Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Miguel Cabrera: AL's Answer to Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols is an elite offensive performer, a hitting robot who's track record of consistent excellence  has earned him his nickname as "The Machine." This winter he's due for a massive paycheck, and as long as he's not substantially older than he claims to be he should be worth every penny for the team (probably the Cardinals) that lands him.

And while he's arguably one of the best hitters of all time, I would argue that Miguel Cabrera, who's been an absolute monster since his first full season in 2004, has been his equal at the dish over the past three seasons, over which his .332/.421/.598 line is actually better than Prince Albert's .313/.409/.583.  Pujols has a significant edge in home runs, but in every other department Cabrera is just as good if not better.  And even though Cabrera has been plagued by off-the-field issues they don't interfere with his coming to the park everyday; he's averaged 158 games played since 2004 with a low of 150 over that span, a number still higher than Pujols' game played totals in 2006, 2008, and 2011.

Some interesting parallels for their careers:

-They are dominant righthanded sluggers in the same mold as Manny Ramirez (high batting average, excellent plate discipline, plenty of power, and they pile up RBI and runs)

-Pujols plays in the NL Central and Cabrera plays in the AL Central, both in parks that are better for pitchers than hitters

-They both enjoyed good rookie seasons; Pujols won the NL Rookie of the Year, was selected to the All-Star team, finished fourth in the MVP race and won a Silver Slugger while Cabrera, despite playing only 87 games (full season numbers project to 39 doubles, 22 homers and 115 ribbies), finished fifth in the Rookie of the Year race and earned some MVP consideration for helping push the Marlins into the postseason, where Josh Beckett stifled the Yankees and locked up Florida's second World Series title in seven seasons.  Apparently Chicago Cubs fans are still bitter about this

-At one point or another, both have played in left field and at the hot corner before finally settling down as slugging first basemen.  They have won a Silver Slugger at each position.

-Five times Cabrera has finished in the top five of the MVP vote without walking away with the trophy. Pujols has suffered this pain in six different offseasons,, although four of them followed superlative years from Barry Bonds.

-They both hit well in October, are World Series champs, ground into a lot of double plays (at least a dozen per season for each of them), don't get hit by many pitches (aren't pitchers challenging them inside?) and earn their fair share of intentional walks

-Beginning in 2004 both have eclipsed 30 big flies and 300 total bases every year

-In 2009 they earned almost identical salaries of approximately $14,400,000

-They have led their leagues in doubles, RBI and batting average once (this shocks me)

The major difference is that Pujols, a three-time NL Most Valuable Player, is much more of a complete player than Cabrera, who is still in search of his first MVP award.  Although Phat Albert doesn't possess blazing speed, he knows when to pick his spots and has become an effective and efficient basestealer.  Beginning with his first MVP campaign in 2005 he's averaged ten steals per year (nabbing fourteen or more three times) with a 76 percent success rate.  Cabrera, on the other hand, has never reached double digits in the steals department (he fell one short in 2006) and has only 29 career thefts, or one-third of Pujols' total. 

On defense, Pujols is a also plus defender.  He's worked hard to improve his D and it's paid off; baseball-reference says he's been worth 11.3 dWAR in the field, meaning he provides an extra win with his glove every year, and he's been recognized with a pair of Gold Gloves.  He's certainly on par with other slick fielding first basemen such as Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez.  Cabrera is not nearly as athletic or agile around the bag, and his -5.4 career dWAR (he's been below zero every year of his career) indicates that he's more of a liabilty with the mitt.  He'll probably never win a Gold Glove, and if Victor Martinez wasn't the full-time DH in Detroit, Cabrera would be the perfect man for the job.

So even though Cabrera has been significantly less valuable than Pujols--his 39.7 bWAR since 2004 pale in comparison to Pujols' gaudy total of 65.1--in 2010 and 2011 Miggy earned nearly 50 percent more in wages than his NL counterpart.  I guarantee you won't be able to say the same thing in 2012.

So does Miguel Cabrera=Albert Pujols? Of course not, but offensively it's pretty darn close.

And that's quite an accomplishment.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Patriots Demolish "Dream Team"

The dream is over Philadelphia.  It's time to wake up.

Yesterday the AFC East-leading Patriots rolled into the City of Brotherly Love for a rematch of the 2005 Super Bowl (when they won their most recent title and cemented their dynasty status) and handed the Eagles an old-fashioned beatdown.  New England left town with a 38-20 victory, which was more like 38-13 when you discount Philly's garbage time TD after most of the boobirds had gone home. 

Tom Brady was in peak form and pulverized the Eagle defense from the air three touchdowns (two to his former favorite target Wes Welker and one to his new favorite target Rob Gronkowski) and 361 yards on 24/34 passing.  He spread the ball around and also involved old stand-by Deion Branch, who totaled 125 yards on half a dozen catches and missed a touchdown by one measly yard.  On the ground, BenJarvus Green-Ellis scored twice to complete New England's balanced offensive attack.

New England's defense looked shaky early on and it appeared as though the Pats were due for a long afternoon.  Michael Vick was out, but Vince Young stepped up with a career best 400 passing yards in an impressive relief effort.  But the Patriots D rebounded after a rough first quarter and held Philly to a field goal and the aforementioned meaningless late game TD for the remainder of the game, allowing Brady and his boys to get the ball rolling in the second quarter and run up the score.

The Pats are now 8-3 and have the luxury of an easy schedule for the rest of the year.  This Sunday they take on the hapless/Peyton Manning-less Colts at home, where they should hand Indiana their twelfth defeat of the season.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The NBA is Back!

It looks like basketball fans, many of whom had given up hope and were fully prepared for a long, cold winter without professional hoops, have something else to be thankful for this holiday season.  After months of sparring and bickering, the NBA has finally gotten its act together.  The owners and players have reached a labor agreement that will end the lockout and save the 2011-2012 season, which should have gotten underway nearly a month ago.

