SweetSpot: Jacoby Ellsbury

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
12/29/13
9:30
AM ET
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.


AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).
How will Jacoby Ellsbury do with the Yankees in 2014? Let's play a little over/under with odds from Bovada.lv.

SportsNation

Over or under on Jacoby Ellsbury hitting .299?

  •  
    43%
  •  
    57%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,884)

Batting average: .299

Ellsbury hit .298 in 2013 and is a career .297 hitter. He hit .300 on the road, .296 in Fenway in 2013, and is career .288 on the road, .308 at home.

One thing that could come into play is the number of left-handed starters the Yankees see. Ellsbury hit .246 against lefties in 2013. The Yankees struggled against left-handed pitching in 2013 and teams don't like to start righties at Yankee Stadium, but the Yankees actually only faced one more lefty starter than the Red Sox (55 versus 54). The over/under seems about right. I'll go with the under, however.


SportsNation

Over or under on Jacoby Ellsbury hitting 15 1/2 home runs?

  •  
    53%
  •  
    47%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,459)

Home runs: 15 1/2

In the four full seasons that Ellsbury has played he's hit 9, 8, 32 and 9 home runs. The question isn't really whether he'll reach 30 home runs again -- that seems like a clear aberration -- but how much moving to Yankee Stadium with its short right-field porch will help his power game.

Here's an overlay of Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. Ellsbury did pull all nine of his home runs in 2013; but he didn't really pull the ball that often. Most of his fly balls went to left field and center field and looking at his hit chart I see maybe four fly balls that may have cleared the fences at Yankee Stadium. So unless he alters his approach a bit, which is possible, I'd probably take the under.


SportsNation

Over or under on Jacoby Ellsbury stealing 39 1/2 bases?

  •  
    73%
  •  
    27%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,210)

Stolen bases: 39 1/2

Ellsbury had one of the great stolen base seasons in history percentage-wise in 2013, becoming just the fifth player to steal at least 50 bases while getting caught five or fewer times.

He stole 52 bases while playing 134 games and has swiped as many as 70, although that came in 2009. Where he hits in the order could factor into how often he steals. I would assume he'd hit leadoff with Derek Jeter batting second, although you could argue that, at least against right-handers, Joe Girardi should hit Brett Gardner and Ellsbury 1-2 with Jeter sliding down.

Still, I'll take the over.


SportsNation

Over or under on Jacoby Ellsbury playing 129 1/2 games?

  •  
    52%
  •  
    48%

Discuss (Total votes: 9,190)

Games played: 129 1/2

Even when he was relatively healthy last season, Ellsbury played in just 134 games. He played in 74 in 2012 and missed nearly all of 2010.

This is the big wild card, of course. The Yankees are betting on good health. I will, too, at least in the first season. I'll take the over.
The Yankees are back, as glorious and evil as ever! What writers are writing about the Yanks signing Jacoby Ellsbury away from the Red Sox:

Ian O'Connor, ESPN New York:
So the Yankees made two monster deals, with more to come, after scaring their fan base to death with so much talk about payroll restraint this offseason. "People forgot," the source said, "that $189 million would be the second-highest payroll in baseball."

It's good to be a Yankees fan, even in bad times. They missed the playoffs last year for only the second time since the players' strike of 1994, and attendance and TV ratings took a significant hit when A-Rod and Derek Jeter were nowhere to be found. Worse yet, the Red Sox won it all for the third time since they humiliated their blood rivals with their deferred sweep in the 2004 American League Championship Series, putting the parade count at 3-1 in favor of Boston since that historic series.

The Yankees responded the only way they know how: the Steinbrenner way. With George gone, son Hal had to show he has some of the old man's fire in his own belly.

Ken Davidoff, New York Post:
Could one brain-melting deal beget another?

Or to put it another way: Many baseball folks began November thinking Robinson Cano would remain a Yankee and Jacoby Ellsbury would wind up a Mariner. Did some wires cross somewhere over the mainland?

For with Ellsbury set to arrive in New York on Wednesday for his physical, after essentially agreeing to bolt the Red Sox for a stunning, seven-year, $153-million contract with the Yankees, Cano departing The Bronx for the Pacific Northwest seems like more of a possibility than it did 24 hours ago.

After all, if there’s one subject on which we’re most certain the Yankees aren't bluffing, it’s that they intend to get their 2014 payroll under $189 million. And with Ellsbury set to draw such a huge paycheck and the Yankees still in need of two starting pitchers, their threat to stick at seven years and $170-ish million for Cano seems more legitimate.

Gordon Edes, ESPN Boston:
The Red Sox, according to sources close to negotiations, were willing to offer Ellsbury a six-year deal, with the dollars somewhere in the vicinity of $120 million. At one point in talks, they proposed a five-year, $100 million package.

Both proposals fell well short of what Ellsbury took from the Yankees, a deal reportedly worth seven years and $153 million that could expand to $169 million with a vesting eighth year. But the Sox are adamant they learned their lesson with Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and are adhering to limits, both in dollars and years.

They have known for some time that the market for Ellsbury would spin beyond where they would be willing to go and were prepared to face the consequences. They just wish those consequences had landed somewhere other than just 200 miles south, where the Yankees, in addition to adding Ellsbury, have a new catcher in Brian McCann ($85 million guaranteed) and still have designs on bringing back second baseman Robinson Cano and pitcher Hiroki Kuroda. Somehow, they're supposed to fit that all under the $189 million luxury tax threshold? On Yawkey Way, skeptics wait to see what kind of alchemy can pull that off.


Joe Sheehan, from his newsletter:
(B)ut the conclusions are consistent with what we've observed: the best players in baseball used to hit free agency in their primes more frequently than they do today. ...

You see the effects of modern front office strategies beginning with the 1981 cohort. Of that year's best players, only Carl Crawford was ever a free agent in his prime. Players like Curtis Granderson, Ben Zobrist and Carlos Zambrano were signed to long-term deals before they hit the market. For '82, you have only Robinson Cano. David Wright, Ian Kinsler, Adrian Gonzalez and Jered Weaver have never been free agents, nor will in their primes. None of the best players born in 1983 -- a monster group that includes Braun, Miguel Cabrera, Joe Mauer and Justin Verlander -- will be prime free agents. The top 1984 babies -- Ryan Zimmermann, Troy Tulowitzki and Jon Lester -- have all been locked up.

Let's run at this from one last direction. Eighty-three players have been worth at least 15 wins from 2009-13, inclusive. Of those, just 22 had reached free agency in their prime, with another 11 -- including Kershaw, Heyward, Trout, Max Scherzer and others -- possibly doing so in the next few years. That's about four to five players a season, and many of those aren't superstars. Raise the bar to 20 bWAR, and you get 33 players, just nine of whom were prime free agents, plus two (Kershaw and Trout) who might be. You can't build a team this way any longer -- you don't have access to the raw materials. (I'll reiterate my point about the 2013 Red Sox: their success was much, much more about the holdovers than the imports.)

