SweetSpot: Bobby Abreu

Joe Posnanski is ranking the 100 best baseball players of all time and the other day he wrote about Sandy Koufax, his No. 46 guy.

Koufax is one of the most difficult players to rank in a list like this due to his short career. His case raises the problems of factoring in peak value versus career value, not to mention postseason performance. Even Koufax's peak -- five great seasons, three of which were pantheon-level seasons -- is relatively short. Plus, he benefited from his time and place: A pitcher's era in a pitcher's park.

Joe writes:

At Dodger Stadium, on that Everest of a mound, Koufax was both literally and figuratively on an even higher level.

– in 1963, at Dodger Stadium, he went 11-1 with a 1.38 ERA and batters hit .164 against him.
– In 1964, the one year he did not manage 300 innings, he went 12-2 with an 0.85 ERA at home.
– In 1965, the league hit .152 against Koufax in LA, and he went 14-3 with a 1.38 ERA. On the road that year, he was a much more human 12-5 with a 2.72 ERA.
– In 1966, he was was more or less the same dominant pitcher at home and on the road. His 1.52 ERA at home was not very different from his 1.96 ERA on the road.

So what do all these advantages mean for Koufax’s legacy? Well, I’m a numbers guy at heart but I have to say … it doesn’t mean much to me. Koufax, like all of us, was a man of his time and place. He was given a big strike zone and a high mound and, with the wind at his back, he became indelible, unforgettable, the greatest and most thrilling pitcher many would ever see in their lifetime. No, of course the numbers do not compare fairly with pitchers of other eras — you can’t say Koufax was better than Lefty Grove or Roger Clemens just because his ERA was lower — but those numbers offer a nice display of his dominance and, more, the way people looked at him. He still had a 1.86 ERA over four seasons. He still struck out 382 batters in a season.

Overall, in his three monster seasons in 1963, 1965 and 1966 Koufax went 25-5, 1.88; 26-8, 2.04; and 27-9, 1.73.

Now, in retrospect we know Koufax gained a big advantage from Dodger Stadium. They probably knew that on some level at the time, but nobody really kept track of the numbers. What I always found interesting is that other pitchers were putting up big numbers in the same era, and yet it's Koufax whose legacy grew the largest. For example:
  • Juan Marichal went 25-8 in 1963, 25-6 in 1966 and 26-9 in 1968.
  • Bob Gibson had his 1.12 ERA in 1968.
  • Dean Chance went 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA in 1964.
  • Tom Seaver went 25-7 with a 2.21 ERA in 1969 (after the mound was lowered) and 20-10 with a 1.76 ERA in 1971.
  • Koufax struck out 300 batters three times; Sam McDowell did it twice and even had a season with a 1.81 ERA.
  • Denny McLain won 55 games in 1968-69, two more than Koufax won in 1965-66.

The point: Other guys were doing Koufax-like things at the same time. So why Koufax? (Not that Seaver, Gibson and Marichal are disrespected but I'm guessing more casual fans would be inclined to call Koufax the greatest pitcher ever over those three.) Maybe it's the two World Series titles in 1963 and 1965, including a Game 7 shutout in 1965, when the World Series still meant everything. Maybe it was pitching in Los Angeles. Maybe retiring early added to his aura; nobody saw Koufax grow old.

A recent article by Bill James on Bill James Online titled "Climbing the Stairway to Sandy Koufax" finally made my understand why. Bill wrote:
Since 1900 there have been only three seasons by a pitcher in which the pitcher had 25 wins, 300 strikeouts, an ERA under 2.50 and a winning percentage of .750. Those three seasons were by Sandy Koufax, 1963, Sandy Koufax, 1965, and Sandy Koufax, 1966.

So there you go. Those other guys came close and maybe did two of those things, but only Koufax has had a Koufax season. Vida Blue came close in 1971; if he'd gone 25-8 instead of 24-8, he would have had a Koufax season. If Steve Carlton goes 27-9 instead of 27-10 in 1972, it's a Koufax season. Randy Johnson came close.

The rest of the article is a fun look at isolating the best pitching seasons ever, or as Bill wrote, "trying to develop a protocol to make a list of the seasons worthy of the Sandy Koufax label."

A few other things to check out:
  • John Dewan writes that shifts are still on the rise. Teams are on pace for more than 12,000, more than 4,000 more than last season. The Astros lead the majors with 176 shifts; the Yankees are second with 98. The White Sox are fourth with 61 -- just 12 fewer than they had all of last season.
  • Be sure to check out the ESPN The Magazine story by Scott Eden on Yasiel Puig's defection from Cuba if you missed it last week.
  • Via Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk, the respected Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post drops a few hints as to why Matt Williams may have pulled Bryce Harper from Saturday's game after Harper failed to run out a little tapper to the mound.
  • Harper Gordek of Nationals Baseball writes about Bryce and Boswell.
  • On the same subject, in his newsletter, Joe Sheehan writes, "The problem isn't that Matt Williams benched Bryce Harper for some perceived lack of effort. The problem is the antediluvian mindset that even makes that an option. Modern baseball players aren't wide-eyed farm boys being herded from the saloons to the ballyard and back, they're highly-trained professionals recruited, trained and deployed in a nine-billion-dollar industry. You do nothing for the Washington Nationals by treating them, collectively or individually, like something less."
  • Adam Wieser of Disciplines of Uecker writes about Carlos Gomez -- and his "crazy" swing. (That's his bat, not his jab.)
  • Michael Eder of It's About the Money on who will replace Ivan Nova for the Yankees.
  • The Twins are actually scoring some runs this year, but they're still looking for some offense at shortstop and center field, writes Nick Nelson of Twins Daily.
  • Brandon Land of One Strike Away on the curious case of J.P. Arencibia and his play so far with the Rangers.
  • The Mets are calling up Bobby Abreu. Must need some veteran leadership.
  • Domonic Brown is still struggling, writes Bill Baer.
Christina Kahrl, Buster Olney and Jim Bowden covered the Miguel Cabrera contract, so there isn't really much more to add. The timing is definitely odd with Cabrera two years from free agency, the money seems extreme and who knows how Cabrera will age once he get into his mid-30s. On the other hand, it's not our money and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is 84 years old and probably not too worried about about what happens in seven or eight years.

