The Windy City's Year
Forgive us if we keep bringing it up. We're not used to it.
The Bulls might have dominated the 1990s, and the Bears 1985 season may have been one of the best ever, but this was something different. This was something unanticipated, something that no one saw coming. For lifelong Chicagoans, this topped it all.
Cubs fans will look back at 2005 and remember a season in which they endured a lot of trash talk, and a championship that was as painful to watch as any in their lifetime. White Sox fans will remember it as payback, when their team finally was noticed, when their own curse was lifted. Unfortunately, at this point, I don't fit in either category.
I am a Cubs fan. I have lived and died by the team for years, and I can honestly say (like all Cub fans) that they have provided me with true pain. However, I will never say that 2005 did, unlike many others. For me, watching the White Sox win the championship was not difficult, at all. It was a joy.
When the Cubs had their run in 2003, I became a bigger baseball fan. I will never forget sitting in the stands on October 3, during the Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. I won't forget the atmosphere around Wrigley Field, and moreso, the environment within. Mocking the Braves tomahawk chop is etched in my brain, as is standing and screaming for what seemed like an entire game. Most, I remember watching near perfection in the form of Mark Prior, as he out-pitched the legend of Greg Maddux, and gave the Cubs a 2-1 lead.
As close as that game brought me to baseball, it cannot match what 2005 provided. 2005, like 2004 before it, began with the highest of hopes, as many predicted the Cubs to make the playoffs, and some thought the World Series was not out of reach. Like always, the White Sox were merely a blip on the radar in the eyes of the Chicago newspapers. And then something started to happen: the South Siders started to win.
It started, fittingly, with a 1-0 win over my AL Central pick, the Cleveland Indians. Mark Buerhle would pitch eight scoreless innings, and a seventh inning sacrifice fly would be enough. A little less than three weeks later, the team was 16-4, and their pitching staff made the Cubs group of arms look like a AAA squad. Even then, we didn't believe in this team.
No one could seem to get behind a team with such little offense, as their only true threat was Paul Konerko. We laughed at the fact that Kenny Williams dealt their other power hitter -- Carlos Lee -- to the Brewers, bringing back only Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino. No one thought Ozzie Guillen, with his big mouth and bunt-first philosophy, could manage a playoff team. Or that Don Cooper could keep a staff going at such a pace, pitching head and shoulders above the league.
We didn't see that beneath Konerko, there was just enough balance for a decent offense to form. Or that the Lee trade allowed Williams to bring in players like A.J. Pierzynski, Tadahito Iguchi and Dustin Hermanson. Ozzie Guillen's faults overshadowed the fact that he was a great motivator, and with Cooper, handled a pitching staff (oddly enough) as well as any manager in the game. For months, this team was a sparkplug for pessimism. They seemed the opposite of the Moneyball philosophy, completely different than the lovable 2004 Red Sox.
Instead, the 2005 White Sox were a throwback team. They won games their way. Four pitchers started at least 32 games, pitching over 200 innings. These four would all win at least 14 games, and prove to be the backbone to their playoff run. They also played defense, as well as the city of Chicago had ever seen. Aaron Rowand ran into walls, Joe Crede made diving backhand stops, and Juan Uribe went as deep into the hole as anyone. This was the team that defied the modern era, that made shutouts sexier than home runs.
In the end, this really was a team built for the playoffs. Their red-hot start allowed for a slow (and scary) finish, but once this team entered October, they went to business. Fittingly, their first opponent was the Boston Red Sox, 2004's team of destiny. It began uncharacteristically with a 14-2 win, in which Jose Contreras' quality start was masked by five home runs. They closed out the series in Game Three, a sweep, beating the former World Champs at home. From this game, we will always remember Ozzie Guillen bringing in the decriped Orlando Hernandez with the bases loaded and a one run lead. And how can we forget what followed, when El Duque caused two pop outs before striking out Johnny Damon to end the inning, and effectively, the series.
The White Sox run then moved on to the Los Angeles Angels, in which the series will forever be remembered more for controversy than dominance. After losing Game One in close fashion, the team got on the backs of Buerhle, Contreras, Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia. From Game 2 to Game 5, this foursome would pitch all 36 innings and gave up just eight runs. The play of these four, along with the likes of Joe Crede, A.J. Pierzynski and Paul Konerko was disappointingly overshadowed by the likes of Doug Eddings. But at the end of the day, the city of Chicago had their first World Series in a long time.
This is what brought me back home. I came back to Chicago on October 22, 2005 to see the first game of my first Chicago World Series. And, I apologize for this Cub fans, it blew the Wrigley Field Division Series out of the water. Comiskey Park (its name will never change), which had been empty for so many games, was suddenly so full, so loud, so energetic. Sitting in my seat, an hour before the game began, it seemed as if each moment brought a new set of goosebumps.
When the game began, the stadium was truly brought to life. We stood on our feet in the top of the first inning, as Jose Contreras blew away the Astros' biggest threat, Lance Berkman. Then again in the bottom half of the inning, when Jermaine Dye's solo home run ignited the 41,206 fans. Much of the game is now a blur, lost in the simple memories of sitting in the seats. This team had sucked me in.
I can definitively say that for the rest of my life, no memory will top the eighth inning of that Game One. Bobby Jenks, who had become my favorite White Sox player, was brought in with two outs. Wily Taveras was on third, Chris Burke was at first, and would soon move to second. At the plate was Jeff Bagwell, one of the 1990s greatest players. Every White Sox fan, and hopefully every Chicagoan, was on their feet. And for five pitches, Jenks challenged Bagwell with triple-digit heat. On the fifth pitch, he won.
Ultimately, the same fate would be handed to Adam Everett in the ninth inning to win the game. And just four days later, the White Sox won the World Series in the way their season started: a 1-0 win. The conversation I had with my father -- a lifelong White Sox fan -- on the phone, seconds after the game ended, is my baseball memory of 2005. The man who taught me the game of baseball, who I had always thought had seen everything the game had to offer, was floored. And so was I. I fell in love with that team.
Forgive me if I change the Carlos Lee jersey I bought four years ago to read "Jenks." Forgive me if I find tickets to Opening Day, and join -- loudly and proudly -- in the standing ovation. And forgive me if I continue to root for this team to win 163 games per season (while losing 10).
Call me a fairweather fan. I call myself a Chicagoan.
Ode to the Crazy Maverick, Finley (Part Two)
Finley screws Catfish, and Catfish shows the world what kind of salaries players could make in free agency
Finley continued to sign great players that had made the run possible. Not content with just signing them, they had to have colorful nicknames. Johnny Lee Odom had become "Blue Moon" Odom. When it came time to sign another pitcher, Finley came up with another one.
"Do you have a nickname?" he asked.
"No sir," replied the pitcher.
"Well, to play baseball you have to have a nickname. What do you like to do?"
"Hunt and fish," was the reply.
"Fine," Finley said. "When you were six years old you ran away from home and went fishing. Your mom and dad have been looking for you all day. When they finally found you about, ah, four o'clock in the afternoon, you'd caught two big fish...Ahh...catfish...and were reeling in a third. And that's how you got your nickname."
So was christened, "Catfish" Hunter.
James Augustus Hunter may have grown up on a farm in North Carolina, but he was far from a dumb hick. As he grew into one of the best pitchers in the game, he also began to understand how Finley worked.
In 1974 Hunter signed a two-year contract with the A's. Finley, being Charlie O'Finley, had acted as his own attorney in many cases, regardless of his lack of education in law. In the case of Jim Hunter's contract, there was a provision requiring that one-half of his salary was to be paid to an insurance company, named by Hunter, for the purchase of an annuity; the money was to be paid during the season.
Shortly after the '74 season began, Hunter supplied Finley with the name of the insurance company. There was a problem, however. Finley never made a single payment to the insurance company in the name of Hunter during all of 1974. Finley had discovered that the $50,000 wasn't tax-deductible. He wouldn't be able to take the deduction until years later. Hunter's lawyer pressed Finley for the $50,000. Finley started making up a variety of excuses as to why the money wasn't being deposited. With Finley and the A's now in default, Dick Moss and the Players Association sent written notice to the club to remedy the default within 10 days.
It should be noted that the timeframe to remedy the default was not arbitrary. A clause in the Uniform Players Contract, in existence long before the union, read as follows (about being in default and not remedying it within 10 days): "[T]he player may terminate this contract upon written notice to the Club, if the Club shall default in the payments to the Player provided for."
Finley called Hunter to his office. When Hunter arrived, not only was Finley in the office, but AL President Lee McPhail, as well.
Charlie, at this point, must have underestimated Hunter's intelligence. He held up a check for $50,000 and said he would pay the sum now, but refused to sign the application to the insurance company. Hunter replied that he didn't want the money paid to him, but rather as had been agreed to. Hunter then turned around and walked out the door.
The Lords knew they were in a pickle with Finley. The case would go to arbitration. Finley, being Finley, couldn't get the story straight when he and the labor-relations members of management prepared to make the case. When it got to arbitrator Peter Seitz, he was dealing with the same problem. Finley was now denying that he ever received notification from Hunter's lawyer.
On December 13th, the decision was rendered by Seitz. "Mr. Hunter's contract for service to be performed during the 1975 season no longer binds him and he is a free agent," read part of the ruling. Charlie O had screwed over Hunter, and now Hunter was going to benefit from it. He was going to benefit from it in numbers that seemed cartoonish by the days' standards.
The derby for Hunter began on December 19th. It was unlike anything that had ever happened before. The frenzy for Hunter by the owners from December 19th to New Year's Eve Day showed just how much money the owners had and, more correctly, how much they were willing to spend on talent when the constraints of the Reserve Clause were removed.
The two-year contract that Hunter had signed with Finley had been for $100,000 a year with the deferments. By the time twenty-four clubs had jockeyed for the rights to Hunter and the Yankees had finished negotiations, Hunter had agreed to a deal worth $3.5 million.
Finley hadn't just screwed himself over, but the Lords, as well. The seed that had been growing slowly in the back of Marvin Miller's mind about breaking the Reserve Clause now sprouted like Jack's beanstalk.
The Seitz Ruling and Finley's ability to see through it
At the beginning of the 1975 season, Miller decided to test the Reserve Clause by seeing if he could get Andy Messersmith of the Dodgers to hold out for the season without agreeing to a contract. Messersmith had been at loggerheads with the Dodgers on his contract, and had shown up to Spring Training without one. To play it safe, Miller looked to Dave McNally of the Expos as back-up in case Messersmith buckled over the course of the season, when the ever increasing dollars being offered to him would surely arrive from the Dodgers.
Miller had Paragraph 10(a) of the Uniform Players Contract which said, "The Club shall have the right to renew this contract for the period of one year on the same team." Miller's interpretation was clear: If a player was not re-signed within one year of his contract not being renewed, he would be eligible for free agency.
Andy Messersmith never buckled. In October of 1975, the Union filed the Messersmith/McNally grievances. The arbitration case weaved through the off-season and set baseball on edge. On December 23, arbitrator, Peter Seitz ruled, "The grievances of Messersmith and McNally are sustained. There is no contractual bond between these players and the Los Angeles and Montreal clubs, respectively." The Reserve Clause had been revoked.
The Lords were incensed. First thing they did was fire Seitz as an arbitrator. Clark Griffith could only muster, "Oh, shit" when the news arrived.
Free agency would be available, but how would Miller negotiate the terms? As Miller wrote in, A Whole Different Ballgame, "In the wake of the Messersmith decision it dawned on me as a terrifying possibility, that the owners might suddenly wake up one day and realize that yearly free agency was the best possible thing for them; that is, if all players became free agents at the end of each year, the market would be flooded, and salaries would be held down."
Charlie saw this advantage. "Hey what's the problem?" Finley said. "Make 'em all free agents!" Miller waited to see if anyone would actually listen to the maverick. "My main worry was that someone would actually listen to him," Miller said.
The result? No one listened.
Finley had said how the owners could actually benefit from the ruling. The owners, through their own stupidity, balked at Finley's suggestion and have been paying for it since.
Finley sees his fate. Vida Blue, and Bowie too
Finley had always worked on the edge. When free agency became part of the new landscape, he knew his days as an owner were numbered.
In early '76, Finley decided that he was going to get something out of the new paradigm. He started by calling the Red Sox. The proposed blockbuster trade was Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers, Vida Blue, Gene Tenace, and Sal Bando for Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk and a couple of minor leaguers.
Not content with just the Red Sox, Finley got the Yankees on the horn. He tinkered with offers and counter-offers, and not just with the Red Sox and the Yankees. By the time he was through, Finley had negotiated with every American League franchise, with Kansas City the exception.
With one day left before the June 15th trading deadline, Finley still hadn't signed his star players. Then Charlie made the shift: "trade" was shelved for "cash."
He also started playing the Red Sox against the Yankees. When Dick O'Connell of the Red Sox got a hold of Finley, the latter said, "I'm with Gabe [Paul of the Yankees]. I'm offering Rudi, Blue, Baylor, or Tenace for a million apiece and Bando for half a million. Are you interested?"
The Red Sox mulled the various options and scenarios. O'Connell phoned Finley and asked, "Are Rudi and Fingers still available at a million dollars apiece?" "Yes, they are," replied Finley.
The Red Sox now had Rudi and Fingers.
The problem was Finley was still working with Gabe Paul on a deal for Vida Blue. As O'Connell got off the phone, he realized that if Blue became a Yankee, the Red Sox deal would be a wash.
To get around this problem, O'Connell got the Tigers in the mix. By getting Detroit in on the negotiations for Blue, maybe the Red Sox could at least get Blue out of the Yankees' hands and into the Tigers'.
Detroit offered a million dollars for Blue. Finley relayed the news to Paul, who, in turn, countered Campbell's offer with a deal for $1.5 million and landed Blue. However, there was one small problem. Blue was still not signed with the A's. Paul had swung the deal, but on the conditions that Blue was signed.
Finley called up Chris Daniels, Blue's agent and said he wanted to work a contract up. Finley and Daniels negotiated back and forth over the terms for the three years, never mind the fact that Finley was not really using his money, but rather Steinbrenner's. It wasn't until later in the day that Blue and Daniels got the news about the Yankees. Finley would make more on the deal to New York than Blue.
The fire sale news was spreading quickly, and finally made its way to the commissioner's office. Kuhn and Finley had been at odds since Day One. They were polar opposites in nearly every manner. When it came to their relationship over baseball business, Kuhn had reprimanded Finley on more than one occasion. Such had been their relationship.
When Finley and Kuhn met face-to-face over the fire sale, the A's owner started off on the commissioner. "Don't butt into this," Finley said. He then went into a long diatribe about how free agency and poor attendance were killing any chances for the A's to be competitive. By the end of the conversation, nothing had swayed Kuhn on the matter.
The next day, Kuhn forbid the Yankees and the Red Sox from playing their newly acquired players. Allowing them to play would send a signal that pennants could be bought outright, and that was something that would create a travesty of the game. Kuhn ruled that the sales be voided.
Finley went off the handle. He called Kuhn, "the village idiot." He then ramped that up to "the nation's idiot," and finally, "his honor, the idiot in charge."
Finley bows out
Charlie never got the memo. He continued to unload players, but was at least wise enough to not do wholesale transactions. He got his front office staff down to six. One of whom was a fourteen-year-old teenager, who was listed on the A's organizational chart as vice-president. The teen, by the name of Stanley Burrell, would grow up and break into entertainment as "M.C. Hammer."
The Lords desperately pushed to get Finley out of the Lodge. Finally, Walter Haas, Jr. arrived on the scene and offered to purchase the club in cash, to the tune of $12.75 million.
At Finley's farewell press conference, he said, "[It] is no longer a battle of wits but how much you can have on the hip. I can no longer compete."
My Ode to Charlie
As I said, I miss Charlie. I can see him with his Kelly green jacket and matching cowboy hat. He's just the thing the starched shirts need today.
Finley wasn't just some kook. On top of owning the Athletics, he owned the NHL Oakland Seals for a bit, another team I grew up loving while watching the likes of Carol Vadnais and Gary Smith. He owned the Memphis Pros, of the American Basketball Association at one point. The idea of using orange balls at night was actually tried in several exhibition games. He toyed with the "designated runner" and hired a sprinter exclusively for the purpose of pinch running and stealing bases.
Yes, this is my ode to Charlie O. May the baseball gods, once again, have mercy on my soul.
Lords of the Realm - John Helyar
Maury Brown is the co-chair of SABR's business of baseball committee, and the editor of Business of Baseball.com. He's currently a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and pesters another Portland, OR resident, Rob Neyer, far too much for the use of his research library. He's been sourced for commentary and analysis by the Boston Globe, CNN/Money, Toronto Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, San Jose Mercury News, and Oregonian.
Ode to the Crazy Maverick, Finley
I miss Charlie Finley.
There, I said it.
He was vile. He was vulgar. He was a loose cannon. He was reckless. He was brilliant. He was a great evaluator of talent. And, he could throw that talent away if he wanted to make a buck. He was, as Marvin Miller said, "One part P.T. Barnum and one part George Steinbrenner."
May the baseball gods have mercy on my soul. May Bowie Kuhn put a pox upon my house. May the Lords of Baseball shout, "Bow ye down, as we show you no mercy!"
Yes, I have sinned. Yes, I miss Charles Oscar Finley.
I grew up in the Bay Area taking in the Giants at Candlestick with Mays, and Marichal, and McCovey, and Spahn, and both the Alous -- Matty and Jesus. Pardon me as I rub my hands together as I try to warm my still cold hands from those trips.
Then Finley arrived with the A's and that changed everything.
The drive was shorter, the tickets cheaper, and the ballpark warmer. These things, of course, meant nothing to a kid. What mattered to me were the names on the roster. Names with the likes of "Blue Moon," "Catfish," "Monday," "Blue," "Rudi," "Tenace" and "Fingers." The real and the fabricated names blurred in my mind. Those were all their God-given names, as far as I knew. I saw the bright white, yellow and green uniforms as something that matched the times. The white shoes were something that made my team stand out from the drabness that permeated the other clubs. They all looked like cold damp mildew by comparison. Ostentatiousness be damned, I loved them.
I also loved the promotions. The yellow and orange balls that were given away. Why not use them for night games? The possibilities were not yet stomped down in a kid's mind due to my limited understanding of how the Lords of baseball worked.
Most of all, I loved Harvey. Harvey was the mechanical rabbit that popped up out of the ground behind home plate to deliver the umpire fresh balls for the games. It was a magical time to be a kid at the Oakland Coliseum.
Is it any wonder I chose to follow the business end of baseball as I grew up? Is it any wonder I have that solid dose of pretzel logic required to keep any man from going insane when tackling the "upside-down is right-side up" world of the MLB front office? I can blame it all on Charlie. That crazy maverick, Finley.
A salesman, a maverick, and "disreputable character" is born
Charles Oscar Finley was born to sell. As a child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, a young Charlie once won a medal and a bicycle for selling 12,500 subscriptions to the Saturday Evening Post. He loved baseball. He had been a batboy for the Birmingham Barons and played semi-pro ball in his youth. After his dad had been transferred to Gary, Indiana, he followed in his father's footsteps and went to work at US Steel after his graduation from high school. Not content with this life, he sold life insurance on the side. He set the company sales record for policy sales in his first year.
Finley was also unstable physically. He worked himself to the bone, contracted tuberculosis, and spent time in a sanitarium. In classic Finley form, he had broken sales records for life insurance, but he had neglected to take out a policy on himself.
While recovering from his illness in the hospital, Finley had an epiphany: doctors. Sell insurance to doctors. He developed an insurance plan for those in the medical industry. By the time the '40s had waxed into the '50s, Finley was a multimillionaire and set his eyes back on baseball -- and big-league baseball, to be more specific.
Finley made a run at purchasing the Philadelphia Athletics in 1954, but got beat out by Arnold Johnson. Then he went after the White Sox unsuccessfully. Undaunted, he went after the expansion Angels, even to the point of trying to lure Roy Rogers into the ownership group to offset Gene Autry's bid. But, he lost on that deal as well.
Then the unexpected happened. Arnold Johnson dropped dead. Finley leapt at the chance by offering up $2 million to Johnson's widow for the 52% stake in the Athletics. The owners sent Orioles chairman Joe Iglehart to check Finley out. His report to the Lords was, "Under no conditions should this person be allowed into our league."
There was a slight problem. No one -- no one but Finley, it seemed -- wanted to own the Athletics. Reluctantly, the owners approved the sale on December 19, 1960. Charlie O' had prevailed.
Finley turns the Athletics upside down in Kansas City
Finley set right off into turning the baseball establishment on its proverbial ear. He immediately went to work painting sections of Kansas City Municipal Stadium in colors that would have made the rainbow blush -- everything from citrus yellow to turquoise to an eye-shattering florescent pink for the foul poles. Not content with this, he went with the uniform colors in kelly green, "Fort Knox gold," "wedding gown white" and shoes that were white "kangaroo albino" graced the players.
Charlie then decided to become the P.T. Barnum of the baseball establishment. He opened a zoo beyond the right-field fence with livestock ranging from sheep to monkeys to rabbits. The prized livestock addition was the new team mascot, a donkey he named Charlie O.
Finley did theme days to try and drum up attendance. Everything from Farmers' Day, in which an embarrassed Diego Segui was delivered to the mound by hay wagon, to Shriner nights and "Bald-headed men" night.
All of this did absolutely nothing to increase attendance. Finley decided that maybe greener pastures would be available elsewhere. He started not so quietly shopping the idea of moving the A's. He tried moving the team to Dallas-Ft. Worth (voted down by he owners 9-1). He actually signed a contract with the state of Kentucky to move the club to Louisville for the '64 and '65 seasons. The vote to approve that move failed 9-1.
Finley remained undaunted. He attempted six weeks later to move the club to Oakland. That move failed by a 9-1 vote, as well. He seemed driven to relocate to anywhere to get out of, as he privately said, "this horseshit town" of Kansas City. He wasn't opposed to promoting the A's and, more importantly, himself, outside of Kansas City. He shocked the Lords, when he announced that it was his intention to do a tour in 1965 of every American League city with his mascot, Charlie O. They traveled in a special trailer that was, as the AP reported it, a "plush, air-conditioned, radio equipped trailer," complete with an itinerary of stops. April 21: Detroit. April 25: Cleveland. April 28: Chicago. New York, Baltimore, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles rounded out the tour.
