SweetSpot: Mike Cameron

It's Friday, so here's one last list of links for the weekend.
Mariners CelebrateDan Levine/AFP/Getty ImagesA common picture from the 2001 Mariners season: Ichiro Suzuki and Mike Cameron celebrating.
"Two outs, so what?"
--Catchphrase for the 2001 Seattle Mariners

Every Mariners fan has his or her favorite game from 2001. After all, we watched nearly every one or followed online the ones we couldn’t see on TV or attend in person.

I have two. The Mariners had romped through the first half, going 63-24 and leading the division by 19 games. By fortuitous circumstance, Seattle hosted the All-Star Game that year and it had been a Mariners celebration, with eight players named to the roster, including starters Ichiro Suzuki, Bret Boone, John Olerud and Edgar Martinez. The American League won the game 4-1, with Freddy Garcia earning credit for the win and Kazuhiro Sasaki recording the save.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesIchiro was one of eight Mariners All-Stars in 2001. The Mariners even hosted the game.
It would have been easy for the club to relax with such a big lead, but that’s not how the 2001 Mariners played baseball. In the first game following the All-Star break, they hosted the San Francisco Giants and Barry Bonds, then chasing Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record. Sure enough, Bonds launched a long home run in the first inning and the Giants held a 3-2 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. But David Bell homered on a 3-2 pitch from Robb Nen to send the game into extra innings. In the 11th, Mike Cameron walked with one out and stole second. With two outs, Tom Lampkin hit a chopper over the middle that second baseman Ramon Martinez gloved, but with no chance to get Lampkin. Cameron kept churning around third and beat Martinez’s throw home.

Relax? The Mariners would go 17-6 in their first 23 games out of the break.

My other game came a couple of weeks later. The Mariners led the Twins 3-2 in the eighth inning when Lou Piniella sent out little-used utilityman Charles Gipson as a defensive replacement in center field. Sure enough, later that inning Gipson threw out the potential tying run at home plate. That was the 2001 Mariners -- Piniella making every right move, all 25 guys contributing and delivering clutch throws and big hits. Baseball is a team game made up of individual talents. But I've never seen a baseball team where the sum of the team exceeded the individuals like the 2001 Mariners. They were a team in perfect harmony.

* * * *

"I haven't seen him hit the ball with any authority."
--Mariners manager Lou Piniella on Ichiro Suzuki, late in spring training

The Mariners had lost to the Yankees in six games in the 2000 American League Championship Series, but then Alex Rodriguez signed with Texas as a free agent. The Mariners countered that loss by winning the posting process for Ichiro Suzuki and signing him to a three-year, $14 million contract. In a less-heralded move, the team also signed free-agent second baseman Bret Boone. Still, nobody knew exactly what to expect from the club.

Spring training got off to a bad start. Jay Buhner, third on the team in home runs in 2000, suffered a torn arch in his left foot in his first at-bat and would miss most of the season. More troublesome was the performance of Ichiro, whom Piniella had initially planned on hitting third in the lineup. But Ichiro wasn’t hitting the ball with any power and the Seattle papers wondered if he was overmatched by major league pitchers who threw harder than the pitchers he'd regularly faced in Japan. Piniella and hitting coach Gerald Perry expressed their concerns that teams would just bunch their defense to the left.

Finally, in late March, Ichiro smacked a home run. "I shook his hand when he got to the dugout, just like I would with anyone else," Piniella said. "He had a big smile. I know it was good for him to hit the ball hard in that direction."

It was a small turning point for the Mariners. Maybe their Japanese import would be OK after all. Still, Piniella decided to install Ichiro as his leadoff hitter.

Like all of Piniella’s moves that year, it was the right one.

Ichiro got two hits in the season opener. A few days later he went 4-for-6 with two runs, a double and a two-run, game-winning home run in the 10th inning in Texas. A couple of days after that came The Throw. Ichiro had started a go-ahead Mariners rally in the top of the eighth with a pinch-hit single. In the bottom of the inning, facing the boos and taunts of Oakland fans who had been hounding him throughout the series, he sent his own message when he gunned down Oakland’s Terrence Long at third base with a laser beam from right field.

[+] EnlargeBret Boone
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesA familiar sight for M's fans in 2001: Bret Boone flipping his bat after a home run.
"I'll tell you what, you could hang a lot of clothes on that throw,” Piniella said. "It was going to take a perfect throw to get me -- and that's what he did,” Long said.

Just like that, Ichiro was a national sensation. He hit .336 in April, with hits in 23 of 25 games. The Mariners, meanwhile, went 20-5, including a three-game sweep in the Bronx. After the Mariners thumped the Rangers in one series, A-Rod predicted with complete insincerity but amazing accuracy that the Mariners would win 115 games. On May 23, Bell hit a home run in the eighth inning to beat the Twins, kicking off a 15-game winning streak. Ichiro and then Boone appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Later, Ichiro, Boone, Cameron and Martinez appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, under the billing "ALL WORLD."

* * * *

"It wasn’t supposed to end like this. It wasn’t supposed to end here."
--Bret Boone, after losing the ALCS to the Yankees

The Mariners never let up. Ichiro would win the batting title with a .350 mark and lead the league in hits and stolen bases. Boone had one of the greatest seasons a second baseman ever had, hitting .331 with 37 home runs and a league-leading 141 RBIs. The beloved Martinez, 38 years old, hit .306 with a .423 on-base percentage and 116 RBIs. Slick-fielding first baseman John Olerud had a .402 OBP and scored and drove in more than 90 runs. Cameron knocked in 110. Mark McLemore played all over the field and scored 78 runs and swiped 39 bases. With Ichiro, Cameron, Boone and Olerud, it was one of the best defensive teams I've ever seen. The pitching was the best in the league, as well. Garcia led the league in ERA, Jamie Moyer won 20 games and Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson provided a dominant bullpen trio.