Other stuff ...
  • Righty Jordan Zimmermann tossed five scoreless innings for the Nationals against the Mets in his final spring tune-up. He's been as good as any pitcher this spring, allowing one run in 18 innings with just one walk. Clayton Kershaw -- sore back and all (he'll miss his start on Sunday night) -- is clearly the Cy Young favorite in the National League, but Zimmermann is a solid sleeper choice if Kershaw falters. Compare Zimmermann over the past two seasons to his more-hyped teammate, Stephen Strasburg. Zimmermann is 31-17 with a 3.10 ERA and 409 innings; Strasburg is 23-15 with a 3.08 ERA and 342 1/3 innings. You may look at Zimmermann's strikeout rate (161 in 213 1/3 innings) and think he doesn't throw hard, but that's not the case. His fastball averaged 93.9 mph last season. Even though he pitches up in the zone with it he induces a lot of weak contact and ground balls thanks to good movement. He mixes in a slider, curve and occasional change. The one thing he has to improve on to go to the next level is limit the blow-up outings; he had games last year with eight, seven, seven and six runs allowed, giving up 10 of his 19 home runs in those four starts.
  • Even with the injury to Patrick Corbin, the Diamondbacks sent down Archie Bradley, the hard-throwing right-hander many rank as the top pitching prospect in the minors. I think it's the right decision. Bradley still has to improve his fastball command -- he walked 59 batters in 123 1/3 innings in Double-A -- to succeed consistently at the major league level. A month or two in the minors won't hurt, although it won't surprise me if he's back sooner than that if somebody in the Arizona rotation falters or gets injured.
  • The A's and Giants are playing a three-game Bay Bridge series back home and the A's had to be happy to see Scott Kazmir toss 5 1/3 scoreless innings. He did walk three with four strikeouts but allowed only two hits. With the loss of Bartolo Colon as a free agent and Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery, the A's have to find nearly 400 new innings in the rotation. Kazmir threw 150 last year for Cleveland. Josh Reddick homered for the A's. While the rotation may take a hit, the Oakland offense should be better if Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes rebound from mediocre seasons. Remember, the A's were third in the AL in runs even though Reddick posted a .307 OBP in 441 PAs, Cespedes a .294 OBP in 574 PAs and the departed Chris Young a .280 OBP in 375 PAs. It wouldn't surprise me if the A's have the best offense in the AL, leaping over the Tigers and Red Sox.
  • Speedster Billy Hamilton went 3-for-4 with two triples for the Reds and is hitting .327/.381/.527 in 55 spring at-bats. There are still a lot of doubts on whether he'll hit at the major league level and his lack of power means he'll see a lot of hard stuff inside, but there have been positive signs this spring, including the willingness to take some pitches and draw a few walks (six in 18 games). He walked a lot in Double-A, not nearly enough in Triple-A, but that needs to become a bigger element of his game. I do like his chances to hit just enough -- say .250 with a .310 OBP -- to keep his job in center field and swipe 60-plus bases.
  • The Phillies released 40-year-old vet Bobby Abreu and if you can't make the Phillies ... Abreu didn't play in the majors last year and looked pretty done in 2012 (he posted a .350 OBP but with little power). Twenty-five years ago there would be room for Abreu somewhere as a pinch-hitter/DH/very occasional outfielder, but teams don't carry those guys any more on rosters stocked with so many relievers. The guy had a great career and was a very underrated player during his prime years with the Phillies, hitting .305/.416/.513 from 1998 to 2006 while averaging 29 steals and 5.4 WAR per season. His timing wasn't quite right; he left the Phillies before they become a perennial playoff team and he left the Yankees the year before they won a World Series in 2009. With 60.5 career WAR via Baseball-Reference, he compares in value to other outfielders like Billy Williams (63.6), Richie Asbhurn (63.4), Zack Wheat (60.2), Jim Edmonds (60.3), Gary Sheffield (60.2), Vladimir Guerrero (59.3) and Sammy Sosa (58.4).
  • So the Mariners didn't want to pay Randy Wolf a guaranteed $1 million but then gave a guaranteed $1.25 million contract to Chris Young (the pitcher, not the outfielder). Go figure. Young had been in camp with the Nationals but couldn't crack their rotation. Reports, however, had him throwing 88 and healthy, much better than the 83-85 he was throwing when he was last in the majors in 2012. You can argue that the Mariners made a baseball decision here and that Young is a better bet to perform than Wolf, but that's not really what happened. Wolf had made the team before they decided to screw him with a 45-day contract offer, which Wolf turned down, leaving the Mariners with no option but to give Young a guaranteed deal even though he's hardly a sure thing to last all season in the rotation.

Dodgers doing the necessary things

August, 14, 2012
Matt Kemp didn’t go yard. He didn’t need to. And Andre Ethier? He didn’t put the lineup on his back either. What of Mattingly’s mighty mites, the guys who were the toast of Los Angeles back in May? They were there, sure, but they essentially clocked in and clocked out, proverbial lunch pails in hand.

And the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Pittsburgh Pirates just the same on Monday night, because the team that made people wonder how general manager Ned Colletti had done it three months ago doesn’t really exist anymore. Kemp had a good night, and journeyman Aaron Harang tossed his 14th quality start -- a reasonable stand-in definition for “winnable game” -- of the season. This could be the second year in Harang’s career that he tosses a quality start 60 percent of the time, the sort of serviceability that recommended him to the Dodgers in the first place, just as it did Chris Capuano and now Joe Blanton. Rounding out a rotation after you have an ace in place isn’t sexy but it’s necessary, and perhaps that’s the word that will define what Colletti’s done this summer: the necessary things.

That’s because Colletti didn’t stand still any more than circumstances did. When forced to do something necessary, he has done it. He has adapted and overcome, and that, as much as anything, might be what puts the Dodgers into the postseason. Colletti never made the mistake of settling, not for the team he built over the winter on back-loaded deals to an odd collection of journeymen, and not when that team started the season 30-13 behind Kemp’s brief triple-crown bid. After a 6-19 swoon through July 17 helped kill any complacency over their brittle early-season achievements, Colletti acted, armed with the newly added largesse of his team’s new owners. Trading for Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino and Blanton represents a facelift significant enough to elicit professional respect among cosmetic surgeons.

As a result, the new-look Dodgers might resemble that surprise hot-start team you remember from April, but only in the broadest particulars. Kemp and Ethier you remember. But the undercard? Let’s just say the Dodgers aren’t going to try getting to the dance with everyone they initially invited. Transient heroes such as Bobby Abreu, Elian Herrera and Dee Gordon have had their moments, but Colletti was as married to any of them as Kris Humphries was to Kim Kardashian -- give me a good month, maybe two, and then, see ya! As brutally unfair as that might seem, that’s life in baseball’s middle class.

Let’s not forget Don Mattingly’s part in also doing a few necessary things. The skipper didn’t settle on Javy Guerra as his closer, last year’s 21 saves or no. Faced with a necessary choice after Guerra pitched poorly, Mattingly let performance be his guide, and Kenley Jansen nailed down Monday's game. Confronted by James Loney’s consistently crummy production, the Dodgers have turned more and more to Juan Rivera at first base -- Rivera has started 16 of their past 30 games. Giving Ramirez a test-drive at short to see if he can still swing it sets up a later necessary decision about what Gordon’s role might be down the stretch. Gordon might be the franchise's long-term future at shortstop, but there’s a right-now future to honor as well, and you can bet Mattingly will make a necessary choice with that in mind.

If you want to speculate about anything with this club, though, don’t think about the warm fuzzies of the Dodgers’ new age of Magic (Johnson) or what might have been if Kemp had stayed healthy. That way lies madness -- with Kemp around, perhaps the Dodgers’ needs might not have seemed so dire, and maybe then Colletti doesn’t bring in HanRam and the Flyin’ Hawaiian and rent Joe Blanton. Follow that thread of possibilities and you’re probably left with a nice little team, an 85-win team that gets remembered fondly as a symbol of the Dodgers’ return to respectability, if mildly disappointing for its late fade.

But perhaps because the Dodgers did start strong and Kemp did get hurt, Colletti did those subsequently necessary things to make something more of his team's circumstance. As a result, the Dodgers are turning into something more than just a rival with those Angels arrivistes from Anaheim for Angeleno affections, they’re turning into the sort of team you can see going toe-to-toe with anybody in a postseason series. Outside of the non-Clayton Kershaw nights, they can now beat you with the sort of depth in talent that is usually associated with the Yankees or Red Sox or last year's Cardinals (or the Phillies, up until this year).

They're stronger now because they were weak in June, possibly as strong as any team in the league. Think on that: Do you really want to run into a team that can lead off a postseason series with Kershaw? If you’re a gambling man, here’s hoping you don’t find that necessary.

Mike SciosciaKelvin Kuo/US PresswireIf Mike Scioscia wants to make a federal case out of it, there's always the Ninth Circuit.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Have you recovered from the epic Keith Law-Kevin Goldstein prospect podcast from Wednesday? If so, join Keith and myself as we return to the majors for Thursday's Baseball Today.

1. Was Wednesday's Angels-Rangers game the best game of the season? We discuss Yu Darvish's struggles and potential problems with the Angels' bullpen.

2. The Rangers called up Mike Olt but is there a place for him to play?

3. Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui and Derek Lowe have been cut loose by their teams. Have we seen the last of them in a big league uniform?

4. Hey, the Mariners have won seven in a row. They just called up relievers Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor. Do these two really throw 100 mph?

5. User emails bring up Eric Hosmer's struggles, Todd Frazier's rookie season and Desmond Jennings' sophomore slump.

All that and more on Thursday's big show!

