Monday, December 31, 2012

NBA All Decade Team 2000s

  PG Steve Nash--Edges out Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, and Tony Parker
SG Kobe Bryant--Over Manu GinobiliAllen IversonDwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Vince Carter
SF LeBron James--In a class by himself, but Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady, and Paul Pierce are worthy of consideration as well
PF Tim Duncan--Really tough call between him, Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. Pau Gasol's been great, too.
C Shaquille O'Neal--I'll take the former Superman over the current one (Dwight Howard) and Yao Ming, who just couldn't stay healthy.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Round Numbers

We love round numbers in baseball. Psychologically, there's a big difference between a .300 hitter and a .296 hitter, a 20 game winner and an 18 game winner, and a batter with 100 RBI versus one with 97. Even though the difference is so indescribably small--a handful of base hits here, a three-run homer there--over the course of a 162 game season, there's still some allure to reaching certain figures. Until the steroid era turned baseball's record book in its head, 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 300 wins all guaranteed a plaque in Cooperstown. Why do you think Craig Biggio stuck around so long?

Here are some players who fell short of round numbers in several key categories last year:

Celtics Sputtering

After dropping six of their past eight games, the Boston Celtics stumble into tonight's tilt in Sacramento with a 14-15 record.

The last few games have been downright ugly. After enjoying a big win in Brooklyn on Christmas Day, the Celtics flew out to California for a three game set but apparently left their A Game behind on the East Coast. On Thursday they were blown out of the Staples Center by Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers. Boston mustered just 77 points, its lowest scoring output of the season, while allowing the Clips to pile up 106. Last night's tilt against the Golden State Warriors didn't go much better. Minus Rajon Rondo and Leandro Barbosa, the shorthanded C's managed 83 points against Golden State's much improved defense and lost by 18.

Why is Boston off to another sluggish start? How come the Celts aren't just losing, but losing badly (in two-thirds of their losses they were outscored by at least ten points)?

Well, they're old, but you knew that already. The simple answer is a lack of rebounding, especially on the offensive end. Boston ranks second-to-last in the Association in offensive rebounding and total rebounding, and routinely gets crushed on the boards. It's telling that Kevin Garnett leads the team in blocks and rebounds with 0.8 swats and 6.9 rebounds per game. The starting five has ample size with KG and Brandon Bass, but the second unit is woefully undersized (especially with Chris Wilcox sideline by a sprained thumb) and gets eaten alive by bigger, stronger teams.

The defense is still good but has been undermined by this lack of size as well. Last year the Celtics had the stingiest defense in the league, one that allowed the second fewest points per game and boasted the best Defensive Rating. So far this season the defense is letting up eight more points per game and ranks near the middle of the pack. I haven't been impressed by the interior defense, but fully expect the perimeter D to improve once defensive stalwart Avery Bradley returns from shoulder surgery.

The offense has been underwhelming as well, despite great starts from Rondo and Paul Pierce. Newcomers Jason Terry and Courtney Lee were expected to fill the void left by Ray Allen but have been disappointments so far. Neither one looks comfortable in their new digs yet. The Jet's usage rate is way down, from 23.3 percent last year to 17.5 percent this season, and his field goal attempts have dropped by one-third. He needs to look for his shot more and not be afraid to pull the trigger. As for Lee, he's struggled with his outside shot, converting fewer three-point attempts than ever before. Doc Rivers gave him a lot of run last night--a whopping 40 minutes--and he responded with 18 points. Hopefully that performance inspires confidence in Lee and gets him back on track.

It's still too early to panic. Last year Boston got off to a similarly sluggish start--15 wins and 17 losses--before turning it around and going 24-10 to close out the season. I expect the Celtics will start to gel soon enough once the newcomers settle in. This year's squad has been plagued by inconsistency and underperformance early on, but it's only a matter of time before it turns the corner, gets on a roll and plays like the team that came within one win of a Finals appearance last spring.  Danny Ainge would be wise to trade for another big man to bolster the frontcourt, but I don't believe a major shake-up is necessary.

Tonight, in their final game of 2012, the Celtics finish up their West Coast swing with a favorable matchup against the Kings. Look for the Green to end the year on a high note.

Hall of Fame Ballot Holdovers

The other day I looked at the 24 players making their first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, so today I evaluate the 13 holdovers who have appeared on previous ballots. Next to the players' names in parenthese I have included the number of years, including this one, that a player has been on the ballot.