The abbreviated season, consisting of 66 rgames instead of the usual 82, will begin on Christmas Day. That's still more than enough time (we don't really need a season that starts before Halloween and lingers into the middle of June anyways) to answer many pivotal questions/

Are the Celtics and their aging Big Three of sharpshooter Ray Allen, the "Big Ticket" Kevin Garnett and Captain/"The Truth" Paul Pierce washed up, or do they have one more championship run in them?  KG is no longer the dominating two-way force he once was, but he's still solid, productive, and energetic when healthy.  Allen and Pierce showed no signs of slowing down last year and are still effective players, but Rajon Rondo needs to take on more of scoring role.

How will LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh respond to their collective collapse against the Mavericks last June?  Another deep playoff run seems guaranteed, but do they have what it takes to win an NBA title?  Tell us, LBJ: what should you do?

Have we finally seen the end of the Spurs dynasty?  They should make the playoffs again, but probably.  Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker aren't getting any younger, and this squad just can't keep up with the young bucks in the Association.

How many chumps will Blake Griffin posterize this year? Can his Clippers effectively utilize their talent and take off? (Bill Simmons has his fingers crossed)

Is this the year Kevin Durant wins an MVP award? Can he coexist with Russell Westbrook? I say yes and no, respectively.  Westbrook needs to model his game after Magic Johnson, become more of a passer and less of a scorer.

How will the Lakers respond without Phil Jackson? Have we seen the end of their mini-dynasty? Can Andrew Bynum stay healthy? Does Kobe Bryant have too many miles on his knees? Has Ron Artest gone off the deep end?

And what about Dirk Nowitzki's Mavs? Any chance they can repeat?  I think they caught lightning in a bottle last season and would be shocked if they returned to the Finals.

Will we still be doing the John Wall six months from now?

Can Jimmer Fredette be an effective NBA player?  I think he'll be lucky if he winds up as the next J.J. Redick, and he will have to commit himself to improving his defense.

How will the Knicks play with a full season of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire?  They lacked offensive chemistry last year, but might gel better this season.

Can reigning MVP Derrick Rose lead Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and co. to the top of the Eastern Conference? (If the Celtics can't do this, I hope to God that the Bulls can)

Thankfully we'll have the next six months to find out.

Friday, November 25, 2011

What the Red Sox should be thankful for

1. John Lackey will miss the entire 2012 season.  Hopefully some extended time off will allow the 33 year-old to regroup mentally and come back with a clear head for the 2013 season.  He's been a colossal bust thus far in Boston, and the Sox need him to be a servicable pitcher, at the very least, over the final two years of his deal.

2. Daisuke Matsuzaka, who has given this city more headaches than starts since 2009, is entering the final year of his six year, $52 million deal.

3. The bullpen has a natural replacement for recently departed Jonathan Papelbon in Daniel Bard

4. J.D. Drew is a free-agent, so Boston no longer has to pay him $14 million a year for 65 RBI and an equal number of at-bats ending in called strike threes.

5. Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia all bounced back from injury marred 2010s and seem to be fine going forward.  Hopefully the same can be said for Clay Buchholz.

6. Jarrod Saltalamacchia proved he can be a solid everyday backstop and capable replacement for Captain Jason Varitek

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Braun Beats Kemp

Batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS.

NL MVP Ryan Braun rated better (barely) than Matt Kemp in those three categories this season.  In all the others, Kemp was superior.

I knew going in that the vote was going to be a toss-up between the two talented outfielders.  On one hand, Matt Kemp was clearly the best player in the National League and probably all of baseball in 2011 as the five tool stud finally put it all together in one monster season.   But Braun (20 first place votes and my preseason choice for MVP) compiled similar statistics, and enjoyed the added bonus of playing for the NL Central champions.  In the end, their teams' respective finishes determined the outcome as the voters penalized Kemp (ten first place votes) because his Dodgers were irrelevant in the NL West all year and failed to make the postseason.

I had hoped Kemp (10 bWAR, compared to Braun's 7.7) would win because he deserved it; he enjoyed the better season.  Although exceptions have been made in the past for stars like Andre Dawson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Alex Rodriguez that put up huge numbers for lousy teams, the BBWAA just wasn't willing to hand Kemp the trophy this year, not when Braun was basically right behind him in numerous categories.

But should Kemp pay the price for his team's mediocrity?  He's just one man (along with Clayton Kershaw) on a team of 25, after all, and he obviously did all he could for them while playing half his games in a pitcher's park without much offensive support.  And what about Braun, who had Prince Fielder (third place and one first place vote) protecting him in the lineup all season long and had plenty of help leading the Brew Crew into October with Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, and a strong rotation headed by Zack Greinke, Shaun Marcum, and Yovani Gallardo?  Even if Braun had missed significant time with an injury or posted more ordinary numbers, Milwaukee still would have probably won the division.

The award should go to the best player. Period. But until we have a concrete definition of "valuable," there will always be controversy.

Other notes: Justin Upton (one first place vote) finished fourth, which oddly enough feels both too high and just right at the same time. His numbers weren't anything special, but he carried an otherwise pedestrian Diamondbacks lineup to an NL West title. I'm surprised Albert Pujols still managed to finish fifth in the worst season of his career.  Just goes to show how great he is. Teammate Lance Berkman (seventh) put up better numbers and was more valuable to St. Louis in my opinion.   Reigning NL MVP Joey Votto took the six-slot between them.  Ryan Howard (tenth) finished ahead of teammate Shane Victorino (thirteenth) despite being about half as valuable according to bWAR.  I'm guessing too many voters were seduced by his 33 home runs and 116 RBI for a first place team.