The team went 18-9 in June and July and 20-9 in August. They were selling out every game -- the M's would lead the AL in attendance that year, outdrawing the Yankees, a team that had won three straight World Series titles. Local TV ratings were off the charts. The team clinched the division title soon after the return to action after the 9/11 attacks halted play for a week. A champagne-soaked celebration didn’t seem appropriate. Instead, the team gathered near the pitching mound for a prayer. Somebody brought out a flag and the players walked the flag around the stadium, thanking the fans for their support. As Seattle newspaper columnist Art Thiel would write, "They found a way to honor their achievements, fans and country without histrionics, triteness, or bad taste. A season of greatness found a seminal expression apart from the game."

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Otto Greule/Getty ImagesThe Mariners celebrated their division title in subdued fashion.
All that was left was the season record for victories. The 1998 Yankees had won 114 games. The 1906 Cubs, in a much different era, had won 116 games. Piniella pushed hard, keeping the regulars in the lineup. The Mariners surpassed the Yankees in Game No. 160 as Olerud and Boone homered and Moyer pitched a gem. The next day, they tied the Cubs as Boone homered in the first inning and five pitchers combined for a 1-0 shutout. No team had ever won more games. "I think if you assembled an All-Star team and put them in our division, they couldn’t win 116 games," Boone said.

Maybe Piniella pushed too hard. Maybe the team was gassed from the record drive. Maybe the pressure to match their regular season was too great. Or maybe the playoffs are just a crapshoot. The Mariners, of course, aren’t regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time. They’re not mentioned in the same breath as those ’98 Yankees or the ’86 Mets or ’75 Reds. They didn’t win the World Series; they didn’t even reach it.

They beat Cleveland in five games in the Division Series, rallying to win the final two games after getting bombed 17-2 in Game 3. But there were problems. Shortstop Carlos Guillen had contracted tuberculosis, and there were fears he’d infected the entire clubhouse. He missed the Cleveland series and played sparingly in the ALCS against the Yankees. Martinez had pulled a groin against the Indians and was ineffective in the ALCS. In the first two games, Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina pitched gems. Seattle won Game 3 14-3 and led Game 4 1-0 on Boone’s homer in the eighth, but Bernie Williams homered off Rhodes to tie it and then Alfonso Soriano hit a two-run walkoff homer off Sasaki. Game 5 was an anticlimactic 12-3 blowout.

* * * *

"I'm tired of [expletive] losing, I'm tired of getting my [expletive] beat, and so have those guys. We gotta change this [expletive expletive] around and get after it. And only we can do it. The fans are [expletive] off, and I'm [expletive] off, and the players are [expletive] off. And that's the way it is. There's no [expletive] easy way out of this, can't feel sorry for ourself, we gotta [expletive] buckle it up and get after it."
--Mariners manager John McLaren, June 2008

The decline wasn’t immediate. The 2002 club was in first place as late as Aug. 18 and won 93 games, but missed the playoffs. Piniella, in part to be closer to his family in Florida and in part because he was angry management hadn’t added any reinforcements at the trade deadline, left after the season to manage Tampa Bay. The 2003 club led the division by five games on Aug. 15, but Oakland got hot and the Mariners faded. Once again, 93 wins wasn’t enough to make the postseason.

By 2004, the team was aging and in decline and general manager Bill Bavasi, who had replaced Pat Gillick, was ill-equipped to handle the transition. Still, the downfall was excruciating. The Mariners had arguably become baseball’s premier franchise. They were filling Safeco Field. They were fun to watch. They had some of the highest revenues in the sport. Maybe they weren’t the Yankees -- but they were the next-best thing.

Since 2004, the team has gone 566-714, including 100-loss seasons in 2008 and 2010. The offenses the past two years have been two of the worst baseball has seen in decades. Attendance, once more than 43,000 per game, has fallen to 23,489. The decline in popularity is evident in the team’s radio broadcasts. The only commercials with player endorsements involve Jay Buhner, who has been retired 10 years, and Seattle-area native Travis Ishikawa, who has never played for the Mariners.

So what happened?

The foundation for demise was set in the Gillick era. Due to free-agent signings, the Mariners had no first-round pick in 2000, 2001 and 2003 and failed to sign 2002 first-rounder John Mayberry Jr. Those four drafts produced just two major leaguers of significance -- Adam Jones, who was traded to Baltimore in the Erik Bedard trade; and Eric O’Flaherty, who the club released after the 2008 season.

The team did suffer some bad luck with a slew of pitching prospects in the early part of the decade. Ryan Anderson, compared to Randy Johnson for his 6-foot-10 stature and blazing fastball, was a top-10 prospect but blew out his shoulder and never reached the majors. Jeff Heaverlo tore his labrum. Clint Nageotte battled injuries. Gil Meche had pitched well as a rookie in 2000 but missed all of the 2001 season with a frayed rotator cuff -- yes, the 2001 club could have been even better. While Meche eventually returned, he was never the star his rookie season indicated he had a chance to become.

