SweetSpot: Washington Nationals

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.


In writing about the Max Scherzer signing on Tuesday, Joe Sheehan made a point in his newsletter that I completely agree with:
Setting aside the merits of the signing for the moment, I like seeing a team do what the Nationals are doing. So much of baseball management right now seems to be aimed at trying to build an 85-win team and hoping for some good variance. No team has won 100 games in the three seasons since the postseason expanded to ten teams. That may not sound like much, but it's the first time in the 162-game schedule era that we've gone that long without a 100-game winner (full seasons, of course). Maybe it's not an optimal use of money; the Nationals were probably going to win the NL East with the team they had Saturday, and Scherzer barely moves the needle in any given postseason series. It's nevertheless heartening to see a team trying to be great, rather than just good enough. I want the Nationals to keep Strasburg and Zimmerman and Desmond and give us a team worth talking about this summer.


To Joe's first point about 100-win teams, here's the complete list since 1990:

2011: Phillies (102)
2009: Yankees (103)
2008: Angels (100)
2005: Cardinals (100)
2004: Cardinals (105), Yankees (101)
2003: Yankees (101), Braves (101), Giants (100)
2002: Yankees (103), A's (103), Braves (101)
2001: Mariners (116), A's (102)
1999: Braves (103), Diamondbacks (100)
1998: Yankees (114), Braves (106), Astros (102)
1997: Braves (101)
1995: Indians (100 ... in a 144-game season)
1993: Braves (104), Giants (103)
1990: A's (103)

Going back further, the 1980s had seven 100-win teams, the 1970s had 13 and the 1960s had 10. The way the sport is trending, we'll be lucky if we get two or three this decade.

I believe baseball needs great teams. A great team gives us a narrative over the course of the long season and a narrative heading into the postseason. How good is this team? How does it compare to other great teams? Can it win the World Series?

A great team potentially gives us a team to dislike. When the Yankees won four titles in five years or won 100-plus games three years in a row, it meant fans of the other 29 teams had a natural enemy to root against. Every October had a natural storyline: How will the Yankees do and how do you beat them? You watched to see them win or you watched hoping they'd crumble.

A great team is fun. Even if you weren't a Phillies fan in 2011, a rotation featuring Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels was a marvel to watch. Those 2004 Cardinals with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds in their primes were a showcase of all-around excellence. The 2001 Mariners and 1998 Yankees were the most perfectly assembled teams I've seen in my baseball-watching lifetime.

A great team gives more fans reason to watch in October. No offense to the Giants and Royals, but those weren't great teams. The casual fan isn't going to be excited to see an 88-win team square off against an 89-win team in the World Series. (Compare that to this year's Super Bowl; both No. 1 seeds have advanced, one of them the defending champion.) A built-in narrative is good for the sport. Yes, last year's postseason at least ended up with a fantastic story -- Madison Bumgarner seemingly carrying an entire team on his left arm -- but it was also one wild-card team beating another wild-card team.

The Nationals have a chance to be great, with, as ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski wrote, a historically dominant rotation that could end up crushing a weak NL East. Maybe they're a 95-win team; maybe Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann all battle for the Cy Young Award and they're a 100-win team; maybe Bryce Harper makes the leap and they win 105.

Parity is certainly important in some regards. It provides more teams a chance to make the playoffs and a higher turnover of playoff teams each season. But it also creates a certain randomness to a season, the chance that the best aren't rewarded, that it's about luck and health as much as skill, that we end up with an accidental World Series champ rather than a great World Series team. That can be exciting -- the Royals and Giants at least gave us an interesting World Series that went the distance -- but, as Joe wrote, I want a team we spend all summer talking about.

Plus, it would give all those people in D.C. something to discuss other than who's going to run for president.
Buster Olney ranked his top 10 team defenses in his blog post Thursday, which got me thinking about bad defense. I checked Baseball-Reference.com for their list of worst individual fielding seasons and thought it would be fun to look at the bottom 10. Defensive metrics aren't as foolproof as some other numbers, so let's dig deeper into what may have caused these poor ratings. Plus, don't you want to read about the worst defender ever? Make a guess now ...

(Note: Baseball-Reference uses fielding runs below average, which can be drawn from two different sources depending on the year. Since 2002, the site uses defensive runs saved; prior to that, it uses total zone. A third defensive metric that I'll mention in the piece below is ultimate zone rating, available at FanGraphs. It's also interesting that all 10 seasons here occurred since 1990, which is a reflection of more data available to grade defense.)

10. Kirby Puckett, CF, 1993 Twins (minus-29 runs)
This one seems a little odd considering Puckett had won a Gold Glove the previous season. Puckett's defensive metrics don't match up to his reputation -- he won six Gold Gloves -- as Baseball-Reference grades him out as 14 runs below average for his career. By 1993, Puckett was 33 and had put on some weight; it's perhaps instructive that the Twins moved him from center field to right field after the All-Star break. Twenty-eight of those 29 runs below average came as a center fielder, where he made 2.50 plays per nine innings compared to the MLB average of 2.76. The Twins walked the fewest batters in the AL and were in the middle of the pack in strikeouts and home runs allowed but were 13th in hits allowed, so the team defense was pretty bad overall, with Puckett apparently playing a big role. (My recollection of Kirby, as well: He played a deep center field, which allowed him to make those famous leaping catches at the wall; he also may have played deeper as a way to play the high bounces off the Metrodome turf.)

9. Rickie Weeks, 2B, 2012 Brewers (minus-30)
Weeks has never had a good defensive reputation and in 2012 he started 152 games at second base and made just 4.08 plays per nine innings compared to the league-average range factor of 4.77. I'm not sure if he played through an injury or if they used quicksand for infield dirt that year at Miller Park, but in the past five years, the second-lowest range factor for a regular-season second baseman was 4.31 plays per nine innings -- by Weeks in 2011.

8. Nick Castellanos, 3B, 2014 Tigers (minus-30)
Castellanos' range factor was 2.10 per nine innings compared to the MLB average of 2.56, but of course he played on a staff that racked up a lot of strikeouts. Still, that's nearly one fewer play every two games. Baseball Info Solutions categorizes plays as good fielding plays and defensive misplays and Castellanos' total of GFP minus DM + errors ranked second worst among third basemen in 2014. As for his range, BIS graded him particularly weak going to his right. The hope for the Tigers is that Castellanos is young enough to improve, but he needs a lot of improvement just to become league average.

7. Gary Sheffield, 3B, 1993 Padres/Marlins (minus-31)
Nobody will dispute this rating. This was Sheffield's final season as a third baseman and he made 34 errors while fielding .899.