The Lords proceeded to ignore Finley when he got in the trenches and did actual business with his fellow owners. This reaction infuriated Finley who thought that the other owners failed to see his genius.
And he was a genius -- if not in reality, at least it was so in Charlie's mind. He had hired Frank Lane as GM of the Athletics when he purchased the Club, and had Joe Gordon as manager. Gordon and Finley clashed. Gordon was shown the door in June of '61. Finley then canned Lane in August. He replaced the latter with F.P. Friday, one who had never worked in baseball, but rather in another area Finley was familiar with: insurance. As the Kansas City Star wrote, "Never has there been a baseball operation so bizarre, so impossible, so incredulous. If an ownership had made a deliberate attempt to sabotage a baseball operation, it could not have succeeded as well."
While other clubs had moved forward with full-time General Managers, Finley continued to work relentlessly scouting, signing and trading players. This, of course, went against the tenet of the old guard, which was to sit back and let others work for you. When John Fetzer of the Tigers approached Finley about hiring a GM, he replied, "When the day comes that I find a GM that can do a better job than Charlie O, I'll hire the son-of-a-gun."
Finley moves the A's to Oakland
Finally, on October 18, 1967 the American League gave in and granted Finley the right to move the Athletics to Oakland for the 1968 season. Senator William Stuart Symington said from the floor of the Missouri Senate, that Finley was "one of the most disreputable characters ever to enter the American sports scene," and said Oakland was "the luckiest city since Hiroshima."
Once the team moved to Oakland, Finley continued to work his magic in terms of PR by hiring Joe DiMaggio as executive VP of the A's in March of 1968. The Yankee Clipper understood how things would be with Charlie. "I'm not exactly the executive type," DiMaggio said. "Only one man makes decisions for this firm, Charlie Finley."
Lane and Finley's signings started to pay dividends. The franchise went from 62-99 in 1967 in KC, to 82-80 for the '68 season in Oakland. And while the attendance didn't look much different than it had in Kansas City, the winning became contagious.
In 1971 they won the AL West, but got swept by the Orioles in 3 games during the AL Championship. In '72, they didn't falter, beating the Reds 4-3 in the World Series.
Dick Williams, the manager of the A's at the time, was recently interviewed by Jeff Angus about that World Series, and a particularly interesting tale involving a suitcase. The team was in Cincinnati and there's this suitcase that came with the team but they can't figure out who it belongs to. No one claims it, and it's really locked up. So a couple of clubhouse guys take it out on the field to try to open it. No luck. Finally, they decide to use a gun. With the suitcase now open, the contents were revealed. It was filled with Charlie's shoes. One suitcase for nothing but shoes. It was pure Finley.
In 1973 they repeated as World Series Champions...and again in '74. The players became stars, and the stars wanted more money. Finley, being Finley, danced around the details of following through with some of those contract agreements. In 1974, however, Finley would meet the enemy, and the enemy was him.
Lords of the Realm - John Helyar
[Editor's note: Be sure to return tomorrow for Part Two of the "Ode to the Crazy Maverick, Finley."]
Maury Brown is the co-chair of SABR's business of baseball committee, and the editor of Business of Baseball.com. He's currently a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and pesters another Portland, OR resident, Rob Neyer, far too much for the use of his research library. He's been sourced for commentary and analysis by the Boston Globe, CNN/Money, Toronto Globe and Mail, Los Angeles Times, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, San Jose Mercury News, and Oregonian.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
2004 Draft Retrospective: Top Ten
In doing research for my article that appeared at Baseball Prospectus last week, I was reminded of the ugliness atop the 2004 draft. The faults of Matt Bush are now well-documented, and it's likely that even John Moores would throw in the extra money to now trade Bush for the likes of Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver.
It seems to me that 18 months is about the first logical time in which a draft can be reviewed. At this moment, we feel quite certain in calling Matt Bush a bust, and Gio Gonzalez a steal. But, with the rest of the baseball world quiet, I thought now would be a good time to look back at the 2004 draft in more detail. In part one of a series (to be continued at a later date), I want to use today to look back at the top ten of the '04 draft.
The top ten that year was flooded with pitching, as the college ranks offered a class that, in depth, rivals what it will bring to the table this year. While there wasn't much in the way of hitters, two high school shortstops were extremely well thought of among scouts. The top ten (plus Weaver and Drew) were the obvious first tier of the 2004 draft, as there appeared to be a talent drop-off shortly thereafter.
In looking back at the ten players selected, I found four groups based on the type of player they were: high school shortstop, high school fireballer, a pitcher from Rice, and a small-college pitcher. Here's my breakdown of the ten...
HIGH SCHOOL SHORTSTOPS
Pre-Draft Buzz: To this day, I hold the belief that not one single Major League Baseball team had Matt Bush atop their draft boards. According to Baseball America -- prior to the draft -- at least one team had Nelson on top. So, how did Bush rise to the top of the draft, while Nelson fell to becoming the ninth overall selection?
First, of course, was money. Bush was likely fourth (at the highest) on the Padres big board, behind what had been their final three: Stephen Drew, Jered Weaver and Jeff Niemann. Once ownership halted high-end bonus talks, the team had to begin looking past the Scott Boras crowd, into the next tier. Bush was attractive to San Diego both because of his bonus demands (or lack thereof - $3.1 million), and his hometown ties.
The belief before the draft was that Bush would become the better defensive player of the two, while Chris Nelson had the better bat. Both had cannons for arms, though Bush's graded out better; he had pitched in the low-90s for much of the season. Bush also showed extraordinary range, leading some to deem him a future Gold Glover. His contact skills were solid, and the belief was that his other four tools would make up for any lack of power.
Nelson's arm was a little less because of Tommy John surgery that preceded his senior year, and his range was just average. However, his bat speed drew comparisons (that have now grown far and wide) to Gary Sheffield, an ex-shortstop himself. Nelson was a very good hitter, with above-average -- though not spectacular -- skills across the board.
However, a pitching run in the top ten (from 2-8) allowed Nelson to slide into thin air, as the Rockies nabbed him ninth. The club had been expecting Nelson to be drafted by either the Indians or Orioles, and while they had prepared to draft a pitcher, were happy to have the blue-chipper fall into their laps.
2004: Short-season ball began poorly for Matt Bush, and ended worse. Before even beginning play in the Arizona League, Bush was arrested. This, of course, had followed a rowdy incident in a PETCO Park box, in which he and his friends had caused problems. Before his first plate appearance, Bush had doubters across the nation wondering if he was a bust.
His play seemed to confirm that belief, as Bush started slow, and never got going. In 21 Arizona League games, the first overall pick would have just three extra-base hits. His batting average was below the Mendoza Line. There were some positives in his defense, baserunning and discipline, but the negatives outweighed the positives. Moved to the Northwest League, in hopes that a change in scenery would spark something, Bush was average in seven Northwest League games.
The opposite fate happened for Chris Nelson, as many would wonder at the end of short-season ball whether Bush was the right high school shortstop at the top. Sent to the Pioneer League shortly after signing, Nelson registered 147 at-bats in 2004. His line: .347/.432/.510. In retrospect, we could have seen that his slugging was boosted by triples, that he struck out too much, and that his baserunning was poor, but that would have been nitpicking. Nelson began popping up in prospect lists; he was the flavor of the short-season fall.
2005: While things went from bad to worse this year for Matt Bush, things just turned poor for Nelson. Neither was awe-inspiring, to say the least. Bush's season contained pretty much the same minuses that short-season ball had. His batting average wasn't there, as he hit .221 in 453 at-bats, despite showing good contact skills with just 76 whiffs. His power was among the worst in the Midwest League, with just 18 extra-base hits all year.
Many of the positives from Bush's debut were gone. The Californian was rarely asked to steal -- just 12 times all year -- and was successful in just two-thirds of those attempts. His plate discipline was no longer a strength, as his 33 walks show promise, but hardly count as a positive. The only plus was his defense, as onlookers have told me that it was quite strong. He will always have the rocket arm and good range, it seems.
Nelson's 2005 began late with a hamstring injury, as he appeared in just 79 games. Nelson was atrocious in those games, with little power, no contact skills, and mediocre defense. Much can be blamed on the injury, but even that has people bringing out the term "injury-prone." In all, Nelson hit .241/.304/.330 in 315 Asheville at-bats. Worst was his 88 strikeouts, which indicated that batting average might never be a strength.
Future: For Nelson to be successful, his power must reappear in 2006. If it does, any contact problems will be overlooked. An increase in walks would be nice as well, though like Bush, it isn't currently a big problem. Nelson's ceiling isn't quite what people thought after 2004, but it's still his main draw as a prospect. He could turn out to be an All-Star -- especially in Coors Field -- though after this season, that doesn't look to be a good bet.
As far as Bush goes, all bets are off. He'll certainly get more opportunities to succeed than the average prospect, given his status as a former #1, but he might just not be very good. My guess is that his defense and contact skills will carry him, and that the Padres will give him some at-bats off the bench. It would be in Bush's best interest to retain his 2004 discipline, to start stealing more bases and to add a few more positions to his arsenal.
One player only has power to boast. The other has none, but could develop enough of everything else to at least come off the bench. Neither looks to be a fantastic selection.
THE RICE TRIO
Pre-Draft Buzz: Hopes were super-high for Rice University in 2004, as the school was armed with the best trio of pitchers in the history of college baseball. Atop that group was Jeff Niemann, who was coming off a 17-0 sophomore season. In basketball, Niemann would have surely left for the pros. His junior season showed why that would have been a good move.
Injuries plagued much of Niemann's junior year, with a sore arm (and decreased velocity) becoming a continuing trend. His year was good -- a 3.02 ERA, 94 K's in 80.1 innings -- but not enough to cement his status as the draft's best player. Stepping into his role as the Rice ace, to the surprise of some scouts, was Phil Humber. The right-hander was the team horse, having pitched in 100+ innings in each season of his college career. His stuff was not as good as Niemann or Wade Townsend, but he was the most polished.
Humber's rise left Wade Townsend as the consensus third of the three, though his ERA (1.80) was the best in 2004. Townsend had good -- not great -- stuff, but it came at the cost of some control issues. He could eat innings and had some upside, but he didn't profile to be much beyond a third starter.
In the end, Humber went first, going to the Mets with the third overall pick. Niemann quickly followed, going to the Devil Rays, who were willing to take the risk. Wade Townsend would be chosen eighth by the Orioles.
2004: Considering the number of innings consumed by these three at Rice, no one thought it a good idea for them to pitch in 2004. This belief slowed down contract negotiations, as Humber and Niemann weren't signed until after the season. Wade Townsend was not signed at all, and stuck, as he was also deemed ineligible to return to Rice. Like Luke Hochevar this year, Townsend was left between the Independent League, or working alone.
2005: He would choose home, as the year -- before June -- consisted of just tryouts for Townsend. He was generally unimpressive in these workouts, but piqued the Devil Rays interest in the June draft, who sought to reunite him with ex-teammate Jeff Niemann. However, it's believed that had Tampa passed, Townsend could have spiraled nearly 20 selections before having his name called. He would finish the year quite poorly in the New-York Penn League.
Humber's 2005 began with the most steam, as the Mets started him quickly in the Florida State League. His results were inconsistent, but the Mets were impressed with the control that Humber showed. At the same time that Gaby Hernandez and Brian Bannister were promoted, Humber was moved to AA. He would have just one (bad) start there, before his season ended. Tommy John surgery.
Niemann's year was clouded with injury as well, as he was on and off the DL the entire season. He started late, finished early, and had time off in-between. While the work schedule might sound appealing to you, it certainly hurt Niemann's declining star status. His strikeout numbers in both the Cal and Southern Leagues were good when he pitched, but no longer is this the guy that touches 99 with that devastating, spike curveball.
Future: Hopefully, a joint lawsuit. Humber, Niemann and Townsend (yes, I think he's next) deserve to sue Wayne Graham, their former coach at Rice. Maybe the likes of Miguel Ramos and Kenny Baugh (and how about Matt Anderson) could do so as well. Graham seems to be the Steve Spurrier of college baseball, creating a fantastic college atmosphere, while doing more harm than good for pro careers.
Graham's abuse on young arms has slowed the career of all of these players. Humber should be OK, as Tommy John surgery should repair all the damage, and he'll be back to full strength in 2007. Niemann's arm is a big question mark, and many have speculated that Townsend could be hurt. The Devil Rays must figure this out, because if these two could be returned to full strength, this system would get even deeper.
HIGH SCHOOL FIREBALLERS
Pre-Draft Buzz: A situation somewhat reminiscent to the Bush/Nelson fiasco. It's likely that had 29 teams in baseball had the choice between Mark Rogers and Homer Bailey, that 29 of them would have taken Bailey. The exception to this is the Brewers, who were actually left with the decision, and came out with Rogers.
Bailey had been lauded since early in his high school career at Texas, and was all over the radar before the 2004 season. That year, he had a 0.38 ERA with a K/9 well over 18.0. His fastball was explosive, easily in the mid-90s, and his curveball was among the draft's best. Bailey had walked just 10 in 72 innings, also showing polish that few do out of high school. He was a can't miss prospect.
Rogers, on the other hand, saw his stock ascent solely in his last year. Prior to that, Rogers had been New England's second-best talent, as Nick Adenhart had left everyone else in his dust. When Adenhart went down with an arm injury, Rogers burst onto the scene by dominating his weak Maine competition. His fastball had touched higher radar readings than Bailey's, albeit not on a consistent basis. His curve was good, but again, not that of Bailey.
But, oh yes, his price tag was lower. The Brewers drafted Rogers fifth overall, while Bailey would slip to seven.
2004: Both players were allowed just tastes of pro baseball in 2004, as their organizations wanted to give them experience (of being away from home) more than innings. Rogers pitched in nine games in the Arizona League, totaling just 26.2 innings. His WHIP was high at 1.65, but there were positives in the fact that he struck out 35 and did not allow a home run.
Bailey pitched even less than Rogers -- he had thrown more innings in his senior year -- with just six appearances in the Gulf Coast League. He also didn't allow a home run, but other than that was unimpressive: fourteen hits, three walks, nine strikeouts. But this was a sample-size for both players, causing few to back off their beliefs that Milwaukee missed out on the better talent.
2005: Very similar, disappointing (on the whole), seasons. Both spent the year in low-A, and were handled quite delicately by their NL Central organization. Neither would throw more than 105 innings, and both spent time in a tandem-like system, appearing some in relief.
I'll be writing a lot more about Bailey in the coming weeks (I think quite highly of him), but his 2005 season doesn't look great on the whole. He walked 62 batters in 103.2 innings, hardly showing the control that characterized him in high school. What did follow him to the Midwest League, however, was great stuff. During that time, he allowed just 89 hits, while striking out 125. Better yet, Bailey allowed just five home runs all season.
Rogers was good and bad in the same areas as Bailey, but worse in each category. He threw less innings, just 98.2, because he missed time with a blister. He allowed more walks during that time: 70. His H/9 and K/9 were lower, as in his innings, Rogers allowed 87 hits and struck out 109. He also allowed 11 home runs, though it's interesting to note that all of them came in his final 75 innings of the season.
Future: I actually still think highly of both players. Bailey has one of the best two-pitch arsenals in the minors, and should be among the game's elite pitching prospects in little more than a year. The Reds must preach control with him, and continue to work on his change-up, but Bailey has legitimate ace potential.
In Rogers, I see a similar player as to what I saw in Ambiorix Burgos a year ago. This guy is a future reliever. He was best in that role in 2005, and it is likely his fastball could jump to the mid-to-upper 90s if just pitching 1-2 innings. The Brewers shouldn't limit him to that yet, but it also isn't fair to let him continue to struggle as a starter. His production early in the season should dictate his move-to-relief timetable.
SMALL SCHOOL HURLERS
Pre-Draft Buzz: These three tended to get caught in the middle. They weren't the best high school hitters, pitchers, or even college pitchers. They were generally seen as the second tier of college pitching, but more because of exposure than anything else. Justin Verlander, Jeremy Sowers and Thomas Diamond were all dominant college pitchers, not worked as hard as the Rice trio, but for some reason, did not have the same notoreity.
Verlander quickly went to the top of this threesome because of a great pitcher's body, and even better stuff. His stock rapidly ascented after dominating rival Justin Orenduff, and Verlander single-handedly put Old Dominion on the map. He had touched 99 in his junior season, and with less baggage than the Rice trio (again, Wayne Graham), was chosen second overall by the Detroit Tigers.
Jeremy Sowers pitched at the biggest school of the three, but was also the leader of the Vanderbilt program. There is no doubt that Sowers deserves some recognition for Vandy quickly becoming one of the nation's recruiting powerhouses. Sowers didn't have the great stuff that the other pitchers in the top ten had, but he was crafty and he had a rubber arm. He was quickly compared to Tom Glavine, like most soft-throwing southpaws, but for once, the comparison felt apt.
Diamond went to the smallest school of the three -- University of New Orleans -- and as a result, was at the bottom of the barrel. He had developed quite a big frame while at school, and as a result, had boosted his velocity to the mid 90s. When mixed with two solid breaking pitches, Diamond had been devastating. Grady Fuson decided to pick Diamond ahead of a few high school arms that many thought the Rangers were considering.
2004: Only Diamond was allowed to pitch of the three, as his first two years at college had yielded so few innings. Like Chris Nelson, Diamond did nothing but enhance his prospect status during his short-lived first season. Starting off in the Northwest League, it didn't take long for Diamond to distinguish himself as the best pitcher in the league. Five appearances, 15.1 innings and 26 strikeouts later, Diamond was moved to the Midwest League.
He would have seven late season starts in low-A, where his ERA improved upon his Northwest League rate. In 30.2 innings, he allowed just 18 hits and eight walks, while striking out 42. Oh, and throughout his whole season, guess how many home runs he allowed? Just one. Diamond was suddenly the player the Orioles should have picked, in the matter of months.
2005: Diamond picked up where he left off in 2005, starting strong in the tough California League. He was moved up to AA after 14 starts, as he was 8-0 with a 1.99 ERA. 53 hits in 81.1 innings, with 101 strikeouts and just three home runs allowed. Moved to the Texas League, his control fell apart, as he would allow 38 walks in 69 innings, and his ERA would bloat to 5.35.
Jeremy Sowers had the opposite season, actually improving when moving to AA. He started the year in the Carolina League, and was moved up after 13 starts. Prior to that, he allowed 60 hits in 71.1 innings, striking out 75 and walking just 19. He also proved to be a groundball machine, so the team moved him to the Eastern League, where Sowers would excel. While his strikeout numbers worsened (70 in 82.1 IP), Sowers would walk just nine men and continue to provoke ground balls. He finished the year in AAA, where he'll start next season.
However, no one's 2005 can trump that of Justin Verlander, who flew up prospect lists and quickly validated the Tigers selection. Starting in the Florida State League, Verlander quickly separated himself from the pack as the league's Cy Young. He left the league with the ERA title (1.67), and had struck out 104 batters in 86 innings. Reports of his three great pitches would eventually lead him to start the Futures Game. Verlander pitched great in the Eastern League, not so great in the Majors, and had his year ended early with injury. The Tigers have really high hopes for his 2006 season.
Future: These three seem to still be in the order they were drafted in. Verlander's stuff separated him from the pack, as long as he can stay healthy. And while Sowers will never be an ace, he's an early safe selection for Rookie of the Year, 2007. Thomas Diamond has a lot of volatility after a bad finish in AA, but few players from the 2004 draft have seen their stock climb more in the last 18 months than him.
In the end, the moral of the story seems to be that choosing the safer, cheaper pick is not the best philosophy when drafting. Sometimes it works, like with Jeremy Sowers, but other times it means missing out on a talent like Homer Bailey. It seems as if the Detroit Tigers made the best pick of the top ten, trusting their instincts in selecting a player that many thought was not one of the five best players in the draft. Looking back, we now know he's at the top.
Pass the Trash
What is Walt Jocketty doing with his Cards? Unfortunately, for Redbird fans, the general manager is sitting out the high-stakes poker game that is taking place this winter. Instead, he is playing a game known as Pass the Trash.
In Pass the Trash, seven cards are dealt to each player. Before the first betting round, each player examines his/her hand, then passes three cards to the left while adding the discards from their neighbor on the right. After a round of betting, players pass two cards, bet, then pass one card. Finally, the participants who have yet to fold choose their best five cards and a showdown round of betting ensues. The winner is the player with the best poker hand among those still remaining at the end of the game.
As it relates to St. Louis, rather than landing an A.J. Burnett or a Brian Giles, Jocketty appears to be getting everyone else's discards.
Let's take a look at the players the Cardinals have acquired or signed since the end of the season (in reverse order):
12-23-05: Agreed to terms with outfielder Juan Encarnacion, who had been with the Florida Marlins, on a three-year contract; agreed to terms with second baseman Junior Spivey, who had been with the Washington Nationals, on a one-year contract.
12-21-05: Agreed to terms with pitcher Sidney Ponson, who had been with the Baltimore Orioles, on a one-year contract; signed first baseman-outfielder Brian Daubach and pitcher John Riedling to minor league contracts.
12-15-05: Signed pitcher Braden Looper, who had been with the New York Mets, to a three-year contract.
12-13-05: Agreed to terms with pitcher Ricardo Rincon, who had been with the Oakland Athletics, on a two-year contract.
12-08-05: Acquired outfielder Larry Bigbie and infielder Aaron Miles from the Colorado Rockies for pitcher Ray King.
12-05-05: Signed catcher Gary Bennett and shortstop Deivi Cruz to one-year contracts.
The Cardinals, in the meantime, have lost three regulars and a starting pitcher via free agency (Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, and Matt Morris) and retirement (Larry Walker). St. Louis will also be without a couple of backups (John Mabry and Abraham Nunez) and three relievers (Cal Eldred, Al Reyes, and Juan Tavarez) who figured prominently in last season's ML-leading 100 wins.
Additions Subtractions Bennett Diaz Bigbie Eldred Cruz Grudzielanek Daubach King Encarnacion Mabry Looper Morris Miles Nunez Ponson Reyes Riedling Sanders Rincon Tavarez Spivey Walker
If the above table looks a bit lopsided, it has a lot more to do than just with Grudzielanek's long name.