As before, I judge each candidate objectively and by the numbers, discounting any steroid use or suspicion.

Jack Morris (14)-No
The classic borderline case. Won a lot of games, thew a lot of innings and delivered arguably the best postseason start of all time. By traditional measures, he was outstanding, but advanced metrics tell another story. His ERA and WHIP are too high, his K/9 rate and WAR are too low. His JAWS score ranks 167th among all starting pitchers. 167th! I'm sorry, but that is not a Hall of Fame pitcher, especially not when you could make the case that guys like David Wells, Kevin Brown, Jim Kaat, Wes Ferrell, and Rick Reuschel are more Hall-worthy. Those who claim Morris pitched to the score are simply wrong, and those who point to his playoff record don't mention his unspectacular 3.80 ERA in October, or that his ERA exceeded 6.50 in three of his seven postseason series. If Morris pitched for a lesser team that didn't make the playoffs or provide him with as much run support, he wouldn't be in the Cooperstown conversation.

Jeff Bagwell (3)-Yes
His numbers speak for themselves. His .948 OPS ranks 22nd all-time and his 76.7 bWAR ranks 36th among position players. The only reason he hasn't gained induction is because many suspect he used performance enhancing drugs. There is no evidence to support this unfounded claim, and I was under the impression that in America one is innocent until proven guilty. I have the feeling some voters are trying to wait Bagwell out, that if they delay his induction long enough some proof of 'roiding will turn up. Maybe it will, but maybe it won't.

Lee Smith (11)-No
Only Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman have saved more games than Smith, who compiled 478 of them over the course of 18 year-career and led the league four times in that department. However, his 3.03 ERA is not particularly exceptional considering a) that spent many years in the National League and b) his peak coincided with a period of low run-scoring levels and his career wound down just as the Steroid Era took off. Furthermore, his 1.26 career WHIP is also good but not great. He failed to win a Cy Young award even though (by my count) eight different closers took home the trophy between 1974 and 1992 (and three--Rollie Fingers, Willie Hernandez, and Dennis Eckersley--won MVP!).

Tim Raines (4)-Yes
The second best leadoff hitter of modern times was also the most efficient basestealer in the history of the sport. Raines wasn't appreciated because his incredible peak overlapped with Rickey Henderson's, the player with whom he's most frequently compared, and because he spent the first half of his career in Montreal where his exposure was limited. Henderson, Lou Brock, Billy Hamilton, and Ty Cobb are the only players with more career thefts than Raines' 808.

Alan Trammell (12)-Yes
I don't believe that Trammell, in a vacuum, is Hall-worthy. His numbers don't jump off the page and while he was very good for a long time, he was rarely elite. However, because Trammell compares favorably to other shortstops (probably one of the ten best that ever played the position) and because so many inferior shortstops have already been inducted into Cooperstown (Phil Rizzuto, Luis Aparicio, Joe Sewell), then Trammell definitely belongs. His resume stacks up well against Barry Larkin, who was inducted last summer. Like Larkin, the lifelong Tiger did everything well but did not stand out in any facet of the game. Finished runner-up to George Bell in the 1987 AL MVP race but clearly deserved the award. Unfortunately for Trammell, when he came up for election players like A-Rod, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Miguel Tejada had revolutionized the position and changed baseball's perceptions about shortstops. People saw them winning batting titles and home run crowns, so Trammell's numbers paled in comparison. During the '80s, Trammell ranked with Cal Ripken Jr. and Robin Yount as the top-hitting shortstops of the decade.

Edgar Martinez (4)-Yes
A good comp for Bagwell, except his case is hurt by the fact that he played the vast majority of his games as Seattle's Designated Hitter. His counting numbers don't blow anyone away but his .312/.418/.515 batting line is exceptional. That OBP ranks 21st all-time and his 147 OPS+ ties him with Hall of Famers Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell and Mike Schmidt. The best Designated Hitter of all-time (though David Ortiz may eventually pass him), E-Mart was one of baseball's best pure hitters for more than a decade, and that should count for something.

Fred McGriff (4)-Yes
Enjoyed many good years and was a model of consistency, but the knock on him is that he never had that stand-alone, MVP-worthy breakout season. The truth of the matter is that the 1994 strike cut his finest year short.  He was tearing the cover off the ball at the time and was well on his way to setting career highs in home runs and RBI (projected to finish the year with 48 dingers and 134 ribbies). It's reasonable to assume that had he played out the season he would have tacked on the ten base knocks and seven moon shots he needed to reach the 2,500 hit and 500 home run clubs. Ranks inside the top 50 all-time in home runs, total bases, walks, RBI, runs created, and extra base hits. One problem with McGriff is that he spent multiple seasons with five different teams so he never established a loyal fan base to actively campaign for his enshrinement. He can't identify with one team and doesn't have the groundswell of support that Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo had.