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John Williamson/Getty ImagesIn 2005, the Mariners could have drafted Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Braun or Ryan Zimmerman. Instead they took Jeff Clement.
To make matters worse, when the Mariners hit bottom and started earning high draft picks, they botched them. In 2005, they had the third pick and most experts had them taking Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Instead, in one of the deepest drafts in recent years, they took USC catcher Jeff Clement, passing not only on Tulowitzki, but Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Ricky Romero. Those guys went with the next four picks. (Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury and Matt Garza also went later in the first round). In 2006, drafting fifth, the team passed on local product Tim Lincecum and Clayton Kershaw to draft Brandon Morrow. In 2007, the team took hard-throwing but inexperienced Canadian high school pitcher Phillippe Aumont; Jason Heyward went three picks later. 2008 first-rounder Josh Fields was a college reliever expected to reach the majors quickly; Mariners fans are still waiting.

Current rookie Dustin Ackley looks like the first good hitting prospect the Mariners have developed since A-Rod. Actually, that’s not completely accurate; they developed Shin-Soo Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera, but Bavasi gave them away to Cleveland in ill-advised trades for Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez in 2006. Those two combined for nine home runs that year and the Mariners finished 78-84. Bavasi brought in past-their-prime veterans like Scott Spiezio (.198 average over two seasons) and Rich Aurilia (.241 average before being sent back to the National League). Later, Bavasi would do unmentionable things like signing Carlos Silva and trading Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez.

In recent years, nearly every hitter the Mariners have produced has reached the majors with no concept of the strike zone -- guys like Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Wladimir Balentien and 2011 graduates Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero. You’re not going to win with guys like that.

So now the Mariners are headed for another season of 90-plus losses. They suffered through a 17-game losing streak in July. They’ve had some bright spots like Ackley and fellow rookie Michael Pineda. They still have Felix Hernandez. At one point recently, 12 of the 25 players on the roster were rookies, a sign that a complete rebuild was in order. But Ichiro is getting old, Franklin Gutierrez has regressed, Justin Smoak remains a question mark and third base and left field remain problem areas. The rookies strike out too much, the bullpen is thin and Felix's body language often suggests that he'd like to pitch with more than two runs of support.

I’ll be honest: It makes a Mariners fan want to re-watch that "Sweet 116" videotape again.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
John Lackey and Daisuke MatsuzakaGetty ImagesJohn Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka are two free-agent acquisitions that haven't panned out as the Red Sox had hoped.
The Red Sox turned an uncomfortable ballpark relic into a tourist attraction cash cow, stamped their brand across New England through their regional sports network ("the Nation Station") and in less than a decade transformed their national identity from century-long sad sacks into corporate profiteers. They have money -- lots of it -- but haven't always spent wisely. Investments in scouting and development enabled Boston to trade three of its top prospects to San Diego for Adrian Gonzalez, who looks like the AL MVP this season. The Red Sox then spent another $154 million to keep Gonzalez in Boston through 2018. Gonzalez, however, appears to be the exception and not the rule when looking at the current regime's history of personnel investments. A spotty record of free-agent signings has come back to bite Boston before and may again in 2011.

JOHN LACKEY -- 5 YEARS, $82.5 MILLION. To say he's been a disappointment would be an understatement. After a 14-11, 4.40 debut with Boston in 2010, Lackey has regressed. He's 9-8 with a 6.23 ERA and 1.55 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .303 against him. He's given up at least seven hits in 12 of his 18 starts, including seven of his past nine. Lackey's stuff is getting pounded. He's allowed 37 hits in 25 innings over his past four starts, but thanks to Boston's powerhouse offense Lackey is remarkably 3-0 in those four starts. His body language and mound hysterics when things go badly has been troubling and his near-total lack of effectiveness creates genuine concern about Boston's postseason rotation with Clay Buchholz possibly out for the season with a stress fracture in his back. Boston owes Lackey $15.25 million for each of the next three seasons after 2011.

J.D. DREW -- 5 YEARS, $70 MILLION. As a disappointing free-agent signing, Drew was Lackey's mirror image, but in terms of body language, his polar opposite; nothing fazed Drew. Red Sox fans were used to Kevin Youkilis slamming batting helmets or Trot Nixon toppling over right field walls. But there was Drew, seemingly unconcerned as he hit a parade of routine groundballs to second base, content to take ball four rather than swing away with a key run standing on second base, or out of the lineup again with another hamstring twinge. Red Sox fans accustomed to Sam Kinison's act at the Fenway Comedy Club instead got Steven Wright. Despite this, Drew has contributed. He's been an underrated defensive right fielder. His Boston résumé includes several clutch postseason hits, and his Wins Above Replacement with the Red Sox is 13.6. In 602 games in Boston, Drew has averaged .264 with 16 homers and 57 RBIs. His Red Sox OPS is .826. However, it's the $70 million figure and the placid exterior that will always define Drew's stay in Boston. He's batted just .219/.317/.305 in 77 games this season, creating a season-long search for another outfielder. In total, Drew's Red Sox contract may be a wash in terms of market value, but that doesn't change the fact that Boston has gotten almost nothing for its $14 million in this final year of the deal.

MIKE CAMERON -- 2 YEARS, $15.5 MILLION. When the Red Sox DFA'd Cameron on June 30, GM Theo Epstein could only tell The Boston Globe, "I'll take the hit on this one. When it doesn't work out you have to stand up and say that it didn't work out. We're not going to sugarcoat it." Cameron was signed prior to the 2010 season and given Jacoby Ellsbury's center-field spot, with Ellsbury shifting to left. The new outfield plan had to be scrapped almost as soon as it began. Ellsbury got injured and played only 18 games. Cameron would play in just 48. This season, Cameron looked every bit his 38 years of age, hitting .149 and finishing 3 for his last 38. Cameron and Drew were supposed to be a right-field platoon. Now Cameron is with the Marlins and Drew is injured, which has given Josh Reddick the chance for a breakthrough season. In this case, Boston's investment in player development filled a hole left by a failed decision to commit to Cameron.