Podcast: Doug Glanville and Jim Hickey

May, 4, 2012
We needed two guests to fill Eric Karabell's shoes as pinch-hitters on Friday's Baseball Today podcast and found a pair that filled the void with insightful discussion.

Baseball Tonight's Doug Glanville joined me and talked about the impact of the injury to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Doug explains why he'd give Rafael Soriano the first shot at closing even though David Robertson may be better suited for the role.

Pablo Sandoval goes down and we look at the impact of his injury to the offensively challenged Giants. Is there another hitter whose absence would be missed as much?

Breaking news: One of Doug's former teammates, Bobby Abreu, signs with the Dodgers. Doug explains the valuable role and the specific skills that Abreu will bring in helping someone like Dee Gordon become a better hitter.

Doug's defensive thought of the week is on the role of the warning track, and how it's not anywhere as useful as you might think. He has a lot to say on the subject.

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey was our guest on the back end of the podcast. The Rays are the hottest team in baseball right now, with a large credit for that going to their bullpen. We run through the process and conversations that went into fixing Fernando Rodney.

Though we forgot Jeff Niemann, we went through the Rays' rotation starter-by-starter and looked at the keys to their success, and what their future may hold.

What role do the Rays' pitchers play in the team's defensive shifting? Jim explains. He also shared the most unusual strategic decision he's ever played a part in.

All that, and a two-minute-drill style run through four(!) Ridiculous Questions of the Day. Check it out here.

This is what will have American League pitchers and managers waking up in cold sweats all season long: Those stretches when Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are both raking, eyes bulging as they pummel meaty fastballs over fences and into outfield seats.

Josh Beckett become the first pitcher to experience these forces of nature in action, as both hit two home runs off him in Detroit's 10-0 victory Saturday over Boston. Fielder hit one out to left field and a low, screaming bullet to right for his pair. Going the opposite way is nothing new for him; 11 of his 38 home runs in 2011 went to left or left-center. There were some concerns that Fielder would lose a few home runs moving from Miller Park to the more spacious environs of Comerica, so hitting one out to left is a good, early sign.

How dynamic is this pair? A season ago, Fielder hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 home runs; Cabrera hit .344/.448/.586 with 30 home runs. The last team with two players to hit 30 home runs with a .400 OBP? The 2006 Red Sox with Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Twelve teams since 2000 have had such a duo (or in the case of the 2004 Cardinals, three players):

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonPrince Fielder waves after hitting the first of his two home runs off Boston's Josh Beckett.
2006 Red Sox: Ramirez, Ortiz
2005 Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi
2004 Cardinals: Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen
2003 Yankees: Giambi, Jorge Posada
2002 Astros: Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman
2001 Rockies: Todd Helton, Larry Walker
2001 Cardinals: Pujols, Edmonds
2000 Cardinals: Edmonds, Mark McGwire
2000 Angels: Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus
2000 Astros: Bagwell, Moises Alou
2000 Mariners: Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez
2000 Giants: Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent

Of course, all of those pairs or threesomes did this during the high-offense steroids period. Six other teammates did it between 1995 and 1999. But before that? That previous team to have two such players was the 1969 Oakland A's with Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando. Throughout baseball history there have been only 34 such pairs. Here's another way to do this. Let's add OPS+ (adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage) as a third measuring stick. OPS+ adjusts a player's offensive production for home park and era. In 2011, Cabrera's OPS+ was 181, second in the American League. Fielder's was 164, fourth in the National League. Let's set a minimum of 30 home runs, .400 OBP and 150 OPS+.

This takes away some of steroids-era pairs and leaves us with 24 such teammates in baseball history. And six of those 24 were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

And that, my readers, is the kind of company Cabrera and Fielder have the chance to join.

A few more notes from today's early games:

  • Beckett served up five home runs, sending waves of sweats and swears throughout Red Sox Nation. He became just the fourth pitcher to allow five homers twice in his career, joining Tim Wakefield, Pat Hentgen and Jeff Weaver. Gordon Edes had a good piece on Beckett before his season debut, detailing his motivation for 2012. Beckett is a bit of an enigma, a guy usually viewed as an ace due to his postseason heroics with the Red Sox in 2007 and Marlins in 2003. But the facts also don't lie: He's finished in the top 10 in his league in ERA only twice, including last season with a 2.89 mark. Beckett has been homer-prone at various stages of his career, most notably in his first season with Boston, in 2006, when he gave up 36. It's only one start, of course, but considering the spring training thumb injury he insisted wasn't an injury, it puts Beckett on the early "keep an eye on him" watch list.
  • Angels manager Mike Scioscia picked Game No. 2 to get disgruntled Bobby Abreu in the lineup, putting Abreu in left and moving Vernon Wells to center, sitting defensive whiz Peter Bourjos in the process. "I'm not calling this a day off for Peter, it's the second game, but it's a combination of that and trying to get some left-handed bats in the lineup," Scioscia told Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles. I can't imagine a more defensively challenged outfield pair than those two. Unable to see this game since I had the Red Sox-Tigers game as my local Fox broadcast, I tweeted Angels and Royals fans to ask how many of the 11 hits Dan Haren allowed fell just out of their reach. The consensus seemed to be two or three, although @dblesky wrote, "There were really only a couple. And one was glaring." It will be interesting to see how often Scioscia runs out this lineup, essentially to placate Abreu. I just don't see the Angels being a better team with that alignment and Bourjos on the bench.
  • Zack Greinke had a dominant effort in the Brewers' 6-0 shutout over the Cardinals, allowing three hits in seven innings with no walks and seven strikeouts. I wrote this before the game, but here's why Greinke is a good Cy Young pick. Especially impressive were Greinke's economical 91 pitches.
  • Tweet of the day after Daniel Hudson and the Diamondbacks beat the Giants for the second consecutive game:
The final March edition of the Baseball Today podcast was a winner as Mark Simon and I waxed poetic with our National League preview, a few ridiculous questions and other fun!

1. We’ve got different teams representing the NL in this season’s World Series, and neither is a stranger to October baseball. But what’s the theme of the NL? Is parity a good thing?

2. Is acquiring Bobby Abreu a good thing? While I can’t possibly understand Cleveland’s possible interest in the one-time OBP machine, Mark takes a different angle.

3. All baseball fans should know the unbridled joy when their favorite team signs Juan Pierre. #Sarcasm. Hey, I mock because I care.

4. Mark and I discuss our recent defensive runs saved draft, which was a blast and we’ll follow throughout the season. No, really, we did it and SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield wishes he had!

5. Among the topics in email was how the Rays will treat James Shields and B.J. Upton, John Olerud’s batting helmet and what happens to a pitcher after he allows a home run on the first pitch of the game! We have answers!

So download and listen to a packed Friday episode of the Baseball Today podcast, and return with us on Monday as we get you ready for a huge week of relevant baseball!

Chat wrap: Reds, Lincecum, more!

January, 24, 2012
From the Astros' possible name change to Bobby Abreu to the Yankees' rotation to the Marco Scutaro trade to Tim Lincecum to the Reds to Brandon Morrow's new contract, we talked baseball and nothing but baseball on Tuesday. And somehow Jack Morris and Brad Radke kept getting brought up.
Albert PujolsKirby Lee/US PresswireThe Angels got the prize of the offseason, Albert Pujols, but he'll likely be their only .800 OPS hitter.
Mark Saxon of ESPNLosAngeles.com asks: Why pitch to Albert Pujols?

In other words: There's a reason the Angels finished 10th in the American League in runs scored in 2011.

Let's examine the Angels' lineup. Let's stick to what we know, and right now we don't now if (A) Kendrys Morales will be healthy; or (B) if Mark Trumbo can play third base. In the past 25 years, only Kevin Youkilis and Todd Zeile have played 100 games at first base in one season and 100 games at third base the next season, and both of them had previous experience at the hot corner.

CF Peter Bourjos

The Angels lack an obvious leadoff hitter on the team, as the only regulars with an OBP above .340 were Bobby Abreu and Alberto Callaspo. Bourjos has the speed and his 49 extra-base hits would add an element of power, but can he get on base enough? His .327 OBP is not what you want from a leadoff hitter, and the strikeouts will rub Mike Scioscia the wrong way. Certainly, Abreu and Callaspo are better leadoff options, but neither guy led off once last season, so that's an option not in Sciosca's wheelhouse.

