Saturday, February 28, 2015

Pierre Pulls Plug on Career

Pierre was a player unlike any other (CBS Miami)
After 14 major league seasons, Juan Pierre finally ran out of gas. The speedy outfielder, 37, announced his retirement yesterday after sitting out the entire 2014 season. Pierre last suited up in 2013, batting .247/.284/.305 with 23 steals in 113 games for the Miami Marlins.

Pierre's belated retirement officially marks the end to what was a very unorthodox major league career. When Pierre made his major league debut in 2000 with the Colorado Rockies, power at an all-time high. The record for most home runs in a season was set that year, with 5,693 dingers leaving the yard during the regular season. Pierre, in 219 plate appearances that year, contributed 0. The following season--the year Barry Bonds blasted 73 and Sammy Sosa smashed 64--Pierre managed two in 156 games.

That was Pierre, swimming against the tide. While players were routinely clearing 30 home runs per, Pierre never swatted more than three and finished his career with just 18. Even though he played in some very favorable parks in Colorado and Chicago (both leagues), power just wasn't part of his game. It was almost comical how rarely he went deep, especially in light of how many plate appearances he racked up. Pierre was the epitome of a slap-hitter, the go-to comp for any light-hitting player deemed incapable of clearing the fences. I'm sure many baseball fans believed that, given the same number of ups, they could outdo his meager home run totals.

Despite his dearth of power, Pierre enjoyed a productive big league career that spanned nearly 2,000 games. He was a full-time center fielder for nearly a decade before the Dodgers moved him to left so they could make room for Andruw Jones (not Matt Kemp, as I originally believed). A .295 career hitter, he sprayed 2,217 hits, topping 200 in a season four times and narrowly missing a fifth. He walked nearly as often as he struck out, which he rarely did, topping out at 52 times in 2002 and averaging just 34 K's per season.

Pierre also ran the bases with abandon unlike anyone else during his time (young Jose Reyes is the only one that comes to mind). His 614 stolen bases rank 18th all-time and 10th since the end of World War II. Over the course of his career, nobody came within 100 steals of Pierre, who led the league three times. Not surprisingly, Pierre ranked second in baserunning value during this time--to the still-active Jimmy Rollins.

On the flip side, Pierre was caught stealing almost twice as often as the next closest guy--remember Chone Figgins? Five times Pierre led the majors and seven times led his league in failed stolen base attempts. On the whole though, his aggressiveness helped his teams more than it hurt, for he was successful in over three-quarters of his tries.

With his speed and banjo-hitting approach, Pierre was a throwback to the deadball era, out of place and out of time in the incredible hulk steroid seasons. He was playing small ball when everyone else was loading up for the long ball. In 2007 Alex Rodriguez banked 30 before the All-Star Break. Juan Pierre finished that season with 0, one of three times he finished a season sans a round-tripper. Over 83 percent of his hits were singles.

The most telling statistic about kind of player Pierre was might be this; over the course of his career, he had almost 100 more stolen bases than RBI. I mean, you think he would have knocked in more runs just based on the sheer volume of hits he accumulated (though he was primarily a leadoff hitter in the National League, and typically batted after pitchers as a result). Apparently it's also very hard to drive in baserunners with a career ISO of .066.

Another cool stat of his is that he had more than five times as many triples than home runs. It's incredibly rare for a player nowadays to have equal numbers of both, let alone have a triples total that dwarfs his home run total. For his era, at least, Pierre was truly one of a kind.

One more aspect of Pierre's game was his exceptional durability, which helped him play 821 consecutive games from September 18th, 2002 through the end of the 2007 season. Over the meat of his career, from 2001-2011, he appeared in at least 145 games every year but one and averaged 155 games per season.

Pierre was a joy to watch whenever he got on base, which happened quite frequently (he had a .343 career OBP). He was one of the few base thieves who could make a pitcher sweat just by his mere presence on first base, as he was a threat to steal whenever he reached safely. In that sense he was like a poor man's Ichiro Suzuki, and considering that Ichiro's a surefire Hall of Famer, I mean no disrespect. Wherever Juan Pierre's headed next in life, I'm sure he's running there.

