29 January 2005

Play It Again, Sammy

Didn't see that one coming.

The Baltimore Orioles have reportedly agreed to a trade that will bring erstwhile Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa to Camden Yards, in exchange for Jerry Hairston Jr. and two minor leaguers, reportedly 2B Mike Fontenot and pitcher David Crouthers.

This was, as you may be aware, the Trade That Should Never Have Happened. Sosa's agent, when signing his last contract, had made sure that Sammy would remain with the Cubs throughout his career. A clause in his contract, which for the Cubs was guaranteed for $17 million in 2005, meant that if he were traded, an option for $18 million in 2006 became guaranteed, and that an option for $19 million in 2007 would be added, with a $4.5 million buyout. Faced with the daunting proposal of paying no less than $39.5 million for two years of an outfielder in his late 30's, with a bad attitude, who'd hit only .253 in the preceeding season, only a fool would make such a trade.

So Sammy, it would seem, despite his difficulties with Cubs management, would remain firmly planted in right field at Wrigley. But then, like Cleavon Little riding into town on a Gucci saddle, here comes Orioles' owner Peter Angelos to save the day. Angelos, that great humanitarian, picked up poor, old Sammy Sosa from the dust in which he lay, cleaned him up a little, and brought him into the fold at Camden Yard. Oh, and for his philanthropy, Sosa rewarded him by voiding the last year of his contract, and the Cubs rewarded him by picking up $10 million of the $17 million he's due in 2005. I guess altruism is rewarded once in a while after all.

Of course, under those circumstances, only a fool wouldn't make such a trade, especially when the asking price is only a 2B/OF for whom you have no room, whose career OPS barely crests 700 and who's about to become a free agent and therefore become expensive. Oh, and a couple of prospects. Obviously, the prospects will make the difference here, right?

Wrong. Prospect #1 is Mike Fontenot, a AAA 2B who's 25 and through three levels of the Orioles' minor league system has essentially hit like Adam Kennedy, roughly .280 with 10 homers, 50 walks and 100 strikeouts. Except that when Kennedy was in the minors, he was a better hitter than Fontenot, and now Kennedy has peaked out at "mediocre".

The other prospect (#B, if you're keeping track) is David Crouthers, who posted a 5.03 ERA at AA Bowie last year, despite being 24, AKA Old For His League, and despite the fact that it was his second tour of duty at that level. Not good signs, either. The problem, apparently, was that he surrendered 23 homers in 140 innings last season, after giving up only 9 in his previous three years combined. Whether that was a fluke or a harbinger of sucking remains to be seen, but it's clear that Crouthers is far from a sure-thing.

Lee Sinins reports that Orioles closer Jorge Julio and Cubs setup man Kyle Farnsworth may also be involved in the deal, but there's been no confirmation on those possibilities yet.

For the Orioles, this acquisition hardly compensates for the fact that they were able to lure exactly ZERO big-name free agents to Baltimore this offseason. Last year they brought in Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmiero and Miguel Tejada, and managed to improve seven games on their 2003 record, their best since 1999. But they still have almost no pitching to speak of, and no hope of competing with either the Yankees or the Red Sox, much less both. Nevertheless, Slammin' Sammy did still slam 35 of them last year, and the O's lineup looks formidable, so at least they'll be fun to watch half of the time.

Despite his downside, Sosa does still have a huge upside, and given that the Cubs were willing to pay more than half his 2005 salary, that Sosa was willing to surrender any future guaranteed money (not sure if he surrenders the buyout clauses as well), and that Baltimore didn't need to give up very much, it was well worth the risk. Unfortunately, Eric(k)s Bedard and DuBose, Daniel Cabrera and Sidney Ponson aren't going to make anyone in Baltimore forget Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar, so the Orioles are going to need something like a miracle (actually, three or four of them) if they're going to make another leap in the standings, to say, second place.

The Cubs, on the other hand, seem to have shot themselves in their collective foot. Sosa may have been trouble, but he was also their marquee star and the team's best outfielder after Moises Alou left for San Francisco. Rob Neyer detailed how poor the Cubs' outfield may be this year. Following this trade, they've got Corey Patterson in CF, possibly Hairston in right, though he belongs at 2B, given his decidedly "lightweight" bat, and some combination of Todd Hollandsworth and rookies Dave Kelton and Jason DuBois in left.

What Rob did not mention, however, is that Patterson's still only 25, and that his 2004 season was an improvement upon his last full year, if only a slight improvement. If you look at their numbers side-by-side, Patterson's age 25 season compares favorably to Alfonso Soriano's 2001. Soriano's 28 now and still has never walked 45 times in a season, as Patterson did last year, so Corey may be making bigger strides next year.