2B Howie Kendrick

The good news? He's now been relatively healthy two years in a row. He hit a career-high 18 home runs and slugged .464. The bad news? His OBP was still just .338 and after a hot start he hit just .267 after May. Kendrick changed his approach last year, swinging harder -- it resulted in a strikeout rate of 20.4 percent versus a career rate 16.9 percent. The overall result was positive, but he's still a free-swinger who doesn't get on base as much as you'd like.

1B Albert Pujols

2008: .357/.462/.653
2009: .327/.443/.658
2010: .312/.414/.596
2011: .299/.366/.541

Yes, Pujols is a special player. Of course he is. But ... aren't those batting lines pretty good evidence that The Machine is not a machine? That he's slowly aging, no matter his workout regimen or his extreme desire to be the best. New Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and former manager Tony La Russa both made a point to say Pujols isn't like other players, that he'll age well. But I look at those numbers and see a player in slight decline. That said, a rebound year wouldn't surprise me, but keep in mind: (1) He won't get to face the Cubs, Astros and Pirates 45 times a year any more and he's moving into a slightly tougher home run park.

RF Torii Hunter

He's now 36 and showing signs of age: His OPS has dropped from .873 to .819 to .765. He can still mash a left-hander (.287/.389/.497) but was pretty ineffective against right-handers (.252/.313/.402). He's lost much of his speed -- five for 12 stealing bases and he grounded into 24 double plays. In fact, batting Pujols (29 double plays) and Hunter back-to-back is a 6-4-3 waiting to happen.

DH Mark Trumbo

We'll slot Trumbo at DH right now. While he hit 29 home runs as a rookie, he's another guy who doesn't get on base enough -- a .291 OBP. Here's a way to look at this: Trumbo created about 71 runs last season. He used up 427 outs to create those runs. The goal of a hitter is to produce runs while not making outs. Among 32 major league first basemen with at least 300 plate appearances, Trumbo ranked 24th with 4.47 runs created per 27 outs.

LF Bobby Abreu/Vernon Wells

How long of a leash do you give Wells after his miserable season? Do you give him one month? Two months? Trouble is, the AL West and wild-card races project to be very close this year, with the Rangers, plus four quality teams in the AL West. Can the Angels afford to wait to see if Wells regains his stroke at age 33? Since 1990, only two outfielders 30 years or older have had 500 plate appearances and an OBP less than .275 -- Wells and Alex Rios (also in 2011). If we lower the threshold to 300 PAs, we get 2007 Craig Monroe (who never played regularly again) and 2005 Steve Finley (who did rebound from a .271 OBP to .320 the next year). Still, there is such a small track of players who played as poorly as Wells that it's difficult to project what he'll do.

As for Abreu, he can still get on base against right-handers (.366 OBP), but his defense is terrible, his power mostly evaporated and he can't hit lefties. In my book, I'd just give the job to Mike Trout. His speed and defense are good enough until his bat comes around, but he'll likely begin the season in Triple-A.

3B Alberto Callaspo/Maicer Izturis

For all the talk about the Angels upgrading third base -- moving Trumbo there or trading for David Wright -- the Izturis/Callaspo platoon wasn't all that bad. Angels' third basemen ranked 11th in OPS in the majors and third in OBP. In fact, and I know Angels fans will find this hard to believe, but Callaspo created 5.22 runs per 27 outs. Better than Trumbo. Now, it's possible Trumbo may improve -- hit for a higher average, draw a few more walks -- but based on 2011 results, the Angels are better off playing Callaspo at third (assuming Trumbo isn't Scott Rolen on defense).

C Chris Iannetta

The big question: How will he hit outside of Coors Field? His home/road splits in 2011 were extreme -- .301 at home, .172 on the road. They haven't been that large over the course of his career, but still sizable (.869 OPS at home, .707 on the road). He has a lot of patience at the plate, although his walk rate was high in small part to usually batting eighth in front of the pitcher. Still, he'll be a big improvement offensively over Jeff Mathis, even if he doesn't match his Rockies numbers.

SS Erick Aybar

He'll also factor into the leadoff position, where he started 55 games in 2011 -- at least against right-handed pitchers (.341 OBP versus righties, .284 versus lefties).

Now, the strength of the lineup is that there's no outstanding weakness ... well, assuming Vernon Wells doesn't get 500 plate appearances again. If Kendrys Morales is healthy, the team will have even more depth, which is a good thing: Hunter can play 130 games instead of 156; Izturis can fill in at third, short and second; maybe Trumbo turns into a sort of four-corner super sub: 20 games at first, 20 games at third, 20 games in each of the corner outfield spots, some time at DH. If Wells and Abreu struggle, Trout is ready on the farm. Having this kind of flexibility is a manager's dream.

On the other, the only outstanding strength is Albert Pujols. He's the only hitter who projects to post an .800 OPS (Kendrick was .802 last season, his career-best). Even the 2010 San Francisco Giants, maligned for their mediocre offense, had four hitters with an .800 OPS -- Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell, Buster Posey and Andres Torres. Tampa Bay didn't have much offense in 2011? They had four .800 OPS hitters in Evan Longoria, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman (plus Desmond Jennings in part-time play). The only AL playoff team in the past three seasons with fewer than four .800 OPS regulars was the 2010 Rays, which had Longoria and Carl Crawford and part-time Joyce.

So, yes, it's possible this lineup will score enough runs. Kendrick may have a better season, especially if he bats in front of Pujols. Maybe Bourjos improves or Trout gets called up and hits .285 with some power. Maybe Morales is healthy and assumes the cleanup spot on a regular basis.

All that remains to be seen. Right now, this a lineup with depth but not one that should strike fear in opposing pitchers.

AL West: Three fixes for each team

December, 4, 2011
Now in its last year of existence, baseball’s short stack will get rounded out to five teams when the Astros enter the American League in 2013. But in the meantime, it’s another four-way wrestling match. However, it’s also a starkly segregated division. On one side, you’ve got the defending pennant-winning Rangers (twice over) and their chief rivals, the Angels. On the other side, the Athletics have won 74-76 games in four of the last five years, while the Mariners have been stuck in the 60s for wins in three of the last four.

Texas Rangers

1. Rotation: Add a veteran? Or re-sign C.J. Wilson?

It isn’t that what the Rangers have right now isn’t good -- most teams would love to have a young quartet as talented as Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison lined up with Colby Lewis. They could probably win the division with that. But is any one of them that stopper you expect to beat a playoff team with? Holland or Feliz might grow into it, or Ogando, but do the Rangers want to count on the Madduxes and the talent, or will they hedge their bets by bringing Wilson back or going after someone like Roy Oswalt?

Likely solution: If they don’t bring Wilson back or win the bidding on a high-profile vet with playoff experience like Oswalt, they’ll opt out and not buy a veteran guaranteed rotation slot just for the sake of it. It’ll be either a significant upgrade or some retread for organizational depth, with nothing in between.

2. First base -- Settle or shop?

Last season, it might have seemed like they did quite nicely without having an everyday answer, rotating Mitch Moreland, Mike Napoli and Michael Young through the slot. However, Young isn’t much of a first baseman, Moreland failed to develop at the plate and Napoli spends a good chunk of his time catching. Rangers first basemen rated a whopping 12th in the American League in OPS, beating out only the A’s grab bag of prospects and the Rays rentals. While they’re not likely to get in on Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, is there anyone else worth chasing?

Likely solution: Unless the Rangers want to revisit last winter’s drama of shopping Michael Young, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll end up spending serious money at first base. Seeing if Moreland develops at age 26 while they settle for good defenders in center wouldn’t be the end of the world, but this is the team that might get the biggest benefit from sneaking in on Carlos Pena.