Pierre was born to run (Capers Block)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Will the Hornets Make the Playoffs?

This article was contributed by Robert Simms:

The Hornets currently sit in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers. The three teams are currently just a single game back of the Brooklyn Nets, who at 23-31, currently hold possession of the 8th and final playoff spot in the East. With only 28 games left, the Hornets have an uphill battle ahead of them if they hope to claim that spot. Charlotte made the playoffs last year as the 7th seed, earning themselves a first round drubbing at the hands of LeBron James and the final iteration of the Big Three Era Miami Heat. Though the Hornets (at the time still the Bobcats) were swept in that series, the organization and the fan base entered this season with higher expectations.

The team had an established star in Al Jefferson, a blossoming franchise point guard in Kemba Walker, and talented young players on rookie contracts who seemed poised to make mini-leaps in Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The team even made a splash in free agency, signing versatile wing Lance Stephenson away from the Pacers for what seemed a fair market price. The season has not panned out as expected, to say the least. Jefferson has looked old, Walker has been banged up, and the Stephenson experiment has been something of a disaster. The youngsters have not produced as hoped, and rookie first round pick Noah Vonleh has barely seen the court, having taken on 26 shots all season.

In what is his 11th season in the league, it seems possible that Jefferson’s age may have finally caught up to him, even though he is still miraculously only 30 years old. His scoring and rebounding have both undergone significant declines; Big Al has gone from a legit 20 point-10 rebound guy last season to barely breaking 17-8 this year. The diminished stats coincide with a dip in both minutes and field goal percentages. As his playing time and effectiveness shrink, I fear we may be seeing one of the last star quality seasons of Big Al’s career. As Jefferson’s role has receded, one would hope that Walker, Charlotte’s other star, has risen to assume a larger role. 

This has not been the case. Walker has battled multiple nagging injuries this season that have kept him out of a dozen games, and though his scoring is up a bit this year, his assist and rebound numbers have both fallen off slightly after he set career highs in both last season. Walker is a nice player; an explosive slasher with a quick first step and a terrific step back jumper who so far seems to have lived up to the “clutch” reputation that followed his college heroics. But he can’t do it on his own. Walker can create shots for himself, but these shots are often inefficient mid-range jumpers, shots that he does not hit at a high enough rate to justify taking. He is a below average three point shooter, a fact that opponents clearly make note of when they slough off Walker to prevent his dribble drives. His limited stature (listed at a generous 6’1”) hurts him in the paint, where he struggles to finish at an above-average level.

It is unfair to lump the Hornets offensive struggles entirely on Walker though because he really has done a serviceable job with the mediocre cards he has been dealt. Much of the blame can be directed towards the team’s general manager, Rich Cho, who has created one of the weirder teams in the league through a variety of puzzling personnel moves. For one, he has illogically surrounded Jefferson with non-shooters. Despite his dip in productivity, Jefferson is still the centerpiece of Charlotte’s offense. He is a post-up beast who scores well in isolations and thus frequently garners double teams that draw defenders away from their perimeter assignments. Big Al can pass fairly well out of these double teams, but a common result of these passes this season have been missed outside jumpers. That’s because none of the team’s perimeter players can effectively and efficiently shoot threes.

Of Hornets players who have played over 10 minutes per game this season, only Jeff Taylor, a seldom used wing player, is shooting above league average from deep. Unsurprisingly, the team is last in the league in three point FG%. This inability to shoot from range allows defenders to slough away from their assignments and sag towards the middle of the floor, where they can disrupt post-ups by Jefferson and crowd against Walker’s probing drives. In doing so, teams have been able to absolutely smother the Hornets half-court scoring this season. The Hornets offense currently ranks 29th in points per 100 possessions and ranks dead last in Effective Field Goal percentage, a statistic that takes into account the increased point value of a three point shot. Charlotte’s offense has been so dismal this year that despite having the 8th ranked defense in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, the team’s net rating is still negative.