Dave Cameron, FanGraphs:

Carl Crawford's production is not Jacoby Ellsbury's fait accompli; it’s one possible path of many. Every player's future is a probability distribution, bottoming out at completely and utterly useless. Every single player could turn into a total dud tomorrow. And every single player could actually play better in the future than they have in the past. There is no single example that represents the expected outcome for any other player, no matter how similar they might appear to be.

So, we have two options. We can either throw our hands in the air and say "who knows what the future will bring, sign anyone for whatever you want and hope for the best" or we can try to make educated guesses based on reasonable assumptions and decent amounts of data. Those decent amounts of data suggest that players like Ellsbury age well, even if Carl Crawford did not. That data does not support the idea that speed-and-defense players fall apart after they turn 30. If anything, the data suggests just the opposite, and says that big boned first basemen are the ones you should be really afraid of.


Michael Eder of It's About the Money takes a detailed look at the Yankees' budget and the likelihood the club will remain under the $189 million luxury tax threshold:
Current Budget Owed: $151.964MM

Current Budget Remaining: $37.036MM

So the Yankees still have $37 million left to figure out second base, third base, and the rest of their pitching staff. This obviously doesn't include Rodriguez. I don't think $189 million is happening.

Ben Lindbergh, Baseball Prospectus:
When the Ellsbury contract is over, it’s not going to look good, dollars-per-win-wise. Let’s just note that up front, accept it, and move on, because you can bet than Brian Cashman already has.

When we rank general managers by how well they've deployed their dollars, the Yankees' GM consistently ranks near the bottom. But even if Cashman cares that his "Payroll Efficiency Rating" places him alongside front-office failures like Bill Bavasi and Steve Phillips, the sight of his five World Series rings (four earned as GM) probably eases the sting. For all we know, he daydreams about giving it all up for a team with an eight-figure payroll and making shrewd moves that people write books about, but he likes life as a Yankee enough to have suckled at the Steinbrenner teat for close to 30 years. In New York, there's no need to, say, sign a 38-year-old Jose Molina to catch because he offers the best bang for the buck, or to trade for Craig Gentry because he's more valuable than his traditional stats would suggest, and perhaps could even start someday. Cashman knows these things, but he doesn't have to settle for players with warts. He can throw money at the players who do all the positive things the ones with warts do, but also have perfect complexions.

Peter Gammons, Gammons Daily:

Now, again, the Yankees stayed home and watched the Red Sox somehow beat the Tigers, then overcome the Cardinals and win their third World Series in a decade. They won 85 games, the fewest they'd won in a full season since 1992, or since George Herbert Walker Bush was president. All the while, they were in the news for every plot shift in NCIS ARod, and, $189M luxury tax threshold or no threshold, they realized this is not what the greatest franchise in sports is about, not when you are a Steinbrenner, not when your $2500 a seat fans and TV audience are used to something better than Jayson Nix, Luis Cruz and Chris Nelson.

Cubs should sign Jacoby Ellsbury

November, 27, 2013
11/27/13
9:05
AM ET
This is what Chicago Cubs fans can dream on, circa 2016:

CF Jacoby Ellsbury
LF Albert Almora
SS Javier Baez
3B Kris Bryant
1B Anthony Rizzo
RF Jorge Soler
2B Starlin Castro
C Welington Castillo

Whoa. Back up there. Jacoby Ellsbury?

Yes, Jacoby Ellsbury. Are the Cubs going to contend in 2014? No. Should they still sign Ellsbury? Yes.

Here's why.

1. The Cubs' long-term commitments are fairly minimal, with only Rizzo, Soler, Castro, Edwin Jackson and Ryan Sweeney signed beyond 2014, and generally at pretty team-friendly terms. The Cubs have $31 million committed in 2015 and 2016, $21 million in 2017, $23 million in 2018 and $28 million in 2019. So they've done a good job of locking up their core young players. Yes, Castro has regressed and Rizzo didn't have the breakout season many expected, but at their salaries, they don't have to become stars, just solid major league regulars.

2. The free-agent market is even thinner next season. As an executive told Jayson Stark in last week's Rumblings & Grumblings, "There are some decent arms. But there's a chance there's going to be absolutely nothing out there on the hitter's market." As Jayson pointed out, the top position players based on Wins Above Replacement from 2013 would be Hanley Ramirez, Colby Rasmus, David Ortiz, Russell Martin, Chris Denorfia and Brett Gardner -- not exactly a mouthwatering group, and Ramirez and Ortiz may not even get to free agency.

So the time to pounce on a big-ticket free agent is this year, even though the Cubs won't be challenging the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds for NL Central supremacy. Think of it as a situation similar to when the Nationals signed Jayson Werth before the 2011 season: They weren't looking to compete in 2011 but saw a time in the near future when Werth could still help them. And Ellsbury is two years younger than Werth was when Washington signed him.

3. Ellsbury would give the Cubs exactly what they need -- a table-setter for the top of the lineup and a good defensive outfielder. Baez and Bryant are the best of the talented group of Cubs prospects, but neither is considered a plus defender. If they develop as hoped, they'll anchor the middle of the order along with Rizzo. Almora projects as a high-average, good on-base guy; sounds like a nice No. 2 hitter. That leaves Ellsbury leading off. Ellsbury and Almora, who is considered a plus defender in center, would give the Cubs two good outfielders (and Soler should be solid-average in right field with a strong arm) to help balance out the potential defensive shortcomings of Baez and Bryant.

Of course, there's no guarantee all of those prospects will make it, but that simply reinforces the need to sign a player like Ellsbury. Factor this in as well: This is a pretty good year to be bidding on free agents, especially outfielders, when considering the other big-market clubs. Sure, the Yankees are likely to spend some money somewhere, but the Red Sox may be willing to hand center field over to Jackie Bradley Jr., the Dodgers are looking to subtract an outfielder, not add one, the Phillies seem tapped out, the Cardinals are locked in with outfielders, as are the Braves and Nationals, and the Angels are paying big bucks to Josh Hamilton and saving up for Mike Trout. That doesn't mean it won't cost $100 million to sign Ellsbury, but it is fewer suitors for his services than you would see in other seasons.

4. Most importantly, Ellsbury is a good player. He's not without risk considering his injury history, but don't buy into the idea that speed players don't age well. On ESPN Insider last week, Dave Cameron compared Ellsbury to other similar, speed-based players. He wrote:
Overall, these nine players maintained an average of 70 percent of their ages 27-29 WAR/600 rates. If you apply that 70 percent rate to Ellsbury's 5.8 WAR/600 from his past three seasons, he'd forecast as a 4.0-WAR-per-600-PA player over the next seven years.

That makes Ellsbury seem like a relatively safe investment.

The rebuilding of the Cubs has produced one of the most talented farm systems in the majors. Now it's time to start adding some quality major league talent as well.

Jacoby Ellsbury versus Carl Crawford

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
11:45
AM ET
Came across this quote this morning, from Scott Boras, agent for Jacoby Ellsbury, back in September to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports:

"Two things separate Ellsbury [from Crawford]. Carl Crawford was never proven as a leadoff hitter, and Carl Crawford is not a center fielder. They are two different animals. It's not a consideration because he's a corner outfielder. Just think if Carl Crawford could play center field."


