SweetSpot: Jimmy Rollins
PHILADELPHIA -- It’s been a while since the last Cliff Lee sighting on the Citizens Bank Park mound. He went on the disabled list with a strained left elbow on May 18, which means that he was rehabbing through Memorial Day, Flag Day, Father’s Day, the first day of summer solstice and Independence Day while any semblance of spring training optimism faded for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Lee finally made it back in time for National Baseball Trade Speculation week -- but just barely.
As the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches, Lee essentially has a two-start showcase to help drum up interest among trade partners looking for rotation help down the stretch. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say the first installment didn’t go so hot.
Lee returned to the Phillies’ rotation in a 7-4 loss to San Francisco on Monday. He did get off to an encouraging start with a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 first inning. But the storyline regressed from there. Lee tied a career high with 12 hits allowed over 5⅔ innings and threw 90 pitches -- 59 of them strikes -- before giving way to reliever Justin De Fratus. Although he broke several bats and gave up an inordinate number of bleeders, it wasn’t the type of performance that’s going to make general manager Ruben Amaro’s cell phone vibrate with calls from motivated suitors.
“I thought he showed some rust,” an AL scout said of Lee. “His fastball command was off and he wasn’t nearly as precise as usual. He threw too many hittable pitches, and his overall stuff was flatter than normal. Give him another start before rushing to judgment. He threw strikes, but not with the level of precision he typically does.”
Contending teams typically want to see more than a two-start cameo before putting their heart into a trade, but it’s not unprecedented for clubs to take the plunge off a limited sample size. In 2013, Jake Peavy of the Chicago White Sox missed six weeks with a fractured left rib and returned to make two starts in late July. That 13-inning audition was enough to convince Boston to trade shortstop Jose Iglesias and acquire Peavy in a three-team deal with Chicago and Detroit at the deadline.
In Lee’s case, money definitely complicates matters. He’s still owed about $10 million this season. Throw in a $25 million salary in 2015 and a $27.5 million mutual option for 2016 that automatically vests if he throws 200 innings next year (not to mention a $12.5 million buyout), and Lee is guaranteed somewhere between $47.5 million and $62.5 million through age 37 or 38. As good as he is, the Phillies are faced with the prospect of having to kick in millions to subsidize him pitching somewhere else.
Lee’s deal also includes a limited no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 20 teams. According to a baseball source, Lee has listed Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Miami, Minnesota, the New York Mets, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Washington as the nine teams he can be traded to without his consent.
Against that backdrop, the Tigers, Pirates, Orioles, Mariners, Angels, Royals, Blue Jays and Giants -- contenders all -- were among a dozen teams that had scouts at Monday’s game. No one can say for sure who was on hand to expressly scout Lee, in part because the Phillies have so many other tradable commodities on their roster.
Outfielder Marlon Byrd is a potential target for teams in search of a right-handed outfield bat. Closer Jonathan Papelbon is being scouted by the same talent evaluators who are checking in on Joakim Soria, Joaquin Benoit, Brad Ziegler, Steve Cishek, et al. Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins could help contending teams in need of middle infield help, but their 10-and-5 service-time rights give them veto power over any deal. And while Cole Hamels’ name has been mentioned here and there, those rumors have never gained any traction.
With Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Brandon McCarthy already traded and Tampa Bay more conflicted than ever about moving David Price because of its recent surge in the standings, the list of available impact starters is slim. But is it slim enough for a team to make a run at Lee even though he looked like a guy who will need a few more outings to round into top form? At this point, it takes a pretty active imagination to envision Lee pitching anywhere other than Philadelphia this season.
Lee, for his part, said he’s oblivious to the Internet buzz. His fastball checked in at an average of 89.1 mph Monday night, slightly below what he was throwing earlier this season. And the Giants recorded three hits against his cutter, a pitch that’s been less effective for him this year compared with recent seasons. So he’ll make some adjustments and hope the results are better against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Saturday.
“I didn’t know how many scouts were here and I don’t care about the rumors,” Lee said. “My goal is to get out there and try to give the team a chance to win. Obviously I didn’t do that as well as I would like. But that’s where my focus is. I could care less about the scouts in the stands or the trade rumors. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I never cared about that. I still don’t.”
Spoken like a man who has been through this routine about a half-dozen times already in his career. Lee was 23 years old in 2002 when he went from Montreal to Cleveland with Grady Sizemore and Brandon Phillips in the big Bartolo Colon trade. He has since been traded from the Indians to the Phillies, from the Phillies to Seattle and from Seattle to Texas, so he understands the importance of being an emotional flatliner in July.
“It’s not my job to make trades and acquire players and all that stuff,” Lee said. “Let them do their job upstairs, and our job as players is to go out there and compete and try to win. It’s really that simple to me. I’m not going to get caught up in trades and all the speculation. I’m a Phillie and I want this team to win and I’m going to do everything I can to help that happen. That’s really it.”
Except that it isn’t -- for the embattled Amaro and season-ticket holders who have grown tired of the product the Phillies are selling and want to see changes. Monday night the focus was on Lee. Tuesday it will shift to somebody else. There could be a lot of action in Philadelphia between now and July 31. Some of it might actually take place on the field.
We scoured our data to put some of these issues into a visual form. Here are the three that struck us as most interesting:
Ryan Howard: lost versus lefties
Those numbers are being dragged down by his performance against left-handed pitching. You can see those struggles in the image -- a .173 batting average (.080 with two strikes), 84 strikeouts and eight walks in 179 at-bats.
How bad has it gotten?
Howard's .575 OPS against left-handed pitching over the past two seasons is the same as Jose Molina's.
This is something that needs to right itself, or else the Phillies might have to turn their $25 million man into a platoon player.
Jimmy Rollins' decline in value
Rollins averaged five wins above replacement (WAR) a season from age 25 to age 29. But the decline has been a steep one once Rollins entered his 30s. He's averaged 1.8 WAR over the past five seasons, bottoming out at 0.2 in 2013.
Rollins will make $11 million this season and has an $11 million club option that vests if he stays healthy and has 434 plate appearances in 2014. The Phillies appear to be putting that money toward a player who is not helping them win.
Catching the deep ball
But Revere stumbled a bit more than expected, as did those who filled in for him when he got hurt. We're not sure if the issue was positioning, skill or just bad luck. (If it was positioning, the Phillies might do well to do what the Pirates did with Andrew McCutchen a few years ago and play deeper in center field.)
Whatever it is, the Phillies would be well served to try to fix it. It's one of their few problems that is potentially fixable without any financial consequences.
C Carlos Ruiz: 35 years old
1B Ryan Howard: 34 years old
2B Chase Utley: 35 years old
SS Jimmy Rollins: 35 years old
RF Marlon Byrd: 36 years old
That's five guys entering their age-34 season or beyond (a player's age is calculated as of June 30). If that feels like an old lineup, it is. If it seems unlikely all five will remain healthy and productive, that's a good guess as well.
Setting a bar of 400 plate appearances, only four teams have had five players age 34 or older reach that in the same season. Let's throw out the 1945 Chicago White Sox, since that happened during World War II, when many players hung on due to a depleted talent pool. The other three teams:
--1985 Angels -- Juan Beniquez, Bob Boone, Rod Carew, Doug DeCinces, Brian Downing, Bobby Grich, Reggie Jackson
--2007 Giants -- Barry Bonds, Ray Durham, Ryan Klesko, Dave Roberts, Omar Vizquel
-2002 Giants -- Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Reggie Sanders, Benito Santiago, J.T. Snow
If you just look at these three teams, there is perhaps reason for optimism that Ruben Amaro's master plan will work. The '85 Angels won 90 games and actually won the AL West the following season with four of the players listed above batting 400 times again. The 2002 Giants reached the World Series. The 2007 Giants, however, went 71-91 in Bonds' final season (and ranked next-to-last in the NL in runs scored).