All is not lost for the team’s playoff hopes though. Of the Hornets’ remaining schedule, only 12 games are home. The remaining 16 are on the road, where the Hornets are 9-16 so far this season. This looks grisly, but is actually an easier slate than their competitors face. Each of the Pistons, Pacers, and Nets all have 10 or fewer home games remaining. If the Hornets can tread water at .500 or a bit above, they should be able to secure the 8 seed. The next two week stretch will be crucial. They are scheduled to face Boston, Orlando, LA (Lakers), Brooklyn, Toronto, and Detroit. If the Hornets can go 5-1 (or more realistically 4-2) against that sheet, with victories against Brooklyn and Detroit, they could set themselves up in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the season. Note also that of their remaining 28 games, only 11 are against teams with winning records. 11. They get the Celtics, Nets, and Kings twice, while drawing the Pistons three times. That is not too tough of a road.

The Hornets entered the year with expectations of surpassing their playoff progress from last season. Though the East is still the minor leagues compared to the grueling Western Conference, several playoff teams from the East have taken steps forward over the past year. Chicago, Atlanta, Toronto and Washington have all upgraded their rosters, not to mention the radical transformation that occurred in Cleveland. With the improvement of their playoff peers from a year ago, it comes as no surprise that the Hornets are still an incomplete team. I think the best case scenario for the Hornets would be to capture the 8 seed and to hopefully avoid a sweep at the hands of the Hawks, current holders of the league’s best record. With that in mind, the team might be better served going the way of Philadelphia and tanking for a better draft pick.

*All stats per nba.com and espn.com

Thursday, February 19, 2015

2015 MLB Over/Unders

Win lines have been set for the 2015 season. Here are my thoughts:

Los Angeles Dodgers -- 92½ OVER
The reigning NL West champs and winners of 94 games last year made some nice moves this winter, solidifying their middle infield by trading for Jimmy Rollins and Howard Kendrick. They also unloaded Matt Kemp's contract for some solid talent in return, namely catcher/first baseman Yasmani Grandal. Now if only they could find a way to do the same with Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford...

Washington Nationals -- 92½ OVER
The Nats could very well win 100 games with that rotation. Let's just run through the names again; Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez, with Tanner Roark in reserve. That's ridiculous. Their lineup is equally stacked, with Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman, Denard Span, and Wilson Ramos. They're also in a fairly weak division, which should help them pile up the victories.

Los Angeles Angels -- 89½ UNDER
I just feel like the Angels got really lucky last year. They beat up a lot on the Rangers and Astros, who accounted for 26 of their 98 wins. Both teams figure to be much better this year, plus LA appears to have gotten worse. Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson are all another year older. Howard Kendrick will be missed. Mike Trout might continue to slide. I don't believe they'll win 90+ again this year, especially in such a tough division.

St. Louis Cardinals -- 88½ OVER
I already loved the Cardinals, so I really love them now that they added Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden. They're not going to miss Shelby Miller one bit, especially if they get a full year from Michael Wacha. I also think Kelton Wong's going to break out, and we haven't seen the best of Matt Adams yet, either. St. Louis is on the older side, which does give me cause for concern, but their all-around depth and balance should be enough to win the NL Central again, especially since the Cubs were the only other team that got demonstrably better.

Boston Red Sox -- 86½ UNDER
Boston's better, but how much better? Where you fall on the Sox depends on what you think of their remade pitching staff. If you think Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson bounce back, Rick Porcello's progression is for real, Wade Miley doesn't fall apart, and Joe Kelly takes a step forward, then the rotation could be pretty good. But if Buchholz gets hurt, Porcello regresses, and Masterson/Miley stay the same, then they're going to give up a lot of runs. Is the glass half-empty, or is it half-full? If this was at 84 or 85 wins I'd probably take the over, but this just feels too high for me. 

Seattle Mariners -- 86½ OVER
Their rotation's really good and they should hit enough after adding Nelson Cruz to Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Austin Jackson, especially since Pythagorean says they were a 91-win team last year.

San Diego Padres -- 85½ OVER
I'm very bullish on the Padres this year. They won 77 games last year without hitting a lick, so a really good lineup should add at least 10 wins to their ledger. Job well done.