Here is a snapshot of the team's current depth chart:
C: Yadier Molina and Bennett 1B: Albert Pujols and Daubach 2B: Spivey and Miles 3B: Scott Rolen and Cruz SS: David Eckstein and Hector Luna LF: So Taguchi and Bigbie CF: Jim Edmonds RF: Encarnacion and John Rodriguez SP: Chris Carpenter (R), Mark Mulder (L), Jeff Suppan (R), Jason Marquis (R), and Ponson (R) RP: Jason Isringhausen (R), Looper (R), Rincon (L), Brad Thompson (R), and Randy Flores (L)
The Cardinals have additional spare parts on their 40-man roster in Rick Ankiel (OF), Chris Duncan (1B), John Gall (OF), Michel Hernandez (C), and Skip Schumaker (OF), as well as pitchers Carmen Cali (L), Tyler Johnson (L), Juan Mateo (R), Chris Narveson (L), Anthony Reyes (R), and Adam Wainwright (R). Reyes and Wainwright are highly regarded prospects who could wind up in the rotation due to an injury, Ponson's failure to rebound, or should Jocketty wish to move someone like Marquis before next year's trade deadline.
Let's be clear here. Any lineup featuring a top four of Eckstein, Edmonds, Pujols, and Rolen is not to be taken lightly. It's the next four hitters that concern me. As things stand now, Encarnacion would bat fifth with some combination of Spivey, Taguchi, and Molina in the sixth to eighth slots. The top half may be unparalleled as far as the NL goes, but the bottom half could be equally bad.
Encarnacion is a liability at the plate. He's a corner OF, yet his offensive production was worse than league average for six consecutive seasons (1999-2004) before turning positive for the first time in 2005. Take a look at his comparative career rate stats:
AVG OBP SLG OPS OPS+ Encarnacion .268 .316 .440 .757 96 League Average .270 .342 .433 .775 100
Furthermore, Encarnacion has a lifetime BB/SO ratio of 1:3 (240/724). Despite being known as a "toolsy" player, the man who will be joining his fifth team appears to have lost whatever speed he once enjoyed. To wit, Encarnacion has stolen 11 bases and been caught 9 times the past two seasons. According to The Bill James Handbook, he was successful in taking an extra base on hits 11 out of 36 opportunities (for a below-average 31%) while being thrown out twice last year. The Hardball Times Annual "credits" him with minus 2.38 incremental runs in 2005, the second-worst total on the Marlins.
Defensively, the advanced metrics suggest Encarnacion is a below-average right fielder. THT ranks him 23rd among RF in terms of runs saved/allowed per 150 games at -9.1, and Baseball Prospectus rates the soon-to-be 30-year-old in a similarly negative vein.
In the case of Encarnacion, the popular catch phrase "What's not to like?" should be re-coined "What's to like?"
Looper was Jocketty's second-biggest signing. Like Encarnacion, I'm not sure what the GM sees in him. Looper allowed more hits than innings pitched, and he struck out just 4.1/9 IP. Those are horrific stats for a relief pitcher. The fact that Braden is a groundball pitcher (career G/F ratio of 2.0) is undoubtedly what impressed Jocketty the most about the seven-year veteran. He has shown a penchant for such pitchers, as witnessed by "worm burners" Mulder, Thompson, Carpenter, Isringhausen, and Marquis. His interest in Ponson (1.82 G/F ratio last year) and even Burnett (2.63, sixth-highest in MLB) is no coincidence.
Are the Cardinals in danger of losing their stranglehold on first place in the NL Central? Probably not, especially if Rolen is healthy and returns to his pre-2005 form. But the margin of safety is no longer what it once was.
When it comes to baseball, one man's trash is generally not another man's treasure.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
One theme from baseball's winter should return today, as the Toronto Blue Jays are continued to, again, press the pedal to the metal. The organization's stated desire to add another bat should be fulfilled, as the Jays and Arizona Diamondbacks are expected to finalize a trade for Troy Glaus. In return, Arizona is acquiring 2B Orlando Hudson and the versatile Miguel Batista, also sending former first-round choice Sergio Santos to Toronto.
Glaus will help replace the year-long hole left by Carlos Delgado, providing protection for Vernon Wells and Lyle Overbay in the heart of the Blue Jays order. Troy returned from injury last year to hit 31 home runs, also showing the good defensive and bad contact skills that previously had characterized his career. All these trends will continue with a trip across the border, though fantasy owners should be expecting an increase in the RBI column.
Santos will help add depth to the middle infield, where Aaron Hill is now moving to second base. I have never been high on Santos, but in the end, he could be a useful bat on the bench. Before a horrible 2005, he was thought to be the Diamondbacks future at shortstop. Now, a year later, he's stuck behind Hill and Russ Adams on the depth chart, left clawing for a hope of a future.
Hill's move to second is very important for the Blue Jay defense, which is losing the Gold Glove Hudson. The additions of Glaus and Overbay on the Toronto corners should help minimize any defense problems, but Hill must be at least an average defender at second. This could be a problem, as the former first-rounder has spent most of his professional career on the left side. Watch this move to be one of the keys for Toronto in 2006.
Speaking of defense, the exit of Troy Glaus and Royce Clayton leaves the Diamondbacks to endure a serious downgrade from their left side. In Hudson, however, the Diamondbacks acquired the game's best second baseman, bar none. His presence in the infield, along with Conor Jackson, should help offset the increased problems due from Chad Tracy and Craig Counsell - who will be pressed at shortstop.
While Counsell is a fan favorite in Arizona, this move really signals his impending exit from the organization. His move to short will allow top prospect Stephen Drew time at AAA, but once he is ready, there will be no role for Counsell. Like Craig, both Hudson and Drew bat from the left side (Orlando from both), eliminating hope for a platoon. If the Diamondbacks are alive in the NL West in July (unlikely given the Dodgers full-court press), then Counsell will probably be kept as a pinch-hitter/sparkplug. If not, the D-Backs will likely be looking to trade their leader at the deadline.
Even without Counsell, second base is overly accounted for in Arizona, as the free agent signing of Damion Easley covers Hudson's most significant weakness: southpaws. Orlando hit just .227/.286/.320 against left-handers last year, while Easley tatooed them at a .333/.390/.725 pace (albeit in just 51 ABs). A straight platoon would further worsen the Arizona defense, however, so expect Hudson to start about 130-140 games (buy his future, fantasy owners!). Those other 20-30 games should just happen to fall on games against the likes of Odalis Perez or Jeff Francis.
In Batista, the Diamondbacks are simply eating salary. He will help by starting every fifth day in 2006, before taking his services elsewhere in a year. Like Orlando Hernandez, acquired for Javier Vazquez, Batista's role is to simply bridge Arizona until 2007. If there is a market for him during the season, and there should be, Arizona shouldn't hesitate take advantage of it. And, of course, the same rings true for El Duque.
In fact, this trade was quite similar to the Vazquez deal. The Diamondbacks, in both deals, acquired versatile veteran right-handers to help offset salary, as well as to be traded again during the season. They also, as is the new rage in Major League Baseball, acquired two superbly-talented defensive players with quite volatile offensive skillsets. Hudson is a Gold Glover who has yet to really turn an offensive corner, despite showing bits and pieces of doing so. Chris Young is one of the game's top prospects, a favorite of mine, constantly garners comparisons to Mike Cameron. Such a comp is to say that Young will be great in the field, hit for significant power, and make very little contact. Their gloves, and offensive ceilings, are the reasons that both players feature prominently in Arizona's long-term plans.
If the rumors are true, Arizona is also close to signing Jeff DaVanon, formerly of the Angels, to play center. I like this move a lot, as it is the definition of a low-risk, high-reward signing. If DaVanon struggles, Arizona can simply stretch their outfield defense by moving Shawn Green to center and promoting Carlos Quentin. If he plays well, then Green can be traded, presumably bringing in another big piece of Arizona's future.
Simply put, this trade -- while filling important holes for both teams -- just opens the door for more moves. For Toronto, Glaus leaves a logjam at DH between Corey Koskie, Eric Hinske and Shea Hillenbrand. The latter is likely on his way out, as I expect trade talks between the Twins and Jays to resume shortly. Expect Toronto to come out asking for Jesse Crain, and in the end, be left with something resembling Kyle Lohse and a prospect.
In the desert, Counsell's move to shortstop creates a cloudy future for Alex Cintron. The market won't be huge for Cintron, nor will the bounty be. But teams with notable holes in the middle infield -- like the Red Sox or Rockies -- should take a gander at Cintron. And for the Diamondbacks, asking for the likes of Abe Alvarez is worth pursuing given their back-up plan: leaving Cintron to rot on the bench.
Between Cintron and possible midseason trades of Counsell, Batista, El Duque and Green, Arizona should undergo major changes in the next 6-7 months. Conor Jackson, Drew, Young and Quentin are all on the verge of creating a Phoenix powerhouse in 2007. In fact, this team is simply a few pitching acquisitions (Green for Anthony Reyes?) from becoming one of the '07 National League favorites.
The Toronto Blue Jays and Arizona Diamondbacks, as represented in this trade, have had two different ideologies this winter. For the Jays, who sense fear in the Yanks and Sox, the goal is to win now. Arizona, on the other hand, is asking fans to endure a season of fine-tuning for the greater good. If you ask me, with these two plans, both sides win.
For the second time this year, I have an article up today over at Baseball Prospectus. The piece is a review of the 1995-2004 San Diego Padres drafts, which tells us a little bit about how they should have treated re-signing Giles, Hoffman and Hernandez.
Hint: historically, this is not a team that should be really concerned about adding compensatory picks, so they made the right moves in my book.
Check out the piece over there, and if you have any comments, as always drop them below, or e-mail me.
And of course, if you are at all interested in the 2006 draft, and the pitchers at the top, check out my first article.
A Long Time Ago In A Galaxy Far Away. . .
One of the great oddities in baseball is how we perceive players. If a player does one or two things spectacularly well, he ultimately ends up being better regarded than players who do a lot of things well. Of recent vintage was 1998 and 1999 when home run behemoths Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got all the ink over players like Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. Earlier in the decade in Canada RBI man Joe Carter had a higher profile than Larry Walker. Or, if you wish to go back to the 1970's and 1980's, you'll find more casual fans have heard of Dave Kingman over Dwight Evans.
For that matter, don't you find it odd that Tim Salmon never went to an All-Star Game? Not one.
Bill James said in his book Whatever Happened To The Hall of Fame--The Politics Of Glory that players who do one or two things well tend to be overrated while those who do a lot of things well tend to be underrated.
Today we're going to talk about an historically underrated player. He didn't have one ability that defined him but didn't have a single hole in his game: he could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw. Baseball-Reference has tests that involve Black Ink and Gray Ink. Black Ink describes how often a player led the league in some statistical category; Gray Ink describes how many times he finished top ten in the league. This player has two points of black ink but 161 points of gray ink.
In other words, he was never the best, but consistently among the best.
We're talking about Robert Lee "Indian Bob" Johnson.
Johnson was born in Oklahoma in 1906, and his family soon moved to Tacoma, Washington. He left home in 1922 at age 15 and began his baseball career with the Los Angeles Fire Department team. Because Johnson was part Cherokee, he was subjected to the nickname "Indian Bob," just as other players of Native American ancestry had similar epithets foisted upon them in this era.
Johnson was soon playing semi-professional ball. When his brother, Roy Johnson, became a professional, he felt buoyed. He said, "When Roy became a regular with San Francisco in 1927 I knew I could make the grade in fast company. I had played ball with Roy and felt I was as good as he was."
However, Johnson failed trials with San Francisco, Hollywood, and Los Angeles. He did not play professionally until Wichita of the Western League signed him in 1929. Johnson played in 145 games at two levels and batted .262 with 21 HR while slugging .503. After again hitting 21 HR (in just over 500 AB) the following season in Portland, he went to spring training with the Philadelphia A's but didn't make the roster due to his inability to hit the curveball. Over the next two seasons in the minors, Johnson batted a combined .334 with 51 HR while slugging .567 and showing both patience at the plate and a powerful throwing arm in the outfield.
Opportunity knocked in 1933 as Connie Mack sold off veteran Al Simmons to the White Sox leaving Johnson and Lou Finney to battle for the leftfield job in spring training. Johnson won the job and had an excellent freshman season at age 27...
AVG/ OBP/ SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI OPS+ RCAA .290/.387/.505 103 44 4 21 93 134 37
...and was generally considered the league's finest rookie.
Johnson would quickly prove that 1934 was no fluke. On June 16th, the A's and White Sox played a twin bill. After losing the opener 9-7, the A's come back to win game two 7-6. Johnson went 6-for-6 with two home runs (both off Whit Wyatt), a double, and three singles. Four days later, he hit his 20th round tripper of the season against the Browns giving him the league lead (he finish fourth). He also enjoyed a 26-game hitting streak. After two fine seasons, Johnson was beginning to get recognition as he was named the starting left fielder of the American League All Star team in 1935. Johnson also finished fourth in the loop in home runs for the third time in his first three seasons and enjoyed his first 100 run/100 RBI season (he had topped 100 runs in both 1933 and 1934).
Despite turning 30 in 1936, Johnson kept right on raking and showed a little extra speed on the base paths, hitting a career high 14 triples. In both 1936 and 1937, he ripped 25 HR driving in 100+ runs despite not getting 500 AB in '37; of interest, on August 29 he again victimized the White Sox in a doubleheader as the A's set a new AL record in the opener of a twin bill by scoring 12 runs in the opening frame, six of which were driven in by Johnson. After four years in the majors, other aspects of Johnson were becoming known around the league. Johnson was a bit of a practical joker, and it was in 1937 when Yankees' HOF second baseman Tony Lazzeri pulled a prank on him, knowing he would probably appreciate the joke.
Lazzeri doctored a ball over the course of two weeks by pounding it with a bat, soaking it in soapy water, and rubbing it extensively with dirt and finally coating it with white shoe polish to make it look like new. Bill James described it as a ball that was "as dead as Abe Lincoln." It was so heavy and lifeless that it would plop down harmlessly once struck with a bat.
Lazzeri sprang his joke on September 29 long after the Yanks had clinched the pennant. During an inning in which Johnson was due to bat, he ran out to second base with the gag ball in his pocket. When Johnson stepped into the batter's box, he trotted out to the mound and switched balls with Yankee southpaw Kemp Wicker. Wicker grooved Lazzeri's "mushball" down the pipe and Johnson took a mighty cut and hit it on the screws. However, rather than hitting a prodigious moonshot, the ball plopped harmlessly foul behind the plate while a perplexed Johnson stood there wondering just what the hell happened while the other players and the crowd burst into laughter.
Johnson continued to get better as he aged as he put together his best two seasons at 32 and 33, topping 110 runs/RBI both years while batting at least .300/.400/.500. On June 12, 1938, Johnson was a one-man wrecking crew against the St. Louis Browns, hitting three bombs (and a single) and driving in all eight runs.
1938 and 1939
AVG/ OBP/ SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI OPS+ RCAA .325/.422/.553 229 57 18 53 127 146 95
Johnson was also developing the reputation of being an athletic fielder. He lead the AL in assists twice (in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the best outfield arm of the 1940's is said to be either Johnson or Dom DiMaggio and he was also 4th all-time in outfield assists per 1000 innings) and also filled in occasionally at second and third base (poorly it should be added). He was named to the AL All-Star team both years.
Johnson finally began to show the effects of age during his age 34 and 35 seasons and started to lose some bat speed. Connie Mack even felt the need to give his star slugger time off from covering the expansive left field pasture at Shibe Park, playing him 28 games at first base in 1941. He still had power and a sharp batting eye and remained a potent RBI man, topping 100 RBI in both 1940 and 1941--the latter his seventh straight season over the century mark.
Johnson's power started to wane in 1942 as he suffered through his worst season statistically to that point in time, failing to hit 20 HR or 90 RBI for the first time in his career. However, part of this was attributable to the fall of offense across the board due largely to players enlisting in the military for WWII. His OBP and SLG marks were still good for top 10 finishes in the Junior Circuit and good for fifth in MVP voting. After continually clashing with Mack over pay, the manager finally said goodbye, sending him to the Washington Senators for third sacker Bob Estalella and Jimmy Pofahl. Baseball Almanac notes that this was the only time in baseball history where a player who led his team in RBI for seven straight years was traded.
Johnson lasted one year with the Senators where age and huge Griffith Stadium all but neutered his power as he slugged a career low .400, and for the first and only time in his career he failed to hit at least 10 home runs (7). He was sold to the Boston Red Sox by Griffith who later regretted the move. The diluted war-time talent in the majors coupled with Fenway Park's hospitable climate for right-handed hitters allowed Johnson to finish out his major league career in style. In a season which either spoke highly of Johnson's ability at age 38 or spoke poorly of the level of war-time talent left in the majors by 1944--*cough* Browns win the pennant...Browns win the pennant *cough*--Johnson enjoyed his finest statistical season (including hitting for the cycle on July 6):
AVG/ OBP/ SLG Runs 2B 3B HR RBI OPS+ RCAA .324/.431/.528 106 40 8 17 106 174 61
Still, a lot of other fine players also played through the war years including HOFers Paul Waner, Chuck Klein, and Joe Medwick and didn't play as well as Johnson. Further, he was able to play 142 games in left field and enjoyed his first season on a team .500 or better since his rookie year as the Red Sox finished 77-77. For his efforts he was named to his seventh All Star team and finished 10th in MVP voting. As World War Two dragged on to 1945, Johnson was able to enjoy one last moment in the major league sun. He played 140 games in left field and provided the Red Sox with 82 runs created (AL left fielders averaged 67 RC in 1945), which earned him his eighth and final All Star nod. With the war over, Johnson pushing 40, and the return of Ted Williams, the Red Sox and Johnson parted company and he continued his career with the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association.
Despite his advanced athletic age, Johnson managed to hit .270 with 13 HR and a .456 SLG in 94 games. He moved on to Seattle of the Pacific Coast League for the next two years, batting .292 with 35 doubles, 12 HR and a .441 SLG in 487 AB. Johnson, now 44, went home to play for and manage the Tacoma Tigers in the Western International League where he wielded a potent bat, hitting .326 with 13 doubles, five homers and a .463 SLG in 218 AB. He didn't play in 1950 but resurfaced briefly in Tijuana the following year at age 46. Johnson batted .217 in 21 games, then hung up his spikes for good.
So how do we measure Johnson's career? He probably missed being a Hall of Famer by a whisker. Johnson was hurt perceptually due to playing on second-division teams never reaching the World Series or even coming particularly close to one. He was also overshadowed by all-time great outfielders like Joe DiMaggio and Williams. Further, he finished his career during the second World War. Also working against him was his consistently high level of play; his OPS+ never going higher than 174 or dropping below 125 and always provided above-average offense for his position. He never had an eye-popping, jaw-dropping season that nets players MVP awards. He is also perceived by many to be the equivalent of the Phillies fine outfielder of the 1940's and 1950's, Del Ennis.
In short, he was invisible.
However, when we examine his record, he fits right in with four contemporary outfielders who are in the Hall of Fame and three of whom--like Johnson--finished their careers during WWII: Earl Averill, Klein, Medwick, and Paul Waner.
Player AVG OBP SLG Runs HR RBI OPS+ RCAA* Bob Johnson .296 .393 .506 1239 288 1283 138 413 Earl Averill .318 .395 .533 1224 238 1164 133 391 Chuck Klein .320 .379 .543 1168 300 1201 137 409 Paul Waner .333 .404 .473 1190 139 957 134 588** Joe Medwick .324 .362 .505 1198 205 1383 134 368 Del Ennis .284 .340 .472 985 288 1284 117 145
* Runs Created Above Average is a counting stat
As mentioned, a lot of folks dismiss Johnson's achievements because of a superficial statistical similarity to Del Ennis. I threw Ennis in here to show that he's not at all comparable to the above group. His HR/RBI totals are similar but he's last in AVG/OBP/SLG, runs, OPS+ and RCAA. The difference between Johnson and Ennis' respective levels are about the same as Rusty Greer (120 OPS+/149 RCAA) and Chipper Jones (141 OPS+/429 RCAA); nobody suggests that Greer and Jones are similar as hitters. In the chart above, we can see how close Johnson's level of play was to Hall of Fame quality. His eight All Star selections reflects the high regard contemporaries viewed Johnson. After Al Simmons was sold to the White Sox, Johnson all but became the Athletics offense. During his ten years with the A's, the team created 7612 runs. Johnson was responsible for 1162 (15.26%). The roster over that ten years were -420 RCAA while Johnson had 317 RCAA.
Although never topping statistical lists, Johnson was consistently among the leaders. From the period 1930-50, Johnson was tied for second in doubles (396), eighth in triples (95), third in home runs (288), third in runs (1239), second in RBI (1283), sixth in OBP (.393), sixth in SLG (.506), and fifth in OPS (.899). Here are the top ten finishers in RCAA (totals accumulated before 1930 and after 1950 are not counted):
1. Ted Williams 908 2. Joe DiMaggio 695 3. Babe Ruth 460 4. Bob Johnson 413 5. Charlie Keller 394 6. Earl Averill 356 7. Tommy Henrich 274 8. Jeff Heath 261 9. Al Simmons 250 10. Roy Cullenbine 215
Johnson's RCAA is 73rd all time. When you consider that, along with being a fine fielder with a terrific throwing arm, you begin to appreciate the complete package that was Robert Lee "Indian Bob" Johnson. Truly an All Star in the fullest sense of the word and an unappreciated talent. When you look back at some of the superb players to grace the diamond in the 1930's and 1940's, don't forget about the man that patrolled left field at Shibe Park for a decade.
John Brattain writes for The Hardball Times and his work has been featured at About.com, MLBtalk, Yankees.com, Replacement Level Yankee Weblog, TOTK.com, Bootleg Sports, and Baseball Prospectus.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Recapping a Busy Tuesday
In past years, December 20 has been an early Christmas for some General Managers with the hopes of landing a second-tier free agent for cheap. This year, the presents under the tree are quite disappointing. It seems like, in this day and age, players bound to be non-tendered are often traded before reaching this stage.