6. Michael Young, SS, 2005 Rangers (minus-32)
This one may be a bit surprising as Young was regarded as a solid shortstop and even won a Gold Glove in 2008. You know what the Rangers thought of that Gold Glove? They moved him to third base the following season. Anyway, Young had come up as a second baseman and moved to shortstop in 2004 and in 2005 he made 4.41 plays per nine innings versus the MLB average of 4.60 (his fielding percentage was about league average). Baseball Info Solutions tracked him with 30 good plays and 39 misplays and it's worth noting that ultimate zone rating had him at minus-23 runs and total zone at minus-31 runs. So all the metrics agreed that he just didn't have much range in this year. Young did seem to improve after that, perhaps with better positioning.

5. Ryan Braun, 3B, 2007 Brewers (minus-32)
This was Braun's rookie season when he came up as a third baseman and he was such a disaster there the Brewers moved him to left field in 2008. Braun fielded just .895, making 26 errors in 112 games, and made .57 fewer plays per nine innings than the average third baseman.

4. Chris Gomez, SS, 1997 Padres (minus-33)
I never thought of Gomez as a bad fielder, but I guess I never really gave all that much thought to Gomez in the first place. Gomez's range factor was actually higher than the MLB average, 4.63 to 4.58, and his fielding percentage was fine, so I'm not quite sure why he rates so poorly. The Padres were third-to-last in the majors in defensive efficiency (percentage of balls in play turned into outs), so a lot of Padres defenders ended up with poor ratings in 1997. The Padres made the playoffs with Gomez playing shortstop in 1996 and 1998, so they apparently didn't think he was awful there.

3. Dante Bichette, LF, 1999 Rockies (minus-34)
This one makes a lot of sense: An old outfielder trying to play in Coors Field. Bichette was fast enough to play a little center field early in his career, but by 1999 was 35 and lumbering. He had poor range -- 1.77 plays per nine innings compared to the 2.00 MLB average -- and also tossed in 13 errors. Even though Bichette hit 34 home runs and knocked in 133 runs, the Rockies traded him after the season.

2. Matt Kemp, CF, 2010 Dodgers (minus-37)
Much like Derek Jeter, there has been a lot of divisiveness over the years about Kemp's defense. Sandwiched around this all-time bad season are two Gold Glove honors in 2009 and 2011.

Let's look at his range factors per nine innings:


Year Kemp MLB
2009 2.53 2.60
2010 2.23 2.59
2011 2.32 2.55


In raw numbers, Kemp played nine fewer innings in 2010, but made 37 fewer putouts. Kemp also had just three assists in 2010 compared to 14 in 2009 and 11 in 2011. Did he deserve those Gold Glove Awards? Probably not. In 2009, he did make a high number of good fielding plays (48), according to Baseball Info Solutions, although that was countered by 33 misplays. Undoubtedly, voters remembered the spectacular plays, but there was nothing in the numbers that suggested Kemp had above-average range and he was making a large number of miscues at the same time. In 2010, his ratio of good fielding plays to misplays fell to 26-28, which combined with poor range gave him minus-37 defensive runs saved. UZR had Kemp at minus-26 runs that year, the worst total it has ever given a center fielder going back to 2002, so by all accounts Kemp was awful.

1. Adam Dunn, 1B/LF/RF, 2009 Nationals (minus-43)
I don't think anyone is going to defend Dunn's defense. He was a huge dude and while his outfield defense wasn't terrible in his first few years, he soon became huge and slow. In 2009 while playing for an awful Nationals team that lost 103 games, Dunn started 83 games in the outfield and 66 at first base. It's no surprise that he rated poorly in the outfield -- minus-20 runs -- but he also rated minus-23 runs at first base in just 540 innings. Was he really that bad? Well, he hadn't played the position much before that and isn't exactly quick to begin with, so it's easy to assume he combined a lack of range with a lack of experience. In left field, he made 1.80 plays per game while teammate Josh Willingham -- hardly known as a plus fielder himself -- made 2.17. Dunn recently confirmed his retirement and I'll miss a guy who had a unique career in major league history. But I probably won't miss his defense.

The importance of team depth

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


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

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

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

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


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

The wave of the future

January, 13, 2015
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I'm reading Dan Epstein's book on the entertaining 1976 season, "Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of '76." One of the biggest changes in the game since then is what I would term professionalism. Back in 1976, players fought with managers, players fought with each other, Bill Veeck had his White Sox wear shorts, ballparks were full of drunks throwing stuff at players, Mark Fidrych would down four beers in the clubhouse after a game while talking with reporters and then head home to his apartment that had sheets for curtains.

With more money, behavior changes. Players may still drink four beers after a game but they don't do it in the clubhouse. Front offices are no longer mom-and-pop organizations but full of business people and marketing people and statistical analysts and reams of data. Ballparks are clean and family friendly with better food and fewer batteries.

Via Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk, I came across this article by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. The Red Sox have hired sports psychologist Dr. Richard Ginsburg to head a new department of behavioral health. Can you imagine Billy Martin working with the team's department of behavioral health?

From Alex's article:
From 2005-13, the Red Sox staff featured Bob Tewksbury as a mental skills coach. According to team sources, Tewksbury’s absence in 2014 -- he left the Sox to work for the Players Association before the team rehired him following the season -- was felt acutely in a year when young players such as Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts struggled in their transition to the big leagues.

Tewksbury will now work under Ginsburg, focusing on players in the big leagues and Triple A. Laz Gutierrez, the Sox’ player development programs coordinator, will offer similar counseling for players at Double A Portland, High A Salem, and Single A Greenville. Justin Su’a has joined the organization from IMG Academy in Florida to work with the short-season minor leagues.

The staff plans to place an emphasis on the emerging field of "mindfulness," in which individuals consciously identify and take stock of the circumstances surrounding them to avoid getting overwhelmed or distracted. So, rather than getting distracted by a hostile crowd while batting in the ninth inning of a tie game, a player is trained through mindfulness to recognize that crowd prior to the at-bat and implement behaviors such as controlled breathing to manage his response to it.


Alex adds that, "The department will also oversee the team’s growing interest in neuro-scouting, which includes measuring a player’s reaction time and hand-eye coordination in baseball simulation exercises to get a sense of his potential pitch recognition."

If want to give a broad definition to the term "sabermetrics," this is the future of baseball. The advantages to be gained from statistical analysis at this point are relatively small, with all front offices now armed with similar reams of data. But there are still advantages to be gained.

As another example, the Nationals recently hired Rick Ankiel as a life skills coordinator to help mentor minor leaguers. "Baseball is a game of failure," Nationals assistant general manager Doug Harris told the Washington Post. "Anything you can do to help players deal with failure helps the organization. Learning how to deal with those emotions, the highs and lows of the season, helps."

Psychologists and mentors are only the beginning. Imagine what an organization could spend its money on if it trimmed its major league payroll by just $1 million: More mentors; nutritionists and food programs for poorly paid minor leaguers; more personal coaches, either in the majors or minors; help and guidance for young Latin American players in the minors; and definitely more neuro-scouting.

We've come a long way from Martin simply telling his players to do whatever they wanted off the field as long as the gave 100 percent on it.