Larry Walker (3)-Yes
It's no secret Walker's statistics are greatly inflated by his time spent at Coors Field, where he batted an absurd .381/.462/.710 for his career. Everywhere else, he was a .282/.372/.501 hitter. Good, but not Cooperstown-worthy. However, I don't believe it's fair to hold that against him considering many other Hall of Fame hitters have their plaques hanging in Cooperstown because of their home field advantage; Jim Rice, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, Mel Ott, Chuck Klein, and Duke Snider, to name a few. And while plenty of hitters have boosted their numbers in Denver's thin air, none of them dominated to the extent that Walker did. Besides, he was a great player both before he arrived in Colorado and after he left. If he doesn't get in, then I don't see how in the world Todd Helton will.

Mark McGwire (7)-Yes
Arguably the greatest right-handed power hitter in the history of the sport, on par with Jimmie Foxx and Harmon Killebrew. Big Mac owns the best HR/AB ratio of all-time, the eighth best slugging percentage, tenth best OPS and more home runs than all but nine men who ever played the game. Won the 1987 AL Rookie of the Year unanimously, made a dozen All-Star teams and teamed with Jose Canseco to lead the Oakland A's to three consecutive World Series appearances from 1988-1990. He and Sammy Sosa are the only players with four straight 50-homer seasons, and had McGwire gone deep one more time in '87 he'd be the only player with five 50-homer seasons.

Don Mattingly (13)-No
For much of the 1980s, Donnie Baseball sure looked like a future Hall of Famer. From 1984 through 1989 he was arguably the game's top player, a hitting machine who batted for power, drove in lots of runs and earned a reputation as the slickest fielding first baseman in the league. He was, for all intents and purposes, a rich man's Keith Hernandez/the second coming of Gil Hodges. But a bad back limited him during the second half of his career, sapping his power and forcing him into early retirement. He deteriorated into James Loney overnight;
1982-1989  .323/.368/.521  144 OPS+  32.2 bWAR
1990-1995  .286/.345/.405  105 OPS+   7.6 bWAR
Like Dale Murphy, his peak was spectacular but just didn't last long enough. His career only lasted 14 seasons, so he needed to manage several more elite seasons to compensate for his lack of longevity.

Dale Muprhy (15)-No
It's Murph's last time on the ballot, and he's not getting voted in. Had a great run from 1980-'87, but even that stretch is marred by a down year in '81 and a good-not-great '86. So basically his canidacy comes down to six seasons, and when your case rests on six years those need to knock your socks off, like what Sandy Koufax did. In the 1960s he was perhaps the most dominant pitcher the game has ever seen. While Murphy was outstanding during his peak they weren't all-time great seasons. Nobody's talking about his 1987 campaign in the same sentence as Mickey Mantle's 1956 or Ted Williams' 1941. Murphy didn't do anything out of the ordinary, such as put together a ten win season like Mike Trout just had. Yes, Murphy won back-to-back MVPs, but so did Roger Maris. Juan Gonzalez won two in a three-year span (awards that should have gone to Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra) and fell off the ballot after two years. Murphy had half a dozen great seasons, but so did Mattingly, Garciaparra, Dave Parker, Tony Oliva, Dick Allen, and countless other fringe candidates. During the 12 other seasons of Murphy's career combined, he was worth 6.4 bWAR. Total. In 2012, nine position players were worth no less than 6.7 bWAR. Murphy was not as good as Joe DiMaggio (as Nolan Ryan claimed), but he is the poster boy for the Hall of Very Good.

Rafael Palmeiro (3)-Yes
Played 20 years and amassed some truly remarkable counting numbers, none more impressive than his combination of 3,020 hits and 569 home runs. Eddie Murray, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are the only other members of both the exclusive 3,000 hit and 500 home run clubs. That feat alone merits induction. I'm especially impressed by his nine straight seasons with at least 38 home runs and 104 RBI from 1995 through 2003, even though that timeframe represents the heart of the steroid era. Some have deemed Palmeiro to be a "compiler" (like Craig Biggio), but if that's the case then Palmeiro is still one of the best "compilers" of all time. Even so, I wouldn't be surprised to see him fall off the ballot given the strength of this year's class and the negative emotions associated with his PED history.