BOBBY JENKS -- 2 YEARS, $12 MILLION. Jenks was supposed to be a key bullpen piece; the seventh-inning bridge to Daniel Bard in the eighth and then Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth. Jenks' experience as the White Sox's closer was also considered insurance should Papelbon struggle. Instead, Jenks has blown his two save opportunities and has a 6.32 ERA and 2.23 WHIP in just 19 appearances. He's currently on the DL with a mid-back injury, for which he had a cortisone shot on July 28. Jenks' washout has left a hole in the Boston bullpen that still hasn't been filled. The Red Sox had other middle-relief options this winter. Jesse Crain got three years, $13 million from the White Sox; Matt Guerrier, three years, $12 million from the Dodgers; Scott Downs, three years, $15 million from the Angels. Boston chose a two-year deal for an overweight Jenks who had lost his closer's job in Chicago and it's been a disaster.

DAISUKE MATSUZAKA -- 6 YEARS, $52 MILLION. Add the $51,111,111 posting fee to the contract and it adds up to a mistake that cost Boston more than $100 million. Constant battles over Dice-K's preparation and routine were either clashes of culture and tradition or simple belligerence. He was the antithesis of everything American fans are told is smart pitching: content to work slowly, nibble and hand out bases on balls rather than pitch to contact. He drove people nuts. His career in Boston is already over. Out for this season due to Tommy John surgery, his recovery course won't have him back until next September, when his contract ends. For their $100 million-plus investment, the Red Sox got a return of 49 wins, a 4.25 ERA and 1.40 WHIP and another free-agent mistake that's created a rotation hole this year.

CARL CRAWFORD -- 7 YEARS, $142 MILLION. We don't know if Jose Reyes will get "Carl Crawford money" this winter but we do know that last winter, Carl Crawford did. We certainly don't yet know if he'll be worth it. Crawford hit .155 in April. What's followed has been a mixed bag: .304 in May, .278 in June, .250 in July. After five seasons of at least 50 stolen bases in Tampa Bay, Crawford's speed game has yet to arrive in Boston. You get the feeling that when Crawford's confidence in his batting stroke settles in, the chaos he created on the bases will return. His key for this season is likely health; Crawford recently missed 24 games with a hamstring strain and then last week reportedly needed an injection for a left elbow strain.

The free-agent decisions creating questions about this season in Boston are hardly without precedent. Edgar Renteria was signed to a four-year, $40 million dollar contract prior to 2005 and spent one disastrous season on Fenway Park's infield committing 30 errors, more than his previous two seasons in St. Louis combined, and had to be dealt the following winter. Eventually, the Red Sox paid Julio Lugo $36 million to play the position. Lugo batted just .247 over his first two seasons in Boston while his defense was an erratic adventure. He was essentially given away to the Cardinals while Boston spent a season-and-a-half paying Lugo's contract. The Red Sox made the emotional decision to bring Mike Lowell back after their 2007 World Series win, with a three-year, $37.5 million contract that yielded an average of .274, 13 HR and 58 RBIs as Lowell gamely limped through his final three seasons, the last of which saw Lowell able to make only four starts at third base because of injuries.

Deep pockets and a well-stocked farm system make all of these free-agent mistakes affordable. This Boston front office has done a great deal right. As with Gonzalez, it traded promising prospects for Josh Beckett and then paid big money to keep him. It picked up David Ortiz after he'd been released by the Twins and again, paid to keep him. The Red Sox have developed their own franchise cornerstones like Dustin Pedroia, Youkilis, Ellsbury and Jon Lester, plus Buchholz, Bard and Papelbon. Defensive whiz Jose Iglesias could take over at shortstop next year. First, the Red Sox need to overcome the stream of free-agent mistakes still in play this season.

(Justin Havens of the Baseball Tonight research force contributed to this post. Follow Justin on Twitter @jayhaykid.)

Follow Steve Berthiaume at Twitter @SBerthiaumeESPN.
It was quite the dust storm of a show on Wednesday's Baseball Today podcast as Keith Law and I gathered from many miles apart to discuss important matters, with plenty of happy, upbeat topics such as …

1. The Roger Clemens trial is about to begin … oh wait, we said happy topics. Why, Roger, why?

2. Wednesday is a huge day for the New York Yankees, but we doubt a certain shortstop will be a part of it. It's about the right-handed pitcher.

3. Similarly, the St. Louis Cardinals officially get Albert Pujols back Wednesday … well, they did on Tuesday but they kind of didn't, too.

4. Jon Lester and Scott Baker each left their outings early Tuesday … both are obviously important to their "contending" teams, but … wait, did I say contending?

5. Arizona radio hosts are up in arms over something, and people outside of Arizona demand to know why. For the love of Gerardo Parra we explain.

Plus: Excellent emails, why Mike Cameron will save the Marlins, what it means to be the player to be named later, Indians versus Pirates, Upstairs versus Downstairs, Matt Kemp's MVP case and a look at Wednesday's slate of pitching matchups, all on a packed Baseball Today for Wednesday! Check out all the podcasts at ESPNRadio.com/podcenter.
After hitting .149 in 105 plate appearances, Mike Cameron was designated for assignment by the Red Sox. At 38 years old, his career might be over. I hope not, and I'm guessing some team will give him a chance to see if he can still hit left-handed pitching.

Maybe the Mariners -- where he had his best days -- will give him a shot. They're desperate for a right-handed bat who can play left field or DH. He's only hitting .143 against lefties in 63 at-bats this year, so I wouldn't hold out hope, but he did hit .357 and slug .690 in limited action last season against lefties (42 at-bats).