The Senior Circuit ballot's version of David Robertson was Carlos Ruiz, Philadelphia's catcher who amassed gaudy numbers like six home runs and a .383 slugging percentage.  Gotta love the randomness of those down-ballot votes, especially when guys like Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Aramis Ramirez, and Andrew McCutchen were left off the ballot entirely.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Verlander Steals MVP

Verlander won the AL Cy Young and MVP
Justin Verlander is a great pitcher, possibly a future Hall-of-Famer, who enjoyed a great season that will probably go down as the finest of his career.

But he should not be the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player.  I said all along that Joey Bats, Grandy, or Tacoby Bellsbury deserved this thing, and that picking Verlander would be a mistake. 

I can understand why many voters were swayed by Detroit's fireballer, tabbed by many as this year's trendy pick in a race without a clear frontrunner.  He's the classic American pitcher-here's my heater, hit it if you can-who can still dial it up to 100 in the eighth and ninth innings.  He dominates batters, goes deep into games, threw a no-hitter, and gets plenty of strikeouts.  I get it.  But his season is not more special or valuable than recent years by Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Roy Halladay, Jake Peavy or Johan Santana, none of whom (other than Pedro, who got robbed by Ivan Rodriguez in '99 after compiling one of the best seasons by any pitcher ever) were seriously considered as MVP candidates.  Heck, you could argue that Verlander wasn't far and away the most valuable player on his own team, which had legitimate candidates in AL batting champ Miguel Cabrera (fifth), Alex Avila (twelfth), Victor Martinez (sixteenth), and I would even show some love for Doug Fister and Jose Valverde.

But alas, now he is the first starting pitcher to win an MVP since a young Roger Clemens busted out for the star-crossed 1986 Boston Red Sox.

And the argument that there was no slam-dunk candidate holds little water with me.  Runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury had a special season, socking 32 homers and knocking in 105 runners out of the leadoff spot for Boston.  Who does that?  He earned a Gold Glove in centerfield, led the league in total bases and extra base hits and ranked in the top five for almost every single offensive category, stole 39 bases, came up with big hits down the stretch as Boston choked away its Wild Card lead and most importantly, played every day.  What more could you ask for from a player?  Yet he received just four first place votes.  Same goes for third place Jose Bautista, who led the bigs in homers, walks, slugging, OPS, OPS+, and baseballs bruised but was rewarded with only five first place votes. Joey Bats was far and away the best player in all of baseball up until the All-Star break, and managed to produce despite not getting anything to hit. Curtis Granderson had a monster season in the Bronx and was basically Ellsbury with more big flies and runs/RBI but a lower batting average and fewer steals.  He picked up the slack for Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, consistently tearing the cover off the ball while his teammates struggled and ended up with three first place votes to show for it. 

 The trouble was that Boston and New York are so talented that their stars split votes; Ellsbury probably would have won if Adrian Gonzalez (seventh) and Dustin Pedroia (ninth) hadn't been so darned productive, and Granderson (fourth) would have had a shot if Robinson Cano (sixth) didn't put up such great numbers, but that's what happens when you play for great teams.  It's a double-edged sword because they're surrounded by great hitters so their numbers look nicer, but voters give them less credit.  But Verlander seemed to escape this perception even though he pitches for a good team with a good lineup in a park with a spacious outfield, several key advantages for a starting pitcher.  His closer didn't blow any save opportunities, so most of his leads remained intact after he left close ballgames.

I just want to know who in the world put David Robertson (twenty-second with one point, tied with Josh Hamilton) on their ballot.  He had a great season setting up Mariano Rivera and rebuilt the bridge that Rafael Soriano burned to the ground, but give me a break.  I could give you a hundred guys (Nick Swisher, David Ortiz, Howard Kendrick, the list goes on) more valuable than him.

But that's MVP voting at its finest.

Pats Crush Chiefs

"It's not how you start; it's how you finish."

Last night, the Patriots proved this old saying still rings true by shaking off a slow start to clubber Kansas City by a score of 34-3 at Gillette.  The Chiefs drew first blood on Ryan Succop field goal and the Pats failed to score during the first quarter, but KC's slim lead proved to be short-lived.  New England's defense put the clamps on, not allowing another Kansas City point for the rest of the game, and it was only a matter of time before New England's powerful offense finally kicked into gear and pummeled the Chiefs D.  By the end of the third the game had gotten out of hand, and Kansas City never mounted a serious comeback (or posed much of a threat after the first).

Many were looking forward to an intriguing matchup between Tom Brady former backup, Matt Cassel, but the quarterback duel never materialized as Cassel went down with a season ending injury prior to the game.  His replacement, Tyler Palko, couldn't exploit New England's shaky defense and may have had a case of the jitters in his first career start, as he lobbed three interceptions (two to Kyle Arrington) and failed to score.  Brady, on the other hand, had a pretty quiet evening by his lofty standards, attempting only 27 passes (completing 15) for 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski.