Fifty players were non-tendered on Tuesday, and some have (and will) immediately signed minor league contracts with the same team. When perusing the list, I found ten players that should generate at least a little bit of interest in some General Manager's mind. The ten, listed alphabetically:
Joe Borowski - 35 - RP - 2005: Tampa Bay Devil Rays/Chicago Cubs
The Cubs were unwilling to give Borowski the proper time to heal, and gave him the boot midseason. He paid them back by starting his stint with the Devil Rays strongly, setting a club record with 21 consecutive scoreless innings. However, that mark was made less impressive when he followed it (and ended his season) by giving up fifteen earned runs in 14.1 innings. There is a possibility that Joe Borowski will never again be a serviceable reliever in the Major Leagues. But if some teams are willing to give Rule 5 picks a chance to be their fifth or sixth reliever, giving Borowski a NRI is a decent gamble.
Chad Bradford - 31 - RP - 2005: Boston Red Sox
While his season was cut short by injury, the world's most famous submariner had yet another season with an ERA+ over 100 last year. Bradford is basically the right-handers' answer to the LOOGY, as his only talent is (and has been) an ability to effectively retire right-handed batters. Last year, he held RHB to a line of .282/.316/.310. A bad September will be noticed by many front offices, but they should also note that Bradford's best (and only full) month was August. Given the right role, Bradford can still be an effective member of a bullpen. He should be guaranteed seven figures (if just $1M) by someone.
Jim Brower - 33 - RP - 2005: San Francisco Giants/Atlanta Braves
Suddenly, it appears that once a pitcher passes his prime, one bad season will irreparably damage his reputation. From 2001-2004, Brower was a right-handed Ron Villone, a versatile reliever averaging about 100 innings per year. He could start, mop-up, middle relieve or even set-up. But things fell apart in San Francisco last year, and he was quickly shipped off to work with Leo Mazzone in Atlanta. The results were solid (shocking, I know) if unspectacular, and it will be interesting if the Mazzone Effect means that Brower will follow him to Baltimore.
Eric Byrnes - 30 - OF - 2005: A's/Rockies/Orioles
For five years, Eric Byrnes was a staple on the Oakland A's 25-man roster. It was the only team he had ever played on, and with his strong clubhouse chemistry, it was really the only team we could imagine him on. Suddenly, in the span of about six months, Byrnes has added two teams to that list, and stands to add a third soon. His peak has likely passed, but Byrnes is better than he showed in 2005. I've always thought of him as a poor man's Aaron Rowand, and someone in need of a versatile 4th outfielder, and accomplished southpaw basher should call Byrnes up.
Josh Fogg - 29 - SP - 2005: Pittsburgh Pirates
This guy should be a bad, low-payroll team's dream. For the last four years, Fogg has been freakishly consistent, and with his age, shows few signs of stopping in the next two seasons. You can easily expect 140-200 innings and an ERA from 4.30 to 5.30. It doesn't change. He has a mediocre, four-pitch arsenal, and has learned to pitch his way out of trouble (Minnesota knows him as Joe Mays). If Scott Elarton can get a big contract from Kansas City, someone should give Fogg a two-year, $3M contract. At the back of a rotation, he won't disappoint.
Ryan Franklin - 33 - SP - 2005: Seattle Mariners
Most of what I just told you about Josh Fogg applies here. Franklin has a broad arsenal, one in which no pitch is particularly effective. He doesn't strike people out. He doesn't have any upside. He can give you about 180 innings of slightly below league average pitching. But while Fogg at least offers a sexy age, Franklin offers the potential of falling apart. I would suggest he look into the salary difference between being a AAA ace and whatever job he could get away from baseball very soon.
Trever Miller - 33 - LH RP - 2005: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Let me get this straight. During this winter, have we really seen Scott Eyre, Ricardo Rincon and Mike Myers get multi-year contracts? Was Steve Kline actually coveted by another team? In such a case, Trever Miller at least deserves a shot. The guy is not quite a LOOGY, as he has always been equally effective -- or in the case of 2005, ineffective -- against hitters on both sides of the plate. His slider is good enough that someone is going to give this guy a decent offer and not be disappointed. I would pay something like $750,000 for a trial run, that's for sure.
Miguel Olivo - 27 - C - 2005: San Diego Padres/Seattle Mariners
Man, the Padres must be really confident in Doug Mirabelli's abilities, or else think Bengie Molina is going to fall into their hands. But, really, if Yorvit Torrealba can bring in a live arm like Marcos Carvajal, is Olivo's market really non-existent. This guy was great with the Padres last year, after a horrible (and I mean really bad) run with the Mariners. He's quick, is pretty good behind the plate, and has some decent pop in his bat. If he could walk or make contact, he'd be an everyday catcher. As is, he should at least be someone's back-up in 2006.
Ramon Ortiz - 32 - SP - 2005: Cincinnati Reds
Cincinnati was a bad, bad career move for Ramon Ortiz. After watching Ortiz hang curveball after curveball, the Angels decided to punish Ortiz a year ago, and send him to a stadium where it would really hurt. The results were predictable, as Ortiz gave up 34 homers in 171.1 innings. I mean, did this guy really strike out 162 guys in a season...within the last five years? Crazy. A team with a committee for the fifth spot in the rotation, and a big outfield, should really consider bringing Ortiz in. The results could be Pedro Astacio-esque.
Junior Spivey - 31 - 2B - 2005: Milwaukee Brewers/Washington Nationals
Like Byrnes, it seems like we just blinked, and Spivey became a journeyman. Really, it was just 2002 in which Spivey hit .301/.389/.476. And if word on the street is correct, that could even be duplicated soon. Why? Well, because apparently Colorado needs a second baseman, and has targeted Spivey to fill that role. This is best for Spivey, as any stadium without an easing hitting environment seems to be too difficult at this point.
Again, not a lot to offer here. I'd almost prefer the minor league free agent market, which in some ways, is what this will become.
The one team that has left many scratching their heads after Tuesday has been the San Diego Padres, who apparently had a case of second-thoughts when the deadline came close. Two players acquired this winter (Dewon Brazelton and Pete LaForest) were given pink slips, as well as two others that hadn't been with the organization long (Olivo, Craig Breslow). Very strange.
San Diego brass has claimed that had they not traded Sean Burroughs to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he would have been non-tendered. Basically, the Padres decided to non-tender Burroughs yesterday, dumping Brazelton. I thought Dewon could have a future in PETCO Park, but it appears that he will be forced to take his act somewhere (likely a AAA team) in 2006. Still, you have to wonder what the White Sox (who were interested in Burroughs, and ultimately acquired Rob Mackowiak) were offering for Burroughs. Could the Padres have acquired Damaso Marte or Luis Vizcaino?
If Olivo didn't fit on the roster, which still seems odd to me, it's no surprise that LaForest doesn't either. LaForest is really a AAA player, a catcher that used to hit well -- no longer does -- and never was good behind the plate. Breslow looks like a pretty good LOOGY destined for Kansas City, leaving the Padres another hole in their pitching staff.
These moves further indicate the Padres do not have a plan this winter, which contrasts heavily with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have rehauled their offense in the last month. The NL West was up for grabs, and the Dodgers seem to have taken it.
Earlier this offseason, I mentioned that the Padres seemed to have the mentality of "2006 or bust." The acquisition of Vinny Castilla and the flirtation with David Wells were the driving forces behind this thought. Now, I don't know what the plan is. Trading Mark Loretta to the Red Sox for Doug Mirabelli was a big question mark, and by giving Josh Barfield a shot, seemed to indicate they were thinking about their future rather than 2006. However, the re-signings of Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman -- two old players -- create some urgency within the organization.
Another question mark was thrown into the equation yesterday, in which the Padres acquired three players from the Texas Rangers for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and an A-ball catcher. Both Eaton and Otsuka are free agents after the season, while Chris Young, Terrmel Sledge and Adrian Gonzalez are far from it. Now, you'd think the team was really geared towards the future rather than the present.
Most people are giving the Padres the "W" for this trade, citing Eaton's forthcoming free agent status, as well as his outspoken reluctance to re-sign any time soon. Many say that the Rangers, by swapping Eaton for Young in their rotation, were not adding much. To this notion, I disagree. Over at the Hardball Times, we see that much of Young's season was because of luck. He allowed very few home runs, despite being an extreme flyball pitcher, and might even have trouble keeping balls in the park at PETCO. His second half seems to be a good start for a prediction, and with young pitchers, there is always the threat of injury. The Rangers were trading a pitcher destined for worse numbers in 2006.
Eaton, on the other hand, has upside that Young can't touch. He was one of the NL's best pitchers through June last year, but injuries took a toll on the rest of his season. In many ways, he's similar to Kerry Wood, as both have eight-figure stuff and a ten-cent arm. If the Rangers could manage to acquire Eaton and Kevin Millwood, and harness the two properly in 2006, they can easily become one of the AL West favorites. Otsuka adds a dependable arm to the bullpen. Adrian Gonzalez and Terrmel Sledge were blocked. The Rangers are going for it in 2006.
As for the Padres, it's hard to tell. It's hard to say what roles they will find for Gonzalez and Sledge, or what they will do with the back of their rotation. They acquired plenty of good talent, but for me, it creates more questions than it answers. Los Angeles seems to have intimidated the team, who after jumping out to a quick lead seem to be backing off the 2006 race. However, would it really surprise anyone if the long-rumored Dave Roberts for David Wells trade finally happens within the next week?
The Red Sox had all their cards on the table. They were committed to bringing Johnny Damon back. In fact, this late in the winter, they needed to bring Johnny Damon back. Other options, like Brian Giles or Milton Bradley, secured their futures. Damon signed a contract with the Yankees yesterday for four years and $52 million, matching what the team gave Hideki Matsui.
For months, Brian Cashman was saying all the right things in the Big Apple. Unlike the Red Sox, he wasn't committing to anything, except the possibility that Bubba Crosby could start the season in center. We never bought it. Cashman proved us right, overpaying for a leadoff hitter that should not be providing very good value in 2009. But he solved a few problems for 2006, specifically those at the top of the order and in center field.
And, of course, he weakened the Red Sox. Their options now are quite limited. Convince the Reds to trade Wily Mo Pena. Trade for one of the A's outfielders, and pay a ridiculous premium. Sign Preston Wilson. Give Dave Roberts 500 at-bats. The Yankees are filling holes, the Blue Jays are acquiring five-star players, and the Red Sox are prepared to take a giant step back.
At this point, the biggest mistake would be trading part of the future for a centerfield option. Frankly, I don't think the Red Sox will be winning the division in 2006. I would acquire Roberts for Wells, and give the playoff hero a full-season in center. Put Jon Papelbon in the rotation, and see what potential he has in that role. Use the money designated for Damon and bring in Roger Clemens. See if some magic can produce a Wild Card team, and if it can't, retool in one season. Who knows, at that point, Theo Epstein might even be back on the market.
From the Yankees end, this move likely didn't take a lot of thought. Filling holes and weakening the Red Sox. You can bet that George Steinbrenner will pay a premium for that. When this team closes their winter by acquiring a defensive-minded first baseman (J.T. Snow) soon, they will enter Spring Training with one of the best offenses in the American League. No longer should the Blue Jays, and especially the Red Sox, intimidate them.
Step down from the ledge, Cubs fans, things aren't quite as bad as they appear (or as bad as they are for the Red Sox). Far and wide, there seems to be a general consensus that the Cubs are foolish and idiotic for handing Jacque Jones a three-year, $16 million contract. I see things differently.
Jones is a role player. If this were basketball, he would make a mean sixth man. In baseball, he brings three key attributes to the table: the ability to hit right-handed pitching, good baserunning and good fielding. First and foremost, is the left-handed bat that Jones brings to the table. For his career, Jones is about a .290/.345/.485 player against right-handed pitching. Last year, the Cubs had a .748 OPS against RHP, and Jeremy Burnitz (the everyday RFer) hit .267/.345/.430. Both of those marks should be improved upon by Jones in 2006, who will (conservatively) manage an .800 OPS, with the ceiling of somewhere near .850. With a little more luck in the BABIP department, and factoring in his recent increase in walks, Jones is as talented a hitter against RHP as the Cubs could have hoped.
Last Spring Training, Dusty Baker was committed to making the Cubs better on the basepaths. His plan, well, failed. Certainly, the addition of Juan Pierre should help improve those marks in 2006. But, don't discount the possibility of Jones helping, as well. Never an accomplished base stealer, his quickness should shine through when the Cubs attempt to advance runners from first to second, first to third, and second to home. According to Dan Fox, the man behind incremental runs (as found in the 2006 Hardball Times Baseball Annual), Jones has been one of the best baserunners in the Majors for the last five seasons. He had a solid 0.58 IR last year, and since 2001, he is at 4.92. He is among the game's 50 best on the bases. Burnitz? Well, his -0.51 finish in 2005 dipped his five-year total to -1.61, so he's a below average baserunner. This difference shouldn't make a huge difference in the 2006 standings, but it's a relatively ignored improvement on what North Siders have been used to.
As we all know, fielding statistics are the question mark of sabermetrics. But, by most all metrics, Jacque Jones is quite the fielder. For some reason, Baseball Prospectus' numbers tend to question Jones' play in left field during the course of his career, but give him high marks for right field. The Hardball Times numbers rank Jones as the seventh best right fielder in the Majors, but also have Jeremy Burnitz at third, and Mark Kotsay towards the bottom of the outfield barrel. No matter what numbers you use, the outcome will likely say that both Jones and Burnitz are above-average outfielders. The effect will be minimal, but gone are the days of wincing to the actions of Sammy Sosa.
It's hard to mention Jones, however, without calling to attention his weakness: southpaws. During his time with the Twins, Rod Gardenhire refused to bench Jones against left-handers, and he leaves Minnesota with a career .227/.277/.339 line against them. Dusty Baker's tendencies be damned, the Cubs must learn from this mistake for this signing to be successful. This transaction is simply not complete without the acquisition of a right-handed hitter for the bench. There aren't a lot of fantastic options out there, but if the Tigers found Craig Monroe off the minor league free agent market, the Cubs could surely find someone (Eric Byrnes?). And if all else fails, throw John Mabry out there, who at worst could give you an OPS of over .700, despite batting from the left side.
Brian Giles and Hideki Matsui were free agents that were nearly unwilling to leave their homes. Milton Bradley came with baggage and a price tag the Cubs were unwilling to pay, which is also true for the likes of Bobby Abreu, Austin Kearns and even Kevin Mench. Reggie Sanders certainly isn't the world's best right field option. Simply put, I don't see a lot of options for Jim Hendry here.
For the next two seasons, I'm confident in saying that Jacque Jones will be worth his salary if platooned. In the third year, he has a chance of doing the same, or at worst, becoming Orlando Palmiero version 2.0, with more raw power, of course. In the NL Central, soon-to-be baseball's worst division, Jacque Jones is not going to ruin any postseason opportunities. At about $5.3 million per season, the Cubs committed about 1/18 of their payroll for the next three years to a role player. I don't see a lot wrong with that.
OOPs, Here It Is!
Who are the most Overrated Offensive Players in the game? Well, to answer that question, we developed the following simple equation:
(Batting Average > League Average) + (On-Base Percentage < League Average) + (Slugging Average < League Average) = Overrated Offensive Players
These Overrated Offensive Players are also known as OOPs. We're not in the business of adding more acronyms into the broth of alphabet soup that already exists. OOPs is different. It's not one of these newfangled stats. Instead, it's just a fun way to identify those players who aren't nearly as good as advertised.
By definition, the players who meet the above criterion are singles hitters who only walk on occasion and rarely slug home runs. In other words, batting average makes up the lion's share of their value. Put another way, the qualifying hitters have low Isolated Discipline (IsoD) and Isolated Power (IsoP). IsoD equals OBP minus AVG, and IsoP equals SLG minus AVG. These isolated stats tell you what's not a part of batting average.
Here are the players who met the above equation in 2005:
2005 SEASON: AVG > .264, OBA < .330, SLG < .419 w/ MIN 400 PA
YEAR AVG OBA SLG 1 Willy Taveras 2005 .291 .325 .341 2 So Taguchi 2005 .288 .322 .412 3 Toby Hall 2005 .287 .315 .368 4 Terrence Long 2005 .279 .321 .378 5 Edgardo Alfonzo 2005 .277 .327 .345 6 Juan Pierre 2005 .276 .326 .354 7 Neifi Perez 2005 .274 .298 .383 8 Shannon Stewart 2005 .274 .323 .388 9 Jose Reyes 2005 .273 .300 .386 10 Darin Erstad 2005 .273 .325 .371 11 Orlando Hudson 2005 .271 .315 .412 12 Royce Clayton 2005 .270 .320 .351 13 Aaron Rowand 2005 .270 .329 .407 14 Angel Berroa 2005 .270 .305 .375
The 2005 All-OOPs team is as follows:
C: Toby Hall 1B: Darin Erstad 2B: Orlando Hudson SS: Neifi Perez 3B: Edgardo Alfonzo OF: Willy Taveras OF: So Taguchi OF: Terrence Long
Although Darin Erstad is conspicuous by being the only first baseman in the table, Willy Taveras wins the Baseball Analysts' OOPs Player of the Year award by virtue of having the highest batting average among those who qualify. Earning the OOPs POY award does not equate to being the worst player in baseball. It just signifies the most overrated offensive player in the game.
The All-Active OOPs team (minimum of 2,500 PA):
C: Paul LoDuca 1B: Darin Erstad 2B: Mark Grudzielanek SS: Jimmy Rollins 3B: Joe Randa OF: Mark Kotsay OF: B.J. Surhoff OF: Quinton McCracken
I'm sorry to disappoint the Kansas City Royals but Mark Grudzielanek is the Most Overrated Offensive Player among those who are still active. The shortstop-turned-second baseman has a career AVG that is 6% above the league norm with an OBP and SLG that are 4% and 9% below the mean.
Erstad is the only player who made the 2005 and All-Active OOPs teams. In the comments section at 6-4-2 earlier this month, my son corrected another reader who called newly acquired Angels reliever J.C. Romero the team's LOGGY. Joe remarked that "Romero is a LOOGY, not a LOGGY. Erstad is the team's LOGGY (Low Offense, Gold Glove Yokel)."
The All-Time OOPs team (minimum of 5,000 PA):
C: B.J. Surhoff 1B: Lou Finney 2B: Glenn Beckert SS: Alvin Dark 3B: Enos Cabell OF: Lance Johnson OF: Willie Wilson OF: Doc Cramer
B.J. Surhoff made the All-Active team as an OF but was forced onto the All-Time team as a catcher, given that no other backstop qualified.
Based on the OOPs methodology, Glenn Beckert is the Most Overrated Offensive Player ever. Beckert had a career AVG that was 9% above the league norm with an OBP and SLG that were 2% and 10% below the mean. What is it about these former Chicago Cubs second basemen?
That'll about rap it up. OOPs, there it is!
Source: Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia
Update: I missed Terry Kennedy the first time through. He belongs as the catcher on the All-Time OOPs team. Surhoff can stake his claim as on OF on the All-Active OOPs team.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
One year ago, there were three candidates for the title of baseball's top prospect. Since then, one debuted in the Majors, stuck, and lost his prospect eligibility. Another was one of the minors best hitters, and will be uncontested atop prospect lists this season. The third option, however, did not live up to expectations. The third option regressed.
Andy Marte's 2005 season was a disappointment. Many called for last season to be the one in which Marte truly broke out, showing superstar potential, and finding a spot on Atlanta's roster. Whether it meant in left field, or Chipper Jones in left field, we all assumed the Atlanta Braves would find a spot for such talent. A season later, the Braves have no interest in finding a spot.
Right before the Winter Meetings, in an interview with Talking Chop's Joe Hamrahi, John Schuerholz said:
...[Andy is] a primary dominant third base candidate for a major league team in the very near future, whether it be for our team or someone else's team. I mean this guy's total package, offensively and defensively, his power potential, and excellent defensive skills make him a legitimate major league third baseman. Right now, though, there's a guy named Chipper Jones ahead of him.
In the end, the Braves were not willing to wait for "the very near future." Marte had his two-week trial to impress the Braves' brass, a la Jeff Francoeur, and failed. From June 7 to June 23, Marte was given 35 at-bats at the Major League level. At the end of the two weeks, his line read .200/.286/.314, and his destination was Richmond. Bobby Cox would give the blue chip prospect just 22 more at-bats all season.
Suddenly, Marte is staring across from a lot more people in the other corner, the non-believers. There have to be doubts in the minds of the Atlanta Braves, who wonder if Marte's Major League debut was a sign of things to come. There are obviously doubts within the Tampa Bay organization, who might be among those who wonder about Andy's elbow, about a torn UCL. Many are wondering why, for nearly a fourth of his season from July 22 to August 20, Marte hit just .196/.304/.340. Or why he is, again, struggling in the Dominican Winter League so much.
There is certainly a case against Andy Marte. Trading Marte, however, is a bold move. Too bold, and too hasty. Simply put, there is little precedent for trading a prospect of this caliber, this early. John Schuerholz has very little wiggle room with this trade, as its results could either make him look like a genius (again) or a fool. Trading blue-chip prospects for Major League role players is a dangerous game.
Ask the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ask Tommy Lasorda, who needed a closer in early July of 1998. Lasorda, then GM of the Dodgers, traded a top five prospect for Jeff Shaw, since Eric Karros and Adrian Beltre were handling the infield corners. While Shaw was a positive influence on the Dodgers, the cost undoubtedly outweighed the return. Since that trade, the Dodgers have missed out on 206 home runs, or about 100 more than what Eric Karros gave the organization since then.
In 1994, Paul Konerko was the 13th overall pick out of an Arizona high school. He quickly signed with the Dodgers, and had more than 250 at-bats that season in the Northwest League, in which he would hit .288, with 24 extra-base hits, 36 walks and just 52 strikeouts. At the age of 18, Konerko was showing good power potential, plenty of patience, and developed contact skills.
By contrast, at the same age Andy Marte played his first full season in professional baseball. He was higher than Konerko, playing with Macon in the South Atlantic League. Marte's season was pretty fantastic for an 18-year-old, as he would hit .281/.339/.492 in 488 at-bats. His power was far more developed than that of Konerko, his contact skills (114 strikeouts) were fine, and his patience was coming. Marte was quickly deemed the Braves future at the hot corner.
