SweetSpot: Michael Bourn

Can the Indians come back this season?

May, 20, 2014
5/20/14
12:55
AM ET


Is it too soon to count out the Tribe? After Monday’s walk-off win at the Tigers’ expense ended their recent losing streak, it’s worth looking at what has to happen to get last year’s wild-card surprise back in the running in the AL wild-card race. Here’s a quick look at what has to happen for the Indians to become relevant again.

1. This new-look Michael Brantley has to keep doing what he’s been doing. His game-winning blast on Monday was just the latest happy development for him. Almost like clockwork, he’s having a big year as a 27-year-old, right when you’d expect, and you can worry that a lot of it is a big early spike in his homers per fly ball, more than triple his previous career best. But you also can’t help but wonder if this is the payoff for a guy who’s significantly better than average at putting balls in play. Brantley’s .250 Isolated Power against off-speed stuff ranks in the top 20 among major league regulars, so when he got an Al Alburquerque slider over the plate in the 10th, he got an opportunity to add to that impressive clip.

2. Several slow starts in the lineup have to end. Michael Bourn has missed time to injury, but the bigger worry is his career-low walk rate so far (5.5 percent), which is crippling for a team counting on him to get on base in the leadoff slot. Nick Swisher has the seventh-lowest OPS among AL qualifiers, and he’s slugging just .317. Carlos Santana’s been even worse, below .600. While you might ascribe some of that to his troubles adjusting to life as a third baseman, and you can blame some of it on an unusually awful .167 BABIP through Sunday, he is at least walking. Santana and Swisher are supposed to be the stable middle of the order, and their poor performance is part of the reason why the Indians are among the worst at cashing in their baserunners, scoring just 13 percent of them, bettering only the Astros in the AL.

3. This is sort of a subset of the slow starts already mentioned, but the other thing the Indians have to do is start hitting lefties. As far as their record, the Indians were an MLB-worst 4-11 versus left-handed starters coming into their game against Drew Smyly on Monday. The average MLB OPS versus southpaws is .720, but through Sunday the Indians were at .608. You can deposit only so much of the blame for this at situational hero Ryan Raburn’s doorstep. Last year, Raburn went from scrapheap find to lefty-killer, mashing against them for a 1.020 OPS; this year, he was scrapping at less than half that clip at .508 before Monday’s action. Raburn is merely representative of a lineup-wide problem, because outside of Brantley and Asdrubal Cabrera, all of the lineup regulars were putting up a .635 OPS or worse. Start hitting southpaws, and the wins will come.

4. The Indians have to play better defense. A .660 Defensive Efficiency isn’t just the worst in the league or in the majors this year, if that’s what the Indians’ leather men do all season it would be the worst-ever DE posted by a team going back through the 1950 season. (Earlier than that, and we’re less certain about the data.) So that’s epically bad, and to put it another way, 34 percent of all balls put into play against the Indians become baserunners. Not counting walks, not counting homers. The big league average is .689, the AL-leading Athletics are at .722, while the Reds are baseball’s best at .732.

Switch to Defensive Runs Saved, and you get a sense of the damage: According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Indians’ infielders had cost them 16 runs, while the outfield had cost them 26 runs. If you use the old sabermetric yardstick that 10 runs equals a win, that’s four wins the Indians’ defense has already cost them. It’s especially interesting that the outfield has been such a problem: As Rangers fans might have warned Cleveland, David Murphy is a left fielder stretched to handle right, but Bourn and Brantley are both athletic players you’d anticipate better results from afield.

The Indians’ pitching staff is doing what it can to control the damage by keeping balls out of play, striking out 22.7 percent of all batters through Sunday, good for the fourth-best rate in baseball. But even whiffing 2.5 percent more people than the average staff for near-automatic outs doesn’t compensate for being three percent worse than average at letting balls in play become baserunners.

5. The rotation needs to take shape. Yes, we just blamed the fielding for making life hard for the Indians’ men on the mound, but Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco have to own some portion of losing their jobs in the rotation. Zach McAllister has managed just four quality starts in nine turns, while presumed ace Justin Masterson has just five in 10, right at the league average. Corey Kluber is the lone bright spot.

To help fix this issue, Trevor Bauer returns to a major league mound on Tuesday night with high expectations for him as well as for his strikeout rate. Facing Justin Verlander, he will get anything but a soft landing, but the big-picture problem is that if he doesn’t cut down on the freebies that have undermined him in every one of his previous extended stints in the majors, he’ll just be putting that much more pressure on that defense, and he’ll pay a high penalty no matter how many people he overpowers.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it looks like Terry Francona once again has a deep bullpen used to good effect. Last year, Francona’s pen made an MLB-leading 540 appearances, and it’s leading the AL this year with 150 appearances through Sunday. Last year’s crew was a little better than average, stranding 73 percent of baserunners (against 70 percent for all MLB). This year’s unit is doing even better, stranding 79 percent of baserunners (with MLB averaging 71 percent). Using Fair Run Average, and the bullpen has improved from last year’s 4.09 to 4.01.

So Francona’s pen men are once again better than most when it comes to preventing runs, and they’ll need to keep that going forward. The down note is John Axford’s perhaps predictable failure to hold onto the closer’s role, but as last year’s Red Sox proved, taking a few months to figure out who your team’s designated saves generator is supposed to be doesn’t necessarily keep you from doing big things.

Can the Indians get it turned around? It would be unusual for Santana and Swisher to remain this terrible, or for Bourn to post his worst season. It would be unusual to see them be the worst defense in history or even recent history, and if (or when) that starts turning around, life will get easier for the men in the rotation. The question is whether it’s going to happen in time for the Tribe to get back into the AL wild-card race, but considering they're just 3.5 games out now -- after all that's gone wrong for them already -- there is no reason to give up on them before the season even reaches the one-third mark.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.


Don’t let the final score fool you: This was an interesting game, from Danny Salazar looking like the second coming of Bob Feller to sabermetric whipping boy Delmon Young hitting another postseason home run to the Cleveland Indians creating one scoring opportunity after another after falling behind, only to come up empty in every single one of them.

In October baseball, we love to dissect the strategies and the percentages and the bullpens and everything a manager has a pulse on, but what makes the postseason so exciting are the individual showdowns: Pitcher versus batter, fans on their feet, ducks on the pond, game potentially on the line.

In this wild-card game, there were three huge at-bats that allowed the Tampa Bay Rays to survive and beat the Indians 4-0.
[+] EnlargeYunel Escobar
AP Photo/Tony DejakYunel Escobar and the rest of the Rays' D can celebrate a decisive effort.

Let’s set the stage. Salazar, the rookie with the upper-90s gas and just 10 career starts, looked unhittable for two innings, but then Young tagged him for a home run in the third inning, a first-pitch 95 mph fastball low and in, a pitch Young rarely does damage against. In the fourth, Salazar fell behind James Loney two balls and Loney singled off a 97 mph fastball; he fell behind Longoria two balls and Longoria singled off a 96 mph fastball; after getting the second out, he fell behind Desmond Jennings with a changeup and then Jennings doubled down the left-field line on a 97 mph fastball to score two runs.

One thing about the Rays: You know no team is going to be more prepared. Others may be as prepared, but no team is going to out-prepare them. Salazar had 24 2-0 counts in his limited action this season and threw 24 fastballs. He had 93 1-0 counts and threw 77 fastballs. Major league hitters can hit 97 mph fastballs if they know they're coming.

So the score is 3-0, with the wind sucked out of Indians fans like it never was Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Big at-bat No. 1: Bottom of fourth, bases loaded with one out, Alex Cobb versus Asdrubal Cabrera. Cabrera didn’t have a good season for Cleveland. A productive hitter the previous two seasons, he hit just .242/.299/.402. Terry Francona kept giving him a chance to get going and he was hitting cleanup even into August before finally moving down in the order.

Cobb posted a 2.76 ERA in 22 starts (he missed time after getting hit in the head with a line drive) and a good strikeout rate despite lacking an overpowering fastball. But he expertly mixes speeds and has a sharp, downward-breaking “spike” curveball and excellent changeup.