Bernie Williams (2)-No
Was one of the home-grown cornerstones of the latest Yankees dynasty along with Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. Spent his entire 16-year career in Pinstripes and helped lead New York to a dozen consecutive playoff appearances from 1995 to 2006, his final season. Produced a solid peak highlighted by five straight All-Star appearances, four consecutive Gold Gloves and the '98 batting title. Became a replacement level player after he turned 34 and fell short of several noteworthy milestones such as 300 home runs, 500 doubles, and 2,500 hits. Will probably fall of the ballot this year as well.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bolstered Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays pillaged the Miami Marlins
Most of the ink that's been spilled this offseason has focused on the pricey free agent acquisitions made by baseball's two burgeoning West Coast superpowers. 2012 saw the Dodgers and Angels grapple for splashy headlines the way competitive siblings battle for their parents' undivided attention. Hollywood has emerged as the center of the baseball world with its pair of star-studded teams, both of whom are flush, aggressive, and hungry to end an interminable three-year postseason drought.

Meanwhile, in a foreign land called Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays have quietly assembled baseball's most dangerous and intriguing ballclub.

Last preseason many tabbed Toronto as a dark horse candidate to make the playoffs, but injuries decimated John Farrell's starting rotation and caused a promising season to end with 89 losses. 2012 was a frustrating year on many levels. Brett Lawrie did not mature into the Ryan Braun clone that scouts hoped he would become. Adam Lind, Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar looked lost at the plate. The bullpen struggled. Ricky Romero pulled a Tim Lincecum and went from Cy Young candidate to one of baseball's worst pitchers overnight.

Instead of crossing his fingers and waiting to see what his personnel could achieve when healthy, GM Alex Anthopoulos adopted an aggressive, win-now approach that sacrificed some of his organization's most promising young talent in the process. But unlike, say, Kansas City's much criticized trade of Wil Meyers for James Shields, he made sure he got plenty of established big league talent in return.

In the span of a few short months, he overhauled his roster into one of the most formidable teams in the league. The Blue Jays are going all in for 2013 as they gun for their first playoff appearance in 20 years. With their retooled roster they will try to take advantage of the aging Yankees and rebuilding Red Sox, both of whom are flawed and could be watching from the sidelines come October. After a flurry of trades, Toronto is poised to usurp the kings of the American League East

And for that, the Jays can thank the Miami Marlins.

Less than a year after spending money like a drunken playboy in a Vegas casino, the Marlins dismantled their roster piece by piece, trading away all their talent Harry Frazee style. Now, all that's left is the wildly inconsistent Rick Nolasco, a disgruntled Giancarlo Stanton (who may not see a decent pitch to hit again for the rest of the decade), and Twittaholic Logan Morrison. I envision many solo home runs in Stanton's future, for the basepaths will be just as empty as the seats in Miami's shiny new baseball stadium.

The mass exodus began during the summer when the losses began to mount and it became clear the Marlins weren't going to contend for a playoff spot. Hanley Ramirez took his fading star to Hollywood. Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante packed their bags for Motown. A struggling Gaby Sanchez got dumped on the Pittsburgh Pirates. After the season ended Heath Bell was banished to the Arizona desert. Ozzie Guillen got canned.

Then, to top it all off, the Fish pulled off a fire sale that rivaled Boston's late summer housecleaning. Miami jettisoned its remaining stars north of the border in a blockbuster 12-player trade that rocked the baseball world and ignited a media firestorm.

But instead of focusing on the pathetic Marlins and their winning-adverse ownership, I want to look at the newest members of the Toronto Blue Jays and what can be expected of them in 2013.

Jose Reyes
After signing a nine figure contract, the speedy shortstop played a full season for the first time since 2008 and even led the league in plate appearances, but many considered his lone season with Miami a mild disappointment even though most of his numbers were right in line with his career averages. Health is always a concern with him, especially now that he's playing half his games on artificial turf, but when the switch-hitter's in the lineup he will be a great table-setter for Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Plus, he can't possibly be any worse than Escobar was last year.