The other thing Rob didn't mention is that rookie Jason DuBois was a legitimate MVP contender in the Pacific Coast League last year, hitting .316/.389/.630, with 31 homers in fewer than 400 at-bats. His walk rate isn't anything to write home about, but he's got youth and power, so that's something. And besides, if the Cubs can use that seven million they saved on Whinin' Slammin' Sammy to get Magglio Ordonez, and Ordonez doesn't break down again, the Cubs are still a favorite to contend in the NL in 2005. Those are a few big "if"s, but we already know for sure that Houston is going to have a heck of a time competing in the NL Central after losing Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and Wade Miller to free agency, and 20% of Lance Berkman's season to injury. So maybe it was worth the risk for the Cubs, too.

But can you imagine the dislike between Sosa and Cubs management? Can you imagine hating your employer enough that you would give up about $25 million just to get away from them? Can you imagine disliking an employee so much that you'd pay them $10 million to work for someone else? Personally, I hate to see a team pay a player $10 million a year to play for another team, unless the team he'll be playing for is mine, but we all knew that the relationship between Sosa and Chicago was over, and that there would need to be huge concessions to get him out of town, and we're not talking about hot dogs here. Actually, maybe we are.

Of course, Sosa's hot-dogging was much more acceptable when he was a team player and a legitimate, perennial MVP candidate. The Cubs know that even if he bounced back and had a sneeze-free season in '05, the headaches he would cause would disrupt one of their only chances at exorcising thier own Curse. We'll see if he can once again
carry a team on his back, or if the pressure (and the Press) will once again sour a relationship with a team and a town. Good luck, Sammy.

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24 January 2005

Oh, the Places You'll Go...Like Second Place

Travis Nelson's 2005 Philadelphia Phillies Preview

Maybe it's a little early for this, but what the heck. I live on the edge.

With the Philadelphia Eagles just about to face the New England Patriots for the championship of their league (soccer, I think), it naturally begs the question:

"By how much will they lose?"

Because, let's face it: This is still Philadelphia, a town whose teams have a worse reputation for choking than Latrell Sprewell. Players who buckle under the pressure like soda cans in a recycling plant. Managers and front office personnel who screw up more often that the old Twister ride at Six Flags Great Adventure.

And that reality begs the question:

"What should we expect from the 2005 Phillies?"

I mean, besides disappointment.

Sure, we're still a month from pitchers and catchers reporting, but a quick glance of the Phillies current roster tells me that there's not a lot thy'll be able to do before Opening Day. They may make a minor change, a small-name trade or a minor league free agent or something, but the roster is largely set for this year. Let's take a look.

Starting Lineup

1 Jimmy Rollins, SS
2 Chase Utley, 2B
3 Bobby Abreu, RF
4 Jim Thome, 1B
5 Pat Burrell, LF
6 Mike Lieberthal, C
7 Marlon Byrd, CF
8 David Bell, 3B
9 Pitcher

#1) Personally, I don't much care for Jimmy Rollins as a leadoff hitter. He strikes out too much, though he did improve significantly in that area last year, whiffing only 73 times after three consecutive 100+ K seasons. If he can keep that up, I'll have no cause for complaint here. Rollins doesn't walk as much as I would like either, fewer than 60 times each of the last three seasons, though that isn't terrible if he can keep hitting .290 or more. His impatience (3.45 pitches/PA marked the second lowest among qualified leadoff hitters in MLB last season) makes him ill-suited to this role, but he's got the speed to get triples and steals, and historically he hits better in the leadoff spot than anywhere else the Phillies have put him, so he's staying. You could do worse.

#2) Chase Utley will hopefully get to play a whole seaosn at one position, and in one league, and will be permitted to rack up 600 plate appearances. If he does that, look for something like .270 with 25 homers. He doesn't walk a lot, but doesn't strike out a ton either, and should be a productive hitter for the Phillies for some time, if not the second coming of Jeff Kent. His defense is probably better than you've heard as well, since the unstability of his playing situations cannot have been helpful. If he falters, Placido Polanco's capable hands, and bat, will be waiting to pick up the slack at 2B and the #2 hole.

#3) Will someone, anyone, please go out to Citizen's bank Park and take a look at the guy patrolling right field in the top halves of the innings? Someone who has a bigger audience than me (not that it would take much), please?

You see, there's this guy, Bob. I know, "Bob" sounds like such a boring, unassuming name. Not like "Jake" or "Hank" or something really impressive like "Colt". And I suppose Bob is pretty boring and unassuming. He's so damn boring, in fact than all he's done, for the last six years in a row, is hit at least 20 homers and 35 doubles, steal at least 22 bases, walk 100 times or more, score 99 runs or more, and play good defense. Since 1998, he has failed to hit .300 only once (.289 in 2001) and he more than compensated with 36 steals and 83 extra-base hits. Last year, he his 30 homers and stole 40 bases, the only 30-30 man in Phillies history, and he's done it twice. This is truly the greatest player nobody knows in today's game, and there's no reason to think either of those things will change in 2005.