The Dodgers were aggressive with Konerko at 19, allowing him to skip low-A and allow his full-season debut to come in the California League. Konerko jumped at the opportunity, and started right where he had left off in 1994. In 448 at-bats, Konerko would hit .277, this time with 41 extra-base hits (19 HR), 59 walks against 88 strikeouts. He showed the exact same skillset as he had in the Northwest League, though the full season began to show his weakness at the hot corner. His bat, however, undoubtedly profiled to find a home somewhere.
Like Konerko, Marte spent his age 19 season in high-A. While Konerko was playing in the hitter's California League, Marte was playing in the Carolina League, in one of the minors most difficult parks. He played great defense for a teenager at third base, not showing extraordinary range, but surprisingly solid with the balls he could reach. His offense pushed forward, despite the park he was playing in, as he hit .285/.372/.469. The declining slugging was a result of many of the balls that were once home runs turning into doubles, a fact that many thought would change as he moved up the ladder. The biggest news were his 67 walks, as he had become one of the minors more patient hitters within one season.
The age of 20 would bring the Texas League to Paul Konerko, who would finally start to refine the potential within his bat. Konerko hit .300 for the first time at Double-A in 470 at-bats, and also started to hit home runs. Of his 54 extra-base hits, in 470 at-bats, 29 were home runs. He also would walk 72 times, providing an OBP that hovered around .400. Furthermore, his lack of strikeouts, 85, was a sign of just how gifted Konerko was with the bat.
Double-A was also a good stop for Marte, although he didn't have the batting average luck that Konerko did, hitting .269/.364/.525. Missing time with injury, Marte hit 23 home runs in 387 at-bats. He also walked 58 times, keeping the patient eye that had developed just a year earlier. The only discouraging sign were 105 strikeouts, his highest strikeout percentage of his full-season career. Given his patience and power, however, Marte was one of the game's top three prospects.
That would be true the next season for Konerko, who would really turn a corner in Albuquerque of the Pacific Coast League. At 21, Konerko hit 37 home runs at AAA, giving him a slugging percentage of .621. His batting average moved up to .323, and Konerko finally walked (64) more than he struck out (61). His bat was hailed as the minors best, and while there were arguments on whether he could stay at the hot corner, some even preferred him to Eric Karros.
Marte was different, as his AAA season would lead to his departure. Like Konerko, the move to AAA provided Marte with more walks (64) and less strikeouts (83). And while those were encouraging signs, his slugging 'dipped' to .506, and he hit just .275. To this day, Marte has yet to bring his batting average above .285 at any level. His real failure, however, was in the Major Leagues, likely a contributing factor to his trade to the Boston Red Sox.
Konerko's Major League story is now history. The Dodgers would trade Konerko with a .215/.272/.306 line to the Cincinnati Reds, who would promptly trade him to Chicago for Mike Cameron. Konerko was a pretty average first baseman for five years in Chicago before exploding in the last two seasons. His patience just became an asset last year, fittingly in the season in which he struck out a career-high 109 times. A 30 home run threat before 2004, Konerko now has 81 home runs in two years, as well as a new, fat five-year contract.
Trading blue-chip prospects for role players is a dangerous game. Barring injury, look for the Boston Red Sox to come out winners.
The Case for Bert Blyleven: A Late Convert Joins the Flock
So I was staring at the big-lettered flyer that landed in my mailbox this week, screaming at me -- Hall of Fame voter, and the target of a 37-cent propaganda campaign courtesy of BertBelongs.com.
I could almost feel the spittle on my face.
"You have another chance to put Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame. Don't whiff!"
Unsure whether I was supposed to feel threatened or guilty, I respectfully placed the postcard in the trash, right next to the Rite Aid coupons. It was only then I noticed the flip-side of the mailing, which reminded me that only five pitchers had ever totaled more than 3700 strikeouts.
Now I really felt guilty. Thirty seven hundred? I didn't know that. Or, if I did, I made it a runner-up to what I considered a more compelling Cooperstown stat -- won-loss record, which in Blyleven's case was never good enough to get my vote. I wrote off his achievements to longevity, not necessarily excellence and tried to keep my conscience quiet.
The problem, of course, is that no one tells writers how to judge a Cooperstown beauty pageant. The task is even more difficult when you're asked to assess a career you've only marginally covered. I was in high school when Blyleven registered his only 20-win season in 1973. When Blyleven's career intersected mine in the mid-80s, we still never actually crossed paths: I was covering the Mets for the New York Post, while he was busy racking up wins in the American League.
If it was only arithmetic, filling out a Cooperstown ballot would be stress-free, guilt-free and far less controversial. But which numbers do you pick? And even if you decide that, say, strikeouts are more important than winning percentage, many believe stats by themselves are a weak, if not cowardly, way to avoid thinking through the election.
It was Dick Young who told me in my rookie year at the Post, "choosing a Hall of Famer is like voting for president. You'll just know who the right guy is."
That kind of over-simplified logic is what made Young a tabloid hero but otherwise a brutally narrow-minded man. Mike Marley, who used to cover boxing for the Post, summed up Young thusly: "Frequently wrong, never in doubt."
I didn't want to end up like Young, mean and inflexible. So I rescued the flier from the trash and decided it was time to re-think Blyleven. But instead of crunching numbers, I summoned a few ghosts from the Seventies and early Eighties, the ones who actually remember Blyleven in the flesh, not just through BaseballReference.com.
I spoke to Henry Hecht, who covered the Yankees in the Billy Martin era and preceded me at the Post. I asked if he would vote for Blyleven.
"Absolutely not," Hecht said. "He was never a dominant pitcher. He won 20 games just one time. How many games over .500 did he finish? Thirty seven or eight? Tommy John finished 57 over and I couldn't vote him. Tommy was my friend and it broke my heart to tell him, but I couldn't give him my vote. So why would I vote for Blyleven?"
I hung up looking for a more profound summary of Blyleven's numbers. Hecht was statistically correct about the right-hander's 287-250 record, but it was also true that Blyleven's ERA was as good or lower than the league average in 17 of his first 18 seasons. Numbers don't lie, Hecht said, but it sure depends on which number you let whisper in your ear.
Maybe it wasn't Blyleven's fault that he didn't win more often. As blessed as he was with that monstrous curveball, Blyleven was clearly cursed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like in 1984 when he won 19 games for an Indians team that finished sixth in the East. Or in 1986, when he won 17 games for the Twins, who finished 21 games out of first place.
If Blyleven had pitched for the Mets that year instead of Minnesota, he might've won 25 games and inched ever closer to the holy grail, 300 for his career. What was it that made him so tough to hit? What made him so special? It was that curveball, obviously. I remember its huge, looping trajectory, wondering how the hell he gripped that pitch and generated so much spin.
Finally, it dawned on me: Blyleven was a Hall of Famer not just because of his 3701 strikeouts or 287 wins or a 2.47 ERA in the post-season. It was the uniqueness of his best weapon, the curveball, that set him apart. All the great ones manage to put a singular mark on the game. Sandy Koufax had what old-timers called the greatest lefthanded curveball of the last 50 years. Steve Carlton had that untouchable slider. Nolan Ryan had the heat, even until the end. Mariano Rivera has the meanest cut-fastball a pitcher of any age could ever hope for.
Lucky for me I'm able to write about Rivera's killer pitch up-close -- indeed, ask him how it's thrown.
"Loose wrist, plenty of spin," he said. "It's easy, bro."
It's not, of course. Rivera has a gift so few pitchers possess: that long, loosed-armed delivery which gives him incredible whip-like action with every cut-fastball. David Cone used to call Rivera "Inspector Gadget" because of the way his arm seemed to extend upon release of the ball.
I never had the chance to break down Blyleven's mechanics, so I called another star from that era, to ask for a scouting reported. When I reached Goose Gossage, he was driving on a Colorado interstate, happy to talk about a pitch that was still freshly imprinted in his memory bank.
"Oh my God, that fucking curveball was unreal," Gossage said. "People used to talked about (Dwight) Gooden's hook, I swear Blyleven's was better. I've never seen anything like it -- then or now. You know the expression, 'dropping off the table?' That's what his curveball was like. It just disappeared. And the thing is, he threw it hard, then he'd blow that fastball right by you up in the strike zone. Guys had no chance."
So when I asked Gossage if he thought Blyleven deserved to be in the Hall, I could almost see his eyebrows flexing, as if to ask: are you kidding me?
"Hell, yes," Goose said. "Dominant pitcher, great pitcher. He's one of the guys I don't understand why they haven't made it yet. (Andre) Dawson, (Jim) Rice...that guy intimidated the shit out of every pitcher. He made that whole (Red Sox) lineup tougher. No one ever intimidated me, but I'll be honest, Jim got my attention."
Goose hung up, but not before we promised to run into each other at some point in 2006.
Yankees' spring training maybe -- or, I said respectfully, at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown.
"Ah, we'll see," Gossage said. "But if you're going to cover it, tell Bert I said hello. I'm hoping he makes it."
He's at least one vote closer today.
Bob Klapisch covers baseball in New York for The Bergen Record and ESPN.com. He's been a Hall of Fame voter since 1995 and says: yes on Gossage, no on Mattingly and yes on Pete Rose...the day after he passes away.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
It's All Dutch to Some
After four days of Bert Blyleven for Hall of Fame articles, I thought it would make sense to take inventory of where the series stands.
First of all, I would like to thank Rob Neyer, Dayn Perry, and Jeff Peek for submitting their guest columns. Neyer did a masterful job favorably comparing Bert Blyleven to Don Sutton, who was inducted into the HOF in 1998 with 81.6% of the vote. Perry showed that Blyleven's stats were closer than not to Warren Spahn, "the board-certified, inner-circle Hall of Famer." Peek, a member of the BBWAA, urged fellow voters "to put their stubborness aside and swallow their pride. If you didn't vote for Blyleven in the past, you've been making a mistake. I know. I made the same one. But only once."
I feel good about the body of work that has been put on display this week. To recap, Blyleven ranks 5th in career strikeouts, 8th in shutouts, and 17th in wins since 1900. He is also 12th in Runs Saved Above Average. Other than Blyleven, the top 15 in Ks, 16 in SHO, 19 in W (sans Tommy John), and 16 in RSAA are in the HOF or will be five years after they retire (Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez).
Blyleven's stats are indistinguishable from the eight most similar pitchers (as determined by the highly respected Baseball-Reference.com) -- Don Sutton, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver, Early Wynn, Phil Niekro, and Steve Carlton -- who have already been inducted into Cooperstown.
IP H ER BB SO HR ERA ERA+ Blyleven 4970 4632 1830 1322 3701 430 3.31 118 Group Average 4974 4541 1800 1429 3263 434 3.26 115
If you want some sizzle to go with your steak, Blyleven was named American League Rookie Pitcher of the Year in 1970 at the age of 19, threw a no-hitter in 1977, and was voted Comeback Player of the Year in 1989. He also pitched on two World Series Championship teams, compiling a 5-1 W-L record and a 2.47 ERA in the postseason. Bert won 15 games by a 1-0 score -- third on the all-time list behind a couple of guys named Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. Lastly, he is one of only three pitchers in MLB history to win a game before the age of 20 and after 40.
There are 66 pitchers in the Hall of Fame, including seven who pitched in the Negro Leagues. Of the 59 who spent their career in the American and National Leagues (or their predecessors), only 20 had the good fortune of winning 300 games. That's right, nearly two-thirds of the pitchers in the HOF never won 300 games. Moreover, Blyleven's 287 victories place him above 39 pitchers currently enshrined in Cooperstown.
Nonetheless, the fact that Blyleven failed to win 300 has been used against him in arguing why he doesn't belong since his first year on the ballot in 1998. I have heard countless other claims ("never won a Cy Young," "didn't have enough 20-win seasons," "wasn't a dominant pitcher," "couldn't win close games," "rarely was the ace of his own staff," "was a malcontent," ad finitum) and have tried to address each and everyone in previous articles as well as in some of the comments attached to them on our site or at the Baseball Primer Newsblog. Nobody ever said Blyleven was perfect. He certainly wasn't the best pitcher ever or even the greatest of his generation. But that shouldn't be the point here. Among all the HOF pitchers, Bert fits right smack in the middle of the pack. Blyleven's admission wouldn't lower the standards by any means, yet his absence raises lots of questions about dozens of pitchers who have already been inducted.
In Neyer's latest column at ESPN Insider (subscription required), he covers the five Hall of Fame candidates -- Bruce Sutter (67%), Jim Rice (60%), Goose Gossage (55%), Andre Dawson (52%) and Blyleven (41%) -- who received the most support last year without gaining the necessary 75% for election.
Every great (or near-great) player has his supporters. But Blyleven is a special case. Blyleven's qualifications are so obvious, so compelling that reasonable citizens of the reality-based community have lined up behind him everywhere. In the just-published Hardball Times Annual, Bill James addresses the question about the support (or lack thereof) Blyleven received from his teammates. And over at baseballanalysts.com, they're running a whole series of articles about Blyleven.
Former colleague Alex Belth, the founder and co-writer of Bronx Banter, has hooked up with SI.com for the second time in two weeks. Alex's first special was "Catfish to A-Rod: Landmark moments from baseball's free-agent era" and his second "The all-time non-Hall of Fame team" was posted today.
Since 1900, Blyleven ranks fifth in career strikeouts (3701), eighth in shutouts (60) and 17th in wins (287). Other than Tommy John (who has one more win than Blyleven), everybody who ranks ahead of Blyleven in strikeouts, shutouts or wins is either in the Hall of Fame or will be enshrined five years after they retire. According to Rich Lederer, who is hosting a "Bert Blyleven for Hall of Fame Week" at The Baseball Analysts this week, "The case against Blyleven is that he didn't win 300 games or a Cy Young Award. But there are dozens of pitchers who were elected to the HOF who didn't accomplish that either, yet there isn't one pitcher who did everything he did who is NOT in Cooperstown."
Belth's first book, Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights, will be published next spring. It says here that Belth will become a regular columnist for SI before Opening Day.
Jay Jaffe has begun his annual series of Hall of Fame articles at Baseball Prospectus. Today's feature is The Class of 2006: Starting Pitchers (subscription required).
Blyleven is quite possibly the best player not in the Hall of Fame; among those eligible, no player scores higher on the JAWS scale. He's the stathead's choice among Hall-eligible starters, and his candidacy has been gaining momentum in recent years. As I write this the Baseball Analysts website is in the midst of a week devoted to Blyleven's candidacy, with guest articles from honest-to-goodness BBWAA voter Jeff Peek, ESPN's Rob Neyer, and my BP colleague Dayn Perry.
Jaffe writes several more paragraphs on Blyleven and details how he ranks among his contemporaries, as well as the all-time greats.
We also got a link at Honkbalforum:
Ik vind persoonlijk dat Blyleven in de Hall of Fame thuishoort maar ik ga niemand proberen te overtuigen, dat laat ik doen. Deze week besteed http://www.baseballanalysts.com/ aandacht aan de Hall of Fame-case van Bert Blyleven. Lees en wees overtuigd.
My son, via an online translator, did me a favor and converted the Dutch to English: "I find personal that Blyleven in the Hall or Fame belong but I will try nobody persuade, that lets do I. These yielded spend http://www.baseballanalysts.com/ attention to the hall or Fame-case of Bert Blyleven. Read and indicated convinced."
There are a couple of follow-up comments at that forum for those who would like to bone up on their Dutch.
The series concludes this weekend with another special guest appearance by a well-known Hall of Fame voter who is now casting his ballot for Blyleven for the first time. Pretty cool, huh?
Dank u voor het bezoeken.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Pride and Prejudice
It's not that I'm looking for a reason to change my mind about my National Baseball Hall of Fame selections (because I'm not). But fan reaction -- or the lack thereof -- has helped me realize that I made the right decision by a) not voting for Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith or Jim Rice, and b) continuing to vote for Bert Blyleven after leaving him off my first ballot.
In three years since becoming a Hall of Fame voter, I have not received one e-mail, letter or phone call in support of Sutter, Smith or Rice -- not one. And it's not like I've kept my opinions a secret.
Within 48 hours of going public with my first ballot in 2003, however, I was contacted by a hearty group of Blyleven supporters who made such an impressive case for his inclusion that I vowed then that Blyleven would get my vote every year until he made it to Cooperstown.
That support has not waned.
Make whatever derogatory remark you want -- Blyleven's numbers are based on longevity, he never won a Cy Young Award, he was known for his curveball and nothing more -- the case is strong and clear cut.
Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame.
Forget his name for a moment. Most Hall of Fame voters who are down on Blyleven will turn off their hearing aids at the least mention of him anyway. Just answer this question honestly: If I told you that only one pitcher in the history of baseball (Nolan Ryan) ranks higher than "Pitcher X" in all three of the following categories -- wins, strikeouts and shutouts -- would you put "Pitcher X" in the Hall of Fame?
If you answered "no," then it's time to reserve your room in the psychiatric ward.
I am convinced that Hall of Fame voters don't vote for Bert Blyleven because his name is Bert Blyleven. What other legitimate reason can there be? Every other argument is secondary to the facts.
Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Robin Roberts, Don Sutton, Early Wynn and Phil Niekro are all in the Hall of Fame, and their average stats are nearly identical to Blyleven's. In the Dutchman's 4,970 innings (that's four innings more than the group average), he allowed 91 more hits and 30 more earned runs, but he struck out 438 more batters, allowed 107 fewer walks and coughed up four fewer home runs -- which is ironic because one of the big knocks on Blyleven is he allowed too many round-trippers.
So you're going to deny a guy enshrinement because he gave up one more hit every 55 innings and one more earned run every 166 innings than those other eight Hall of Famers did (on average)?
That's weak -- and unfair.
Throw in the fact that Blyleven won two World Series championships with the 1979 Pirates and 1987 Twins while fashioning a 5-1 W-L record and a 2.47 ERA in postseason play and the case is even more clear.
It's time for Hall of Fame voters to put their stubborness aside and swallow their pride. If you didn't vote for Blyleven in the past, you've been making a mistake.
I know. I made the same one.
But only once.
Jeff Peek writes for the Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle and has been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (Detroit chapter) for 13 years. He drives farther to cover his team, the Detroit Tigers, than any other member of the BBWAA -- 240 miles, each way. This is his third year as voter for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Bert and Warren: A Comparison Worth Making
Over at the inestimable Baseball-Reference.com, if you level your gaze at Bert Blyleven's list of top ten most similar pitchers, here's what you'll find (with precise similarity scores in parentheses):
1. Don Sutton (914) 2. Gaylord Perry (909) 3. Fergie Jenkins (890) 4. Tommy John (889) 5. Robin Roberts (876) 6. Tom Seaver (864) 7. Jim Kaat (854) 8. Early Wynn (844) 9. Phil Niekro (844) 10. Steve Carlton (840)
As you can see, peppering Blyleven's particular litany are eight Hall of Famers (Tommy John and Jim Kaat being the only exceptions). Suffice it to say, those are some impressive fellow travelers. However, one player not on Blyleven's list of similars who perhaps should be is Warren Spahn--the winningest left-hander in the annals of the game.
Superficially, there's not much linking these two. Spahn was a port-sider who relied on his heater until a knee injury forced him to develop a screwball, which became his out pitch over the latter half of his career. He retired following the 1965 season. The right-handed Blyleven, meanwhile, was a curveball specialist who pitched into the 1990s. More to the point, Spahn was voted in to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, and Blyleven was named by only 40.9 percent of voters in his eighth year on the ballot. They were different pitchers in different eras with different styles and, bizarrely enough, divergent reputations. Still and yet, these two hurlers share remarkably similar statistical profiles--provided you look at the right numbers.
You won't find Spahn on the list above because similarity scores, for the most part, rely on rank-and-file measures like wins, losses, winning percentage, unadjusted ERA, games pitched, innings, hits allowed, etc. However, if we rely on the more evocative pitching metrics, we find the two hurlers to be cut from an almost identical cloth. Consider these career comparisons:
Blyleven Spahn Innings 4,970.0 5,243.2 ERA+ 118 118 H/9 vs. League Avg. 95 93 K/9 vs. League Avg. 128 95 BB/9 vs. League Avg. 73 73 HR/9 vs. League Avg. 97 87
This table shows us that Spahn bested Blyleven in innings (narrowly considering the length of their careers), league-adjusted H/9 (narrowly again), league-adjusted HR/9 (semi-comfortably, although considering all the hand wringing over Blyleven's homer proclivities, it might surprise some to see that he was better than the league mean in this regard), while Blyleven was superior in league-adjusted K/9 (by a country mile or so). The two pitchers were roughly equal in park- and league-adjusted ERA and in league-adjusted BB/9. Considering the gaping divide between their fates--Spahn a pantheon-dwelling treasure, Blyleven forced to dither unjustly on the margins of very-goodness--you'd expect more of a statistical disconnect. Yet there's no such thing.
The difference, of course, is wins--the hoary, useless measure of pitching performance that's obsessed those of mainstream inclinations since the days of the trilobites. Spahn has 363 of them, good for sixth place on the all-time list, while Blyleven ranks "only" 25th with 287. There's a reason for this, and it's probably a patently obvious one to regular readers of a site as heady as this one: run support.
By using "neutral wins" (NW) and "neutral losses" (NL) we can assess what a pitcher's record would've been had he been graced (or burdened, as the case may be), over the same number of decisions, with league-average run support. Thanks to the efforts of Lee Sinins and his straight-from-heaven Sabermetric Encyclopedia, we have the career NW and NL numbers for Blyleven and Spahn:
Blyleven Spahn Actual W-L record 287-250 (.534) 363-245 (.597) Neutral W-L record 313-224 (.583) 353-255 (.581)
Without correcting for run support, Spahn quite famously has a comfortable advantage in winning percentage; however, if you recalibrate for Blyleven's generally lousy lineup compatriots, he actually outdoes Spahn in such a neutral context. At this juncture two points bear repeating: Blyleven is the equal of Spahn--the board-certified, inner-circle Hall of Famer--in terms of park- and league-adjusted ERA, and he bests him in winning percentage once league-average run support is ascribed to both hurlers. Why there's any sort of debate over Blyleven's Cooperstown bona fides is truly a mystery. But let's carry on . . .
