Thursday, August 5, 2010
Amazing on-field feats well within reach
By Jayson Stark
Nobody loves a good trade rumor more than Rumblings and Grumblings. But this just in:
While we've all been obsessing these last few weeks over Chad Qualls' next destination, some amazing stuff has apparently been happening on the field, too. Yeah, it's shocking. We know. But it's true.
So now that it's safe again to pay more attention to actual baseball than to Rumor Central, we want to direct your attention to five on-field stories you need to follow these last two months -- because it could lead these five men to a place where very few players have traveled in our lifetimes:
Could Votto win a Triple Crown? It still isn't out of the question. He leads the league in batting. He was leading in homers until Adam Dunn passed him Wednesday. And in the RBI column, Votto trails a guy who just landed on the disabled list (Ryan Howard) by only eight.
And if the traditional Triple Crown doesn't work out for him, Votto is still on pace to win the "Modern Triple Crown" -- championed by my friend Joe Posnanski over at SI.com. He leads the league in batting, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And if he can hang on, he'd become just the ninth man in the last half-century to win the all-decimal-point version of the Triple Crown.
But even if the Reds' big bopper doesn't win either trifecta, the "Double Crown" Votto is chasing would still land him in some cool company.
It isn't all that rare for a player to win two legs of the Triple Crown. But it's exceptionally rare for a guy to win the two legs Votto has the best shot at -- homers and batting average -- in the same season.
Barry Bonds never did it. Willie Mays never did it. Stan Musial never did it. Not in the same year, anyway. In fact, only three men ever did: Ted Williams in 1941, Johnny Mize in 1939 and Babe Ruth in 1924. Good group. Historic group. And Votto is in excellent position to join them. We'll keep you posted.
Speaking of men who could win the Triple Crown, we regret to announce that it's looking increasingly unlikely that Cabrera is going to be hanging out with Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson and Secretariat. Over in the old HR column, Cabrera is seven behind Jose (The Bambino) Bautista -- and has homered only twice since Magglio Ordonez went down July 24.
But Cabrera could still get to join Yaz and Robinson (though not Secretariat) in another cool group if he keeps doing what he's doing.
Cabrera leads the AL in extra-base hits. But he's also hitting .346, meaning he's second in the batting race to Josh Hamilton, a fellow whose .357 average is 53 points higher than his previous career high and nearly 50 points higher than his lifetime average.
So if Hamilton returns to earth and Cabrera goes on to lead the American League in hitting -- while also leading in extra-base hits -- he's putting himself in some amazing company. Only five players have led the AL in both categories since World War II -- and four of them (Yaz, Robinson, Mickey Mantle and Williams) won the Triple Crown the year they did it.
But to lead the league in extra-base hits without leading in homers, while still winning the batting title, is a feat we haven't seen in years in the AL. Last man to do it: Tony Oliva in 1964. Before him, you have to go back to Snuffy Stirnweiss in 1945.
Oddly, this has happened four times in the NL since 2000 -- by two Rockies (Matt Holliday in 2007, Todd Helton in 2000), plus Albert Pujols in '03 and Derrek Lee in '05. But before that, no one had done it since Hank Aaron in 1959.
So it's still a fantastic, and challenging, feat. And if you've watched Cabrera swing the bat lately, you know it's one that's well within his reach. For that matter, what the heck isn't within this guy's reach?
It's fashionable these days to dump on RBIs. We understand the reason for that. We readily acknowledge that, for most of baseball history, the good old RBI has been one of baseball's most massively overrated statistics.
But somebody needs to drive in these runs. And no matter what you think of this stat, Howard has dominated it like nobody we've seen in years.
Now that he's stuck on the Phillies' disabled list for at least the next two weeks, he's probably lost his shot to join only Ruth and Lou Gehrig in the ranks of men who drove in at least 135 runs in five straight seasons. But Howard hasn't lost his chance to join a group that's almost as impressive.
He led the NL in RBIs in 2008, tied Prince Fielder for the RBI title last year and is leading again this year. If he can make it to the finish line with that lead despite his stint in DL limbo, he would become only the fourth NL player since RBIs became an official stat (in 1920) to lead the league three straight seasons.
The others to do it: George Foster (1976-78), Joe Medwick (1936-38) and Rogers Hornsby (1920-22). That's it. And ohbytheway, if Holliday hadn't gotten to play a 163rd game in 2007 (and drive in two bonus runs), Howard would be working on a fourth title in a row.