Cabrera actually handled changeups very well, hitting .297/.354/.582, with six of his 14 home runs. Left-handers hit just .214 against Cobb’s changeup. Strength against strength. Cobb started with a curveball for a ball and then threw a changeup that was actually a little flat and up in the zone. But Cabrera rolled over on it and slick-fielding first baseman Loney turned a 3-6-1 double play to escape the inning.

Big at-bat No. 2: Bottom of fifth, runners at the corners, no outs, Cobb versus Michael Bourn. Yan Gomes doubled and Lonnie Chisenhall singled, bringing up Cleveland’s leadoff hitter. Bourn is a speed guy, but one who strikes out too much for a speed guy. Still ... at least put the ball in play on the ground and you score a run and likely avoid the double play because you’re a speed guy.

But here’s the genius of Cobb: Two-seam fastball for a strike, a swinging strike on the curveball, a two-seamer for a ball ... and then another curveball, biting into the dirt, for a swing and miss. Bourn may have been looking for the changeup and got the curve. Great pitch, both in thought process and execution, probably his best pitch of the night.

Big at-bat No. 3: Bottom of the seventh, runners at first and second, two outs, Joel Peralta versus Nick Swisher. Joe Maddon had gone surprising deep with Cobb, 107 pitches and even let him face the tying run in Bourn with one out (Bourn flied out to deep left-center). That brought up the switch-hitting Swisher, a guy with a miserable postseason history, a .169 average in 46 games entering this game.

Maddon went to Peralta, keeping Swisher on his weaker left side (.220/.310/.370 versus .295/.397/.521). Peralta had some bad outings in September and can give up the long ball, but it’s understandable why he’d use Peralta there instead of lefties Jake McGee or Alex Torres. (If anything, it’s a little surprising that Cobb was left in to face Bourn.)

Swisher swung from his heels on a curveball and splitter, missing with two wild, go-for-the-fences swings, stumbling across home plate on the second one. He then swung through an inside 93 mph fastball. If Reggie Jackson is Mr. October, Swisher is the opposite.

There were a couple other key plays -- in the fourth, Ben Zobrist made a diving play on an infield hit to prevent a run before Cabrera’s double play; an error and hit/error off Swisher's glove led to Tampa’s fourth run in the ninth. But, really, this came down to those crucial one-on-one battles, and the Rays won those.

In the end, I think the better team won. Tampa Bay came from the tough AL East; the Indians had gone just 36-52 against teams over .500 this season. It was a magical ride the final two weeks for Cleveland to get here and it’s a shame it had to end so quickly for a city so desperate for a championship in any sport.

But the Rays are moving on to face the Red Sox and their left-handed pitching can perhaps match up with the lethal Boston lineup. Matt Moore will likely start Game 1 but with two off days in the series, David Price could start Game 2 and Game 5, if necessary, on regular rest.

Let the showdown begins.

A year ago, the Cleveland Indians allowed the most runs in the American League, a pretty remarkable achievement considering the Minnesota Twins had a historically awful rotation. The Indians, however, combined bad pitchers and bad defense -- their -51 Defensive Runs Saved ranked 28th in the majors.

Like the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, the Indians decided to make their pitching better by improving their defense. First they traded impending free agent Shin-Soo Choo, who graded out as -12 DRS in right field, and landed Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs in the deal, pushing Michael Brantley to left. Then they signed free agent Nick Swisher to replace Choo; Swisher is a better right fielder than Choo. But when Michael Bourn remained unsigned into February, the Indians swooped in and signed the two-time Gold Glove center fielder. That pushed Swisher primarily to first base and gave the Indians an outfield of three guys who played center field last year.

The Indians' outfield collectively rated as -17 a year ago, and it's conceivable this group could rate at +30 runs -- a 47-run difference worth nearly five wins. Not to mention maybe some added confidence to the pitching staff.

The Red Sox, likewise, signed Shane Victorino to play right field and promoted rookie Jackie Bradley to play left. They join Jacoby Ellsbury to give them an outfield of three center fielders; Bradley defers to the veteran Ellsbury for now, but scouting reports suggest he's an elite defender.

The Angels, who rated as the second-best defensive outfield a year ago at +46 runs (behind Atlanta's +55), could be even better this year, with Peter Bourjos getting more time in center, Mike Trout playing left, and Josh Hamilton, who played a lot of center field for Texas, in right. Essentially, the Angels decided to replace Kendrys Morales' bat with Bourjos' glove, with Mark Trumbo playing more DH and less outfield.

If Bill James and then "Moneyball" popularized the importance of on-base percentage, then that sort of makes outfield defense the new OBP. Of course, just because emphasizing outfield defense appears to be a new trend doesn't really make it new. Just like Branch Rickey was talking about the importance of OBP over batting average in the 1950s.

For example, look at Whitey Herzog's Royals of the late '70s and then his Cardinals in the 1980s. Playing on turf in both places, he always emphasized speed in the outfield. His 1985 Cardinals, for example, had an outfield of Vince Coleman, Willie McGee and Andy Van Slyke, three guys who could play center field (although Coleman had a poor arm). Van Slyke later paired with Barry Bonds in Pittsburgh to give the Pirates two Gold Glove outfielders as they won three NL East titles in a row. The A's of the early '80s had the great trio of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy and Tony Armas. The 2001 Mariners won 116 games in part by employing three great defenders in Mike Cameron, Ichiro Suzuki and part-timer Stan Javier.

But I would suggest that it seems we are deep in outstanding defensive outfields right now. Here's how I would rank the top five -- remember, we're talking only about defense here.

1. Angels: LF Mike Trout, CF Peter Bourjos, RF Josh Hamilton
Trout and Bourjos are arguably the two best outfielders in the American League, and Hamilton is at least adequate with a strong arm.

2. Athletics: LF Yoenis Cespedes, CF Coco Crisp, RF Josh Reddick
The A's were fifth in DRS last year at +17, but that includes Cespedes' time in center, where he rated poorly. He should be solid in left (he made a nice play on Hamilton the other night, running down a deep drive in left-center and doubling Albert Pujols off first) with a strong arm, Reddick is outstanding in right (+19 last year) and Crisp average in center. And backing up is Chris Young, who always had excellent defensive metrics with Arizona.

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3. Indians: LF Michael Brantley, CF Michael Bourn, RF Drew Stubbs
Bourn's +24 DRS last year tied him with Alex Gordon for the best total of any outfielder in the majors. He can run everything down in center, and now you flank him with two decent center fielders who should rate above-average in the corners. The only question here: Will Stubbs hit enough to remain in the lineup?

4. Brewers: LF Ryan Braun, CF Carlos Gomez, RF Norichika Aoki
The Brewers ranked third at +24 DRS a year ago and should be very good once again. All three are above-average defenders.

5. Red Sox: LF Jackie Bradley Jr., CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RF Shane Victorino
Victorino's metrics have dropped a bit in the past couple seasons as a center fielder, but he can still run and has a chance to be outstanding in right. Bradley won't get to show off his range at Fenway Park, but that doesn't mean he won't add defensive value. Ellsbury was +7 DRS back in 2011.

Worth considering: Nationals (Bryce Harper, Denard Span, Jayson Werth). Span is very good and Harper actually rated very good in center last year, despite some bad routes at times. Werth appears to have lost a step from his Phillies days.

Worth considering but overrated: Braves (Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward). It will be interesting to see what happens here. Since Baseball Info Solutions began their Defensive Runs Saved metric in 2003, the +55 the Braves were evaluated at last year was the third-highest by any outfield (behind two other Braves teams in 2005 and 2007 that featured Andruw Jones). But Bourn and Martin Prado are gone, replaced by the Upton brothers. Some consider B.J. an elite center fielder, but I've never thought that and his metrics aren't great (-30 runs over the past three years). Heyward is terrific in right (+20 last year and a deserving Gold Glove winner) while Justin has been solid (+14 total over the past three years) if prone to throwing errors.

Sleeper: Tigers (Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter). Jackson is terrific in center, and Hunter continues to age gracefully.

The defensive metrics don't like them: Orioles (Nate McLouth, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis). Jones won the AL Gold Glove for center field, but DRS considers him below average. Just a few games into the season, the Orioles are at -5 runs ... although, to be fair, so are the Angels (Trout is -2 and Hamilton -4). Maybe Trout is fat.