Of course, three teams isn't much of a comparison and doesn't tell the story of other teams that may have entered a season with the idea of playing a bunch of old guys and the whole thing collapsed.
A more telling list is that there aren't even that many teams with just four 34-and-older players batting 400 teams. Here are those teams:
2009 Yankees (103-59)
2008 Yankees (89-73)
2006 Giants (76-85)
2005 Giants (75-87)
2004 Astros (92-70)
2003 Astros (87-75)
2001 Diamondbacks (92-70)
2000 Orioles (74-88)
1993 Tigers (85-77)
1991 Brewers (83-79)
1989 Tigers (59-103)
1986 Angels (92-70)
1983 Angels (70-92)
1956 Dodgers (93-51)
Again, some reason for hope here. Several good teams, some playoff team, even two World Series champions in the 2009 Yankees and 2001 Diamondbacks. Let's zero in on those two teams.
Johnny Damon: 4.2 WAR
Derek Jeter: 6.6 WAR
Hideki Matsui: 2.7 WAR
Jorge Posada: 1.6 WAR
Jay Bell: 0.4 WAR
Steve Finley: 0.9 WAR
Mark Grace: 2.4 WAR
Matt Williams: 1.0 WAR
The Yankees received pretty good production from their old guys (Matsui was the DH, however, so isn't really applicable to the Phillies' situation), plus they had Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano. The Diamondbacks' old guys weren't as good, but that was the year Luis Gonzalez hit 57 home runs and Reggie Sanders, with 33 home runs, was the team's second-best offensive player. Is Dom Brown going to hit 50 home runs and carry the offense? Probably not.
The Phillies scored 610 runs and allowed 749 in 2013. In order to turn into a 90-win team, they would have to score about 110 more runs and allow 110 fewer.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to that isn't even getting more offense from the old guys -- Byrd alone, if he hits like he did in 2013 (good luck, of course) is a big upgrade over Delmon Young in right field. Maybe Ruiz bounces back and Howard plays 150 games and hits 35 home runs and Rollins plays a little better. Again, good luck, but you can dream on those things happening.
No, the bigger problem is this is still likely to be a lousy defensive team. As the Utley/Rollins/Howard core has aged and Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth departed, look at the Phillies' Defensive Runs Saved through the years:
Wait ... an aging team gets worse on defense? The 2013 Phillies ranked last in Defensive Runs Saved, bottoming out in their downward trend on defense. To be fair, they've expunged Michael Young (-18 DRS) and Delmon Young (-10) from the roster, buy Cody Asche didn't rate well in his first action at third base (-7), Rollins (-15) clearly looked a step slow last year and Ben Revere (-5), while fast, doesn't take good routes and has a poor arm. Byrd was +12 a year ago and should be an upgrade in right field. But that's only one position; even if the Phillies' improve incrementally elsewhere they're going to be a below-average defensive team.
Old teams have won before. And while their offseason isn't done, this team still looks more 2000 Orioles than 2002 Giants to me.
Allen Barra has an excellent take on the movie here -- not only discussing the historical accuracy of the movie, in particular the scene when Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson when he was being heckled in Cincinnati (did that moment really happen), but the sad early death of Robinson at 53. Allen concludes:
Slowly during the 1950s and '60s, in fact by the time [Branch] Rickey died in 1965, baseball had begun to disappear from the inner cities, and a new generation of black youth became more enamored with professional football and basketball. The Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1958, and it took 64 years for another professional team to come to Brooklyn, the NBA's Nets.
Black and Latino kids, and white ones for that matter, see the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese on Coney Island's Surf Avenue without any knowledge of who the two men were and what their connection could possibly be to their own lives. Whatever its shortcomings, let's hope "42" enlightens them.
On the day of the movie's opening, meanwhile, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News has a very interesting interview with Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins on race and baseball. When asked about the declining number of African-Americans in the majors, Rollins points out that after he won the MVP Award in 2007 he felt he wasn't marketed. He suggests the new committee to study diversity in the game probably won't do much (he was on a similar committee several years ago). But this part was probably the most honest assessment of African-Americans in baseball:
Andy Martino: This is asked every year around this time, but I'll ask again: Why so few African-Americans in the sport?
Jimmy Rollins: There are a number of factors. First of all, it starts at home. If you're growing up in single-parent homes, it makes it that much tougher to go play baseball. Baseball is a game usually introduced by the father to the son, or to the daughter. But if you only have one parent, who has to work, you could have love for the game, but you just don't have time for it. And a kid can't play baseball by himself.
That would probably be number one. But for the kids who do grow up with both parents, they have the choice, and baseball is not a glamor sport. You don't see high school baseball teams on TV. You don't see college baseball games on TV. They did a good job with televising the draft, for kids that are interested in baseball and already playing, but that is not going to make kids go play.
You get drafted, and you go to the jungle. The other sports, you get drafted and you're going to the league the next year. In baseball, there is more service time. So a lot of things that aren't sexy about baseball are contributing factors.
However, as Joe Sheehan wrote the other day in his newsletter, "Robinson didn't just pave the way for Torii Hunter and Curtis Granderson. He paved the way for Adrian Beltre and Felix Hernandez and Mariano Rivera. He paved the way for any player with skin formerly defined as "too dark", no matter what their national or cultural heritage. To use every April, every Jackie Robinson Day, to define Robinson's legacy only in terms of African-Americans is hopelessly limiting."
As Joe points out, African-Americans make up 13.1 percent of the U.S. population and 10.8 percent of the American-born major leaguers. MLB thinks this is a problem, but then enacts a strict bonus cap on the amateur draft -- a decision that is only more likely to push talented multi-sport athletes to play football or basketball in college as signing bonuses decrease.
Unfortunately, "42" is unlikely to suddenly push more kids into playing baseball. It would be nice if it had that kind of cultural impact, but the best we can probably hope for is kids who may not otherwise know the Robinson story to learn about an important American hero.
But this tournament isn't for fans who so willingly dismiss it. It's not even so much for fans in the United States, who are more focused on their professional teams or the impending NCAA basketball tournament. Earlier in the day, MLB reported that one-third of all television sets in Japan had watched the first-round games involving the Japanese team. I'm sure its dramatic comeback win over Taiwan on Friday morning rated even higher. Fans in Puerto Rico cheered on their team to a victory over Spain. Fans in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic care intensely about how their teams fare.
And Chase Field in Phoenix was nearly full for Friday's Mexico-U.S. game -- with maybe half that crowd rooting for Mexico. Those fans certainly cared that Mexico pulled off the huge 5-2 upset victory, essentially avoiding elimination after Thursday's heartbreaking ninth-inning loss to Italy. The players on the Mexican team certainly cared.
The Mexico lineup is pretty weak outside of Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Jorge Cantu hit fifth and he spent all of last year in Triple-A. Karim Garcia is still around and he hasn't played in the majors since 2004. But R.A. Dickey's knuckleball wasn't effective, a leadoff bloop single led to two runs in the first inning and Gonzalez torched a 73 mph knuckler to center field for a two-run homer in the third.