Now, Boras isn't lying here; he's not really even stretching the truth. Crawford primarily hit second for the Tampa Bay Rays before he became a free agent and he played left field, not center field. Ellsbury hits leadoff and plays center field.

The thing I love about Boras, however, is that he's the ultimate car salesman who thinks all his clients care about is the paint color. Baseball teams are smart enough to check under the hood, however. Check out another quote from the piece, when he says Ellsbury's ceilings of 30 home runs and 70 steals are "unheard of."

Well ... close. Ellsbury has hit 32 home runs (in 2011) and stolen 70 bases (in 2009), so he's right about that. But Ellsbury is not the only player to do so, so it's not unheard of; Tommy Harper and Eric Davis also did it. (Rickey Henderson and Juan Samuel came close, topping out at 28 home runs.) Still, it's a short list.

Essentially, Boras is trying to spin that his client is more Rickey than Samuel and definitely not Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox in 2011.

Of course, Ellsbury has stolen 70 bases just the one time, his second-highest total being the 52 he swiped in 2013. Of course, Ellsbury has never hit more than nine home runs in any other season. Of course he's not Carl Crawford. He won't be a $142 million free-agent bust.

On the other hand we have this, Ellsbury versus Crawford in their final three seasons before free agency:

Ellsbury, 2011-2013: .303/.356/.469, 15 HR, 35 SB, 4.9 WAR
Crawford, 2008-2010: .297/.349/.454, 14 HR, 44 2B, 4.8 WAR

Crawford was a year younger when he hit free agency but it's hard to find two more closely matched players than that -- no, they don't play the same position, but they are exactly same kind of player: Speed, a little power, good defensive players, don't walk a whole lot. Ellsbury's totals are bolstered by his 2011 season, although dragged down by his injury-marred 2012 season (on top of an injury-marred 2010).

Boras can try to spin Ellsbury any way he wants but Ellsbury is Crawford, with all the same risks of signing a 30-year-old player whose value rests to a large degree on his legs. Crawford has been worth an average of 0.8 WAR per season since he signed with the Red Sox and subsequently traded to the Dodgers. He's battled injuries, including Tommy John surgery, and hasn't been the same player, as he's stopped running and his defense, so good with Tampa, has noticeably slipped.

That doesn't mean the same thing will happen to Ellsbury. But Boras' argument is apparently that if Crawford received $142 million then Ellsbury deserves more.

Maybe Ellsbury will get that kind of contract; I don't think he will, but teams are flush in cash with about $25 million in new national TV money getting added to the books in 2014. One thing does seem likely, however: That the Red Sox, with the Crawford experience fresh in their minds, will let Ellsbury leave. And as a friend wrote me, that could mean that if Ellsbury goes West (to, say, Seattle), like Freddie Lynn he'll disappear into the sunset.


Earlier, I wrote a glass half-full or half-empty on Jacoby Ellsbury's free agency. Here, Eric and I discuss whether he's worth a $100 million price tag.


For teams looking to sign Jacoby Ellsbury to a long-term contract -- and Buster Olney suggests that it will be at least a $100 million long-term contract -- the risks are obvious: Ellsbury played just 74 games in 2012 and 18 games in 2010. Between those two injury-plagued seasons, however, he had an MVP-caliber year in 2011, powered by a career-high 32 home runs, and an excellent 2013 season, ranking 11th among American League position players with 5.8 wins above replacement.

Ellsbury turned 30 in September, and his 2013 season seems a pretty good match for his ability: He hit .298/.355/.426 compared to career averages of .297/.350/.426. With the Red Sox possibly set on giving the center-field job in 2014 to Jackie Bradley Jr., Ellsbury is one of the most attractive free agents this offseason.

Let’s look at the glass-half-full and glass-half-empty scenarios for Ellsbury’s future.

Half-full

The positive outlook is that when relatively healthy, as he was in 2011 and 2013, Ellsbury has been one of the best players in the league. Even dismissing his power surge in 2011 as a fluke, he maintained a high level of value in 2013 thanks to solid on-base skills, moderate power (48 extra-base hits) and the dimensions his speed brings: defense and baserunning. He stole 52 of 56 bases, leading the AL in steals, and ranked second overall in the majors to Elvis Andrus in overall baserunning value (plus-9 runs). Defensively, he ranked fourth in the majors among center fielders in defensive runs saved with 13.

Historically, speed players age well. Even if Ellsbury loses a step over the next five years, he’ll be an above-average baserunner. Think of a guy like Ichiro Suzuki, who was able to hold on to a regular job at age 39. Because of his speed, Ellsbury should continue to be an above-average center fielder for at least a few more years; again, if he loses a little speed, he should be fast enough to hold down center field through age 34.

That’s an important consideration, because not many players can play regularly in center field past their early 30s. In the past 10 seasons, for example, just 14 players played 100-plus games in center field at age 33 or older, and at least a few of those should not have been out there (Ken Griffey Jr., Bernie Williams). Torii Hunter moved to right field during his age-34 season. Carlos Beltran moved to right field at 34. But Ellsbury is faster than any of those players were.

The other thing to like about Ellsbury is that he’s not a big strikeout guy, whiffing 92 times in 636 plate appearances in 2013, or 14.5 percent of the time. That’s not necessarily impressive -- it ranked 43rd among 140 regulars -- but it’s not excessive. That puts Ellsbury in a different light from another speedster like Michael Bourn, who fanned in 22 percent of his PAs in 2012. He hit the free-agent market at the same age as Ellsbury and eventually signed with Cleveland; his wOBA fell from .326 to .300. As a higher-strikeout guy, there’s less margin for error for a player like Bourn.

A glass-half-full comp would be a speed player with moderate power, a guy like Kenny Lofton who averaged 4.4 WAR per season from ages 30 to 34. From a cost-per-win value, if we estimate that one win on the free agent goes for about $5.5 million -- as many sabermetricians do -- that means 21 wins would be worth about $115 million, making that five-year, $100 million contract a pretty reasonable estimate for Ellsbury.

Half-empty

Aside from the obvious injury, the half-empty approach looks something like this. Here are the 10 players over the past 25 years who accumulated the most WAR from ages 30 to 34 while playing at least 75 percent of their games in center field:

Jim Edmonds, 2000-2004: 31.8
Kenny Lofton, 1997-2001: 21.6
Bernie Williams, 1999-2003: 21.4
Torii Hunter, 2006-2010: 18.8
Mike Cameron, 2003-2007: 15.6
Devon White, 1993-1997: 14.3
Lance Johnson, 1994-1998: 14.2
Steve Finley, 1995-1999: 13.6
Dave Henderson, 1989-1993: 13.2

It’s not a bad list, although Edmonds certainly wasn’t a similar player to Ellsbury and Williams was a far superior offensive player. Guys like Cameron and White were elite center fielders who still maintained a lot of defensive value as they aged; Ellsbury is good, but probably not considered in their class. Overall, however, it’s not exactly a list makes you scream $100 million player.

The point: Although Lofton is a nice comparison, the odds are that Ellsbury won’t accumulate that kind of value over the next five years. More likely, we’re looking at a Lance Johnson kind of curve: good player, but not a great one.