Will teams try to tank in 2013?

February, 21, 2013
2/21/13
5:52
PM ET
OK, that's a loaded term, a dirty word in the world of sports.

As we saw this offseason, however, there is a big difference between being the 10th-worst team in baseball and the 11th-worst. The New York Mets needed an outfielder. Actually, they needed three outfielders. As Michael Bourn's free agency dragged into late January and then into February, it became clear the Mets were very interested in the speedy center fielder.

But the Mets hold the 11th pick in the draft. Only the first 10 first-round picks are protected from free agents who were given a qualifying offer from their previous clubs, as the Braves did with Bourn. (The Mets actually had the 10th-worst record last season, but since the Pirates failed to sign Mark Appel, the eighth overall pick in 2012, they received a compensatory ninth pick, pushing the Mets down to 11th overall.)

The Mariners are slotted right after the Mets in the draft, and they too needed an outfielder. They made a push for free agent Josh Hamilton, but were never tied to Bourn or Nick Swisher, perhaps because they didn't want to lose their first-round pick for either of those two.

So the Indians, drafting fifth, swooped in and signed Swisher and Bourn, acquiring two good players and losing only their far less valuable second- and third-round picks.

This system isn't a radical departure from the previous rules of free agency, which classified various free agents as "Type A" and "Type B." Under that system, the first 15 selections were protected when a team signed a Type A free agent, so the new system only removes five teams from the protected list -- still, that's 17 percent, enough to certainly drag down the potential negotiating leverage of guys like Swisher and Bourn, at least a little.

As others like Joe Sheehan have written, the free-agent compensation system isn't so much about creating competitive balance -- although this year, in the case of Cleveland, it worked out that way -- as it is holding down player salaries. Michael Bourn wasn't "free" to negotiate with 30 teams; he was "free" to negotiate with 10 teams; the other 20 all had to balance the money given to Bourn with the loss of a first-round pick.

Of course, the 11th pick is much more valuable than the 30th pick, and that's what makes the current system unfair to teams like the Mets and Mariners that are just on the wrong side of the line. And that's what gets us to the headline on this piece: You'd much rather finish a few games worse and end up with the ninth or 10th pick then get stuck in that no-man's land of not being close to the postseason and yet being punished when it comes to signing free agents. Again, this has always been the case to a certain extent, except if you were previously on that line between the 15th and 16th pick, you were also closer to being a playoff team.

Where is that division now? Here are the last five seasons, with the ninth-worst team's win total listed first, followed by the 10th-, 11th- and 12th-worst.

2012: 73/74/75/76
2011: 72/73/74/77
2010: 76/77/79/80
2009: 75/75/75/78
2008: 74/74/75/75

We're only talking a few wins here and I'd note all these win totals are under that magical .500 barrier that mediocre teams often push for at the end of a season, so no team would have to forgo that goal to "tank" and get a better draft position. But say you're the Cubs and you're five games under .500 in late July, essentially out of the playoff race; getting to that 10th spot certainly provides added incentive to trade away guys like Scott Baker or Scott Feldman or Matt Garza. You may not even be worried so much about the quality of prospect you get in return; you want to lose a couple more games if you can. Publicly, you're just suggesting you need to give some of the younger guys a chance to play (which is probably a good idea anyway).

Maybe teams have always done this and we just never paid attention until the Mets/Bourn case highlighted this. (You would have to study the number of Type A free agents signed by teams drafting, say, 13th through 15th versus those drafting 16th through 18th.)

Anyway, I don't think we're talking about NBA-level tanking here; teams aren't going to make a mockery of the sport, especially since managers and general managers may be fighting to hold on to their jobs and every win may count in that regard. But come August or September, pay close attention to those teams on pace for about 74 or 75 wins.
Right now, the New York Mets' website lists their starting outfield as Lucas Duda in left field, Kirk Nieuwenhuis in center and Mike Baxter in right. Not exactly Mooke, Lenny and Darryl, let alone Upton, Upton and Heyward or Harper, Span and Werth. You can see why the Mets may be interested in Michael Bourn. The conflict there is the Mets own the 11th pick in the draft -- but only the top 10 are protected, so the Mets would lose that first-round pick if they sign Bourn.

Last year, the Mets' outfield accumulated 4.1 WAR via FanGraphs -- 29th in the majors, just ahead of the Astros. Now, some of that responsibility fell to Jason Bay (.165 in 215 plate appearances), but Duda was the biggest negative, primarily thanks to his terrible defense in right field. Duda is really a first baseman, except he doesn't really hit like a first baseman, not with a .239/.329/.389 line.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bourn
Brian Garfinkel/Getty ImagesUnlikely to be in contention for a few more seasons, it would not make sense for the Mets to sign Michael Bourn.
Niewenhuis flashed some potential but with 98 strikeouts in 314 plate appearances, he'll need to improve his contact rate to become anything more than a fourth outfielder. Baxter is a journeyman/4-A type of player and at 28 isn't going to get better. He'll take a few walks but won't give you the power you want from a right fielder. Collin Cowgill and Jordany Valdespin are also hanging around. As you can guess, there isn't a lot of upside here.

Even worse, the two most productive Mets' outfielders from 2012 are gone. Scott Hairston provided power in a part-time role and Andres Torres at least played decent defense in center. Could this end up being a historically awful outfield?

Over the last 10 seasons, FanGraphs rates the 2004 Royals as the worst, with a cumulative -2.2 WAR. That group featured Carlos Beltran for half a season and a rookie David DeJesus, who was about a league average hitter in 413 PAs. Matt Stairs played a lot out there and hit OK but killed them defensively and Dee Brown and Abraham Nunez each had more than 200 PAs with OBPs around .300. Juan Gonzalez even played a few games out there. That's past-his-prime Juan Gone. Certainly a pretty uninspiring group, especially after Beltran was jettisoned off to Houston.

The second-worst outfield is a bit of a surprise: The 2005 Yankees, with Hideki Matsui, Bernie Williams and Gary Sheffield, at -2.2 WAR. Bernie didn't hit but the other two did and collectively the Yankee outfield had a wRC+ of 101, so it was about a league average group offensively. But FanGraphs rates those three as -70 runs on defense and others who filled in (Tony Womack, Bubba Crosby, Ruben Sierra) as another -27. Defensive Runs Saved isn't quite as harsh with a collective -65 runs, but it was clearly one of the worst defensive outfields ever assembled. The Yankees managed to win 95 games anyway.

Third worst on the FanGraphs list is the 2007 White Sox, which ... well, it was a terrible group, with Scott Podsednik and Rob Mackowiak in left; Jerry Owens, Darin Erstad and Luis Terrero each starting at least 24 games in center; and Jermaine Dye (-27 Defensive Runs Saved) in right. Dye didn't even hit much that year, with a .317 OBP.

If we're talking strictly offense, the group with lowest wRC+ is the 2011 Mariners (the 2012 Astros being next-lowest), which no surprise to Mariners fans reading this. Mariners outfielders hit .235 with a .285 OBP. That's bad for a glove-first shortstop let alone an entire outfield.

The Mets' outfield won't be that bad. But I don't see the point in signing Bourn and losing that first-round pick. The Nationals and Braves have built powerhouse franchises for 2013 and beyond. The Mets aren't likely to sniff the playoffs this year, even the second wild card. Maybe by 2014 or 2015 they can contend around a great rotation as Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler mature, but how productive will Bourn still be in two or three years? There's no doubt Bourn would help some of those young starters race down some mistakes in center, but at what cost? Considering his age, strikeout rate and a game built around speed, if Bourn loses a couple steps the decline could be rapid.

While I can understand the rationale in signing Bourn to improve the defense, unless you can get him at a steep discount (less than what the Braves paid B.J. Upton, for example), I say pass.
Roy HalladayAP PhotosLanding a star like Roy Halladay in the second half of the first round is a rare happening.
One of the big stories of the offseason has been what has happened to the nine free agents who received qualifying offers. Teams had to decide whether to offer their free agents a one-year, $13.3 million contract in order to receive draft-pick compensation if the player signed with another team. The nine players extended such an offer were Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, Hiroki Kuroda, David Ortiz, Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, Rafael Soriano and Adam LaRoche.