New England improved its AFC East leading record to 7-3.  They travel to the City of Brotherly Love to play the Michael Vick and the Eagles (4-6) this Sunday.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Papelbon Gone, Bard Should Shine

Last week Jonathan Papelbon inked a four year, $50 million deal with the Phillies after their talks in a similar deal for incumbent closer Ryan Madson fell through.  "Cinco Ocho" followed in the footsteps of Mo Vaughn, Johnny Damon, Pedro Martinez and others during the past dozen years to depart Boston as a big-name free-agent in the prime of their careers after providing the Fenway Faithful with several years of unforgettable memories.  The former fan favorite's popularity had waned during the past few years here, and many fans had already accepted that their stalwart closer would not be coming back in 2012.  The general consensus was that his skills were in decline after shaky seasons in 2009 and 2010 marked by rising walk and WHIP rates, not to mention his infamous meltdowns in Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS and the final regular season game against the Orioles this year.  Boston's front office has made its fair share of costly free agent mistakes (J.D. Drew, Daisuke Matsuzaka, John Lackey, Carl Crawford, et. al.) and couldn't really afford to blow another $50 million when his natural replacement has been an eighth inning beast

I don't want to imply that Paps, who turns 31 on Wednesday, won't be missed because he was nothing short of superb throughout his seven seasons in Boston. After taking over for Keith Foulke as the full-time ninth inning man in 2006, the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up never failed to notch at least 30 saves (averaging 36 per season) and had only one year (his rather disastrous 2010) in which his ERA exceeded 2.94.  He proved this year that his skills are still intact, and the four-time All-Star joins Philadelphia (desperately in need of a stable closer after rotating Madson, Antonio Bastardo and sunken investment Brad Lidge) with a distinguished track record as one baseball's premier closers, a healthy, talented, and mostly reliable pitcher. 

More importantly for the Phils, he's a battle-tested postseason warrior.  The 2007 World Series champ carried a perfect 0.00 ERA through the first 17 playoff appearances before the Angels torched lit him up and swept the Sox in their most recent October showing.  He may not be Mariano Rivera, but he's pretty close to the next best thing, and he's got that fierce scowl/glare/you don't want to mess with me face down pat.

All I can say is, I'm glad the planned move to the rotation in 2007 never panned out.

But luckily for the Red Sox, they don't have to go out and spend $40 million on say, a Heath Bell, when they've had their own closer of the future waiting in the wings.  Daniel Bard is only 26, throws pure gas and is Papelbon's equal in many respects.  Before wearing down in September and costing his slumping squad a handful of precious wins, he had a 2.03 ERA and was enjoying a great follow-up to his marvelous 2010 campaign (1.93 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 227 ERA+).  His numbers are excellent across the board, he has a few years of big league experience under his belt, and Papelbon's natural heir seems primed to handle the pressure packed ninth inning duties.  Plus, his price tag is only half a million bucks, meaning he makes 1/25th of Papelbon's salary and provides essentially the same production. 

Of course, Boston could always leave him entrenched as their setup man and pursue an experienced closer such as Francisco Cordero or Francisco Rodriguez, but such a signing would be expensive.  Promoting Bard to closer and either converting someone in the bullpen (Dan Wheeler? Bobby Jenks? my boy Alfredo Aceves?) or signing a new setup man, possibly a former closer like Jonathan Broxton or Matt Capps at a bargain price, would seem to be a much wiser economic decision.

The Sox have many options, but I believe the best one is right in front of them.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kemp Nets 8 Years, $160 million

2011 just keeps on getting better for Matt Kemp.

After a disappointing 2010 campaign that saw the ultra-talented centerfielder take some flak for hitting just .249 with 170 strikeouts (a Dodger record) and leading the senior circuit in outs while also regressing on the basepaths (caught 15 times in 34 attempts, leading GM Ned Colletti to publicly criticize him) and in the field (-0.2 dWAR), Kemp quickly erased any sour aftertaste and rewarded fantasy owners everywhere (talk about a third round bargain!) with a season reminiscent of Vladimir Guerrero in his prime.  He showed up to spring training committed to improving his baserunning,  setting the bar at 40 thefts with a high percentage rate. 

Mission accomplished, and then some.

He achieved this goal while making strides in almost every other area as well.  His 10 bWAR and 126 RBI led the bigs, and his 115 runs, 39 dingers, 353 total bases, 171 OPS+ were all tops in the NL as he set career bests across the board.  The first time All-Star made a legitimate run at the triple crown with his September surge but his .324 average ultimately fell short of league leader Jose Reyes (.337) and runner-up Ryan Braun (.332).  He also narrowly missed joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Alfonso Soriano as the only members of baseball's exclusive 40/40 club, but can find consolation in his second Gold Glove and Silver Slugger.  Despite playing for a mediocre Dodgers squad, Kemp carried their offense and deserves the NL MVP for this monster season.  If Clayton Kershaw's Cy Young win is any indication, it's that the voters won't penalize him for an otherwise lost season in Hollywood.

But if he doesn't receive the extra piece of hardware, I have a feeling he won't be too disappointed.  The man just inked an 8 year, $160 million deal that will keep him in LA for the remainder of the decade.

Wait a second...weren't the Dodgers supposed to be bankrupt?

Disregarding the franchise's financial situation, my mind immediately flashed to former teammate Manny Ramirez signing the same deal with Boston and Dan Duquette a decade ago, when he joined a team quite similar to Kemp's Dodgers.  Manny signed on to an 85 win team that missed the playoffs with that year's Cy Young winner (Pedro Martinez) and a mostly mediocre offense besides Nomar Garciaparra and Carl Everett.  Kemp returns to an 82 win team that missed the postseason with Kershaw filling in for Pedro and Andre Ethier playing the role of the rest of the lineup.  In addition, many scouts have frequently referred to Kemp as "Manny Ramirez with speed," high praise for the budding superstar.  Even his mental lapses on the field and off-field distractions (Rihanna) have merited comparisons with Mannywood.

There are obvious differences, of course.  Ramirez was a much more established player when he inked his deal; he had already played eight seasons for the Cleveland Indians, teaming up with Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and others to lead the offensive powerhouse to five consecutive playoff appearances from 1995 to 1999 including a pair of Fall Classics in '95 and '97.  The 1994 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up had made four All-Star teams, won three Silver Sluggers and finished in the top six of AL MVP voting three years running.  Kemp's trophy case is much less crowded and he's never made it to the game's biggest stage.  More specifically, he's never made it past Game Five of the NLCS.

