SweetSpot: Dustin Pedroia
By the way, one more quick note on Ortiz. Whenever I write about him, the haters always bring up PEDs. They also like to point to his rejuvenation in recent years as "proof" that he's juicing. In 2008 and 2009, Ortiz hit .250/.348/.482, and in 2009 he got off to that awful start when he'd hit one home run through May while batting under .200. Since 2010, he's hit .300/.392/.560. The haters extract this to argue that he obviously must be cheating. I mean, Hank Aaron had the two highest slugging percentages of his career at ages 37 and 39, but whatever, Ortiz must be cheating.
Of course, that narrative leaves out something important. Check out Ortiz's strikeout rates:
2009: 21.4 percent
2010: 23.9 percent
2011: 13.7 percent
2012: 13.3 percent
2013: 14.7 percent
Ortiz's line drive percentage in 2013 was 25 percent, the highest during any season of his Red Sox career. Even when he hit .332 in 2007, it was much lower, at 19 percent. It seems to me that Ortiz has simply become a better hitter, better against left-handed pitching and willing to sacrifice a few home runs to put the ball in play more often. The guy who struck out 134 and 145 times in 2009 and 2010 struck out just 88 times in 2013.
Here are four other players who most helped their Hall of Fame cases in 2013 -- I wouldn't include somebody like Mariano Rivera, who was a lock no matter what he did this year, or even Miguel Cabrera, whose Hall of Fame credentials are already firmly established.
After injury-plagued 2009 and 2010 seasons with the Mets, Beltran's career appeared in jeopardy, but he's put together three consecutive good-to-excellent seasons, hitting .288 while averaging 26 home runs and 88 RBIs. Although he wasn't quite the terror in the postseason that everyone kept mentioning, he did drive in 15 runs in 17 games. As with Ortiz, it's the perception that matters here. Beltran's career WAR of 67.5 puts him above many recent Hall of Famers -- in some cases, well above -- and though he'll turn 37 in April, he appears to have a couple more good seasons in him. With 358 home runs and 1,327 RBIs, his counting stats are starting to impress as much as the advanced metrics like him.
Beltre is similar to Beltran -- he's a good all-around player who has kind of snuck up as a Hall of Fame candidate. Beltre has now had four straight terrific seasons, averaging 6.5 WAR; according to Baseball-Reference, the only position players with more WAR since 2010 are Robinson Cano and Cabrera. Much of Beltre's chances of eventually getting in rest in how much value voters will place on his defense, but his offensive numbers are now strong enough -- and he'll be just 35 next year -- that voters will pay attention to the entire package. Factor in that he's been one of the best players in the game over a period of years (plus 2004, when he was second in the MVP voting while with the Dodgers) and his case looks better and better.
He obviously has a long way to go because he's just 25, but the important things Kershaw did were win another Cy Young Award, and do it with a high level of dominance, posting a sub-2.00 ERA. There's no doubt that his peak level of performance has made him into being the best pitcher in the game. Certainly, many other young pitchers have been at this stage in their careers -- Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen -- but Kershaw's established level of performance means all he has to do is remain healthy.
Pedroia isn't a classic Hall of Fame candidate because he doesn't hit a lot of home runs or drive in 100 runs, but he's building a lot of positives on his résumé; adding a second World Series ring was a big plus. Pedroia now has four seasons of 5+ WAR, and a fifth at 4.9. Those totals are starting to line up with players like Ryne Sandberg and Roberto Alomar, both of whom had six 5+ WAR seasons. Pedroia turned 30 in August and his career WAR is 38.1, so he has a long way to go to become a Hall of Fame candidate, but if he can churn out three more peak seasons, he's going to have a strong case.
The thing to remember is that fame remains an important consideration for Hall of Fame voters. Fame is why Jim Rice is in and Tim Raines isn't. For Ortiz and Pedroia, they have that "winner" tag applied to them as well; if their cases end up borderline, they now have a check in the extra-credit column. It could make the difference.
Pouya Dianat/Atlanta Braves/Getty ImagesAndrelton Simmons was baseball's best defender in 2013 with plays like this.
Who was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2013?
In our view, it's not a close call. The SweetSpot voting panel named Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons as its Defensive Player of the Year.
Simmons took nine of the 10 first-place votes from our panel to win easily. Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez edged Orioles third baseman Manny Machado for second place by one point (Machado got the only other first-place vote). Diamondbacks outfielder Gerardo Parra finished fourth. Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia placed fifth.
Simmons and Parra both finished 2013 with 41 Defensive Runs Saved, the highest single-season total in the 11 years that Baseball Info Solutions has compiled the stat.
Why Simmons won
What separated Simmons was how much better he was than everyone else at his position. No other shortstop finished the season with more than 12 Defensive Runs Saved.
Baseball-Reference.com computes the defensive component of WAR and credited Simmons with 5.4 Wins Above Replacement just for his glove work, nearly a full win better than the runner-up (Gomez, 4.6).
Simmons twice won our Defensive Player of the Month award this season, and we've provided ample description of his skill sets on many occasions. His strength is that he makes every type of play, from the routine to the difficult. He made the rest of the infield better with his presence.
Two of the stats that most validate his selection are:
1. Baseball Info Solutions’ plus-minus system calculates that Simmons made 49 more plays than the average shortstop would have made against the same series of batted balls.
2. Braves opponents reached safely on only 22 percent of ground balls hit to the left of the second base bag. That was the lowest success rate in the majors.
Other worthy candidates
That's not to say that the other defenders cited weren't worthy of strong consideration.
Gomez finished with 38 Defensive Runs Saved, the most by a center fielder in the 11-year history of the stat. He robbed five hitters of home runs during the 2013 season. No other player had more than two homer robberies.
Parra shares the Defensive Runs Saved record with Simmons after catching him with a September that earned him Defensive Player of the Month honors. Parra had the best combination of range and arm. His 130 "Out of Zone plays" (plays in locations in which a fielder turned the ball into an out less than half the time) were the most in the majors for an outfielder. He also earned 10 Defensive Runs Saved with his arm, the most of any outfielder in 2013.
Pedroia led all second basemen in Defensive Runs Saved. Baseball Info Solutions does video review, tagging Good Fielding Plays and Defensive Misplays into different categories. Pedroia finished the regular season with 89 Good Fielding Plays and 23 Defensive Misplays, the best ratio of any middle infielder. He's solidified that with a strong postseason performance as well.
Do you agree/disagree with our selection? Feel free to cast your vote here and share your thoughts in the comments.
There are probably more than you realize. Pujols, of course, is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, even factoring in the somewhat disappointing results of his first two seasons with the Angels. With three MVP Awards, 492 home runs, 1,491 RBIs, a .321 average and a career WAR of 92.9 (27th all time among position players) his legacy is ensured, even if his Angels career never lives up to the expectations of his contract.
Based on historical trends, I estimate about 40 current players are future Hall of Famers -- possibly more, although Hall of Fame standards have been growing tougher in recent years, both by the Baseball Writers Association, which pitched a shutout this year, and the Veterans Committee, which has voted in just one post-1950 player since 2001. The steroids era fallout is also affecting voting results.
Anyway, if we look back at 10-year increments we can see how many Hall of Famers were active that season:
1953: 28 players
1963: 36 players
1973: 37 players
1983: 34 players
1993: 19 players
There are fewer players in 1953 because there were fewer teams, just 16 compared to 30 now. Compared to 1983, when there were 26 teams, 1953 still has a higher percentage of players inducted (1.75 per team versus 1.30). Still, 1983 already has 34 players who active that season already in the Hall of Fame, plus potential enshrinees like Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Lee Smith, Dale Murphy, Lou Whitaker, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons and others (some of whom are off the BBWAA ballot but could be Veterans Committee selections).
OK, to our little list. Here are 40 active players who will be Hall of Famers -- listed in order of most likely to make it. We're at a moment when there are very few sure-thing Hall of Famers -- I count only five -- so the list thus involves a lot speculation. I considered only players who have played in the majors this year, so no Andruw Jones, Manny Ramirez or Scott Rolen.
1. Derek Jeter: Would anyone find reason not to vote for Jeter? Well, he did date Mariah Carey. Jeter may seem like a lock as a unanimous selection, but keep in mind that eight voters somehow found reason not to vote for Cal Ripken Jr.
2. Mariano Rivera: No matter what you think of closers, Rivera will be a slam-dunk selection, with his "greatest closer ever" label, World Series rings, universal respect among opponents and writers, and 0.70 postseason ERA in 141 innings. While writers have generally become very generous to relievers -- Dennis Eckersley made it in his first year on the ballot -- I suspect a few won't vote for Rivera out of an anti-reliever stand.