3. Center field -- Settle or shop?

The Rangers will need to sort out whether or not they want to add someone new to the mix. Josh Hamilton made only a month’s worth of starts in the middle pasture, and the Rangers spent much of the season with Endy Chavez and Gary Gentry batting ninth and splitting time in center while Julio Borbon’s season was lost to injuries. Will they settle for Gentry and Borbon in 2012, and take their blend of defense and OBP? The market isn’t exactly rich in alternatives.

Likely solution: Here, they can let it ride or go cheap on another defensive specialist, say, Rick Ankiel, with the hope that he rebounds in the Ballpark’s friendly confines. There’s not a lot of point in overpaying the likes of Coco Crisp to be just slightly better.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The biggest issue was finding a solution to the Jeff Mathis fetish, but they’ve addressed that with their pickup of Chris Iannetta. Even if Iannetta’s .707 OPS outside of Coors Field might be a splash of cold water for folks expecting the second coming of Mike Piazza, he’s still a bigger slice of that pie at the plate than Mathis will ever be.

1. A premium bat.

You’d think that with Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Carlos Beltran on the market this would be easy, but the Angels are stacked with bodies (if not bats) at the corners. Figuring where to go for a premium hitter is the real trick, because the Angels have stuck themselves with so many ex-famous people, and that’s without getting into what they need to do with Mark Trumbo if Kendrys Morales’ comeback works out. The rumors of interest in the Mets’ David Wright to play third base makes some sense as a deal from depth, but acquiring Wright for Peter Bourjos -- which is really only a good idea if they know they can work out an extension with Wright -- wouldn’t erase their overlapping issues at first base, DH and the outfield corners. Aramis Ramirez is notionally the same sort of fix, except his play at third base leaves a lot to be desired; it wouldn’t be long before he wound up playing a lot of DH or first base.

Likely solution: It won’t be easy to work something out, but third base is a good place to go. But they can’t settle for getting one year of Wright before free agency for five of Bourjos and call it a day. Ideally, Jerry Dipoto needs to swap out one of the aging stiffs and bring in a real thumper, no easy feat. If he manages it, he might automatically win the label for Hot Stove MVP. If he also gets Morales back and bopping in 2012, the offense will be better still.

2. Starting pitcher (Joel Pineiro, free agent, plus Tyler Chatwood was dealt)

Even if Garrett Richards is almost ready and regardless of whether or not you want to believe Jerome Williams is an answer, they’re best left to fight it out for the last slot. Because of the mess on offense, one way to compensate would be to add a premium starter to help keep more games in reach. Unfortunately, the market isn’t stocked with quality options, but chasing after C.J. Wilson is an obvious avenue to pursue, giving the rotation a quality lefty to balance their reliance on Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana up front.

Likely solution: Signing Wilson would be the easy solution. They hold 2013 options on Haren and Santana, but beyond that, it’s Weaver and nobody in terms of commitments. Signing Wilson would address that while providing balance.

3. Making room for Mike Trout.

The ex-famous people problem is the real issue here. Torii Hunter will be turning 32 next summer; he isn’t going to get any better. Trumbo’s just the new Dave Kingman if he builds on his rookie season. Bobby Abreu’s power is a distant memory, and Vernon Wells’ dead-cat bounce in 2011 only went so high. These are the guys in Trout’s way to everyday play, not Bourjos.

Likely solution: It’s easy to say these things will sort themselves out, but by July, it’s doubtful that Trout will be any more ready than he already is. Eating the $63 million it’ll cost to employ Wells the next three years might be more affordable because Trout’s under contractual control for the next six years.

Oakland Athletics

1. Bodies to play in the outfield. (David DeJesus signed with the Cubs, and Coco Crisp and Josh Willingham are free agents.)

If you’re an outfielder, the A’s need you, because all three regulars are outbound. Ryan Sweeney might get to man one corner, and you might hope that Jermaine Mitchell mounts a bid on the job in center. But the A’s really need to sign an outfielder or two, ideally one who can play center. Re-signing Crisp as a placeholder seems to be getting a lot of consideration, which would be a return to the lamentable legacy of Willie Wilson serving time in this outfield in the ’90s, and cause for joy for nobody. After a .960 OPS between Double- and Triple-A, Mitchell’s interesting as an athletic, late-developing farmhand, but he’ll be 27 next year. There’s also Michael Taylor, once considered one of the top prospects in baseball, and currently more of a source of frustration after two mediocre seasons at Sacramento.

Likely solution: The only likelihood is that the fixes will be cheap. Whether it’s a matter of absorbing the tail end of other people’s bad-news deals if they’re footing the bill, renting hitters a year removed from free agency like DeJesus and Willingham, or sifting through the bargain bin, get ready for a new temp crew.

2. Power: 12th in the AL and 24th in MLB in Isolated Power (ISO)

Even if they wind up with outfielders like the ones we’ve noted, it isn’t like Crisp or Mitchell or Sweeney provide any power, which the A’s will sorely need with Willingham’s departure. Between Brandon Allen, Chris Carter, Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue, they might have in-house answers for first base and DH, but a multitude of options is not the same thing as having answers.

Likely solution: Ditching Hideki Matsui has helped open room for the crowd of first base/DH options, and a full season from Scott Sizemore at third base should help, but don’t be surprised if the A’s spring for one slugger to man first, DH or one of the outfield corners. It might help them remain 12th in the league.

3. San Jose or bust.

This is really the most important issue for the franchise this and every winter until it’s resolved, but team owner Lewis Wolff is slowly wading through lawsuits by proxy and MLB’s indecision over territorial rights to Santa Clara County to complete a ponderously slow attempt to move south within the East Bay region. The mayor of San Jose asked for this to be fixed two years ago; he was politely ignored. The city’s now trying to sell land to Wolff for the express purpose of building a ballpark, but it’s unclear if he’ll be allowed to move his team to the city out of an exaggerated consideration for the Giants’ claim. If the A’s were generous in ceding rights to San Jose when the Giants were moving into their new digs (away from San Jose), the Giants have been selfish in subsequently asserting their claims.

Likely solution: There isn’t one. The A’s and their fans as well as the cities of San Jose and Oakland remain hostage to the original sin of Bud Selig and company for sloppily and generously granting the Giants these rights in the first place. It’s up to the industry to fix that error, but so far there’s been an abdication of authority from MLB in the face of noisy assertiveness from the Giants. The Giants are well within their rights and understandably acting out of self-interest -- either to try and force the A’s out of the market, or extort an ill-gotten payday -- but this needs fixing. With the CBA and Astros’ sale done, this should be the top item of business for the commissioner. Let’s see if he treats it that way.

Seattle Mariners

1. A middle-of-the order thumper. (.115 ISO, 28th in MLB)

You can blame playing in Safeco, but that goes only so far, as the Mariners’ .658 OPS on the road was only slightly better than their awful .623 OPS in home games. Much of the problem is self-inflicted -- they’re the team that values punchless shortstop Brendan Ryan for his virtues afield more highly than any other, after all. While the holdovers in the outfield almost all endured horrific 2011 seasons, a group that includes Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez, Trayvon Robinson, Mike Carp and Michael Saunders is capable of doing better. Which really leaves third base, DH and possibly first as the places where GM Jack Zduriencik might add an impact bat. This has fed into a lot of speculation over Zduriencik’s former Milwaukee connection to Prince Fielder.

Likely solution: Landing Fielder would be a major coup, but it would be a fairly extreme act of faith by Fielder that Zduriencik’s going to get this thing turned around during the life of his contract, assuming Seattle even has the money for that kind of offer. It’s more likely that the Mariners will have to settle. A right-handed bat would be great for their lineup’s balance, but Safeco is death on right-hander power, suggesting that someone like Aramis Ramirez wouldn’t be a good fit. Guys like Casey Blake and Ryan Ludwick are familiar to manager Eric Wedge from their days in Cleveland; they’re also not really answers. Moving Carp to DH and looking at J.D. Drew or Jason Kubel would be a little more interesting.