Manny was also a much better hitter to that point in his career, arguably the best righthanded hitter in the game at the time (only Belle and Nomar really deserved to be in the conversation).  He owned a .313/.407/.592 triple slash line, had a great batting eye and ranked among the game's best run producers after plating 165 runners in 1999, when he set his career high with 8 bWAR.  Kemp, on the other hand, boasts a good but not great .294/.350/.496 line somewhat inflated by his huge season, before which no one labeled him as one of the game's premier hitters.  He still strikes out too much (159 times in 2011), doesn't walk enough (only 50 unintentional free passes) and simply isn't as polished as peers like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.

But while we're examining the Manny parallel, it's important to note that Duquette's investment paid off quite nicely. Despite the bitter, messy ending to the mercurial slugger's hot and cold relationship with the team in the summer of 2008 that ended with his getting shipped to the Dodgers at the July 31st deadline, the megadeal worked out pretty well for Boston. In his seven and a half seasons in Beantown Ramirez replicated his Cleveland figures by triple slashing .312/.411/.588. An All-Star every year, the 2004 World Series MVP joined forces with David Ortiz to form a lethal 3-4 heart of the order threat that helped lead the new look Red Sox to four postseason appearances and a pair of championships. Steroids or not, he goes down as the best righthanded hitter in the team's storied history along with Jim Rice and Jimmie Foxx.

And while Kemp isn't on Ramirez's level as a hitter, he still has three key advantages.  The first is age: he just turned 27 whereas Ramirez was almost 29 when he signed the deal.  The second is durability; he's averaged 159 games played the past four years while Ramirez never appeared in more than 154 and never hesitated to ask out of the lineup when he didn't feel like playing.  The third and most important is that he's a much more well-rounded ballplayer.  Although he rates below average by most advanced fielding metrics, he has much more range (and the aforementioned pair of Gold Gloves, or two more than Ramirez ever won) and is nowhere near the defensive liability ManRam was.  He's also a threat on the basepaths, as he's already enjoyed three seasons of at least 34 stolen bags.  Ramirez swiped his entire 19 year career.  Kemp is widely regarded as a five tool stud in the same mold as Ken Griffey Jr., whereas Ramirez was elite in two areas (hitting, power) and deficient in the other three (running, throwing, catching).  Therefore, when Kemp is at his best he is significantly more valuable, as reflected in their bWAR scores (Manny was typically good for around four or five a season, but Kemp should be able to produce a few more).

Los Angeles shouldn't expect eight more 2011's from Matt Kemp, but he won't be a bust either.  If he can more or less split the difference between his disastrous 2010 and superlative 2011 he'll be a consistent 30/30 threat with the potential to score and drive in 100 runs with a batting average in the .290 range. 

That's not Manny Ramirez production, but in this brave new world dominated by pitching it's plenty good enough.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Kershaw Nabs NL Cy Young

Clayton Kershaw may not be the next Sandy Koufax, but for the LA Dodgers and their fans the young lefty is the next best thing.

Along with budding superstar Matt Kemp, the 23 year-old southpaw was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise disappointing Dodger squad (after the way they stunk up the joint in the first half, it's hard to believe they finished three games over .500).  And while the comparisons with the "Left Arm of God" are undoubtedly premature, they aren't entire unreasonable.  After all, Koufax's career didn't take off until his age 25 season, and he didn't win his first Cy Young until he was 27.  Kershaw has been a great starter for three years now, so he has quite the head start on the '60s pitching legend even if he still has a long way to go. 

So in a decade we can check back and see how his career played out, but for now he's the 2011 NL Cy Young winner.  I predicted this months ago, before he captured the senior circuit's pitching version of the triple crown (Justin Verlander turned the trick in the AL) with 21 wins, 248 strikeouts and a major league leading 2.28 ERA, numbers that wouldn't look out of place on the back of Koufax's baseball card.  To boot, "the Claw" also led all NL hurlers in WHIP and fewest H/9 while earning his first All-Star nomination.  He even took home a Gold Glove, something Koufax can't claim.  For all this he received 27 of a possible 32 first place votes and won the Cy Young by a comfortable margin.

Roy Halladay, last year's winner and the favorite to repeat in 2011, finished a distant second (only four first place votes) despite replicating his 2010 statistics, leading the league in ERA+, complete games, fewest BB/9 and posting the league's best K/BB ratio for the fourth consecutive season.  Doc will be 35 next May, but the two-time winner has shown no signs of slowing down.  Teammate Cliff Lee was right behind him despite not receiving any first place votes.  The 2008 AL Cy Young paced the league in shutouts, was untouchable in June and August (a combined three earned runs in ten starts) and set career bests in numerous categories, but his awesome season just wasn't enough in Year of the Pitcher, Part II. 

No one saw Ian Kennedy coming, the former Yankee prospect turned Arizona Diamondback who stole the remaining first place vote and finished fourth on the strength of a league leading 21 victories (tied with Kershaw) and an .840 winning percentage, the best in the bigs.  Cole Hamels, the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, rounded out the top five with a career year of his own.

Tim Lincecum, the 2008 and 2009 NL recipient of the award, rebounded from a streaky 2010 to finish sixth despite having a losing record (13-14) for the first time in his career.  His strikeout and walk rates have been going in the wrong direction the past few years, and San Francisco would like to see "The Freak" reverse these trends to avoid continued regression.  Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo, making his first appearance on a Cy Young ballot, was right on his heels despite also suffering a slight dip in his K rate.  YoGa compensated by setting career bests across the board and leading a fearsome threesome with Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum at the front of the Brew Crew's rotation.  Matt Cain, criminally underrated for pitching in Lincecum's shadow, completed another magnificent all-around season for the Giants and finished eighth but, like Lincecum, suffered in the win department (just a dozen wins despite a 2.88 ERA and good peripherals.  He somehow has a sub.500 career record).