The current all-underrated team

January, 13, 2015
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Ben ZobristKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBen Zobrist has hit 99 homers over the past six seasons.
There isn't really a scientific way to determine an all-underrated team. Certainly, if you own five fantasy teams, you know all about these guys, but my perception is these players are better than widely believed or haven't yet received the kind of attention you would expect given their value. For some, maybe they have had only one big year; for others, maybe it's because they play in a small market. Regardless, I expect all these guys to be productive regulars again in 2015.

C: Rene Rivera, Rays
You can bet if Tampa Bay trades for a player that he's probably underrated. Rivera has played with the Mariners, Twins and Padres in the majors and spent time in the minors with the Dodgers, Mets and Yankees. Not surprisingly, Rivera is an excellent pitch-framer -- hence, Tampa Bay's desire to get him from the Padres in the Wil Myers trade -- and he hit .252/.319/.432 with San Diego in 2014, good numbers for Petco Park. The question is if the bat was a fluke since it was just 329 plate appearances and Rivera hadn't hit much before that. But catchers are sometimes late bloomers at the plate.

1B: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Rizzo is probably the biggest name here, but I would suggest that many fans don't realize how good he was in 2014. He had a higher OBP and slugging percentage than Miguel Cabrera. He had a higher FanGraphs WAR than Jose Abreu of the crosstown White Sox but certainly didn't get the same level of national attention. He finished behind Adrian Gonzalez in the MVP voting because he didn't drive in as many runs. He has more power than Freddie Freeman, a young first baseman who gets more recognition. The best part: He's just 25.

2B: Brian Dozier, Twins
Dozier came up as a shortstop in 2012 but has moved over to second base and gets lost among all the quality second basemen in the American League (playing on the Twins doesn't help), but what a season he had: 23 home runs, 57 extra-base hits, 89 walks, 21 stolen bases, solid defense and 112 runs scored, second in the majors behind Mike Trout. Dozier will continue to be underrated in part because he hit just .242, but he still had a higher OBP than Chase Utley, Dustin Pedroia and Ian Kinsler.

3B: Kyle Seager, Mariners
Seager was never a highly rated prospect coming up through the Mariners system -- projected as a utility infielder -- so sometimes it takes a few years for everyone to buy into a player like that. Well, the Mariners have bought in, giving Seager a seven-year, $100 million contract extension. He made his first All-Star team in 2014 and won a Gold Glove, and his 25 home runs and 96 RBIs are even more impressive considering the difficult hitting environments of the AL West.

[+] EnlargeJhonny Peralta
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsJhonny Peralta was second among NL shortstops last season with 21 homers.
SS: Jhonny Peralta, Cardinals
It's odd for a veteran like Peralta to make a list like this, but he has always been underappreciated -- although I did sense a little more, "Oh, yeah, that guy's pretty good," in 2014 as he even picked up some down-the-ballot MVP votes for the first time in his career. Maybe playing for the Cardinals helped. He led all major league shortstops in WAR in 2014, ranking 15th among all position players on Baseball Reference and 17th on FanGraphs. The key is that Peralta has always been viewed as a shortstop without a lot of range, but the metrics have consistently rated him about average (and a little above in 2014). He has a strong arm and makes few mistakes.

LF: Corey Dickerson, Rockies
Charlie Blackmon was the Rockies outfielder who made the All-Star team in 2014, but Dickerson is the one to watch moving forward. He hit .312/.364/.567 with 24 home runs in 478 plate appearances, and that's not just a Coors-inflated line. He is slated to play left field this year with Carlos Gonzalez moving over to right. The Rockies platooned Dickerson last year, but he deserves the chance to see if he can hold his own against left-handers.

CF: Juan Lagares, Mets
Lagares has certainly received recognition as perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the majors -- winning his first Gold Glove in 2014 -- but because he's not a big basher at the plate, he still seems undervalued overall. And he's not a zero on offense. He hit .281/.321/.382, nothing great, but that makes him about a league average hitter. Baseball Info Solutions credited him with 28 defensive runs saved in 2014, and some speculated that maybe he's not that good. Willie Mays, for example, peaked (under a different system for evaluating) at 21 runs, according to Baseball Reference. Consider this, however: Lagares made 2.85 plays per nine innings in 2014, compared to the league average of 2.48 for center fielders. That's 0.37 more plays per game, which adds up to 49 additional outs over 1,200 innings; Mays' career-best was 0.27 more plays per game.

RF: Kole Calhoun, Angels
Like others on this list, Calhoun was never a top prospect. But all he has done is hit. In his first full season, he hit .272/.325/.450 with 17 home runs and 31 doubles while scoring 90 runs in 127 games. He should have another strong year as the Angels' leadoff hitter.

UT: Ben Zobrist, A's
If there's a captain on the all-underrated team, this guy is it. He does all those things that maybe aren't flashy. He draws walks, hits for some power, plays good defense (at multiple positions) and is durable. Since his breakout season in 2009, he is third among position players in Baseball Reference WAR behind Robinson Cano and Cabrera (second behind Cabrera on FanGraphs).

SP: Doug Fister, Nationals
I've written about Fister enough that maybe he's no longer underrated. He doesn't get a lot of attention pitching in the same rotation as Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, but he's nearly their equal.

SP: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
After getting punched around his first two seasons in the majors, Keuchel looked like a lefty without enough fastball to succeed at the big league level. But he put everything together in 2014, going 12-9 with a 2.93 ERA. I don't think it was a fluke.

SP: Jose Quintana, White Sox
The White Sox rotation goes deeper than Chris Sale and now Jeff Samardzija. Quintana has been one of the best starters in the AL the past two seasons, throwing 200 innings both years with ERAs of 3.51 and 3.32 in a park where fly balls really fly. There's nothing too fancy about Quintana, but he has a complete repertoire of pitches with a curveball, changeup and slider and knows how to pitch.

[+] EnlargeRyu
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonHyun-jin Ryu is 28-15 with a 3.17 ERA in two seasons with the Dodgers.
SP: Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers
Similar to Quintana, Ryu is another lefty with a full arsenal of pitches. Ryu throws strikes and limits home runs -- just 23 in 344 career innings in the majors. He missed some time late last year but returned to throw a strong game in the division series. The next step for him is to get up to 200 innings and prove he can be more of a workhorse behind Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

SP: Alex Cobb, Rays
With David Price gone, Cobb is now the undisputed ace of the Tampa Bay staff. Like Ryu, he just needs to remain healthy, as he has made 22 and 27 starts the past two seasons, although he posted a sub-3.00 ERA both years. With Cobb leading the way, Tampa Bay's young rotation is a good reason why the Rays could be the sleeper team to watch in 2015.

RP: Steve Cishek, Marlins
The sidearmer doesn't blow you away like many closers, but there's no questioning his effectiveness. In four seasons in the majors he owns a 2.65 ERA and has allowed just 10 home runs in 257 2/3 innings as he rarely throws anything above the knees.