3. Albert Pujols: If his career continues to peter out, that more recent perception may cast a shadow over his dominant run from 2001 to 2010, when he averaged 8.1 WAR per season. Many Hall of Famers never achieved that in one season.
4. Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera is now in his age-30 season, with 53.2 WAR. Through age 30, Pujols had 81.1 WAR. That's how good Pujols was -- nearly 30 wins better than a sure Hall of Famer who arrived in the majors at a younger age. Much of that advantage comes on defense and the basepaths, but Baseball-Reference estimates Pujols created 590 runs more than the average batter through 30, with Cabrera at 447 (and counting).
5. Ichiro Suzuki: He may not get to 3,000 hits in the majors -- he's at 2,706 after Sunday's four-hit game -- but with 1,278 hits in Japan, voters should factor that he didn't arrive in Seattle until he was 27. With his all-around brilliance, he should sail in on the first ballot.
6. Robinson Cano: He has done a lot of things MVP voters like -- hit for average, drive in runs, win a World Series -- and done it with exceptional durability. He's already at 42.4 WAR and needs three to four more peak seasons to ensure lock status, but he's just 30 and still at the top of his game. Considering his durability and age, 3,000 hits isn't out of the question either.
7. Clayton Kershaw: Obviously, he could get hurt, and a lot of pitchers who were dominant through age 25 couldn't carry that success into their 30s. But Kershaw has been handled carefully, is on his way to a third straight ERA title and second Cy Young Award. He's the Koufax of this decade minus the World Series heroics. But maybe he'll get that shot this year.
8. Felix Hernandez: He's 27 and has won 109 games, despite playing for some of the worst offenses in the history of the game. He has earned 38.8 WAR, which puts him about halfway to Hall of Fame lock status. As with Kershaw, barring injury he'll get there.
9. Roy Halladay: He leads all active pitchers with 65.6 WAR, a total higher than Hall of Famers Bob Feller (65.2), Eckersley (62.5), Juan Marichal (61.9), Don Drysdale (61.2) and Whitey Ford (53.2), to name a few. But what if he never pitches again? Is he in? He has 201 wins and voters still fixate on wins for pitchers. To Halladay's advantage is the general consensus that he was the best pitcher in baseball at his peak, his two Cy Young Awards and two runner-up finishes, three 20-win seasons and the second no-hitter in postseason history.
10. Adrian Beltre: Voters have never been kind to the good-glove third basemen -- excepting Brooks Robinson -- so I may be overrating Beltre's chances. But he also has the chance to reach 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. If he gets to those milestones, that combined with his defensive reputation should get him in.
11. CC Sabathia: He has 200 wins and looked like a possible 300-game winner entering this season, but that 4.65 ERA has everyone wondering how much he has left in the tank at age 33.
12. David Wright: Similar in a lot of ways to Cano -- same age, similar career WAR (Wright is actually a little higher at 45.9) -- so if he plays well into his 30s like Beltre has, he'll get in. But a lot of players have looked like Hall of Famers at 30.
13. Justin Verlander: He still has a lot of work to do, with 134 career wins and just two seasons with an ERA under 3.00.
14. Carlos Beltran: I suspect he'll have a long, slow trek to Hall of Fame status, as his all-around game may be difficult for voters to properly assess. His having just two top-10 MVP finishes will work against him, but he has eight 100-RBI seasons, should reach 400 home runs, is one of the great percentage basestealers of all time and should reach 1,500 runs and 1,500 RBIs.
15. Mike Trout: Well, of course this is premature; he's only 21. He could be Willie Mays, he could be Cesar Cedeno. I'm betting on Mays.
16. Evan Longoria" Beloved in sabermetric circles, he could use that one monster MVP season to create more of a Hall of Fame aura around him.
17. Joey Votto: Will voters appreciate the on-base percentage in 20 years?
18. Joe Mauer: Like Votto, Mauer has an MVP award that helps his case; any time you can argue "he was the best player in the game" about a guy, his candidacy shoots up in the minds of voters. He's not going to end up with the big home run and RBI totals but his .323 career average, .405 OBP and solid defense (three Gold Gloves) will garner support. He has to stay healthy and probably needs to stay behind the plate a few more years.
19. Andy Pettitte: See Jack Morris. Probably a slow crawl on the BBWAA ballot, perhaps hurt by admitting he tried PEDs (although he seems to have escaped the stain), with eventual election by the Veterans Committee. With 252 wins, five World Series rings and 19 postseason wins, it's difficult to ignore his fame and constant presence in October.
20. Bryce Harper: Most home runs before turning 21: Mel Ott 61, Tony Conigliaro 56, Ken Griffey Jr. 38, Harper 37, Mickey Mantle 36, Frank Robinson 34.
21. Buster Posey: Yadier Molina may be the most valuable catcher right now, but Posey is the better Hall of Fame candidate.
22. David Price: Pitchers become Hall of Famers in their 30s, not their 20s, but Price is already 66-36 with a Cy Young award.
23. Dustin Pedroia: I'm a little skeptical how he'll age into 30s, but Pedroia seems like the kind of player voters would love to put in if he becomes a borderline candidate. He does have an MVP award and recognition for his all-around play, but since he's not a big home run or RBI guy, he'll have to remain durability and approach 3,000 career hits.
24. Manny Machado: He's in a big slump right now but we have to remember he's still just 20 years old. But few players have shown this kind of ability at his age and his defense -- Jim Palmer said recently he makes plays at third base that Brooks Robinson could not have made -- is already Hall-of-Fame caliber.
25. Todd Helton: We can just about close the book on him. The .318/.417/.541 career line is impressive, although voters will have to adjust for Coors Field. The 361 home runs and 1,378 RBIs are short of Hall of Fame standards for recent first base inductees. Considering Larry Walker's poor support so far, Helton will probably have to get in through the back door.
26. Andrew McCutchen: How about an MVP Award for 2013?
27. Giancarlo Stanton: Injuries are an issue, but I'm still betting on him (or Harper) to be the premier power hitter of his generation.
28. Troy Tulowitzki: He has to stay healthy, of course, but he has 30.5 WAR so far, in his age-28 season. Jeter had 36.8 and Ripken 50.1 through age 28, but you don't have to be Derek Jeter or Cal Ripken to make the Hall of Fame. Recent inductee Barry Larkin had 30.9 WAR through age 28 and only played 140 games three seasons after that (although did play until he was 40).
29. Miguel Tejada: Tough one here. He has the PED rumors, but he also has six 100-RBI seasons as a shortstop, an MVP award, more than 300 home runs and he will top 2,400 hits. Perhaps a Veterans Committee choice?
30. Prince Fielder: He hasn't hit 40 home runs since 2009 and is going through the worst season of his career. Still, he's just 29 and has 277 home runs and 838 RBIs. He has been the most durable player in the game since his rookie season, but his body type certainly raises questions about how he'll do as he gets into his mid-30s. If he does remain healthy and reaches some of the big milestones he's going to be a Morris-like controversial candidate, because his career WAR (currently 22.4) isn't going to reach Hall of Fame standards.
31. Madison Bumgarner: He turns 24 on Aug. 1 and already has 46 career wins, two World Series rings and is in the midst of his best season. Check back in 10 years.
32. Yasiel Puig: Is he not in already?
33. Andrelton Simmons: We're starting to get into the area of crazy projections. Hey, a lot of Hall of Famers didn't look like Hall of Famers their first few seasons in the league. Anyway, the Braves have four young players you could reasonably project long-shot HOF status onto -- Simmons, Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel. I like Simmons; he'll have to have an Omar Vizquel-type career with most of his value coming from his glove, but what a glove it is.
34. Chase Utley: He basically has no chance to get in via the BBWAA because his career counting totals will be well short of Hall standards. His five-year peak from 2005 to 2009 was among the best ever for a second baseman -- in fact, since 1950, from ages 26 to 30, the only players with a higher WAR were seven guys named Mays, Pujols, Yastrzemski, Aaron, Bonds, Boggs and Schmidt. If he can stay healthy for a few more years -- a bit of a dubious proposition -- he enters Veterans Committee territory.