I'm biased since Cameron was one of my favorite Mariners, but I always felt he was one of the most underrated players of the past decade. He didn't hit for high averages, but he drew walks, had good power, played superb defense and ran the bases well. He came over from the Reds as the centerpiece in the Ken Griffey Jr. trade, and Mariners fans of course howled in disgust about a guy they knew little about. But the fans quickly fell in love with his big smile and energetic game. His first year in Seattle, in 2000, he hit .267, but scored 96 runs, drove in 78 and outshone Griffey in center field. The dude simply ran down everything. The next season, Cameron drove in 110 runs, made the All-Star team and won a Gold Glove during the Mariners' dream 116-win season. In 2002, he hit four home runs in a game and just missed a fifth.

One of my favorite memories of 2001 was a game against the Giants right after the All-Star break. Cammy was on second base in extra innings of a tie game. The batter hit a grounder up the middle that the San Francisco shortstop made a diving stop on. Cammy kept on churning around third base; before the shortstop realized what was happening, it was too late. That play summed up that season: A team that was collectively greater than the sum of its parts. It did do all the little things right.

His $15.5 million, two-year deal with the Red Sox proved a colossal disaster for Boston, as it got only 81 games and less than 300 PAs of poor production. He became a baseball vagabond after leaving the Mariners, going to the Mets, Padres, Brewers and Red Sox, and his clean image was affected by a positive test for a banned stimulant (not a steroid) after the 2007 season.

But he had a nice career -- 272 home runs, 950 RBIs, more than 1,000 runs scored, three Gold Gloves. If he's done, he can walk away with that smile of his.

And thanks for 2001.

Follow David on Twitter @dschoenfield.

Checking out American League platoons

June, 2, 2011
Joe Maddon, Jim LeylandUS PresswireJoe Maddon, left, and Jim Leyland utilize platooning as much as any team in the American League.
As much as some of us might grumble about the seeming decline of in-game tactics in recent seasons, one of the simplest yet most reliable gambits in any skipper’s arsenal is platooning. If you lack a great everyday player at a position or in a particular lineup slot, you can always try to compensate for the limitations of the alternatives by mixing and matching.

With runs so scarce these days, you might expect to see some more of this. However, the major requirement for operating a platoon beyond mere willingness is roster space, no easy feat in the age of the seven-man bullpen (sometimes eight). With that limitation, which teams are making room to platoon these days? We’ll start by looking at the American League today, and then get to the NL on Friday.

The AL’s easy heroes in this department are the Rays, because they’re the most ambitious platoon-minded team around. In doing so, though, they’re reaping the benefit of employing multi-positional players like Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez. Zobrist plays every day between second and right field, so that Rodriguez is actually somewhat loosely platooned with right fielder Matt Joyce. Between Joyce’s career .552 SLG versus right-handers and Rodriguez’s .789 OPS against lefties, it’s not that unwieldy of an arrangement. Lately, they’ve had less space to keep that going during Reid Brignac’s time on the Bereavement Leave list, and Brignac’s bat is going to have to come around, but as tactical weapons go, you can still count this as a reliable standby in manager Joe Maddon’s bandolier. They’re also platooning John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach at catcher, another holdover arrangement from last year.

Beyond the Rays, nobody in the league is consistently running two platoons simultaneously, and what few platoons that exist generally fall into one of two groups -- platoons in an outfield corner or platoons behind the plate as a way of keeping catching workloads manageable.

In the outfield, the Yankees, Red Sox and A’s are platooning with a particular hitter, while showing there are different ways to tailor the job. The Yanks are using Andruw Jones as the platoon Bomber he was signed to be, but not at any one teammate’s expense, as he’s spotting for Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada. That’s less of a straightforward platoon than a case of making sure that Jones starts versus lefties, and using that commitment as a way to give everyone else a day off. The A’s are using Conor Jackson in a similar way, spotting the ex-Snake for David DeJesus, Daric Barton and Hideki Matsui against lefties. The Red Sox are running a much more straightforward platoon in right field with Mike Cameron subbing for J.D. Drew, but we’ll see how long it lasts, since Cameron isn’t hitting anything against anybody.

After that, there’s little that is set in stone. The Orioles might be ready to commit to a similar outfield arrangement once Derrek Lee comes back from the DL. Once that happens, Luke Scott will presumably move back out to left field, where Nolan Reimold has already clouted three bombs against southpaws in less than two weeks since his recall. The first-place Indians dabbled with a platoon in left field as Manny Acta compensated during Grady Sizemore’s absences, but Sizemore’s back, and once Travis Hafner gets reactivated the only lineup slot the Tribe might reliably platoon at is DH, with Shelley Duncan spotting for Pronk against southpaws.

Behind the plate beyond the Rays’ tandem, the league has a pair of stable platoon arrangements, in Chicago and L.A. With a six-man rotation and a seven-man pen, Ozzie Guillen only has room for this one platoon for the White Sox, almost always giving A.J. Pierzynski his days off when a lefty is on the mound to let Ramon Castro mash a bit. In contrast, Mike Scioscia has created a true job-sharing arrangement behind the plate, splitting the starts fairly evenly between the switch-hitting Hank Conger and the non-hitting Jeff Mathis, keeping Mathis’ bat from doing too much damage to his own offense while breaking in a rookie receiver.