RP: Tony Watson, Pirates
Our lefty reliever has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Pirates, going 10-2 with a 1.63 ERA in 2014 (and making the All-Star team). Lacking command when he first reached the majors, Watson walked just 1.7 batters per nine innings last season while setting a career high in strikeout rate. With a fastball that averages 94 mph, he's a power lefty who could end up a closer someday.
Jason KipnisOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJason Kipnis is posed for a big rebound -- and, barring injuries, could be an All-Star in 2015.
It's been a slow few weeks in the world of baseball. So here are some random thoughts going through my mind as we wait for Max Scherzer to sign ... and wait ... and wait ...

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

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

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

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

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

6. I miss Dave Niehaus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

13. How about those Seahawks?!?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34. The answer: Mookie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

54. Of course, he has to stay healthy.

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

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

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

58. I think Bryce Harper will make The Leap.

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

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

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

62. Plus, Mark Fidrych.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

72. Also: Rusney Castillo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

79. Joe Mauer will be better. Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

86. How can you not love Jose Altuve?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

95. Corey Dickerson > Charlie Blackmon.

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

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

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

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

100. Edgar Martinez is a deserving Hall of Famer. Come on, I've managed to work Edgar into just about everything else I've written lately! I promise this will be my last Edgar reference for ... well, OK, I don't want to make a guarantee I can't keep. Just check out his Baseball-Reference page.

Players talk about belief in clutch hitting

January, 10, 2015
Jan 10
12:43
PM ET
Over the course of 16 seasons in the majors, the worst moment in Mark Grace’s career came in 1998 as he watched 35,000 pictures of his face fall from the sky.

"It was Mark Grace poster day at Wrigley field," Grace told ESPN.com. "Every single person got a 6-foot-2 growth chart of Mark Grace with a milk mustache holding a carton of milk."

The Chicago Cubs were playing the San Francisco Giants. In the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on third base, all Grace had to do was hit a sacrifice fly.

"Everybody's waving their posters," said Grace, recently named assistant hitting coach for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "Everybody's yelling 'Mark Grace' and I hit a double play to end the ballgame. Thirty-five thousand posters came flying out onto the field. So yes, it was possibly the most down moment I had in my career."

In contrast, as Grace talked about the most memorable hit of his career, he remembers being nervous as he waited to face Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

"The world's full of guys that will tell you, 'I'm a refuse-to-lose guy,' or 'You got to be tougher mentally than the pitcher,'" Grace said. "That's all bulls---. What it is more than anything is the lack of fear. I'd be a liar if I [said] in those situations I wasn't nervous. Of course I was nervous; we're all human beings."

By 2001 Grace had learned to love the spotlight.

As he put it, "Baseball and confidence can be taught, I think it can. I think you can take a kid that shies away from the big moment and I think you can help him accept that moment more."

So, when he was at the plate facing Rivera to lead off the inning with the Diamondbacks trailing the Yankees 2-1, Grace had learned how to channel his nervousness into excitement.

"I just remember my attitude going into the box was 'By hook or by crook, I’ve got to get on base,'" Grace said. "Whether it's a base hit, or whether it's a walk, or if I have to stick my head in front of one and get hit -- you know, you get over a concussion in time -- that was my attitude: My job is to get on base."

Grace singled to center field, his only career hit off Rivera. His hit began the historic ninth-inning comeback for the Diamondbacks as they scored two runs and won the World Series. "That’s the funny thing about history," he said. "History kind of remembers its own path. That hit is kind of a historic hit for me, for the Diamondbacks, and for one of the greatest World Series ever played."

Throughout baseball history, a clutch hit, like Grace’s in the 2001 World Series, turns a player into a hero, turns teams into champions and propels franchises into baseball history.

Identifying clutch hitting ability is tricky. Statistical analysts argue that clutch hits exist, but clutch hitters don't. Players, past and present, say clutch hitting is a skill. They believe some players have the ability to hit better in clutch situations than in normal situations. Or maybe clutch hitting is simply not succumbing to the pressure of a big moment.

"If you're a clutch player, you're going to win games for teams. If you're not, it's going to be hard for you," Reds third baseman Todd Frazier said this past season. "So having runners in scoring position, I think that's probably the biggest stat that players should worry about."

One way to gauge clutch hits is by using leverage index (LI), which measures the intensity of a batting event: The higher the probability for one plate appearance to change the outcome of the game, the higher the leverage index. In 2014 Frazier had the most home runs in the majors (12) in high-leverage situations.

According to many major leaguers, part of the clutch-hitting skill is the ability to handle pressure.

"There's two ways to channel nervousness," said Grace, who batted .303 in his career while hitting .323 in high-leverage situations, which often come against a team's best late-inning relievers. "You can channel into fear, or you can channel it into excitement."

Jay Bruce described a similar approach: "I think that people who are able to slow the game down the most probably are more apt to be more successful in that situation; in higher-pressure situations a lot of times your heart starts racing a little bit, your adrenaline gets going a little more."

Matt Holliday, who batted .372 in high-leverage situations this year while batting .272 overall, said clutch hitting is not luck.

"There's an intensity level when you're in a big spot that kicks in," Holliday said. “An adrenaline that kicks in. It shouldn't be much different than every other at-bat, but you just can't help that naturally you are much more intense in a big situation."

Holliday said players are not immune to the atmosphere at the ballpark.

"There's definitely different adrenaline when the crowd's into it in a big spot," said Holliday. "You channel it into concentration. I've got to mentally bear down in my approach and make sure I get the pitch that I want."

What does "looking for my pitch" mean?

"It means you see [the ball] early out of the pitcher's hand," Ben Zobrist explained. "You know what the pitch is quickly. It's not like fastballs are getting on you before you are ready to swing."

Good swing mechanics play a part as well.

"It's just a matter of those mechanics being all put together at the right time when the ball is released," Zobrist said. "If those aren't right, a lot of times you have extra thoughts going on in your brain and you are thinking, 'Well, my hands need to get here and there or whatever,' and then you are not just focusing on the ball."

The right focus can also mean good plate discipline. Let's look at the plate discipline of players who had the best batting averages in high-leverage situations in 2014 (minimum 100 plate appearances):



In broad terms, these are good contact hitters. All of these top-10 guys were above the major league average in the percentage of pitches they made contact with inside the strike zone when swinging.

Zobrist talked about plate discipline. "It kind of ebbs and flows at times," he said. "When you are feeling well at the plate and you are seeing the ball, you are going to swing at the better pitches. When you are not, instead of backing off, you tend to swing at more stuff."

Jonathan Lucroy, who has been told by a psychologist that he has the ability to hyper-focus, said guys get into trouble when they try to do too much in clutch situations. "It's all mental," said the Brewers catcher. "This game is really more mental than anything. It’s amazing how mental this game can get."

As Grace discovered more than a decade ago, the ability to hit in a clutch situation comes down to confidence.