Projection: 104 runs, 13 home runs, 58 RBI, 37 steals, .301/.353/.446

Josh Johnson
Managed to stay healthy last year but was clearly not the same dominant pitcher who won the NL ERA title in 2010. However, it's worth noting that his numbers were inflated by a brutal start; from May 9th to the end of the season he posted a more respectable 3.26 ERA while limiting opponents to a .229 batting average. On the flip side, it's concerning that his home run rate more than doubled given that the Rogers Center is very conducive to the long ball. The oft-injured starter could struggle in the American League, but to his credit he was solid during interleague play by going 8-3 with a 2.95 ERA. Not an ace anymore, but he's a great number two when healthy.

Projection: 12-8, 3.62 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 185 innings, 164 strikeouts.

Mark Buehrle
After taking a productive sabbatical in the National League, Buehrle returns to the AL coming off another strong season in which he produced 3.2 bWAR, received his fourth straight Gold Glove and posted his best WHIP since 2001. One of the game's most consistent and durable hurlers, the 33 year-old workhorse has compiled twelve consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings pitched, 30 starts and double digit win totals. The perfect middle-of-the-rotation starter, Buehrle should stabilize Toronto's rotation and adds another southpaw arm to complement Ricky Romero. He's no stranger to hitter-friendly environments after calling U.S. Cellular Field home for nine seasons.

Projection: 13-12, 4.04 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 204 innings, 112 strikeouts

Toronto also received super-utility man Emilio Bonifacio and catcher John Buck in the megatrade. Since the Blue Jays already have a young power-hitting backstop in J.P. Arencibia, they packaged Buck with three prospects (including Travis d'Arnaud) in a trade to the New York Mets that netted R.A. Dickey and two minor leaguers, Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas.

R.A. Dickey
Toronto secured an ace in the reigning NL Cy Young winner. Although Dickey became a household name in 2012, he'd been a very good pitcher in the two previous years. Over the past three seasons he's made 91 starts, compiled a 2.95 ERA, averaged 206 innings per season and struck out more than three batters for every walk. The 38 year-old knuckleballer is a good bet to fall back to earth next year but his recent record indicates he will succeed in the American League.

Projection: 15-9, 3.43 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 212 innings, 198 strikeouts

Last but not least, Anthopoulos has made one notable free agent signing to date that could pay huge dividends if it pans out.

Melky Cabrera
The Melk Man followed up a breakout 2011 in Kansas City with an even better year in 2012 for the Giants that was truncated by a 50-game suspension for PED use. While it's unrealistic to expect him to repeat his performance from the past two years, I think it's equally unfair to assume he'll regress into the light-hitting outfielder he was in New York and Atlanta. For a two-year, $16 million investment, there's quite a bit of value to be had here. If Cabrera is anything close to the player he was in 2011 and '12, he will be a massive bargain. He teams up with Joey Bats and Colby Rasmus in Toronto's outfield.

Projection: 80 runs scored, 12 home runs, 64 RBI, 15 steals, .291/.330/.432

So with a strong starting rotation of Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle, Romero and Brandon Morrow, the Jays have addressed their biggest weakness and now boast five frontline starters. Adding Reyes and Cabrera makes a good lineup even better, adding balance with their switch-hitting abilities and giving the offense a nice blend of power and speed. On paper, Toronto is loaded. All the pieces are in place for new manager John Gibbons, so expect his Blue Jays to win upwards of 90 games next year and challenge their division rivals for the AL East flag.

For the first time in a long time, Blue Jay fans can say that without sounding like they're riding a maple syrup-induced sugar high.

Friday, December 28, 2012

12 Best NBA Players of 2012

King James reigned in 2012
1. LeBron James
King James won his third MVP award in four seasons and continued to dominate during the playoffs, ultimately securing the championship that eluded him in Cleveland. Later in the summer he led Team USA to another Gold medal with his strong play. He was just named Sportsman of the Year by SI.

2. Kevin Durant
Durantala won his third straight scoring title, finished runner-up to LBJ in the MVP voting and led OKC to their first Finals appearance.

3. Kobe Bryant
Came back from experimental knee surgery in Germany to challenge Durant for the scoring title during the strike-shortened season. With all eyes on the Lakers, he's currently pacing the Association points and points per game while shooting 47.5 percent from the floor, which will set a new career high if he keeps it up.

4. Dwight Howard
Superman missed 18 percent of the strike-shortened season and still accrued more defensive rebounds, total rebounds and boards per game than anybody else. His production has sagged a bit with the Lakers but he's still averaging 17.7 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.

5. Chris Paul
CP3 was phenomenal in his Clippers debut by averaging nearly 20 points a game, leading the league in steals and placing third on the MVP ballot. With Derrick Rose still out, Paul's unquestionably the NBA's premier point guard.