#4) Firstbaseman and cleanup hitter Jim Thome, while not quite the player he had been in 2002, was still a great investment in 2003 and 2004. He led the senior circuit with 47 homers in 2003, and hit another 42 in 2004, good for fifth place. He still walks a lot, hits for decent average and tremendous power, accompanied, of course, by piles and piles of strikeouts. For Thome, though, that's not such a big deal. By the time he's at-bat, the pitcher's repetiore has already been seen, and he's trying to drive in runs, so striking out is better than hitting into a double play. And if he has to give up 10 homers to shave 30 K's off his season, it's not worth it. Expect Jim to scontinue to swing away in 2005, pounding his way toward 500 homers and a plaque in Cooperstown.

#5) Pat "The Bat" Burrell, besides having one of the dumbest and least creative nicknames in the history of organized American sport (not his fault), is an enigma. He bounced back considerably from a miserable 2003 campaign that saw him lose 73 points in batting average and 16 homers from his 2002 numbers. Three of his five seasons have seen him hit between .257 and .260 (how's that for consistency?), while the .282 and .209 he put up in 2002 and '03 look like flukes, both. Like Thome, he's got tremendous strikeout totals, along with the homers, to a lesser extent, but unlike Thome he's still relatively young. At 28, he should be coming into his prime, and may gain a little batting average this year. Without Larry Bowa ranting and raving at every strikeout, look for Burrell to put up something like a .275/35/100 season in 2005. With 180 strikeouts.

#6) Mike Lieberthal is what he is: A good, but not great-hitting catcher who doesn't give you a lot of anything, but gives you enough of everything that you can rely on him. Leiberthal can typically be penciled in for 130 games, 15 homers and a .270 average, with just enough walks to keep him above A.J. Pierzynski on most lists. He's not young though, as most catchers start to decline around age 33 or so, and his backup, Tank Pratt, is really, really not young, at 37. Between them, though, the Phillies will likely still have a catching tandem better than two thirds of the teams in MLB.

#7) "Put me in, coach! I'm ready to play today!" Apparently Larry Bowa was not a fan of John Fogerty. Or Marlon Byrd. For all the pleas made to him by Byrd, Bowa simply would not allow his young centerfielder to play. Jason Michaels proved a serviceable replacement, but being demoted for Doug Glanville is not a good way to solidify your status as a player. Even after returning from the June demotion to AAA, Byrd never did anything to prove that he belonged with the big league club, though he wasn't given a very long leash either. At 27, he'd better hope that Bowa was the only reason for his problems, and that Charlie Manuel can bring out the best in him. His platoon partner/competition, Kenny Lofton, is on the decline side of his career, and shouldn't be a regular on a team that wants to win its division.

If Byrd doesn't shape up, this is the easiest place to upgrade during the season, as they'll have neither a big salary nor a big ego to dispose of in order to get some production out of this spot in the lineup. Some noncontending team will likely have a proven producer available before the trade deadline. The Phillies have prospects to burn if they need to make a trade, but I'll get to them later.

#8) Even though 3B David Bell batted in the #5-#7 holes almost all of 2004, I have him slated for the #8 hole because I expect him to "earn" that slot before the year is out. The .291/.363/.458 line he put up last year was 30-60 points higher than his career averages in every category, and at age 32, it's rare that a player suddenly leans to hit better, especially when his "better" is only mediocre to begin with. In 2005, look for David Bell to regress to the .260/.320/.400 line that is consummate with his career numbers, and to once again make the Phillies' front office look foolish for giving him that 4-year, $17M contract. Thankfully, the Phillies have super-sub Placido Polanco, who is more than capable of playing every day if Bell should return to the tank from whence he emerged after the 2002 season.


C Todd Pratt
1B Ryan Howard
IF Tomas Perez
IF Placido Polanco
OF Jason Michaels
OF Kenny Lofton

Pratt and Lofton, as I emntioned earlier, are both old, but still serviceable backups. If either one of them gets more than 200 at-bats for the Phillies next year, it will not be a good thing. Jason Michaels is also a capable fill-in at any of the outfield spots, though without the talent of any of the Phillies' starters. Tomas Perez is nothing special. He doesn't hit a lick, but he's a decent defensive replacement at any spot in the infield, so they keep him around. Thankfully, Placido Polanco gets the bulk of any infield backup time, and considering that he's as good a hitter as three of their starting infielders, the Phillies have got themselves one heck of a player off the bench.

