Sunday, January 29, 2012

Red Sox Have 3 Holes

Spring training is about three weeks away, and the Red Sox still have three major problem areas.  Let's take a look.

J.D. Drew is finally gone, and not a moment too soon for many Red Sox fans.  His five year, $70 million contract will be remembered as one of the ill-advised investments of the Theo Epstein era, not because Drew isn't a good player (he's solid defensively and batted .264/.370/.455 with the Bosox, good for a 114 OPS+ and about 20 dingers a season) but because he's so prone to injury.  He averaged just 121 games played per year in Beantown, topping out at 140 in 2007 and missing half of his contract year in 2011.  Boston handed Cody Ross a one year, three million dollar deal, which will be a bargain if Ross hits like he did in 2008-2009 but won't do much good if he keeps hitting like he has over the past two seasons.  If Ross (hopefully just a stopgap for next year's free agents Andre Ethier and Josh Hamilton) doesn't pan out or misses time like he did in 2011, new skipper Bobby Valentine will have to go with a platoon of Ryan Sweeney and Ryan Kalish.  Sweeney (fourteen home runs in 472 career games) hits with about as much power as Juan Pierre, although in fairness he has decent on-base skills and wouldn't be the worst number 8 or 9 hitter in the majors.  Kalish will be 24 at the start of the season and has much more upside, but with just 53 major league games under his belt he probably isn't ready to take over as the everyday rightfielder just yet.  Drew is 36 and his best days are behind him, but I think I'd rather have him for another year instead of the Ryan tandem.

It's been seven and a half years since Epstein shipped Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs, and the Red Sox still haven't been able to find a reliable shortstop in his stead.  Orlando Cabrera, Edgar Renteria, Alex Gonzalez, Julio Lugo, and Nick Green didn't last long, and neither did Boston's most recent shorstop, Marco Scutaro.  Trading him to Colorado for the purpose of dumping his six million dollar a year salary just doesn't make any sense for a team with such enormous financial resources, especially since it doesn't look like that money is going to be used on Roy Oswalt (reportedly close to a deal with St. Louis).  Like Drew, Scoots just turned 36 and missed a lot of games last year, but when healthy he was still an above average shortstop at the plate with his 110 OPS+.  There aren't any available shortstops to plug the gap, leaving a platoon of Nick Punto and Mike Aviles to man short.  The 34 year-old Punto is your typical decent glove-no stick shortstop, and his wiffle ball bat offense makes Ryan Sweeney look like Ryan Braun.  Aviles has career OPS nearly 100 points higher than Punto and is clearly the superior hitter, but he rates below average with the leather and has never been an everyday player, whereas Punto has appeared in as many as 150 games in a season.  Shortstop looks like a real mess in 2012, and it seems as though Punto and Aviles are merely placeholders until Jose Iglesias can take over the job, hopefully in 2013.

Starting pitcher
The rotation is still top heavy; after Josh Beckett (durability issues), Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz (just one season with more than sixteen starts) the Sox don't have any reliable starters.  John Lackey is out for the whole year and Daisuke Matsuzaka hasn't been effective since 2008, so the back end of the rotation is razor thin.  I was really hoping Cherington could pull off a deal with Oswalt, but that seems unlikely, so perhaps he will make a run at Matt Cain or Cole Hamels next winter?  A lack of starting pitching depth was the downfall of the 2011 Red Sox, and the front office hasn't done much to fix it.  Aaron Cook is a longshot to regain his 2008 All-Star form, and he's not the answer to the team's pitching woes.  Now that the Yankees have Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda to go with C.C. Sabathia, and Tampa Bay has a loaded rotation as always, it looks as though Boston simply won't have enough pitching to compete with the AL Beast next season.  If the Red Sox miss the playoffs again, it will be the first time since 2000-2002 that the team failed to make October in three consecutive seasons.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Prince Fielder Reaction

At first glance, Victor Martinez tearing his ACL and missing the entire 2012 season looked like it would deal a substantial blow to the Detroit Tigers.  In case you've been living under a rock the last two years, offense is at a premium these days, and switch-hitters who bat .330/.380/.470 with 40 doubles and 103 RBI don't exactly grow on trees.  Losing V-Mart's bat for the whole year figured to open up a major hole in the heart of the Tiger lineup and rob Detroit of some balance, leaving Miguel Cabrera, 25 year-old backstop Alex Avila, and the up-and-down Jhonny Peralta to carry the run-scoring load in Motown.  And who would replace their everyday DH, arguably the best in baseball last year alongside David Ortiz, as well as their number five hitter who protected Miggy Cabrera?  The free agent market, after all, resembles a fantasy baseball waiver wire with aging stars such as Johnny Damon, Magglio Ordonez and J.D. Drew still searching for a paycheck. Detroit's own Delmon Young, he of the career .321 on-base percentage, is only 26 but appeared to be the best candidate to fill the DH void given his defensive incompetence in leftfield.  Therefore Martinez's absence, combined with likely regression from reigning American League MVP Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Jose Valverde, seemed likely to set the defending AL Central champs (still favored to repeat in a division that had no other team finish over .500 last year) back a few wins and potentially spoil their World Series chances after they came up short against Texas in the 2011 ALCS.

Enter Prince Fielder, son of Cecil Fielder, who belted 245 home runs (twice leading the majors) for the Tigers from 1990 through 1996, when Detroit dealt him at the deadline to the Yankees for Ruben Sierra and a minor leaguer.  All winter, Chicago, Texas, and Washington seemed like the favorites to land the biggest fish remaining in the free agent pool because of positional need and sizable payroll, so Detroit really came out of nowhere and shocked the baseball world when they inked Fielder last week.  So now Prince is coming full circle by returning to the city where he grew up watching his father crush baseballs out of Tiger Stadium.  Although their relationship deteriorated over the years, the elder Fielder is claiming that "time heals all wounds" and that they are presently on good terms.  While comparing the beefy father-son duo, I discovered that Prince's career counting numbers look eerily similar to the ones his father posted in Motown (I already looked at some of his numbers back in November).  Check it out