Looking for AL platoons that don’t just involve the five corners or the DH slot? The Royals and Mariners have second-base platoons going at the moment, although how long Ned Yost or Eric Wedge keep to these commitments remains to be seen. In K.C., Yost is using Mike Aviles as Chris Getz’s platoon partner at second. However, Aviles is also getting semi-regular play as the team’s utility infielder, so it isn’t like he’s been pigeon-holed as much as Yost is just benching Getz against lefties. Up in Seattle, Adam Kennedy’s bat has won him a lion’s share of second-base starts at Jack Wilson’s expense -- perhaps a surprise to those convinced the Mariners’ leather fetish was getting the better of them, but Kennedy’s career record afield is far from terrible, and to Wedge’s credit he was always willing to cobble together a platoon or two during his days in Cleveland.

Overall, this makes for fairly slim pickings, but is there potential for more than this? The Tigers might be the team with the most potential variations, to the point that Jim Leyland could flirt with multi-positional solutions every bit as creative as Maddon’s. After all, the Tigers broke in Ryan Raburn in a multi-positional utility role with a lean toward starting him against lefties in the past, and using youngsters Andy Dirks and Casper Wells as platoon outfielders now. Raburn and Brennan Boesch have struggled to stick in regular roles, opening up a host of possibilities for Leyland to try to hide some of his players from the sources of some of their struggles.

Although Leyland’s track record for building platoons at all five corners is fairly extensive, it’s worth noting that he’s also fairly adaptable; while Victor Martinez has started eight of his 12 games behind the plate with a lefty on the mound, the lefty-batting Alex Avila isn’t getting hidden away from southpaws, having drawn eight starts of his own against them, while hitting better than well enough to beat a platoon label, a reminder that a platoon isn’t automatically a positive end unto itself.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Eric Karabell and Mark Simon brought up a fun topic on their Baseball Today podcast on Thursday: Who is the best active player never to receive an MVP vote? By an MVP vote, we mean not even one little 10th-place "I like this guy" vote. (For purposes of this discussion, we're only looking at position players.)

Nearly all good players at some point receive a vote or even have a season that places them in the top 10. Corey Hart had two points last year. Jeremy Affeldt received a 10th-place vote in 2009. So did Brad Hawpe. Nate McLouth had a 10th-place vote in 2008, Placido Polanco has twice received votes and Gary Matthews Jr. and A.J. Pierzynski each got a vote in 2006. You get the idea.

Eric and Mark mentioned guys like Jay Bruce, Nelson Cruz and Drew Stubbs as the best candidates to get a vote for the first time in 2011.

Thanks to the genius of Baseball-Reference.com, we spent a little time cross-checking this kind of stuff. Here are a few random nuggets:
  • The active leader in WAR (wins above replacement) without a vote is Jason Kendall. And I'm thinking he's not about to get one. Kendall was a terrific player with the Pirates in the late '90s (he hit .314/.402/.456 his first five seasons), but played on a bad team and his on-base skills were underappreciated in the barrage of home runs.
  • The No. 2 guy is ... Randy Winn. He did once make an All-Star team with the Devil Rays.
  • The best players without a top-10 overall finish in the voting are Johnny Damon and Mike Cameron. Damon has received votes four times, but his best finish was 13th in 2005. Damon still has a small chance to reach 3,000 hits (2,571). If that happens, his Hall of Fame vote will be interesting. Cameron had a terrific season in 2001, the year the Mariners won 116 games. B-R rates him the seventh-best player in the league, but he received just four points in the voting, fewer than Doug Mientkiewicz, who scored fewer runs, drove in fewer runs and played first base.
  • Omar Vizquel is a surefire Hall of Famer? He's received just three MVP points in his career, all in 1999.

You can see all the MVP voting history here at Baseball-Reference.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

Two months later, Ellsbury back in center

May, 25, 2010
Well, that sure didn't last long. Rob Bradford:

    Following the Red Sox' 6-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Jacoby Ellsbury confirmed what was learned by WEEI.com earlier Monday night -- that he is slated to be manning center field on a regular basis for the Sox, even with the return of Mike Cameron from the 15-day disabled list.

    Cameron, who will be activated from the DL Tuesday, had been identified as the Red Sox' starting center fielder prior to the season but was sidelined with a lower abdominal strain after playing in just 11 games.

    For Ellsbury, the news was welcomed with open arms.

    "That's where I've always played, center," said Ellsbury, who has been playing center field since returning from the disabled list last Saturday, "So, yeah, I was pretty happy about that.

    "I think that's definitely my natural position and where you would think I would play. So, yeah, they told me I was going to left and I told them basically whatever would help the team out, I would go to left. Now it's come back around and I'm fine with it."

    Part of the impetus for the move appears to be the need to put less strain on Cameron, who continues to adjust to the healing process that goes with his injury. Prior to the Sox' win, the 37-year-old wouldn't specify where he planned on spending the majority of his time.

Six of one, half-dozen the other ...

Essentially, you've got two center fielders, with the big difference being that one of them (Ellsbury) has a great more experience in left field than the other (Cameron has only three games there, and none since 2000). Well, another difference is that the older player's numbers in center field were a great deal better than the younger player's last year.

This move suggests, to me anyway, that the Red Sox have more confidence in Ellsbury's health over the next four months than Cameron's. It also seems (to me, anyway) that the Red Sox are tacitly admitting that Cameron's contract -- which runs through next season for a decent-sized sum -- isn't working out nearly as well as they'd planned. At least Darnell McDonald got to enjoy a few moments in the sun ...

Stand by your man (at least for a little while)

May, 14, 2010
With the Red Sox falling to 18-17 with Wednesday night’s loss to Toronto, the Fenway faithful are growing ever more frustrated with the team’s journey to the cold, dark annals of the AL East basement.