35. Jose Fernandez: This could be Chris Sale or Stephen Strasburg or some other hotshot young pitcher.
36. Tim Hudson: I believe pitching standards will have to change, as the idea that you need 300 wins eventually subsides in this day where starters just don't as many decisions as they once did. Hudson is out for the year after breaking his ankle and, at the age of 38, you have to worry about his future. But he does have 205 wins and one of the best winning percentages of all time at .649. He sounds like a Veterans Committee choice in 2044.
37. Nick Franklin: The point isn't that I think Franklin is a Hall of Fame player, but that somebody like Franklin will turn into a Hall of Famer. It could BE Franklin, it could be Wil Myers, it could be Marcell Ozuna, it could be Jurickson Profar. As for Franklin, he has reached the majors at 22, has flashed power (10 home runs and 12 doubles in 52 games) and shown a good approach at the plate. You never know.
38. September call-up to be named: Xander Bogaerts? Oscar Taveras? Miguel Sano?
39. David Ortiz: There's no denying the fame and the peak value -- he finished in the top five in MVP voting five consecutive seasons -- but he has several strikes against him, notably the PED allegations (Ortiz was mentioned in the Mitchell report) and the fact that he may not be the best DH eligible (that would be Edgar Martinez, with a career WAR of 68.3 to Ortiz's 42.7). Papi is at 420 home runs; if he gets to 500 (round number!), his chances go up, but like all the guys tied to steroids, he'll be a controversial candidate.
40. Alex Rodriguez: He hasn't actually suited up in the majors yet this season, but let's assume he does to be eligible for this list. I also assume, at some point in the future -- 20 years? 25 years? 75 years? -- the moral outrage against the steroids users eventually subsides. Maybe, like Deacon White, A-Rod makes it some 130 years after he plays his final game.
In a perfect world where every player wants to play, who should be on the Team USA roster? Since the World Baseball Classic is to a large degree a marketing vehicle for the sport, you want a mix of the best players in the game and young stars. In the cases of Trout and Stanton, they would be easy inclusions: They're young and already among the game's elite players.
Here's my 30-man roster:
Catcher -- Buster Posey, Matt Wieters, Joe Mauer
Pretty easy choices here, especially with Brian McCann coming off a bad year and offseason shoulder surgery. One of the interesting story lines for 2013: Does Wieters have any offensive growth left in his game? After back-to-back years hitting .262 and .249 with 22 and 23 home runs, he may have maxed out his power, but if he can learn to hit for a little more average against right-handed pitchers (.223 in 2012) and improve his batting line to something like .280/.360/.500, then he's one of the most valuable players in the game, not just one of the most valuable catchers.
First Base -- Prince Fielder, Anthony Rizzo
Is first base the weakest position in the majors right now? Joey Votto missed 50 games and was still easily the most valuable first baseman in the majors. Prince is the obvious No. 1 choice but with guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Teixeira having down years, let's promote and up-and-coming star like Rizzo. Plus, it gives us a Cub.
Second Base -- Ben Zobrist, Dustin Pedroia
The switch-hitting, slick-fielding Zobrist would be the starter with Pedroia coming off the bench or playing against a left-hander. You can make cases for Aaron Hill (terrific season for Arizona) or the always reliable Brandon Phillips.
Third Base -- David Wright, Chase Headley
There's a lot of depth at third base in the majors right now, but not all of it is U.S.-born players. Wright and Headley were the two best in the majors in 2012 -- yes, arguably better than Miguel Cabera. On the road, Headley had more home runs and a higher OPS than Cabrera.
Shortstop -- Ian Desmond, Jimmy Rollins
With Troy Tulowitzki and Derek Jeter returning from injuries, it's an easy call to give our roster slots to Desmond and Rollins, who ranked 1-2 in FanGraphs WAR among all shortstops in 2012 (not counting Zobrist, who started there the last month and a half, but will move back to second with the acquisition of Yunel Escobar). Desmond will have to prove his power burst is for real -- from eight home runs to 25 -- but I'm a believer.
Outfield: Ryan Braun, Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Jason Heyward, Austin Jackson
A good mix of MVP candidates (Braun, Trout, McCutchen) and future MVP candidates. The tough choice for Torre: Who do you start? An outfield of Braun in left, Trout in center and Stanton in right gives you three right-handed batters, so maybe you mix in Harper or Heyward against a right-hander.
Starting Pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain
You don't see many starting pitchers on the World Baseball Classic rosters, in part since they're limited by pitch counts and there aren't that many games to play anyway. But we'll pick five. Verlander and Kershaw are clearly the top two pitchers in baseball right now, as both could have easily picked up their second consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2012. Price and Dickey are the reigning Cy Young champions and are the type of players you want to expose in this kind of event. There are many defensible choices for the fifth spot but Cain gets my nod as the leader of the staff for the World Series champs and the kind of guy you want starting a big game.
Relief Pitchers: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Sergio Romo, David Hernandez, Kris Medlen, Jake McGee, Sean Marshall, Charlie Furbush
For the bullpen, we're not too worried about just looking at the saves leaders. We want dominant arms in the pen but also the ability to match up late in games if needed. Kimbrel is obviously our closer -- and hopefully Torre will use him for more than three outs if needed, especially with a one-run lead! Papelbon had a couple big blown saves for the Phillies but had a dominant 92/18 strikeout/walk ratio. I'm not sure he's our top setup guy, however. That role may fall to Romo and his death-to-righties slider and the underrated Hernandez, who fanned 98 in 68.1 innings for the Diamondbacks.
Medlen has to be on our team after his dominant transition to the rotation last year -- 0.97 ERA in 12 games as a starter. Are you kidding? With his experience pitching in relief he can be our long guy. And then I went with three left-handers. Tampa Bay's McGee finally had the season long expected of him with his power arsenal. He had a 73/11 SO/BB ratio in 55.1 innings, but he's not just lefty killer as right-handers hit a .098 against him. Marshall has long been one of the best against lefties and Furbush is the new Marshall; with his fastball/slider combo, lefties hit just .147 off him, with just three doubles and no home runs in 75 at-bats.
That's my team. Who would be on yours?
It would be easy to blast to the foundations and start dealing away everyone who might be a free agent after 2013 -- Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Jarrod Saltalamacchia among others -- but I doubt that's why they re-signed David Ortiz, and it probably wouldn't help them talk Dustin Pedroia into signing a contract extension. So instead, let's say the Red Sox make a real effort to contend again, shy of making any huge financial commitments, but shoring up the hand they've got and making a play to get back to October. Could they make that happen?
What do they need? I'd argue two big areas would have to be addressed: A front-end rotation starter who ranks up there with Lester at the very least, and offensive upgrades wherever possible, especially at first base and the outfield.
The rotation's fairly straightforward, because to keep up in the AL East's arms race, the Red Sox need to shore up a rotation that let them down in 2011, delivering only 72 quality starts last year. Hoping for rebound seasons from Lester and Clay Buchholz may be reasonable, and counting on John Lackey to come back and be a solid mid-rotation horse will help, but it isn't enough.
On offense, let's face it, an outfield blend of just-added Jonny Gomes plus Ryan Kalish, Daniel Nava and Ryan Sweeney doesn't add up to two well-stocked corners. And at first base, settling for some combination of Mauro Gomez and Jerry Sands also isn't going to get it done; outside of Albuquerque's extra-friendly confines, Sands hit a relatively unimpressive .278/.350/.510 in the hitter-friendly PCL in his second season in the circuit. Take that down a few pegs in the majors, and you won't get much O from an offense-first position.
General manager Ben Cherington's cupboard isn't bare. The Red Sox have a few young veterans who might fill people's needs at up-the-middle positions, notably Saltalamacchia and Kalish. In and of themselves they're not guys who will put Boston over the top, now or ever, but that's perhaps the Red Sox's area of surplus. As Salty heads into his age-28 season after belting 25 bombs in 2012, he's already as good as he's going to get, and while Kalish has had his moments at the lower levels over a long minor-league apprenticeship, he's no Ellsbury. Their value may never be higher, so better to shop them now and address the Red Sox's needs.
1. David Wright continues to make one of us smile, but is he the first-half MVP in the NL? We also name our Cy Young winners, rookies, managers and whether the Red Sox playoff-bound.
2. Who do you want up to the plate with a 3-2 count? We’ve got numbers, loads of numbers.
3. An emailer wants to debate the value power hitters Adam Dunn and Jose Bautista bring with their low batting averages. Isn’t there a more important statistic those fellas provide?
4. If you could go back in baseball history and witness a game or event that occurred, what would it be?
5. It’s a Yankees-Red Sox weekend, but that’s hardly the only interesting series to watch!
So download and listen to Friday’s fun Baseball Today podcast and have a great weekend! On Monday Keith Law and I will record the show from Kansas City, Mo.!