Cecil 1990-1996:   982 G  4,252 PA  3,674 AB  558 R  947 H  245 HR  519 BB  1,831 TB
Prince 2005-2011: 998 G  4,210 PA  3,527 AB  571 R  996 H  230 HR  566 BB  1,904 TB

Pretty close, eh?  Like father, like son. The similarities don't end there, though.
-Both made three All-Star teams
-Both won two Silver Sluggers
-Both earned MVP votes four times and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting three times; Cecil was runner-up twice, while Prince was third twice
-Both scored at least 100 runs twice
-Both knocked in at least 100 runs four times
-Neither one batted .300, although Prince hit .299 last year
-Both were durable despite their size; Cecil averaged 148 games per year and played all 162 in 1991. Prince has never played fewer than 157 and has missed just one game during the last three seasons
-And of course, they were both huge, lumbering first baseman who couldn't field or run worth a lick

In the short run, this acquisition has to be considered a slam dunk for Detroit, who have to be considered legit World Series contenders along with the Yankees, Angels, and Rangers.  They're replacing Martinez's stick and then some by adding a career .282/.390/.540 hitter with perennial 40-130 potential.  Pairing him with Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers the most lethal hitting duo since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were terrorizing American League pitchers five years ago.  And best of all, Fielder's only 27, so the Tigers have him locked up for what should be about five or six highly productive seasons.  By the same token his contract is up at 36, so they won't be paying him over $20 million a year into his early 40s like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez.  Because of better nutrition, training and conditioning it's much easier for players to remain productive/healthy into their mid-30s, so it's possible that Detroit will still be getting plenty of bang for their buck at the tail end of the contract.

I will say that moving Cabrera over to third base (where he might be more of a butcher with the leather than Mark Reynolds) this year seems a bit premature; there's room for either one to play first next season while the other fills the Designated Hitter slot.  Cabrera hasn't manned the hot corner everyday since 2007, when he was five years younger and considerably slimmer.  If I were Jim Leyland I'd keep Miggy at first and let Fielder DH.  Both are terrible with the glove, but because of Fielder's body type he seems like a more natural fit for a role that only requires him to hit and jog the bases.  Playing Cabrera and Fielder in the field leaves the Tigers with the worst pair of corner infielders in the game (defensively) and increases the odds that one of them will get hurt.  Both hit more than enough to make up for their deficiencies on D, but as the pre-Nomar Garciaparra-trade 2004 Red Sox showed, it is possible to have too much offense when it comes at the expense of quality fielding.

By giving Fielder nine years and $214 million (with no opt-out clause), Detroit's front office is grossly overpaying Milwaukee's Prince for his services (consider that Matt Kemp, perhaps the best all-around player in baseball and worth twice as many bWAR as Fielder last year, netted eight years and 160 million dollars).  With less than a month until pitchers and catchers report for spring training, time for negotiotiations was running out.  It was looking more and more likely that superagent Scott Boras and his star client would have to "settle" for a shorter term deal in the six-year, $150 million ballpark.  In addition, there wasn't much competition for him because many of the big market teams have already inked star first baseman (Mark Teixeria, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez) for the foreseeable future.  So Detroit essentially outbid itself, but if Fielder helps bring the city a championship then I doubt the front office will hear too many complaints.  After all, you can't put a price tag on winning, and after winning the AL Central by fifteen games last year the Tigers have to be considered the overwhelming favorites to win the division crown again.

Still, in the long term this contract doesn't look like a good investment.  All of Fielder's value is tied into his hitting, so unless he puts up monster numbers every year it's unlikely that he'll be worth the money.  And given his "unusual" physical dimensions it's quite probable that he will decline hard and fast during his early-to-mid thirties.  The DH will help extend his career and keep him fresh, but traditionally big sluggers don't age as gracefully as their more athletic peers.  But Fielder is a special case, and there really isn't anyone to compare him to past or present (if he's like his father, he'll be done by his mid-thirties.  On one hand I could see him lasting into his late thirties, a la Jim Thome and Frank Thomas, but on the other I wouldn't be surprised if he falls off a cliff in his early thirties as many power hitters do.

Only time will tell.

Friday, January 27, 2012

When Duty Called

Can you imagine Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Justin Verlander giving up their massive paychecks to enlist in the armed services?  What if Dustin Pedroia volunteered for combat duty in Afghanistan, or Evan Longoria wound up kicking in doors for a special ops team? Seems unfathomable, right? During World War II, it was commonplace for stars to put down their bats and gloves and pick up a rifle for their country.  It truly was a different time back then.  Following in the footsteps of Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, and Christy Mathewson who served in the Great War a generation before them, dozens of future Hall of Famers dropped their bats and gloves and picked up rifles.  Many players from the Greatest Generation only lost a season or so, but a few special cases gave multiple seasons in the prime of their careers to their country. 

I know this has been done before, but I thought it would be fun to see what their career numbers might have looked like had they been allowed to continue their careers uninterrupted. I'm not even including players who had their careers delayed a few years by the war, guys like Ralph Kiner who got a late start.  Obviously we can never know what would have happened; maybe Joe DiMaggio would have crashed into a fence in the 1943 World Series or Bob Feller would have blown out his arm on a cold spring day in 1945, but for the sake of the project let's assume that they would have stayed healthy during the war years.  I also included Whitey Ford and Willie Mays, who along with Ted Williams lost time to the Korean conflict.

For the projections, I simply averaged the stats from their last full season before the war with their first full season back, then multiplied those averages by the amount of years they lost and tacked them on to their career totals.  For players who played partial seasons, such as Hank Greenberg in 1941 and Willie Mays in 1952, but still lost most of the year, I subtracted the numbers they put up in those years from their career totals before adding in their projected full season numbers.