- Pool D is really interesting now. It could all come down to run differential to see which two teams advance to the second round. If we assume the U.S. beats Italy on Saturday, and the U.S. and Mexico both beat Canada, then Italy, the U.S. and Mexico all finish 2-1. But Italy mercy-ruled Canada in a 14-4 victory, putting pressure on the U.S. lineup to do some damage in its next two games. The eighth inning could prove a key for the U.S., as Tim Collins and Steve Cishek worked out of a second-and-third, nobody-out jam.
- After Dickey's performance, fans will be crying that Verlander or Kershaw or David Price aren't here. First off, Dickey wanted to be here and those guys didn't. Second, Dickey earned his invite as much as those guys would have, coming off his National League Cy Young Award. He just didn't have a good night. That's what happens in a tournament, not much different than what happens in the postseason: Anything can happen.
- Joe Torre’s lineup left a little to be desired. He hit Jimmy Rollins and Brandon Phillips 1-2, because they're fast and they hit at the top of the order for their regular teams. He hit Eric Hosmer sixth, pushing Giancarlo Stanton -- who only led the NL in slugging percentage -- all the way down to seventh, and Adam Jones, he of the 32 home runs last year, batting eighth. Stanton and Jones are better hitters than Rollins, Phillips and Hosmer. Torre might have been playing the hot hand with Hosmer, who had hit .391 in spring training with the Royals, and maybe he wanted to spread out his three left-handed hitters (switch-hitter Rollins, Joe Mauer and Hosmer). Still, a little more creativity would have had something like David Wright, Mauer, Ryan Braun, Stanton, Jones, Rollins, Phillips, Hosmer and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
- Dodgers third baseman Luis Cruz had two key at-bats for Mexico. In the first inning, he delivered a sacrifice fly that was also deep enough to move Ramiro Pena to third, and Pena scored on Gonzalez's sac fly. In the fifth, after Eduardo Arredondo slapped an Ichiro-like double down the left-field line off Twins closer Glen Perkins and was bunted to third, Cruz delivered another sac fly.
- Pitchers are allowed a maximum of 65 pitches in first-round games, but Yovani Gallardo was on a 50-pitch limit for Mexico. He looked sharp, allowing two hits and striking out four in 3.1 innings, but that meant Mexico had to rely on its bullpen, a day after using four relievers in that 6-5 loss to Italy. Royals righty Luis Mendoza escaped a jam in the fifth after walking the first two batters, striking out Arencibia on a nice 0-2 slider and then retiring Rollins and Phillips on ground balls. Oliver Perez got a key out in the sixth and Oscar Villareal pitched a scoreless seventh. The U.S. scored once off Cardinals reliever Fernando Salas in the eighth, and Giants closer Sergio Romo closed it out.
- The Giants were undoubtedly nervous seeing Romo come in. They had apparently requested that Romo not appear in consecutive games, and manager Bruce Bochy has always been very cautious with his use of Romo. He threw 26 pitches Thursday, but this was a must-win game for Mexico. Saving him for Saturday's game against Canada doesn't make any sense if you lose this game. A reliever can't appear three consecutive days, so Romo is unavailable now for Canada.
- Ryan Vogelsong starts for the U.S. against Italy, and while the Italian team is mostly comprised of U.S.-born players -- including several major leaguers -- they will start an actual pitcher from Italy: Luca Panerati, a left-hander who was in the Reds' system from 2008-11, never advancing past Class A. Last year, he pitched in the Italian Baseball League. Now he gets to face a team of the best players in the world. This is what the World Baseball Classic is all about.
Does this surprise you? Over the past 10 seasons, Jimmy Rollins has been the 10th-best position player in baseball, at least according to FanGraphs and its wins above replacement metric.
I guess it surprises me, not that I haven't appreciated Rollins' broad base of skills -- speed, defense and good power for a middle infielder -- but I've never thought of him at quite that elite level, except maybe during his MVP season in 2007, and even then there was an ugly debate over whether he really deserved the award.
Anyway, upon seeing that ranking, my first thought was: You know, that's not a bad Hall of Fame argument: Jimmy Rollins was one of the top 10 players in the game for a decade, and that certainly smells like a Hall of Famer, if Hall of Famers smelled of something other than sweat, grass stains and chewing tobacco. I mean, if you're one of the very best players in the game for a long period of time -- and WAR is the best mechanism we have for determining that -- then that has to put him in the Hall of Fame discussion.
And again, with Rollins, that surprises me. I viewed him as a popular player, but overrated by the general population of baseball fans, in part because the stolen bases made him such a valuable fantasy player, and in part because the general population doesn't always pay a lot of attention to on-base percentage, a skill Rollins has failed to excel at in many seasons.
But the whole top-10 over 10 argument ... well, I soon realized, that's the Jack Morris argument: You know, Jack Morris won the most games in the '80s, and then suddenly I felt a little dumber. (By the way, Morris ranks seventh in FanGraphs WAR from 1980 to 1989 and 13th in Baseball-Reference WAR.)
The obvious problem with comparing a player to his peers over a certain period of years is players aren't being compared equally: Some get only some of their peak years in there, some get all of them and so on. Did you know Frank Viola is tied for the most wins from 1984 to 1993? Or that Jimmy Key is second in wins from 1985 to 1994?
2003 to 2012
FanGraphs: Pujols, A. Rodriguez, Utley, Cabrera, Beltran, Beltre, Wright, Suzuki, Holliday, Rollins (44.3), Berkman, Jeter, C. Jones, Teixeira, Rolen.
Baseball-Reference: Pujols, Rodriguez, Utley, Beltre, Beltran, Teixeira, Cabrera, Suzuki, Jones, Wright, Mauer, Hunter, Berkman, Rollins (35.9), Holliday.
1993 to 2002
FanGraphs: Bonds, Bagwell, Piazza, Griffey Jr., Sosa, A. Rodriguez, Walker, Palmeiro, Biggio, Olerud, I. Rodriguez, Thome, C. Jones, Martinez, B. Williams.
Baseball-Reference: Bonds, Bagwell, Griffey, A. Rodriguez, Sosa, Piazza, Walker, Lofton, Biggio, I. Rodriguez, Thome, Williams, Palmeiro, Martinez, Olerud.
1983 to 1992
FanGraphs: Boggs, Henderson, Ripken, Raines, Sandberg, O. Smith, Trammell, Bonds, Whitaker, Murray, Gwynn, Puckett, Molitor, Strawberry, Van Slyke.
Baseball-Reference: Henderson, Ripken, Boggs, Sandberg, O. Smith, Raines, Trammell, Bonds, Whitaker, Gwynn, Butler, Puckett, Molitor, Murray, Strawberry.
1973 to 1982
FanGraphs: Schmidt, Morgan, Carew, Grich, Brett, Cey, Jackson, Simmons, Bench, Bell, Nettles, Foster, Tenace, Rose, Singleton.
Baseball-Reference: Schmidt, Morgan, Carew, Brett, Grich, Cey, Bell, Jackson, Bench, Tenace, Harrah, Carter, Nettles, Simmons, Cedeno.
1963 to 1972
FanGraphs: Aaron, Santo, Mays, Yastrzemski, Clemente, B. Robinson, F. Robinson, B. Williams, Killebrew, Allen, Torre, McCovey, Fregosi, Rose, Kaline.
Baseball-Reference: Aaron, Clemente, Mays, Santo, Yastrzemski, B. Williams, B. Robinson, Allen, F. Robinson, Rose, McCovey, Fregosi, Torre, Killebrew, Kaline.
So, you see a lot of Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers, or some of the all-time stathead favorites, like Bobby Grich or Ron Cey or Tim Raines, or some underrated gems like Gene Tenace and Buddy Bell. Obviously, ranking in the top 10 or 15 certainly isn't an automatic road map to Cooperstown, and several of the above fell off the ballot after one year, although in a case like Lou Whitaker, that doesn't mean they didn't have a solid Hall of Fame case.