Detroit Tigers -- 84½ OVER
Losing Scherzer hurts (a lot), but they still have David Price, Anibal Sanchez, and Drew Smyly, not to mention Justin Verlander. Trading Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes upgraded the right field situation (so long, Torii Hunter), and the lineup is still dynamite with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, and Ian Kinsler. A healthy Jose Iglesias back at shortstop should do wonders for the infield defense, and I think Nick Castellanos has a better year, too. The Tigers are still the best team in their division.

San Francisco Giants -- 84½ UNDER
I'm pretty down on the reigning World Series champs. Not only did they lose one of their best hitters in Pablo Sandoval, but they also lost out on everyone they tried to sign this winter. Their offense is too reliant on Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, and Brandon Belt, and the rotation is really just Madison Bumgarner at this point. Tim Hudson's old, Tim Lincecum stinks, and Matt Cain is no longer outperforming his peripherals. With the Dodgers and Padres both getting stronger, I see the Giants as more of a .500 team this year. 

Cleveland Indians -- 83½ OVER
Cleveland's got a great core of young/in their prime players such as Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, and Jason Kipnis, all supplemented by veteran bats like Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, and Brandon Moss. That's a terrific collection of hitters. The Tribe also boast reigning AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who's likely headed for regression but should be helped out by a better year from Danny Salazar. Trevor Bauer should be better, Carlos Carrasco is pretty good, and Gavin Floyd might be able to help.

Pittsburgh Pirates -- 83½ UNDER
Not a fan of their rotation at all (besides Gerrit Cole), and the offense is way too reliant on Andrew McCutchen. Neil Walker and Starling Marte are pretty good, but Josh Harrison is headed for regression and I'm not sure Pedro Alvarez bounces back. They're really going to miss Russell Martin.

Baltimore Orioles -- 82½ OVER
Full, healthy seasons from Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado would make this a killer lineup with J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, and Steve Pearce. Their pitching's pretty meh, but that lineup should do some serious damage, especially in that park.

Chicago Cubs -- 82½ OVER
After signing Jon Lester and trading for Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero, the Cubs are contenders this year.

Toronto Blue Jays -- 82½ OVER
An easy one. Toronto won 83 games last year, then went out and signed Russell Martin and traded for Josh Donaldson. They're my favorites to win the division this year.

Chicago White Sox -- 81½ OVER
With a formidable top of the rotation (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Samardzija) and improved offense in the form of Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche, the White Sox will win more than they lose this year.

Miami Marlins -- 81½ OVER
Miami made some sneaky good moves this offseason, trading for Dan Haren and Mat Latos to bolster the rotation and improving the offense via Martin Prado and Mike Morse. Assuming Jose Fernandez returns to health and Giancarlo Stanton isn't negatively affected by last September's beanball, and that's a good team.

New York Mets -- 81½ OVER
The Mets may well be the better team in New York right now. They have a lot of good young pitching (Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, Jacob deGrom) to complement a veteran lineup anchored by David Wright, Michael Cuddyer, Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, and the always-underrated Daniel Murphy

New York Yankees -- 81½ OVER
The Yankees have won more than they lost for each of the past 22 years. So yeah, I'm taking the over. They'll be okay without Derek Jeter (better, actually).

Oakland Athletics -- 80½ OVER
This feels way too low for the A's--a team that has won 278 games over the past three years. Granted, they lost a lot of talent from last year--i.e. Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, and Derek Norris--but there's still plenty to like here. They traded for Ben Zobrist, signed Billy Butler, and got Brett Lawrie in the Donaldson deal. The rotation added Jesse Hahn to Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, and potential rebounds A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker. Oakland was much better than an 88-win team last year anyways, for its run differential suggested it should have won 99 games. Assuming their true talent level was somewhere in between--let's call it 94 wins--then falling all the way to 80 wins is asking a lot. This is still a deep team, even without last year's star power, and I just think they're too good to have a losing record this year.

Kansas City Royals -- 79½ UNDER
The pitching staff is pedestrian without James Shields, the bullpen is due to regress, and the lineup is fairly mediocre. .500 is probably the best Kansas City can do this year.

Milwaukee Brewers -- 78½ OVER
The Brewers can flat out mash with Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez, Khris Davis, Aramis Ramirez, Adam Lind, and Gerrardo Parra. I think there's just enough starting pitching between Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Wily Peralta, and Mike Fiers to help them win more than they lose again.