The really interesting member of this bench is firstnbaseman Ryan Howard. I expect that if he's with the big club, Howard will get first dibs at 1B/DH duties during any interleague games. After winning a Florida State League MVP in 2003, and hitting .290/.379/.632 last year at three levels, Howard has little left to prove in the minors. On the other hand, his 48 homers and 136 RBI were accompanied by 179 strikeouts as well, and he doesn't walk as much as someone like Adam Dunn or Jim Thome. The Phils have tried to help him learn to play a little in left field, but he's got only average defensive skills at best and doesn't run, so his future is as a firstbaseman, not an outfielder or a 3B.

Ryan's 24 now, and they may send him back to AAA, where he played only 29 games last year, to make sure he's ready, but then they'll have to trade him, as Thome's signed for another four years and $55 million. The Phillies would be wise to trade him sooner rather than later, in case he struggles a little in AAA to start the season and his stock falls. At this point though, they're not sure what they'll need, and they've deemed him "Untouchable", which is transparently false, given that they have nowhere to play him. If they still need a regular centerfielder in mid-season, this is the chip they'll use.

Starting Rotation

1 Randy Wolf (2)
2 Vicente Padilla (2)
3 Jon Leiber (0)
4 Cory Lidle (1)
5 Brett Myers (0)

Yikes. The numbers in parenthesis after their names are how many seasons, out of the last three, they've pitched 200 or more innings in the majors. Every one has failed to be a "workhorse" in at least one season from 2002-2004, due to injuries, ineffectiveness, or both. For Padilla and Wolf, the problem was just this past year, and Wolf was injured in 2001 as well. Jon Lieber, despite what is generally considered a successful return from Tommy John surgery with the Yankees in 2004, has not racked up 200 innings in the majors since 2001. Cory Lidle racked up 200+ innings for the first time in his career in 2004, but remains a decidedly-mediocre, LAIM (League Average Innings Munching) pitcher. Brett Myers has never done it, though that's mostly due to his youth. (With his time in AA he did pitch exactly 200 innings total in 2002.)

I'll be very surprised to see more than two of these guys pitch 200+ effective innings in 2005. Rookie Gavin Floyd or sophomore Ryan Madson stand to see the bulk og the spot-starting role if one or more of the above should go down with an injury or just plain suck.

Which brings us too...

Relief Pitching

LHP Billy Wagner
RHP Tim Worrell
RHP Ryan Madson
LHP Rheal Cormier
RHP Terry Adams
RHP Amaury Telemaco

This is a category in which the 2005 Phillies should be quite strong. A healthy Billy Wagner is still one of the best relief pitchers in baseball, and Tim Worrell is an experienced, capable backup in the closer role, when he's not setting up Wagner. Telemaco and Adams are decent if unspectacular veterans, who can both pitch long relief or even start in a pinch, and Cormier is not just a LOOGY. Geoff Geary, Aaron Fultz and Pedro Liriano should also see some work in 2005, though Liriano is likely to spend most of the season in Scranton, as he has fewer than 60 innings experience above AA in his career.

Ryan Madson was great in his first full season in the majors, and might even have gained some Rookie of the Year support if he hadn't missed a month and a half with a fluke hand injury. With the starters' injury histories, I expect Madson to get at least a dozen starts throughout the year. Hopefully most of them will be in Lidle's stead.


Charlie Manuel has only two and a half years of experience, but he was successful with a similar team in Cleveland. The 2000-2001 Indians had a strong lineup, with Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Travis Fryman, Manny Ramirez and/or Juan Gonzales all still in thier primes. Their bench was solid as well, with a young Richie Sexson, Russ Branyan, and old but still effective Davids Justice and Segui. The relief corps was solid both seasons as well, but the starting rotation had some holes in it. So it would appear that Manuel has some idea what to do with such a team, as he won 90+ games both years, albeit in a weak division.

So, what have we got? Well, we've got a strong, deep bullpen and bench. We've got a starting lineup that might lead the NL in strikeouts, but might also lead it in non-Coors runs scored. We've got a starting rotation that is talented but injury-prone, with a couple of serviceable backups. We've got a manager who's a nice change from Old Smoky wearing a path in the bullpen floor.

We've also got a division that's ripe for the taking. The Mets' made a lot of noisy off-season moves, which may improve them, but they're still not going to contend. Florida's going to be good, but they're certainly not a lock to run away with this division.

Then there's the Braves. I know, I know...I'm an idiot to pick against Atlanta. They've got a streak of 247 consecutive division titles and they're still the team to beat, and they are. On the other hand, theiur starting pitching gets really thin after Tim Hudson, and moving John Smoltz into it weakens the staff in two places. The bullpen isn't the worst in the majors, but nobody out there is particularly impressive or a good bet to significantly improve.