With the announcement that Joe Torre will manage Team USA in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, let's have a little fun and project who could form the 28-man squad in March.
Before we get to my suggested roster, a few notes and thoughts:
1. Rules require a minimum of 13 pitchers.
2. In reality, some of these guys won't want to play. The 2009 U.S. squad included John Grabow, Matt Lindstrom, Brad Ziegler and Chris Iannetta.
3. Like in 2009, we'll go heavy on relief pitchers. That squad included only four starting pitchers. One, that's all you need; and, two, teams don't want starters breaking up their normal spring training routine by pitching in relief in the WBC.
4. We want a balanced lineup. You don't want an entire lineup of right-handed batters.
5. I like the idea of going with younger players when possible. They're going to be enthusiastic about playing and it's good promotion for the sport to get new stars out there.
So here we go ...
Catchers: Buster Posey, Joe Mauer
Two positives here. One bats right-handed, one bats left-handed. Both can also play first base if needed. In case you've forgotten about Mauer, he has a .406 on-base percentage entering Thursday's game. This team will have plenty of power, so I'd prefer Mauer's on-base skills over the power of Matt Wieters or Brian McCann.
First base: Eric Hosmer, Prince Fielder
Yes, Hosmer is off to a slow start, but he's going to hit. I love the idea of putting him on the big stage, something he doesn't get to do playing for the Royals. Fielder gives us a left-handed power bat and we'll use him as our designated hitter in the tournament if he's not playing first base.
Second base: Dustin Pedroia, Ben Zobrist
Pedroia played on the 2009 squad and we'll be loyal to past participants whenever possible. Plus, he's the kind of high-energy guy you want for this kind of tournament. Zobrist gets the nod over Ian Kinsler for his positional flexibility. Like Mark DeRosa in 2009, he'll serve as our super utility guy and provides value as a switch-hitter and can run for Fielder if needed.
Third base: Evan Longoria, David Wright
Two more veterans from the 2009 we'll welcome back. Good sticks and good gloves.
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki
Derek Jeter played on the first two WBC squads, but it's time to make room for Tulo.
Outfield: Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper
It pains me to leave Giancarlo Stanton off the team, but we need to get another left-handed batter on the team, so we'll give Harper the final spot. Besides having the talent worthy of deserving consideration, Trout and Harper fill our young stars requirement and have the ability to play all three outfield positions. And they won't complain if they're not in the starting lineup every game.
Here's how I'd play the lineups in a championship game:
You gotta love the idea of Ryan Braun hitting leadoff!
Wright starts over Longoria with his supreme on-base skills versus lefties and we'll move McCutchen into the lineup for Hosmer. Posey replaces Mauer. I don't think you want to pitch a lefty against this squad.
Starting pitchers: Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Sale
OK, there's probably no way the Nationals let Strasburg pitch, but we can dream, can't we? So many choices here, of course, with guys such as Cole Hamels, Jered Weaver, Cliff Lee and others. Kershaw and Sale give us two left-handers and Sale could also pitch out of the bullpen as a long guy if needed. Verlander is the guy we want starting the championship game, but Cain wouldn't be a bad option either. Remember his 2010 postseason run? One unearned run in three starts.
Bullpen: Craig Kimbrel, Jonathan Papelbon, Joe Nathan, Vinnie Pestano, Jim Johnson, Joel Hanrahan, Sean Marshall, Sean Burnett
Since there are limitations on the number of pitches that starting pitchers can throw, you need a lot of relievers on the staff. Nathan (2006) and Hanrahan (2009) are veterans of previous WBC squads, and by the way Nathan looks as dominant as ever, with a 31/2 strikeout/walk ratio. Pestano destroys right-handers -- .115 in 2011, .136 in 2012; he's an easy selection to the squad. Marshall and Burnett are the two lefty killers, but they're good enough to get right-handed batters as well. Johnson is a valuable asset since he can go two innings in case we get into an extra innings situation. He gets the final spot over the underrated Sergio Romo.
That's our 28 guys. What do you think? The previous two U.S. squads both failed to reach the championship game. In 2006, after going 2-1 in the first round of pool play, they went 1-2 in the second round, losing 7-3 to South Korea and 2-1 to Mexico, failing to reach the semifinals. In 2009, they went 2-1 in each of the first rounds of pool play (losing both times to Venezuela) before losing 9-4 to Japan in the semis (Roy Oswalt got pounded).
And, as I'm sure you remember, Daisuke Matsuzaka was MVP of each of the first two World Baseball Classics.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
"Show us some respect," yell Baltimore Orioles fans. Or maybe they're politely demanding. But I've seen the complaints in the Power Rankings comments, read the emails sent to "Baseball Today," been asked the question in my chats: Why doesn't anyone believe in the Orioles?
The Orioles traveled to Fenway Park this week in a precarious situation. They've lost two of three in Tampa. They've been swept in Toronto. They've lost two of three at home to Kansas City. They've lost two of three at home to Boston. They haven't won a series since the big weekend showdown in Washington from May 18-20.
So, yes, the concerns all of us "experts" had been raising -- it's a long season, let's see what happens to the rotation, let's find out if some of the hitters can keep up their hot starts, the bullpen can't keep its ERA under 2.00 all season -- were proving true. The O's were 27-14 after winning the second against the Nationals but had gone 3-10 since, with the staff posting a 4.95 ERA while the offense scored 3.5 runs per game.
These were the Orioles we all expected. And then they beat the Red Sox in extra innings on Tuesday. And then they beat the Red Sox 2-1 on Wednesday behind a solid effort from Wei-Yin Chen and scoreless innings from Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson. They're 5-0 at Fenway in 2012 and Chen is now 5-2 with a 3.49 ERA. The key moments came in the seventh inning after the Red Sox threatened with a pair of singles to start the frame. But after a sacrifice bunt, Chen struck out Marlon Byrd and induced Mike Aviles to pop out to first base.
Normally, Buck Showalter might have turned to his stellar bullpen, but after Tuesday's victory, in which the bullpen threw five innings, he left Chen to escape the jam. He set up Byrd with three fastballs and then got him swinging on a beautiful changeup. He threw three more fastballs to Aviles that he couldn't get around on. Don't underestimate Chen. His stuff plays up big, with his four-seamer reaching 94 mph. His last pitch to Aviles was clocked at 93. In 11 starts, he allowed two or fewer runs seven times and I think this outing will give Showalter more confidence to stretch Chen a little deeper into games.
So the Orioles remain in first place for another day, half a game ahead of the Yankees. Is it time to show them a little respect, to give Orioles fans what they crave? Let's do some position-by-position rankings to help sort out this tightly packed division. Rankings are simply listed in order of who I would want the rest of the season.
(Season-to-date Wins Above Replacement from Baseball-Reference.com, before Wednesday's games, listed in parenthesis.)
1. Matt Wieters, Orioles (1.6 WAR)
2. Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Kelly Shoppach, Red Sox (1.6)
3. Russell Martin, Yankees (0.7)
4. J.P. Arencibia, Blue Jays (0.2)
5. Jose Molina, Rays (0.1)
There is a case to be made that Boston's duo is more valuable since they've combined for 14 home runs and an OPS over .900. But Wieters brings elite defensive skills and I also don't believe Salty is going to slug .583 all season. For the second consecutive season, the Rays are essentially punting offense at catcher. Rays catchers have the worst OPS in the majors.
1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox (0.8)
2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees (0.6)
3. Mark Reynolds, Orioles (-0.6)
4. Carlos Pena, Rays (0.4)
5. David Cooper/others, Blue Jays (incomplete)
Gonzalez is still struggling to get his stroke going, but he's the best of a weak group. Yes, I just called Mark Teixeira weak, but at this point he's a low-average guy who pops a few long balls, doesn't draw as many walks as he once did and isn't as great on defense as Yankee fans believe. But in this group that's good enough to rank second. Reynolds has a low WAR but he's missed time and that includes his bad defense at third base, a position we've hopefully seen the last of him playing. The Jays, meanwhile, need to quit fooling around at first base and find a legitimate hitter, or move Edwin Encarnacion there and find a designated hitter. You hate to waste a potential playoff season because you can't find a first baseman who can hit. (No, David Cooper is not the answer, although he's hit well so far in 11 games.)