Closers John Axford and unanimous NL Rookie of the Year Craig Kimbrel tied for ninth, and a pair of Giants rounded out the ballot with 13 game winners Ryan Vogelsong and Madison Bumgarner both receiving one point (their remaining rotation mate, Jonathan Sanchez, took a major step backwards after a career 2010 and was nowhere to be found on this year's ballot).

On Monday the AL MVP will be announced, and there is sure to be plenty of controversy regardless of who wins.  I still maintain that Jose Bautista deserves to win, but would settle for Miguel Cabrera or Curtis Granderson.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Maddon and Gibson Named Top Skippers

Joe Maddon and Kirk Gibson were named managers of the year today. Unfortunately, both skippers watched their squads get eliminated during the division series, but sometimes just making it there is satisfying enough.

 The Rays looked doomed from the start.

After getting eliminated in the 2010 ALDS by the Texas Rangers, they watched the core of their team evaporate during the offseason.  Matt Garza and slugging first baseman/franchise home run leader Carlos Pena packed their bags for the Windy City.  Stud closer Rafael Soriano inked a three year, $45 million deal with the Yankees to be Mariano Rivera's setup man.  Top-of the order speedster and lineup catalyst Carl Crawford shipped up to Boston, where Theo Epstein and company had assembled one of the greatest fantasy baseball teams in recent memory.

Not only had Tampa Bay's small budget directly strengthened their richer division rivals, but it could only manage to afford replacements such as...Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez?  Two over the hill former Idiots who were a combined 75 years old on Opening Day? 

As they say in Brooklyn, "fuhgetaboutit." Sure, Tampa still had great pitching with 2010 AL Cy Young runner up David Price anchoring a rotation with future 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson waiting in the wings.  Yeah, they still had plenty of everyday talent with Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton.  And fine, their defense was still all that and a bag of chips.  But who in their right mind gave them anything more than a snowball's chance in hell of making the playoffs?  Best case scenario, they'd hang around for a few months and end up with 85 wins or so, but October baseball was definitely out of the question.

And for about 80 percent of the baseball season, the Rays held up their end of the bargain.  They were 0-6 before you could say "Tropicana Field."  The Manny experiment lasted all of five games when he flunked another drug test and unceremoniously retired.  But Tampa bounced back, and actually managed to slip into first place for most of May while the Red Sox took a while to click.  But once June rolled around, the Yanks and Sox kicked into gear and the Rays spent the whole summer looking up in the standings at those two giants. 

James Shields , Matthew Joyce and Casey Kotchman were all enjoying career years, rookie Desmond Jennings was doing his best Crawford impression, and Kyle Farnsworth had the ninth inning locked down.  But it still wasn't enough, because on September first Tampa Bay looked dead in the water.  Boston and New York were duking it out for the division title, and the loser would surely find consolation in winning the wild card.

We all know what happened during the next four weeks.  The Rays caught fire, the Red Sox fell apart and Tampa captured the wild card on the season's final day.  Through this rollercoaster season, Joe Maddon provided stability and passion for his scrappy bunch of overachievers, and that's why he's the AL Manager of the Year.  He received all but two possible first place votes, which ended up going to Detroit's Jim Leyland and the Rangers' Ron Washington.

Postseason legend Kirk Gibson, on the other hand, helped turn the Arizona Diamondbacks around from a nightmare 2010 (second worst record in the NL) to a division title in 2011.  His team deserves most of the credit, though.  Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson blossomed into the most lethal 1-2 punch at the top of the Snakes rotation since Dan Haren and Brandon Webb in 2008.  J.J. Putz solidifed the bullpen, while Justin Upton, Ryan Roberts and Miguel Montero made major strides at the dish.

And while their story isn't nearly as captivating as Tampa Bay's, Arizona tangled with the defending World Series champs for most of the season before finally pulling away down the stretch. With a solid lineup and improved pitching, Arizona is the most well-rounded team in the NL West (a notoriously weak division) and is certainly a threat to win another flag in 2012.  The Rays aren't likely to catch lightning in a bottle again, though, and I have a hard time seeing them reaching the postseason for the fourth time in five years.

But they just might prove me wrong.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Verlander Captures Cy Young

I'm not sure if anyone saw this one coming, but Justin Verlander was the runaway winner of the 2011 AL Cy Young Award.  The Detroit flamethrower earned all 28 first place votes after leading the bigs in wins, games started, innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP, and H/9.  He also paced the junior circuit in winning percentage and ERA, the latter giving him the AL's pitching version of the Triple Crown.  And did I mention he tossed a no-hitter in May against a hard-hitting Toronto offense?It was a truly dominant season by the Tigers' ace and merits serious MVP consideration, but we'll have to wait until Friday to see if he becomes the first starting pitcher to take home league Most Valuable Player honors since Roger Clemens did it for the Bosox 25 years ago.

Jered Weaver played runner up in the AL ERA race (lost to Verlander by .01) as well as the Cy Young race, although his second straight impressive season is nothing to sneeze at.  The 2010 major league strikeout leader saw his whiff rates regress to career levels this year, but he posted career bests in virtually every other category and seems to have really blossomed into a top tier starter.

"Big Game" James Shields recovered from a brutal 2010 campaign, one in which no major league pitcher allowed more hits or earned runs, to enjoy a marvelous return to form in 2011.  He led both leagues with 11 complete games, meaning he went the distance every third start or so, while also putting up career bests across the board. 

A slimmed down C.C. Sabathia was his usual steady self at the front of the Yankees' thin rotation, falling just short of 20 wins but enjoying another stellar season in New York before opting out of his hefty contract there.  A cause for concern is his rising WHIP that has increased in each of his three years in the Bronx, but otherwise he's as reliable as they come and, in my opinion, the Yanks' most indispensable player on a roster loaded with All-Stars.

