigers just keep him and maybe sign Scherzer and put out their best team for 2015? How many more great years are they going to get from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez? Detroit's window is now.

24. Of course, I get that they don't want to cash in so many chips and then turn into the Phillies. But, at age 85, does Tigers owner Mike Ilitch really care about 2019?

25. Jayson Stark wrote about Carlos Delgado getting bumped off the Hall of Fame ballot after one year. I don't see Delgado as a Hall of Famer, and while he did have some monster seasons, he's also way down my list of first basemen with possible Hall of Fame cases. You have Mark McGwire, Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez and Will Clark to consider before you get to Delgado.

26. Juan Lagares made 2.85 outs per nine innings in 2014; the average center fielder made 2.48. That's .37 more plays per game. Willie Mays' career best was .24 plays above the MLB average per nine innings.

27. Let's hope Matt Harvey returns as the same pitcher we saw in 2013.

28. The Braves are going to be terrible. No Jayson Heyward, no Justin Upton. Having Evan Gattis in the outfield and Alberto Callaspo at second base will severely weaken the defense.

29. It's almost like John Hart was a general manager from a different era when he didn't have defensive metrics to examine.

30. If the Braves are indeed just building for 2017 and their new ballpark, why not look to trade Craig Kimbrel?

31. Go see "Selma." It's an important American film with a lesson that still resonates in many ways today.

32. King Felix's changeup makes me smile even in the middle of winter.

33. I've been meaning to write a Mookie Betts/Javier Baez piece, but FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan beat me to it.

34. The answer: Mookie.

35. Your 2015 American League home run champ: Chris Carter.

36. Speaking of the Astros, I predict a huge breakout season for George Springer. Get him on your fantasy team if you can.

37. Your 2015 National League home run champ: Giancarlo Stanton. I know, too easy.

38. I wonder if the Giants will be conservative with Madison Bumgarner's innings, at least in the first couple of months of the season. He ended up throwing 270 innings between the regular season and playoffs, well above the 223 he threw in 2012, when the Giants also won the World Series.

39. If I were to bet on the Yankees either winning the AL East or imploding, I'd go with the implosion.

40. Still, there are enough big names on their roster, and if the rotation stays healthy, it wouldn't shock me if the Yankees did win the division.

41. A young pitcher who could make a big leap forward this year: Drew Hutchison of the Blue Jays.

42. Weren't the Rangers supposed to be in the middle of an AL West dynasty by now?

43. Wish the Indians would make one more move for a bat, but unfortunately they have a lot of bad money invested in Nick Swisher, David Murphy and Michael Bourn.

44. Yes, Corey Kluber will contend for another Cy Young Award.

45. Barry Bonds was intentionally walked 120 times in 2004. That's still maybe the most impressive stat in baseball history.

46. Brandon McCarthy, everyone's favorite smart major league pitcher, thinks PED users should be admitted to Cooperstown. Give that man a vote!

47. Still don't quite understand why the Dodgers gave McCarthy $48 million, however -- considering that he's made more than 25 starts in a season just once during his career.

48. You know, Zobrist would have been a nice acquisition for the Nationals. Maybe they can pry Chase Utley away from the Phillies.

49. I think Yasiel Puig's power will bounce back this year. He might hit 25 home runs -- which would make him a very strong MVP candidate.

50. An important man in 2015: Red Sox outfield coach Arnie Beyeler, who will work with Hanley Ramirez and our man Mookie.

51. I have the March in Paris on TV in the background. Amazing.

52. You can never watch too many videos of puppies playing in snow.

53. A quiet offseason move that could pay nice dividends: Toronto getting Michael Saunders from Seattle. I'll be curious to see how his numbers increase as he escapes the AL West.

54. Of course, he has to stay healthy.

55. A trade that still makes sense: Mark Trumbo to the Mariners. Even if Yasmany Tomas proves he can handle third base for the Diamondbacks, we know Trumbo can't really play left field. The Mariners could still use another right-handed bat, and Trumbo would give them the flexibility to sit Logan Morrison against left-handers and use Nelson Cruz in the outfield at times.

56. I love watching Jonathan Schoop play defense. He can really turn two. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win a Gold Glove this year.

57. Will Stephen Strasburg take a leap forward this year?

58. I think Bryce Harper will make The Leap.

59. If you've never read "Ball Four," why not?

60. I'm enjoying Dan Epstein's "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76."

61. That was the first year I remember watching baseball, and as Epstein's book shows, although it's not remembered as a classic season -- mostly because the World Series was a four-game sweep -- it was a widely entertaining year and an important one. The reserve clause was struck, Charlie Finley fought with Bowie Kuhn, the Yankees fought with the Red Sox, and Bill Veeck had his White Sox players wear shorts.