1. Robinson Cano, Yankees (2.1)
2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox (1.8)
3. Kelly Johnson, Blue Jays (2.1)
4. Ben Zobrist, Rays (0.7)
5. Robert Andino, Orioles (0.6)
I love Ben Zobrist almost as much as two scoops of Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch from Ben & Jerry's, but a .199 average isn't going to cut it in this group, even if you are on pace to draw 100-plus walks. Zobrist has actually play more right field so far, but should be back at second on a regular basis with Desmond Jennings back.
1. Evan Longoria, Rays (1.4)
2. Brett Lawrie, Blue Jays (3.1)
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (1.2)
4. Kevin Youkilis/Will Middlebrooks, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Wilson Betemit/Steve Tolleson, Orioles (-0.1)
Lawrie's WAR is boosted by defensive metrics that treat him like he's the second coming of Brooks Robinson. He's a good player but don't I think he's been the second-best position player in the American League. Longoria hopes to return at the end of the Rays' current road trip. As for A-Rod, his health is always a question at this stage of his career, but Youkilis has health questions and I'm not a believer in Middlebrooks' ability to hit .321 with power all season. His 29/4 strikeout/walk ratio is something pitchers should learn to exploit. As for the Orioles ... third base is an obvious concern. But don't expect a rare intra-division trade to acquire Youkilis.
1. J.J. Hardy, Orioles (2.1)
2. Mike Aviles, Red Sox (2.2)
3. Derek Jeter, Yankees (0.9)
4. Yunel Escobar, Blue Jays (1.9)
5. Sean Rodriguez, Rays (1.9)
Wait ... Jeter has been the least valuable of this group so far? The other four all rate as excellent fielders -- in fact, Baseball-Reference rates them all in the top 13 fielders in the AL. Jeter, meanwhile, ranks 310th in the AL on defense -- out of 313 players.
1. Desmond Jennings, Rays (1.2)
2. Daniel Nava/Carl Crawford, Red Sox (1.7)
3. Brett Gardner/Raul Ibanez, Yankees (0.3)
4. Eric Thames/Rajai Davis, Blue Jays (-0.1)
5. Endy Chavez/Xavier Avery/Nolan Reimold, Orioles (-0.3)
Not to keep picking on the Orioles, but this is another problem position, especially if Reimold's disc problems lingers all season. Nava has quietly been a huge savior for the Red Sox, batting .305 with a .438 OBP. He's drawing walks at a crazy rate. He should slide some but he's provided the kind of depth the Orioles don't have.
1. Adam Jones, Orioles (2.5)
2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees (1.3)
3. B.J. Upton Rays (0.9)
4. Jacoby Ellsbury/Scott Podsednik/Marlon Byrd, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays (1.3)
Ellsbury might be the biggest wild card in this race, because the Red Sox can't survive much longer with the Podsednik/Byrd platoon. When will he return? How will he hit? He just started throwing and could return by the end of the month. I've conservatively put him fourth, which seems fair considering the unknown. And please note, Orioles fans, that I believe in Mr. Jones.
1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays (0.9)
2. Matt Joyce, Rays (2.2)
3. Nick Swisher, Yankees (-0.1)
4. Cody Ross/Ryan Sweeney, Red Sox (1.6)
5. Nick Markakis/others, Orioles (0.3)
Markakis is out three to four weeks with a broken bone in his wrist, an injury that once again reflects Baltimore's lack of depth. But all five teams are solid in right field. Ross is about to return from his broken foot; we'll see if he pounds the ball like he was before the injury (.534 slugging).
1. David Ortiz, Red Sox (1.4)
2. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays (1.6)
3. Revolving Door, Yankees
4. Chris Davis, Orioles (0.3)
5. Luke Scott, Rays (0.0)
No respect for Davis? OK, he's hitting .295/.333/.494. And he has 53 strikeouts and eight walks. Sorry, call me skeptical, O's fans. Yankee designated hitters have actually fared well, hitting a combined .279/.354/.467 with 10 home runs.
No. 1 starter
1. David Price, Rays (2.2)
2. CC Sabathia, Yankees (1.9)
3. Ricky Romero, Blue Jays (0.3)
4. Josh Beckett, Red Sox (0.5)
5. Jason Hammel, Orioles (1.9)
Look, Hammel has been terrific so far thanks to a career-high strikeout rate and a career-high ground-ball rate. But this is tough group and the question is who is going to be best moving forward? My biggest concern is that Hammel has never pitched 180 innings in a season. Can he pitched the 210 to 220 that you need from a No. 1?
No. 2 starter
1. Brandon Morrow, Blue Jays (1.1)
2. James Shields, Rays (-0.4)
3. Andy Pettitte, Yankees (1.5)
4. Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles (0.7)
5. Jon Lester, Red Sox (-0.4)
I like Chen. Heck, right now I like him better than Jon Lester, which tells you how much I like him. But he averaged just 172 innings in Japan over the past three seasons. Can he hold up over 32 starts?
No. 3 starter
1. Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (1.0)
2. Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees (1.4)
3. Felix Doubront, Red Sox (0.4)
4. Brian Matusz, Orioles (0.2)
5. Henderson Alvarez, Blue Jays (0.4)
Matusz is holding his own at 5-5, 4.41, but he's still walking a few too many, allowing a few too many hits, a few too many home runs. The velocity is solid, averaging 91 on his fastball. We're talking minor upgrades needed in his command, getting the ball down in the zone more often to get more groundballs. If the Orioles are to have any chance, Matusz's improvement may be the single most important aspect.
No. 4 starter
1. Matt Moore, Rays (-0.6)
2. Ivan Nova, Yankees (0.3)
3. Jake Arrieta, Orioles (-0.4)
4. Clay Buchholz, Red Sox (-1.2)
5. Kyle Drabek, Blue Jays (-0.1)
Five pitchers who have struggled, but Arrieta's peripheral numbers are actually pretty solid. Like Matusz, there is hope for improvement. On the other hand, he's been awful since pitching eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, giving up 29 runs in 31.2 innings. His BABIP was .243 through May 2; it's .361 since. The truth is probably right in the middle, leaving Arrieta third on our list of fourth starters.
No. 5 starter
1. Alex Cobb/Jeff Niemann, Rays (0.3)
2. Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (0.1)
3. Phil Hughes, Yankees (0.2)
4. Daisuke Matsuzaka/Aaron Cook/Daniel Bard, Red Sox (-0.3)
5. Tommy Hunter, Orioles (-0.5)
Hunter isn't really a major league starter, but I'm not sure Jamie Moyer -- just signed to a minor league contract -- is exactly a solution. The Orioles need to upgrade here.
1. Yankees (2.76 ERA)
2. Orioles (2.48 ERA)
3. Red Sox (3.66 ERA)
4. Rays (3.43 ERA)
5. Blue Jays (4.39 ERA)
If you watched Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson close out Wednesday's win, you'll realize the back of the Orioles' end has two guys with filthy stuff. Darren O'Day and Luis Ayala are strike-throwing machines and Troy Patton is a lefty who isn't a LOOGY. It's a good pen and it's deep. But the reliability of the pen ties into the rotation's inability to pitch deep into games -- Orioles relievers have already thrown 39 more innings than Yankees relievers, for example.
OK, let’s add it up … one point for ranking first, five points for ranking fifth. Hey, this isn’t meant to be scientific, so don’t overanalyze this too much. The totals:
Yankees: 36 points
Rays: 40 points
Red Sox: 45 points
Blue Jays: 51 points
Orioles: 53 points
Not the respect Orioles fans are seeking. Sorry about that; it’s nothing personal. Look, I don’t think the Orioles are going to fade away anytime soon. I worry about the rotation’s ability to hold up all summer and the bullpen’s workload. They lack depth on offense and have a couple of obvious holes. Hey, you never know, and the Orioles are certainly due for a winning season. I would love to see it happen.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Like last year, we thought it would be to conduct a second round, where we make the picks for a distinguished panel. Eric starts with pick No. 31 and makes all the odd-numbered choices and Dave makes the even-numbered ones, which means we get to select for each other.
We used a snake-draft format with each participant's first-round pick in parenthesis. Remember, these picks are from Karabell and Schoenfield, so yell at us if you disagree!
31. Jonah Keri (Jason Heyward): Jose Bautista. Hey, Jonah took him last year.
32. Mark Simon (Miguel Cabrera): Mark already has Cabrera, but we're moving him to first base and giving him David Wright of his beloved New York Mets.
33. Jerry Crasnick (Yu Darvish): Dylan Bundy. You can never have enough young pitching, and really, Darvish isn't all that young.