Another comparison: Marquis Grissom. He was a very good player in his 20s, averaging 4.3 WAR from age 25 to 29 (which included two strike-shortened seasons). Like Ellsbury, he played a good center field (four Gold Gloves) and could run (as many as 78 steals). Also like Ellsbury, he didn’t walk a whole lot. But at age 30, his speed appeared to vanish. His defense declined, he didn’t run as much, and his batting average and OBP plummeted. From ages 30 to 34 he was worth 1.1 WAR -- total. He was traded three times.

SportsNation

How do you view Jacoby Ellsbury?

  •  
    53%
  •  
    47%

Discuss (Total votes: 8,501)

Because Ellsbury relies on batting average to generate his above-average on-base percentage, if he becomes a .270 hitter instead of a .297 hitter, his OBP will drop accordingly and his value will decline.

There are other risk factors as well. Ellsbury has always had a potent lineup behind him. How much as that helped him? He’s hit 20 points higher at Fenway in his career (.308 to .288). And even in 2013 he missed 28 games, so durability remains a big issue.

What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?

No surprises in qualifying offers

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
8:09
PM ET
Thirteen free agents received one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers from their previous team, meaning those players will have now a choice: See what the market bears or return to their team for that one-year offer (or negotiate a new contract with that club).

Those 13 players:

Stephen Drew, Red Sox
Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
Mike Napoli, Red Sox
Robinson Cano, Yankees
Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda, Yankees
Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
Ervin Santana, Royals
Nelson Cruz, Rangers
Kendrys Morales, Mariners
Brian McCann, Braves
Carlos Beltran, Cardinals
Shin-Soo Choo, Reds


These players are now tied to first-round compensation picks if the team that signs them doesn't own one of the top 10 picks (Astros, Marlins, White Sox, Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Phillies, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mets). Those 10 teams would have to sacrifice a second-round pick for signing one of those 13 guys.

In the case of a highly sought free agent suc as Cano, Ellsbury or Choo, this will likely have little effect on contract offers they receive. However, for several of the players on the list this could drastically reduce their demand. We saw this happen last year with several players, most notably Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn (who both ended up signing with Cleveland, which owned a protected top-10 pick), Kyle Lohse (who didn't sign with the Brewers until spring training was under way), and Adam LaRoche (who declined the Nationals' $13.3 million qualifying offer before eventually returning to Washington on a two-year, $24 million deal).

For example, considering Beltran's age, he was probably looking at a two-year contract. Would a contending team be willing to give up a first-round pick for two seasons of him? Perhaps. With Cruz coming off his PED suspension and given that he'll turn 34 next July, he's another guy who will now see limited demand. In both cases, it wouldn't surprise me if it pushes both players back to their original team, unless one of the bottom 10 teams come calling in hot pursuit (such as the Phillies). Coming off an injury, Curtis Granderson also could be headed back to the Yankees.

For Morales, this almost guarantees he returns to Seattle. The market for designated hitters has been slow in recent seasons and it's unlikely any team will give him $14.1 million, even on a one-year deal, and certainly not at the cost of a first-round pick. He'll probably go back to Seattle, maybe negotiating a deal similar to what LaRoche signed with the Nationals last year.

The most interesting guy could be Drew. He was a free agent a year ago and signed a one-year deal with Boston that paid him $9.5 million. After missing time in 2011 and 2012 with injuries, he had his best season at the plate since 2010. Considering he's the only top shortstop on the market, interest in him was expected to be high. But if you're, say, the Cardinals and wishing to replace Pete Kozma, do you want to give Drew a multi-year contract for tens of millions and lose that first-round pick? That's a tougher call.
World Series history is filled with dramatic Game 6 contests -- 2011 (Cardinals-Rangers), 2002 (Angels rally), 1993 (Joe Carter), 1992 (Jays clinch in extra innings), 1991 (Kirby Puckett), 1986 (Bill Buckner), 1975 (Carlton Fisk)... just to name a few.

We didn't get a classic Game 6 this time. Instead, we saw a lot of fear of David Ortiz, we saw Michael Wacha's October run end in sadness, we saw Red Sox fans celebrating a World Series clincher at home for the first time since 1918. Which is a cool way to end the baseball season.

Hero: Shane Victorino had missed the previous two games with lower back tightness, but returned wearing patriotic cleats and delivered the big hit of the game. With the bases loaded and two outs in the third inning, he drilled a 2-1 fastball from Wacha high off the Green Monster in left-center for a bases-clearing double as Jonny Gomes just barely beat the throw home for the third run. In the fourth, he singled home another run with two outs for a 6-0 lead.

Back to that double. It was set up by a few things. In order:

1. Ortiz's first-inning plate appearance, in which he worked a nine-pitch walk, fouling off three pitches before finally taking a curveball below the knees.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury's leadoff single in the third and Dustin Pedroia's broken-bat ground out to third base that moved Ellsbury to second. Think of the little things that can turn a baseball game: What if Pedroia doesn't break his bat and instead grounds into a 5-4 force play? That means first base would have been occupied. Instead, there was a runner on second and one out.

3. The intentional walk to Ortiz. "We are going to be careful," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said before the game about pitching to the scorching hot Ortiz. "We haven't made it any big secret, and sometimes when we're doing that, it doesn't even work out how we're playing it. It's a situation where you have a hitter that we know and everybody sees, he's swinging the bat very well."

Sabermetricians are not big fans of the intentional walk, mostly because extra baserunners can lead to big innings. Matheny isn't usually a fan of the intentional walk -- the Cardinals ranked next-to-last in the National League in free passes handed out. But he decided to give the Red Sox a free baserunner; the Cardinals would pay the price.

My take: I'm not a fan of the intentional. Yes, Ortiz was hot. And I'm sure that first-inning walk influenced Matheny's decision. At that point, Ortiz had swung and missed at only three pitches the entire Series. But just because he was hitting .750 in the Series doesn't mean he's a .750 hitter. And if you walk him? Well, then he's a 1.000 on-base guy. The move is even riskier with just one out instead of two. As far as intentional walks go, it was certainly understandable as to why it was done. Don't let Ortiz beat us. But it also reminded me of Ron Washington walking Albert Pujols in the bottom of the 10th inning in Game 6 of 2011 to pitch to Lance Berkman (who would knock in the game-tying run). When you intentional walk a batter in those situations you're assuming the next batter (or batters) are going to hit .000.

4. Hitting Gomes. Wacha struck out Mike Napoli with a 94-mph fastball that looked down the middle. At that point, Matheny's move looked like it would work out. Batters were 0-for-14 against Wacha in the postseason with runners in scoring position, wtih six strikeouts. He just needed to get Gomes. Instead, he hit him.

That brought up Victorino. He fell behind with a curveball inside and fastball below the knees. Victorino took a fastball on the corner but was still sitting 2-1 fastball and got one. Wacha had only thrown five changeups at that point (he got Pedroia on one) and you can certain second-guess going to another fastball there. But again: Bases loaded, can't walk somebody. Victorino cleared the bases, but the intentional walk helped set up the inning.