2. A veteran starter. (Traded Erik Bedard and Doug Fister away.)

This is really about making sure they get innings until a few more of the kids are ready for call-ups. Ideally, any veteran would also be someone they could flip at the deadline. Top prospects like Danny Hultzen and James Paxton might earn September call-ups, but the Mariners need someone to take the ball in the meantime. Because they have a great venue for pitchers and a strong defense to offer as inducements beyond cash, they should be able to find someone interested.

Likely outcome: They’ll get the inning guys like Aaron Harang, Paul Maholm and Jon Garland should be calling the Mariners rather than the other way around; finding somebody will be more a matter of finding someone willing to sign for what they’re willing to offer. It would be interesting to see if the M’s could induce Hiroki Kuroda to sign on rather than return to Japan now that the Dodgers are out of the picture.

3. Third base: Open.

Prospects Alex Liddi, Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala are all a bit rough at the hot corner, and the Mariners probably have zero interest in giving Figgins another crack at the job after witnessing his .595 OPS in two seasons in Seattle. Kyle Seager might get the lion’s share of playing time by default if the Mariners don’t add a vet for temp duty. It won’t cost them the pennant.

Likely solution: Third base is an area of need for a lot of teams, and if the Mariners are willing to eat most of the $18 million they still owe Figgins, they’d almost certainly find an interested party. They shouldn’t waste the roster spot indefinitely if they’re not going to play him. A veteran placeholder like Blake might fit here on a one-year deal, assuming Zduriencik doesn’t conjure up a better solution with some wheeling and dealing.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Fifth-place teams put 'wild' in Wild Card

November, 18, 2011
You probably have not forgotten baseball’s best night ever. Within 90 incredible minutes of action, September 28, 2011 gave us the spectacle of the Cardinals, Rays, Red Sox and Braves playing four different games and determining their destinies on the final day of the season.

The way things are going, we’ll never see its like ever again. At the NLCS, Bud Selig stressed that a night like September 28 would not affect his desire to add a second wild-card team to each league’s slate. He’s proven to be as good as his word, and as a result, finishing in third place isn’t the end of the line for anybody. That might get the Blue Jays and Orioles to stop squawking about their lot in the AL East, but at what cost?

Consider what this would have meant last season: The Red Sox and Braves’ infamous meltdowns would have been far less agonizing. Maybe they would have lasted one more day, with the Sox playing the Rays and the Braves taking their shot at the Cardinals. Maybe either one of the Sox and Braves would have advanced, but given how banged-up both teams were, how much of a scare would either have thrown into their LDS opponents? Would this really have made for an even better postseason than the one we just watched?

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria
Kim Klement/US PresswireCelebrations like this one by the Rays would not have happened under Bud Selig's new playoff idea.
Instead, this new scheme creates a new, genuinely unhappy spectacle: Some especially crummy teams getting wild-card bids for glory. Say the Red Sox and Yankees go toe-to-toe for the AL East crown next season, all the way until their final series against one another. Say the two are tied with 99 wins on October 3, the Yankees lose, having used CC Sabathia to gun for the wild-card “round” bye, so they get squared off against ... an 85-win White Sox team that was cruising comfortably with the fifth-best record in the league, and with their rotation queued up to toss their best starter in this must-win game. The Yankees get punished for trying to win, while the White Sox just need one game to advance after six months of mediocrity. How does that scenario make sense?

If you look at the fifth-place finishers during the 17 years of the wild-card era, starting with 1995 you get just seven 90-win teams into the postseason in the AL, and five in the NL. Assuming for a moment that the different stakes don’t lead to different results in the standings, we’d also have seen three one-game tie-breaker matchups to determine who the second wild card is… to play another one-game playoff to determine who’s in the League Division Series. That would have occurred in 1997 (between the Mets and Dodgers in the NL), in 2002 (between the Red Sox and Mariners) and 2007 (between the Tigers and Mariners).

What about the 22 “playoff” teams with less than 90 wins during the wild-card era, those exciting squads of yore America deserved to see more of? Among the less spectacular:

  • The 2001 Twins, 85-77: While the A’s were waltzing to the wild card with 102 wins, the Twins were finishing up their season with a meaningless series against the White Sox. Those three games would have been significant if there were two wild cards -- a game separated the Sox and Twins at the start of the series. Maybe with something at stake, the White Sox care a little more about the outcome, and win two of three, giving us another exciting one-game play-in between Jerry Manuel’s White Sox and the Twins. You can take that daisy chain of interdependent events in all sorts of unhappy directions. Maybe David Ortiz’s first postseason heroics happen in a Twins uniform, keeping him from ever getting cut loose to go to Boston. Maybe Ozzie Guillen never gets a job on the South Side because Jerry Manuel just skippered the first back-to-back playoff appearances in White Sox franchise history. Neat, huh? Paging Harry Turtledove.
  • The 1997 Angels, 84-78: The Yankees (96-66) won the wild card, then lost the 86-win Indians team in the first round. Maybe the Yankees don’t get even that far after finishing two games behind the Orioles in the AL East, because they’d have to get through the Angels first, with either Doc Gooden (4.91 ERA) or Kenny Rogers (5.65) taking on Anaheim’s big deadline-deal pickup, Ken Hill. Maybe America was ready to see Gary Disarcina and Chad Kreuter in the postseason, and just never knew it. (Neither man ever did play in one.)
  • The 2006 Phillies, 85-77: This was the team that Pat Gillick gave up on at the deadline when 11 different squads, the Phillies among them, were bunched up within six wins of one another. Gillick gave up, dumping Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle on the Yankees for four suspects and payroll relief, only to notice three weeks later that his team was still in the actual wild-card race. He hurriedly added Jamie Moyer, Jeff Conine and Jose Hernandez and came up short of catching the Dodgers and Padres. Of course, since the Pads and Dodgers both won 88 games, L.A. would have had to to play Philadelphia because the lost their season series to San Diego, costing them the NL West division title. The Dodgers would at least have had their rotation queued up, with Derek Lowe facing rookie Cole Hamels.
  • The 1996 AL Mess: The Mariners, White Sox and Red Sox all won 85 games to tie for the fifth-highest tally in the league. Maybe Seattle spares us that mess by winning a makeup date with the Angels, and maybe we get a three-way tie for the fifth-best record in the league anyway after they lose that game. How’s that supposed to work out? Back-to-back one-game tie-breakers to determine which of those three teams plays a “deciding” wild-card contest with the 88-win Orioles?

Now, I’m sure folks will be excited about this new playoff setup for all sorts of reasons. Just think, A’s fans, Moneyball would have arrived in the postseason a year earlier, because the Oakland A’s of 1999 would have made it to the playoffs. (For a game, which they should have lost, otherwise Bud Selig’s original “hope and faith” speech might never happen.) More appearances, more chances to get excited about the season... we all know where Bud's coming from.

Unfortunately, the inevitability of seeing one-game tie-breakers between two or more teams just to determine who gets to play in a one-game wild-card showdown, and before we even get to the actual League Division Series? As noted, that’s a logistical and scheduling nightmare we’ll be sure to see in the years to come.

And what about the possibility that a division-winning team winds up not with one of the five best records in its league? How about not even five from the top six or nine, but the 11th-best? That was what we were in danger of seeing happen in 1994 with the Rangers, and we've been fortunate not to see that happen again. What happens five-team playoffs don't even manage to give us the teams with the five best records in each league? Fiddle with the system to find a way to get it right on yet another pass?

We'll see if a presumably unbalanced schedule with year-round interleague play can make it unlikely, but this is the kind of "excitement" that baseball really could do without.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

All-time NL Hispanic greats

September, 16, 2011
Roberto ClementeLouis Requena/ MLB Photos via Getty ImagesRoberto Clemente became the first Latin player to win the NL MVP, doing it with the Pirates in 1966.

Yesterday, in recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we talked about one person's list -- mine alone -- for the AL team's all-time greats of Hispanic heritage, so naturally enough, let's turn to the senior circuit and look at the best of the National League's teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Although a recent expansion addition to the circuit, the Snakes have a clear favorite in Luis Gonzalez, who as recently as the All-Star break was inducted into the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame. Gonzo's also the man who beat Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 2001 World Series, a postseason feat unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.