OK, back to Rollins. Look at the all positives he has going for his Hall of Fame résumé:
- Career length. He's already at 2,024 hits as he enters his age-34 season; 3,000 is probably out of reach (he'd have to average 154 hits through age 39), but he should end up well north of 2,500.
- Speed. He has 403 career steals and just 83 caught stealing. His career total of 61 baserunning runs ranks 16th since 1901, according to Baseball-Reference.
- Power at a premium defensive position: 421 doubles, 105 triples, 193 home runs. Since 1901, he's 13th in extra-base hits among players who played at least 75 percent of their games at shortstop or second base. (Eight of the 12 ahead of him are in the Hall of Fame, and the others are Jeff Kent, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Lou Whitaker. Five of the next seven are Hall of Famers as well.)
- Defense. Four Gold Gloves and pretty good advanced defensive metrics (plus-51 runs via Baseball-Reference).
- Durability. Nine seasons of 154-plus games. Durability is a skill.
- That MVP Award in 2007. It was much-maligned in some circles at the time, due to his .296 average and .344 OBP (offensive numbers were still sky-high in 2007), but it wasn't that egregious as he ranked sixth (Baseball-Reference) and seventh (FanGraphs) among NL position players in WAR. I mean, this wasn't Andre Dawson 1987 or anything.
- Championship teams. Played on five straight division winners and has a World Series title. So far.
- Fame. I'd say yes.
All that said, Rollins was an outstanding player from 2004 to 2008, when he averaged five wins per season, but not as outstanding in other years when his batting average and OBP sagged. Also, the two sites evaluate his career WAR quite a bit differently: FanGraphs at 48.8, B-R at 40.3. (Baseball Prospectus has him at 37.0.)
As Rollins plays into his twilight seasons, I have a feeling he'll end up much differently than Morris. Whereas Morris has become overrated as he nears Hall of Fame election, it's possible Rollins was overrated while active but is headed for underrated status in retirement. Unlike Omar Vizquel, Rollins doesn't have one primary attribute to pin his Hall of Fame hopes around; like some of the other all-around players above, his career may slip into "oh, he was pretty good" status, while Vizquel soars toward Cooperstown.
Rollins is a long ways from retirement, and my final analysis is I don't think he's a Hall of Famer, barring a late-career surge -- I think his peak was too short, for starters -- but the man has been a terrific player. Phillies fans have been lucky to have him all these years.
OK, there's no Mike Trout or Buster Posey or Justin Verlander or Andrew McCutchen, but Team USA's provisional roster for the World Baseball Classic looks pretty strong. How about this lineup:
RF Ben Zobrist
C Joe Mauer
LF Ryan Braun
DH Giancarlo Stanton
3B David Wright
1B Mark Teixeira
CF Adam Jones
SS Jimmy Rollins
2B Brandon Phillips
P R.A. Dickey
You have on-base ability at the top of the lineup in Zobrist and Mauer, follow that up with two of the best power hitters in the game, have another good OBP guy in Wright hitting fifth, switch-hitting Teixeira in the 6-hole, a 30-homer guy batting seventh, and then speed and more power at the bottom of the lineup. On paper, it's a lineup that should score plenty of runs.
It seems a little better than the 2009 lineup that lost twice to Venezuela and once to Puerto Rico in pool play and then to Japan in the semifinals. Pitching and defense were the big culprits in the U.S. struggles. Puerto Rico beat up Jake Peavy in an 11-1 loss. In a 10-6 loss to Venezuela, Jeremy Guthrie allowed six runs in the second inning, with Adam Dunn -- playing first base -- making a crucial throwing error that led to four unearned runs. Still, Guthrie got knocked around by a Venezuelan team that included, yes, Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordonez, but also Endy Chavez hitting leadoff, Cesar Izturis hitting second and Jose Lopez hitting third. In the semifinal loss to Japan, the lineup included Dunn in right field, Mark DeRosa at first base and Rollins hitting third (although he did go 4-for-4), but Roy Oswalt got knocked out in the fourth inning after giving up six runs, with Wright, Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts all making errors.
So that puts the pressure on the four U.S. starters named to the provisional roster: Dickey, Kris Medlen, Ryan Vogelsong and Derek Holland. Clearly, Dickey and Medlen line up as the top two guys, but the U.S. used four starters last tournament, so all four probably will get at least one game.
Starters are held to strict pitch counts in the tournament, so the pitching staff will include these nine relievers: Jeremy Affeldt, Mitchell Boggs, Steve Cishek, Tim Collins, Luke Gregerson, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Perez, Glen Perkins and Vinnie Pestano. That's a pretty strong group, with three lefties and some power arms at the back in Boggs and Pestano and with the game's best closer in Kimbrel ready to shut down any lead.
The bench includes Jonathan Lucroy, J.P. Arencibia, Shane Victorino and Willie Bloomquist.
What's interesting is that Team USA, to be managed by Joe Torre, announced just 27 players. Considering final rosters will include 28 players, it appears as if Torre and USA Baseball had trouble convincing enough players to join the fun. Or maybe they're leaving that final spot open ... you know, just in case, somebody wants to change his mind.
On paper, the U.S. should rate as the favorite with its power and a nice one-two punch in Dickey and Medlen. (Rosters for other countries will be announced at 4 p.m. ET.) But Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics, and the U.S. didn't even make the semifinals in the 2006 tournament, losing twice in Round 2. In fact, the U.S. history is pretty dismal. Look at its record:
Teams beaten: Mexico, South Africa, Japan, Canada, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico
Teams lost to: Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan
That's a 7-7 record, with three of the wins against noted baseball powers South Africa, Canada and the Netherlands.
The World Baseball Classic is a big deal everywhere but in the U.S., it seems. I like it, even if it is a little bit of a gimmick.
Gimmick or not, however, it's time for the U.S. team to do better.
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?
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.
6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.
17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.
23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.
Welcome to the AL West, boys.
Instead, Hamels received the latest massive, multi-year agreement doled out by Phillies management to secure some of the game's top players over the past few seasons. It's a collection of talent that has reached the playoffs and set a club record for wins in a season, but has not replicated the 2008 title chase, for one reason or another.
To say things in 2012 haven't gone the way the Phillies, their fans and management had envisioned this past March would be a bit of an understatement, but retaining Hamels' services is an analgesic all parties will surely be happy to have. While the Hamels saga and the "will-he-won't-he" wondering about his future destination became the dominant storyline of the Phillies' season, putting that issue to rest doesn't mean general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.'s heavy lifting is over.
Consider what faces the Phillies this coming winter: Even though Hamels is secure, the Phils likely stand to lose their starting center fielder (Shane Victorino) and third baseman (Placido Polanco) to free agency (or trade, at least in Victorino's case), and could suffer a hit to their rotational depth if Joe Blanton ends up departing. Retaining Hamels is important because of his value as a transitional player -- he's likely to be a top-tier starter well into this deal -- to lead the team as the remnants of the '08 squad continue to age. How, then, can Amaro restructure the Phillies and reshape their identity into one built not around Ryan Howard, Chase Utley or even Roy Halladay, but Cole Hamels?
Avoiding Free Agents Who Receive Qualifying Offers
The Phillies are far from stacked with internal candidates to step in and fill shoes of any potentially departing major leaguer, due in large part to the many trades executed to bring in players like Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. Trading away major leaguers for prospects could beef up what is currently a gaunt system, but keeping excess spending under wraps this offseason and keeping the incoming mid-to-early first-round pick -- or second-rounder, should the first be protected (the top 10 picks are protected) -- could go a long way toward improving the outlook of the distant future.