Hamilton and Greinke were the top two free agents on the market, Kuroda and Ortiz re-signed with the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively, and Swisher signed with Cleveland, which since it owns a protected top-10 pick, had to forfeit its second-round pick instead of a first-rounder. The other four players remain unsigned, and there has been speculation it's because they're tied to a draft pick -- but not so good, as in the case of Hamilton and Greinke, to entice a big contract . Of course, three of those players are Scott Boras clients, so there are mitigating factors here.

Anyway, it raises the question: What is a draft pick worth? If you're the Texas Rangers and you're interested in signing Bourn but would have to give up the 24th pick in the draft, do you still make the plunge?

I went back to all drafts since 1990 to determine the value of each pick, 11 through 30. That's 23 drafts worth of first-rounders. The draft began in 1965, but rules have changed through the years, scouting has improved (high school players were overdrafted in the early years, for example) and by 1990, the college game was fully mature. So let's start there.

Using Baseball-Reference.com, we can add up the total Wins Above Replacement for each draft slot. I divided by 20 to get an average value per slot -- obviously, most players from the past three drafts have yet to reach the majors. Certainly, that average will go up as players accumulate value, but it does give us a decent estimate of what to expect from each slot.

11. Total WAR: 50.4 (2.5 per player)
Best picks: Andrew McCutchen, Max Scherzer, Shawn Estes, Neil Walker
In the minors: George Springer

Until the Pirates tabbed McCutchen in 2005, journeyman lefty Estes had been the best player with the 11th pick, making this sort of the black hole of draft positions. Other than Scherzer, there is little else on the horizon, as recent picks like Justin Smoak and Tyler Matzek haven't developed.

12. Total WAR: 179.2 (9.0 per player)
Best picks: Nomar Garciaparra, Jered Weaver, Billy Wagner, Matt Morris, Jay Bruce
In the minors: Taylor Jungmann

Some good depth here as well with guys like Brett Myers, Joe Saunders and Doug Glanville. Wagner, Garciaparra and Morris were taken in 1993-95, all college players.

13. Total WAR: 150.8 (7.5 per player)
Best picks: Manny Ramirez, Paul Konerko, Aaron Hill, Chris Sale
In the minors: Brandon Nimmo

Manny accounts for 64.8 of that 150.8 WAR, or 43 percent.

14. Total WAR: 109.8 (5.5 per player)
Best picks: Derrek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Jason Varitek, Jason Heyward, Billy Butler
In the minors: Jose Fernandez

Heyward will end up as the best player on the list.

15. Total WAR: 113.8 (5.7 per player)
Best picks: Chase Utley, Chris Carpenter, Scott Kazmir, Stephen Drew
In the minors: Jed Bradley

It's a big drop after those top four players, as the fifth-most valuable has been spare outfielder Gabe Gross.

16. Total WAR: 120.8 (6.0 per player)
Best picks: Lance Berkman, Shawn Green, Nick Swisher, Brett Lawrie
In the minors: Lucas Giolito

Lawrie was a Brewers draft pick, traded to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum.

17. Total WAR: 127.3 (6.4 per player)
Best picks: Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Jeromy Burnitz, Brad Lidge
In the minors: C.J. Cron

One Hall of Famer, one potential Hall of Famer, a closer who had a couple great years and not much else.

18. Total WAR: 15.1 (0.8 per player)
Best picks: R.A. Dickey, Ike Davis, Aaron Heilman
In the minors: Kaleb Cowart

And Dickey's value came after he had been let go by four different organizations.

19. Total WAR: 67.7 (3.4 per player)
Best picks: Alex Rios, Shannon Stewart, James Loney
In the minors: Shelby Miller

This is how difficult it is to extract value from the draft: James Loney was a good first-round pick.

20. Total WAR: 238.7 (11.9 per player)
Best picks: Mike Mussina, CC Sabathia, Torii Hunter, Adam Kennedy, Denard Span
In the minors: Tyler Anderson

Two future Hall of Fame pitchers makes this the highest-rated slot here. However, the slot hasn't seen much productivity since Span was selected in 2002.

21. Total WAR: 56.6 (2.8 per player)
Best picks: Jason Varitek (did not sign), Jake Westbrook, Ian Kennedy
In the minors: Lucas Sims

We're counting Varitek in the above total, although the Twins failed to sign him.

22. Total WAR: 94.1 (4.7 per player)
Best picks: Jayson Werth, Rick Helling, Jeremy Guthrie, Gil Meche, Matt Thornton
In the minors: Kolten Wong

If we go back before 1990, we get Craig Biggio (1987) and Rafael Palmeiro (1985).

23. Total WAR: 79.1 (4.0 per player)
Best picks: Jason Kendall, Aaron Sele, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jeff Francoeur, Phil Hughes
In the minors: Christian Yelich

Whatever happened to Bubba Crosby?

24. Total WAR: 51.3 (2.6 per player)
Best picks: Rondell White, Chad Billingsley, Joe Blanton
In the minors: Taylor Guerrieri

No. 4 on the list of best picks: Brian Bogusevic. As you can see, getting value is becoming far less likely the lower you go.

25. Total WAR: 58.4 (2.9 per player)
Best picks: Matt Cain, Mike Trout, Matt Garza, Bobby Crosby
In the minors: Joe Ross

Well, OK, then you have Cain and Trout. The odds are slim, but those two names are why teams are reluctant to give up any first-round pick, even one in the 20s, even knowing it's dumb luck as much as anything.

26. Total WAR: 8.7 (0.4 per player)
Best picks: Brent Gates, Jeremy Bonderman, Kelly Wunsch
In the minors: Blake Swihart

This might be the first and only time you'll see Kelly Wunsch's name appear in this blog.

27. Total WAR: 6.6 (0.3 per player)
Best picks: Rick Porcello, Sergio Santos, Joey Devine
In the minors: Nick Franklin

Hey, back in 1967, the A's got Vida Blue here.

28. Total WAR: 54.9 (2.7 per player)
Best picks: Charles Johnson, Colby Rasmus, Daric Barton, Ben Revere
In the minors: Gerrit Cole (did not sign)

Cole, now in the Pirates system after going first overall in 2011, was originally drafted by the Yankees.

29. Total WAR: 46.9 (2.3 per player)
Best picks: Adam Wainwright, Jay Payton, Carlos Quentin
In the minors: Joe Panik

Wainwright is one of many recent first-rounders the Braves selected out of Georgia, but they traded him as a minor leaguer to the Cardinals for J.D. Drew.

30. Total WAR: 18.4 (0.9 per player)
Best picks: Noah Lowry, Jack Cust, Russ Johnson
In the minors: Casey Kelly

Best 30th pick of all time: Mike Schmidt.

* * * *

What conclusions can we draw from all this? Since 1990, we're talking 459 players who have been drafted 11th to 30th (with Jason Varitek being drafted twice). The number of "star" players is about 30 -- or less than one in 10, even allowing for those yet to develop.

Most of these picks don't reach the majors or reach it only for a cup of coffee. Some have a a year or two of limited value. Some turn into decent journeyman-type players like Joe Saunders or Joe Blanton. But few accumulate even 10 career WAR. If you sign Michael Bourn to a 4-year or 5-year contract, you'll almost certainly receive that in value (while paying a premium for that value).

Certainly having a pick closer to 10th is more valuable than having a pick closer to 30th. This arguably points to an inequity with the current rules. The Mariners, for example, have the 12th pick in this year's draft. They could be interested in Bourn (and have money to spend), but losing the 12th pick is a lot different than the Rangers losing the 24th pick. Basically, the system helps the teams that are already good (a group that tends to lean towards teams with deeper pockets) since picks late in the first round rarely produce significant big league talent; the system also helps protect the bad teams since they won't lose their first-round pick.

Of course, there is no perfect system. But if I'm the Rangers and if paying Bourn isn't the ultimate issue, I wouldn't worry about losing that first-round pick. Odds are that player isn't Mike Trout or Matt Cain anyway.
The Philadelphia Phillies filled their hole in center field by acquiring Ben Revere from the Minnesota Twins for right-hander Vance Worley and pitching prospect Trevor May -- Keith Law breaks down the deal here -- which leaves Michael Bourn still spinning on the center-field merry-go-round.