6. Kevin Love
K-Love averaged 26 points, more than 13 rebounds and nearly two treys per game last season. His shooting has been a little rusty after he missed the first few weeks of the season with a broken right hand, but it's only a matter of time before he rounds into form.

7. Russell Westbrook
A rare breed of point guards that can pour in points and still rack up high assist totals. The indestructible athlete fearlessly attacks the basket and is one of the game's best at getting to the charity stripe, where he's a career 81.5 percent shooter.

8. Carmelo Anthony
'Melo disappointed in his first full season with the Knicks as he struggled to coexist with Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin. But with Lin on the Rockets and Stoudemire out with a knee injury, Anthony has regained his status as one of the game's elite players. His three-point production has tripled compared to his career average and his scoring has jumped from 22.6 points per game last year to 28.5 points per game this season.

9. Dwyane Wade
D-Wade has embraced his new role as Lebron's sidekick, the Robin to James' Batman. He's making more than half his field goals and has become a more efficient scorer. Not as explosive as he used to be, but still an incredible defender and superb all-around player.

10. Andrew Bynum
The oft-injured center managed to stay healthy during the abbreviated season and enjoyed a career year. Bynum set personal bests with 18.7 points and 11.7 rebounds per game while displaying an improved post game and top notch defense. Since traded to Philadelphia, he's yet to make his Sixers debut as he recovers from a knee injury.

11. James Harden
Established himself as one of the top shooting guards in the NBA last season and was named Sixth Man of the year. Since being traded to Houston, he's become the focal point of the Rockets' offense and is putting up monster numbers as an everyday starter; 25.8 points, 5.3 dimes and ten free throw attempts per game.

12. Dirk Nowitzki
The lifelong Maverick posted his typically stellar all-around numbers last season despite averaging the fewest minutes per game since his rookie season. He missed the first third of this season recovering from knee surgery and struggled in his first two games back. Look for the German power forward to shake off the rust as he adapts to new teammates Chris Kaman, Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison.

Honorable Mention: Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving, Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Rajon Rondo

Matsui Calls it Quits

After a productive ten-year career in the big leagues that followed ten seasons of professional baseball in Japan, Hideki Matsui is hanging up his spikes.

The New York Yankees signed Godzilla on December 19th, 2002 and installed him as their everyday left fielder. Joe Torre batted him fifth for the Bronx Bombers, who already featured Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano in their everyday lineup. The Japanese import belted a grand slam during the Yankees' home opener, becoming the first Yankee to hit a grand slam in his first game at the House that Ruth built. However, Matsui struggled to adapt to American baseball; he started slow, grounded into 25 double plays on the year and made more errors than any other outfielder in the league. But Torre stuck with him and Matsui  turned his season around when spring segued into summer. He played every game, made the All-Star team and finished his major league debut with 42 doubles, 16 home runs and 106 RBI.  He was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2003, finishing a close second to Angel Berroa of the Kansas City Royals because two writers left Matsui off their ballots altogether due to his age. New York won 101 games and beat Boston in a thrilling ALCS capped by Aaron Boone's series-ending home run off Tim Wakefield, but the Yankees ran out of gas and were upset by Josh Beckett and his young Florida Marlins team in the World Series.

Brian Cashman bolstered New York's already potent lineup by adding Gary Sheffield (instead of Vladimir Guerrero), Kenny Lofton, John Olerud, Tony Clark, and trading Soriano for reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez. Surrounded by more star power, Matsui responded with the best season of his career. He nearly doubled his home run output from 16 to 31, a personal best, and set career highs in runs, walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and bWAR. He once again played every game and made the All-Star team, and once again the Yankees won 101 games. Matsui was a one-man wrecking crew in the '04 postseason. He reached base in all eleven games, batted .412, smashed eleven extra base hits and drove in 13 runs. He was a lock to win the ALCS MVP trophy (that eventually went to David Ortiz) before Mariano Rivera blew Game 4 of the ALCS, allowing Boston to climb back into the series and ultimately make history.

Both Matsui and the Yankees bounced back in 2005. New York won its eighth consecutive division title with his contributions, which included career highs in hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, total bases, and extra base hits. The Yankees were eliminated by the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS, and Matsui made New York's last out when Francisco Rodriguez induced him to ground out.