Teams lose their first-round pick if they sign a free agent who has received a qualifying offer from his previous team. That offer is the average of the top 125 players' salaries, expected to be in the $12-$13 million range. The Phils haven't drafted higher than 24th overall since 2007 and didn't have a first-round pick in three of the past nine years.
Maintaining Fan Interest
No fan base enjoys a transition or rebuilding, necessary as those phases may be. Finding ways to keep the fans interested and perpetuating the flow of revenue will be difficult; the Phillies have already seen their fair share of empty seats at home games this season, even though their sellout streak officially passed 250 consecutive games. I doubt the Phillies would commit additional money contingent solely on continued crowds of 44,000-plus even in lean years, but acquiring exciting and/or productive players who can hold down the fort for the time being would help bridge the gap between this moment and when it becomes prudent for the Phillies to make a free agent splash again.
This is the biggest point of all. It almost would have been easier for Amaro to trade Hamels or make continued efforts to re-sign him only to have the lefty walk in the winter. In that scenario, the Phillies could use the money saved on Hamels to keep trying to build around its current aging core. Instead, Amaro has tagged Hamels as the player to transition this franchise from a lean 2012 (and perhaps 2013) to a more prosperous latter half of the decade. In doing so, he's forcing his own hand into the near necessity of making additional trades, whether before the July 31 deadline or in the offseason.
The Phillies have long said they have no plans to operate above the luxury tax threshold, and I've seen no reason to doubt them. In 2014, the threshold will rise from its current $178 million ceiling to $189 million, which will help. But as currently constructed, the Phillies will be paying a combined $74 million to Howard, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins in 2014, plus Hamels' newly assumed salary and a potential $20 million option on Halladay. One or more of those players may not see the entirety of their deals played out in Philly.
With the Phillies looking at severely long odds of reaching the postseason, the departures of these players may be expedited to alleviate the pressure on the payroll, and that could mean a trade deadline that's far from quiet for the Phillies, even with Hamels going nowhere.
Extending Hamels was the right move, even if it means the second-highest pitching contract in history. Hamels has proven to be worthy of "cornerstone" billing. A Cy Young contender. A World Series MVP. A 28-year-old, homegrown ace whose departure would have left an indelible scar on the franchise. Now Hamels has a chance to prove himself yet again, and Amaro has the formidable task of retooling and reconstructing a championship-caliber team around the left arm of his latest multi-million-dollar man. The future of the franchise is now theirs to mold.
Paul Boye writes regularly for Crashburn Alley.
When the season began, everyone knew Chase Utley was going to miss a significant amount of time. We all knew Ryan Howard was going to be out until around the All-Star break. We all knew the core of the Phillies' lineup was getting older -- Placido Polanco was 36 and Jimmy Rollins 33 and Shane Victorino 31.
Still ... we believed. Most of us believed. ESPN.com polled 50 of its baseball contributors before the season: 27 of them had the Phillies winning the NL East; 17 had them winning one of the wild cards. Only six had them missing the playoffs. We saw Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and a team that had won five consecutive division titles and was coming off a 102-win season. We didn't see a team that was going to crater.
Just a few days ago, there was still reason to believe. The Phillies were 36-40, but Utley was returning to the lineup, Howard was beginning a rehab assignment in the minors and they were just 4.5 games behind the second wild-card team. Climb back to .500 at the All-Star break and maybe they'd be in position for a second-half run.
Instead, a disastrous five games ensued. The Pirates beat them on Wednesday and Thursday and then the Marlins swept the Phillies over the weekend, culminating with a 5-2 win on Sunday.
The Phillies have played half their schedule. They're 36-45 and eight games out of the wild card -- with six teams between them and the No. 2 wild-card team.
Are the Phillies done? I asked Bill Baer of Crashburn Alley to assess the general state of the Phillies' fandom and he replied, "I would venture to say most fans are fed up with this team and want to see some return on some of the to-be free agents like Shane Victorino and, among a lesser percentage, Cole Hamels."
Here's the best way to assess the Phillies' playoff hopes. Let's assume it will take 88 wins to make the playoffs. Even that win total may be a little optimistic as it wouldn't have made the postseason as the second wild card in either of the past two seasons.
To win 88 games, the Phillies will have to go 52-29 the rest of the way -- that's a 104-win pace, or .642 winning percentage. Or better than the club played last season.
Here's another way to look at that. The Phillies have scored 347 runs and allowed 362 (they've underperformed their expected record by three wins). What kind of runs totals will they need to produce to win 52 games? Using the Pythagorean formula to estimate wins and losses, the Phillies would need to score 387 runs and allow 297 to produce an estimated .641 winning percentage.
Is there room to add 40 runs and subtract 65?
Well, let's run through some scenarios:
The most surprising thing about the Phillies' first half: The offense wasn't the biggest culprit. They're fifth in the NL runs scored, on pace for 694. The Phillies scored 713 runs last season (which ranked seventh in the league). Still, there are areas for possible improvement.
1. Second base: +18 runs. This is the obvious position where the Phillies could get a huge upgrade. With rookie second baseman Freddy Galvis struggling at the plate until he was injured, Phillies second basemen created about 30 runs in the first half. Say Utley hits like he did in 2010, when he posted a .275/.387/.445 line. That's about an 18-run improvement over 300 plate appearances.
2. First base: +11 runs. The best thing to say about Ty Wigginton is that at least he wasn't awful. Overall, Phillies first basemen (10 games from Hector Luna?) hit .257/.318/.410 and created about 39 runs. Howard created about 97 runs a year ago. Cut that in half and you're talking about 50 runs over half a season. Probably not quite the improvement Phillies fans would expect, but Howard wasn't that great last year, hitting .253/.345/.488.
3. Center field: +14. Victorino has produced about 43 runs, but his triple slash line is way down from last season -- .355 to .322 in OBP and .491 to .386 in slugging. Let's say he hits in the second half like he did last season -- and manages to play every day like he did in the first half. He created 96 runs last year in 582 PAs; prorate that over 350 PAs and you get 57 runs created -- a 14-run improvement.
That's 43 runs. We needed 40 more. But remember, the Phillies are likely to see a drop in the second half from Carlos Ruiz and maybe from Juan Pierre. And keep in mind that while Utley and Howard were disabled, Victorino played every game, Hunter Pence missed one game, Rollins missed three and Ruiz missed just eight. Forty runs would be a big gain.
The Phillies had one of the great pitching staffs in NL history a year ago, allowing 529 runs. They allowed 362 in the first half; amazingly, only the Rockies and Astros have allowed more in the NL. To me, that indicates the Phillies will need a huge second-half improvement in the pitching and defense department. I have them needing to decrease their first-half total by 65 runs. Where would the improvement come from?
1. Cliff Lee: -17 runs. He allowed 41 runs in 13 starts. Throw in three of Kyle Kendrick's average starts (3.5 runs per start) for the time Lee missed and we're talking about 51 runs. Give Lee 16 second-half starts at the rate he allowed runs a season ago (2.1 per start) and we're talking about a 17-run improvement.
2. Roy Halladay: -15 runs. He just threw his first bullpen session as he mends from a sore shoulder. Add Halladay's 11 starts (32 runs) and five of Kendrick's starts and we get 50 runs from this rotation spot. Let's say Halladay makes a fairly quick return after the break and makes 15 second-half starts and allows 2.3 runs per start. That's about a 15-run improvement.