"In baseball, you’ve got a lot of people in the game that will tell you, 'You can't do this or you can't do that,'" Grace said. "I was a 24th-round draft pick. I wasn't supposed to do anything. I came up through the system with so many people telling me the things I couldn't do well enough to be a major league player."

But Grace knew that getting in the batter's box and facing the pitcher in clutch situations was fun for him. "If you don't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you?" Grace said. "That wasn’t pressure, that was fun. I enjoyed it."

Defensive storylines of the offseason: NL

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

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

Here's a look at the National League:

 

NL East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NL Central

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NL West

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

Can Yasmany Tomas handle third base?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Panik rated about average at second base in a 70-game look in 2014, though he looked better than that in the postseason. He should get a full-time look there in 2015.

Who's better: Samardzija vs. Fister

December, 26, 2014
12/26/14
11:18
AM ET
Doug Fister and Jeff SamardzijaGetty ImagesDoug Fister and Jeff Samardzija have both been in big deals, but soon they'll set their own terms.


A reader asked me this a couple of weeks ago on Twitter, and I've been meaning to write a blog: Who's the better pitcher, Jeff Samardzija or Doug Fister?

It's an interesting question in part because both are free agents after the 2015 season. Samardzija, of course, has been part of two big trades in recent months, going from the Cubs to the A's and then from the A's to the White Sox this offseason. Fister went from the Tigers to the Nationals last winter and quietly went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA. It was a heist of a deal for Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo.

Fister continues to be one of the most underrated starters in the majors. Over the past four seasons, compare his numbers to Jon Lester, who just signed a $155 million contract with the Cubs:

Fister: 51-38, 3.11 ERA, 750.2 IP, 142 BB, 540 SO, 3.37 FIP, 129 ERA+, 17.1 WAR
Lester: 55-42, 3.61 ERA, 830 IP, 258 BB, 745 SO, 3.56 FIP, 114 ERA+, 12.7 WAR

Lester has been more of a workhorse, averaging 20 more innings per season, but Fister has the better ERA, better FIP, better adjusted ERA and a higher WAR. Nobody is suggesting that Fister, however, is going to receive a $155 million contract next offseason (like Lester, Fister has also been an excellent postseason performer, with a 2.60 ERA in 55 ⅓ innings). The difference is that Lester is a power pitcher and Fister is more of a finesse guy, and the finesse guys are always struggling to earn their due respect. The same holds true when we get to the Samardzija comparison. Samardzija throws hard, and Fister throws balls that do a lot of bendy stuff.

Here are the 2014 numbers for the two pitchers (Fister is a year older):

Fister: 2.41 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 164 IP, .246/.280/.374, 14.6% K rate, 3.6% BB rate
Samardzija: 2.99 ERA, 3.20 FIP, 219.2 IP, .234/.279/.379, 23.0% K rate, 4.9% BB rate

Fister missed April with a strained lat muscle, so he had fewer starts than Samardzija, but their opposing batting lines are almost identical. How they got there is another matter. As you can see, Samardzija had the much higher strikeout rate, maybe not surprising considering Fister ranked 140th out of 148 pitches who threw 100 innings in average fastball velocity (his heat averaged 87.8 mph) while Samardzija ranked 14th at 94.3 mph. Of those 148 pitchers, Fister's overall strikeout rate of 14.6 percent ranked 133rd.

Fister was able to keep hitters in check thanks to a .265 average on balls in play, 32 points below the MLB average of .297 (Samardzija's average was .285).

In Fister's case, he gets a lot of movement on his pitches, including a two-seam fastball with sinking action. Last December, Fister explained his pitching philosophy to Adam Kilgore of The Washington Post:
I’m going out there trying to induce ground balls, induce bad contact as early in the count as possible. My job is to get through seven innings and keep zeroes on the board for our offense to get out there and swing it. If I can get that done, that’s my main focus. If I can get past that, that’s icing on the cake and I’m excited about it. But it’s one of those things, I want to get ground balls. I want to use our defense, utilize the talent that we have out there. That’s always been one of my main goals. For me, I’d be foolish not to attack that way. My main pitching sequence is a sinker. I try to attack with that.


Fister throws that sinker more than 50 percent of the time. He also mixes in several other pitches -- cutter, curveball, changeup, splitter -- but it's that sinker that sets up everything else. Fister is 6-foot-8, giving him an unusual release point that hitters aren't used to seeing.

So he was tough to hit in 2014. However, with the Tigers in 2013, he allowed a .333 BABIP. So was he just lucky in 2014? Well, it's not quite that easy. The Tigers were a terrible defensive team, so that explains some of the high BABIP In 2013. Fister had allowed a .297 BABIP in 2012, so maybe he was just unlucky in 2013. Then you have to consider that the NL East was full of some dreadful offenses in 2014 other than the Nationals, and Fister didn't have to face them. So maybe he benefited from that.

It makes evaluating Fister difficult. His strikeout rate has dropped each of the past two seasons, from 20.4 percent to 18.1 to 14.8. Strikeouts are good even for pitch-to-contact guys, so that has to be a concern. But Fister is a unique pitcher, so it's difficult to gauge how much of a concern that decline is.

As for Samardzija, the 6-foot-5 right-hander is more of a conventional power pitcher with a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider and cutter, plus a splitter that's his two-strike weapon of destruction (batters hit .107 against it). His control improved markedly in 2014, as he cut his walk rate from 8.5 percent to 4.9 percent (in a raw totals, from 78 walks to 43 while pitching six more innings). One of the intriguing aspects about Samardzija's future is that even though he'll be 30 years old in 2015, he doesn't have a lot of wear on his arm, having primarily been a football player at Notre Dame and then pitching in relief for a couple of seasons before transitioning to the rotation in 2012.

SportsNation

Who would you rather have in 2015?

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Discuss (Total votes: 5,283)

Who's better? The Steamer projection system at FanGraphs isn't completely buying into Samardzija's improvement and forecasts a 3.94 ERA and 3.1 WAR thanks to a higher walk rate and full-time move to the American League. Samardzija did allow 25 home runs in 2013 with the Cubs and 20 in 2014 (including 13 in 16 starts with the A's), so moving to a hitter-friendly home run park with the White Sox is something to watch.

Fister is projected at a 3.77 ERA and 2.1 WAR, as his .265 BABIP is viewed as unsustainable.

I'm buying into Samardzija's improvement in 2014, and he rates the edge in durability, as well. I'd give him the slight edge as the guy I'd want for 2015, although I would predict both pitchers exceed that 50th percentile projection. Assuming both have healthy seasons, Samardzija certainly will receive the bigger free-agent contract next offseason, as well.