Tampa Bay Rays -- 78½ UNDER
The pitching is still very good thanks to Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, and Chris Archer, but I don't see where the offense is going to come from outside of Evan Longoria and occasionally Desmond Jennings. A return to mediocrity is likely in store for Tampa Bay.

Cincinnati Reds -- 77½ UNDER
Positive regression from Jay Bruce, Joey Votto, and Homer Bailey will be offset by negative regression from Devin Mesoraco and Johnny Cueto as well as the losses of Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon.

Texas Rangers -- 77½ OVER
Lost pretty much their entire team to injury last year and still found a way to win 67 games. With better luck this year they should be around .500.

Houston Astros -- 74½ OVER
The Astros are on their way up and have a sneaky good lineup with Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, Evan Gattis, and George Springer, especially if Jed Lowrie and Colby Rasmus bounce back. The staff needs Colin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel to replicate their success, which I don't necessarily think will happen, but the bottom line is that this is a better team than last year.

Atlanta Braves -- 73½ UNDER
The Braves are going to be brutal this year. 

Arizona Diamondbacks -- 71½ UNDER
After a quiet winter on the heels of a 98-loss season, Arizona may lose 100+ games this year. Poor Paul Goldschmidt.

Colorado Rockies -- 71½ UNDER
The Rockies didn't do much of anything after losing 96 games last year. As such, there's no reason to expect they'll be much better this year.

Minnesota Twins -- 70½ OVER
The Twins won 70 games last year but project to field a halfway decent rotation with Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Tommy Milone, and (gulp) Ricky Nolasco. They're not going to hit much, but they have a great infield and young talent is on the way.

Philadelphia Phillies -- 68½ UNDER
Once they trade Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee (good luck getting rid of Ryan Howard), this team is going to be absolutely abysmal.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How Will Petco Affect New Padres?

Petco's a gem of a ballfield, but I wouldn't want to hit there (ItinerantFan)
After fielding the weakest-hitting team in baseball last year, the San Diego Padres went out and made several high-profile moves over the winter to revamp their offense. Now, after adding three All-Stars and a former Rookie of the Year—none of whom are older than 30—they’ve built what might be the scariest lineup in the National League.

That is, until you factor in their home park. It’s the reason everyone’s expecting San Diego’s new ace, James Shields, to still be great at 33 (despite the fact that he's thrown a zillion innings). It’s also the reason their fearsome-looking offense might be closer to pedestrian than a modern day murderer’s row.

Petco Park is where hitting goes to die. In fact, Petco has hurt scoring more than any other park over the past three years, suppressing runs by 17 percent. It plays tougher on righties than lefties, and all of the new Padres bat from the right side. Obviously that doesn’t bode well for San Diego.

But while Petco isn’t going to help any position player’s numbers, it probably won’t hurt the new Padres as much as one might think. With the exception of Will Middlebrooks, they’ve all posted outstanding stats in the past despite playing in difficult hitting environments. Since they did it before and are still relatively young, it stands to reason they can do it again.

Derek Norris comes from Oakland, for instance, which had the fifth-worst run environment of American League parks over the past three years and suppressed righthanded home runs by 10 percent. Even so, he put up an .801 OPS there–145 points better than his road OPS. If Norris could mash in Oakland’s cavernous coliseum, then he should be fine in spacious Petco.

FanGraphs’ projection systems (Steamer and ZiPS) don’t agree, as they have him losing about 50 points off last year’s OPS. That seems odd given that he’s 26, an age when players traditionally peak. While Petco might prevent him from taking a step forward, it shouldn’t cause him to take a major step back. Based on his production the last two years, the Padres should get double digit homers and a .350-ish OBP from their All-Star catcher.

Like Norris, Justin Upton is projected to lose roughly 50 points off his OPS even though he’s also in the heart of his prime (Upton’s 27). That lost production is expected to come entirely from his power figures, with his slugging predicted to fall nearly 50 points even though his ISO has increased each of the last two years. That trend won’t continue at Petco, but he should be able to hold his own in the power department.