Goat: Cardinals offense. Look, for all the talk about whether or not to pitch to Ortiz, it wasn't Ortiz who had beat the Cardinals through the first games so much as the Boston pitching (Jon Lester in particular). But the Cardinals scored just 14 runs in six games, hitting .224. They did have nine hits in Game 6, but just one was an extra-base hit (they had just 10 in the entire Series) and Matt Holliday's two home runs (one hit while down 8-0 in Game 1) were the only two the Cardinals hit. The bats simply didn't produce with Matt Adams hitting .136, David Freese .158 and Jon Jay .167.

Big Papi redux: In the fourth inning Stephen Drew led off with a home run and Ellsbury doubled with one out. After Pedroia flew out, Matheny again elected to give Ortiz a free base. He again paid the price for not wanting Ortiz to beat his team. Down 4-0, the game and season on the line, he went to ... Game 4 starter Lance Lynn to face Napoli. Not Carlos Martinez. Not Seth Maness. Not John Axford. Certainly not Trevor Rosenthal (he's the closer!) or Shelby Miller (he was left on the runway in St. Louis). Again, I'm not sure Lynn was any worse of an option than Martinez, Maness or Axford, but it was a bit curious. Lynn faced three batters, gave up two hits and a walk and it was 6-0.

As Keith Law tweeted about yet another intentional walk, "It's almost like putting a hitter on base deliberately, refusing him the chance to make an out on his own, is a bad idea."

Lackey in control: John Lackey wasn't dominant but spaced his hits and worked out of a couple jams, most notably in the second inning when Allen Craig and Yadier Molina led off with hard singles. He retired Adams on another hard liner to deep left, got Freese to fly out to right on a 3-2 curve and then struck out Jay on another curve. Red Sox fans can look back at those two curves as the two big pitches Lackey would make. After that, he seemed to right himself, kept the ball, threw first-pitch strikes and became the first pitcher to start and win clinching games for two different teams (he started Game 7 for the Angels as a rookie in 2002).

Going out in style: Ellsbury is a free agent and with Jackie Bradley Jr. on the horizon, speculation is Ellsbury signs with another team. If it was his final game in a Red Sox uniform, what a game: He went 2-for-4 with a walk, starting both Red Sox rallies. Ellsbury was a late-season add back in 2007, hit .353 in 33 games to earn a starting spot by the postseason and then hit .438 in the World Series. He's had his ups and downs in his Boston career, but he makes the offense go from the leadoff spot and scored 14 runs in 16 postseason games.

Splitting hairs: And the final pitch: A Koji Uehara splitter that Matt Carpenter swung on and missed, the pitch diving off the plate something wicked. The single best pitch in baseball this season was the final one of the season. The guy without the beard let the beards begin the celebration.

The best team won: The best team doesn't always win. But the Red Sox were the best team in the regular season, tying for the most wins in the majors while playing in easily the toughest division. They were best team in the playoffs, beating a good Tampa Bay club, that lethal Detroit pitching staff, and a St. Louis team that was better than its 2006 and 2011 World Series winners. Congrats to the Red Sox.

It was a pitchers' duel in Game 5 of the World Series until the maligned bottom of the Boston Red Sox order came through late in the game. The Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1, and the World Series returns to Fenway, where the Red Sox have a chance to clinch on their home field for the first time since 1918.

Hero: Jon Lester was brilliant again, with 7.2 innings of dominant baseball, blemished only by Matt Holliday's home run in the fourth inning off a 1-0 fastball. Most importantly, Lester threw an efficient 91 pitches and pitched deep enough to hand the ball directly to Koji Uehara. With Craig Breslow struggling to throw strikes in Game 4, John Farrell probably didn't have a lot of confidence in him. And with Felix Doubront probably unavailable after throwing 57 pitches the previous two games, the Boston bullpen wasn't comfortable going beyond Uehara and Junichi Tazawa.

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
David Durochik/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright pitched better than he did in Game 1, but it wasn't good enough against Jon Lester and the Red Sox once again.
Goat: Adam Wainwright's curveball. We all know his curveball is a thing of beauty to see and a terror for batters, who hit .171 against it in the regular season. In the postseason entering Game 5, batters were 8-for-43 (.186) with one double, two walks and 17 strikeouts against it. They know the curveball is coming and still have trouble hitting it. But his go-to pitch failed him on three occasions. In the first inning, he hung an 0-2 curve to Dustin Pedroia, who doubled and scored on David Ortiz's double. In the fateful seventh inning, he got ahead of Stephen Drew -- 4-for-49 in the postseason at that point -- but then three straight curveballs went wide of the plate. That brought up David Ross, who hooked a 1-2 curveball into the left-field corner for an RBI ground-rule double. If you had "David Ross hits two-strike curveball" in the go-ahead hit pool, congrats.

Wainwright became just the fourth pitcher to lose a World Series game despite recording 10-plus strikeouts and one walk or none, joining Jack Sanford (1942), Don Newcombe (1949) and Denny Galehouse (1944).

Where was the lefty? After the Ross double, Wainwright retired Lester on a comebacker for the second out. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .328 against right-handers, .246 against lefties. Wainwright was at 105 pitches and was facing Ellsbury for the fourth time. Not only that, but two batters away was Mr. Ortiz. I understand the desire to stick with your ace here, but bringing in Kevin Siegrist seemed like the necessary move. You have a batter with a notable platoon split, a starter deep into the game and Ortiz looming, even if it meant the next inning. Mike Matheny stuck with Wainwright, and Ellsbury lined a soft single into center to make it 3-1 (Shane Robinson threw out Ross at home plate).

Is it possible that Ortiz's home run off Siegrist in Game 1 has affected Matheny's usage of Siegrist? He seems reluctant to use him, despite his great numbers from the regular season.

Statheads get worked up! When Lester came up in the seventh with runners at second and third, there were calls to hit for him. For one thing, he's never had a major league hit (0-for-35 at that point) and you couldn't ask for a better high-leverage situation to use Mike Napoli. But Lester had thrown only 69 pitches and, as mentioned, it seemed like a pretty thin Boston bullpen on this night. Obviously, the chance to add two runs with a base hit there made it a sabermetrically attractive move. But this is where sabermetrics conflict with managing people and not just numbers. Did Farrell trust Breslow, even with a three-run lead? Do you pull a pitcher who is throwing well? Is Napoli versus Wainwright likely to result in a hit? Can you look Lester in the eyes and tell him he's coming out of the game?

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonDavid Ortiz is having a Series for the ages, going 11-for-15 in five games.
Where have you gone, Shane Robinson? Allen Craig was back in the lineup for Matt Adams, but with his foot injury making him about as mobile as the fourth Molina brother, Matheny batted him sixth in the lineup. That led to some questionable lineup shuffling, with the light-hitting Robinson hitting second and Carlos Beltran moving down to fourth in the order. Matheny did say he was hoping to get some table-setters (i.e., speed) on base in front of the big guys, but it seemed strange not to keep Beltran hitting second and just moving Yadier Molina to the cleanup role.

The move didn't work as Robinson went 0-for-3 and Jon Jay, pinch hitting in the ninth, grounded out. Holliday, the No. 3 hitter, made the final out, which meant Beltran received one fewer plate appearance than the Robinson/Jay duo.