But Fister has exceeded expectations his entire career, from a Mariners front office that didn't buy into his success when it traded him to Detroit, and to a Tigers front office that sold low on him last winter. It wouldn't surprise me to see Fister win 20 this year and continue to produce with whatever team signs him in 2016.
The offseason of fun continued Wednesday night with an 11-player deal between the Padres, Rays and Nationals. Keith Law has his analysis here (he likes the Nationals' end of it), but here are a few more thoughts:

1. You have to give new Padres general manager A.J. Preller credit: He's come into the job swinging for the fences. With a team in such mediocre shape as the Padres, what do you have to lose? First, he gets Matt Kemp (although that deal is awaiting official approval pending Kemp's physical); now he gets Wil Myers. The Padres were last in the majors in runs, hit just .226 and only the Royals and Cardinals hit fewer home runs. So Kemp and Myers will certainly help if they're healthy and combine to hit 50 or so home runs.

The question, however: What is their overall value? Steamer projects Kemp to be worth 2.1 WAR, Myers to be worth 2.4. Those are hardly star numbers, but they would still be an improvement over what the Padres received in 2014, when their entire outfield was valued at 3.9 fWAR (2.6 of that from Seth Smith). Dave Cameron of FanGraphs/Fox posted a piece before the trade detailing some of the issues with Myers: That his good rookie season was the product, in part, of a high BABIP and not big power numbers, and that he wasn't hitting for much power even before his wrist injury in 2014. In other words, there's a good chance that Myers is merely an average hitter who strikes out a little too much and doesn't have the 25- to 30-homer power once projected of him.

Plus, if the Padres plan on running out a regular outfield of Smith in left, Myers in center and Kemp in right ... dear lord, that's going to be ugly.

2. It could lead to a trade for the Padres, who now have a glut of backup outfielders, although when they signed Smith to an extension last summer it came with the promise that he wouldn't be traded. Of course, that was different management regime and Smith's agent didn't actually secure a no-trade clause. The other possibility is to move Smith to first base, a position he's never played in the majors, with Cameron Maybin and Will Venable playing center. Carlos Quentin is also around; he's best suited for DH duties in the American League and considering what players are going for in free agency, his $8 million salary for 2015 (with a $10 million mutual option or $3 million buyout for 2016) isn't prohibitive, even given his usual stint on the disabled list.

3. Clearly, the Rays soured on Myers, whether because of his work habits (Myers has admitted he didn't come into 2014 with the best preparation and frame of mind) or because their metrics suggest he's just not going to be as good as everyone thinks. But they also believe Steven Souza is as good as Myers -- and he may be. He's older than Myers, a late bloomer who crushed the International League in 2014. I like him a lot. Minor league numbers are informative and they suggest he can play. Plus, as Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs points out, Souza is one of just three players that Steamer projects to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases (along with Carlos Gomez and Joc Pederson):
Consider: over the 10-year period between 2004 and -13, 96 players recorded both 20 home runs and also 20 stolen bases in the same season. (Or, that is to say, there were 96 such player-seasons during that interval. Some players were responsible for more than one of them.) The average WAR figure among those player-seasons? 5.0, exactly. The number of those players to record worse than a 2.0 WAR (i.e. an average season)? Just four.


4. While there wasn't room for Souza to start in the Bryce Harper-Denard Span-Jayson Werth outfield, the Nationals do lose what could have been a very valuable bench player. Considering their bench has been a weakness the past two seasons, trading Souza could be an issue given Harper's injuries the past two seasons and Werth's age. The Nationals do have another top outfield prospect in Michael Taylor, who hit .313/.396/.539 at Double-A, but he also struck out 130 times in 98 games there and needs time in Triple-A. Nate McLouth and Kevin Frandsen are around, but both were terrible last season.

5. The Rays did get a nice sleeper prospect in the deal. First baseman Jake Bauers was drafted at 17 and played all of 2014 at age 18 in the Midwest League (one of just two 18-year-olds in the league), more than holding his own with a .296/.376/.414 line when most of his peers were still in high school. Scouts wonder if there's power to develop as he's already physically developed, but he looks like a kid who can swing the bat to me.

6. Keith sort of dismissed Rene Rivera, but he's a Tampa kind of catcher: He excels at pitch framing. He also threw out 36 percent of opposing base stealers. Yes, he's been a backup until earning the first extended playing time of his career in 2014, but he hit .252/.319/.432 in over 300 plate appearances. Maybe that offense was a complete fluke, but Rivera should still be a nice upgrade over Jose Molina, who hit .178 with no home runs (overall, Tampa's catchers had the lowest wOBA in the majors).

In the end, I like the trade for all three teams. Souza is going to be a nice surprise for the Rays, Burch Smith could be a power arm out of the pen and I like Bauers' potential. The Nationals get two good prospects in Trea Turner and Joe Ross. The Padres get, at least, a lineup that fans can start to dream a bit on.
Looking for a Christmas gift for the baseball fan in your life? Or maybe a little something for yourself? I recommend "The Bill James Handbook" from Baseball Info Solutions (available here).

Yes, you can get all the basic stats you need and many more at sites like Baseball-Reference.com, but sometimes it's much easier to flip through a book than to type in "Adeiny Hechavarria" or "Jarrod Saltalamacchia." Plus, the book includes much more than a player's basic year-by-year stats. It's loaded with fun stuff like Bill James' starting pitching rankings for each month (Clayton Kershaw started the season at No. 1 and remained there all season), average velocity through the years for pitchers, individual and team baserunning data, pitchers' repertoires, manager tendencies, leaderboards, left/right data, 2015 projections, Bill James specialties like Win Shares and his Hall of Fame monitor, and much more.

Here are 10 random things I learned from flipping through the book:

1. The Kansas City Royals were only the 10th-best baserunning team in the majors.

BIS uses extra bases taken (such as first to third on a single), outs made while advancing, times doubled off, double plays grounded into and stolen base gain to arrive at an overall "net gain" of bases. The Nationals were No. 1 at +113 while the Royals were +52. Kansas City did rank No. 1 in stolen base gain at +81, but were -29 on the bases otherwise, thanks in large part to Billy Butler. At -31 bases, he ranked tied with Alex Avila as the worst baserunner in the majors. (Butler went first to third on a single once all season.) The best? Ben Revere of the Phillies had a net gain of +54, followed by Leonys Martin of the Rangers at +42.

2. Two starting pitchers didn't allow a single stolen base: Hisashi Iwakuma and Doug Fister.

Baserunners were 0-for-8 stealing Iwakuma and just 0-for-1 against Fister. Scott Feldman of the Astros allowed the most stolen bases with 35. He allowed 30 the year before when he was with the Cubs and Orioles, so it wasn't just an Astros catchers couldn't throw out runners type of deal.

3. There were 33 home run robberies in 2014.

Jay Bruce and J.D. Martinez each had two. Johnny Cueto and Bartolo Colon both benefited from two robberies. And poor Rene Rivera was the only hitter to lose two would-be home runs.

4. Brock Holt led the American League with a .349 average in "close and late" situations.

And Munenori Kawasaki was second at .346.