Prior to the 2006 season, Matsui inked a four-year, $52 million extension with the club that made him the highest paid Japanese player in baseball. His new contract also matched the one Cashman gave Johnny Damon to pry him away from the Red Sox. On May 11th Matsui suffered a wrist injury that halted his consecutive games played streak at 518 (the longest ever to start a career). He missed four full months and did not return to action until September 12th. Matsui went 4-for-4 in his first game back and caught fire during the season's final three weeks to hike his batting line up to .302/.393/.494. His hot hitting didn't carry over into the postseason, though, and New York was eliminated by the World Series-bound Detroit Tigers in four games.

Matsui rebounded with another strong season in 2007 in which he slugged 25 home runs, drove in 103 and scored 100 runs. On August 5th, he became the first Japanese player in MLB history to hit 100 home runs when he ripped a solo shot off Gil Meche into the right field seats at the Stadium. Matsui slumped badly in September and continued to struggle in the first round against the Cleveland Indians. He mustered just two hits, both singles, as New York was defeated in four games. His name was dangled in trade talks with San Francisco during the offseason, but he stayed in the Big Apple.

2008 was a lost year for both Matsui and his team. Matsui was just one of many Yankees to miss extended time that year as injuries decimated the starting rotation, forcing new manager Joe Girardi to use 13 different starters throughout the course of the season. Matsui spent two months on the shelf with knee pain and underwent surgery after the final game at Yankee Stadium (in which he went 1-for-3 with a run scored). New York won "only" 89 games and missed the postseason for the first time since the Player's Strike canceled October baseball in 1994. This profound disappointment prompted Cashman to reload the roster by acquiring Nick Swisher, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira in an expensive winter spending spree.

Matsui managed to stay healthy in 2009 and enjoyed another strong season at the dish. After DH'ing a lot in '08, the 34 year-old became the team's primary Designated Hitter in 2009. That move, combined with frequent off-days from Girardi, preserved his body and kept him off the Disabled List. Godzilla ended his walk year with 28 circuit drives, breaking Don Baylor's record for most long balls by a Yankee DH in a single season. His big bat helped the revamped Yankees win 103 games and a World Series championship to christen their new stadium. Matsui was named MVP of the '09 Fall Classic in which he batted a Babe Ruthian .615/.643/1.385 with three home runs and eight RBI as the Yanks prevailed over the Philadelphia Phillies in six games.

The Yankees let Matsui walk (and have yet to win the pennant since), so he went out west and signed a one-year deal worth $6.5 million to play for the Halos. In what would be his last good season, he homered in his Angels debut essentially replicated his statistics from the previous season. LA finished below .500 and chose to part ways with him after the season. Billy Beane scooped him up with another one-year deal (for $4.25 million) to replace Jack Cust, but Matsui turned 37 in 2011 and finally started to show his age. He played in 141 games but batted a career worst .251/.321/375 with only 12 home runs. His Oakland A's lost 88 games and did not re-sign him.

In 2012, Matsui's tenth and final major league season, he latched on with the Tampa Bay Rays. He signed a minor league contract and appeared in just 34 games before the Rays released him on August 1st. Matsui announced his retirement yesterday. He leaves baseball with the highest home run (175), RBI (760) and walk (547) totals of any Japanese player in MLB history.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Red Sox trade for Hanrahan

After completing a flurry of moves earlier in the month, the Boston Red Sox bolstered their bullpen by trading for All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan will supplant Andrew Bailey, a two-time All-Star himself, as the team's primary closer. New skipper John Farrell will relegate Bailey to eighth inning duties.

Bailey was a huge disappointment in his Red Sox debut. The 2009 AL Rookie of the Year injured his thumb during Spring Training and required reconstructive surgery. The injury-prone reliever did not return until August 14th, at which point Boston was below .500 and fading out of the playoff picture. Bailey pitched well initially and replaced Alfredo Aceves as Bobby Valentine's closer down the stretch, but struggled mightily in September. He saved only six games in nine chances last year and finished the season with a bloated 7.04 ERA, not exactly what Ben Cherington had in mind when he traded Josh Reddick and two prospects to acquire Bailey and Ryan Sweeney from Billy Beane's Oakland A's last winter.

364 days later, the Red Sox sent Mark Melancon, Stolmy Pimentel, Ivan De Jesus and Jerry Sands to Pittsburgh in exchange for Hanrahan and second baseman Brock Holt. Hanrahan has quietly been one of baseball's better closers in the last two years. In 2011, his first season as an everyday closer, he saved 40 games, posted a tidy 1.83 ERA and made his first All-Star team. He was named to the All-Star team again last year even though his ERA rose by nearly a full run and his walk rate more than doubled. On the bright side, his K/9 ratio jumped from 8.0 to 10.1, a figure right in line with his career 9.9 mark, and he still saved 36 games.