OK, there are two subplots we need to consider here. The first: What are the chances of Howard leading the league despite a stay on the DL? Well, as recently as last Thursday, he had a 10-RBI lead in this category, and that's already shrunken to three. So it won't be easy. But by the time he returns, the Phillies will be close, at least theoretically, to getting their full lineup back on the field for the first time since May. So there should be many, many RBI opportunities for this guy down the stretch.
And that brings us to the other element in this discussion: RBI opportunities. Granted, to achieve this feat, you need as many of those opportunities as you can get. And Howard has arrived at home plate with more runners on base than any player in the NL, according to Baseball Prospectus. He also finished third and sixth, respectively, in that department the previous two years. So this is a team feat, almost as much as it is an individual feat.
But that still doesn't make this a meaningless achievement. We know the sabermetricians don't agree. But particularly this year, as the Phillies' lineup has crumbled around him, Howard has been more important to his team than ever.
He also ranks second in the league in percent of runners driven in from second base and fourth in percent of runners driven in, period, among NL hitters with at least 450 plate appearances. So it's not as if these runs are all scoring by accident.
Now don't get us wrong. We're not asking anyone to worship RBIs. We're merely suggesting we shouldn't ignore them, either. Like everything in this sport, just put them in their proper perspective. It's not that complicated. Is it?
All right, so it hasn't been Lincecum's most dominant season. We can all agree on that. But in case you hadn't noticed, he's 11-5, with four blown saves by his bullpen, a 3.15 ERA and more strikeouts than innings. So he hasn't exactly been John Van Benschoten, either.
And one thing Lincecum continues to do, despite slightly less cooperation from his fastball, is make those poor hitters out there swing and miss. He leads the league in strikeouts, now one ahead of Roy Halladay.
Regardless of how that start goes, though, Lincecum remains in tremendous position to do something only the great ones do -- lead his league in strikeouts for a third year in a row.
If Lincecum outwhiffs the league again this year, he would join Randy Johnson (1999-2002) and Warren Spahn (1949-52) as the only NL pitchers since World War II to do that in at least three straight seasons. Only those three, plus Johnny Vander Meer (1941-43), have done it since 1940. And just those four and Dizzy Dean (1932-35) have done it since 1931.
It's happened more often in the AL, for some reason. But here's what hasn't: Lincecum will have done this in his first three full seasons (not counting his rookie year of 2007, when he made just 27 starts). And that's a feat we know is rare. We're just not 100 percent sure of how rare.
We know Lefty Grove and Bob Feller did it. We know Nolan Ryan and Johan Santana did it in their first three seasons as full-time starters, though not as full-time big leaguers. But we had a tough time coming up with a definitive list. So feel free to submit more nominees to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the meantime, we have no idea how long Lincecum's career will last, or exactly how many pitches it will take before his arm just flies off his shoulder. But for now, you should go out of your way to watch him do his inimitable thing -- because, as we've just proved again, he's still something special.
When we talk about great pitchers, it probably takes us a little too long to get to Wainwright's name. But that could change. Boy, could it ever.
We don't know what the odds are of anybody winning the Pitching Triple Crown in the Year of the Pitcher -- especially in a league that has Lincecum, Halladay, Josh Johnson and Ubaldo Jimenez in it (among other luminaries). But if you check your handy dandy stat sheet, you'll find Wainwright has a real shot at it.
To win the Pitching Triple Crown, you have to lead your league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. And in case you hadn't noticed, Wainwright is second in wins (two behind Jimenez), third in ERA (only 23 points behind Johnson) and fifth in strikeouts (just 11 behind Halladay). So it sure isn't out of the question.
In the division-play era -- or, in layman's terms, the post-Koufax-ian era -- only four NL pitchers have won that particular Triple Crown: Jake Peavy (2007), Randy Johnson (2002), Dwight Gooden (1985) and Steve Carlton (1972). Over in the AL, they're joined by Santana (2006), Pedro Martinez (1999) and Roger Clemens (1997-98). We're guessing you've heard of all of them.
Now is it realistic to think Wainwright can pull this off? Your first inclination is probably to say it's not. But not so fast.