It's no longer elusive knowledge that ERA is a sub-optimal way to evaluate pitchers. ERA and, by extension, earned and unearned runs aren't as laughably bootless as, say, RBI or the previously sullied pitcher wins and losses, but they're still fraught with inadequacies. Those shortcomings likely don't need rehashing with this audience, so let's leave it at this: runs-per-game is a better performance measure. That's mostly because runs-per-game (R/G) leaves out the inanities involved in scoring errors and isn't soiled by the overly forgiving nature of the unearned run rule.
Blyleven Spahn Career R/G 3.67 3.46 Career R/G vs. Lg. Avg. 90 80
This is a fairly clear advantage for Spahn. Both were comfortably better than the league average, but Spahn betters Blyleven by ten percent in league-adjusted R/G, which reflects the fact that Spahn, generally speaking, pitched in a more offensive environment. Of course, there's also the matter of park effects.
While park tendencies are reflected in ERA+, they're not in the other semi-sophisticated measures you'll find above, including league-adjusted R/G. Insofar as this particular comparison is concerned, it's vital that we explore the parks these two toiled in for their careers. Summarily speaking, Blyleven had a substantially tougher go of it. For his career, Blyleven's home parks had an average factor of 102.0, and in only two seasons did he pitch in a ballpark that favored the pitcher. In stark contrast, Spahn's home parks had an average factor of 94.5, which indicates, on balance, a strong tendency toward run suppression, and in all but three of his 21 full seasons in the majors his parks favored the pitcher. That's a healthy dose of disparity in terms of environment, and it's not reflected in many of the measures we've dealt with heretofore. So let's recast R/G after correcting for league and home digs:
Blyleven Spahn Park-adjusted R/G 3.63 3.56 Park-adjusted R/G vs. Lg. Avg. 89 82
Overall, Spahn worked more innings and was better at keeping the ball in the park (although that was partially by dint of his home environments) and keeping unearned runs off the board. Blyleven, on the other hand, had superior strikeout chops and fared better once run support is made part of the calculus. Blyleven also tops Spahn in career Runs Saved Above Average, 344 (17th all-time) to 319 (20th all-time).
Spahn, of course, deserves qualitative bonus points for losing up to three years of his career to military service during World War II, and he was also a better hitter and fielder than Blyleven. In the final statistical analysis, Spahn cobbled together the better career, but that there's even been a protracted discussion on the subject--who's better, Spahn or Blyleven--is telling and to Blyleven's tremendous credit.
Put another way, to suggest that Blyleven isn't a Hall of Famer is also to suggest that the quality of Spahn's Cooperstown dossier is at least contestable. Who out there is willing to say that?
Elect Bert Blyleven to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Dayn Perry is a baseball writer for FOXSports.com and an occasional contributor to Baseball Prospectus. His forthcoming book Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones is available for pre-order from Amazon.com..
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
If Don Sutton Was Great . . .
Forget the Hall of Fame. Imagine that Cooperstown is best known as the home of The Farmers' Museum ("Just head north on Route 80 and you can't miss it!").
For the moment, let's just focus on this question . . . Was Bert Blyleven a great pitcher? As great as (just to name two pitchers that come to mind) Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton? Let's look at some basic stats -- and I mean basic, even-an-old-sportswriter-gets-them stats -- along with one category that's just a tiny smidge past basic...
Wins Losses WinPct ERA ERA+ Sutton 324 256 .559 3.26 108 Ryan 324 292 .526 3.19 111 Blyleven 287 250 .534 3.31 118
Those 324 wins are awfully impressive, and certainly more than 287. But did you notice those next two columns, with the losses and the winning percentages? Because he lost many fewer games than Ryan, Blyleven's actually got the better winning percentage.
Considering the vagaries of ERA, theirs are virtually indistinguishable. Look at that last column, though . . . ERA+ is sort of an adjusted ERA, taking into account the twin contexts of league and home ballpark, with 100 representing an average performance, ERA-wise. And the best of this group? Bert Blyleven, and it's not really close. Considering the closeness of their career records and their actual ERA's, I think any reasonable person would have to admit that if Sutton and Ryan were great pitchers and I --can think, without trying real hard, of an organization that's decided exactly that -- then Blyleven must have been great, too. Not just great, but as great.
Let's forget Nolan Ryan for a moment, and focus on Don Sutton. Ryan gets extra credit for all the no-hitters and the ability to throw 100 miles an hour and the inability to know where his next pitch might go. Sutton, though, gets no extra credit. Ask a fan what distinguishes Don Sutton, and he'll probably say something about curly gray hair. Sutton is considered a great pitcher for one reason, and one reason only: cold, hard numbers.
So let's look at some numbers, shall we?
Yes, Sutton did win thirty-seven more games than Bert Blyleven. That's a significant number, too. But as a friend likes to point out, pitchers don't win games; teams win games. The cold, hard fact is that Sutton pitched for better teams than Blyleven did, and thus was better-supported by his teammates. Does anybody really want to argue that if their positions had been reversed throughout their careers -- that if Blyleven, for example, had spent most of his career pitching for the Dodgers -- their career records wouldn't be reversed, too?
Forget the Farmers' Museum. I'll never travel north on Route 80, because when I go to Cooperstown it's to see the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, right now the Hall of Fame is seriously deficient, because it still does not contain a plaque containing the semi-likeness of Bert Blyleven. And this continuing sorry state of affairs is a testament to the stubbornness of the voters who can't see past their own prejudices.
Rob Neyer is a senior writer for ESPN Insider and the author of several baseball books. This essay is a revised version of one that initially appeared in Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups (Scribner, 2003).
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
The Hall of Fame Case for Bert Blyleven
Beginning today, it's Bert Blyleven for Hall of Fame Week at the Baseball Analysts. We have a killer lineup, including Rob Neyer on Tuesday, Dayn Perry on Wednesday, and Jeff Peek on Thursday.
I'm going to be candid about the motive behind this special feature right from the outset. The purpose is none other than to raise the awareness of Blyleven's qualifications for the Hall of Fame prior to the time when most of the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America cast their ballots.
The good news is that Bert's vote total has increased every year since 1999, and it appears to be picking up steam. The bad news is that he is still well short of the 75% needed for enshrinement.
Year Votes Pct 1998 83 17.55 1999 70 14.08 2000 87 17.43 2001 121 23.50 2002 124 26.27 2003 145 29.23 2004 179 35.38 2005 211 40.89
This year marks the ninth time that Blyleven has been on the ballot. Fifteen players have been elected since Bert's first year. Twelve position players and three pitchers. In other words, only 20% of the honorees during the past eight years have been pitchers, despite the fact that pitching is widely considered to be about 35% of the game. Moreover, no starting pitcher has gained election since 1999 when Nolan Ryan was inducted with a near-record 98.8% of the votes.
The writers are instructed that "voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." I'm not the one to judge integrity, sportsmanship, and character, but the Hall of Fame case for Blyleven based on his playing record and the contributions to his teams is indisputable.
Now that I have made my way up to the top of the mountain and cupped my hands around my mouth, I will shout out the following:
Since 1900, Bert Blyleven ranks 5th in career strikeouts, 8th in shutouts, and 17th in wins.
There are only eight pitchers who rank in the top 20 in wins, shutouts, and strikeouts. Here is the list:
Wins SO SHO Bert Blyleven 17th 5th 8th Steve Carlton 6th 4th 13th Ferguson Jenkins 19th 11th 17th Walter Johnson 1st 9th 1st Gaylord Perry 12th 8th 14th Nolan Ryan 8th 1st 6th Tom Seaver 13th 6th 6th Don Sutton 8th 7th 9th
Ryan is the only pitcher who ranks higher than Blyleven in all three categories. That's right, there is only one pitcher in the history of baseball who has more wins, strikeouts, and shutouts than Blyleven. There are thousands of pitchers who rank below Blyleven in these three important measures, including tens of Hall of Famers and a half dozen -- Jim Bunning, Bob Gibson, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Juan Marichal, and Jim Palmer -- who had overlapping careers.
Blyleven ranks in the middle of these six pitchers in ERA+ (the ratio of the league's ERA to that of the pitcher, adjusted for the effects of the home ballpark). The calculation is as follows: lgERA divided by ERA, where > 100 is above average and < 100 is below average.
ERA+ Bob Gibson 127 Jim Palmer 125 Juan Marichal 122 Bert Blyleven 118 Ferguson Jenkins 115 Jim Bunning 114 Catfish Hunter 104
As detailed, Blyleven's career totals exceed all of the pitchers in the table above and his Adjusted ERA is better than Jenkins, Bunning, and Hunter. But let's not stop with this group of pitchers. Bert's stats, in fact, are indistinguishable from the eight most similar pitchers who have already been given their day in upstate New York:
Don Sutton (914) *
* - Signifies Hall of Famer
IP H ER BB SO HR ERA ERA+ Blyleven 4970 4632 1830 1322 3701 430 3.31 118 Group Average 4974 4541 1800 1429 3263 434 3.26 115
Blyleven's counting stats and ERA/ERA+ are almost identical to the average of these eight pitchers across the board. However, his rate stats for the three areas most controlled by the pitcher are slightly better than this exclusive group.
BB/9 SO/9 HR/9 Blyleven 2.39 6.70 0.78 Group Average 2.59 5.90 0.79
As we have all been taught along the way, "with privileges come responsibilities." Those writers who have been entrusted to vote for the Hall of Fame need to take the time to examine Blyleven's credentials. I have read and heard many convincing cases over the years "FOR" Blyleven and am still waiting for someone to present a strong case "AGAINST" him. Oh, sure, I know about those critics who claim that "Blyleven didn't win a Cy Young Award or finish in the top ten often enough" or "Blyleven wasn't a dominant pitcher in his era" or "Blyleven was no better than Tommy John or Jim Kaat and neither of them are in the Hall of Fame."
Well, I've got responses for all three in Bert Blyleven For Hall of Fame: Answering the Naysayers. I urge all voters who have yet to mark an "x" next to Blyleven's name and those who are sitting on the fence to read that column as well as Only the Lonely: The Hall of Fame Trials and Tribulations of Bert Blyleven. If these articles don't do the job, I can only say that I wish you success in booting out of Cooperstown every player not named Aaron, Alexander, Cobb, DiMaggio, Gehrig, Grove, Hornsby, Johnson, Mantle, Mathewson, Mays, Musial, Schmidt, Speaker, Wagner, and Williams because your Hall of Fame is a lot smaller than mine.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Primer.]
Rule 5 Draft Review
While the Rule 5 draft had been drawing more and more attention the last few years, this year's crop was decidedly weak. we knew the draft turnout wouldn't be great, and in the end, it was even less than that, with only 10 teams making 12 selections.
Each year, only about 25% of the players drafted in the Rule 5 make it through the year. What separates them from the rest of the pack varies, but it's definitely helpful to be on a team that has nothing to lose, and about 70 wins to gain. Here's a quick look at the 12 players drafted, along with the percent shot that they stay with their new organization for all of the 2006 season...
1. Texas Rangers -- Fabio Castro (CHW/A+) -- LHP: 2.28, 58/79, 75/37
This pick originally belonged to the Kansas City Royals, who opted out of the selection despite such success last year. Instead, they traded their pick to the Rangers in exchange for future bench player Esteban German. The Rangers got Fabio Castro, who I should have noted on my Rule 5 preview.
In Castro, the Rangers landed someone who best fits in the Buddy Hernandez Group. It would be a waste to limit Castro to left-handed pitching, but he likely does not have the stuff or endurance to belong in Johan Santana category. So, Fabio should end up pitching in middle relief for the Rangers, where pitching from the left side will only help. What's interesting is that I've heard conflicting reports on Castro's stuff. What's confirmed is a low-90s fastball with good movement that is his bread and butter.
What's debated, and will determine whether Castro returns to the World Champs or not, is the secondary offerings that Castro possesses. Baseball America noted in their Rule 5 review that Castro had a good changeup. What they didn't mention, however, was the fantastic curveball that futuresox.com noted before the 2005 season. If Castro has both pitches in his arsenal, he should last on a Major League roster. If not, it's more of a stretch.
Chance of Lasting: 40%. His strikeout numbers weren't great in high-A, and some high home run numbers won't improve in Dallas. He will likely have to beat out Erasmo Ramirez in Spring Training before even talking about his Major League stats. Not especially likely, but the Rangers certainly saw something here.
2. Colorado Rockies -- Luis Gonzalez (LAD/AA,AAA) -- LHP: 3.18, 48/70.2, 56/45
On a day in which the Rockies traded last year's Rule 5 pick, Marcos Carvajal, they made their second straight attempt at acquiring a LOOGY. This time around they went back to the Dodgers, and got Gonzalez, who like Castro, had far better H/9 numbers than those for strikeouts.
Gonzalez tends to keep the ball on the ground, and allowed just 4 home runs in 2005. Those two things will help when moving to the high altitude of Coors Field. However, Gonzalez must learn to better harness his fastball, which is erratic, and caused serious control problems in 2005.
As a team, the Rockies pitching staff allowed left-handed batters to hit .295/.378/.460 in 2005. Many of the clubs top performers against LH (including Carvajal), save Brian Fuentes, are no longer in the Rockie organization. The team has brought Jamie Cerda in to help neutralize left-handers, but there is no reason not to spend $50,000 on insurance. Not a lot of upside in this pick, but he could fit a role.
Chance of Lasting: 25%. If the guy had such troubles in AAA, at the hitter-friendly Las Vegas, what is going to happen in Coors?
3. San Diego Padres -- Steve Andrade (TOR/AA) -- RHP: 1.97, 23/50.1, 71/16
Of all the players that I did not include in my preview, I'm most upset about Andrade. I'm not sure Davis Romero wouldn't have been a better pick, but it's hard to beat Andrade's numbers. His season was relatively short, but when he pitched, he was among the Eastern League's toughest pitchers. And, New Hampshire isn't the easiest environment, so Andrade belonged in this draft.
With that being said, shame on the Devil Rays for not hanging onto this pick. The Padres were the team with the most 40-man roster space, so this is a risk they can take. This risk is trusting a spreadsheet rather than a scouting report. Andrade has never been one to impress the scouts, with nothing more than a high-80s fastball and two average breaking pitches. But he's smart, and has rarely had trouble getting guys out.
Chance of Lasting: 50%. The Padres bullpen will have a lot of competition, and Andrade will probably be 'battling' the likes of Dewon Brazelton and Chris Oxspring. I think he'll start on the team, I'm just not convinced he can last.
4. Pittsburgh Pirates -- Victor Santos (MIL/MLB) -- RHP: 4.57, 153/141.2, 89/60
An interesting pick, and the first of what seems to be a growing trend in the Rule 5 Draft. A few years ago, veteran Andy Fox was chosen after he had signed a minor league deal with a different team. Before the Rule 5 draft, the Kansas City Royals had signed Santos to a minor league deal after he had left the Brewers.
What the Pirates plan to use Santos on is a question I have. The team traded Mark Redman at the Winter Meetings, but even after losing him, the team still has a loaded rotation. However, Santos hasn't been effective in a relief role since 2001, his rookie season with the Texas Rangers.
Santos pitched far worse in 2005 than in 2004, despite having a better ERA. His K/9 decreased while his walks increased, yet it appears that Santos may have developed a certain veteran mentality for pitching under Mike Maddux. Santos has a wide arsenal under his belt, but really throws only one plus pitch: a big-breaking overhand curveball. It's interesting to note that for four seasons now, Santos has been worse against right-handed hitters by a 10-15% margin.
Chance of Lasting: 60%. On a young team looking to solve their problems cheaply, the Pirates can afford a league-average ERA out of whatever role they give him.
5. Detroit Tigers -- Chris Booker (CIN/AAA) -- RHP: 2.49, 45/65, 91/28
Like Santos, this is another player that had been a minor league free agent prior to the draft. The Nats had picked up Booker, who finally thrived in a relief role, after his last season with the Cincinatti Reds. Booker had pretty extraordinary numbers last year, and looked as if he could me a minor league free agent steal by Jim Bowden.
Not so fast, says Dave Dambrowski, with a pick that almost reminds me of one-time choice Chris Spurling. While Comerica Park is hardly a hitter's park, it appears that RFK might be the better fit for Booker, who had a really-low 0.45 G/F ratio last season. His home run numbers are down, a good sign, but those numbers are bound to change from year-to-year.
Chance of Lasting: 55%. Same as Andrade, but with a little push because the Tigers are the worse team and Booker has better stuff. However, inconsistency has been a staple of Booker's career, so there is no reason to use pen on your depth charts with this guy quite yet.
6. San Diego Padres -- Seth Etherton (OAK/AAA) -- RHP: 2.72, 93/112.1, 99/30
Man, I'm going to have to start a new rule next season. This is the third straight player who was a minor league free agent turned Rule 5 pick, and the second in which the Royals lost. Etherton is also, like Booker, an extreme flyball pitcher, with a 0.46 G/F ratio in 2005. However, that will play in PETCO Park, where flyballs generally go to die.
I would need convincing that Etherton is a better pick than Davis Romero, someone who would fill the same role for a club. While Etherton might be a bit closer to the Majors, Romero makes up for that difference in stuff, and has a better track record. Did the Padres just go with Etherton because of his age?
Chance of Lasting: 25%. I really don't see this one happening, unless Clay Hensley gets hurt, or something of the like.
7. New York Mets -- Mitch Wylie (SF/AAA) -- RHP: 4.50, 68/66, 58/15
This is the first selection that left me really, really scratching my head. Wylie is pretty much a mediocre AAA pitcher at this point, and at 28, he's not getting better anytime soon. The Mets were apparently interested in someone versatile for their bullpen, and probably liked the good control that Wylie brought to the table.
Still, there were about 5-10 relievers that I would have drafted prior to Wylie, who the Mets say is a sinker/slider pitcher. It's unlikely that any team from New York is going to keep a Rule 5 reliever on their roster for all season. It's even more unlikely when the pitcher is as middle-of-the-road as Mitch Wylie.
Chance of Lasting: 1%. Not going to happen.
8. Florida Marlins -- Dan Uggla (AZ/AA) -- 2B: .297/.378/.502 in 498 AB
Really just a match made in heaven. After trading Luis Castillo for two pitchers last week, the Marlins don't have a lot of options for second base. It was rumored that some of their minor league shortstops -- Josh Wilson and/or Robert Andino -- would be changing positions, but it's not even clear if either player is ready. So, that likely will leave Uggla battling with Alfredo Amezaga for the job.
If true, I actually like Uggla's chances. He's hardly as fast as Amezaga, and it's likely that he won't provide such good defense. But his true strength is his bat, which was one of the best in the hitter-friendly Southern League last season. Having an ISO of .205 in that league is a difficult talk, so I see little reason that Uggla can't put up a .260/.320/.410 line in a full season of the Majors. Given what the Marlins will be trotting out there on April 1, you can bet I'm in.
Chance of Lasting: 80%. The Marlins need a second baseman, and could afford giving Uggla the part-time job.
9. Minnesota Twins -- Jason Pridie (TB/AA) -- OF: .213/.275/.394 in 94 AB
At first, I completely disregarded this pick, called Terry Ryan an idiot, and moved on. But going over this Minnesota roster, I'm not so sure Pridie is a horrible chice. In the outfield next year, the Twins will likely have Shannon Stewart in left, Torii Hunter in center and Lew Ford in right field. After that, there isn't a considerable amount of back-up.
Pridie didn't play very much in 2005, so his numbers are extremely low. His contact skills were never great to begin with, and his batting average seems to overshadow a bat that probably has some pop. He also is a good baserunner, and pretty defensively fantastic in the outfield. On a team that isn't really filled with depth, and looking to spend their money elsewhere, Pridie could be a decent pick-up.
Chance of Lasting: 35%. How bad does Terry Ryan want a Proven Veteran in the 4th OF spot?
10. Boston Red Sox -- Jamie Vermilyea (TOR/AA,AAA) -- RHP: 3.65, 116/101, 76/27
The back end of the Sox bullpen sounds pretty good, so it didn't make a lot of sense for the team to draft players like Bob Zimmermann and Billy Sadler, one-inning right-handers. Instead, they get Vermilyea, a groundball pitcher that had a good year between the Eastern and International Leagues.
Whether he fits into the situation or not in Boston, I'm not sure. I would doubt it, given how full the bullpen is right now, especially just to check. Also, if the team managed to keep Jamie, it would be a double victory, as they would also be taking him out of the rival's roster. A good pick in this situation, but again, is Vermilyea a better pitcher than Davis Romero?
Chance of Lasting: 15%. I know that Adam Stern did it last year, but really, Vermilyea's numbers aren't good enough to project a full season from.
11. St. Louis Cardinals -- Juan Mateo (CHC/A+) -- RHP: 3.21, 99/109.1, 123/27
Talk about stealing a player from your rivals, I'm guessing the Cubs were blindsided by this choice, as I did not see Juan Mateo on a single radar. Looks like a mistake from the numbers, as not one of those peripherals is bad; Mateo looks like quite the player. He's inexperienced, of course, and probably only fits in on a Cardinal team that, of course, has been sitting on their hands for most of the winter.
Still, I have a hard time believing the Cards can keep anyone on their roster for an entire season that has yet to reach AA. Mateo is in for a big test next year, and I'm not talking about Big League camp...at Double-A. Mateo would have been a better pick from a worse team, but with the Cards, I'm ambivalent about the selection. He won't last, but he's almost worth the $50,000 just to bring to camp.
Chance of Lasting: 40%. A decent chance, given the young arm, but still far from being really helpful.
12. Florida Marlins -- Mike Megrew (LAD/INJ) -- LHP: Injured
If Megrew had not gotten injured a year ago, forcing surgery, he would have been included at the back end of my top 75 prospects. I actually wrote him onto the list, and boasted about the potential he had being a southpaw with such good indicators. The injury will, without question, set Megrew back, making it quite hard to have him adjust on the fly at the Major League level.
The kid's stuff was never particularly good, so who is to say what it will be like now. The Dodgers had to actually shut Megrew down in the Instructional League, though that could have been to save face more than anything else. What the Marlins are really hoping for is that Megrew stays injured, starts the season on the 60-man DL, gets off and gets some rehab time in the minors. A lot of potential in this pick, it's just hard to think that potential will be cashed in.
Chance of Lasting:25%. The chance isn't very much better than Luke Hagerty last year, but the effort is a noble one.
And after just 12 picks, the 2005 Rule 5 draft ended, mostly due to 30 near-full 40-man rosters. This year's group wasn't the greatest class ever, and I guess that only about two players will make it through the season unscathed. Hopefully, the Marlins will give a shot to Dan Uggla, who despite being short, deserves a chance to prove that his bat is for real.