Hank Greenberg (most of 1941, all of 1942-1944, first half of 1945)
Hammerin' Hank, who had been originally classified as 4F by the Detroit draft board for flat feet, was reexamined and deemed fit to serve in 1940, the year he won his second MVP award.  Greenberg was the first American League player to be drafted, and played only 19 games in the unforgettable 1941 baseball season.  Interestingly, he received an honorable discharge on December 5th, 1941 because Congress was releasing men over age 28 from service, and Hank was nearly 31. After Japanese bombs crippled the nation's naval base at Pearl Harbor, Greenberg re-enlisted and joined the Army Air Force, the first major league player to do so.  He would serve 45 months in the military, the longest of any major league player, and lost his age 30-34 seasons.  Fortunately for Detroit, their first baseman came back just in time to help lead his Tigers to the pennant and a World Series victory over the Chicago Cubs.  Greenberg paced the Junior Circuit with 44 dingers and 127 ribbies the following season, but he was already 35 and hung up his spikes after a one year stop in Pittsburgh (who "purchased" the slugger from Detroit for $75,000 before the 1947 season to team him with the powerful Ralph Kiner in the middle of their order).
1941-1945 averages; 110 runs, 170 hits, 40 doubles, 43 home runs, 139 RBI, 87 walks, 350 TB
Career totals; 1,542 runs, 2,376 hits, 554 doubles, 531 home runs, 1,899 RBI, 1,229 walks, 4,714 TB

Bob Feller (1942-1944, most of 1945)
Rapid Robert had already established himself as the premier flamethrower in the bigs when he joined the navy the same day FDR delivered his "Day in Infamy" speech and volunteered for combat service. He missed his age 23 through 26 seasons, but returned to make nine starts down the stretch for the Tribe in '45.  He picked up right where he left off over the next two years but was never the same dominant pitcher after turning 30.  Feller reached his zenith in the 1940s, and had the war not interrupted his career, we'd be talking about him in the same breath as Walter Johnson and Roger Clemens as one of the greatest power pitchers of all time.  His strikeout totals jump out the most since batters back then whiffed about half as frequently as they do today.
1942-1945 averages; 26 wins, 32 complete games, 8 shutouts, 357.1 IP, 304 Ks
Career totals; 365 wins, 400 complete games, 75 shutouts, 5,184.1 IP, 3,738 Ks

Joe DiMaggio (1943-1945)
Like Greenberg before him, the Yankee Clipper joined the Army Air Forces.  After turning in a subpar (by his lofty standards) season in 1942 (at the time setting career lows in doubles, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases) he sacrificed his age 28,29 and 30 seasons smack dab in the prime of his career and was never the same player when he came back to patrol "Death Valley."  His nagging Achilles heel caused him to miss a lot of time, and despite a pair of monster seasons in 1948 and 1950 the second half of his career pales in comparison to the first.  More importantly, the war most likely cost Joltin' Joe the chance to tie Bill Russell's eleven championship rings.  He retired with nine, and the Yanks won the Fall Classic without him in 1943, so if he and his teammates had still been playing it's probable they would have returned in 1944 and/or 1945.
1943-1945 averages; 102 runs, 166 hits, 24 doubles, 10 triples, 23 home runs, 104 RBI, 280 TB
Career totals; 1,696 runs, 2,712 hits, 461 doubles, 161 triples, 430 home runs, 1,849 RBI, 4,788 TB

Johnny Mize (1943-1945)
Many baseball fans don't know Mize, which is a shame because he was one of the best hitters in baseball from 1936 through 1948. The Big Cat topped the NL in slugging four out of the five years before missing his age 30-32 seasons. These projections are probably on the low side, since he swatted 91 longballs and knocked in 263 runs in 1947-1948, but he had only eclipsed 28 homers once before those two seasons.  By '49 he was done as an everyday player, but the Giants shipped him across the Harlem River just in time for Mize to win five straight rings with the Yankees.  He didn't get much playing time from Casey Stengel, but still managed to contribute with the stick when he did play and was the top hitter in New York's Subway Series triumph over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '52 Fall Classic.
1943-1945 averages; 84 runs, 146 hits, 22 doubles, 24 home runs, 90 RBI, 61 BB, 250 TB
Career totals; 1,370 runs, 2,449 hits, 433 doubles, 431 home runs, 1,607 RBI, 1,039 BB, 4,371 TB

Ted Williams (1943-1945, most of 1952 and 1953)
Teddy Ballgame was the only major star to miss time to both World War II and Korea.  The Kid lost his age 24, 25, and 26 seasons while serving as an aviator in the Marine Corps.  Considering he won the Triple Crown in 1942 and took home his first AL MVP award in '46, one can assume the Splendid Splinter would have continued to rake during the mid-40s. He served another stint in the Marines in 1952 and '53, costing him all but six games of the '52 campaign and 37 games the following year.  By then he was already 35, and assorted aches and pains would prevent him from playing more than 136 games in any of his final seven seasons.  Assuming Williams could have stayed healthy, his projected career numbers would rank him as the indisputable "Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived", a title he still holds even without the benefit of those seasons.
1943-1945 averages; 142 runs, 181 hits, 36 doubles, 37 home runs, 130 RBI, 150 BB, 340 TB
1952-1953 averages; 101 runs, 151 hits, 26 doubles, 30 home runs, 108 RBI, 140 BB, 270 TB
Career totals 2,407 runs, 3,458 hits, 679 doubles, 678 home runs, 2,408 RBI, 2,730 BB, 6,353 TB

Whitey Ford (1951 and 1952)
Ford only made a dozen starts in 1950 but after finishing runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting he had clearly earned a spot in the rotation, so I used his 1953 and '54 numbers for his projections.  The Chairman of the Board spent his age 22 and 23 seasons in the Army and missed out on a pair of World Series rings, since the Yankees were in the process of winning five consecutive championships.
1951-1952 averages; 17 wins, 11 complete games, 3 shutouts, 208.1 IP, 118 Ks
Career totals; 270 wins, 178 complete games, 51 shutouts, 3,587 IP, 2,192 Ks

Willie Mays (most of 1952, all of '53)
The reigning NL Rookie of the Year was just 21 years old when the Army drafted him, and as a result he only played 34 games in 1952 and lost all of '53.  The Say Hey Kid didn't take long to get back in the swing of things as he walked away with the MVP trophy the following year, cranked out 51 four-baggers in '55 and was off and running (literally). Had he not missed those two years, it's very likely that Mays, not Hank Aaron, would have been the one to break Babe Ruth's career home run record in the early 1970s.  As it is, the best all-around player in history still compiled some gaudy career numbers.
1952-1953 averages; 89 runs, 161 hits, 28 doubles, 31 home runs, 89 RBI, 298 total bases
Career totals; 2,240 runs, 3,605 hits, 579 doubles, 722 home runs, 2,081 RBI, 6,662 total bases

Thursday, January 26, 2012

NBA 5 Up and Down

As of yesterday, the NBA season is a month old.  I thought it would be a good time to check in on some teams and players doing well so far, and others who aren't.