62. Plus, Mark Fidrych.

63. Here's a good piece on how the Phillies reached this sorry state of affairs.

64. I predict that Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera will each give up at least one home run this season.

65. If you're bored, go watch some highlights of Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon and Jarrod Dyson playing defense.

66. I know everybody is down on the Reds, but if Joey Votto is healthy, Jay Bruce returns to being Jay Bruce and Billy Hamilton improves at the plate, it's not impossible to dream about them being competitive.

67. No, Tim Lincecum isn't going to be better. He's been below replacement level for three seasons now. There is no reason to expect him to turn things around. His road ERA is 5.55 over the past three years. Take him out of AT&T Park, and he's exposed.

68. Casey McGehee won't be the answer at third base for the Giants.

69. Would you take Clayton Kershaw or the field for NL Cy Young?

70. Another fun note about 1976: Joe Morgan led the NL with 1.020 OPS. No other hitter was within 100 points. And he played a key defensive position and won a Gold Glove. He also stole 60 bases in 69 attempts. You can argue that Morgan's level of play that year was as high as any position player's ever. The only knock against him is he missed 21 games.

71. I can't wait to see what Jorge Soler can do over a full season.

72. Also: Rusney Castillo.

73. Kolten Wong or Joe Panik moving forward? I'll take Wong.

74. If I'm drawing up a list of the most important players for 2015, I might start with Justin Verlander.

75. I'm going "Selma" over "Boyhood," "The Imitation Game" and "The Grand Budapest Hotel" for best picture of 2015. Haven't seen "American Sniper" yet, although that could factor in the running as well.

76. Hollywood needs to make more movies about strong and courageous women. Is there a girl version of "Boyhood"? Why not?

77. I have the Pirates even with the Cardinals right now. Not sure why it seems like St. Louis is such a consensus favorite.

78. A signing that isn't going to work out: Torii Hunter and the Twins.

79. Joe Mauer will be better. Right?

80. An interesting thing to watch: How will Mike Trout adjust to all those high fastballs?

81. As that article points out, even as Trout started seeing more high fastballs as the season progressed, he still slugged .502 in the second half. But he also hit just .257 with a .347 OBP.

82. I hope you read Mark Simon's defensive storylines to watch for the National League and American League.

83. If you like spy novels, I recommend Alan Furst's work. Just discovered him last year. He writes hyper-realistic novels set in Europe in the days before World War II. You feel like you're in Paris or Warsaw with war looming.

84. Another guy I can't wait to see: Joc Pederson.

85. A waistline I can't wait to see: Bartolo Colon's.

86. How can you not love Jose Altuve?

87. I'm up to No 87 and haven't even mentioned James Shields yet. So I just did. No idea where he's going to sign. Giants? Red Sox? Cardinals?

88. Guy who will rebound in 2015: Jason Kipnis. He played through some injuries in 2014, so if he's healthy, I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in the All-Star Game.

89. That said, he's up against a tough field of second basemen in the AL: Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Altuve, underrated Brian Dozier, Ian Kinsler, Zobrist. At least Howie Kendrick got shipped over to the NL.

90. I'd like the Marlins better if Jose Fernandez were going to be ready at the start of the season.

91. A Seahawks-Patriots Super Bowl would be the revenge of Pete Carroll. I want Bill Simmons to write a 25,000-word preview if we get this matchup.

92. I'd take Pedro in his prime over Koufax in his prime and not even hesitate about it.

93. I had the Rays as the sleeper team of 2015 before the Zobrist trade, but losing him is a big blow to the 2015 offense.

94. Chris Archer could be a breakout pitcher, however. If he can cut his walks just a bit, he's ready to become an elite starter.

95. Corey Dickerson > Charlie Blackmon.

96. Yes, the White Sox wore shorts for a game in 1976. How can you not love 1976?

97. Yes, I'll watch the final season of "Mad Men." I'm guessing Don Draper will drink a lot and not much will happen.

98. I rate the Dodgers as the favorites in the NL West, but they are relying on a lot of old players and injury-prone pitchers: Juan Uribe will be 36; Jimmy Rollins is 36; Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford are 33; Howie Kendrick is 31; and McCarthy and Brett Anderson haven't been the picture of health. The Dodgers do have depth on the roster, but there's a good chance they'll need it.