3. Joe Blanton: -8 runs. He's allowed 61 runs in 16 starts. He has to do better. Cut him by half a run a start.
4. Bullpen: -25 runs. Phillies relievers are 9-13 with a 4.57 ERA, 13th in the NL. They've allowed 114 runs in 205 innings, or 5.0 runs per nine innings. Whether it's improvement from the current motley crew on the roster or the Phillies trade for some depth, the 'pen will have to do better. Cut them by 25 runs over 190 second-half innings (we're assuming a few more innings from the rotation) and we get 89 runs, or 4.2 per nine innings. This gets us to our 65 runs.
OK, that's one way for the Phillies to win 52 games in the second half. On paper, it seems reasonable.
That's on paper. Nothing outrageous needed. But that also assumes everything goes the Phillies' way, the injuries subside and some of the veterans pick it up. There's also no guarantee that 88 wins will be enough. The Phillies may need to win 54 or 55 games in the second half.
I wouldn't trade Hamels just yet. But I don't think I'd be betting on a sixth consecutive playoff appearance.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
OK, let's be brutally honest here about Jon Lester's complete game 6-1 victory on Monday night: It came against the Seattle Mariners. A lot of pitchers look pretty good against Seattle.
Nonetheless, it was Boston's first nine-inning complete game of the season and first since Josh Beckett threw a shutout last June. In fact, Beckett's shutout was Boston's only nine-inning complete game in 2011.
So it was a good sign that Lester went the distance (he did pitch eight innings in a 3-1 loss to Toronto back in his second start). For a guy who has had difficulty keeping his pitch counts down, he threw 119 pitches. He didn't walk anybody, although he threw first-pitch strikes to just 15 of 34 hitters. He struck out six, which at least was an improvement over his past two starts when he put away just five batters in 11 innings. I don't think we suddenly say the Jon Lester of 2008 through August 2011 is back, but it's a small step forward.
The Red Sox, of course, began the day in last place in the American League East. The Angels and Phillies also began the day in last place in their divisions. All three teams are under .500 and looking for small positives. Lester throws well against the Mariners? Hey, that's a positive. Joe Blanton beats the Astros? That's a positive. Small steps.
It has me wondering: Which of these teams -- all World Series contenders back in March -- is the best bet to take the big steps and reach the postseason? Let's backtrack a bit first.
Here were the odds to win the World Series for the three teams at the start of the season, from a certain gambling website:
Red Sox: 10-1
And the current odds:
Red Sox: 14-1
I'm actually surprised those odds haven't fallen a bit more, but it's a reminder that we're not even at the quarter pole yet.
Here were the preseason odds to make the playoffs that ran on ESPN Insider, via Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system:
Red Sox: 61.1 percent
Angels: 68.1 percent
Phillies: 62.2 percent
ESPN's panel of baseball personnel was even more optimistic about the Angels and Phillies. Here were the playoff percentages from the 50-person voting panel back on Opening Day:
Red Sox: 32 percent
Angels: 92 percent
Phillies: 86 percent
Not only were the Angels an overwhelming pick to the make the playoffs, 18 of the 50 voters picked them to win the World Series. Interesting that while Dan's numbers-based projected rated the three teams' playoff odds pretty similarly, the Red Sox were viewed in much less regard by the human prognosticators.
And now, as each team sits under .500? The current playoff odds via Coolstandings.com that run on ESPN.com:
Red Sox: 29.8 percent
Angels: 17.8 percent
Phillies: 31.5 percent
Clay Davenport also calculates projected playoffs odds. His system still likes the Red Sox in particular (percentages entering Monday's games):
Red Sox: 65.9 percent
Angels: 20.8 percent
Phillies: 51.6 percent
Clay projects Boston winning 88 games. Maybe his system views Lester as a Cy Young contender.
Now, this is where I pick which of these three teams will make the playoffs. Of course, all three could make it; not a big surprise if that happens. But if I had to pick one team, it's the Phillies. "Baseball Today" podcast host/KaraBlog author/SweetSpot contributor Eric Karabell says I can't do this; he says I've been bagging on the Phillies too much. He says I have to pick the Angels. I think Karabell is misremembering a few things. After all, I did have the Phillies to win the division and was one of just four of those ESPN folks to have the Angels missing the playoffs.
Look, the Red Sox can pound the old leather. My favorite stat: They have 100 doubles, 24 more than the Royals and at least 40 more than half the teams in baseball. The Angels have the advantage of playing the Mariners and A's 36 times this year, still have that great-on-paper rotation, and you know Albert Pujols will go on a tear at some point (although maybe we don't know that).
But I still see too many question marks on those teams. I need to see Lester and Beckett pitch several good games in a row. I need Vernon Wells and Erick Aybar and a few others hitting for the Angels. So here are five quick reasons I'm voting for the Phillies.
1. National League parity.
The Phillies, Brewers and Diamondbacks each won at least 94 games last season, but there's a high degree of possibility that no team will win that many in 2012. Heck, no team may win 90. This suggests the two wild cards may only have to win 85 or 86 games or so. Considering the mediocrity we've seen in the NL Central and NL West divisions outside the Cardinals and Dodgers, it seems like a good bet that two wild cards will come out of the NL East.
2. The Phillies' offense is bad ... but so is much pretty much every other team's offense in the NL.
The Phillies rank ninth in the NL in runs scored. They ranked seventh a year ago. Yes, Carlos Ruiz and Juan Pierre are leading the attack right now. The point isn't so much that this is suddenly going to turn into an offensive juggernaut once Ryan Howard and Chase Utley return and once Jimmy Rollins, Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino start hitting better, but merely to suggest that the Phillies' offense isn't a huge albatross when you compare it across the league.
3. They have Jonathan Papelbon.
OK, Charlie Manuel hasn't exactly done a good job of using him in high-leverage situations, but in a season where closers are falling prey to injuries and blown saves everywhere you look, Papelbon will still prove a small advantage over 162 games.
4. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels.
I still wouldn't trade them for another trio in baseball.
5. Blanton and Vance Worley.
Blanton lowered his ERA to 2.96 with seven strong innings against Houston on Monday. He has a 35/7 strikeout/walk ratio and has allowed just two home runs in 48.2 innings. Worley is once again proving skeptics wrong, with a 3.07 ERA and 45/15 strikeout/walk ratio in 44 innings. The rotation is five-deep and that depth will slowly show up over 162 games.
What do you think? If you haven't, vote in the poll at the top of the page.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
My parents still love watching baseball, even Seattle Mariners baseball. I called them Monday evening to see if they watched Philip Humber's perfect game on Saturday and my dad said he watched a few innings, went out to the mow the lawn and came back just in time to see the bottom of the ninth.
He then proceeded to complain about Chone Figgins ("He just can't hit.") and Justin Smoak ("Most good hitters don't take three or four years to figure things out."). Hey, he's right. And you can't blame him; he's been watching inept offense for two-plus years now. But then he said something that sums up a problem not unique to the Mariners:
"You know, even with their great pitching staff the Phillies can't win either."
Indeed, the Philadelphia Phillies entered Monday's game against the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 2.46 ERA. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Vance Worley had allowed just 22 runs in their 13 starts. It doesn't take a Ph.D. in Sabermetrics to realize that's fewer than two runs per start. But after losing 9-5 to Arizona (made closer with a five-run outburst in the ninth inning) the Phillies are now 7-10. That's the same record as the Mariners, and the Phillies have scored just 48 runs, an average of 2.82 runs per game.