With Bourn's asking price reportedly higher than the $75 million B.J. Upton received from the Braves, where does this leave him? If there's a declining market for his services, does he end up signing for less than Upton money? Let's look at possible destinations:

[+] EnlargeMichael Bourn
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireThe potential landing spots for free agent outfielder Michael Bourn are dwindling.
1. Mariners: Everyone knows Seattle needs a bat, and the Mariners have reportedly been in on Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher and Bourn. Of course, Bourn is more glove and legs than bat, and general manager Jack Zduriencik has to be scared silly that Bourn could morph into Chone Figgins II, a speed guy who suddenly stops hitting in his early 30s. The Mariners do have Franklin Gutierrez (one more year under contract) and Michael Saunders, who can both play center, so I would guess the priority would be Hamilton or Swisher. But if Hamilton heads back to Texas and Swisher prefers a contending team, the Mariners might just dump their money into Bourn.

2. Reds: The Reds still have Drew Stubbs and are also looking to fill left field (maybe bringing back Ryan Ludwick). Bourn makes sense for them because they need a leadoff hitter, but the $75 million price tag would still be steep. I see the Reds getting in this only if the market for Bourn collapses.

3. Giants: The Giants could sign Bourn and move Angel Pagan to left field, but after signing Pagan and Marco Scutaro, the Giants appear done with their spending. Plus, Brian Sabean's usual plan is to fill holes with midseason acquisitions rather than free agents -- see Pat Burrell, Carlos Beltran, Hunter Pence and Scutaro in recent seasons.

4. Brewers: They were rumored to be interested in Hamilton at one point. While they do have Carlos Gomez, Bourn would be an upgrade both at the plate and in the field, giving them a nice outfield of Ryan Braun, Bourn and Norichika Aoki, with Aoki moving down to the No. 2 slot in the batting order. But if the Brewers spend anything this winter, it seems more likely they would spend to upgrade their rotation.

5. Indians: They've reportedly made pitches to Swisher, so it seems they have some money in the budget. Michael Brantley is a solid center fielder and his bat profiles better there than in a corner, so Bourn isn't really the best fit.

6. Yankees: They could sign Bourn and move Curtis Granderson to right field. But it appears the Yankees are suddenly cost-conscious and will wait for the scraps to fill right field.

7. Mets: Right now, the Mets' center fielder is Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who is more fourth outfielder than major league starter. Considering the Mets seem to have problems coming up with money to extend R.A. Dickey, Bourn is unlikely.

8. Marlins: Well, we know they have money. What we don't know is if they really want to spend it, especially on a guy who is turning 30.

9. Rangers: Even if Hamilton signs with the Mariners or somewhere else, I don't see the Rangers going here. For one thing, Hamilton is more likely to play left field anyway, with Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin platooning in center. If they lose Hamilton, the more likely scenario is an all-out pursuit of Justin Upton.

At this point, why would a team bid up on Bourn? The teams that needed a center fielder the most have filled the position. Everyone is sort of waiting for the Hamilton-Zack Greinke dominoes to fall, but in doing so, Bourn might have cost himself a lot of money. If I had to guess his final destination, I'd pick Seattle -- with Greinke signing with the Dodgers and Hamilton heading back to Texas -- with the wild-card scenario being what Eric Karabell suggested on the Baseball Today podcast: Bourn signs a one-year deal and heads back on to the market next year.
I joined Eric Karabell on the Baseball Today podcast to discuss all the latest from the winter meetings, including the rumors of Josh Hamilton going to Seattle and Michael Young being traded to Philadelphia. Plus actual signings like Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino and Eric Chavez, the Ben Revere trade to the Phillies and why the Yankees aren't making any moves.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Philadelphia Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. found time for a little hot stove humor before his daily winter meetings media briefing Monday. Upon arriving at the team’s Opryland Hotel suite a couple of minutes late, Amaro apologized to the assembled scribes for his tardiness.

"I had to dry my eyes because Angel is gone," Amaro said.

That’s a reference to Angel Pagan, who signed a four-year, $40 million contract with the San Francisco Giants on Monday. In the aftermath of B.J. Upton’s five-year, $75 million deal with Atlanta last week, the Phillies now have watched two potential center-field targets sign with other clubs.

"He’s off the market," Amaro said of Pagan. "We move on. We liked both players, but that’s part of the process."

The Phillies made it clear from the outset that they would explore lots of avenues in free agency, and several routes remain open. They can make a serious play for Michael Bourn, a true leadoff hitter who spent his first five professional seasons in the Philadelphia organization before being traded to Houston in 2007. Bourn’s price tag is likely to be high, but agent Scott Boras’ leverage appears to be dropping due to a recent sequence of events. Washington filled its center-field void by trading for Denard Span, and Cincinnati GM Walt Jocketty has publicly downplayed the team's interest in Bourn.

The Phils could really make a splash and go for Josh Hamilton -- a move that fits with Amaro’s history of dropping stealth bombshells. But when Amaro was asked Monday whether he’s spoken with Hamilton or his agent, Mike Moye, he gave the same terse response.

"No," he told one of the team’s beat reporters. "But I wouldn’t tell you if I did."

The Phillies also could bring back Shane Victorino, but the consensus in baseball circles is that a return engagement isn’t likely. Victorino was a popular player during his first run in Philadelphia and a key member of the team’s 2008 world championship club. But sources said the Phils are more inclined to go in a different direction this time around.

At the moment, the Phillies’ outfield consists of Domonic Brown in right field, John Mayberry Jr. in center and Darin Ruf in left, so the only certainty is that Amaro will do something. He has a hole to fill at third base along with multiple vacancies in the outfield, and the prospect of a Freddy Galvis-Kevin Frandsen platoon isn’t going to do much for season-ticket sales.

"This offseason we’re going to have to be as creative as we can possibly be to make our team better," Amaro said, "even if it means having two or three platoons or improving in other areas. We’re going to have to be as creative as possible, because the market is not a great market."

The Phillies had enough of a need in center field for Amaro to engage on Upton and Pagan, but he wasn’t sold enough on either player to go beyond his comfort level price-wise. A month into free-agent season, Philadelphia's general manager still has money in his pocket. He also has a lot of work to do.

Phillies to set sights on Michael Bourn?

November, 29, 2012
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Michael BournDaniel Shirey/US PresswireWhat Michael Bourn lacks in power, he makes up for with elite speed and solid defense.

Center fielder B.J. Upton and the Atlanta Braves agreed to a five-year, $75.25 million deal on Wednesday night, marking the first big free-agent move of the offseason. The Philadelphia Phillies, who earlier in the day made some noise by making a trade with the Houston Astros, were also rumored to be very interested in attaining the 28-year-old's services, but now they and several other teams in pursuit of a center fielder will have to search elsewhere.

The center field market is ripe, so Upton's move north from Tampa to Atlanta will cause tremors that affect other players, namely Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan and Shane Victorino. Hamilton is perceived as the jewel of this offseason's free-agent crop among position players. However, due to his age (31), mystifying injury history, and concerns off the field, some teams may be reticent to commit to him for a large sum of money over many years.

With Upton off the board, there is obviously one fewer suitor in play for the remaining batch of center fielders, meaning they have less leverage with which to bargain. For Hamilton, he has even less leverage with which to argue that he deserves more than Upton's five years since Upton is significantly younger, has a more diverse set of skills, and isn't as risky outside of the actual production. Had Hamilton been the first center fielder to sign, it is very likely he would have gotten his nine figures in total and that coveted fifth year, but he may have to settle for four years to get the kind of money he wants. Buster Olney reports the Brewers, Rangers, Red Sox, Mariners and Orioles being among the most likely destinations for the RBI machine.

Not much will change with Michael Bourn. Teams that were interested in Upton are, for the most part, also interested in Bourn because both possess great speed and steal bases effectively. Bourn doesn't have anything close to Upton's power, but has nonetheless been the better player in recent years. Since Bourn doesn't have Upton's reputation for lack of hustle and plays, by all accounts, better defense, teams will be willing to look past his light bat to bring him aboard on a four- or even five-year deal. Hamilton striking a rich deal soon would give Bourn more leverage in asking for more money than what Upton received from Atlanta. Philadelphia in particular will quickly shift their focus from Upton to Bourn while keeping the others within their purview, especially since they lack a legitimate leadoff hitter.