99. Pirates' outfield or Marlins' outfield: Which do you like more?

100. Edgar Martinez is a deserving Hall of Famer. Come on, I've managed to work Edgar into just about everything else I've written lately! I promise this will be my last Edgar reference for ... well, OK, I don't want to make a guarantee I can't keep. Just check out his Baseball-Reference page.
Yes, nothing much is going on in baseball unless you want to complain about the Yankees' payroll, but that's an old topic.

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

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

Let's see who we get ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This suggests that Donaldson should once again be a potential MVP candidate for the Blue Jays in 2015 and remain a very good player into his early 30s.
Ichiro Suzuki Ron Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesIchiro Suzuki won 10 Gold Gloves during his days with the Mariners.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, the table ...



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

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

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

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

Defensive storylines of the offseason: AL

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

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

 

AL EAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AL CENTRAL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

AL WEST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elvis Andrus hit an odd bump in the road last season, as his defensive numbers, which had been top-10 caliber at shortstop from 2011 to 2013 fell to bottom-5 (-13 Runs Saved) in 2014. That was probably just a fluke, but 2015 will go a ways in determining if Andrus has slipped.
I don't have a Hall of Fame vote since I've been a BBWAA member for only one year. Will there even be a Hall of Fame in nine years when I'll be eligible to vote?

Anyway, if I did have a vote, I've come around to using "wins above average" as a good starting point for examining Hall of Fame candidates. I'm a little more interested in peak performance than pure longevity. Obviously, the easy Hall of Fame choices such as Randy Johnson had both. Sometimes, a guy such as Pedro Martinez had such a dominant peak that he's an easy choice, as well.

By looking at wins above average instead of wins above replacement, we focus more on Hall of Fame-level seasons and give less credit or no credit to seasons where the player was more or less just compiling counting statistics. An average player is worth about 2.0 WAR per season, so we're looking at value above that level. Some guys -- such as Mike Mussina or Fred McGriff -- seem to be dismissed for being judged as "compilers" rather than big stars. But is that perception or reality?

Here are the wins above average totals for the 20 strong Hall of Fame candidates on this year's ballot, via Baseball-Reference.com. (Doesn't include Lee Smith, as relievers need to be judged differently.) I also included each player's career WAR, the difference between WAR and WAA, and then the percentage of each player's career value that could labeled "peak" value.


(In some ways, this is similar to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, which combines two aspects of a player's career to arrive at a JAWS score: his best seven seasons and his career value.)

Anyway, what can we learn from this chart? The biggest compiler here is Craig Biggio, with only 44 percent of his career value coming from wins above average. Mussina did have a lot of "non-peak" value, but his career wins above average still ranks in the top 10. In fact, he should be viewed as less of a compiler than John Smoltz, who may get elected this year while Mussina struggles to get even one-third of the votes.

McGriff, on the other hand, rates low across the board, both in wins above average and percentage peak value. McGriff's proponents like to argue that he hit 493 home runs and did it clean. That's the difficult part of judging this era if you're going to factor in PEDs: Do you give McGriff extra credit because there are no steroid rumors attached to him, and thus he compares favorably to Hall of Famers like Willie Stargell and Willie McCovey?

The player perhaps most helped by this method is Larry Walker, which makes sense. He had a relatively short career, in part due to myriad injuries, but his career WAR is high, with 66 percent of that value coming from wins above average. I'm still skeptical about Walker due to the short career and the Coors Field boost. Yes, WAR makes park adjustments, but I don't believe it accurately accounts for how much a good hitter is boosted by playing in Coors. Edgar Martinez may have hit .400 if he'd played there.

So if I had a ballot, which 10 guys would I vote for? I would vote for PED guys and I'd vote for my top 10 players, regardless of trying to rig the ballot to help certain players: Bonds, Clemens, Johnson, Pedro, Bagwell, Schilling, Piazza, Mussina, Trammell, Edgar.

Others I'd classify as Hall of Famers: Smoltz, Biggio, Raines, McGwire.

On the fence: Kent, Walker, Sheffield, Sosa, McGriff.

Not a Hall of Famer: Delgado, Smith.
Over the weekend, I saw "The Imitation Game," the story of British mathematician Alan Turing. Turing helped crack the German Enigma code machine during World War II, allowing the Allies to decipher German secret messages and help bring an earlier end to the war. The movie was sophisticated and compelling and is a definite Oscar contender.

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:


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:

SportsNation

In general, how many Hall of Famers would you like to see elected each year?

  •  
    3%
  •  
    13%
  •  
    33%
  •  
    32%
  •  
    19%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,922)

2005: Seven (two elected)
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:

2014: 8.4
2013: 6.6
2012: 5.1
2011: 6.0
2010: 5.7

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.

4. Steroids.

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.

Buster Olney:
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.)

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.
Tom Verducci:
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.



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