High Five

Philadelphia 76ers
A .500 team last year currently sitting at the top of the Atlantic Divsion ahead of the Knicks and Celtics.  The Sixers are a true "team" in the sense that they have a plethora of versatile players/ like Andre Iguodala, Elton Brand, Jrue Holiday, Lou Williams, Spencer Hawes, Thaddeus Young, and Jodie Meeks. No team in the Eastern Conference can match Philly's depth, a strength that should continue to serve them well over the course of the compressed schedule.  This is a young, athletic, defensive-minded team on the rise, and it looks like Head Coach Doug Collins has helped his players harness their potential and play together as a unit.  Don't expect another first round playoff exit come spring.

Indiana Pacers
The Pacers went 37-45 last year but are off to a 12-5 start, second in their division behind only the Chicago Bulls.   Much like the Sixers, this team plays hard-nosed defense and emphasizes spreading the ball (seven players are averaging at least 9.5 points per game).  Newcomer David West is still getting used to the new system, but on offense he teams up with breakout center Roy Hibbert to pack a powerful 1-2 punch in the paint.  With Tyler Hansborough and George Hill providing plenty of firepower off the bench, Indiana is almost as deep as Philly.

Kobe Bryant
The Black Mamba has firmly re-established himself as one of the game's top three players, in case you had forgotten or thought he was washed up.  He may very well fade after this hot start, but for now he looks like vintage Kobe.

Ricky Rubio
Proving all the doubters wrong with each passing game.  His shot still leaves plenty to be desired and he'll be lucky to average more than a dozen points per games this year, but he makes up for his lack of scoring with superlative passing and truckloads of steals.  Look for him to put up Jason Kidd/Rajon Rondo numbers the rest of the way, even with Luke Ridnour lending a helping hand in Minnesota's backcourt.

Danilo Gallinari
The Italian Stallion just signed a $42 million extension with Denver and is putting up career numbers across the board.

Five down

Boston Celtics
Playing better as of late, but are still wallowing under .500 despite having one of the easiest schedules to date.  I thought another run with the same core was a bad idea, especially since the team already looked too old last year and didn't get any younger during the lockout.  They're already dinged up, as Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen have all missed games.  This team, with its paper-thin bench that desperately needs Jeff Green, simply can't withstand those losses anymore.  Ainge needs to shake things up and bring in some help if the front office is serious about the team contending for a championship this year.  Otherwise, it might be time to blow up the Big Three.

New Orleans Hornets
NOLA's dynamic pick and pop duo of Chris Paul (traded to Lob City) and David West (free agency) is gone, and building block Eric Gordon has been taken out of commission by a knee injury.  The results have been disastrous; the team that won 46 games last year and made the playoffs is off to a brutal 3-15 start.  With Gordon out for another three to six weeks, things don't figure to improve much.

Vince Carter
Half-Man/Half-Amazing is disappearing right before our eyes in Dallas.  Seriously, at this stage in his career I'd rather have a cardboard cutout on my team instead of him.  The decline that began after he left New Jersey has accelerated to the point where he's averaging fewer than ten points per game.  Oh, and he turned 35 today.

Lamar Odom
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year is losing playing time to Shawn Marion, misses LA and is struggling through the worst season of his career.  Hey, at least he's still married to a Kardashian, which is more than Kris Humphries can say.

J.R. Smith
Still trapped in China.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

My Least Favorite Red Sox

To view my list of favorite players, go here.

Carl Everett-Probably the most unlikable Red Sox player in my lifetime.  The man was crazier than Charlie Sheen and liked to fight more than Billy Martin.  Bad combination.

Manny Ramirez-A real pain in the butt during his seven and a half seasons with the Sox, who paid him $20 million a season to be one of the most one-dimensional baseball players in recent memory (in fairness, he was reaaaaaaallllly good at that one dimension).  Loafed around on defense, never hesitated to ask for a day off, faked/exaggerated injuries, constantly showboated, listened to music while playing left field, and seemed to be incapable of running at anything more than half speed.  By the summer of 2008, when he was sparring with Kevin Youkilis and pushing down aging traveling secretaries like they were dominoes, his time in Boston had been up for some time.  I don't think you could have paid him any amount of money to hustle every now and then.  He was just one of those guys who had no respect for the game,

Edgar Renteria-I remember in a September game against the Yankees, there was a play at the plate and he received a cutoff throw from Ramirez.  He promptly hurled it directly into the infield dirt in front of him.  The two-time Gold Glove winner committed 30 errors that season, and the following winter was shipped out of town for Andy Marte, who never played a game for the Sox because they included him in a package deal with Cleveland that brought Coco Crisp, Johnny Damon's successor in center field, to town.

David Wells-Big, fat, mean, and a former Yankee.  To quote Forrest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that."

J.D. Drew-More valuable than a lot of people give him credit for, but as a passive personality on a team full of emotional grinders (Youk, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon) he stuck out like a Yankee fan in Fenway's bleachers.  Outside of his 2007 ALCS grand slam, he never seemed to come up with the big hit and struggled with runners in scoring position.  I've never seen someone take so many called third strikes and walk back to the bench without so much as a frown.  Unfortunately, Ryan Sweeney isn't half the player Drew is and will have us crying for J.D.'s return by June.

Julio Lugo-A skeleton as useful as a bag of balls in the batter's box, where he hit all of .251/.319/.346 for the Olde Towne Team (good for a measly 71 OPS+) while making just under ten million bucks a year.  Those numbers would have been a little more tolerable if he was playing like Ozzie Smith in the field, but his -1.6 dWAR in Beantown indicate that he wasn't anything close to the Wizard at short.  For reasons I don't fully understand, the Indians just gave the 36 year old a minor league deal.