Atlanta Braves: If you make the mistake of thinking this is about Latin America versus what is or isn't culturally Hispanic, you might count Andruw Jones, but the Netherlands Antilles aren't culturally Spanish or Portuguese. Among the Braves' Hispanic players, the choices boil down to Dominican bopper Rico Carty or catcher Javy Lopez of Puerto Rico. While the 'Beeg Boy' won the 1970 batting title, I'll go with Lopez for his playing a key role on the great teams of the Braves' recent dynasty.

Chicago Cubs: Arguments over how he got there will go on for as long as we're willing to debate the impact of PEDs on performance, but Dominican Sammy Sosa's easily the most productive player to call Wrigley Field home. His 545 homers top all Cubs ever, and his .569 SLG as a Cub is second only to Hack Wilson.

Cincinnati Reds: You can make arguments for either of two great Latin players who were key players for the Big Red Machine: first baseman Tony Perez of Cuba, or Venezuelan shortstop Davey Concepcion. Concepcion was a career Red, so 19 years in the Queen City puts the nimble defender high up on the Reds' al-time counting stats, while “Big Doggie” moved around a bit, but was mostly, essentially, a Red. Per WAR, it'd Perez's place, but I'd also cite Joe Posnanski's fine The Machine, which helps remind us today how important Perez was then to a team stuffed with stars.

[+] EnlargeFernando Valenzuela
Icon SMIFernando Valenzuela won the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards in 1981.
Colorado Rockies: The Rockies have never had a shortage of great Latin players, but perhaps surprisingly, none of them have had long careers in Denver. Ubaldo Jimenez would have been an easy choice if he hadn't already been traded away, while Mexico's Vinny Castilla mashed 239 homers in nine seasons manning the hot corner. However, let's use this as an opportunity to give well-traveled Andres Galarraga some love, because the Big Cat was the team's first star by winning the batting title in the franchise's inaugural season in 1993.

Florida Marlins: Between going by teams and the near-impossibility of anyone sticking around as a Fish for any great length of time, it makes for a short list, but Dominican Hanley Ramirez makes for a relatively easy selection, although you can offer honorable mentions to Luis Castillo, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez and Livan Hernandez for their contributions to the Marlins' strange, episodic history.

Houston Astros: Given a choice between Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruz, you could easily pick either player and have good reason to. Cedeno was a wonderful center fielder and may well be the least well-remembered great player of the '70s, while Cruz was the gifted all-around hitter hurt badly by a career almost entirely spent shackled by the Astrodome. I'm slightly biased towards Cruz (a personal favorite back in the day), but for purposes of this sort of exercise, it's easy to leave this as a tie.

Los Angeles Dodgers: While you could concoct an argument for Pedro Guerrero because he was one of the best bats of the '80s, this is a slam dunk: Fernandomania, baby! Fernando Valenzuela's breakthrough was a national phenomenon, as the Mexican southpaw provided both peerless pitching early in his career -- winning the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards in 1981 – with unprecedented box-office and media value in Los Angeles. His unique delivery and nifty screwball are things you had to see to believe, putting him on a short list of pitchers you never forgot after watching him work.

Milwaukee Brewers: It isn't a strong field, but it wasn't Teddy Higuera's fault that his career flamed out early, as injuries sapped the Mexican hurler's career early on. He still ranks third all-time in wins for the team while handily leading their pitchers in career WAR as a Brewer, not too shabby for what was essentially a six-year run spent in relative obscurity.

New York Mets: Carlos Beltran wins via WAR, but he's also been tabbed as the Royals' best, while better health from Johan Santana would have made him worth choosing. So let's use the opportunity to cite Jesse Orosco, who holds the all-time record for games pitched on a career.

Philadelphia Phillies: It's perhaps characteristic of the franchise and city that its greatest Latin player, Venezuelan Bobby Abreu, was dumped on the Yankees at the deadline in 2006 -- for nothing, effectively -- but Abreu's brand of patience and power made him an offensive keystone for nine years, hitting .303/.416/.513.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Roberto Clemente, the easiest great to note in a wide field of greats, and the first Latin to win an MVP award in 1966.

St. Louis Cardinals: Albert Pujols has become as easy a selection as Clemente, but with a career that's still going strong, the question best asked might be whether or not the man who will unseat Lou Gehrig on all-time lists walks and plays among us.

San Diego Padres: Strangely enough, the border town franchise doesn't have a storied history where its Latin talent is concerned, but native son Adrian Gonzalez makes for a good fit, even with his recent shuffle to Boston.

San Francisco Giants: There's a fun debate to be had over whether this ought to be the Baby Bull, Orlando Cepeda or their Dominican ace of the '60s, Juan Marichal. Much like Galarraga and Perez, Cepeda was a hard-hitting first baseman who got around -- he immediately followed Clemente as the NL MVP in 1967, for the Cardinals, but started out winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1958 (second in this as well, as Luis Aparicio was the first to win in 1956 with the White Sox). Against that, Marichal had six 20-win seasons and 238 victories for San Francisco while contributing the highest Giants WAR pitching tally since Christy Mathewson. Whether as a matter of career value or peak value as a Giant, I think you have to go with Marichal.

Washington Nationals: Vladi Guerrero has already gotten credit as an Angel, but since this is the franchise stolen from Montreal, stealing the Impaler from their list might seem an additional injustice. However, doing so opens the field to tab Nicaragua's greatest player, El Presidente. In a 23-year career, Dennis Martinez won 100 or more games with both the Orioles and Expos, pitched the only perfect game thrown by a Latin pitcher, and nearly helped deliver Cleveland a long-awaited championship as a 40-year-old workhorse in 1995.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

What went wrong with the Astros

May, 17, 2011
From 1979 through 2006, the Houston Astros were one of baseball's best and most consistent franchises. They suffered just six losing seasons and made the playoffs nine times. They finally reached their first World Series in 2005, but that was primarily an aging club at the end of a long run of success. Jeff Bagwell was done, Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens were old, Andy Pettitte would return to the Yankees and Morgan Ensberg never repeated his big season.

And the talent dried up. The Astros are on their way to their fourth losing season in five years and will likely lose more than 90 games for the first time since 1991. As Buster Olney wrote in his blog today, with Drayton McLane selling the team to Jim Crane, the new ownership group knows it has to pay more attention to player development.

[+] EnlargeBrad Lidge
Photo by Craig Melvin/US PresswireThe Astros haven't had much luck in the first round of the draft since taking Brad Lidge in 1998.
1. A string of bad drafts. Former scouting director David Lakey nailed his first two first-round picks, drafting Lance Berkman in 1997 and Brad Lidge in 1998, but the Astros haven't drafted a first-rounder since who has developed into a solid major leaguer. (Time will tell, of course, on recent picks like Jordan Lyles and Delino DeShields Jr.) The Astros only had one top-10 pick from 1993 through 2007 (Chris Burke, 10th overall in 2001), which doesn't help, of course. The team also forfeited its first-round picks in 2003 (for signing Jeff Kent), 2004 (for signing Andy Pettitte) and 2007 (for signing Carlos Lee). It's hard to fault the Kent and Pettitte signings, but Lee has been both expensive and now unproductive.

Every team misfires in the draft but the Astros have had a long string of misfires. In 2005, under scouting director Paul Ricciarini, they were picking 24th and selected pitcher Brian Bogusevic, who was later converted to an outfielder. Matt Garza was the next pick and Colby Rasmus went later in the round. With the 23rd pick in 2006 they took high school catcher Max Sapp, who hit .224 in three seasons in the minors and then developed meningitis, which ended his career. Even before contracting meningitis, the Astros had shown their doubts about his future big-league status, drafting catcher Jason Castro in the first round in 2008. Two picks after Sapp, the Angels selected another high school catcher, Hank Conger, now playing well as a rookie. But the big blows were a string of drafts from 2000 onward that produced few big leaguers -- guys who should be in their primes right now.