5. Josh Tomlin had the AL's best start of the year.

Against Seattle on June 28, the Cleveland right-hander allowed one hit with 11 K's and no walks for a Game Score of 96. Clayton Kershaw's 15-strikeout no-hitter scored 102 (the second-best nine-inning Game Score ever, behind Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout one-hitter).

6. Nathan Eovaldi led the NL in hits allowed .. and percentage of pitches in the strike zone.

Related? Perhaps.

7. Nolan Arenado hit 18 home runs -- 16 at home.

That's certainly one of the biggest home/road splits I've ever seen.

8. The Nationals went 15-4 against the Mets.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers did the same against the Diamondbacks, for the most wins one team had over another.

9. Giancarlo Stanton is projected to hit 40 home runs.

Jose Abreu is projected to lead the AL with 38 ... along with George Springer.

10. Terry Francona led the majors in intentional walks that backfired.

BIS kept track of all intentional walks and labeled them as good and not good, with the "not goods" further broken down into "bombs" -- when multiple runs scored after the IW. Francona led the majors with 51 intentional walks, 22 not goods and 13 bombs. Compare that to Ned Yost, who issued just 14 intentional walks.

Anyway, that's the kind of fun stuff you can find in the book. Check it out.

You'd have to be a hard-core baseball romantic -- or a product of the pre-Marvin Miller era -- to think Bryce Harper's new two-year, $7.5 million agreement with the Washington Nationals will make a smidge of difference when he hits free agency in 2018. There'll be no room for sentiment when agent Scott Boras holds court with reporters and hails Harper as an "iconic player" with "pristine power" and an Aaron Rodgers-caliber magnetism and work ethic. Or maybe Andrew Luck will be Boras' comparison du jour three or four years from now.

The only two words that never make it into Boras' lexicon are "hometown" and "discount." If Harper lives up to his billing as a 35-to-40-homer, middle-of-the order slugger, Boras will be looking to break a record on the open market.

So don't expect any feel-good, carryover impact from Monday's agreement when it comes to Harper's long-term future in Washington. But in the here and now, the Nationals, Boras and Harper did the prudent thing by coming to terms on a new deal and avoiding a grievance hearing Tuesday in New York. They skirted a fight they didn't need and a distraction no one relished.

Sometimes big problems spring from seemingly small details. When Harper signed a major league deal out of the draft in 2010, it did not include a clause that would allow him to opt out of his predetermined annual pay and go to salary arbitration. Was the resultant dispute between Harper and the Nationals the product of an oversight committed in haste or a misunderstanding between agent and team? Does it really matter? The relatively small salary hit that Harper would have incurred by not going to arbitration in 2015 could have had a compounding effect over time and affected his pay in subsequent years in a more substantial way.

The disagreement threatened to become a sideshow when Harper failed to appear at the team's NatsFest event Saturday and clearly ticked off general manager Mike Rizzo. Amid news reports of Jayson Werth clocking somewhere between 90 and 100 mph while driving his Porsche, the last thing the Nationals needed was Harper looking like a spoiled brat while issuing a statement that he couldn't make it because of "matters out of my control."

[+] EnlargeBryce Harper
Elsa/Getty ImagesBryce Harper hit 13 home runs in 100 games for the Nationals last season.

With Harper's new contract in place, that giant pothole has been paved over and the two sides can return to their regularly scheduled programming. Harper can focus on his offseason workout program and his upcoming wedding in January, and Rizzo is free to address Washington's second base void and figure out where the team stands with Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann as they enter their free-agent "walk" years. The Nationals have work to do if they plan to graduate from a team that wows everyone from April through September to a club that's capable of more than cameo appearances in October.

The big question, if you're a Nationals fan, is which Bryce Harper will take the field in 2015? Is it the former teenage prodigy who elicited Mickey Mantle comparisons or the banged-up version who spends too much time running into things and then tweeting medical updates from his hospital bed?

Harper remains a polarizing figure among fans who think he's overrated and scouts who roll their eyes when he antagonizes umpires with his body language. He's always going to have a target on his back, in part because of the whole "Chosen One" narrative that began during his sophomore year of high school in Nevada.

The numbers say that Harper was very good in his first two major league seasons with the Nationals, even as he suffered in comparison with fellow phenom Mike Trout. Last season, Harper hit a so-so .273 with a .767 OPS and 13 homers in 100 regular-season games and seemed bereft of the old swagger. Manager Matt Williams benched him for failing to run out a ground ball in April, and Harper struggled to regain his confidence and his thump after undergoing knee and thumb surgery in a span of five months.

But it's time for a little perspective here. Harper just turned 22 in October, and when the National League Division Series ended, his fellow Nationals were on the top step of the dugout hoping he could hit the ball out and save them from a dispiriting first-round loss to San Francisco. With the possible exception of Anthony Rendon, no Washington player seemed more capable of doing something special under pressure than Harper did.

One of Harper's most ardent fans is none other than Mike Rizzo, who has consistently defended him throughout his growing pains. I received a glimpse of that steadfast support while writing an account of Harper's trying 2014 season in August. While interviewing Rizzo for the story, I took note that Harper’s first two years in Washington were significantly better than most people realized.

Rizzo quickly demurred.

"I would call them historic seasons," he said.

Harper's early ups and downs notwithstanding, Rizzo and the Nationals remain convinced that he's capable of doing some memorable things in baseball. They'd rather have him make his mark as a hitter than as a labor relations pioneer.


When Mariano Rivera called it a career after the 2013 season, David Robertson graduated from eighth-inning reliever to closer. In 2014, he went 4-5 with 39 saves and a 3.08 ERA while allowing a .192 batting average. This fall, he turned down the Yankees' $15.3 million qualifying offer -- which would have been the largest single-season salary ever paid to a relief pitcher – and decided instead to seek a multiyear contract on the free-agent market.

MLB Free Agency: Half-Full, Half-Empty Logo
Robertson probably won't get $15 million per season, but Jim Bowden predicted a three-year, $39 million contract for Robertson. ESPN's Andrew Marchand reported earlier this offseason that Robertson is looking to match or exceed the four-year, $50 million contract Jonathan Papelbon received from the Phillies a few years ago.

Is Robertson worth it? Let's do another half-full, half-empty.

HALF-FULL

This year's World Series teams showed the importance of a deep, dominant late-inning bullpen crew, as both the Royals and Giants (with the exception of Madison Bumgarner) had mediocre rotations but terrific bullpens. Just ask the Nationals or Tigers about the importance of a shutdown reliever. The Nationals might have won two World Series titles by now if Drew Storen hadn't blown crucial save opportunities in the 2012 and 2014 postseasons, and the Tigers have struggled with their bullpen for years. Both teams could be interested in Robertson.

There's no denying Robertson's late-inning dominance. Over the past four seasons, his 2.20 ERA is sixth in the majors among pitchers with at least 200 innings in that time span -- and that's come in Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls to right field land three rows deep in the stands. He's allowed a .201 batting average over those four years with a strikeout rate of 34 percent -- again, sixth overall in the majors. Not bad for a onetime 17th-round draft pick.