Since leaving Arizona’s homer-friendly Chase Field in 2012, Upton has remained one of the game’s premier sources of righthanded power despite spending the last two seasons in Turner Field—a much tougher park for sluggers. It’s not as brutal as Petco but still suppresses righthanded home runs by six percent. That didn’t stop Upton from slamming 56 home runs over the past two years (31 at home), and in a friendlier park he likely would have topped 30 both years. He’ll have a hard time cracking 30 in Petco, but should still be good for around 25 or so.
Kemp can hit anywhere (FanDuel)
Of the new Padres, Matt Kemp is the most familiar with Petco, as he’s logged more career at-bats there than the rest of them combined. He also spent his entire career in Dodger Stadium, which tied with PNC Park for being the third-toughest park for hitters from 2012-2014, so he’s no stranger to calling an offensive wasteland home. The Chavez Ravine also limited righthanded batting average by seven percent during that time. None of that deterred Kemp from hitting a robust .288/.349/.493 (135 OPS+) over the last three years, with 30 of his 54 big flies coming at home. Kemp can hit anywhere, as his almost-identical home/road splits can attest, so Petco shouldn't faze him.

And yet, Steamer and ZiPS see a big downward turn coming from Kemp this year, with ZiPS predicting his OPS to plunge 83 points. Given that he’s not far removed from his prime at 30 and just had one of his best offensive seasons, that seems unfairly harsh. As with Upton, Kemp can blast 25 homers in his sleep if he stays healthy, which should be easier for him now that he’s no longer an everyday center fielder.

That’s because Wil Myers, 24, is moving from right field to center–where he’s played all of 53 innings at the major league level. That’s going to present its own challenges as he tries to rebound from a horrendous sophomore slump (77 OPS+) that may have prompted the Rays to cut him loose barely two years after trading for him.

In his brief time with Tampa Bay, Myers struggled at Tropicana Field, which ranked as the AL’s third-toughest place to score from 2012-2014 and hindered righthanded home runs by 12 percent. It’s no surprise, then, that his OPS there was a paltry .684. The young phenom was much better elsewhere, though, with a .753 OPS on the road. Petco’s going to limit his ceiling considerably, but good health should help him at least approach his Rookie of the Year numbers. The projection systems place him slightly closer to his stellar 2013 than his god-awful 2014, which feels about right.

As for Will Middlebrooks, he couldn’t hit even with the advantage of playing half his games in Fenway, so one has to wonder how the Padres expect him to produce in San Diego. His career OPS outside Boston’s lyric little bandbox is .675, which is very worrisome in light of his move west. Petco could very well kill his career.

So while the new Padres will probably see their numbers slip, the decline won’t be as pronounced as one might expect. They’ve experienced success in similarly difficult ballparks and shouldn’t fall apart now that they’re playing half their games in San Diego. If they were coming from places like Texas and Colorado that would be greater cause for concern, but Petco isn’t significantly tougher than their past home parks. Maybe that’s why the Padres traded for them in the first place.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Top Shortstops for 2015

Tulowitzki is far and away the best shortstop in baseball (Denver CBS Local)
Thinking about Ernie Banks and his place among shortstops all-time got me thinking about the best shortstops in the game today. Here's the list I came up with.

1. Troy Tulowitzki
There's no doubt that when healthy, Tulowitzki is one of the best all-around players in baseball. "When healthy" is the key phrase there, as Tulo has played 130 games once in the past five seasons, but even last year when he missed 71 games he was still worth 5.5 bWAR. The four-time All-Star turned 30 last October and is still in his prime, as evidenced by last year's ridiculous first half. He also gets to play half his games in Coors Field.

2. Ian Desmond
Quick, name the only player to go 20/20 in each of the past three years. It's not Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, or Carlos Gomez. It's Desmond, who's earned the NL Silver Slugger award three years running. Hard to believe it's the same guy who batted .262/.304/.387 (87 OPS+) through his first three seasons and 1,300 big league plate appearances. Desmond did regress a bit last year, whiffing 183 times as his batting line fell to .253/.313/.430, but at 29 that power-speed combo probably isn't going anywhere.