There are no “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” about it: The team is frantically treading water -- if not outright drowning -- in need of both a spark and better personnel to reclaim its playoff hopes.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Kelvin Ma/Icon SMIDavid Ortiz is batting .200 through Boston's first 35 games this season.
While individual players struggle on Boston’s squad every season, the imperfections of the 2010 Red Sox incarnation have been much harder to endure.

Victor Martinez is underachieving at the moment, though he can be expected to turn it around. Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury continue to work back from injury while Darnell McDonald and Jeremy Hermida admirably attempt to fill the void.

Fortunately, the Boston front office is too well managed and too intelligent to scapegoat a single player or staff member for the team’s woes (paging: Seattle and Alan Cockrell).

Unfortunately, there are serious, gaping holes in the team’s once-shimmering armor -- and one, in particular, has endured for two seasons now: the plight of David Ortiz.

With a .200/.274/.412 line through his first 85 at-bats, countless members of the Boston media have clamored for his benching, even hinting at his possible release.

And, at this point in the season, what other choice does Boston have? The internal options are few.

Triple-A Pawtucket has plenty of future major leaguers, but none who can be entrusted with the offensive requirements of a playoff-caliber designated hitter.

Buttressing the existing platoons already in place will help, but in lieu of this, the team’s best option seems to lie outside the organization.

The catch is, these precious few options are dwindling by the day.

Complicating matters are the unexpected hot starts of perennial cellar-dwellers, while the team’s affinity for hulking first basemen Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder make the search all the more arduous.

With their known preference for Fielder or Gonzalez as a long-term fix, Boston is limited to candidates who are both expendable to their trade partner while not interfering with the club’s ability to acquire either first baseman on or before their impending free agency in 2011.

This leaves few viable candidates.

(Read full post)

Mike Cameron's 37 is the new 27

March, 30, 2010
Yes, Mike Cameron is 37. Yes, he strikes out a lot. But as Tom Krasovic writes, Cameron is far from an old man ...

    The good news for the Sox is that Cameron remains one of baseball's remarkable athletes.

    "We tested all of our players," says Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "He finished a tick behind [left fielder] Jacoby Ellsbury -- second out of everyone in camp -- in all of the quickness and agility testing. He was second in the vertical [jump-. He was second in quickness -- the 10-yard dash, 30-yard dash, all that stuff.

    "On strength testing, he was right up there with everybody."

    It's not the first time that Cameron wowed a new club shortly after arriving. Four years ago when the Padres tested for hand strength, Cameron was one of only three players to "pin" the needle and the only one to do it with each hand.


    "He could be one of the more underrated players of our generation because he's probably never gotten quite enough credit for his defense," Epstein says. "Because of his batting average and strikeouts, people overlooked his power and his ability to get on base. And, then, he's played his entire career basically in extreme pitcher's parks."


    Before games, he spends most of batting practice in center field, working on his reads and jumps.

    Many of his Red Sox teammates have a similar passion for the leather. When Red Sox infielders practiced two hours before a recent game at City of Palms Park, the thwack of ball hitting leather was accompanied by a stream of player commentary and laughter. The ball got away only three times in the 30 minutes. Putting pizzazz into it were Beltre, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Kevin Youkilis, who snapped up groundballs with extra flair.

Every so often you'll see a quote from some old-timer, lamenting that these (lazy) modern-day infielders don't "take infield" the way infielders used to.

Maybe not. But the suggestion that players today don't work hard on their defense is just silly. My guess is that players today work as well and as hard as they ever have. And on their defense as much as anything else. Have you seen the plays these guys make? Do you think those plays weren't preceded by hundreds or thousands of hours of practice?

End of rant.

Mike Cameron certainly is one of our most underrated players. Looking at career Wins Above Replacement, Cameron fits in nicely with Hall of Fame center fielders Edd Roush and Larry Doby, and also with Fred Lynn, Johnny Damon, Bernie Williams, and Brett Butler. Maybe now that he's with the Red Sox, we'll come to appreciate him a bit more.

Reading Jacoby Ellsbury's mind

January, 11, 2010
Because they always have to have something to worry about in Red Sox Nation, it's time to wonder how Jacoby Ellsbury will handle his "demotion" to left field. From Nick Cafardo's piece:
    "I agree that playing center field produces the feeling of being in charge," said former Red Sox outfielder Gabe Kapler, now with Tampa Bay. “After all, by being positioned in center field, you essentially have the ability to call off any player on the field should you choose to pursue a ball in play.

    "Also, the baseball world, fair or not, seems to consider the center fielder a superior defender. That must make some feel a little sexier.

    "That said, if we as players do a good job self-evaluating, and we evaluate other players properly, we know when another guy is a better fit for a position.


    Another scout made the point, “When the Red Sox had Coco Crisp and Ellsbury, who did they keep in center when both played? It was Coco. Some will say that was because Coco was the veteran, but they wouldn’t have done that if they felt Ellsbury was a better center fielder than Crisp. It’s unfortunate Crisp has had so many injuries because he’s really an extraordinary center fielder in terms of running down the ball.’’


    "I think you run the risk of Ellsbury really getting down on himself," said a longtime general manager. "He sees himself as a center fielder, and on three-quarters of the teams in baseball, that’s what he is and a good one.

    "The psychology of this is kind of tough for him, I would think. He’s got to get over that part of it and then move on and make the most out of being a left fielder. It’s not as sexy of a position, but obviously he can look to a guy like Carl Crawford or go back in history and see that Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson were guys who could have played center who moved to left so they could enhance other parts of their game."

I'm not sure if Bonds and Henderson moved to left in order to enhance other parts of their game. I think they might have been moved because a) they couldn't really throw, and b) their teams had better center fielders (the Pirates had Andy Van Slyke; the A's had Dwayne Murphy). In both cases, the greater player was supplanted by a greater fielder, who in both cases was older than our budding superstar.