Detroit closer Jose Valverde rounded out the top five on the strength of a perfect season, 49 for 49 in save opportunities, at the end of the Tigers' pen.  I don't think he deserved a higher finish than C.J. Wilson and Dan Haren, or even the immortal Mariano Rivera (numbers six through eight), but voters seemed to be swayed by gaudy save totals (see Francisco Rodriguez and Brad Lidge).  Josh Beckett finished ninth for Boston in a resurgence that rivaled that of Shields, and Toronto southpaw Ricky Romero closed out the top ten thanks to a nifty 2.92 ERA despite facing the AL Beast's Big Three in roughly 40 percent of his starts.  RR Cool Jay made huge strides his past two seasons and is the undisputed ace north of the border.

Last but not least we have David Robertson, Rivera's setup man and an All-Star who quickly stepped in for an ineffective Rafael Soriano to build the crucial eighth inning bridge to Mariano.  His 1.08 ERA and 100 punchouts in 66 and 2/3 innings speak for themselves.

Tomorrow the managers of the year will be announced, and I'm thinking Joe Maddon and Tony LaRussa deserve them for helping lead their teams to historic comebacks down the stretch.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Hellickson, Kimbrel Named Top Rookies

Over the next week the BBWAA will announce the recipients of baseball's key awards, starting with today's release of 2011's Rookies of the Year.  It was fitting that, in a second consecutive season of declining offense, the sport's two top freshmen were pitchers.

Jeremy Hellickson, the Tampa Bay Ray also known as "Hell-Boy," took home the hardware in the AL on the strength of a strong 13-10 record, shiny 2.95 ERA and pretty good 1.15 WHIP across 29 starts and 189 innings.  Hellickson took 17 of 28 possible first place votes, but his poor 1.63K/BB ratio and uninspiring 5.6K/9 rates suggest he still has plenty of work to do.  Teammate Desmond Jennings finished seventh despite not appearing in 99 games this season because he was still in the minors.

Five first place votes went to runner-up Mark Trumbo, who posted solid powers with 29 home runs and 87 ribbies but was undone by a low .254 batting average (blame the 120 whiffs and lackluster .274 BaBIP) and a terrible .291 on base percentage (fueled by 19 non-intentional walks) that would give Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta nightmares all winter long.  The power's legit, but he needs to improve his plate discipline if he wants to stay in the lineup everyday.  Teammate Jordan Walden and his 32 saves tied with Jennings.

Four first place votes went to third place finisher/strapping Kansas City first-sacker Eric Hosmer, who just turned 22 and put up Billy Butler numbers in his big league debut.  He fell just short of the .300 average, 20 homer benchmarks but can take solace in his strong second half over which he triple slashed .313/.349/.493 (Michael Young numbers) with an OPS nearly 100 points higher than his first half figure.  Fared much better than fellow rookie/can't miss prospect Mike Moustakas.

The remaining two first place votes were split between Yankee starter Ivan Nova (16-4 record hide his pedestrian peripherals and Dustin Ackley (Seattle keystone who appeared in just 90 games but posted 117 OPS+).  Ackley's teammate and Felix Hernandez's wingman Michael Pineda (9.1K/9) also received consideration,

Over in the NL, Atlanta fireman Craig Kimbrel received all 32 first place votes in a well deserved sweep.  The numbers--new Rookie record of 46 saves (breaking Neftali Feliz's record of 40 set last season), 2.10 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, and most impressively, 127 punchouts in only 77 innings for an absurd 14.8K/9 rate.  By comparison, AL ROTY Jeremy Hellickson completed 112 more frames and struck out ten fewer batters.  Wow.

Teammate and first baseman Freddie Freeman finished second by basically duplicating Hosmer's numbers (no significant difference in any category, right down to their thoroughly mediocre bWAR totals), while Vance Worley came out of nowhere to finish third after going 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA behind Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt in Philly.  Wilson Ramos enjoyed a fine season (15 homers in 113 games) for Washington behind the plate as Ivan Rodriguez's replacement, and Arizona starter Josh Collmenter rounded out the top five with a strong 1.07 WHIP and 3.38 ERA.

Sixth place finisher Danny Espinosa helped many a fantasy team with 21 bombs and 17 thefts out of the second base slot for the Nats, but a whopping 166 strikeouts suppressed his batting average (.236) and made him prone to slumps.  Darwin Barney got some consideration for basically showing up to play middle infield everyday for the Cubs and tied with Kenley Jansen, who pitched admirably in relief for a sunken Dodgers team.

Tomorrow the AL Cy Young winner will be revealed, and something tells me it's going to be that Justin Verlander fellow.

Patriots, Offense Bounce Back

The last month or so has been pretty rough on New England and its potent offensive attack, which had scored at least 30 points during its first five games but then failed to top 20 over its next three.  The Patriots rely so heavily on their passing game that they really struggled when defenses started keying in on Wes Welker, Chad Ochocinco went AWOL and Deion Branch didn't pick up the slack.  Consequently, Tom Brady's numbers took a hit and more often than not the team found itself kicking the ball away or settling for short-range field goals.
New England is the AFC East at least

But last night marked a return to form for Brady and his bunch, who beat the Jets (in New York this time) for the second time this year to reinforce their 30-21 triumph at Gillette during Columbus Day weekend.  In front of scores of veterans Tom was terrific once again, needing only 26 completions to total 329 yards and a trio of touchdowns.  Rob Gronkowski, who leads all NFL tight ends in six-pointers since the start of last season, hauled in two of them (Branch snagged the other) while Ochocinco contributed 65 yards on just two catches.  Stephen Gostkowski banged home three field goals, including a beautiful 50 yarder to get the scoring started in the first.