If one had broken the center field free-agent class into tiers, the first class would have included Hamilton, Upton and Bourn. Others, like Pagan and Victorino, would be in the second tier since they will likely go to teams that are either too poor or too patient to jump into the first-class frenzy.

Pagan may end up being the most underrated and underpaid of the bunch, having posted a total of nearly 14 WAR in the last four years according to Baseball-Reference, and that includes a terrible 1-WAR year in 2011 with the New York Mets. By comparison, Bourn has posted just over 14 WAR. Pagan may be the beneficiary of teams that miss out on the first-class bidding against each other so as not to go home without a center fielder. The Giants would love to bring Pagan back, but the same teams that had their sights on Upton and Bourn will have Pagan on file as well, so they will not be alone in their pursuit. Due to his shorter résumé than the others, Pagan could also scare some teams away by insisting on four or five years. Ken Rosenthal reports that he could sign before the winter meetings, which is smart because there are several center fielders who may be made available via trade at the winter meetings, such as Denard Span.

Victorino is particularly interesting because he has become in effect a platoon outfielder, but it goes unnoticed because he is a switch-hitter. Last season with the Phillies and Dodgers, Victorino tagged left-handed pitchers for a .906 OPS while posting an unimpressive .629 against right-handers. This is not a new thing, as he had similar splits dating back to 2010. Due to the likelihood of signing last out of the five, Victorino will also likely take home the lightest contract both in terms of years and total money. Jon Heyman reported recently that the Indians, Rangers, Yankees, Giants, Rays, Red Sox and Reds have all shown interest in Victorino, but don't count out the Phillies either if they are still left alone at the center fielder dance a month or so from now.

Every signing will have an effect on the signings that occur afterward, so this is still speculative at this point. Upton has set the standard for now, but the remaining players and their suitors will continue to act as dominoes setting up and getting knocked down until none are left standing. Center field is certainly the most interesting position to watch this offseason. By comparison, the free-agent market at third base includes such names as Placido Polanco, Eric Chavez and Jose Lopez. Grab a seat and keep a watchful eye on the center fielders as they are plucked off the board one by one.

Bill Baer runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley. You can follow him on Twitter @CrashburnAlley.

Where will Michael Bourn end up?

November, 17, 2012
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Michael Bourn is one of the most fascinating free agents on the market. First, he's fun to watch, an old-school, 1980s-type leadoff hitter with blazing speed. He's a gifted center fielder with a pretty good throwing arm, which isn't often the case for speed guys. Essentially, he's a baseball player who is really fast, as opposed to a fast guy playing baseball.

Bourn
But what really makes him interesting is this list of the most wins above replacement among outfielders over the past four seasons:

1. Ryan Braun, 25.9
2. Jose Bautista, 20.2
3. Michael Bourn, 19.0
4. Matt Holliday, 18.3
5. Andrew McCutchen, 18.1

Maybe that strikes you as a bit surprising, since Bourn had just 16 home runs over that span. But he's not an offensive zero. His OBP was .348, and he averaged 28 doubles and 10 triples per season, making him about a league-average offensive player, and that's before getting to his baserunning (216 stolen bases against 51 caught stealing and ability to get extra bases on hits). But much of his value derives from his ability to chase down balls in the outfield. His defensive runs saved the past four years:

2009: plus-11
2010: plus-30
2011: minus-3
2012: plus-24

His four-year total of plus-62 puts him tied for fifth with Evan Longoria among all defenders, behind Brendan Ryan, Ben Zobrist, Brett Gardner and Adrian Beltre. Even if you're not a big fan of defensive metrics, that passes the sniff test as a list of the game's best defensive players.

So you have an elite fielder who can lead off and get on base 34 to 36 percent of the time. That's a valuable package, especially when you consider six clubs received a sub-.300 OBP from their leadoff hitters and five others were below .320.

Or, more accurately, it has been a valuable package, leading Bourn's agent -- yes, Scott Boras -- to reportedly seek a deal in the neighborhood of five years and $75 million ($15 million per). Bourn will be entering his age-30 season; since much of his value comes from his legs, teams will have to project how he'll age.

One thing to do is estimate how elite defensive center fielders age. In the chart below, I list the top 15 defensive center fielders since 1990, first from ages 26 to 29 and then from 30 to 33.



Not surprisingly, the younger center fielders were far superior to the older center fielders; the 30-to-33 group saved about half as many runs as the younger guys. In this admittedly rough model, we would expect Bourn to see his defensive runs saved cut in half over the life of a four- or five-year contract. That seems reasonable, as even a fast guy such as Bourn is likely to lose a step or two in his 30s.

What about on offense? Bourn isn't really your prototypical speedster type of hitter -- he strikes out a lot and attempts to drive the ball instead of just slapping it around the infield. He's often compared to Juan Pierre, but they're not the same type of hitter. Pierre is a pure contact guy who rarely walks, while Bourn walks more and strikes out much more. In fact, you could argue that he doesn't take advantage of his speed enough on offense. He had just seven bunt hits in 2012 (Erick Aybar had the most with 18), although he does rank third over the past four seasons with 48 bunt hits. He had just 13 infield hits in 2012, which didn't even place him in the top 50. That appears to be an anomaly, as he averaged 26 infield hits over the previous three seasons.

The trouble with projecting Bourn's future is there really haven't been any players like him. I did search for all players since 1990 who, in their age 26 to 29 years, struck out at least 400 times, stole at least 100 bases and hit fewer than 35 home runs. There was only one: Bourn. We could compare Bourn to other fast, low-power guys such as Pierre, Ichiro Suzuki, Rafael Furcal, Chone Figgins and so on, but we get to the problem that none of them struck with near the frequency of Bourn.

Certainly, the Carl Crawford (a somewhat similar player) contract of two years ago will scare off many teams. Figgins was older (32) when he signed with Seattle, but that's another scary free-agent deal for a similar player. On the other hand, Ichiro compiled 23.5 WAR from age 30 to 33 and Kenny Lofton 19.2 WAR over that age.

My guess is some team will come close to Boras' asking price. It apparently won't be the Reds, who need a center fielder and a leadoff hitter (their leadoff hitters posted a .254 OBP). The other teams that posted a sub.-300 OBP from their leadoff hitters don't really need a center fielder (Dodgers, Mariners, Pirates, Blue Jays and Marlins). OK, the Marlins need one, but I'm pretty sure they're not in the free-agent market. As ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski wrote the other day, the fact that there is a glut of free-agent center fielders Insider makes it difficult to project where they'll all land.

Dan mentioned the Phillies as a possibility for Bourn, and that makes a lot of sense. They don't have a center fielder, Jimmy Rollins is better suited for a spot lower in the order these days (Phillies leadoff hitters had a .318 OBP) and the Phillies obviously have the rotation of a playoff contender. On the other hand, the Phillies already are paying $20 million-plus in 2013 to Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Ryan Howard, $15 million to Chase Utley, and a combined $24 million to Rollins and Jonathan Papelbon, so maybe they've hit their limit. On the third hand, they've cut nearly $40 million from the 2012 payroll in kicking Joe Blanton, Hunter Pence, Shane Victorino, Placido Polanco and Ty Wigginton to the curb.

Two other options: the Rangers, if they lose Josh Hamilton; and the Giants, if they don't re-sign Angel Pagan.

Sleeper option: the Brewers -- who then could peddle Carlos Gomez for some pitching help. The Brewers led the National League in runs scored in 2012 but a Bourn-Norichika Aoki one-two punch at the top would set the table nicely for the big boys and help the pitching staff with a more reliable defender in center field.


Well, that was insane.

Fans of the new system will say this is exactly the kind of excitement baseball needs.

Critics will suggest this game sums up everything that’s wrong with a one-game playoff series. One bad throw (or three), one mental error, one ... umm, one bad umpiring call shouldn’t knock you out of the postseason.