Big Papi: He went 3-for-4, the one out being a screaming liner to center field that ended a streak of nine straight times reaching base. He's hitting .733/.750/1.267 in this World Series.

SweetSpot's 2013 AL All-Star team

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
11:40
AM ET
Here are my choices for the 2013 American League All-Star team:

Catcher: Joe Mauer, Twins (.324/.404/.476, 11 HRs, 47 RBIs, 5.2 WAR)
There's not a real clear choice, as Mauer played just 75 of his 113 games behind the plate, but he's the best hitter among the catchers and threw out a league-leading 43 percent of base stealers. Carlos Santana has good offensive numbers, but he played a lot of first base and DH and struggled defensively. Jason Castro's fine season was buried in the Astros' awfulness, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia has hit .272, raising his average 50 points from last year, while bashing 40 doubles and 14 home runs. If he had played a little more behind the plate -- he started 95 games -- he might have been my choice.

First base: Chris Davis, Orioles (.287/.370/.637, 53 HRs, 138 RBIs, 6.7 WAR)
Davis is the easy choice in a weak year at first base in the AL. The only other two first basemen to slug .500 were Edwin Encarnacion, who spent a large chunk of his time at DH, and Brandon Moss, a platoon player. Davis joined Babe Ruth and Albert Belle as the only players with 50 home runs and 40 doubles in a season.

Second base: Robinson Cano, Yankees (.313/.383/.514, 27 HRs, 106 RBIs, 7.6 WAR)
In a year when so much went wrong with the Yankees, Cano was the one constant, missing just one game and putting up his usual excellent numbers. Now the Yankees have to decide exactly how much they're willing to pay for those numbers. Teams like the Dodgers and Nationals could pursue the free agent this winter.

Third base: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers (.347/.441/.637, 44 HRs, 137 RBIs, 7.1 WAR)
Despite the injury issues that have slowed him in September (.265, just two extra-base hits and seven RBIs), Cabrera remains the likely MVP winner, thanks in part to a .397/.529/.782 mark with runners in scoring position. It's a deep position with Josh Donaldson having his own MVP-caliber season, Manny Machado catching everything at the hot corner and Evan Longoria and Adrian Beltre once again doing everything, but it's hard to deny Miggy's dominance with the bat.

Shortstop: J.J. Hardy, Orioles (.262/.305/.432, 25 HRs, 74 RBIs, 3.6 WAR)
There's not an obvious guy at the position. Hardy is good defensively and has power, but that .305 OBP lowers his offensive value. Yunel Escobar may have had the best year on defense, but a slow start dragged down his offense. Elvis Andrus plays great defense and has 41 steals but doesn't give you much at the plate. Jed Lowrie stayed healthy and hit but lacks range. In the end, I went with Hardy, who has played 157 games and gives you a little on both sides of the ball.

Left field: Mike Trout, Angels (.323/.431/.554, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, 9.1 WAR)
OK, I cheated a little bit since Trout actually started more games in center than left. But the state of left field in the AL is pretty pathetic, with Alex Gordon and Michael Brantley the only other two rated as even 2.0 WAR players.

Center field: Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox (.297/.355/.421, 8 HRs, 52 RBIs, 5.7 WAR)
Ellsbury also stole 52 bases in 56 attempts, the second-best percentage ever for a player with at least 50 steals. Orioles fans will argue for Adam Jones, who has 33 home runs and 108 RBIs, but he's drawn just 25 walks so his OBP is a mediocre .318 and his defense doesn't match Ellsbury's.

Right field: Shane Victorino, Red Sox (.297/.354/.456, 15 HRs, 61 RBIs, 6.2 WAR)
He's been solid offensively -- including hitting .303 and slugging .515 while having to bat right-handed against right-handed pitchers after a hamstring injury prevented him from batting left-handed. He has been terrific defensively with 24 Defensive Runs Saved, the sixth-best total in the majors at any position. Again, nobody with big numbers here on offense, especially with Jose Bautista's season-ending injury, but Victorino is a worthy selection.

Designated hitter: David Ortiz, Red Sox (.308/.395/.565, 30 HRs, 103 RBIs, 4.3 WAR)
At 37, he's still going strong with his seventh 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Hall of Famer? He's up to 431 career home runs and 1,429 RBIs.

Starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Tigers (21-3, 2.90 ERA, 6.6 WAR); Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners (14-6, 2.66 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Chris Sale, White Sox (11-14, 3.07 ERA, 7.0 WAR); Yu Darvish, Rangers (13-9, 2.82 ERA, 5.7 WAR); Anibal Sanchez, Tigers (14-8, 2.64 ERA, 6.0 WAR)
Apologies to Bartolo Colon and Felix Hernandez, and even Clay Buchholz, who went 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA in 16 starts.

Left-handed setup guy: Neal Cotts, Rangers (7-3, 1.13 ERA)
Cotts was one of the great stories of the season. He hadn't pitched in the majors since 2009, having Tommy John and four hip surgeries in the intervening years. He pitched in 25 games for the Rangers in Triple-A last year and started there again this season before getting recalled. In 55 2/3 innings, he's allowed just eight runs and 35 hits while striking out 63.

Right-handed setup guy: David Robertson, Yankees (5-1, 2.07 ERA)
For those worried about replacing Mariano Rivera as Yankees closer, the bigger question may actually be: Who replaces Robertson as the eighth-inning guy?

Closer: Koji Uehara, Red Sox (4-1, 21 saves, 1.10 ERA)
Apologies to Kansas City's Greg Holland, who has a 1.23 ERA and 46 saves, and Texas' Joe Nathan, who has a 1.41 ERA and 43 saves. But Uehara, who began the year in middle relief, has put up one of the most dominant relief seasons ever, limiting batters to a .129 average with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 100-to-9.


The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.
What to make of Matt Moore right now?

His 9-3 record looks nice, but he hasn't pitched like a 9-3 pitcher, especially of late. Even when he started the season 8-0, there were some red flags: a lot of walks, high pitch counts that led to early exits and a .181 batting average allowed that seemed unsustainable.

After that hot start, a one-inning outing truncated by a rain delay was followed by three blow-up starts: six runs and six walks in two innings, 12 hits and nine runs in five innings and five runs and four walks in 5⅓ innings.

I don't know if we really learned anything from Thursday's 8-3 victory over the Yankees, in which Moore took a shutout into the sixth inning before giving up three runs. For starters, the Yankees' is a pretty sad excuse for a major league lineup, and it's particularly pathetic against left-handers. Chris Capuano, who has been terrible for the Dodgers, just threw six scoreless innings against New York on Wednesday.

Moore did throw 63 of 99 pitches for strikes, about four percent higher than his season rate, but he should be throwing strikes against a lineup that had Jayson Nix batting second and Ichiro Suzuki hitting sixth. The uncertainty over Moore's production -- is he an ace or a No. 4 starter? -- makes him the most important guy moving forward in a Tampa Bay rotation that has been a disappointment.