Another problem is that I just don't see how their lineup will improve much. They were only fifth in the NL in runs scored last year, but they needed uncharacteristically good years from Johnny Estrada, Charles Thomas and Eli Marerro, not to mention a career year from J.D. Drew, just to get there. Full, healthy seasons from Chipper Jones and Marcus Giles will help a little, but not enough to make up for losing their best hitter. Thomas, Marerro and Drew are now gone, with Raul Mondesi and (Yuk) Brian Jordan taking thier at-bats. Expect Chipper Jones to return to the outfield full time, expect rookie 3B Andy Marte to struggle mightily, and expect the Phillies to contend for the division title, even (Dare I say? Dare! Dare!) to win it, if their pitching holds together.


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14 January 2005

Random Notes...

Hey, it's January. There's not a lot of baseball being played for a fella to write about.

New Steroid Policy

The Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners have finally come to an agreement on a policy regarding steroids and other performance enhancing drugs that actually has some teeth to it. You've no doubt heard and/or read about the details, so I won't rehash them here. Random, year-round testing, stiffer suspensions, etc. It's all a big step in the right direction. Jayson Stark's Q&A answers a few of the questions you might not have thought to ask. Ultimately, there's still a few silly aspects to the policy, like the fact that they've declared a ban on Human Growth Hormone but there's apparently no test the find it. Mostly, though, they're making significant progress.

It will be interesting to seee how the fans react to players who've tested positive. I expect that, like always, they'll cheer the guys who produce and boo the guys who don't, regardless of what's found in their urine. ("Waiter! There's a fly in my...") I still can't figure out though why the minor leagues have a tougher drug policy than the major leagues. Doesn't make any sense to me.

Sale of Milwaukee Brewers Approved

Los Angeles investor Mark Attanasio bought the team from a used car salesman for $223 million.

I wonder how much a Major League team costs.

The Low Down on Lowe's Signing

Former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe has reportedly agreed to a 4-year, $36 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Good for him, but why? Ever since this was announced, everyone has been trying to figure out what the heck a smart dude like Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta was thinking when he commited $36 million to a guy who posted a 5.42 ERA last year. ESPN's Rob Neyer thinks the combination of Dodger Stadium and Lowe's extreme ground ball tendencies will make hima slightly better than average pitcher for the next few years. Baseball Prospectus' James Click thinks that Lowe was unlucky last year, and that a reversion to normal luck, coupled with park effects, will bring Lowe's ERA down to around 4.00 next year.

Lowe Posted by Hello

But still, an ERA around 4.00, or slightly better than average performance, does not constitute a bargain at $9 million/year. Odalis Perez is four years younger, has a much lower ERA, and yet only got 3 years and $24 million. So what gives?

I'll tell you: I have it on good authority, from my Baseball People (read: imaginary friends), that Derek Lowe will be a bargain next year and beyond. You see, DePodesta, like the rest of us, was watching the playoffs last Fall, and he saw two things:

1) Derek Lowe start on two days' rest
B) Derek Lowe beat the Yankees

So he figures that if he can start Lowe on two days's rest every time, and his luck returns, and Dodger Stadium and Lowe's grounders combine to drop his ERA just under 4.00, he'll get his money's worth! That's why he's paying the guy as much money as two mediocre starters normally get: He's going to take the place of two mediocre starters! If Lowe could just have a decent season he could become the first pitcher in almost 40 years to win 30 games.

Think about it. Starting with only two days rest, Lowe would make 58 starts next year, and pitch something like 350 innings. He only pitched more than seven innings twice all of last year anyway, and this way they can let Kaz Ishii pitch long relief instead of starting, which he's no good at anyway. A rotation of

1) Derek Lowe
2) Jeff Weaver
3) Odalis Perez
4) Derek Lowe
5) Brad Penny

...allows the Dodgers to have the deepest bullpen in the majors. Guys like Ishii and Wilson Alvarez, who might be starters on half the teams in MLB, are relegated to bullpen duty. Or they can trade them for someone who can hit, a commodity on which they are running a little thin.

Ok, so I made that up. But wouldn't it be cool if I hadn't?

North Dakota Resolution Calls for Maris in Cooperstown

I wouldn't expect too much out of these resolutions. The United Nations passed a few dozen of these things trying to get Iraq to disarm, and those didn't do much good.

Maris Posted by Hello

Lawmakers in North Dakota really, really want Roger Maris to be enshrined in the baseball Hall of Fame. They're even sending delegates to Cooperstown to try to convince them that Maris belongs there. That's rich: send a bunch of lawyers and/or baseball fans to the Hall of Fame. This is the place where they keep the records and archives for major league baseball, where there are probably more relics, data and people who know and love baseball, as a percentage, than any other town in the world. You're going to lecture them about who should and should not be in their Hall of Fame?

Think about it. This is something like saying "I resolve to make the other commuters on my way to work drive more safely. By yelling at them. From my car." Even if they could hear you, or were paying attention to what you say, you can't make them do anything. You can just yell, and that's all the North Dakota legislature is doing: yelling.