2. McLane refused to spend on the draft, sticking to the MLB recommended slot bonuses. For example, the team failed to sign third-round pick Drew Stubbs in 2003; he later became a first-rounder of the Reds. Castro, drafted 10th overall in 2008, was taken one pick before Justin Smoak, whom most scouts rated much higher. Smoak signed for a bonus $1.5 million more than Castro.

McLane always operated the franchise like a mid-market team, instead of one playing in the sixth-largest metro market in the U.S. Under McLane, the Astros ranked in the top 10 in payroll in the majors just twice -- sixth in 2006 and eighth in 2009. Maybe there isn't quite enough fan interest in Houston to allow the Astros to play with the big boys -- even during their great run in the late '90s and early '00s, they reached a peak attendance level of fifth in the NL.

3. The Venezuelan pipeline shut down. Whether through deploying fewer resources, not spending money or just signing the wrong guys, a once fruitful operation in Venezuela -- arguably the best in the majors -- has returned little talent in recent years. Among the players Houston signed out of Venezuela: Richard Hidalgo, Bobby Abreu (although he was lost in the expansion draft), Carlos Guillen, Johan Santana (lost in the Rule 5 draft), Freddy Garcia and Melvin Mora.

4. Bad deals. The Carlos Lee -- six years for $100 million in 2007 -- was a bad deal at the time, an overrated RBI guy with mediocre OBPs who played poor defense. As predicted, it's become an albatross and he'll still be making $18.5 million in 2012. The team drafted Ben Zobrist and later traded him to Tampa Bay for Aubrey Huff. That's 68 games of Huff before he left as a free agent.

Crane will take over officially sometime this summer. He's got a lot of work ahead of him.

Follow David on Twitter: @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog: @espn_sweet_spot. And follow the Astros blog here.

Remembering the Angels' .300 lineup

August, 17, 2010
Just a year ago, the Angels were doing something pretty incredible. This season? Not so much. Bill Plunkett's got the details:
Mickey Hatcher can put away the camera.

A year ago Wednesday, the Angels made a bit of history. On Aug. 18, 2009, they finished a 5-4 victory at Cleveland with an entire lineup of .300 hitters. All nine had at least 200 at-bats, the first time that had happened in a major-league game since the Tigers did it in September 1934.

Midway through the .300 game, the Angels' hitting coach noticed the numbers and sent a clubhouse attendant scurrying to find a camera and take a picture of the Angels' lineup (averages included) posted on the scoreboard at Progressive Field. Like a proud parent, Hatcher had copies of the picture made for each of his hitters, getting them to autograph one print as his own keepsake.

This year's lineup is much less photogenic.

"This year, I've got an all-.250 lineup," Hatcher joked. "Maybe I'll get a picture of that, too. You know -- 'Before' and 'After.'"


"How many years had it been?" Angels infielder Howie Kendrick asked, knowing it had been decades since a team fielded a full lineup of .300 hitters that deep in a season. "That's something that's special. You don't expect every guy to be at that level every year."

If anything, the expectation was for this year's team to get it done in a different way.

"More home runs," [Mike] Scioscia summarized.

Here are the players in that snapshot, with 1) their batting averages at that moment, 2) their career batting averages after the season, and 3) their 2010 batting averages:

Chone Figgins: .308 (Mariners)
Bobby Abreu: .310/.299/.266
Juan Rivera: .310/.285/.257
Vladimir Guerrero: .313 (Rangers)
Kendry Morales: .303/.283/.290
Torii Hunter: .307/.274/.290
Maicer Izturis: .300/.278/.249
Mike Napoli: .301/.256/.254
Erick Aybar: .313/.285/.271

One year ago, most of these guys were somewhat over their heads. Batting average-wise, anyway. Most everybody knew it wouldn't happen again. And really, Abreu and Rivera are the only guys on that list who might be classed as truly disappointing (again, average-wise). And Izturis, I suppose.

But there's another guy: Howie Kendrick. He wasn't in that lineup, and at the time didn't have impressive numbers. But he finished strong, with a .291/.334/.444 line at season's end. Which was roughly what he'd done in the previous two seasons. Between those numbers and Kendrick's .360 batting average in the minors, I figured he was a good hitter and bound to get better.

Instead he's regressed.

With the exception of Hunter, very little has gone right for the Angels' offense this season ... and yet they've done decently enough, eighth in the league in scoring despite losing Morales early on. Oh, and those home runs they wanted? They got them. The Angels are sixth in the league in home runs (they were eighth last year).

The Angels' pitching has actually been worse than their hitting. With the addition of Dan Haren, though, the Angels have four good starters. The bullpen's been just fair, but bullpens are the easiest thing to fix.

Their outfielders and their DH are getting old but their infield is young. They'll need to find another hitter this winter, but if Morales comes back strong there's no reason the A's can't, at the very least, make a decent showing next year.

(H/T: BTF's Newsstand)

Smackdown: Damon vs. Abreu

October, 21, 2009
  Getty Images
 Who has a better chance at the Hall of Fame: the Angels’ Bobby Abreu or the Yankees’ Johnny Damon?

While twittering during Game 4, I was inspired by Johnny Damon's long home run to fire this off:

Who's the better Hall of Fame candidate? Johnny Damon, or Bobby Abreu? Discuss ...

One of the most common answers in the ensuing discussion was "Neither" ... but that's cheating. I wasn't asking which of them is going to be elected; I was asking which is more likely to be elected. You might not think Joakim Soria or Jamey Wright is going to wind up in Cooperstown, but I think you'll have to agree that Soria's got the better shot.

So who's got a better shot?

Abreu and Damon are both 35; Damon turns 36 in three weeks, Abreu roughly four months later.

Both have been relatively speedy: Damon has stolen 374 bases, Abreu 348 (and both have rarely been caught).

Abreu's got a Gold Glove and Damon doesn't, but Damon's been the better, more valuable defender over the course of his career.

And Damon needs that edge, because Abreu's got a huge edge when it comes to the quality of his hitting. Damon's .288/.355/.439 career line pales next to Abreu's .299/.404/.493. Yes, Damon has scored 100 or more runs in 10 different seasons ... but Abreu has done that eight times and he's driven in 100 or more runs in eight seasons; Damon hasn't done that even once.

As a few tweets noted, neither player has even been considered among the very best players in his league. Abreu's never finished higher than 14th in the MVP balloting. He'll probably do better than that this year, but Hall of Fame voters don't really pay attention to anything but No. 1 finishes. Damon's highest finish was 13th. Both players have been All-Stars just twice.

Based on all of that, neither sure does seem like the correct answer ... But let's not completely dismiss what's still to come. Because it sure looks like both Damon and Abreu have plenty of good baseball to play. Abreu drove in 103 runs this season and stole 30 bases, while Damon posted the highest OPS+ of his career.

In then end, though, I think it'll be defense that kills them both.

Abreu's been a poor fielder for some time, and facts like that are getting harder and harder to hide. He's still playable in the outfield, but will that still be true three years from now? And if not, will he still hit enough to serve as a full-time DH? I've got my doubts. Similarly, as Damon has bulked up, his range in left field has dropped. And that noodle arm isn't getting any stronger.

On balance, while Abreu probably will wind up with the better career, I believe that Damon's got a better shot at the Hall of Fame. To have more than a sliver of a chance, these guys need to do something that's superficially impressive, and I believe that Damon's the one who's got that in his sights: 3,000 hits. Over the last four seasons, he's averaged 159 hits per season. If he averages just 144 hits over the next four seasons, he's got 3,000. The key is holding on to an every-day job, and his performance these last two seasons suggests that he may actually do that.

According to Scott Boras, if Damon reaches 3,000 hits, he'll get "the red carpet" into the Hall of Fame. I'm not at all sure if that rule will apply here, because I think the voters of today -- or more to the point, the voters of 2020 -- will be less impressed by 3,000 hits than they used to be. But if I have to bet on one of these guys, it's Damon and it's not really close.