You could pick almost any Tampa Bay starter here, including David Price, who begins his rehab stint from a strained triceps Friday, or Jeremy Hellickson, who has a 5.50 ERA. But if Price is healthy, he should be fine. Hellickson has a better strikeout rate, lower walk rate and the same home run rate as last season; instead of the 82 percent strand rate he's had the past two seasons, it's 61 percent this seaspn. He should be better moving forward as well.

That makes Moore the key starter if the Rays are to stay close in the crowded American League East race. In fact, with the Blue Jays surging -- winners of eight in a row -- seven games separate first-place Boston from last-place Toronto. Here are nine other key players the rest of the way, one hitter and pitcher per team.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJohn Lackey could well be Boston's No. 2 starter right now -- and will be a key player in the AL East race.
Matt Joyce, Rays
Since April 26, Joyce has hit .292/.383/.590 with 12 home runs to give the Rays a lethal 1-2 combo with Evan Longoria. If he continues hitting like he is, the Rays offense will continue scoring runs.

John Lackey, Red Sox
Lackey continues to impress in his return from Tommy John surgery, throwing seven strong innings against the Tigers on Thursday, leaving with a 3-2 lead and lowering his ERA to 3.03. Red Sox fans might not be willing to forgive him just yet for 2011, but he's starting to win them over. He's throwing in the low 90s, painting the corners with his fastball and getting inside to left-handers with his slider (lefties are hitting just .174 against that pitch). Considering Jon Lester's inconsistency, Lackey has arguably become the team's No. 2 starter. Who would have thought that?

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
He's not the MVP candidate of 2011 -- just one home run -- but he's providing energy at the top of the lineup with a .281 average, .348 OBP and 31 steals in 34 attempts. While more power would be nice, the Red Sox just need him to at least keep replicating what he's done so far.

Jason Hammel, Orioles
Look, the Orioles can't expect to keep running Freddy Garcia and Jake Arrieta out there and expect to win the division. They'll get Wei-Yin Chen back soon, but they're desperate for Hammel to replicate his 2012 performance. Last season, Hammel was getting great sinking movement on his fastball, off which batters hit .252/.318/.378; this season, he's leaving it up too often, and hitters are pounding it for a .309/.377/.510. Last year was a career season for Hammel, so the Orioles might have to decide on banking on his improvement or look to supplement the rotation via trade.

Chris Davis, Orioles
Well, he's on pace for 58 home runs and 146 RBIs. I don't think he'll keep doing this, and while he's clearly an improved hitter over last season, we have to expect some regression at some point … right?

CC Sabathia, Yankees
Most pitchers would be happy with a 7-5 record and 3.93 ERA, but it's been an up-and-down season for Sabathia. Manager Joe Girardi is still riding his horse -- Sabathia's on pace for 230 innings -- but righties are slugging .447 off him, up from last season's .374 mark. It's clear he doesn't have the fastball he once had (average velocity: 90.3 mph), so the issues here: Should Girardi back off him a little? Does Sabathia get better? Should we just view him as an innings-eater instead of an ace?

Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
We have to put somebody here, and I can't bring myself to write "Vernon Wells." But the Yankees do need to find some right-handed bats. Heck, maybe they'll sign Manny Ramirez.

R.A. Dickey, Blue Jays
The Jays are starting to get healthy again, Josh Johnson has looked better of late and Mark Buehrle is looking like Mark Buehrle, so if Dickey can find some consistency and pitch like last season's NL Cy Young winner, the Jays will climb over .500 -- they're 35-36 now -- and make things interesting.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
The Jays are seventh in the AL in runs, and while Jose Reyes will improve the offense when he returns in a few days, they could use a patented Bautista tear in the second half. His numbers are OK, not great -- .257, 15 home runs, .352 OBP -- but, considering the hole they dug, they'll need more from him.

    "I don't think I ever got proper credit about being smart about the game." -- Rickey Henderson

When was the golden age for leadoff hitters?

Well, 1965 was pretty good. Joe Morgan was a rookie that year and hit his way into the leadoff spot, where he posted a .943 OPS. Felipe Alou started 108 games in the leadoff position and hit .303 with 20 home runs. Zoilo Versalles was the American League MVP, started 155 games there for the Twins and led the league in runs, doubles, triples and total bases. Pete Rose and Lou Brock started large chunks of games there. Maury Wills stole 92 bases.

How about 1975? Rose, Ken Singleton and Bobby Bonds each had more than 400 plate appearances from the top spot and on-base percentages over .400. Davey Lopes stole 72 bases, and Brock swiped 56. Guys such as Bernie Carbo, Roy White, Don Money and Al Bumbry were productive when hitting there.

There was 1987, with Henderson, Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, a second-year kid named Barry Bonds, Brett Butler, Brian Downing and Lou Whitaker. Remember Kal Daniels? He started 74 games for the Reds as the leadoff hitter that year and hit .337 with 22 home runs.

And 2004 seems like a good season. Ichiro Suzuki hit .377 with 251 hits as a leadoff guy. Johnny Damon scored 123 runs and drove in 94. Other leadoff success stories were Ray Durham, Jimmy Rollins, some Derek Jeter, .336-hitting Juan Pierre and Rafael Furcal. Craig Biggio hit .281 with 23 home runs and 46 doubles leading off. Pretty stellar group.

Good years all. Maybe you grew up in the '80s, when it seems half the teams had leadoff hitters who could swipe 50-plus bases -- Vince Coleman, Juan Samuel, Willie Wilson, Omar Moreno. Maybe that feels like the best era for leadoff hitters.

It isn't. The golden age is now.

I checked every season since 1950 and compared the production of leadoff hitters to the overall major league batting totals. Granted, it's only early May, but at their current rate, leadoff hitters have never hit better when compared to their peers. Here's a table listing the top 10 seasons by leadoff hitters (since 1950), using OPS compared to league OPS. Also included are the league-average runs per game and the number of stolen bases and runs scored per 650 PAs.


Using OPS is an imperfect method, because it doesn't factor in speed and stealing bases. That's why I included the totals for steals and runs per 650 PAs. Stolen bases don't really have a large effect on run scoring. Compare 2013 to 1990; the run-scoring environments were essentially the same (4.3 runs per game), and while the 1990 guys swiped 10 more bases per 650 PAs, they scored fewer runs. Stolen bases are down a bit in 2013, and certainly injuries to big stolen-base guys such as Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn have dragged down those steal totals a bit.

If there was a golden era before 2013, it looks like that 1990-1992 period, which featured leadoff hitters such as Henderson, Molitor, Lenny Dykstra, Wade Boggs, Tony Phillips, Bip Roberts, Butler, Delino DeShields, Raines, Biggio, Brady Anderson and Devon White.

But never before have we seen the depth in quality leadoff hitters that we're seeing this year. Yes, some of this is a result of the readjustment of offensive levels in recent years. From 1993 to 2006, leadoff hitters never posted OPS totals above the MLB average; as offensive totals boomed, leadoff hitters looked worse compared to their peers. The decline in offensive numbers has brought the rest of the pack back closer to leadoff hitters, but even the raw OPS total for 2013 of .759 is tied for the fourth highest behind 1987 (.764), 2006 (.762) and 2007 (.760).