Granted, not this much older. Mike Cameron (37) is 11 years older than Ellsbury. If Ellsbury's feelings are hurt, I suspect it's because his replacement seems on the ancient side of things.

He'll probably get over it. They usually do. And our anonymous scout does have a point: this is the second time already that Ellsbury's been pushed to left field. If the Red Sox thought he was an outstanding center fielder, this probably wouldn't have happened even once. His poor Ultimate Zone Rating in center field last season has been roundly dismissed, and I suspect it was just a one-season fluke ... sort of. Even if you don't believe he was really an awful center fielder -- and I'm not sure that I do -- it would still be exceptionally unlikely for an excellent center fielder to finish a full season with negative-18.3 UZR per 150 games. I don't know if he had a terrible year in center, but I don't believe he had a particularly good one.

For whatever reason, Ellsbury might not be the center fielder that we assumed he would be. Meanwhile, his numbers in the corners have been outstanding!

Welcome to the vagaries of fielding stats. Ellsbury probably isn't as good as his UZR in the corners would suggest, or as bad as his UZR in center field. He's probably a good outfielder who will stand out more in left field (as Carl Crawford does) but won't be quite as valuable as if he were in center. But the Red Sox have a new outfielder who's even more valuable in center.

Yes, it's just that simple. Ellsbury will cope, just has hundreds of players before him have coped. But things will go a lot easier for him if he hits a few more home runs.

Should Sox spurn Bay, sign Cameron?

November, 9, 2009
Quick Quiz: Who's more valuable, Jason Bay or Mike Cameron?

Dave Cameron says it's Mike Cameron, even considering the age difference, and he makes his case well ...
    Yet Bay is going to get a three to five year deal for something in the neighborhood of $15 million per season, while Cameron is probably going to have to settle for a one year deal for around the $10 million he made last year.

    That’s nutty. If you think Cameron’s on the verge of collapse (he’s shown no signs of it) and you don’t trust defensive metrics (in this case, the conclusions are pretty obviously true), then you think that they’re similarly valuable. In reality, the odds are pretty good that Cameron is going to outperform Bay next season, just as he’s done in most every season recently, and he’s going to do it for far less money.

    If you want a right-handed hitting outfielder this winter, and you don’t want to pony up for Matt Holliday, Jason Bay is not the alternative. Call Mike Cameron instead.

I'll bet the Red Sox are beside themselves trying to come up with an alternative to investing $60 million in Jason Bay, whose value will only decline over the next three to five years. However, Bay's defense might not be an issue a year from now, as David Ortiz's contract expires after next season and the Sox might well need a new designated hitter.

In other words, whatever happens, I'll be fairly surprised if Jason Bay is Boston's every-day left fielder in 2012.

It's also not clear that Cameron would be a good fit with the Red Sox. There's nothing wrong with having two center fielders in the outfield; a run saved in left field is pretty important, too. But I wonder if great defense is worth less to the Red Sox than to other teams, given the small amount of real estate between the shortstop and the Green Monster. Otherwise, in the absence of Bay I would suggest that if Cameron's right, the Red Sox would know it and go after Cameron.

As it is, I suspect that Cameron is right, at the very least, about this: Cameron will have to "settle" for "only" $10 million (at best) next year. Because just about every team that has more than $10 million to spend already has a center fielder, and very few teams (if any) are creative enough to spend big money for center-field defense and play it in left (or right) field.

Should Brewers bring Cameron back?

September, 4, 2009
Aaron Gleeman writes about Mike Cameron, one of the more underrated (and underpaid) players around:
    He turns 37 years old in a few months and not many center fielders remain effective defenders at that age, but the Brewers don't have an obvious in-house replacement ready and he's shown no signs of decline. Cameron has an OPS above .800 for the fourth time in five seasons and remains an excellent defensive center fielder, rating 8.6 runs above average according to Ultimate Zone Rating.

    Fan Graphs shows Cameron as being 38.7 runs above replacement level this year, which is good for 15th in the NL and makes him a bargain at $10 million. And while being 37 puts him at high risk to decline suddenly, Cameron has aged far better than most players and was 40.3 runs above replacement level in 2008. If he's truly willing to give the Brewers a discount to remain in Milwaukee, they could jump at the chance.

Is a 37-year-old at a higher risk of sudden decline than, say, a 33-year-old?

I honestly don't know, and I'm still on the train so I can't check any of my usual sources. But my gut tells me that he's not; or if he is, the risk is not significantly higher. And Cameron, particularly. He's been pretty consistent over the years. He does strike out a lot, so he's particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of batted balls (since there are relatively few of them, the luck doesn't have as many chances to even out). But Cameron's generally been healthy throughout his career, and his OPS has hovered around the 800 mark -- give or take 20-25 points -- in every season since he became an every-day player 12 years ago.

And then of course there's Cameron's defense. While he's no longer a great center fielder, he's still quite good and figures to be quite good again in 2010.

Add it all up, and Cameron's essentially been underpaid for as far back as we can track such things. Last year he earned $6.3 million and was worth nearly three times as much; this year he's earning $10 million and will be worth nearly twice as much. If he's willing to play for $10 million again, Gleeman's right: the Brewers should jump on that. I just wouldn't go higher than $12 million, or $20 million for two years. And considering 1) Cameron's age, and 2) how few of the good teams need a center field, they shouldn't have to.

Video: BBTN Web Gems, April 26

April, 27, 2009

Baseball Tonight reviews the top defensive plays from Sunday.