He plays for a heck of a team, so the wins should keep on coming. He leads the major leagues in ERA over nearly the last two full seasons, dating to Sept. 1, 2008 (at 2.54), so there's no reason to think his ERA is going to explode. And he's averaging 8.25 whiffs per nine innings (a higher rate than Halladay) and seven innings per start, so he's going to pile up well over 200 strikeouts.
So while we're not going to predict Wainwright can do this, we're not going to predict he can't, either. What we can predict with total assurance is that we'll be watching -- because he's one of many plotlines that should make these last two months way more intriguing than waiting for, say, the next Jose Guillen trade rumor.
Ready to rumble
Owning up: There's an owners meeting coming up in Minnesota next week. And we don't have to consult Vladimir Shpunt to know already what the most contentious topic of that session will be:
How the heck were the Rangers allowed by MLB to add so many negotiable U.S. dollars to their payroll before the trading deadline?
Originally, we estimated last weekend that the Rangers had added about $6 million with their four major July deals. Turned out that was too high.
What we forgot to factor in was the payroll they unloaded in those trades (Chris Ray, Justin Smoak, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, etc.), plus the cash they got from Boston in the Saltalamacchia trade. So the actual amount they added to the books came to about $4.6 million. But that's $4.6 million more than some clubs thought they should have been allowed to add. That's for sure.
After learning last week that Texas had assumed more than $1.5 million of the $2.1 million Jorge Cantu still had coming this year, for instance, one GM erupted, muttering: "How'd they do that?
I'm not happy about that.
That ticks me off. It's not right."
And he wasn't alone. There will be multiple teams asking those same questions at those meetings next week. But we're hearing the official answer will be that the Rangers had, from the beginning, left room in the budget -- which MLB had approved for them months ago -- to allow for July acquisitions. So will that be the end of the conversation? We'd bet on no.
Who Dunn it? We'll never know exactly what happened to Adam Dunn on his way to the White Sox last week. But we do know this: The Nationals have been adamant since the trading deadline that they never offered to trade Dunn for Edwin Jackson -- not straight up, anyway.
Baseball men who have spoken with the Washington powers-that-be report the Nationals have consistently maintained in recent days that they never told either Arizona or the White Sox that a Dunn-for-Jackson trade worked for them.
What the Nationals did explore with Arizona, we've heard, was an expanded, multiplayer deal in which Jackson would have been a secondary piece. But that conversation never advanced beyond the "what about this" stage.
And clearly, the Nationals and White Sox later had numerous conversations about Dunn. But again, the Nationals have insisted to people they've confided in that Jackson would never have been more than a complementary piece for them in any White Sox deal, as well. And his $8.35 million salary for next year was always a massive obstacle.
But would they have taken Jackson if the White Sox had fronted the package with Gordon Beckham? We'd guess yes, in a millisecond. But would an offer of hot catching prospect Tyler Flowers, plus Jackson, have done it? Doubt it.
We've also heard that early on, the Nationals turned down a proposal of Flowers and Dan Hudson for Dunn. And they rejected prospect-based pitches from the Rays and Yankees for Dunn, too. Other clubs have confirmed that Washington asked for a "quality" big league-ready bat in any deal for Dunn. So Jackson's odd place in this scenario is going to remain a mystery for a long time, we'd guess.
In the meantime, looks as if, now that Dunn hasn't moved, the Nationals are most likely to turn their attention back to signing him to an extension. But the sides have been hung up on the length of that extension for weeks and are said to be looking for a creative solution. So we may not have heard our last Adam Dunn trade rumor for 2010 after all.
Ryan's hope: We never would have guessed that the most significant bat to change teams before the deadline would be Ryan Ludwick, not Dunn. But that's because Ludwick's availability was a better-kept secret than the location of the Chelsea Clinton wedding.
So how did Ludwick wind up in San Diego? The Padres had been monitoring Ludwick's recovery from a calf injury and asked the Cardinals about him several times but couldn't find a match. At the same time, Padres GM Jed Hoyer had been trying to deal for Jake Westbrook after a stealth run on Roy Oswalt went nowhere.
When it became clear late last week that the Cardinals were also homing in on Westbrook, Hoyer became the chief architect who, in the words of one source, "brokered" the three-team deal that sent Westbrook to St. Louis, Ludwick to San Diego and pitching prospect Corey Kluber to Cleveland.
But that trade still could have broken down as late as Saturday, if Westbrook hadn't agreed to pass on his $2 million relocation bonus -- because if the money hadn't worked, the Indians would have backed out of the deal.