That's what the Rule 5 draft is all about, finding that one diamond in the rough that can start for your team and show some serious upside. But after looking over Thursday's group, all I can say is that for that diamond in the rough, we'll probably have to Wait 'Til Next Year.
Fact or Fiction?
This offseason has been characterized as much by the moves the St. Louis Cardinals haven't made as the moves the San Diego Padres have made. It's a fact that the Padres have been busier than rush hour on the Interstate 5, and it's fiction to think that the Cardinals have done anything other than auction off a bunch of player lockers and urinals from old Busch Stadium.
San Diego got things started last month when they traded Brian Lawrence for Vinny Castilla, and the Padres have remained active ever since. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have been left standing at the altar on more than one occasion.
It's a fact that baseball is awash in money. Teams that understand the sport's new economics are putting this fresh cash to work. Teams that are living in the past are simply hoarding the proceeds from record attendance and new revenue streams. It's not fiction to think there will be errors of omission and commission along the way. As always, throwing money around in an undisciplined manner will prove to be wasteful down the road. But doing little or nothing could be as detrimental in its own way.
Now I'm not one to advocate building a ballclub through free agency. Far from it. I believe in organic growth. It's not only cheaper, but it's more of a sure thing. A team has more control over its destiny by investing in scouting, the draft, and the farm system than relying on expensive trades and high-priced free agents. It's much better to buy at wholesale and sell at retail than vice versa. However, I think there is a time and a place when an organization needs to step up and go get that missing piece of the puzzle.
With the foregoing in mind, I don't find what the Toronto Blue Jays did in signing B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett as objectionable as the purists. It wouldn't make any sense to sign one without the other. I mean, if you're going to go for it, then go for it. No use getting caught up a creek without a paddle (or an ace reliever).
As I pointed out ten days ago, Toronto was "one of five teams with winning records in five-plus run differentials and losing records in one-run games." Interestingly, the other four teams were the Cleveland Indians in the American League and the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, and Cardinals in the National League. I'll ask the same question I did before: "Does it make a little bit more sense why TOR, PHI, and the NYM are being so aggressive this winter?" Even the Indians have been active, signing Paul Byrd and, after just missing out on Trevor Hoffman, re-signing Bob Wickman.
The Cardinals? Well, what can I say? Brian Gunn, Redbird Nation writer/analyst and fan extraordinaire, agreed to share an email he sent to me immediately upon hearing that the Cardinals lost out on the Burnett sweepstakes:
Looks like the Jays did indeed get him. Apparently Cards ownership just wouldn't go that extra mile. Damn. Damn. The Cards didn't get (Brian) Giles, they didn't get Burnett, they have no farm system to deal from, they have no farm system from which to find replacements, they didn't get in on the Marlins' fire sale, and they have holes at second, left, right, and in their bullpen. Looks like the end of an era to me...
Given the soaring cost of relief pitchers and the price of entry for "middle of the road" starters, I believe the Blue Jays made out just fine with Burnett. In our Free Agent Preview, we called Burnett the "best starting pitcher among this year's free agent class" and predicted that he would sign for four years and $48 million. We were close. Look, if I'm J.P. Ricciardi (what is it with those initials in Toronto?), I would have no problem giving Burnett an extra $7M for that fifth year. Sure, I'd rather go 4/$44 than 5/$55 but that wasn't gonna get the job done. Just go ask the Cardinals for confirmation on that very fact.
I was about as sickened at Jocketty's failure to land (Luis) Castillo or Loretta as anything I've heard in a long while. Here are the additional revenue streams the Cards have drawn on recently:
Getting back to the Padres. . .Although I don't understand the thinking behind the Castilla deal or trading Loretta for a 35-year-old backup catcher, I wholly endorse the Giles and Hoffman signings. If anything, the Friars lucked out here. Giles and Hoffman accepted significant discounts to stay at home. Both players live in San Diego and have young kids that they didn't want to uproot. I give both of them a high five for placing quality of life over signing for top dollar. I think more players should use their free agency in this manner.
Here's one for you. Fact or fiction? The Padres trade Sean Burroughs for Adrian Beltre. Fiction. However, it was almost a fact. In March 2004, Dodger GM Paul DePodesta offered Beltre to the Padres for Burroughs. D'oh! Kevin Towers turned him down. Double d'oh! Beltre went on to hit .334 with 48 HR and 121 RBI for the Dodgers in his free agent year, then signed a five-year, $64 million contract with the Seattle Mariners.
Burroughs hit .281/.338/.342 with 3 HR in 223 games and 807 AB during 2004-05. The ninth overall pick in the 1998 amateur draft, who signed with the Padres on the first day of the fall semester at USC, never developed the power he displayed in Little League through his years at Long Beach Wilson High School. He tore up A-ball in his first year as a pro (.359/.464/.479) and was named by Baseball Prospectus as the #4 prospect in 2000, #2 in 2001, and #3 in 2003.
Well, BP's "Prospect of the Decade" was traded on Wednesday for Tampa Bay right-hander Dewon Brazelton, the third overall pick of the 2001 draft. Brazelton has fashioned a career won-loss record of 8-23 with a 5.98 ERA, while allowing more hits than innings and more walks than strikeouts. If there is a lesson to be learned here, it's this: trading highly coveted prospects for proven major leaguers prior to their free agency years is a strategy that shouldn't be dismissed.
Just as emerging growth stocks get overvalued from time to time, so do young baseball players. Portfolio managers and general managers alike should be quick to sell when the price exceeds value. And that's a fact!
Winter Meeting Notes
A few news and notes in the heart of the busiest week for hot stove action of the year...
According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, the Marlins are close to trading yet another player in Juan Pierre, this time to the Chicago Cubs. The speedy leadoff hitter will reportedly bring three young pitchers in to the Marlin organization: Sergio Mitre, Renyel Pinto, and Ricky Nolasco.
Before talking about the prospects involved, and the state of the loaded Marlins farm system, I want to talk about my Chicago Cubs. It now seems that the team was really counting on Furcal to sign, and has been in reeling-mode ever since. However, that is not to say that I don't like Juan Pierre, who should bounce back after having the worst season of his career. He should also provide to be a nice stop-gap for Felix Pie, who could use a season playing in Des Moines.
What's next for the Cubs, now that the bullpen and leadoff spot are off the radar? Look for the team to zero in on a right field option soon, hoping to find a #5 hitter after Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez. Austin Kearns looks to be the best of the bunch, especially if Jim Hendry could put together a package involving Jerome Williams (and maybe Ryan Harvey?). Other than that, I'm not opposed to Milton Bradley, who sounds poised to thrive under Dusty Baker. However, the Cubs might as well wait until December 20, when Bradley will be released, to step up their right field efforts.
As far as shortstop goes, Ronny Cedeno is fine with me, as long as he receives far more playing time than Neifi Perez. Cedeno would go straight to eighth in the batting order, but given the seven players in front of him, offense won't really be a concern. Instead, the team will focus on getting great defense from two of their four infield spots.
This new haul of Marlins minor leaguers is their weakest yet, but also their deepest. None of these players would grade above a straight B, but none would be lower than a B-. Pinto and Nolasco both pitched well in AA, however, it was their second time around. Pinto has control problems, and has stalled in now two attempts at AAA. I've compared him to a young Arthur Rhodes before, and like Rhodes, I think Pinto will thrive when moving to the bullpen.
The same could be true with Nolasco, though he has a bit more chance of succeeding in a starting role. Nolasco's groundball numbers were done last season while his strikeout numbers were up, oftentimes indicating an advancement in stuff. Like Pinto, Nolasco needs to prove it in AAA, but is on a similar timetable to Josh Johnson, the rich man's Nolasco. Mitre is not likely to be a starter for long with the Marlins, but he will begin in that role. Mitre will join Dontrelle Willis and Jason Vargas as the only certainties for such a spot.
None of these players would break the Marlins top ten, which after trading Paul Lo Duca, Carlos Delgado, Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, Josh Beckett, and now Pierre, is among the most loaded in the game. Give Larry Beinfest credit...the man knows how to blow things up. Here's a look at the Marlins ten best prospects (subject to change):
The Marlins might not win a lot of games in the next two years, but they will compete with their in-state "rivals" for being the most sub-.500 team to watch.
From a good system to a bad one. Last week, I worried that Omar Minaya's wheeling and dealing would start to really hurt the Mets farm system. In fact, given how often they lose their first round pick, I was worried the system would become temporarily irreparable. It wasn't the Delgado trade to push me to such assumptions -- I loved that trade for the Mets -- it was the rumors that were following it.
A few days after I wrote the article, Minaya unfortunately proved me right. The Mets General Manager traded two prospects (one to be named later), including top pitching prospect Gaby Hernandez, for the services of Paul Lo Duca. There are arguments for the move: that Molina/Hernandez would have cost more, that they would have had another year on the payroll, that they would have cost a draft pick.
However, I would have signed Molina or Hernandez. Or, better yet, try and trade for some of the catching that is available, in ways that don't cost you a top pitching prospect. There is no question that Hernandez has flaws, that his G/F rate is too low, that sooner or later, he will start to allow home runs. Maybe when he reaches more advanced levels, as he hinted last year, his effectiveness will drop off. But he's the best the Mets had left, so they owed themselves the right to find out.
Using the farm system as a trading device is not a horrible idea. Purging the system, and for players like Lo Duca, is a bad one.
As I write this article, Minaya is apparently close to yet another trade. But don't worry Mets fans, this time it isn't for prospects. Instead, the Mets are on the verge of trading Kris (and Anna) Benson to the big name-starved Kansas City Royals. In return, the Royals trade from the one area they have depth that the Mets lack: the bullpen.
If this deal is completed, the Mets will have landed two pieces of their 2006 bullpen in Jeremy Affeldt and Mike MacDougal. People have been predicting Affeldt to turn the corner for years, and will likely continue to do so now that Affeldt will be paired up with Rick Peterson. MacDougal has been solid in two of the last three seasons, and is now entering what should be the prime of his career.
Adding two players, as well as another in the next few days, create question marks regarding Aaron Heilman. The former Fighting Irish had his Ryan Madson-like breakout season last year in a set-up role. Does this trade mean that Heilman will take Benson's place in the rotation? Or, does it mean that he is on the trade block, either for a starter (Javier Vazquez?) or the outfielder (Manny Ramirez)?
As for the Royals, the loss of Affeldt and MacDougal, as well as the addition of Benson, won't do a lot to change their long-term plans. Benson faces the challenge of improving upon Jose Lima's 2005 numbers, a task that most Rule 5 eligibles, much less Benson, could achieve. He'll join Runelvys Hernandez and Zack Greinke in the starting rotation. The rest is pretty much impossible to forecast at this point.
Losing two players out of the bullpen will actually be OK. Andy Sisco and Ambiorix Burgos will be at the end of games, joined by Mike Wood, who pitched well in a relief role. Kyle Snyder deserves a spot, and rumor has it that Denny Bautista might even begin in the bullpen. Throw in an improved Leo Nunez and a Rule 5 pick, and the bullpen won't hurt the Royals chances of winning 63 games.
A move that makes sense for both teams? Could I actually be writing that for two transactions in a row? Quite possibly, assuming rumors that Sean Burroughs is headed to Tampa Bay for Dewon Brazelton are true. If so, this is a classic case of trying to rid two talented players of their environments, hoping that a move across the country, and across leagues, will help.
Both players did not receive much playing time in the Majors this season, spending more time in AAA. Actually, Brazelton never pitched for Tampa, and was hurt for much of the season, making only five starts for Durham. However, the former top-five pick could succeed in spacious PETCO Park, which would fit his flyball tendencies well. It's unlikely at this point that Brazelton could be anything more than a relief pitcher, both as that would help his stuff and minimize his control problems.
As for Burroughs, I'm not sure he'll ever succeed in anything but a bench role. Learning second base was a good idea for the former Little League World Series hero, as creating a utility infielding career would be a good idea. The other possibility is that the Devil Rays are planning to platoon Burroughs with Andy Marte, who could come over for Julio Lugo. Either way, it's likely that Burroughs won't ever do much to help the Devil Rays.
However, this was not a bad move for either team, as return expectations will be very low on both sides. Can a change in scenery turn water into wine...or at least useful spare parts?
One place where that happens a couple times a year is the waiver wire. About two weeks ago, the Brewers made a waiver wire acquisition that I would like to point out. Since Doug Melvin has had so much success on the waiver wire, it's definitely worth mentioning.
In the 1998 draft, Zach Sorensen was a second round choice from the prestigious Wichita State University program. He spent seven seasons in the Cleveland organization, moving to the Angels during the 2004 season. In 2004 and 2005 combined, Sorensen played 173 games with Salt Lake, amassing 646 at-bats. During that time, he hit .307/.378/.393, stealing 43 bases in 57 attemps, and striking out 103 times.
Sorensen provides everything a useful bench player should. He makes a good amount of contact, and better yet, he switch-hits, so he'll make contact in any game situation. He can also run, providing the ability to pinch run. Finally, he's quite versatile, with the ability to play up the middle well, including the outfield. He doesn't have enough power to ever become a full-time player, but if Jose Macias can have a career, Sorensen should be able to do the same.
That's all for now. Rich will be back tomorrow with more notes, picking up everything that I missed. Leave any hot stove thoughts below.
Rule 5 Draft Preview
A day into the Winter Meetings, it's time to preview the end. Annually, on the last day of this "Winter Wonderland," the Rule 5 Draft is held. The Major League portion tends to generate a bit of interest, as each year, anywhere from ten to thirty former minor league players get their shot.
Need a review on what exactly the Rule 5 Draft is? For that, I go to Rob Neyer and his fantastic transaction primer:
A player not on a team's Major League 40-man roster is eligible for the Rule 5 draft if: the player was 18 or younger when he first signed a pro contract and this is the fourth Rule 5 draft since he signed, OR if he was 19 or older when he first signed a pro contract and this is the third Rule 5 draft since he signed.
Of the players drafted each year, no more than five are likely to stay on a roster the entire year. However, this draft is so intriguing because of those that slip through the cracks. It's a time when a front office is completely accountable for their 40-man roster decisions.
In the past, I have seen seven types of players given a chance on draft day. I will go through those groups below, with the success stories (or at least who I have deemed the group leader), and we will use that to preview which players could be called upon on Thursday.
1. Scott Sauerbeck Group -- Given to southpaws who have little business being on a roster except for one remarkable skill, their ability to retire left-handed batters. If they do their job well, LOOGYs have a high chance of staying on a roster, especially on a small market team that could find better ways to spend one million dollars than Mike Myers.
Named after: With the seventh choice in the 1998 Rule 5 Draft, as far as these records go back, the Pittsburgh Pirates nabbed Sauerbeck from the New York Mets. Interestingly enough, Sauerbeck had been a starter in the Mets organization, but it's likely that the Pirates scouting staff saw something that no one else did. After posting a 3.93 in 160.1 International League innings, Sauerbeck's 1999 numbers with Pittsburgh were sparkling: 53 hits allowed, 2.00 ERA in 67.2 innings. He has yet to abandon the LOOGY role in the Majors, and will likely pitch in his 500th Major League game before the 2008 season.
Others: Steve Kent, Matt White, Javier Lopez, Frank Brooks, Tyler Johnson
2005 Group One Candidates
2. Jay Gibbons Group -- Simply put, all bat, no glove. These players can hit the tar out of the ball, and most of the time, will even offer a lot of walks to go with it. Their offensive numbers are probably high across the board, there is just one problem, positions don't really fit. Most scouts believe these players can't do much other than DH, which tends to scare away potential suitors.
Named after: Gibbons was chosen in the 14th round of the 1998 Amateur draft out of UCLA, where he had spent a college career being shadowed by Troy Glaus. He was quite dominant in the minor leagues, especially slugging .525 in the Southern League in 2000. The Toronto Blue Jays left him off the 40-man roster, and the Orioles picked him fourth in the draft. At worst, Gibbons makes a nice platoon bat, and has been able to get by in right field, and play well at first base.
Others: Chris Shelton, Jason Dubois, Travis Chapman
2005 Group Two Candidates
3. Johan Santana Group -- High risk, high reward. These players are often starters in the minor leagues, and are chosen because they can throw the ball fast. Actually, really fast. They will likely spend a year at the back end of some bullpen, working with a pitching coach who can try to put it all together. If it works, the team will have one of two things: a good starter, or a helluva reliever. Problem is getting it to work.
Named after: The most famous player to ever come through the Rule 5 Draft. The Minnesota Twins acquired the rights of Santana through the Florida Marlins, who chose him second in the 1999 Rule 5 Draft. Because of a loaded system, the Houston Astros didn't have room for Santana, who had spent the 1999 season in the Midwest League. His power left arm intrigued the Twins, who honed his skills delicately. At this moment, Santana has a good argument for being baseball's best pitcher.
Others: Andy Sisco, Angel Garcia, Jorge Sosa, Wil Ledezma, Derrick Turnbow
2005 Group Three Candidates
4. Endy Chavez Group -- Oh, look how they run! Fast! And they can play centerfield with good range! Most of the time, these players happen to show off these skills at the same time they have a high batting average. Teams believe they have their next great leadoff hitter, and spend a pick on the player, ready to stash him away as a fifth outfielder. In a time where defense is viewed as being really important, these players have value.
Named after: Really, when you hear the term 'fifth outfielder,' does anyone else immediately think of Chavez? He actually isn't a player that stuck the whole season, but I just think his name fits the best here. Chavez was taken right behind Gibbons in the 2000 Rule 5 draft, after hitting .298 with 38 steals in the Florida State League. His speed and left-handed bat obviously made the Royals hope he would become what Juan Pierre has. He was returned to the New York Mets after struggling in Kansas City, but subsequently traded back to the organization. He has now played in 436 Major League games, and has 55 career steals.
Others: Glen Barker, Wily Taveras, Rich Thompson, Tyrell Godwin
2005 Group Four Candidates
5. Felix Escalona Group -- Oftentimes, these players are quite similar to the Endy Chavez group, except one thing: they play the infield. In fact, most of the time, they play shortstop. Chosen because they are quick, the players are almost always quite raw. They can run fast, and -- despite being mistake-prone in the field -- show off good potential with the glove.
Named after: Another player that the Astros let "slip away." Well, OK, he has been that great, but he's the best this group has got, after now playing in four Major League seasons. Escalona was picked in the 2001 Rule 5 Draft, after hitting .289 with 46 steals in the South Atlantic League. The Devil Rays acquired him, not noting it was his sixth year in pro ball, and he had not played higher than low-A. He's becoming quite the little AAA veteran, and will undoubtedly never have a chance to raise his career OPS to above .600.
Others: Hector Luna, Luis Ugueto, Jose Morban, Enrique Cruz
2005 Group Five Candidates
6. Damian Rolls Group -- Not every player drafted needs to be raw, not every player needs to have a high ceiling. In fact, it's a good thought to try and spend $50,000 to acquire a 25th man bench player. I'm not specifying whether the person is an infielder or outfielder here, just that the player doesn't profile to be an everyday one. But, certain skills like versatility and switch-hitting are looked highly upon.
Named after: Like Escalona, a player the Devil Rays didn't draft, but they did acquire. Damian Rolls had once been a first-round pick in Los Angeles, but in four years, had just finished high-A. In the FSL, Rolls hit .297 with a .418 slugging, showing decent speed and good contact skills. And, he could play a few positions. Rolls played with the Devil Rays in five straight seasons from 2000-2004, playing about 14 positions during that time.
Others: Jason Grabowski, Adam Stern, Andy Fox
2005 Group Six Candidates
7. Buddy Hernandez Group -- Like the Rolls group, except for pitchers. They don't have a lot of potential, but they could fill a relief role nicely. They might be one-inning guys, they might be swing relievers, but somehow, they could fit into a bullpen. Most of the time these people will be right-handers, as the majority of your lefties belong in the Scott Sauerbeck group.
Named after: OK, so the guy has not made the Major Leagues. But, every December comes around, and people are calling for him to get drafted. He did, once, in 2002, but did not last with the San Diego Padres. Hernandez came to the Braves as an undrafted free agent in 2000, and since has pitched about 300 innings in the minors. In that time, he has allowed 219 hits, 11 home runs, struck out 375 batters, walked 114 and has had an ERA of 2.34. He'll never be more than a reliever, but he constantly has people convinced he could be a good one.
Others: D.J. Houlton, Colter Bean, Jeff Bennett, Luis Ayala, D.J. Carrasco
2005 Group Seven Candidates
That's all for today. If you find any other players worth noting, please mention them in the comments. I will be back with a notes column tomorrow, and will then review the Rule 5 Draft on Friday.
Last But Not Least: Pitching
The third part of The Bill James Handbook review is focused on the 2005 American and National League Pitching Leaders. I've always been more intrigued by pitching stats than hitting. Good hitters usually put up good numbers and are generally easy to spot. Good pitchers, on the other hand, don't always put up numbers that are so easily recognizable.
Case in point: Daniel Cabrera. (Hey, if I don't mention him at least once per month, I am no longer entitled to a 1% "finder's fee" on his future earnings.)
Cabrera posted a 10-13 W-L record with an ERA of 4.52 for the Baltimore Orioles in 2005. I know, pretty pedestrian. However, I will be shocked if he doesn't improve upon those numbers over the next couple of years, perhaps in a material way. Why? Well, let's take a look at a combination of his stuff (37 pitches over 100 mph, #1 in baseball) and his advanced performance metrics (8.76 K/9, 1.73 G/F, and a .174/.257/.221 line vs. RHB). 'Nuff said. Show me a guy who throws hard, whiffs batters, and induces ground balls, and I will tell you about a potential future Cy Young candidate. Did I mention that Leo Mazzone will be Baltimore's pitching coach next year?
The first pages I look for when I get my new Handbook each year are those with the best and worst average fastballs; number of pitches reaching 100+ and 95+ mph; number of pitches less than 80; lowest and highest percentage of fastballs; and the highest percentage of curveballs, sliders, and changeups. I don't know where this information can be found anywhere else. I'm only hoping that the folks at Baseball Info Solutions will make this data standard for all pitchers in the near future.