New England only led 13-9 at the half, but proceeded to pour it on after the break.  They started pulling away in the third by tacking ten points onto their lead while the defense held Mark Sanchez (306 yards, 20/39, one TD and two picks) and the Jets scoreless.  New York trimmed the lead to seven early in the fourth on a Sanchez-Plaxico Burress connection, but the Pats responded with two touchdowns of their own to put the game away.  The defense does deserve some credit for keeping New York off the board in the first and third quarters, whereas New England scored in all four.

The 37-16 win vaulted New England (6-3) into first place in the AFC East and proved they, not the Jets nor Bills (both 5-4), are still the top-dog in the division.  The Pats return home for their Week 11 Monday night tilt with a thoroughly mediocre Chiefs squad (4-5) in their last game before Turkey Day.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Patriots Fall to Giants

When Tom Brady slung a perfect fourteen yard pass to Rob Gronkowski (redeeming himself after a pair of drops on the previous two plays) in the middle of the endzone to give New England a 20-17 lead with just over a minute and a half remaining in Sunday's brawl (every time you turned around someone was fighting) between the Patriots and Giants, it looked like another classic Brady comeback was complete.  All the Pats had to do was hold off Eli Manning who, contrary to his own belief, is not now and never will be an elite quarterback, and his boys for another 96 seconds, and the win was theirs.

But that task proved too difficult for the much maligned Patriot D to handle as they helped New York, minus their top rusher Ahmad Bradshaw and leading receiver Hakeem Nicks, move 80 yards on eight plays with a devastating pass interference call against Sergio Brown.  Manning made a few nice passes (and his fear of the sack led to more than a couple ugly heaves off his back foot), but managed to come through with a touchdown pass to Jake Ballard with fifteen seconds left that secured a four point Giants victory, their sixth in seven games.  New England, meanwhile, has lost consecutive games for just the third time since the beginning of the 2003 season.
It was a weird game; no one scored, at all, in the first half, as series after series stalled and ended in punts.  Gostkowski uncharacteristically shanked a 27-yarder with three seconds left in the first half, and New England's high powered offense, suffering through its third straight subpar performance, was so incapable that the Gillette crowd showered them with boos after a Brady incompletion in the third quarter.  Both offenses finally got on track after that, but it ended up being too little, too late for the home team.

Brady, sacked and picked off twice, was not his sharpest in this one but still put together a solid performance, throwing a pair of TDs while notching 342 yards on 28/49 passing.  Manning also got two touchdowns of his own and went 20/39 for 250 yards.  After a couple down weeks Wes Welker returned to form, racking up 136 receiving yards on nine catches, while Gronkowski snagged the aforementioned six pointer and finished the day with 101 yards on eight receptions. 

The Patriots, now 5-3, will play New York again in Week 10 when they head to MetLife Stadium to battle the Jets,  also 5-3, on Sunday night.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Prince Albert or Prince Fielder?

Slugging first basemen Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder lead this winter's loaded free agent class, and both figure to wind up with massive paychecks sooner or later.  Pujols is looking to stay in St. Louis, but Milwaukee seems unlikely to bring Fielder back.  Ideally he would find a home in the American League, where he could be the best full-time DH we've seen since David Ortiz was teaming up with Manny Ramirez five years ago, but the Cubs need a first baseman after Carlos Pena's departure and seem to be in the mix for him.
But nothing's set in stone, so the question is; which one would you rather have?

The case for Pujols/Against Prince

-Hands down best hitter in the game since 2001
-More athletic and one of the hardest workers in the game, so he should age gracefully.  Hefty sluggers such as Fielder tend to decline earlier and more rapidly
-Incomparable consistency, whereas Prince has pulled an Alex Rodriguez by performing significantly better in odd-numbered years
-You won't confuse him for Ichiro Suzuki on the basepaths, but he's reached Fielder's career stolen base total (16-is it just me or does that seem a little high for the big fella?) in two different seasons (2005 and 2009).  Pujols is an above average baserunner (16 career Rbaser) with great instincts while Fielder is just too big (-28 career Rbaser)
-Fielder is a subpar fielder (-4.5 defensive bWAR) while Pujols is a good one (11.3 defensive bWAR and two Gold Gloves, for those of you who put stock in such awards)
-Fielder, like most lefty sluggers, has a big platoon split vs. southpaws.  Pujols crushes everybody

The case for Prince/Against Pujols
-At least four years younger than the Machine, and at age 27 is in the heart of his prime.  Pujols may have already entered the decline phase of his career after regressing in two straight seasons
-Will be more affordable
-Is incredibly durable and plays everyday, having averaged 160 games played since his first full season in 2006 (how are his legs and knees staying intact to allow him to do this?!).  Pujols is a warrior but has missed an average of ten games per season over the same time frame
-Was more productive at the dish in 2011 (and 2007, when he blasted 50 homers to lead the Senior Circuit and slugged .618 at the tender age of 23)
-Pujols' plate discipline took a major step back last season as he chased a career high percentage of pitches out of the strike zone and set a career low with 61 walks.  Pitchers seemed not to fear him as much; his 15 intentional walks were his fewest since 2004.  On the other hand, Fielder topped 100 free passes (a league leading 32 were intentional) for the third straight year

Personally, I'd rather have Fielder simply because he'll be more productive over the life of the contract.  Whoever signs him gets the rest of his prime and early decline years, whereas Pujols may not return to his dominance from a few years ago.  I think he'll bounce back since he was a monster in the second half, but in the worst case scenario he just continues to decline and whoever signs him is stuck in an A-Rod situation where you're paying a player $30 million in his late 30s/early 40s when he can no longer be a productive everyday player.