Daisuke Matsuzaka-If only his success in the World Baseball Classic could translate to the Show.  He's an overhyped and overpaid player who has given Boston two effective seasons as a starting pitcher at the cost of $103 million.  He's in the final year of his contract, and at this point not even a Justin Verlander kind of season can salvage this sunk cost who's never healthy and ineffective during the rare stints when he is.  He seems determined to make Red Sox Nation (the ones he hasn't already put to sleep with his plodding pace) pull their hair out every time he steps on the mound.  Lacks command and nibbles too much, a combination that typically results in a fifth or sixth inning departure.  The antithesis of an innings-eater, Dice-K is a bona fide bullpen killer.  Texas hopes to avoid a repeat with Yu Darvish.

John Lackey-I'm always pulling for him because he's been through a lot lately, but he really needs to stop calling out his fielders and acting like he's the only pitcher on the planet who gave up a bloop single.  His name is mud in Boston, and after a lost 2012 he needs a pair of strong seasons to save face.  But for now, he has been a colossal disappointment who hasn't earned a cent of his $82 million contract and won't pitch again until he's 34.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Patriots Advance to Super Bowl XLVI

With a thrilling 23-20 victory over the shell-shocked Baltimore Ravens, the New England Patriots are headed to their fifth Super Bowl appearance of the (for lack of a better word) "productive" Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era. 

The game was a grind-it-out slugfest chocked full of big hits, heated brawls and plenty of passion.  The Pats drew first blood on a Stephen Gostkowski field goal, but it was clear from the get-go that Brady wasn't playing like himself.  After a rough start, Joe Flacco found his groove and outplayed his seasoned counterpart.  They both finished 22/36, but Flacco threw for over 300 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns.  Brady, in an uncharacteristically poor performance, finished with just 239 yards and tossed two interceptions without throwing a touchdown.  To his credit, though, Tom Terrific delivered the go-ahead touchdown by leaping into the end zone on fourth and goal late in the game.

But in the end, the AFC championship game was Baltimore's to lose.  They stood on the precipice of victory, only to let it slip right through their fingers.  Wide receiver Lee Evans hauled in a pass from Flacco in the end zone, a play that would have put the Ravens ahead with under a minute left, but Sterling Moore smashed the ball out of his hands for an incompletion.  Two plays later with eleven seconds remaining on the clock, former Pro Bowler Billy Cundiff shanked a 32 yard field goal that would have sent the game into overtime. 

Gillette erupted in celebration.  The sullen Ravens looked on through the uprights with their jaws dropped to the turf and hollow eyes in the full thousand-yard-stare mode.  In the span of just two plays, a stunning turn of events, they had gone from AFC champs to tough luck losers.  They had battled all game, recovered from a halftime deficit to take a 20-16 lead deep into the fourth quarter.  Their defense limited Brady, fresh off a six touchdown performance against the Broncos a week earlier, to zero passing touchdowns and held New England's juggernaut offensive attack to a pair of measley rushing TDs (the other came from BenJarvus Green-Ellis).  But for all their efforts, they are going home empty-handed.
New England will face the winner of the 49er's/Giants game on February 5th in Indianapolis.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Kobe vs. LeBron, Again

For much of the past decade, the debate over the title of the NBA's top player revolved around the Association's two marquee superstars; Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.  They will be remembered as two of the best players the game had ever seen, and the hoop gods had aligned the stars so that their peaks overlapped for a stretch of time.  Fans became entrenched in two separate camps (I've always been the Bryant side), and passionate arguments reminiscent of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird days ensued.  Bryant's supporters claimed that their guy was a superior pure shooter (especially from the line and downtown), a lights-out closer in the same vain as Mariano Rivera and above all, a winner with five championship rings, the Derek Jeter of the NBA.  The King James disciples, and there were a lot more of them two years ago, replied that their guy was a better passer, rebounder, defender, and more efficient scorer.  Bryant fans rebutted that James played for weaker teams and could pile up counting stats more easily, and James fans fired back that Kobe was selfish and a poor teammate, while LeBron made the other four guys on the court better.  Statistically speaking it was very close, but you had to give the nod to James because of his more impressive all around numbers.  But if you measure players by the number of titles they've won, and many people do, then the Black Mamba held an overwhelming advantage over his ringless peer.

But last year, the arguments died down as the two players seemed to be heading in opposite directions.  James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and immediately promised myriad championships, while Bryant battled age and ailments during Phil Jackson's final season.  His creaky knees prevented him from practicing with the team, and at 34 minutes a night he was getting the lowest amount of PT in his career since becoming a full time starter in the '98-'99 season.  While James seemed poised to win multiple rings, Bryant's numbers dipped across the board and it looked like his best days were behind him.  Miami absorbed all the attention and media coverage, whereas LA seemed to have been surpassed by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and an up-and-coming Thunder team.  During the postseason, LeBron's Big Three made it to the NBA Finals, Kobe's Lakers got swept out of the conference semifinals by a Dallas team on its way to an unlikely championship.  And for the first time since 2006-2007, neither Kobe nor LeBron walked away with the league MVP trophy (apparently some guy named Derrick Rose won the thing).

At the age of 33, when many of his contemporaries are beginning to slide down the slippery slope of their career arcs, Bryant has re-emerged as an MVP candidate and is back on LeBron's level. His offseason knee surgery in Germany has rejuvenated him and an early season wrist injury hasn't derailed Bryant's white hot start to the lockout shortened season; Kobe's currently leading the Association in games played, minutes played, field goals made, field goal attempts, free throws made, points scored, and points per game, pretty good for the seventh best player in the NBA according to ESPN.  His usage rate is higher than it was in 2005-2006, when, at the peak of his selfishness, he averaged 35.4 points per game and jacked up more than 27 shots a night because the Lakers surrounded him with Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Chris Mihm (seriously, other than Lamar Odom and an 18 year-old Andrew Bynum, Kobe had zero help.  He would have killed for the Mo Williams, Antawn Jamisons and Anderson Varejaos Bron Bron left behind in Cleveland).  And even though Bryant is taking nearly 25 shots a game, he's still racking up nearly six dimes per game, too, so he's not playing like a total ballhog.  But because he's handling the ball so much in an attempt to carry the offense, he's also leading the league in turnovers, which is pretty hard for a non-point guard to do.