"Hey, Maris won two MVP awards! He held the single season home run record for longer than anyone else! He lost his hair!!"

Never mind that he played only 12 seasons in the majors, only five of which could reasonably be considered "good". Never mind that he hit .260 for his career, and never topped .283 in a season. Ignore the fact that Baseball prospectus' fielding rankings indicate that Maris was an average defensive outfielder at best, Never mind that he was a "power hitter" who hit only 275 home runs in his career, fewer than contemporaries like Roy Seivers, Willie Horton and Joe Adcock. I don't see the state legislatures of Virginia, Missouri and Louisiana lobbying to get those three inducted.

Amusingly, Maris' supporters somehow have convinced themselves that the man was underappreciated in his own time, but then in the same breath tell you that he was a back-to-back MVP. The guy who sponsors his player page on Baseball-Reference.com says,

The greatest player not in Hall, no player achieved more with less appreciation from fans or writers. Won consecutive MVPs, a great defensive OFer, his departure started the Yanks’ darkest era. His 61 HRs stood as the mark longer than any other since 1900.

So which is it? Was he underappreciated, or did the beat writers of his day think he was the best player in the league, not once, but twice? Oh, and by the way, Mickey Mantle was a better player in both of the years in which Maris won the MVP.

Mantle's protection in the lineup, the eight extra games and the diluted pitching talent pool from a league that had added two teams in one season were the only reasons that Maris broke that record. Bill James' New Historical Baseball Abstract ranks Maris as the 28th best right-fielder of all time, behind such immortals as Bobby Murcer, Regie Smith and Rusty Staub. Sure, #28 is better than #82, but is there really room in Cooperstown, at this point in history, for everybody who played 12 seasons and hit .260? It's gonna get awfully crowded in upstate NY if those are the criteria.

Any North Dakota state lawmakers who might be reading this should ask yourselves this question: Would we be having this discussion if Maris had hit, say, 58 homers in 1961? Because three homers, in the grand scheme of things, is not a lot. And wet, without those three homers, for which he needed those extra eight games to hit, Maris has no legacy, and this conversation never happens. Sure, he hit them, and he gets credit for that. Cooperstown has the bat and the ball and his name on a plaque of former record holders and probably some other stuff. But the rest of his career was pedestrian. Good, maybe, but great? One of the best of all time? Not remotely.

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09 January 2005

Carlos the Great

Erstwhile Houston Astros centerfielder Carlos Beltran has reportedly agreed to a seven-year, $119 million deal with the New York Mets this weekend, a far cry from the ten-year, $200 million figures offered by Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, just after the World Series. The agreement comes on the heels of the expired negotiation window the Astros had with Beltran, which closed Saturday at midnight. It was reported that Boras, had indicated that they were generally satisfied with the Astros' seven-year, $108 million offer, but that they desired a full no-trade clause, an issue on which Astros owner (and, if I might add, Wise Businessman) Drayton McClane would not budge.

There are still, apparently, certain details for the two parties to iron out, such as salary structure and deferred payments, if any, but the contract is expected to be signed Monday with a press conference following as soon as Tuesday. Thus will end the long chase of this winter's greatest free agent prize, with the winner coming from the city, but not the franchise, almost everyone expected.

This signing, and the lack of its having been attributed to the Yankees, offers us a few interesting tidbits. For one thing, the Yanks may instead pursue Carlos Delgado to split the first base/DH time with Jason Giambi. He'll be a lot less expensive, and they can keep Bernie Williams in the outfield, where he belongs.

For another, there's the publicity thing. Normally, George Steinbrenner wouldn't think of allowing the Mets to steal his hard-earned, back-page publicity, and wouldn't hesitate to snatch up a commodity like Beltran, one that could help his team and keep the Mets' status as second-class citizens of the Big Apple well in hand.

Thirdly, though probably most important, was the money. ESPN's Darren Rovell did n a nice job last week of breaking down the taxes and other economic ramifications for Beltran, as well as for his suitors. For the Yankees to have given Beltran an offer comparable to Houston's, it would have cost them over $23 million next year alone in salary and luxury taxes, just to match Houston's $16 million. While Beltran's certainly talented, it seems that Yankee brass did not deem him more valuable than Alex Rodriguez, who's due to make only $21 million in 2005, or Derek Jeter ($18.9).

This is perhaps the first clear-cut example we've seen that the Luxury Tax is actually having the desired effect, albeit a little late. The tax was clearly structured to deter the Yankees from spending so much on free agents, so much so that some have even started referring to it as the "Yankee Tax", but to this point, it hadn't seemed to curtail them at all. Interestingly, there are rumors that Scott Boras actually offered the Yankees a discount of sorts, indicating that Beltran wanted to join the Yankees so desperately that he would have taken less than $100 million for seven years, but even then the Yankees didn't bite. Even at that rate, it would have cost the Yankees an average of $20 million per season for that seven year stretch, when luxury taxes are taken into account

The Mets have been essentially stinking up the joint ever since they went to the World Series in 2000. They've finished 16th, 13th, 15th and 12th in runs scored in the National League in the last four seasons, respectively, and they naturally hope that an infusion of youth and talent from their new centerfielder will help to remedy that ailment.