Did I say bad call? Atrocious? Abominable? Disgraceful? How do you properly sum up what happened in the bottom of the eighth inning when umpire Sam Holbrook raised his right arm and all hell broke loose?

If you watched the game, you know what happened: The Braves trailed the Cardinals 6-3 and had runners on first and second when Andrelton Simmons popped out to shallow left field. Shortstop Pete Kozma drifted about 70 feet beyond the infield dirt ... and suddenly peeled off, the ball plunking harmlessly onto the grass in front of Matt Holliday. The Braves had the bases loaded and the Ted was rocking with noise.

Except ... say it ain’t so. Holbrook called an infield fly rule, raising his arm right about the time Kozma peeled off. That meant Simmons was out, and Jason Motte would eventually escape the inning when he blew a 98-mph fastball past Michael Bourn with the bases loaded. The Braves got two more runners on in the ninth but Motte retired Dan Uggla to finish off the 6-3 victory.

But the whole complexion of the game changes if the Braves have the bases loaded with one out and Brian McCann up. Maybe the whole complexion of the postseason changes. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez protested the game, but the infield fly rule is a judgment call, even when the judgment is terrible.

Rule 2.00 refers to a ball that "could ordinarily have been handled by an infielder." It doesn’t mean the ball has to be in the infield. The rule is in place so an infielder can’t trick baserunners by purposely dropping a pop fly to turn a double play. In this case, Kozma was so far out in the outfield, a trick double play would have been an impossible and absurd feat to attempt.

[+] EnlargeFredi Gonzalez, Sam Holbrook
AP Photo/Todd KirklandFredi Gonzalez and the Braves played under protest after the infield-fly call by Sam Holbrook, right.
So Holbrook’s name will now go down in history alongside Don Denkinger and Richie Garcia, the umps on the Jorge Orta play in the 1985 World Series and the Jeffrey Maier/Derek Jeter home run in the 1996 American League Championship Series, respectively.

That play will tarnish the result of this game. Braves fans tarnished the game by littering the field with garbage, forcing a long delay as the Cardinals had to temporarily leave the field. And the wild-card round began its history with a game that will be long remembered.

* * * *

Controversy aside, the Braves played about as bad a game of baseball as you can play: Physical errors, mental errors, terrible managerial decisions. It was typical Bad News Braves in the playoffs; the franchise is now 9-20 in the postseason going back to the 2001 National League Championship Series and losers of seven consecutive playoff series if you include this one-game affair.

Sadly, with the big “10” carved into the outfield grass and the thunderous ovations he received each time he came to bat, Chipper Jones’ final game of his career will also be remembered for his crucial throwing error in the fourth inning.

Carlos Beltran had singled to lead off the inning, the first hit off Kris Medlen (whose streak of the Braves winning 23 consecutive games he started would end). Holliday drilled a one-hopper that Chipper snared -- an easy double-play ball. Except Chipper chucked the ball into right field. Allen Craig followed with an RBI double over Martin Prado’s head in left field. After an RBI groundout and sac fly, the Cardinals had three runs and a 3-2 lead instead of zero runs and a 2-0 deficit.

After a Holliday home run made it 4-2, the Braves fell apart again in the seventh inning. Uggla bobbled and then threw away David Freese’s routine grounder, putting Freese on second base. Mike Matheny pinch-ran speedster Adron Chambers, a key maneuver that would pay dividends moments later. A sac bunt moved Chambers to third.

Now, consider the situation if you’re the Braves: You’re down 4-2, with a runner on third with one out. Your season is on the line. You can’t afford to give up any more runs. What’s the best way to escape the jam? You need a strikeout. Do the Braves have a reliever like that? Anybody you can think of? Anybody who struck out 50 percent of the batters he faced this season, the highest rate in the history of major league baseball?

Did Gonzalez call on Craig Kimbrel? Nope. He brought on Chad Durbin, a pitcher who struck out 19 percent of the batters he faced. Durbin did induce Kozma to hit a grounder to Simmons at shortstop, but the rookie bobbled the ball and rushed his throw home (with the speedy Chambers running, he didn’t really have much of a chance once he bobbled the play), throwing wildly to let Kozma reach second. If Freese had been running, maybe Simmons doesn’t hurry the throw. That made it 5-2 and Matt Carpenter's infield single scored Kozma. After committing the fewest errors in the league during the season, the Braves made three in this game.

Another head-scratching move came in the bottom of the fourth when the Braves had runners at the corners with one out and Simmons -- the No. 8 hitter -- up. Gonzalez apparently called a safety squeeze. Simmons bunted in front of the plate -- slow-footed Freddie Freeman either missed the play (which is what the TBS broadcasters said Gonzalez told them) or decided not to run since the bunt was too close to the plate. On the resulting throw to first, Simmons ran too far inside the baseline and was ruled out for interference when the throw bounced off his head (it was clearly the correct call). Medlen struck out to end the threat.

This game goes down as the Holbrook Affair. Braves fans will forever blame the umps. In truth, the Braves have nobody to blame but themselves.

Defensive player of the year: Mike Trout

October, 2, 2012
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Getty Images/Jeff GrossOpposing hitters saw this "look what I just caught" expression from Mike Trout many times in 2012.


Who was baseball’s best defender in 2012?

Each month during the season, we convened a group of about a dozen voters (among them ESPN.com writers, former players and those who study this material daily at Baseball Info Solutions) to pick Major League Baseball's best defensive player.

SportsNation

Who is the MLB defensive player of the year?

  •  
    52%
  •  
    8%
  •  
    27%
  •  
    6%
  •  
    7%

Discuss (Total votes: 2,869)

It has been a fun and educational process to study the numbers, look at the highlight reels and make a decision. (Our top candidates are noted in the poll on the right.) But when it comes to picking a Defensive Player of the Year, it’s a really close call.

Ten of us ranked the top three defensive players, and we awarded points on a 5-3-1 scale.

The winner in our voting?

Angels rookie center fielder Mike Trout.

Trout edged out our May Defensive Player of the Month, Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan, who received six of our 10 first-place votes. Ryan received the other four firsts and finished second in the voting.

Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney finished tied for third. Braves center fielder Michael Bourn placed fifth.

Why Trout won

Simply put, Trout won our Defensive Player of the Year Award because he went above and beyond when it came to turning batted balls into outs.

When we say above and beyond, we refer both to extra effort and to literally going above and beyond -- as in above and beyond the outfield wall.

Four times this season, Trout raced back to the fence, timed his leap, extended his left arm well over the wall, and came down with the baseball in his glove.

Trout robbed J.J. Hardy of a homer on June 27, stole one from Gordon Beckham on Aug. 4, snatched another from Miguel Olivo on Aug. 11 and pilfered one from Prince Fielder to end a game on Sept. 8.

Trout is one of four players since 2004 to have four home run robberies in a season, joining Nook Logan (2005 Tigers), Gary Matthews Jr. (2006 Rangers) and Adam Jones (2009 Orioles).

But those four catches don’t necessarily tell the whole story. They account for a chunk of Trout’s 23 Defensive Runs Saved in a little under 900 innings playing center field this season.

It’s not just home runs that Trout robs. He also takes away lots of doubles and triples. He’s adept at making difficult catches like Sunday’s play against the Rangers’ Ian Kinsler look routine.

With Trout’s help (as well as that of Torii Hunter and Peter Bourjos), the Angels entered Monday ranked second in the majors in fewest doubles and triples allowed, trailing only the Tampa Bay Rays.

Baseball Info Solutions computes plus-minus ratings for outfielders based on their ability to get to the balls hit to all different parts of the field. There is a rating for shallow flies, for medium-range flies and for deep flies. A fielder is rewarded if he makes a play on a ball hit to a spot in which others usually don’t.

Trout rates as an average center fielder on shallow flies. But he excels in medium-range flies and deep flies.

Trout’s reward on medium-depth and deep balls is a big one; he’s a plus-33, meaning he’s 33 “bases” better than the average center fielder. That’s the best in the majors. The next-best outfielder, Denard Span, rates seven bases behind him.

What do you think?

The other candidates on our ballots had comparable areas in which they excelled.