34. Amanda Rykoff (Carlos Gonzalez): Matt Moore may win two or three Cy Youngs in the next 10 years. I'll take him to headline a pitching staff.
35. Rick Sutcliffe (Jeff Samardzija): Josh Hamilton should still be hitting for major power the next few seasons.
36. Chris Singleton (David Price): Adam Jones. If the power surge is for real, we have an MVP candidate. And Jones is still just 26 years old. He'll be running down fly balls for years to come.
37. Jorge Arangure (Jurickson Profar): Terrific first-rounder, and Carlos Santana could be the best catcher in the game for years, so lock up the up-the-middle spots.
38. Jim Bowden (Buster Posey): Nice pick with Santana. He was next on my board, except Bowden already has a catcher. Let's go with Posey's Giants teammate Matt Cain, still just 27 years old and he's never missed a start in the big leagues.
39. Enrique Rojas (Neftali Feliz): Well, as if anyone was really concerned, Albert Pujols is hitting now and we know he'll be around another what, eight years.
40. Jayson Stark (Robinson Cano): Cano is a little older, so with this team we may be thinking of the next five years as opposed to 10. So let's go with Cole Hamels, arguably the best pitcher in baseball right now.
41. Mark Mulder (Ryan Zimmerman): Ah! How did Hamels not go in the first round? Well, I think Madison Bumgarner has a pretty bright future himself, so let's go there.
42. Doug Glanville (Matt Wieters): Austin Jackson is maybe the best defensive center fielder in baseball and he looks much improved at the plate this year. Potential stud leadoff hitter for a long time.
43. David Schoenfield (Eric Hosmer): I think Emmanuel Burriss is a terrific pick for Dave here. Whatta ya think, Dave? OK, we'll give you Jay Bruce. First-rounder last season and he hasn't exactly regressed.
44. Keith Law (Andrew McCutchen): #freetrevorbauer
45. Molly Knight (Prince Fielder): Elvis Andrus. A Gold Glove-caliber shortstop showing improving on-base skills? Thank you very much. Plus, we need some defense on this team.
46. Steve Berthiaume (Brett Lawrie): Steve is a closet Red Sox fan. Give him Dustin Pedroia, although we hear he's very high on this Scott Podsednik kid.
47. Christina Kahrl (Giancarlo Stanton): What, I thought it was Marlon Byrd. OK, Christina can't pass up Adrian Gonzalez. Tremendous value here; what a start for her offense.
48. Jim Caple (Mike Trout): We know Caple would definitely take a West Coast player. And definitely not a closer. Let's a big risk here and go with Dustin Ackley and hope he learns to hit left-handed pitching.
49. Tim Kurkjian (Bryce Harper): He's closing these days, but Aroldis Chapman is a future ace, and Tim will love the numbers he'll put up.
50. Mike Golic (Ryan Braun): Chapman! Ehh, who wants a guy who throws 100 mph. Joining Braun will be up-and-coming third baseman/masher Mike Moustakas.
51. Mike Greenberg (Felix Hernandez): Curtis Granderson has some flaws, but had a terrific 2011 and should be good for years.
52. Aaron Boone (Starlin Castro): Continuing the up-the-middle theme, we'll give Boone 25-year-old catcher Alex Avila. If he can come close to 2011's .895 OPS the next seven years, he's an extremely valuable player.
53. Dave Cameron (Joey Votto): Zack Greinke is nearing a monster contract. An ace slips deep into round 2.
54. Barry Larkin (Justin Upton): Speaking of aces, Gio Gonzalez's improved command has turned him into one. And at 26, he's two years younger than Greinke.
55. Karl Ravech (Stephen Strasburg): We're not expecting Gold Gloves from Jesus Montero, but man, can the guy hit. Decent building block.
56. Eric Karabell (Evan Longoria): Let's see, tough call here: Do we go Utley, Howard, Rollins or Wigginton? OK, we know Karabell loves hitters ... Jason Kipnis will look good in that infield with Longoria.
57. Orel Hershiser (Justin Verlander): Former ace already has added an ace, and another ace is sitting there in Jered Weaver. Can't pass that up.
58. Kevin Goldstein (Clayton Kershaw): We have to give Goldstein a prospect so let's go with Royals outfielder Wil Myers, who has bashed his way through Double-A and just got promoted to Triple-A, and may be in Kansas City before long.
59. Buster Olney (Troy Tulowitzki): Pretty strong middle infield if we give him Ian Kinsler as well, so let's do exactly that.
60. Terry Francona (Matt Kemp): We need a pitcher. So many good ones left to choose from. He's a health risk, but if he's on he's as good anybody in the game: Josh Johnson.
Wow ... no Hanley Ramirez or Jose Reyes. Tim Lincecum's slow start scares us off. Joe Mauer and Brian McCann left on the board. Jordan Zimmermann, Brandon Morrow, not to mention top prospects like Manny Machado or Taijuan Walker. What do you think?
Pitching, defense and three-run home runs? It’s a formula that has worked going back to the days of Earl Weaver and beyond. An inning into Saturday’s game, the Rays had all of that going for them: Designated hitter Luke Scott had already hammered a bomb off Boston's Clay Buchholz to plate a trio of runs, reigning Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson was on the mound, and nobody is more alertly creative and productive on defense than Joe Maddon’s ballclub.
Unfortunately, none of that mattered all that much in the next eight innings of action against the Red Sox. Boston’s bats hammered the Rays, hitting five home runs, and made their initial case for why they’ll still be able to score runs hand over fist without Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury. Rather than throw too much of a pity party for their life absent Ellsbury, just try to keep in mind that Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis provide an offensive platform that 29 other teams would be happy to work from. Counting out the Red Sox a week into the season or a half-inning into a ballgame is just silly; they’re still stacked.
What’s less silly is looking at the Rays’ challenges in the weeks and months to come. Tampa Bay's problem is that while the Red Sox opened up on offense, the Rays didn’t have the usual collection of moving parts to respond on offense or defense.
The Rays' pitching depth is the envy of the industry, but Joel Peralta has taken a series of beatings out of the bullpen en route to handing the closer’s job to Fernando Rodney. Maybe that will work out the way Kyle Farnsworth did last year, but Peralta’s not that far removed from his days as waiver bait, and Rodney’s reputation for flammability perhaps exceeds Farnsworth’s -- before last season.
The Rays being the Rays, they get a pass on running risks other teams might shrink from, but this year’s bullpen confection is still a soufflé with as much potential to flop as rise. Having one less body around proved expensive when a three-run game still in reach became a blowout in the eighth thanks to rookie Dane De La Rosa’s five-run debut against that Red Sox offense.
The other early issue in terms of reaping the downside of risk is that their offense is cranking less than most others in the early going, ranking just 10th in the American League in runs scored. That doesn’t mean that much in itself, because we’re still not even talking about two full weeks’ worth of action. It’s what you get when you wind up with Jeff Keppinger and Sean Rodriguez as everyday players.
That wasn’t part of any plan, but that’s the upshot of being without the flexibility of having Ben Zobrist moving around on the field to wherever he’s needed while Maddon plays matchup games on offense with bit parts like Rodriguez or Keppinger. They knew they wouldn’t get many runs out of Jose Molina or Jose Lobaton as their catchers, but that’s another slot you can’t count on in terms of offense, and another reason why the Rays have that much less margin for error in the early going. The Rays’ offense is the sort of high-flying act that can’t really afford to lose certain key regulars for a great length of time.
Which is why much will change for the better soon, once B.J. Upton comes back from the disabled list and returns to his spot in center field. The Rays won’t simply get the benefit of adding his bat to the everyday lineup or his glove to the defense. They’ll also reap the tactical in-game benefit of all of the situations in which Maddon will be able to use his valuable part-time contributors -- like Keppinger and Rodriguez -- to his advantage. Matt Joyce won’t have to face the left-handed pitchers he can’t hit. That’s not because of what Upton does and will do, but because of the multiple benefits the Rays get from having him healthy.
Taking a few chances on “extra guys” is not automatically bad -- far from it, especially when you’re dealing with budget handicaps as the Rays do. Taking a chance on Scott was an eminently worthwhile low-cost risk: After averaging 25 homers per season for three years for the Orioles, Scott’s injury-wracked 2011 brought him into the Rays’ orbit as far as his sale price as a free agent. If he gives the Rays’ lineup a third source of power from the left side beyond Carlos Pena and Joyce, you’ll have a lineup that gives opponents fits, just as it did in each of the past two years.