Even so, Kobe's not the only one who's getting better.  James returned this year with a much improved post game and is scoring more efficiently.  He stopped hoisting up threes, too, and is down to 1.5 attempts per game.  He's picked up the slack with Wade sidelined and has re-established himself as a frontrunner in the MVP race, along with Bryant and Durant.  As long as Kobe can stay healthy (a tall order given his age and 37 minutes per game), there should be a three-way battle for the honor as the top player in the NBA.  No matter who you prefer, at least Bryant has made things more interesting, allowing us to debate the merits of Kobe vs. Lebron once again.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Baseball's All Overrated Team

To see the underrated team, go here

C Geovany Soto-The 2008 NL Rookie of the Year has been up and down over the last four years.  Just look at his rollercoaster OPS over that span.
Throw in the fact that he's played more than 125 games exactly once, and you have a volatile, injury prone backstop who struck out almost three times as often as he walked in 2011.  On the bright side, he has great power for a catcher and at 29 is squarely in his prime.

Honorable Mention: Joe Mauer

Howard isn't a top slugger anymore
1B Ryan Howard-Much like Mark Teixeira, his strong power numbers have helped mask his regression.  He posted career lows in slugging percentage and OPS last year, strikes out a and his numbers in 2010 and 2011 were way down from his 2006-'09 peak when he paced the majors in RBI three times, home runs twice, and finished in the top five of the MVP voting every year.  The big slugger got a late start to his career because of Jim Thome and is already 32.  While he's still a great hitter he isn't nearly as good as people think he is.  His days of 40 dingers and 130 ribbies look long gone.

Honorable Mention: Eric Hosmer

2B Gordon Beckham-Was great in his 2009 debut, but since then has deteriorated badly with a .241/.306/.356 line during his age 23 and 24 seasons.  When Beckham is supposed to be improving, he has gone the other way by regressing across the board.  His power and walk rates are down, while his strikeouts are up.  The White Sox can't afford to pencil him in for 150 games in 2012 unless he makes a drastic turnaround, but since he's only 25 there's still some rebound potential here.  He could be a late bloomer like Alex Gordon.

Honorable Mention: Rickie Weeks

3B Alex Rodriguez-Has regressed for four consecutive seasons now, and it looks like age, injuries, and steroids are taking their toll.  After averaging 159 games played from 2001 through 2007, Rodriguez has become much more familiar with the DL lately and hasn't topped 138 games since.  He doesn't run anymore and his plate discipline has suffered as well.  A-Rod can still be an effective third baseman when healthy, but at 36 he's no longer in the discussion as one of the best players in the game. 

Honorable Mention: David Wright

SS Jimmy Rollins-The parallel between J-Roll and A-Rod, baseball's 2007 MVPs, are alarming. Rollin's numbers havealso  plummeted since he earned the hardware, and the once durable shortstop who averaged 157 games played from in the previous seven seasons has managed just 130 over the past four.  He's put up a .261/.,325/.412 line over that span has produced an underwhelming 94 OPS+.  His counting stats were always gaudy because he got 650 at-bats at the top of a stacked Phillies lineup every year, but he and his teammates are graying around the temples.  He's the baseball equivalent of a high volume shooter (think Brandon Jennings) who needs a lot of touches to be effective on offense because he isn't efficient.  I was really tempted to put Derek Jeter here, but resisted the urge.

Honorable Mention: Derek Jeter

Ichiro failed to make the All-Star team or win a Gold Glove
for the first time in a subpar 2011
OF Ichiro Suzuki-Back-to-back down years suggest that age (38) and overuse (only once has he failed to play at least 157 games) have finally caught up to Seattle's fan favorite.  His high batting averages and hit totals were always overrated because about 80 percent of his base knocks were measly singles, and even though he owns a career .326 average he's only posted an OBP over .400 once in his eleven seasons (in 2004, when he batted .372 and set the single season record with 262 hits).  For me, the most telling statistic is that he's won just two batting titles despite leading the bigs in hits seven times.

OF Jacoby Ellsbury-His monster 2011 campaign notwithstanding, Ellsbury had never showed signs of being an MVP candidate and had been somewhat of a disappointment in Boston .  He stole a ton of bases (including home against the Yankees) but didn't do much else; from 2008 through 2010 batted .285/.339/.395 with an 89 OPS+, 17 home runs and 112 RBI.  For those attempting to project him for this year, I suggest splitting the difference between last season and 2009 (he missed almost all of 2010 with cracked ribs).  Anyone expecting a repeat of or improvement upon last year will be sorely disappointed.

OF Jayson Werth-Got a big boost from the lineup and ballpark in Philly, and now he's been exposed for what he really is.  He's a great complementary player that can contribute in all facets of the game, but not someone to build your team around.  Werth can't anchor a lineup and isn't worth $126 million over seven years.

Honorable Mentions: Vernon Wells, Josh Hamilton, Jason Heyward, Nelson Cruz, Desmond Jennings

DH Michael Young-His high batting averages are nice, but with eleven home runs and 2.4 bWAR last year he was not deserving of the serious MVP support he received.  Like Ichiro, his high batting averages lose value because he doesn't walk enough; his .350 career OBP is on the low side for a .304 hitter.  The career Ranger has also benefitted from the Ballpark in Arlington (he's a .283/.327/.410 hitter everywhere else) and is always surrounded by talented hitters.

Honorable Mention: Jesus Montero

A Cy Young winner? Absolutely. MVP winner? Not so fast.
SP Justin Verlander-Great pitcher had a phenomenal season last year, but it wasn't as special as everyone made it out to be.  Guys like Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Jake Peavy, Johan Santana have been just as dominant at different points during the last decade, when offensive levels were much higher, yet have zero MVPs combined.  Verlander, on the other hand, pitched in the cavernous Comerica Park against a weak AL Central with league-wide offense dialed back to 1992 levels.  He was the most overhyped player of 2011 and I don't think he deserved the Most Valuable Player award. 