But what are they really getting? Tim Kurkjian seems to think that Beltran's getting this money largely because of how well he performed during the two weeks his Astros were in the playoffs last October. He sure was impressive, but, Tim tells us, "

The 2004 season was Beltran's first 30-home run season. He has five 100-RBI seasons, but none with as many as 110. His career slugging percentage is .490, which is 109 points lower than Manny Ramirez's. His career on-base percentage is .353, 79 points lower than Todd Helton's.

That's a little unfair, isn't it? So he has a lower career slugging percentage than Manny Ramirez...so do all but seven players who've ever played! His OBP may be lower than Todd Helton's, but again, Helton gets a LOT of help from the thin Rocky Mountain air, so it's not really a fair criticism, is it? Why doesn't Kurkjian just compare Beltran to Mickey Mantle while he's at it?

He does. Turns out (surprise!) Beltran comes up a little short there too. What a pity he's not quite as good as one of the three greatest centerfielders in history. Why doesn't he just hang up his spikes now and retire, before he embarrasses himself any further?

Well, because he's still the best centerfielder in the game, that's why. When Beltran won the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1999, the only, and I mean ONLY, knock on his game was that he didn't walk enough. He hit .293 with 22 homers, 108 RBI, 112 runs scored, 27 doubles and 27 steals, but he only walked 46 times and he struck out 123 times. He was 22 years old. At that age, you can forgive a little impatience, can't you?

You can, especially if he develops patience as he ages, which is exactly what Beltran has done. Now, at age 27, he walks a LOT more, 92 times in 2004, against only 101 strikeouts. He may have hit only .267 for the year, but his on-base percentage was actually 30 points higher than when he hit .293 his rookie year.

He hit a career-high 38 homers last season, but despite spending much of his time in hitter-friendly parks (Kaufmann Stadium in Kansas City and the JuiceBox in Houston), Beltran's stats were not inflated significantly by park factors. In fact, he hit only .225 at home, with an OPS about 250 points lower than his road numbers in 2004. Interestingly, though, this appears to be a fluke, as Beltran's home/road splits for his career are remarkably well-balanced:

       G    AB    AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS   

Home 445 1705 .292 .360 .486 .846
Away 440 1762 .276 .347 .494 .841

What he loses in batting average he makes up for in power, so it evens out. This essentially tells us that Beltran's new employers don't have to worry too much that he's somehow a creation of his environment, as they should be for, oh say, Todd Helton.

Beltran's age places him right in his theoretical "natural prime" as a hitter, meaning that the first three years or so of this contract should be the best of his career, barring injuries and/or a binge on steroids starting at age 36. Most hitters' power numbers increase as they enter their late twenties and early thirties, so that 38 in the HR column may not turn out to be his high water mark after all.

Beltran is also considered to be an above-average defensive centerfielder, and Shea Stadium is not a place that's particularly kind to fly balls anyway, so that should help his defensive numbers. Furthermore, his 192-to-23 career steal-to-caught stealing ratio is perhaps the best ever for a player who's that prolific at the art of the base swipe. A quick search on god of the machine revealed nobody born after 1885 to meet these criteria (190+ steals, fewer than 25 times caught), and the only reason for all the old-timers on the list is that they didn't even start recording caught stealings regularly until 1915.

So make no mistake. Carlos Beltran was far and away the best player on the free agent market this season, even if it wasn't the strongest market we've seen. And he'll be one of the best investments that new Mets GM Omar Minaya has ever made, whether he leads the Amazin's to the playoffs or not.

No, he's not the Mick, but what he is, is Great, and Great will just have to suffice for New York.

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03 January 2005

National Baseball Hall of Feign

The 2005 Baseball Hall of Fame voting results will be announced today.

Stark Bias

Numerous writers have constructed arguments and reasoning, sound and otherwise, for the players they supposedly think are most worthy of induction. You can read several of these at ESPN.com, if you haven't already, but be aware that the voters, just like the rest of us, are biased. So, in some cases, what they do is look for reasons to induct their favorite players, rather than just the best.

There is perhaps no better example of this than Jayson Stark. I do not mean to say that he's anything less than a decent human being, just that his judgment is somewhat clouded on these issues. If you look at the list of his votes, you find Boggs, Ryne Sandberg, and others that make a lot of sense, but then you find Jack Morris, without Bert Blyleven, which doesn't make a lot of sense, as I argued last year. You find Dale Murphy, even though nobody else who works for ESPN thinks Murphy deserves a vote, and no more than 10% of the writers voted for him last year.