Add it up, and just like the bullpen, the Rays’ offense is a complicated proposition few other teams would risk. Handled as well as the Rays have and will, though, and it works … until you knock a key starter or two out of action for any great length of time. Expose their irregulars’ shortcomings, and the risk becomes one to the Rays’ bid for a postseason three-peat.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Points on a 14-9-8-7-6 basis.
Baseball America released its list of the top 100 prospects. The BA guys do a great job and I heartily recommend their annual Prospect Handbook, which ranks the top 30 prospects for each team.
Anyway, while the list includes 45 pitchers, 20 outfielders and 12 third basemen, it includes just two second basemen -- Cory Spangenberg of the Padres (No. 78) and Kelton Wong of the Cardinals (No. 93). That tally isn't much different from the other top 100 lists we've seen: ESPN Insider Keith Law had no second basemen on his top 100 and Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus also had just Spangenberg and Wong.
Now there's an obvious reason why second basemen don't receive much respect from prospect gurus: A lot of minor league shortstops end up as second basemen in the majors. Maybe they don't have the hands or arm to remain at shortstop or simply outgrow the position; but if they can hit they can move to second base (or even third). But minor league second basemen? If they were major league-caliber players, they'd be playing shortstop in the minors.
That's the conventional wisdom anyway.
But is it true? I looked at the top 14 major league second basemen heading into 2012. You can argue with the list, but once we get past this 14 we get into guys like Omar Infante and Darwin Barney and nobody ranks prospects hoping they turn into Darwin Barney.
Dustin Pedroia: A shortstop at Arizona State, Pedroia played 132 minor league games at shortstop and 131 at second base. He was ranked No. 77 on BA's pre-2006 list but then fell out of the top 100 pre-2007, in part because it became clear he wouldn't stick at shortstop (and concerns about his ability to hit for power).
Robinson Cano: Played third, short and second his first season in the minors, second and short his second season and then settled in permanently at second by age 20. Never a top-100 prospect.
Chase Utley: A first-round pick out of UCLA, Utley played his first two professional seasons at second and then played third base in 2002 at Triple-A. Coincidentally, it was pre-2003 when he finally appeared on Baseball America's top-100 prospect list. He moved back to second base that season, but accumulated a few too many major league plate appearances to be considered a prospect pre-2004.
Ian Kinsler: Drafted in the 17th round as a shortstop out of Missouri, Kinsler did stick at short for two professional seasons and cracked the top-100 list at No. 98 pre-2005. He moved to second base that year and despite hitting 23 home runs at Triple-A fell out of the top 100.
Ben Zobrist: He did play shortstop throughout the minors but was never a top-100 prospect due to a lack of power (just 23 home runs in 1336 minor league at-bats).
Brandon Phillips: He was ranked No. 20 pre-2002 and No. 7 pre-2003 while still a shortstop. He moved to second base in his first big league stint with Cleveland in 2003 (Omar Vizquel was still around) and remained there.
Rickie Weeks: The second pick in the 2003 draft, Weeks has always been a bat-first second baseman.
Dan Uggla: Never a top-100 prospect -- in fact, the Marlins got him from the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft when Arizona left him off its 40-man roster after he'd hit .297 with 21 home runs at Double-A. He played some third base earlier in the minors but had more career games at second (and only 18 at shortstop).
Danny Espinosa: The No. 66 prospect pre-2011, Espinosa was a shortstop in the minors.
Howie Kendrick: A second baseman throughout the minors, Kendrick ranked No. 12 pre-2006 after a monster .367 season between Class A and Double-A.
Dustin Ackley: He played outfield and first base in college but the Mariners turned him into a second baseman after drafting him second overall in 2009. Nobody has ever doubted his bat.
Neil Walker: One of the stranger cases, Walker four times ranked in BA's top 100 -- three times as a catcher, once as a third baseman. Had only played 21 games at second base when the Pirates decided to play him there in 2010.
Kelly Johnson: We'll call him a converted a shortstop although he spent his final season in the minors in the outfield.
Jemile Weeks: Like his brother, he's been nothing but a second baseman. Mama Weeks apparently did not bless her sons with great arms.
So here's the final tally:
- Basically second basemen: 7 (Cano, Utley, Weeks times two, Uggla, Kendrick, Ackley).
- Converted shortstops: 5 (Kinsler, Zobrist, Phillips, Espinosa, Johnson). Although Kinsler converted to second in Double-A.
- 2B/SS: 1 (Pedroia).
- Converted 3B: 1 (Walker).
This doesn't mean the prospect lists are wrong -- obviously a guy who only plays second base in the minors has less long-term positional flexibility than a shortstop. Baseball America had 11 shortstops in its top 100; maybe only seven or eight end up sticking at shortstop, but guys like Nick Franklin and Jonathan Schoop could have enough bat to play second or third. This is more to point out that many of the best second basemen in the majors were second basemen in the minors. And that somewhere out there is the next Robinson Cano or Ian Kinsler.
It seems as if not a winter goes by when you won’t wind up reading stories about the shortage of good catching (followed by the arrival of Koyie Hill on your team’s roster), or how landing people who can contribute at shortstop in the major leagues is difficult.
It’s sort of nonsense, because when you get right down to it, the standards for offense at catcher are stronger now than they were when we had just 26 or 28 teams. The amount of offense you can expect from your shortstops relative to league offense is higher now than it was in the glory days of the shortstop trinity of the ’90s, when Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez seemed to redefine offense from a position where Barry Larkin and Cal Ripken had been the standard.
But at the same time, we’re seeing players like Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia rank among the best players in baseball at second base, while Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Kemp might have deserved their leagues’ respective MVP awards for their seasons in center.
First, let’s start with the performance levels from second base, shortstop, catcher and center field, from 1987-2011, using Clay Davenport’s Equivalent Average as our rough year-to-year guide. As noted before, .260 is the single-season baseline for the major leagues.
Center field is strong, but not that strong. Historically, center fielders have always delivered more at the plate than all of the other up-the-middle slots, and also more than third basemen have in the past 25 years, averaging .269 over that time to the .267 teams have gotten from the hot corner.
What’s unusual these days is that center fielders did more good on offense in 2011 than third basemen and left fielders, something fairly rare. The last time anything like that happened was in 1984 -- a year when center fielders led both leagues in homers, Tony Armas winning the AL crown outright with 43 bombs for Boston, while Dale Murphy tied Mike Schmidt with 36 in the NL. But that was also a season when both leagues boasted a half-dozen really good players in center.
However, the standards for excellence in center field were higher, much higher, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and were of course higher in the ’50s, when Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Duke Snider and Larry Doby ruled the middle pasture. In 1954, center field was baseball’s premium offensive position, with a .287 EqA. So, not to knock Kemp or Ellsbury, or Curtis Granderson and Andrew McCutchen, but as good as they are, this isn’t a new golden age for center fielders.
Second base has passed third base. I got into this a bit yesterday, and this might be considered a transient phenomenon, because it has been historically. However, do you really want to bet against Cano, Pedroia and Ian Kinsler? What if Jemile Weeks and Dustin Ackley break out as sophomores? What if Dan Uggla, Kelly Johnson and Aaron Hill all have great bounce-back seasons? What if Rickie Weeks and Chase Utley were healthy all year? But that last point is part of the problem for sustained greatness at the keystone: It’s a physically demanding position, and being a great player for any length of time at second base requires a huge element of skill and a little bit of luck when it comes to staying healthy.
Now, if they all come through, then sure, we could see a multiyear run for second base to wind up as a bigger impact offensive position than third base. But I’ll believe it after we see it.
Who needs the Trinity at short? The offensive standard for short has been higher over the past decade than it ever was at any point since division play started back in 1969. Remember, that’s despite four rounds of expansion.
Looking back, what really made Jeter and A-Rod and Nomar stand out, as Larkin and Trammell or Ripken and Robin Yount had stood out, was that they were pretty much alone. That’s because there were superstars and then there was a lot of reason to love Omar Vizquel or Edgar Renteria, because things got ugly fast. You don’t really want to remember Neifi Perez, do you? Desi Relaford? I’ve probably brought up Rey Ordonez one time too often for polite conversation.
Today, you still have the lamentably necessary guys like Yuniesky Betancourt or Ronny Cedeno, or Alcides Escobar’s on-the-job education in the major leagues, but if these represent the worst, they’re better than the bottom of the heap that existed in the past. The floor has come up, and we still have the true superstars, like Troy Tulowitzki and Jose Reyes. Let’s revel in their time, and also remember the Trinity, Ripken and Larkin as fondly as they deserve.