Ryan’s ability to convert double plays is unmatched. Molina’s control (and basically elimination) of the running game is amazing. Barney came out of nowhere to become an all-around star. Bourn was good at getting to balls of all types.

But in the end, our voters decided that Trout was the best of the best.

Do you agree? Vote in our poll and leave your thoughts in the comments section.
Eric Karabell and Mark Simon talked about B.J. Upton on Monday's Baseball Today podcast, which led to Eric and I discussing Upton at dinner Monday and where he would rank among center fielders, which led to my promising on Tuesday's podcast that I'd rank all the center fielders.

So, as promised, here it goes, 30 center fielders, one guy per team.

[+] EnlargeMike Trout
H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY Sports/US PresswireAngels outfielder Mike Trout has established himself as MLB's top outfielder this season.
1. Mike Trout, Angels. Does it all. Power, speed and superior defense that pushes him just past Andrew McCutchen and Matt Kemp.

2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates. Awesome breakout season. Clear National League MVP right now.

3. Matt Kemp, Dodgers. Could argue him as No. 1 if he hadn't been injured.

4. Josh Hamilton, Rangers. Overly aggressive approach has led to second-half issues at the plate.

5. Austin Jackson, Tigers. I believe his offensive growth is for real.

6. Michael Bourn, Braves. Lacks power, but gets on base and can track them down as well as anybody.

7. Adam Jones, Orioles. Would like to see more walks, but he should hit 30 home runs.

8. Curtis Granderson, Yankees. The defensive metrics don't like his range, but he might hit 40 homers again.

9. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox. Hard to figure out where to place the 2011 American League MVP runner-up.

10. Yoenis Cespedes, A's. Has been playing left field of late and might end up as a corner outfielder long term.

11. Denard Span, Twins. Flies under the radar, but gets on base and could win a Gold Glove this season.

12. Colby Rasmus, Blue Jays. Hot and cold at the plate, but on pace for 29 home runs.

13. Michael Brantley, Indians. Just 25, he has improved for the third straight season and turned into a doubles machine (33).

14. Dexter Fowler, Rockies. Slugging .500 and leads the NL in triples, but some of that is a Coors Field effect.

15. Bryce Harper, Nationals. He'll be higher on this list next season.

16. Chris Young, Diamondbacks. Injury-marred season and the strikeouts are aggravating, but he has power and D.

17. Jon Jay, Cardinals. Love the way he glides after balls in the outfield.

18. Michael Saunders, Mariners. Has made Mariners fans forget about that one great year Franklin Gutierrez had.

19. Drew Stubbs, Reds. Frustrating and inconsistent, but still has power and speed.

20. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox. Labeled a Four-A player, but has a .351 OBP this season.

21. Shane Victorino, Phillies (now with Dodgers). Is it just a bad season or a drop in ability?

22. Cameron Maybin, Padres. Nobody questions his fly chasing skills, but he might never put it together at the plate.

23. B.J. Upton, Rays. Hard to believe this is the same player who hit .300 as a 22-year-old in 2007.

24. Angel Pagan, Giants. Having a solid season with a .746 OPS.

25. Carlos Gomez, Brewers. Excellent defense and speed, but career OBP of less than .300.

26. Justin Ruggiano, Marlins. Unlikely to slug .625 the rest of the season.

27. Justin Maxwell, Astros. Minor league vet has played well in 200 plate appearances, slugging better than .500.

28. Brett Jackson, Cubs. Center fielder of the future has arrived, but he also struck out 158 times in Triple-A. Hmm.

29. Jarrod Dyson, Royals. A poor man's Michael Bourn.

30. Andres Torres, Mets. Sorry, Mark!
Michael Bourn was one of the choices for the final All-Star ballot in the National League, but David Freese was the surprise winner over Bryce Harper and Aaron Hill. Unfortunately, that means none of the Atlanta Braves' superlative outfield trio will be heading to Kansas City, unless as a last-minute injury replacement.

[+] EnlargeMichael Bourn
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireTHe Braves' Michael Bourn has had an All-Star caliber season in 2012.
How good are Bourn, Martin Prado and Jason Heyward?

In Baseball-Reference's version of Wins Above Replacement, they rank fifth (Bourn, 3.9 WAR), 10th (Prado, 3.2) and 15th (Heyward, 2.5) among all National League position players entering Thursday's action. In FanGraphs' version of WAR, they rank fourth (Bourn, 4.3), seventh (Prado, 3.7) and ninth (Heyward, 3.3).

A major reason all three rate so well is both systems see them as outstanding defensive players. FanGraphs' defensive metric -- UZR -- ranks Bourn, Heyward and Prado first, second and fourth among all NL position players. Baseball-Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved and ranks all three in the top 11. Bourn is a legitimate top-flight center fielder, Heyward gets good reads and has one of the better arms around and while I haven't seen enough of Prado in left field, Braves fans assure me he's that excellent as well. While none are what I would label superstars at the plate, they rank 15th, 18th and 22nd in the NL in wOBA. But all three are also excellent baserunners, so it's their all-around skills that make them so special.

Anyway, what interests me: Does this outfield have a chance to be an all-time great outfield? Where do you even begin with that question?

In "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract," published in 2001, Bill James rated the 1915 Detroit Tigers' outfield the best of all time, using his Win Shares method. That outfield featured two Hall of Famers in Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, plus Bobby Veach, an excellent player who would finish with over 2,000 career hits.

Here, the Baseball-Reference WAR for those 1915 Tigers:

Ty Cobb (.369/.486/.487): 9.3
Bobby Veach (.313/.390/.434): 4.6
Saw Crawford (.299/.367/.431): 3.8

The American League hit just .248 that year and averaged 20 home runs per team, so in the context of 1915 all three were big run producers. James rated another Detroit outfield with Cobb and Crawford, the 1908 outfield with Matty McIntyre, in the second spot along with the 1941 Yankees (Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich). The 1927 Yankees with Babe Ruth, Earle Combs and Bob Meusel ranked sixth, just behind the '61 Yankees with Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra.

I'm not sure this is exactly what we're after, however; James just listed the outfields with the most cumulative Win Shares. But Berra, for example, had just 2.0 WAR that year. Ruth (11.5 WAR) and Combs (6.7 WAR) were terrific in 1927, but Meusel was more good than great (3.8 WAR).

Plus, most of James' top outfields were old-timers. As he wrote, "There appears to be a bias in this method toward older teams, since baseball was less competitive a hundred years ago, and the best players were further from the average than they are now."

I was thinking more of outfields where all three outfielders had terrific seasons. All three Braves outfielders have a shot at 5.0 WAR. Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, we find only three outfields since 1901 where all three players reached 5.0 WAR:

  • 1921 Tigers: Harry Heilmann (6.5), Cobb (6.4), Veach (5.1). The Tigers had replaced Crawford with Heilmann, another Hall of Famer. Despite that great outfield -- they finished second, third and seventh in the AL in OPS -- the Tigers finished 71-83.
  • 1925 Tigers: Heilmann (6.5), Cobb (5.5), Al Wingo (5.0). The three outfielders ranked first, third and eighth in the AL in OPS. Wingo hit .370 with a .456 on-base percentage in his only season as a regular. The Tigers finished 81-73 but did lead the league in runs scored.
  • 1980 A's: Rickey Henderson (8.7), Dwyane Murphy (6.7), Tony Armas (5.6). Finally, a more modern group. The A's had lost 108 games in 1979, but Henderson and Murphy were rookies and Armas had been a platoon player. Billy Martin took over as manager in 1980 and realized he had one of the greatest defensive outfields ever assembled, essentially playing three center fielders. If you're old enough to remember Murphy, you know him as a Gold Glove center fielder. All three also produced at the plate: Henderson had a .420 OBP and stole 100 bases; Armas hit .279 with 35 home runs; Murphy hit .274 and drew 102 walks for a .384 OBP. Overall, they ranked second (Henderson), fifth (Murphy) and 11th among AL position players in WAR.

If we lower the standard to 4.5 WAR from each player, we get a list of 19 outfields since 1901, including eight (besides the '80 A's) since 1961. A quick look at those eight, with Baseball-Reference WAR listed:



Anyway, that's a starting point. I'll follow up sometime in the next week with another post that discusses some other great outfields.

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