However, Westbrook then agreed to go. The union signed off on the restructured contract. And the most fascinating trade before the deadline was, finally, a done deal.
Manny wouldn't: Could there possibly have been a more overblown story on deadline day than the tales that the Dodgers were fielding offers for Manny Ramirez? That deal was never going to happen.
The Dodgers quickly blew off the White Sox, who were merely offering to take $1 million of the more than $8 million left on Manny's contract, just in case the Dodgers had had enough of that act. Then, when word got out, the Rays and two other AL teams called, mostly just to kick Manny's tires for the fun of it.
But none of those teams came away with the feeling that Ramirez was actually available. And why would he have been? The Dodgers were one of the most aggressive buyers before the deadline. They're kind of desperate for offense themselves. And if Manny wants to play next year, he's going to need to (A) come back and play sooner or later, and (B) hit like Ty Cobb when he does.
Oh, and one more thing: Ramirez has a total no-trade clause. You think he'd have just waived that on deadline day without a perk or two being tossed his way?
Now if the Dodgers don't climb back into contention by the last week of August and Manny clears waivers, as expected, the team figures to have a very different approach. But what we saw Saturday was a classic example of how fast rumor can start looking like reality in this nutty world we live in.
Royalty: We didn't squeeze the Royals into our list of deadline winners last weekend. But the consensus of clubs we've surveyed is that they did well -- turning guys who were just passing through (Scott Podsednik, Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth) into a bunch of useful, controllable young players.
Most attractive of that bunch: 5-foot-9 left-hander Tim Collins, who is averaging more than 15 strikeouts per nine innings in the minor leagues and is viewed as Joakim Soria's future eighth-inning accomplice.
Speaking of Soria, we've seen no signs that the Royals ever had sincere interest in trading him. Not to the Yankees for Jesus Montero. Not anywhere else. Too good at what he does. Too affordable for too many years.
Deadline deals that never were: There's always fascinating stuff that gets talked about as the deadline approaches -- but never winds up happening. Here are some of the rumblings we heard:
Granted, the only deal the Rays were able to complete was their trade for Chad Qualls, but they were in on all sorts of big-time action. Turns out they made a more aggressive run at Cliff Lee in early July than people realized -- but would have had to move money (most likely James Shields or another veteran player off their big league team) to make room for him.
The Rays were also in on Dunn and explored a couple of scenarios to get Lance Berkman, including three-team options.
We've also heard that stories of Berkman's invoking his no-trade clause to turn down a deal to the White Sox weren't quite correct. He informed the Astros early on he wouldn't go to the White Sox but it doesn't appear he ever quashed a specific trade.
The Red Sox lost out on Kerry Wood, took a run at the Cubs' Sean Marshall and were one of many teams that got nowhere trying to deal for Seattle's Brandon League and Toronto's Scott Downs.
All those Jose Guillen trade rumors turned out to be nothing more than wishful Royals thinking. The Royals never had one team pursue Guillen seriously. If you're making a list of players whom teams should be most wary of claiming this month, Guillen might be No. 1.
The Angels never really got into "sell" mode. But an official of one club came away with the impression that one name you could see them dangle this winter is Mike Napoli.
The Rockies had more hits on Joe Beimel than any other player. But Beimel is such a low-budget asset, they never got serious about peddling him. If they cliff-dive this month, that could change.
The Mariners tried to get teams like Atlanta interested in Chone Figgins in the hours before the deadline but got nowhere. An exec of a team that would have nowhere to put Figgins found that lack of interest a little odd, actually, since he sure didn't lack for suitors last winter. "So if you think he's the same player you liked then, only you get him for three years times $9 million, instead of four years times $9 million, why would you not be interested now?" the exec wondered.
We heard some faint talk of the Braves looking into acquiring Adam LaRoche yet again, in the wake of Troy Glaus' second-half disappearing act. But they decided to err on the side of loyalty to Glaus and backed off all their other first base options -- at least for now.
The Twins, Reds, Mets, Dodgers and even the Blue Jays tried to swoop in and deal for Wandy Rodriguez on Saturday. But the Astros never seriously entertained trading him.
The Reds were trying to drum up interest in Aaron Harang, even though he's been on the disabled list for a month with back spasms. Harang figures to be a potential August attraction if he resembles any semblance of his former self.