However, there's underlying evidence that his recent success has been enhanced by good fortune. In 2011 just one of the 54 fly balls he allowed left the park. Last year his opponents mustered a paltry .225 BABiP against him, and Hanrahan managed to strand almost 90 percent of runners that reached base against him. Accordingly, his 4.45 FIP, 4.28 xFIP, 4.26 tERA and 3.80 SIERA were all well above his 2.72 ERA, indicating that he did not pitch nearly as well as his ERA suggests.

Regression to the mean combined with the transition to a less favorable pitching environment could spell trouble for Hanrahan in his American League debut. He's still a plus reliever, just not as dominant as some of his numbers suggest. He's no Jonathan Papelbon but represents a significant upgrade over the wildly inconsistent Aceves-Bailey tandem from last year. Assuming Hanrahan stays healthy and holds on to his closer's job, I'd expect around 35 saves and an ERA in the low-threes from him next year. 2013 is a contract year for the 31 year-old, so hopefully that extra motivation translates into strong results on the field.

The Red Sox are also reportedly pursuing first baseman Adam LaRoche, which indicates the team might back out from the three-year agreement they reached with Mike Napoli. Talks have stalled with the All-Star catcher because of a hip condition discovered during his physical. This health risk prompted Boston's front office to change the language of his new contract to protect themselves should he miss an extended period of time.

LaRoche, 33, is coming off a career year of sorts in which he won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and finished sixth in the NL MVP race. The Washington Nationals would like to bring him back but aren't willing to offer more than two guaranteed years. Unlike Napoli, LaRoche is a first baseman by trade who defends his position better than the converted backstop. I'd still rather have the right-handed slugger, who's two years younger, loves hitting in Fenway and would add more balance to Boston's lineup.

But Laroche is a good plan B. After all, a consistent player who belted 33 home runs last season and amassed 100 RBI in 2010 and 2012 wouldn't be a bad consolation prize.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

12 Best Baseball Players of 2012

Trout was baseball's bast player in 2012 (ESPN)
Unquestionably the most valuable player in baseball this year, the AL Rookie of the Year compiled 10.7 bWAR to join Barry Bonds and Adrian Beltre as the only players in this millennium to have a 10-win season.

2. Miguel Cabrera
The first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski has surpassed Albert Pujols as the best hitter in the game.

3. Ryan Braun
2012 was another banner year for Braun, who topped the Senior Circuit with 108 runs, 41 long balls, 356 total bases and a .987 OPS.

4. Buster Posey
The NL MVP led the major leagues in OPS+ and batting average, becoming the first NL catcher to win a batting title since Ernie Lombardi 70 years ago.

5. Andrew McCutchen
Emerged as a superstar last year by challenging Posey for the batting title, setting personal bests in almost every category and leading the National League in hits, oWAR and times on base.

6. Robinson Cano
Piled up 8.2 bWAR while setting or matching career highs in runs, doubles, homers, walks, slugging, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and extra base hits. In most years that performance would have been good enough to win MVP, but not in 2012.

7. Josh Hamilton
Hammered 43 home runs, knocked in 128 runs, slugged .577 and homered once every 13.1 at-bats, placing second among American Leaguers in all four categories.

8. Adrian Beltre
Batted .321, belted 36 home runs and received another Gold Glove for his defensive prowess at the hot corner.

9. Justin Verlander
The 2011 AL MVP and Cy Young winner is still the best pitcher on the planet.

10. Prince Fielder
The power numbers weren't quite what we've come to expect from the hefty slugger, but he still batted a robust .313/.412/.528, walked more than he struck out and played all 162 games in his Detroit debut.

11. Joey Votto
Missed a third of the season with a torn meniscus but posted monster numbers when healthy. His 94 walks led the National League, as did his eye-popping .474 OBP, and his 44 doubles ranked second to Aramis Ramirez.

12. Yadier Molina
The best defensive backstop in baseball had a case for NL MVP after batting .315, slugging 22 home runs and leading his St. Louis Cardinals to within one game of their second straight World Series. It's close between him and Posey, really close, but I'd rather have Posey's bat.

Honorable Mentions: Clayton Kershaw, R.A. Dickey, Chase Headley, David Wright, Matt Kemp