That's right, the Philadelphia Phillies -- the five-time defending National League East champs -- have become the Seattle Mariners.
OK, OK ... I kid, Phillies fans. But the Phillies have scored 12 fewer runs than the Mariners, a team whose OPS leader is Brendan Ryan, a guy with a .190 batting average. We all know the laundry list of the Phillies' problems -- Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on the disabled list; Jimmy Rollins hitting .242 with no power (two doubles, no home runs) and just four walks; Placido Polanco hitting .185 with one extra-base hit and one RBI; John Mayberry Jr. hitting .205 with no walks and 14 strikeouts. And so on. In fact, it's fair to ask: Where would the Phillies be without Juan Pierre and Ty Wigginton?
Man, those 45-homer seasons from Ryan Howard seem like a long time ago.
What I'm wondering: How many runs do the Phillies need to score to contend for the playoffs? After all, offense is still 50 percent of the game.
Entering Monday's action, the National League was hitting a collective .242/.310/.376 -- a .686 OPS that is 24 points lower than 2011's numbers. That figure takes us back to the offensive levels of 1988 to 1992, when the NL OPS figures were .673, .678, .704, .689 and .684. So one way of looking at this: Let's assume it will take 87 wins to make the playoffs. What's the lowest run total for an NL team from that 1988-1992 period that won at least 87 games?
For you baseball historians out there, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the 1988 Dodgers scored just 628 runs, or 3.88 runs per game. That actually put the Dodgers sixth in a 12-team league. The Dodgers allowed 544 runs and finished 94-67, exceeding their projected record by three wins.
Back to the Phillies. They're on pace to score 457 runs. Obviously, that won't cut it, but of course the offense won't be that bad all season. It will pick up, that we can predict. In 2011, they allowed 529 runs, the lowest full-season total since the 1969 Orioles allowed 517. So if they match the '88 Dodgers' total of 628 runs, they're still in good shape and project as a 93-win team, assuming the same run prevention as 2011.
What will it take to score 628 runs? They'd have to score 580 runs over the final 145 games, or 4.0 runs per game. Or just about what the National League average has been so far -- 3.94 runs per game entering Monday's game.
But just like the offense is likely to improve moving forward, the pitching staff probably won't match last season's historic stinginess. With Cliff Lee heading to the DL over the weekend with a strained oblique, we see the precariousness of relying so much on a few starting pitchers. The Diamondbacks lit up Kyle Kendrick, Lee's replacement, for 11 hits and seven runs in three innings on Monday. Kendrick had a nice season in 2011, posting a 3.22 ERA over 114.2 innings, including 15 starts. Kendrick, however, lives on a fine line of success. Among 145 pitchers last season with at least 100 innings, his strikeout rate ranked 138th. So as he steps in for Lee -- who may miss a month, meaning four or five starts -- don't expect a 3.22 ERA from Kendrick.
That's just one reason to expect the staff to allow a few more runs. Let's say 30 more than a year ago. That's 559 runs. Now that '88 Dodgers total of 628 runs projects to a win total of ... 89.5.
That might still be enough to squeak into the playoffs. Four runs a game. That's all you need, Phillies fans.
But what if the Phillies average 3.8 runs per game the rest of the season instead of 4.0? That projects to 599 runs scored.
And 86 wins. One run every five games. A couple of extra bloops or bleeders per week. A few ground balls with eyes. The difference between making the playoffs and going home.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
1. Brian McCann, Braves
2. Wilson Ramos, Nationals
3. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
4. Josh Thole, Mets
5. John Buck, Marlins
Phillies fans will storm the bastille over this one and say I'm underestimating Ruiz's ability to call a game, but I think Wilson Ramos has a chance to be something special. He hit .267/.334/.445 as a rookie, spending most of the season at just 23 years old. The thing that bodes well is that his walk rate improved from 4 percent in Triple-A in 2010 to 8.7 percent last season. And to think they got him from the Twins for Matt Capps. Ruiz is an underrated player -- he's posted a .376 OBP the past three seasons -- but Ramos' power and potential for improvement put him at No. 2 behind McCann.
1. Freddie Freeman, Braves
2. Ryan Howard/Jim Thome, Phillies
3. Ike Davis, Mets
4. Gaby Sanchez, Marlins
5. Adam LaRoche, Nationals
Yes, there's huge value for the Nationals in signing Prince Fielder. With Davis and LaRoche coming off serious injuries and Howard out for at least a couple months, I have to give the top nod to Freeman. Sure, maybe he'll succumb to the dreaded sophomore jinx, but baseball history also tells us that players often make a huge leap from age 21 to age 22. If Davis hits like he did in the 36 games he played last year (.302/.383/.543) then he's an All-Star candidate, but while he says he's "good to go" for spring training, we'll have to wait to see how his ankle responds. As for Sanchez, he's a lukewarm cup of coffee on a 32-degree day.
1. Chase Utley, Phillies
2. Danny Espinosa, Nationals
3. Dan Uggla, Braves
4. Daniel Murphy, Mets
5. Omar Infante, Marlins
I put Utley first with some hesitation: His OPS totals since 2007 read .976, .915, .905, .832 and .769. Still, that .769 figure is better than Uggla or Espinosa produced in 2011, and Utley still carries a good glove. It's defense and predicted second-season improvement that pushes Espinosa over Uggla. Murphy doesn't hit many home runs or draw many walks, so most of his offensive value resides in his batting average. If he hits .320 again, he's a good player. If he hits .290, then he's still better than Infante.
1. Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals
2. David Wright, Mets
3. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
4. Chipper Jones, Braves
5. Placido Polanco, Phillies
If healthy, Zimmerman is one of the best players in the league. Ramirez and Wright were once part of that discussion, but no longer. Both players had the worst years of their careers in 2011. Will Wright rebound with the fences moved in at Citi Field? Will Ramirez bounce back and handle the transition to third base? Your guess is as good as mine. Chipper is aging gracefully, playing through injuries but still putting up respectable numbers. If this is his last season, I hope he goes out in style.
1. Jose Reyes, Marlins
2. Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
3. Ruben Tejada, Mets
4. Ian Desmond, Nationals
5. Tyler Pastornicky, Braves
Not much debate here. Tejada posted a .360 OBP in 2011 as a 21-year-old. He doesn't have any power, but I believe the Mets are in good hands at shortstop. The same can't be said about Desmond, who must improve his defense (23 errors) and approach at the plate (139/35 SO/BB ratio). Pastornicky hit .314 in the minors last year, including .365 in 27 games in Triple-A. He puts the ball in play and has some speed, but won't hit for much power or draw many walks, so he'll need to hit for a good average to hold the job.
1. Michael Morse, Nationals
2. Martin Prado, Braves
3. Logan Morrison, Marlins
4. Domonic Brown/John Mayberry, Phillies
5. Jason Bay, Mets
We have to consider Morse the real deal by now, don't we? Although he comes with a few caveats: That 126/36 SO/BB ratio is a concern; so is his .344 average on balls in play, which ranked 15th in the majors (can he repeat that figure?); and finally, he plays left field a bit like a fire hydrant. By the way, how bad is this group defensively? Morrison may have even less range than Morse, Brown looked terrible in right field with the Phillies last year and Bay isn't getting paid $16 million because he's adept at running down balls in the gap. Actually, I'm not sure what he's getting paid for.
1. Shane Victorino, Phillies
2. Michael Bourn, Braves
3. Emilio Bonifacio, Marlins
4. Andres Torres, Mets
5. Roger Bernadina, Nationals
This seems pretty straightforward other than the ongoing raging debate between Andres Torres fans and Roger Bernadina fans.