SP Josh Beckett-Too inconsistent and not durable enough; in 2006, 2008 and 2010 he fell far short of expectations, and has eclipsed 200 innings only three times in his eleven seasons.  He had just one great season (his last one) in Florida, and has received Cy Young votes in only two seasons. Like Curt Schilling, his career is enhanced in the public mind by an impressive postseason track record.

SP Zack Greinke-Since winning the 2009 AL Cy Young award has gone 20-20 with an ERA over four.  In fairness, last year his xFIP was 2.56 and his FIP was 2.98, so he endured his fair share of bad luck.  Other than 2009, he's been a good, but not great, starting pitcher who looks like more of a number two than an ace.

Nova overachieved in 2011
SP Ivan Nova-Perfect example of why a win-loss record can be deceiving.  He went 16-4 last year and finished fourth in the Rookie of the year voting, but failed to reach 100 strikeouts and posted a 1.33 WHIP.  An ordinary pitcher that benefits from a strong lineup that provides plenty of run support, he remains a likely regression candidate for 2012 (expect an ERA over four with a record closer to 13-10).  Most Yankees are overrated as soon as they put on the pinstripes (think Andy Pettitte and Nick Swisher), and Nova is no exception.

SP Ubaldo Jimenez-Fell apart in the second half of 2010 and finished with some brutal numbers last year; a 4.68 ERA, 1.40 WHIP and a 10-13 record.  Upon closer review, it seems bad luck played a part his dismal performance as his 3.67 FIP and  3.71 xFIP suggest, and his peripherals were in line with his career numbers.  Nonetheless, his dominant first half of 2010 when he led the league in winning percentage and finished third in the Cy Young voting appears to be an aberration.  See Greinke, Zack.

SP Francisco Liriano-Can't stay healthy and has topped 30 starts and 140 innings just once (2010) in his career. Holds a career 4.19 ERA, 1.33 WHIP and 101 ERA+.  Considering that he now calls Target Field home and plays in the NL Central, his numbers should be much better.  The Twins need him to sustain the flashes of potential he displayed in 2006 and 2010.

Honorable Mentions: Jeremy Hellickson, Chad Billingsley, Clay Buchholz

RP Francisco Rodriguez-The man who saved 62 games in 2008 has seen his saves decline every year since, and his 1.26 WHIP since 2007 is on the high side for a closer.  Then again, he's not even a closer anymore; he's John Axford's setup man.  Was never as good his his eye-popping saves total suggested, though.

Honorable Mention: Aroldis Chapman

CL Chris Perez-He saved 36 games for the Indians last year, but his strikeout rate (barely better than Nova's and terrible for relievers, who should strike out a batter per inning) is half of what it was in 2009 and he's an average reliever at best.  In addition, his 3.32 ERA and 1.21 WHIP aren't great, and an xFIP of 5.01 says he was extremely lucky last year.

Honorable Mention: Brian Wilson

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Baseball's All-Underrated Team

C Miguel Montero-The 28 year-old Arizona backstop has had trouble staying on the field, but as he showed last year he can be a top five catcher when totally healthy.  He led all full-time catchers with 86 RBI in 2011, banged out 55 extra base hits and posted a 121 OPS+ as he set career highs across the board and sustained the potential he flashed in 2009.  He's the second best hitter behind Justin Upton in the Snakes' lineup and figures to be a poor man's Brian McCann with his 20-90 potential.

Honorable Mention: Carlos Santana

A modern day Fred McGriff, the steady Konerko has averaged
 30 homers and 95 RBI per year since 1999
1B Paul Konerko-The slugging first baseman gets a lot less ink than Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and others who make the position so deep.  Nevertheless, Konk has been a fixture in Chicago's lineup for a dozen years now, and he's quietly put together a strong career.  Since becoming a full time player in 1999 he's averaged a strong .284/.361/.506 line with a 123 OPS+, and can be counted on for 150 games, 30 home runs and 100 RBI every year.  He's continued to improve with age by cutting down on his strikeouts, improving his walk rate and posting consecutive .300 batting averages for the first time in his career.  If he can stay productive for a few more years, he's capable of making a serious run at 500 home runs (he's currently sitting on 396, tied with Joe Carter for 51st all-time).

Honorable Mention: Carlos Pena

2B Ben Zobrist-Tampa Bay's jack of all trades can do a little bit of everything; he hits for power (72 extra base hits last year), runs (19 steals with a 76 percent success rate), gets on base (averaged 87 walks and a .367 OBP over the past three years) and plays pretty good defense wherever the Rays stick him.  Zorilla is also pretty durable, and has averaged 153 games played beginning in his breakout year--2009.  On a team that plays in a crappy market and always seems to exceed expectations, Zobrist just seems to get lost in the shuffle.  Much like J.D. Drew, he is a boring, yet effective baseball player.

Honorable Mention: Ian Kinsler

3B Ryan Zimmerman-He's more or less the National League equivalent of Evan Longoria, but just doesn't seem to get much attention playing in D.C.  Maybe it's because he's missed 142 games, nearly a full season's worth, over the past four years.  But he's a great all-around player entering his age 27 season, so big things could be in store for Washington's hot corner man.  A 35-110-.300 season is well within his reach.

Honorable Mention: Adrian Beltre

SS Yunel Escobar-Although his numbers don't jump off the page and he's never played in more than 141 games in a season, his .289/.366/.401 line is solid as a rock and he's a plus defender to boot.  He doesn't have a ton of pop, but I'll take ten to fifteen home runs from my shortstop anyday. In addition, his strong on-base percentages and good plate discipline make him a natural table setter for Toronto's big bats, Jose Bautista and Adam Lind.  He's somewhat miscast as a leadoff man because he doesn't have much speed, and I think he'd be better as a number two hitter. 