Stark cut his teeth as a beat writer for the Philadelphia Enquirer, in the 1980s, so his picks are slanted toward players who were dominant in those days and places. It doesn't make Stark a bad person or a bad writer, just a little biased, like all of us.

Wade Bogged Down by Bickering

This year, sadly, Wade Boggs is the only sure-fire candidate. I say "sadly" not because I think that other candidates ought to be sure-fire, just that I wish there were more. A few years from now, when Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken and Mark McGuire all appear on the ballot for the first time, I'll probably complain that there are too many great players to do each of them proper justice in the remembering.

But for now, I'll complain that the media arguments over the likes of Bruce Sutter and Ryne Sandberg serve to do little more than take away from what should be a celebration of one of the half-dozen or so greatest third basemen who ever played major league baseball. Think about it: Who was better than Boggs? Mike Schmidt? OK, no argument there. Eddie Matthews? Sure. George Brett? Push. After that, it get's pretty tough to make an argument against Boggs. Paul Molitor only played 3B for less than half of his career games. Ron Santo? An argument can be made for his candidacy, but not that he was a better player than Boggs. Brooks Robiinson? Perhaps the greatest defensive 3B ever, but a .267 career average made him just barely above mediocre as a hitter. Pie Traynor? Not even close, and nobody else is even worth discussing.

So give Boggs the acclaim he deserves, as the greatest, and an appropriate first-ballot selection to Cooperstown.

Relievers Getting Little Relief

Now the rest of the field, as usual, is as clear as mud.

ESPN's Rob Neyer pointed out some holes in the arguments for Bruce Sutter as Hall-worthy, so I won't rehash those here, but he also asked about the weird voting results in the five years since Goose Gossage has been elligible. One reason I didn't think of yesterday is that a lot of guys get a boost in their second year on the ballott, because a lot of beatwriters won't vote for anyone on their first try, just as a rule. A silly rule, but some writers still consider that there's a difference between a first ballot Hall-of-Famer and Everyone Else.

For my part, in response, I sent Rob this:

A suggestion for the wacky HoF voting results on relief pitchers...

For one thing, the apparent "drop" in 2002 is not as severe as it looks, or rather, not a drop at all for Sutter. There were 515 members voting in 2001, but
only 472 the following year. Their percentages were much closer than the votes:

Goose: 44.3% in 2001, 43.0% in 2002
Bruce: 47.6% in 2002, 50.4% in 2002

The jump in 2002 may have been due to the relatively weak voting field (only Ozzie Smith got in), but that still doesn't explain why Goose lost, and has
continues to lose, support.

With that said, I think there are probably two reasons that Sutter's support continues to grow while Goose's fades. For one thing, people think he invented the
splitter, and a lot of pitchers have made a living off that pitch since then.

For another, and I know it's stupid, Sutter's career numbers just look nicer. His page on baseballreference.com is nice and neat, with evenly spaced columns and some bold type on the leaderboards. It makes it look like he played his heart out for a
decade or so and then nobly hung up his spikes when he couldn't compete like he wanted to, like Sandy Koufax or Joe DiMaggio or something.

Gossage changed roles a few times, and the perception (I think) is that he stuck around a little too long, past his "dominant" stage.

It's also possible that the voters are developing a better appreciation for relative ERA and that Sutter's edge in that stat (136 to 126) helps him, but I
wouldn't want to wager any money on that.

Personally, I'm with you on Gossage. I think he should already be in the Hall, as I argued in one of my first Blog posts over two years ago.

Ironically, Gossage doesn't even garner additional support for the types of dumb things that voters usually like, such as:

A. Postseason success: 3 World Series teams compared to one for Sutter. Of course, his teams lost two of those.

B. Country Hardball: Clocked at 103 mph in an All-Star game, 1973, I think. Sutter (traditionally) should get demerits for succeeding with a "trick pitch" like Phil Niekro or Burleigh Grimes.

C. Adapting: Was a great relief ace, and when asked to start, he gave the last-place ChiSox 224 innings of roughly league average work, then went back to closing and succeeded at that for nearly a decade. Became a middle reliever, and gave another 5 years of effective work.

D. Longevity. Goose provided better than league average ERAs three times after his 39th birthday. If he'd been a lefty, he'd probably still be pitching.

E. "Moxy." The fu-manchu. The potbelly. The heat. He was an intimidating SOB, you have to admit.

And he was also a great relief pitcher, one of the best we've ever seen, and for a lot longer than Sutter. His career numbers stack up nicely against Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, who's probably in because he was the first player to record 300 saves and because he retired young enough not to allow the beatwriters' memories of his dominance to be clouded by memories of his late-career struggles. That, and the moustache.

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