'Pen pals: Has there ever been a worse bullpen market at the trading deadline? Only four prominent relievers changed teams. Two of them -- Wood and Qualls -- were salary dumps. The other two -- Matt Capps and Octavio Dotel -- went for a heavy price.
But the Blue Jays and Mariners slapped high sticker prices on their "available" relievers and never budged. The A's kept their bullpen intact. And nobody else ever dangled anybody worth dealing for, other than some assorted reclamation projects.
So even though Billy Wagner and Jose Contreras got traded last August, don't expect much to change on the waiver-trade circuit this month.
"A couple of guys might pop out there," said one AL executive. "But I don't see somebody like a Scott Downs moving. At this point, Toronto will just hold onto him and take the [compensation] picks before they'd move him for what you can get in August."
Feel a draft: Finally, we're not sure exactly what it says about how the Nationals' negotiations with Bryce Harper are going, but we're hearing that when other clubs check in to ask about their talks with the No. 1 pick in the draft, the Nationals are already floating the hard line that if they don't get Harper signed, they'd happily take the No. 2 overall pick next year in what's viewed as a much deeper draft.
That's not exactly your classic, upbeat, don't-sweat-it-we'll-get-him-signed kind of talk, considering the Nationals now have less than two weeks to get this deal done. But whether it's spin or an indication that their negotiations with Scott Boras are in a danger zone, it's one more sign that teams are prepared to hang tough with their picks, now that the prospect of some sort of slotting system looms in the next labor deal.
"I'll say this," said an official of one team. "Considering that [Harper] is 17 years old, there's a good chance that No. 2 pick next year gets to the major leagues before Bryce Harper."
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
Once again this week, we check in with baseball's most incisive scouting minds.
• On Brett Wallace: "I don't get it. He's always in demand. People always want him. But as soon as they get him, they're willing to move him out the door. So what am I missing?
If I was going to hang my hat on a [young hitter] to say, 'This guy will hit in the big leagues,' he'd be right at the top of the list."
• On J.A. Happ: "For me, he's at least a No. 3 starter -- at least. The people who say he's just a fifth starter are people who saw him when he first came up and don't actually watch him. He's better than that. This guy is smart. He has a great feel. And guys swing through his fastball."
• On Kyle Farnsworth: "He's pitched better this year. He's quit trying to pitch like his hair is on fire. I think his stint as a starting pitcher this spring really helped him. It got him to pitch more like a starter. He's slowed things down. He's had a good changeup. He's actually been a usable guy."
Numerology of the Week
6 -- Number of Opening Day starters who have gotten traded in midseason over the last three years: Oswalt, Dan Haren and Westbrook this year; Jake Peavy and Cliff Lee last year; CC Sabathia in 2008.
104 -- Number of specially marked "600th homer" baseballs that Major League Baseball ran through until Alex Rodriguez finally hit one of them out.
185 -- Number of players who hit a home run during the week and a half while A-Rod was still trying to figure out how to get from 599 to 600 homers. That group included a pitcher (Yovani Gallardo), a fellow who hadn't homered in his previous 809 at-bats (Juan Pierre) and two Rodriguezes not named Alex (Pudge and Sean).
Quotes of the Week
• From legendary Brewers broadcast-witticist Bob Uecker, after returning to the booth following heart surgery, on how he thought his surgeons would do throwing out the ceremonial first pitch: "I hope they do better than they did on my incision."
• From Nationals pitcher Miguel Batista, when told that his favorite beauty contestant, Miss Iowa, had been practicing her pitching before throwing out the first pitch in Washington last weekend: "Really? Well, if she thinks I'm going to be practicing the swimsuit and the high heels, not a chance."
• From Miss Iowa herself, Katherine Connors, after tossing out that first pitch to Batista -- and keeping it airborne all the way to home plate: "I think I could probably take his job after that pitch."
Tweet of the Week
From the great Eric Stangel (@EricStangel), "Late Show" writing genius and Twitter sports-quipster supreme, on the Yankees' trade deadline acquisitions:
MLB: Yankees get Kerry Wood, Lance Berkman & Austin Kearns. They are currently the favorites to win the 2002 World Series
Headliner of the Week
REDS RECEIVE PLAYER TO BE NAMED LATER
IN 1963 TRADE WITH HOUSTON COLT 45S
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.