Catcher’s deep, still. Or, consider this another reason to not pardon the Angels for handicapping themselves with Jeff Mathis all these years, because there’s a difference between respecting a good receiver and ignoring his other responsibilities to playing baseball. (While we’re at it, there’s even less excuse for Drew Butera.)
Admittedly, being able to get Mike Napoli away from that kind of decision making and putting him in Texas is one way to improve matters. But keep in mind, with Victor Martinez moving out from behind the plate while Buster Posey and Joe Mauer missed big chunks of the season, catchers overall did a better job of contributing on offense in 2011 than they had in any year since 1997, so the overall depth behind the plate looks pretty good.
As you’ll notice from the chart, there’s been a lot of zigzagging around in catcher performance; it often drops behind shortstop, but sometimes tops it, and these days the two positions are running in tandem. Folks might still swear by Johnny Bench, but here again, we’ve got a lot of legitimate star-level talent out there; not just Posey and Mauer and Napoli, but also Brian McCann, Alex Avila, Miguel Montero, Carlos Santana and Yadier Molina. Then you can add in the durable catch-and-throw guys from the Jim Sundberg set, useful contributors at the plate and good receivers behind it: Carlos Ruiz, Matt Wieters, Russell Martin, and even Kurt Suzuki.
Put all of that together, and while we haven’t punched up this generation’s reputations with any special mystique, they can let their production be our guide. This may well be the deepest generation of catching talent in the history of the game, and there’s more coming, even with prospects like Wil Myers and Jesus Montero moving out from behind the dish. We still haven’t seen Jarrod Saltalamacchia really bust out. Austin Romine, Wilin Rosario, Derek Norris and Tony Sanchez are all on the way. If you love catching, you should love the present.
Tomorrow, to wrap things up we’ll have some fun talking about who best represents an average player at their respective positions.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.
(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)
1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox
The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians
In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers
Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox
We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.
1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins
Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers
I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox
I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox
Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox
Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.
No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins
Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.
No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals
Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).
No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians
I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.
No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins
Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.
No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins
Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.
1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins
Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.
1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros
If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.
4. White Sox
I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.
The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points
No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.
Who will win? Nobody knows. Despite a storyline that seemed to focus on him, will a historical bias against pitchers hurt Verlander? There is also a strong historical bias in favor of players on playoff teams, which will help Verlander and Granderson, but work against Ellsbury and Bautista. Will Ellsbury lose some votes to teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, who also had strong seasons? Here’s how the SweetSpot bloggers voted (14 points for first, nine for second, eight for third, etc.)
Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: 296 points (15 first-place votes)
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: 256 points (8)
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: 177 points
Justin Verlander, Tigers: 131 points (1)
Curtis Granderson, Yankees: 114 points (1)
Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox: 44 points
Ian Kinsler, Rangers: 26 points
Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox: 23 points
Alex Gordon, Royals: 12 points
Evan Longoria, Rays: 8 points
CC Sabathia: 7 points
Michael Young, Rangers: 6 points
* * * *
Let’s do the center fielders first, since that’s the easiest comparison. Granderson starts with an advantage of nine more home runs (41 to 32), five more triples (10 to 5), three more hit-by-pitches (12 to 9) and 33 more walks (85 to 52). That’s 87 more bases. But Ellsbury had 20 more doubles (46 to 26), 53 more singles (129 to 76) and four fewer double plays hit into (12 to 8). That’s plus-97 bases for Ellsbury. Ellsbury stole 39 bases (caught stealing 15 times) and Granderson stole 25 bases (10 caught stealing), a minor edge for Ellsbury. Granderson used up 463 outs, Ellsbury 479. Run it through the mixer and Baseball-Reference.com estimates that Ellsbury created 139 runs, or 7.8 runs per 27 outs; Granderson created 121 runs, or 7.0 runs per 27 outs. Granderson played in a slightly higher run-scoring environment.
Some more numbers: Ellsbury hit .366/.420/.691 with runners in scoring position, Granderson hit .242/.303/.516. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Ellsbury hit .400, Granderson hit .208. When the score was tied, Ellsbury had a .900 OPS, Granderson .820. No matter how you slice things, I can’t come up with a way that proves Granderson had the better year at the plate. And the deeper you dig, the more you uncover that Ellsbury played his best in clutch situations and close games. Yankees fans may accuse me of bias or being a Red Sox fan, but such is not that case. Ellsbury was the more productive offensive player.
Then you get to the defense. By all accounts, Ellsbury played a better center field in 2011. I’m not sure he deserved his Gold Glove (Austin Jackson and Peter Bourjos were superb), but the defensive metrics also say he was far superior to Granderson.
Look, both were dynamic players, power-speed combinations at an important defensive position. But I think it’s clear that Ellsbury had the superior season. The one caveat in regard to MVP voting, of course, is that Granderson’s team made the playoffs and Ellsbury’s did not. But don’t blame Ellsbury for Boston’s collapse -- he hit .358 with eight home runs in September. But some voters will hold the collapse against him; to me, it's failed logic to say that Ellsbury is less of an MVP candidate because Jonathan Papelbon couldn’t close out a lead on the final night of the season and Dan Johnson hit a home run off Cory Wade.
* * * *
OK, Ellsbury versus Jose Bautista is a little tougher. Bautista starts off with 11 more home runs (43 to 32) and 80 more walks (132 to 52). He had an awesome year at the plate. But Ellsbury had three more triples (5 to 2), 22 more doubles (46 to 24), 43 more singles (129 to 86), three more hit-by-pitches (9 to 6). Both players grounded into eight double plays. Bautista had 25 more bases, although Ellsbury closes that gap with a 39-to-9 edge in stolen bases. The big difference is Ellsbury used up 479 outs and Bautista 375. Run it through the mixer and Baseball-Reference estimates that Bautista created 149 runs, or 10.7 per 27 outs; Ellsbury created 139 runs, or 7.8 per 27 outs. Both guys played in similar run-scoring environments. Given Ellsbury’s production over the same number of outs as Bautista had, he would have created 108 runs, 41 fewer than Bautista.
But Ellsbury did have the advantage of playing nine more games and, since he hit leadoff, receiving more plate appearances (and thus more chances to affect the game). And then we have to factor in defense: Ellsbury is a good center fielder (+6 runs better than average according to Defensive Runs Saved, +15.6 runs by Ultimate Zone Rating), while Bautista rates as a below-average right fielder in both systems (-1 and -8.6), although he did rate well at third base in his limited time there (+6 and +3.8).
If you remember, Bautista was on fire early on, hitting .363 with 20 home runs through May. He slowed down after that, hitting .257 with 12 home runs in 65 games after the All-Star break. His walk rate actually remained consistent throughout the year, so it doesn’t appear that he started chasing pitches, but maybe frustration did set in from not getting a lot of pitches to hit. And for those who think he was part of the sign-stealing allegations that came out, his home/road splits were actually nearly identical: 1.063 OPS at home, 1.047 on the road. Breaking down some of Bautista’s other numbers, one jumps out at me: He hit .307/.523/.760 in “close and late” situations.
It was an impressive season, MVP-worthy.
If you go by WAR (Wins Above Replacement), it’s essentially a dead heat: If we average FanGraphs WAR and Baseball-Reference WAR, Bautista is at 8.4, Ellsbury 8.3.
But I give the edge to Ellsbury. The season-long excellence matters, but so does his combination of playing center field, hitting leadoff and putting up awesome numbers at the plate. He created runs and prevented runs, while playing an important up-the-middle position. If you watched the Red Sox regularly, he was clearly the best player on the team, the dynamo at the top of the order.
* * * *
Obviously, I’m more of a numbers guy. But even I admit: Sometimes we get too caught up in the numbers. In 10 years, in 25 years, when we think of the 2011 season, what will we remember most other than the dramatic World Series and the greatest final day in baseball history? I think we’ll remember Verlander, the year he turned from flamethrower to pitcher, the year he made The Leap, when we began thinking of him as a guy with Hall of Fame potential, a pitcher who could win 300 games and join that inner circle of greatness. Now, maybe all that won’t happen, but that doesn’t mean the 2011 regular season didn’t belong to Justin Verlander. I think if you ask managers and general managers around baseball if they could have one player from the 2011 season, the majority would say Verlander.
Which is why, I admit, I’m conflicted to say that I think Jacoby Ellsbury deserves the 2011 American League MVP Award.
My unofficial ballot:
7. Robinson Cano
9. Alex Avila