Honorable Mention: Alexei Ramirez

McCutchen is a great player for the Pirates to build around,
a young five-tool stud with Matt Kemp potential
OF Andrew McCutchen-A brutal September slump marred what was a breakout year for the Pirates centerfielder.  Even though Clint Hurdle kept flip-flopping him between the leadoff spot and three hole in their weak lineup, he continued to make great strides on offense; his home runs and RBI both increased by roughly 50 percent and the first time All-Star set a career high with 89 walks (although he probably got pitched around every now and then.  He imrpoved his glovework, too, and the 25 year-old probably hasn't hit his ceiling yet.  He has 30/30 potential appears to be a star in the making, especially if Pedro Alvarez can develop into the middle-of-the-order threat he's projected to be.  Even if McCutchen doesn't improve much more, there's nothing wrong with being an NL version of Torii Hunter.

OF Shane Victorino-It's easy to become the forgotten man on a veritable  juggernaut that features Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Hunter Pence, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee, but the Flyin' Hawaiian led the team in runs and paced the NL in triples.  The switch-hitting centerfielder surprised everyone by rating as the best everyday player for the Phillies last year, and his numbers would have been even more impressive if he hadn't missed 30 games and wilted down the stretch.  He's comfortable anywhere in the lineup (though he'd probably be most effective in the two-hole behind J-Roll) and is a great source of speed and athleticism for a starting nine that's aging faster than Nick Nolte.

OF Michael Bourn-Has surpassed Jose Reyes as the top basestealer in the Senior Circuit by leading the league in three straight years.  Last year he ranked first in the majors by swiping a dozen more than anyone else last year (Coco Crisp and Brett Gardner tied for second in the big with 49 thefts apiece).  Not surprisingly, Bourn uses his speed to play a sterling centerfield.  Juan Pierre is a good comp for him, since they both have tremendous speed but can't hit for power.  The trade from Houston to Atlanta should boost his runs scored totals and help him get more recognition, though. 

Honorable Mentions: Nick Swisher, Shin-Soo Choo, Peter Bourjos

DH Billy Butler-He's a hefty line drive machine hits for high batting averages and piles up doubles, but Kansas City would like to see more of those two-baggers clear the fences.  Offensively, his statistics mirror those of Nick Markakis.  The comparison is fitting, as both are perpetually on the brink of a breakout season but have yet to follow through.  Butler is only 25, though, so it's very possible he hasn't reached his potential yet.  Markakis, on the other hand, is 28 and seems to be regressing.

Honorable Mention: David Ortiz

Cain tossed 26 quality starts last year and 25 in 2010
SP Matt Cain-Pitches in the shadow of Tim Lincecum and a dearth of run support has wreaked havoc on his win-loss record, but he's a perfect number two starter who could probably be the ace on a different staff.  The workhorse combines durability--he has started at least 32 games six years running and seems to turn in a quality start every time out--with good stuff and command.  Since breaking out in 2009 he's averaged a 2.97 ERA with a 1.12 WHIP and 176 K's per year.  He's a great hurler, but falls just short of elite.  Because of his consistency, I view him as a wealthy man's Mark Buehrle.

SP Ricky Romero-Has quietly evolved into an ace north of the border.  The southpaw set career bests in just about everything last year and posted a 2.92 ERA despite pitching in the AL Beast in a park conducive to the long ball.  All his numbers are trending in the right direction, and I wouldn't be surprised if he forces his way into the Cy Young discussion next year.

SP Ted Lilly-A great number two or three starter who's really taken advantage of a move from the AL Beast to the weaker National League.  In his five seasons in the Senior Circuit he's averaged 32 starts per year with a 1.13 WHIP.  Regressed a bit last season and at 36 is getting up there in age, but a sterling finish to the season (2.09 ERA after the calendar flipped to August) gives me hope that he'll rebound strong in 2012.

SP Shaun Marcum-In Toronto he was overshadowed by Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, and in Milwaukee he's a step behind Zack Greinke and Yovani Gallardo.  Marcum doesn't throw hard, but still manages to miss plenty of bats and makes up for his lack of velocity with excellent command figures.  He eclipsed 200 innings for the first time last year even though he got dinged up, so he should continue to thrive in the National League.  The losses of Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun will make it difficult for him to win more than fifteen games, though.

SP Jordan Zimmermann-If you look past last year's mediocre 8-11 record, you'll find a 3.18 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and four strikeouts for every walk.  Those are some darn good numbers, and you can bet that he'll be better than Stephen Strasburg next year, because in 2011 he was basically Matt Cain.  He's a key ingredient in the Nats' young, talented nucleus, and figures to play a prominent role in the franchise's revival.

Honorable Mentions: Tim Hudson, Chris Carpenter, Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana, Mat Latos

Clippard was worth 3.4 bWAR last season
RP Tyler Clippard-Another Washington National, but he's one of the best relievers in the game.  The first-time All-Star finished with a microscopic 1.83 ERA and 0.84 WHIP.  The Yankee Clippard also recorded more than 100 strikeouts for the second straight year, and teamed up with fireman Drew Storen to form an intimidating bullpen duo a la Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon.  With a salary south of half a million dollars last year, Clippard was one of the best bargains in baseball for a team that shelled out 126 million bucks for Jayson Werth.

RP Fernando Salas-"For Sale" (my own creation--think it will catch on?) got bumped from the closer's role because of Tony LaRussa's played musical chairs with his bullpen after Ryan Franklin suffered a Trevor Hoffman-esque collapse last year, (Jason Motte won that round) but still managed to compile two dozen saves, a 2.28 ERA and sub-one WHIP for the eventual World Series champs.  His struggles against Texas in the Fall Classic came on the heels of dominant performances against the Phillies and Brewers earlier in October.

Honorable Mention: Mike Adams

CL John Axford-The NL saves leader is so good that midseason import Francisco Rodriguez, a formerly elite closer affectionately known as K-Rod, immediately became his setup man as soon as he arrived in Milwaukee.  One of the best closers in baseball, the Axe whiffed 86 batters in 73.2 innings and maintained a tidy 1.95 ERA.  Somehow he didn't make the All-Star team, but went on to earn Cy Young and MVP votes.

Honorable Mention: Andrew Bailey