Look at the best leadoff hitters in the game right now -- a group that doesn't even include Mike Trout, who has started only eight games in the leadoff spot, or the injured Reyes: Shin-Soo Choo (leading the majors in OBP), Austin Jackson (31 runs in 31 games), the underrated Alex Gordon, Ian Kinsler off to big start, Carl Crawford looking healthy and good again, Jacoby Ellsbury, the emerging Dexter Fowler, unsung Norichika Aoki and Starling Marte, perhaps a star in the making in Pittsburgh. Baltimore's Nate McLouth is a platoon player but has a .423 OBP hitting leadoff.

But what really makes 2013 a golden age is the quality behind those players. Others who have hit regularly there include Coco Crisp, Jose Altuve, Denard Span, Angel Pagan, Gerardo Parra, Michael Brantley, David DeJesus and Brett Gardner, all of whom have provided solid production.

One thing managers have wised up on -- for the most part -- is that batting a speedy guy leadoff isn't worth it if his OBP is under .300. Coleman had 670 PAs and stole 107 bases with the Cardinals in 1986 but still scored only 94 runs. The days of guys like Brian Hunter (.282 OBP in 1999 while starting 102 games with the Mariners in the leadoff position) burning up 500 PAs are gone. Managers won't stick with a guy that long anymore. (Well, Dusty Baker might, but Walt Jocketty acquired Choo for him this year.)

So, no, maybe there isn't one player the equal of a Henderson (of course not, that's like saying there's nobody who can hit like Babe Ruth) or Raines, or a 1993 Dykstra or in-his-prime Ichiro, but appreciate the guys out there: There's a lot of quality.
Jose BautistaAl Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAll eyes will be on Jose Bautista this season as the Blue Jays are expected to contend.
Does pressure exist in baseball? We've made heroes and goats of those who performed -- or didn't perform -- in the game's biggest moments. But those are usually isolated snippets of time in a postseason game, when the results of one at-bat or a few games serve to define your character (fairly or not).

Pressure in the regular season is different; it's more about external expectations and a player's importance to his club. Some players thrive under that spotlight; some pretend it doesn't exist. Tommy Lasorda put it another way: "Pressure is a word that is misused in our vocabulary. When you start thinking of pressure, it's because you've started to think of failure."

For the most part, major leaguers are oblivious to pressure because they are good; they expect success, not failure. But that doesn't mean pressure isn't out there in some form. For example, did Albert Pujols struggle last April because of the pressure of his new contract? It's certainly possible.

Here are the 10 guys I would suggest are facing the most pressure this season.


10. Hanley Ramirez, Los Angeles Dodgers
The Marlins moved Ramirez off shortstop not just because they signed Jose Reyes a year ago but because they also believed Ramirez no longer had the range required to play the position. The defensive metrics back up that assertion -- minus-39 defensive runs saved over the three seasons, in what amounts to about two years' worth of innings at shortstop -- but Ramirez wants to play short and that's where he'll open the season. After hitting .313 over his first five seasons, Ramirez also has to show there's some potency left in his bat after hitting just .252 over the past two seasons.

9. Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays
It's easier to be the big man on campus when winning results are hoped for more than assumed. But now that the Blue Jays are expected to be relevant, the spotlight will shine more intensely on Bautista. Is he the guy to carry a Jays team that many believe can -- or should -- reach the World Series? He's reportedly healthy after last year's wrist injury, but he has to prove he can come closer to 2011's monster numbers (.302/.447/.608, 43 home runs) than 2012's more pedestrian ones (.241/.358/.527).

8. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
The pressure on Wainwright won't come from a heavy-handed local media or fan base with unrealistic demands, but from the knowledge that Kyle Lohse won't be here and Chris Carpenter's career may be over. With young pitchers like Shelby Miller, Trevor Rosenthal and Joe Kelly battling for the starting rotation, the mantle of staff leader falls on Wainwright's shoulders -- and surgically repaired right elbow. He obviously had a positive return from Tommy John surgery a year ago (14-13, 3.94 ERA), but it's important to note it wasn't really that great of a year -- his ERA ranked just 31st among qualified National League starters. But a strong second half has many believing Wainwright can return to his pre-injury Cy Young contender status.

7. Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox spent enough money in the offseason -- Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes -- that club officials certainly expect a rebound from last season's disaster and a return to contender status. To do that, however, they'll need a year like Ellsbury gave them in 2011, when he hit .321 with 32 home runs and finished second in the MVP vote. Ellsbury hasn't hit more than nine homers in any other season, so as an impending free agent he's also looking to earn a mega-payday by showing that power spike wasn't a fluke.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesJosh Hamilton will have to face the pressure of playing for a $125 million contract in Los Angeles.
6. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
As always, there's a lot of pressure on Longoria to lead a Tampa offense that isn't going to scare a lot of opponents. Aside from that, he has to prove he can stay healthy after missing significant chunks of action the past two years -- and rejoin that discussion of being one of the top five players in baseball -- and show that $100 million extension the Rays gave him in the offseason wasn't a mistake.

5. Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers
With no Josh Hamilton and veteran leader Michael Young jettisoned to Philly, this is now Beltre's team, so to speak. He's the star of the Rangers' show and with that comes the pressure to carry a lineup that scored 47 fewer runs in 2012 than it did in 2011. Beltre hit .321 with 36 home runs, but he turns 34 in April, that precarious age when decline often starts setting in.

4. Josh Hamilton, Los Angeles Angels
Speaking of Hamilton, when you leave a winning franchise to sign a $125 million deal with your former team's biggest rival, yeah, I'd say the intensity of expectations will be pretty high. Will the money affect him? How will he hit outside of Texas? What was up with all the strikeouts last year? Sure, it helps having Pujols and Mike Trout around to help carry the offensive burden, but Pujols' struggles suggest pressure to live up to a huge contract can arguably affect even the biggest stars. Anything short of Hamilton helping lead the Angels to a division title will be considered a disappointment.

3. Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves
Considering the months of trade rumors surrounding Upton -- and then everybody saying the Braves stole him from the Diamondbacks -- he has to show he was worth all the hype. He has hit .307 with a .937 OPS in Arizona in his career, .250 with a .731 OPS on the road. Did the Braves trade for a guy who was an MVP candidate in 2011 or merely a good, but inconsistent, player?

2. Robinson Cano, New York Yankees
No Nick Swisher. No Russell Martin. No Curtis Granderson for April. No Alex Rodriguez for who knows how long. A declining Mark Teixeira and an aging Derek Jeter trying to return from a broken ankle. Two outfielders in Ichiro Suzuki and Brett Gardner with little power. Oh, yeah, you're also playing in the toughest media market in the sport, coming off a postseason in which you hit .075 and playing for a huge contract as an impending free agent. Enjoy the season, Mr. Cano.

1. Zack Greinke, Los Angeles Dodgers
When you admit you signed with the Dodgers because of the hefty paycheck ($147 million over six years) it's not just a refreshing bit of honesty (although I respect him for saying it). With that comment, Greinke put the bull's-eye on himself. Heck, Dodgers management believes they're starting a dynasty here; they already have Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, but it's Greinke -- a guy with a 3.83 ERA over the past three seasons -- with the most pressure on the team.

SPONSORED HEADLINES