1. Mike Stanton, Marlins
2. Hunter Pence, Phillies
3. Jason Heyward, Braves
4. Jayson Werth, Nationals
5. Lucas Duda, Mets
Mike Stanton ... 2012 National League MVP? Too soon? I'm just saying don't be surprised if it happens.
No. 1 starter
1. Roy Halladay, Phillies
2. Josh Johnson, Marlins
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
4. Tim Hudson, Braves
5. Johan Santana, Mets
Is there a more important player in the majors in 2012 than Johnson? The Marlins fancy themselves contenders but they need a healthy Johnson headlining the rotation. After leading the NL with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, he had posted a 1.64 ERA through 10 starts in 2011 before shoulder tendinitis shelved him for the season. He's been throwing and long tossing and is expected to be 100 percent for spring training. Strasburg has the ability to be just as dominant as Halladay and Johnson, but the Nationals will likely monitor his innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.
No. 2 starter
1. Cliff Lee, Phillies
2. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
3. Mark Buehrle, Marlins
4. Tommy Hanson, Braves
5. R.A. Dickey, Mets
This is a terrific group of No. 2 starters, as even the knuckleballer Dickey posted a 3.28 ERA in 2011 (and 3.08 ERA over the past two seasons). Hanson has Cy Young ability, but his own shoulder issues from late last season raise a red flag.
No. 3 starter
1. Cole Hamels, Phillies
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
3. Anibal Sanchez, Marlins
4. Jair Jurrjens, Braves
5. Mike Pelfrey, Mets
Zimmermann is the sleeping giant in the Nationals rotation. His strikeout/walk ratio of 4.0 ranked 11th-best among starters in 2011 and another year beyond his own TJ surgery should help him develop the stamina to improve on his second-half numbers (2.66 ERA before the All-Star break, 4.47 after). I'm not a big Jurrjens fan; he's a good pitcher, but he's now battled injuries two seasons in a row and his strikeout rate took a big dip last season.
No. 4 starter
1. Brandon Beachy, Braves
2. Vance Worley, Phillies
3. John Lannan, Nationals
4. Jonathon Niese, Mets
5. Ricky Nolasco, Marlins
You could draw this list out of a hat. Beachy and Worley surprised many with their exceptional rookie seasons; I believe both are for real, as both seemed to deliver better-than-advertised fastballs. Now they just have to prove they can become seven-inning pitchers instead of five or six. Niese is an excellent breakout candidate in 2012: He throws hard enough for a lefty (90-91), gets strikeouts, doesn't walk too many, gets groundballs. In fact, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) was 3.36 compared to his actual ERA of 4.40. It wouldn't surprise me to see him win 15 games with a 3.40 ERA. It would surprise me if Nolasco does that; 2008 is starting to look further and further in the rear-view mirror.
No. 5 starter
1. Mike Minor, Braves
2. Carlos Zambrano, Marlins
3. Dillon Gee, Mets
4. Chien-Ming Wang, Nationals
5. Joe Blanton/Kyle Kendrick, Phillies
If you're talking depth, the big edge here goes to the Braves, who also have prospects Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and Arodys Vizcaino ready to step in. Big Z is a nice gamble by the Marlins as a No. 5 starter, you could do worse.
1. Craig Kimbrel, Braves
2. Jonathan Papelbon, Phillies
3. Drew Storen, Nationals
4. Heath Bell, Marlins
5. Frank Francisco, Mets
As dominant as Kimbrel was in winning Rookie of the Year honors (14.8 K's per nine), he did blow eight saves. But Papelbon is just one season removed from his own season of eight blown saves. Factor in Kimbrel's K rate and slightly heavier workload, and I'll give him the slight nod. Bell will have to prove himself away from the friendly confines of Petco Park, so Storen rates the clear No. 3 here.
1. Braves -- Jonny Venters, Eric O'Flaherty, Kris Medlen, Cristhian Martinez, Anthony Varvaro
2. Marlins -- Steve Cishek, Edward Mujica, Mike Dunn, Ryan Webb, Randy Choate
3. Nationals -- Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett, Henry Rodriguez, Ryan Perry, Tom Gorzelanny
4. Phillies -- Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, Dontrelle Willis, David Herndon, Jose Contreras
5. Mets -- Bobby Parnell, Jon Rauch, Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak, Manny Acosta
The top four teams all project to have solid-to-excellent pens. Venters and Clippard are arguably the two best set-up guys in baseball. Cishek is the rare sidearmer who can get lefties out as well as righties and he allowed just one home run in 54 innings as a rookie. The Phillies don't need many innings from their pen and while Willis could be a terrific lefty killer (lefties hit .127 off him in 2011), Bastardo must rebound from his late-season fatigue.
New stadium, new free agents, new manager, new uniforms -- I view all of that as a plus for the Marlins. The playoffs left a sour taste for the Phillies' veteran-heavy squad and those guys will want nothing more than to win a sixth straight division title. The Braves have plenty of incentive after their late-season collapse. The Nationals are young but have no chip on their shoulder. But if they sign Prince ...
The final tally
1. Phillies, 58 points
2. Braves, 56 points
3. Marlins, 49 points
4. Nationals, 48 points
5. Mets, 29 points
And the napkin says the Phillies are still the division favorite. What, you want to bet against Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels?
- On his U.S.S. Mariner site, FanGraphs writer and ESPN contributor Dave Cameron suggests the Mariners should make a pitch for Anthony Rizzo, now that the Padres acquired Yonder Alonso in the Mat Latos deal. Dave suggests it could cost shortstop prospect Nick Franklin or pitching prospect James Paxton. Likewise, in his video review of the trade, Jim Bowden suggests Rizzo could be used to acquire Matt Garza from the Cubs. Here are three other possible landing spots for Rizzo:1. Rays: Tampa Bay needs a cheap, preferably left-handed bat, to play first base. Rizzo is cheap and left-handed. Wade Davis is signed to a team-friendly that could interest the Padres, although it would probably take more than Davis to pry away Rizzo.2. Orioles: The Orioles have Mark Reynolds and Chris Davis, which is kind of like have two screwdrivers when you need a hammer. Needless to say, the Orioles don't exactly have a lot to offer, as they need to keep Zach Britton and Brian Matusz is damaged goods after his tragically bad season. The Orioles do have two highly regarded shortstop prospects in Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop, although both are a few years from the majors.3. Astros: Absorbing Wandy Rodriguez's salary doesn't make sense for the Padres, so unless the Astros are willing to part with Jordan Lyles or Bud Norris, probably not a good match here.
- Here's a quick rundown on Latos' career to date.
- Speaking of the Orioles, Camden Depot has a rundown on the big shakeup in Baltimore's scouting department.
- It's the 12 Days of Baseballmas, from Mark Smith at The Platoon Advantage.
- Nick Nelson writes that it's looking like more of the same from Twins: In other words, a pitching staff that can't strike anybody out.
- Fun post from Stephanie Liscio on her irrational loves and hates. Yes, I would say loving Ronnie Belliard is a bit irrational. My hate of Jim Presley and Pete O'Brien? Completely justified, of course.
- Mark Simon writes about Jimmy Rollins' defense. Is he on the decline?
- Dwight Evans is a stathead favorite for his wide range of underrated skills. David Laurila of FanGraphs caught up with Evans to discuss The Catch, 1986 and his son's illness.
- One of the Mariners' minority owners is in the middle of messy divorce. So how much is the club worth?
- Finally, Grant Bisbee writes that the NL West should be sad that Mat Latos is leaving the division -- after all, he was so much fun to dislike.