He's showing no signs of slowing down; indeed, his 2014 strikeout rate of 37.1 percent was the highest of his career. Robertson throws a cutter and a curveball (and a very occasional changeup). It's that curveball, one of the best in the game, that has made him an elite reliever:

David Robertson heat mapESPN Stats & Info


The curveball is a swing-and-miss pitch and generates a lot of ground balls, owing to that sharp 12-to-6 break and location down in the zone. Obviously, it's Robertson's go-to pitch when he's ahead in the count. Since 2011, batters have hit .161 against it with one home run, 140 strikeouts and just seven walks.

Robertson has had two minor DL stints in recent seasons, but neither was an arm-related injury. He repeats his delivery well, and considering he's entering his age-30 season, he's a good bet to remain healthy over a three- or four-year contract.

Importantly, he's pitched in New York. If he ends up leaving the Yankees, there should be no concerns about how he will handle the pressure of closing elsewhere.

HALF-EMPTY

There's a reason the Papelbon contract was much derided at the time: Relievers, even good ones, just don't create enough value to be worth huge, multiyear contracts. Plus, it's not that hard to come up with good ones. Look at the Phillies; They have Ken Giles ready to take over as closer but are stuck with Papelbon's big contract.

Even if a team is desperate for a closer, where's the guarantee that Robertson does the job in October if you get there? He has one season of closing under his belt and has never had to save a postseason game. There are a lot of great regular-season closers who haven't done the job in October.

SportsNation

What's your view on David Robertson as a free agent?

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Discuss (Total votes: 2,796)

Plus, Robertson is coming off a 3.08 ERA -- that's nothing special these days for a reliever. Sixty-nine relievers who threw at least 50 innings had a lower ERA in 2014. He saved 39 games in 44 opportunities. That's a save percentage of 88.6. Sounds good, but again, it's nothing special; 13 closers with at least 20 opportunities had a higher percentage in 2014. Robertson also allowed seven home runs in 2014, six to right-handed batters. Whoever signs him has to hope that number was either an aberration or Yankee Stadium inflation.

Yes, there has been consistency in his performances over the past four seasons. But relievers tend to burn out quickly. Do you want to gamble $40 million that Robertson will remain healthy and productive in a role that's fairly easy to fill?

What do you think? Will he return to the Yankees or will the Tigers be desperate and give him a Papelbon-like deal?

Should Nationals trade Zimmermann?

November, 14, 2014
11/14/14
2:37
PM ET
Let's talk some Washington Nationals. Jerry Crasnick touched on one of the big rumors from this week's general manager meetings in Phoenix:
A rumor made the rounds during the meetings that the Nationals and Cubs were discussing a trade that would send pitcher Jordan Zimmermann to Chicago. It was quickly debunked, and in hindsight it seemed like a major stretch. The Cubs just traded veteran starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland for prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney at the July deadline. So a deal for Zimmermann wouldn't have worked unless the Cubs knew they could lock him up to a long-term contract.


Zimmermann is a free agent after the 2015 season, as is rotation mate Doug Fister, shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span and reliever Tyler Clippard. Those five players combined for 18.3 WAR in 2014, so that's a lot of wins potentially leaving the roster if they go un-signed and depart elsewhere.

Trouble is, can the Nationals afford all these guys? Baseball-Reference.com estimates the Nationals' 2015 payroll at $148 million or so when factoring in arbitration-eligible players. Aside from what it could cost to retain those guys, then you have to think about a Stephen Strasburg contract; he's eligible for free agency after 2016. Down the road, you'll have Bryce Harper to consider and then Anthony Rendon.

That puts GM Mike Rizzo in a tough quandary this offseason: What do you do? You can keep everybody, figure out what to do at second base -- the one major hole on the team -- and enter 2015 as the likely World Series favorite. On paper. Or you can try and figure out a way to remain strong in 2015 but also start considering reinforcements for the future.

Thus the Zimmermann trade rumors. One report had the Nationals expecting three major-league ready prospects in return for Zimmermann. That's simply not going to happen. The Cubs wouldn't trade Russell straight up for Zimmermann, let alone three good prospects for him. Teams simply won't pay a premium for one year of a player, no matter how good the player. That's why the Cubs traded Jeff Samardzija during the season -- the A's received two pennant races of value for Samardzija and were thus willing to deal Russell. Trading one pennant race of Jon Lester, the Red Sox were only able to extract Yoenis Cespedes, who has just one year under contract before becoming a free agent.

Zimmermann has certainly developed into one of the best starters in the game. Who knows, if Matt Williams leaves him in to finish Game 2 of the Division Series, maybe the Nationals win that game, tie the series and go on to knock out the Giants. Over the past three seasons, he's tied for eighth in the majors among starting pitchers with 13.4 WAR. He's made 32 starts all three seasons and increased his strikeout rate in 2014 while lowering his walk rate. He and Fister tied for the fourth-lowest walk rate among all starters. Basically, there's no reason to assume Zimmermann won't continue pitching at this level for several more years, although he did have Tommy John surgery back in 2009.

But there's also no guarantee he returns to the Nationals. If they trade Zimmermann, they still have Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez, Fister for at least one more year and Blake Treinen, who could be a serviceable No. 5 starter. In the minors, Lucas Giolito is one of the top pitching prospects in the game, a potential No. 1 coming off his first post-Tommy John season with big numbers in Class A. He's probably a couple years away. A.J. Cole is another starter prospect who has reached Triple-A. So there is some depth there.

Anyway, what do you do? As Harper Gordek wrote at Nationals Baseball:
Do we try to win now, or do we try to win later?

It's the eternal question for a baseball team. Do you spend money in the years directly infront of you attempting to maximize your potential of winning it all right now, or do you defray costs in order to maximize your potential of having a consistent playoff team later.
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What should the Nationals do this offseason?

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Discuss (Total votes: 1,004)

The Nationals would still be good enough without Zimmermann to make the playoffs, even if they don't receive MLB-ready prospects in return. The margin for error is obviously smaller. Still, as we've seen and just saw with the Giants, you just have to get into the playoffs; whether you get there with 96 wins or 92 wins or 88 wins doesn't really matter.

I'm reminded here of the Cliff Lee trade, the one from the Phillies to the Mariners. The Phillies had reached the World Series in 2009 with Lee, but traded him that offseason when he had one year left before free agency. They received three Class A prospects, none of whom amounted to anything. In 2010 (having acquired Roy Halladay), they reached the NLCS but lost in six games to the Giants. Maybe with Lee in the rotation alongside Halladay, they win it all.

There's no guarantee you win with Zimmermann, of course. And there's no guarantee you get anything of value if you trade him. Harper, the Nationals fans, says to go all-in.

I'm inclined to agree. I like the idea of getting back to the playoffs and running out a rotation of Zimmermann, Strasburg, Fister and Gonzalez or Roark. I'll take my chances with that group and then worry about 2016.

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