Based on the average speed of fastballs, A.J. Burnett (95.6 mph) was the hardest-throwing pitcher in the majors last year. C.C. Sabathia (94.7) was number one in the AL. Billy Wagner led the NL with 18 pitches over 100 mph. Burnett was second with 17. No other pitcher had more than three. Kyle Farnsworth hit triple digits 14 times, Seth McClung 11x, and Bobby Jenks 10x while facing just 168 batters.
Which pitchers threw the slowest fastballs? Tim Wakefield (76.1), Jamie Moyer (81.8), Brian Lawrence (83.3), Greg Maddux (84.3), and Mark Redman (84.4) were the only hurlers who had a mean (poor choice of words) fastball under 85. Not surprisingly, Wakefield only used his so-called fastball 11.9% of the time -- the lowest, by far, of any pitcher in the majors. Moyer was second at 40.1%.
Attention Boston Red Sox fans: Josh Beckett had the second-fastest heater in the NL (93.5 mph), while throwing 3 pitches in triple digits (3rd in the league) and 442 more at 95 or above (4th). He also has one of the best curveballs as witnessed by the fact that he led MLB in allowing the lowest batting average plus slugging (BPS) on benders, and a pretty good changeup to boot (ninth lowest BPS). Stuff, performance, youth, and World Series experience all neatly wrapped up for the next couple of years at prices well below market. My kind of pitcher.
I gotta spend a minute on Pedro Martinez. Here is a guy who ranked in the top ten in the NL in Opponent BPS vs. fastballs, curveballs, and changeups. No other pitcher can make that claim. Pedro may not throw as hard as he did five or ten years ago, but he remains one of the toughest pitchers around. Martinez also extended his streak of fashioning a component ERA (ERC) -- a stat that estimates what a pitcher's ERA should have been based on his pitching performance -- equal to or lower than his actual ERA for the 12th consecutive season. His career ERA is 2.72 and his ERC is 2.34. Among active pitchers, he is number one in K/BB (4.32), H/9 (6.82), percentage of quality starts (70.7), and winning percentage (.701).
Much has already been said about Johan Santana not getting the respect he deserved for his outstanding pitching performance in 2005. At the risk of repeating myself and others, is it really possible that a pitcher led his league in opponent batting, on-base, and slugging average; hits and baserunners per 9; strikeouts and strikeouts per 9; quality starts; and highest average game score and not win the Cy Young Award? The winner must have smoked him in ERA, huh? Nope. The guy who led the league in everything was second in ERA (2.87), .01 away from the top. The winner? Well, he finished eighth (3.48) or more than a half-run behind our man Santana, who also happened to lead the league in ERC (2.14) by more than a full run over Mark Buehrle (3.21) and Mr. Cy Young himself, Bartolo Colon (3.28).
Johan's teammate Carlos Silva posted some very interesting numbers last year. I'm not even talking about the fact that he led the AL in K/BB (7.89) and was fifth in ERA (3.44) and fourth in BR per 9 (10.70). What I'm referring to is the fact that Silva was first in % of pitches in the strike zone (65.2), fewest pitches per batter (3.06), GIDP induced (35), GIDP/9 (1.67), and highest % fastballs (83.0). You don't even need to see Silva pitch to know what kind of hurler he is. Carlos throws a good, hard fastball and keeps it down in the zone. He doesn't fool around much with other pitches nor in trying to nibble. Instead, Joe Mauer just puts down his index finger and Silva comes right at you with his best pitch. Nothing fancy here. Just a lot of strikes and more batted balls on the ground than not.
There is much, much more among the 426 pages in The Bill James Handbook. Don't get left behind without your own copy. You won't regret it if you buy this book. Trust me on that.
A Baseball Fan's Perspective of The Big Game
The Big Game? I must be thinking in terms of the Yankees-Red Sox. Or the Dodgers-Giants. Or the Cardinals-Cubs. Right? Wrong. I'm talkin' football here. The college variety. And don't give me Army-Navy or Harvard-Yale, or even Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Oklahoma, or Alabama-Auburn. I don't want to hear about Cal-Stanford either. Any rivalry whose best game involves a band running onto the field during the final play while the other team is lateraling the ball five times like a rugby scrum doesn't qualify.
Although the University of Southern California and the University of Notre Dame football game is the greatest intersectional rivalry in any sport, the USC-UCLA annual matchup is the Big Game. The best one I ever witnessed was my first: 1967. The Bruins were ranked number one and the Trojans three. They were playing for the conference championship, the national championship, and the Rose Bowl. The teams also featured the top two players in the country -- Gary Beban, who won the Heisman Trophy, and O.J. Simpson, who finished second his junior year before winning the award the following season with the most total points ever.
USC beat UCLA, 21-20, on that sunny Saturday afternoon in November. Simpson ran for two touchdowns -- a 13-yarder that some coaches have dubbed the best run ever and a 64-yard gallop on third-and-eight in the fourth quarter that won the game -- and 6-foot-8 Bill Hayhoe blocked one field goal attempt by Zenon Andrusyshun and tipped a missed extra point, which turned out to be the margin of victory.
I liked Beban, and UCLA's powder-blue jerseys and metallic-gold helmets won me over in those days. I changed my allegiance prior to attending USC, but I have been hooked on the Big Game now for almost 40 years. I've been to most of these battles over the past four decades. Lots of great players, teams, and games. When Reggie Bush accepts the Heisman Trophy in New York on Monday, December 12, 2005, he will become the seventh Trojan to win the most prestigious award in sports since 1965 and the third in the past four years.
I had the good fortune yesterday of once again attending this crosstown titanic. It was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum, across the street from USC's campus. UCLA used to call the Coliseum home before moving to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Trojans like to say that we still own the Rose Bowl; we just rent it out to the Bruins from September-December each year.
This year's game may not have had the build-up of the 1967 classic, but it pitted #1-ranked USC and #11-ranked UCLA. The oddsmakers made the undefeated Trojans 21-point favorites with 74 as the over/under line. From this combination, one could deduce that SC was favored to win 48-27 or thereabouts. That score looked about right to me, as I figured it would be a shootout. It was a shootout all right, but the Bruins forgot to bring their weapons. The Trojans scored first and often in running up a 66-19 victory over the hapless Bruins.
Running up the score seems to be the operative phrase where Bruin fans are concerned. I was taken aback when I heard some chatter on a radio station as well as a message board or two. In response to Jon Weisman's Los Angeles Bruins of Pasadena at Los Angeles Trojans post Saturday morning, I left the first comment before making my way to the Coliseum. Upon returning home last night, I read the rest of the comments on Dodger Thoughts, including those that transpired during the game.
More than anything, I was bemused by the number of Bruin supporters who were complaining about Pete Carroll. You gotta love it when the fans of the losing team whine about the other team's tactics. Precious.
Going down the list here. . .Let's see, USC going for it on 4th-and-10 at the UCLA 32 with 9:24 to go in the third quarter was called into question by a reader. Don't mind that the Trojans have been doing this all year. C'mon, what are they supposed to do? Punt the ball into the endzone like UCLA did from the USC 35 in the first quarter and move the ball a net 12 yards? Go for a 49-yard field goal when kicker Mario Danelo hasn't made anything beyond 39 yards all year? Or maybe they should take a knee and turn the ball over to the poor Bruins, who were trailing 31-6 at that time?
This notion that you can't go for it on fourth down is one of the silliest pieces of so-called strategy ever concocted in football. The sport needs a Bill James (OK, Football Outsiders is trying) to show what you should and shouldn't do in game situations. Without ever performing such a study, I'm telling you right here that more teams should think in terms of going for it on fourth down in certain circumstances.
Moving on. . .A commenter noted that Carroll allowed Matt Leinart and John David Booty to throw the ball 24 times in the second half. Oh my gosh, what bad sportsmanship! Get real. Using a baseball analogy, I guess batters shouldn't try to get base hits by swinging in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings of a romp. Instead, they should just keep the bats on their shoulders and take all the pitches. Or maybe they should play pepper with the other team's pitcher. But they should never swing away and try to score more runs. No, because that would be considered "pouring it on."
Another commenter was upset that USC called a timeout in the fourth quarter. Boy, that's really Bush league, so to speak, huh? I mean, calling a timeout so Leinart -- the team's fifth-year senior QB, co-captain, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, a three-time All-American, and the leader of a team that has a chance to become the first to win three national championships in the history of college football -- could enjoy a standing ovation from the Trojan faithful and well wishes from his teammates in his final home appearance is a classless thing to do. Baseball analogy: letting a star player, who is about to retire, run out to field his position late in the game, then sending in a sub before the inning starts so the home crowd could give him one last cheer. I think both are pretty classy things myself.
For the record, Leinart and Bush left the game with 12:21 left to play. In other words, SC's starting QB and RB played 47 minutes and 39 seconds or 79.4% of the game. Again, in baseball terms, that is equal to playing the first seven innings and sitting out the final two. LenDale White, who set a school record for the most touchdowns in a season this year despite being the backup to the Heisman Trophy winner, stayed in the game for three more plays. His TD and the subsequent extra point put the Trojans up 59-6, which, for all intents and purposes, was the final score of the game in my mind.
Karl Dorrell, the head coach of UCLA, on the other hand, stuck with starting QB Drew Olson the entire game. Olson, in fact, led the Bruins to two touchdowns in the closing minutes, including one with just 11 seconds remaining. What's up with that? If one team is supposed to call off the dogs, then why shouldn't the other?
But I don't want to come across as whining. I'll leave that to the losers.
While on the subject of Dodger Thoughts, be sure to check out Jon Weisman's new book, a 325-page collection of his best work since the summer of 2002.
Heisman Trophy trivia: Purdue has never had a player who has won the award, yet had one third-place and three second-place finishers from 1966-1969. Without going to heisman.com, name the players and the years.
Digging Deeper Into The Handbook
At a price of slightly more than one dollar per month, The Bill James Handbook is a bargain. It should be carried in your briefcase or on top of your desk or, at worse, stashed no more than an arm's length from your favorite reading chair. In addition to all the goodies covered in the book review earlier in the week, I'd like to take this time to go over the 2005 Leader Boards. Several top ten lists are derived from the complex pitch data that Baseball Info Solutions collects and are unavailable elsewhere.
When it comes to batting leaders, the Handbook includes the standard rate stats (such as batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging avergage), as well as the traditional counting categories (games, at bats, hits, runs, doubles, triples, home runs, runs batted in, walks, strikeouts, stolen bases, caught stealing, and more). These leader boards, while important, can be found at a multitude of places online. I'm more fascinated by the lists that aren't typically published by other sources.
Bobby Abreu led the majors in pitches per plate appearance (4.40) and percentage of pitches taken (66.6). This combination of stats means, by definition, that Abreu takes nearly three pitches per plate appearance. The only players within a half pitch of the leader are Jason Giambi (2.73), Craig Counsell (2.60), David Dellucci (2.59), and Nick Johnson (2.53). Not surprisingly, Abreu was second in the majors in BB (117), while Giambi was first in the AL in free passes (108).
All walks, however, are not created equally. Abreu was seventh in the NL in stolen bases (31) and eighth in SB success (77.5%). Giambi, on the other hand, didn't attempt to steal a base all year for the first time ever. Nonetheless, his baserunning numbers were actually pretty good. Giambi went from first to third on a single 14 times, tied for sixth in the majors -- behind five players more known for their speed (Derek Jeter, 18; Carlos Beltran, 17; Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo, 16; and Chone Figgins, 15). Of this quintet, only Figgins (68%) and Beltran (61%) had a higher percentage of extra bases per opportunity than Giambi (47%). Abreu went from second to home (24) more often than anyone else in either league.
Speaking of stolen bases, how many people are aware that Jason Bay led the ML in percentage success rate (21-for-22, 95.5%)? Bay was 28-for-62 (45%) in extra bases taken on base hits and was never never thrown out. The man who did not miss a game all year, while ranking in the top ten in BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, H, 2B, TB, R, BB, and BA w/ RISP, is arguably the most underrated star player in the game. Look no further than the fact that Bay placed 12th in the NL MVP voting. Only 12 out of 32 writers even put Bay on their ballot and just two listed him higher than seventh (4th and 6th). I would have voted him third, if given the opportunity.
For fantasy players in keeper leagues, be sure to check out the under age-25 OPS leaders:
American League National League
In addition to being the NL MVP, Albert Pujols is the most valuable property in baseball. End of discussion. The second most valuable? Let's not kid ourselves here, folks. David Wright. Look, the guy hasn't even turned 23, yet hits for average (.306) and power (27 HR with 15 on the road), draws walks (72), runs the bases well (17 SB, 26-for-44 XB taken on base hits without being thrown out), and just happens to play third base.
While on the subject of young players, Wily Mo Pena hit the two longest home runs in baseball last year (492 and 490 feet) and had the longest average HR (415) among those with 10 or more. Travis Hafner launched the second (477), third (474), and fourth (471) longest HR in the AL and was number one in average (407). Adam Dunn had two of the top six cranks in the NL (470 and 464). Kinda fun, huh?
We all know that Pujols and Vladimir Guerrero can hit for power. But how well known is it that Vlad was the second-most difficult batter to strike out in the AL (.081) and Albert was the ninth-hardest to fan in the NL (.093)? If you're looking for someone who might take it up a notch or two next year, consider Jay Gibbons. He was the only other player in baseball who hit more than 15 HR (26) and ranked in the top ten in lowest strikeout rate per plate appearance (.108). The Baltimore OF/1B/DH doesn't field or run all that well, but he still has further upside when it comes to mashing the ball. Consider this: Gibbons was 31st in the AL in RC/G with just a .268 batting average on balls in play. You have to go all the way down to the 63rd batter (Nick Swisher) to find someone with a lower BABIP.
Who swings and misses the most? Richie Sexson (24.4%) was number one, followed by Jason LaRue (24.0%), Troy Glaus (23.3%), Sammy Sosa (23.0%), and Jose Cruz (22.6%). Not surprisingly, Sexson also led the AL in highest strikeout per plate appearance (25.5%). Preston Wilson was the only batter who K'd more than once per four plate appearances (25.7%).
The Handbook includes a stat rarely seen, called "Batting Average Plus Slugging Percentage" (BPS). Owner John Dewan and President Steve Moyer at Baseball Info Solutions believe BPS "makes more sense than OPS for some leader boards because (they) wanted to know who was having success putting those balls in play, not just drawing walks." Derrek Lee (1.098) and David Ortiz (1.077) led their respective leagues in BPS vs. fastballs. Miguel Cabrera (.932) and Ichiro Suzuki (.887) were #1 in BPS vs. curveballs; Jose Reyes (1.076) and Giambi (1.365) were the best hitters vs. sliders; and Moises Alou (1.358) and Craig Monroe (1.130) ate up changeups.
Be sure to check back on Monday for the review of the 2005 American and National League Pitching Leader Boards.
A Bases-Loaded Walk Down Memory Lane
As a mom, it was probably inevitable that I would get sucked into the whole "Creative Memories" fad. For those of you who don't know what that is (hmmm, a baseball site populated mainly by guys, that would probably mean about 99.9 percent of you -- the married ones with kids MIGHT know what I am talking about), it's the ridiculously overpriced but unbelievably addictive "scrapbooking" trend that may currently be obscuring what used to be your dining room table (oh wait, maybe that's just me).
So I got invited to one of those parties where they had a hidden vacuum that cleaned out my wallet and left me with lots of adorable stickers and construction paper cutouts. I really had every intention of making wonderful memory books to commemorate my daughter's baby years, her first steps, teeth and report cards, her bat mitzvah, her rock band.
Instead I have what used to be a dining room with a table (I think) precariously piled with several categories of photos waiting to be enshrined.
Let's face it.
There is only one set of "scrapbooks" I can count on where I can leaf through their pages and evoke my life's memories. My walks down memory lane are the kind where the bases are loaded: boxes of baseball scorebooks.
Right now, I have a pile of them in my home study that date back as far as mid-1995 (I have another box of them in the basement). It's hard to pinpoint anything resembling a chronological order since generally, when I'm going to a game or on the road, I'll just grab whichever one is the right size for the bag I'm carrying and has a few empty pages left.
And the truth is, most people won't even recognize many of the names on most of the pages.
But I will.
Mesa vs. Scottsdale, Arizona Fall League, October 1995: I have always rooted for the underdog. And I have always had a special place in my heart for the guys who play, as I put it, with that special kind of "joy." It may be a totally meaningless game, maybe spring training, maybe mid-August when their low-A team is 30 games out of contention. But you can tell that, as Jim Bouton put it in "Ball Four," they still remember to tingle every time they step on the field.
Jason Maxwell was one of those players. A utility middle infielder originally with the Cubs, he was a 74th-round draft pick who, when he eventually made it to the majors in 1998, was the lowest-drafted player to ever reach the show (his "record" was later broken by Travis Phelps -- 89th round).
On this particular day, the Cubs had weathered a few infield injuries and so they summoned Maxwell over from instructional league camp to fill in for a few days. His energy and exuberance caught my eye immediately and for six innings I couldn't stop watching him. In the sixth inning, Billy Owens (now the director of player personnel for Oakland) hit a high pop to shortstop. Maxwell lost it in the sun and it came down and cracked his cheekbone so loudly that it was like hearing a gunshot in that empty park.
I remember seeing Maxwell lying there for what seemed like hours, twitching in pain, his fall season clearly over. I cried.
Two years later I would see Maxwell again, batting leadoff for the Iowa Cubs in the very last Triple-A American Association championship series. I would tell him my story and he'd show me the small moon-shaped scar he has right below his eye.
Buffalo Bisons vs. New Orleans Zephyrs, Games 1 and 4 of the Triple-A World Series, Las Vegas, September 1998: I scribbled the following note on the bottom of the page of Game 1, a 7-2 victory by eventual TAWS champion New Orleans: "Guess which of these two starting pitchers was out all night at the casino?"
I truly regret the demise of the three-year Triple-A World Series. And not just because it meant a few days in Vegas. Okay, so maybe just because it meant a few days in Vegas. So sue me. But honestly, that first year of the event was one of the most enjoyable weeks of my baseball-writing life and I never even bet a dollar. And this time I am serious. Headquartered at Caesar's Palace, I spent most of my time trading stories and sipping lemonade (and an occasional strawberry margarita) with some of the most interesting and insightful veteran ballplayers Triple-A had to offer (I defy anyone to talk baseball with Jeff Manto and not come away knowing so much more about the game than before you sat down).
The night I arrived, there was a welcome reception for the players, press and other "luminaries" (yes, I am kidding when I say that word). I sat for awhile chatting with New Orleans' Game 1 starter, John Halama. He sipped Coca-Cola and went to bed early. The next morning I was heading downstairs to catch some rays at the very cool Caesar's Palace pool and ran into Buffalo's Game 1 starter Jason Rakers. He was on his way UP to bed after spending all night in the casino. (This is not a knock on Rakers, who was always a terrific kid to deal with).
Linescore: Halama, W, 9 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 9 K. Rakers, L, 4 1/3 IP, 7 H, 6 R.
Game 4's boxscore is notable for the three-homer game from New Orleans outfielder Lance Berkman. He'd had a meh series, but the one-man wrecking crew performance he put on in the 11-6 TAWS clincher earned him the MVP award. In fact, when he hit his third of the game in the ninth inning, the ballots had already been filled out (unofficial tally indicated that journeyman Marc Ronan would have won). When that ball left the park, the sound you heard in the pressbox was the collective ripping up of all of those ballots.
East vs. West, Midwest League All-Star Game, Lansing, Mich., June 1999: Come on, tell the truth -- when is the last time you saw 14 pitchers combine on a one-hitter? The coaching staff of the Class A league's West Division All-Stars apparently were determined that every player on the bench and in the bullpen was going to get into this game, and no pitcher was going to be overworked. The result was this unusual gem and an unsuccessful campaign by the members of the pressbox to get the entire West Division pitching staff named "MVP" of the game (Jon Schaeffer of Quad Cities, who went 2-for-3, earned the honor). Even more interesting, only one of those 14 pitchers spent 2005 in the majors: Juan Rincon of the Twins. Okay, MOST of 2005 in the majors. At least one member of the East pitching staff had better success but his All-Star status wasn't enough to earn him a spot on his club's 40-man roster the following winter and so Houston farmhand Johan Santana was shipped to Minnesota in that year's Rule 5 draft.
Surprise Scorpions vs. Grand Canyon Rafters, Arizona Fall League, Oct. 10, 2005: If there is one boxscore that can sum up why, after all these years, I am still in love with baseball, this is the one. I love that in an almost empty ballpark, in a game that is virtually meaningless, you can see something you have never seen before and may never see again.
It was my first day on a week-long road trip to Arizona. My main assignment was to catch Angels shortstop prospect Brandon Wood to interview him since I'd chosen him as our USA Today Sports Weekly 2005 Minor League Player of the Year. I was a little nervous about chatting with him in the dugout prior to the game, only because ballplayers are nothing if not superstitious. What if I broke his routine and he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts? He might never talk to me again. But Wood was sweet and friendly and humble and when we were done, I took a seat in the shade between home and first and pulled out a lucky purple pen to score the game.
In his first at-bat, Wood lined out to second. In his second (third inning), he hit a home run to left field. In his third at-bat, in the fourth inning, he homered again, and again to left. In his fourth at-bat (fifth inning), a home run to right field. Surprise was crushing Grand Canyon across the board (they would eventually win, 20-1) and so it took me a few seconds to realize he had hit three home runs and it was only the fifth inning and the pitching wasn't getting any better.
In the seventh, when he came up again, the Rafters had brought in perhaps their best relief pitcher, Twins prospect Travis Bowyer, and he held Wood to a single. So when Wood came up for a sixth time, with Bowyer still on in the eighth, I knew this would be his last at-bat of the game. Bowyer bore down and Wood worked him to a full count, and then blasted his last pitch over center field wall, perhaps his longest shot of the day.
I know they say there is no cheering in the press box. But I wasn't in the press box, I was in the stands. And I cheered. Quietly, but I cheered. Not for Wood -- for me, for getting to see something that special.
Oh, and best of all, Wood said he'd be happy to have me interview him any time I want. I wonder why?
Lisa Winston is a senior writer/baseball for USA Today Sports Weekly. She soon will reach her fourteenth anniversary with the magazine, where she has covered minor league baseball since the 1994 strike.