3. Jose Reyes
Reyes isn't the game-changing stolen base threat he was during his younger days, but he's still a very good one (30/32 in stolen base attempts last year) and has retained his double-digit home run pop. He hasn't been a plus defender for a while now, but he does enough as a table-setter (gets on, steals, scores runs) to be an elite shortstop when healthy.

4. Starlin Castro
Castro's coming into his prime at 25 and is already a three-time All-Star. He rebounded from an abysmal 2013 to bat .292/.339/.438 (114 OPS+) with 14 home runs last year, putting him back on the Hall of Fame track. Castro's defense remains atrocious, but he might be the only shortstop not named Tulowitzki capable of batting .300 with 15-20 homers.

5. Alexei Ramirez
Ramirez flies under the radar despite playing everyday and having good power/speed numbers for a shortstop. He's hit at least 15 home runs in four of his six seasons and notched double digit steals every year except one. The result is a durable, decent defensive shortstop with close to league average power/on-base skills and solid speed. That might not be sexy, but it's a pretty good ballplayer, even if he is 33.

6. Jhonny Peralta
Peralta played outstanding defense last year in addition to popping 21 home runs, clubbing 38 doubles, and hitting .268/.336/.443 (116 OPS+). He was rewarded with MVP consideration for the first time in his 12 seasons. His bat and glove have both held steady with age, which is why I don't predict a major drop-off coming in his age-33 season. Peralta's also surprisingly durable for someone of his size and build, as he's played at least 140 games in all but one of the past 10 seasons.

7. J.J. Hardy
Hardy has a great glove (three straight Gold Gloves) and solid bat (96 OPS+), though his stick might be slipping if last year's power outage was any indication. He's already 32, so I wouldn't bank on him bouncing back to his 25-homer days, but 15 or so should be reasonable in that ballpark. If he's truly a single-digit home run guy from now on, though, that doesn't bode well for the Orioles, as he's just a .260 hitter who hardly walks and strikes out a fair amount. Given his age the defense is probably headed south soon as well, but for now he's still a comfortably above average shortstop.

8. Andrelton Simmons
Winner of back-to-back NL Gold Gloves, Simmons is hands-down the best defensive shortstop in the game, but his bat slipped from usable in 2013 to a black hole last year (.617 OPS). His glove makes him an asset no matter how poorly he hits, but if he can just be mediocre at the plate rather than cringe-worthy, he'll be a borderline All-Star.

9. Erick Aybar
Aybar's another one who doesn't stand out but consistently plays well. He's as steady as they come, a lock to bat .280 with around 20 steals and 30 doubles despite playing in a tough hitter's environment. Throw in decent defense and you've got yourself a capable if uninspiring shortstop.

10. Jimmy Rollins
Now 36, Rollins refuses to break down. He was worth almost four bWAR last year after socking 17 homers, stealing 28 bases in 34 tries, and putting up a 101 OPS+. He also played not terrible defense, which is always a pleasant surprise from a veteran shortstop in his mid-30s. His bat might finally crumble now that he's moving from a hitter's heaven in Philly to a pitcher's paradise in LA, but it seems equally likely that Rollins will just continue to roll on.


Honorable Mention: Alcides Escobar, Jed Lowrie, Xander Bogaerts, Elvis Andrus

Giambi Goes Out With Whimper

Yep, that guy played major league baseball last year (Rant Sports)
Jason Giambi finally announced his retirement today at the age of 44.

I say finally because it seemed like Giambi retired years ago. He became a part-time player after leaving the Yankees via free agency in 2009 and, save for a brief resurgence with Colorado in 2011, was never again the impact hitter that he was during his days in Oakland and New York. Giambi played so sparingly over the past five seasons that it was just easy to forget about him unless you were a die-hard Rockies or Indians fan. Every now and then I'd see his name in the box score and think What? That guy's still playing?

Giambi hung around long past his expiration date, but he was hardly the first to do so. I'm just surprised a bat-first/only guy on the wrong side of 40 who couldn't hit, run, or field kept finding work.

And while those final years didn't add much to his counting stats, they did help him achieve several milestones. Giambi notched his 2,000th career hit on September 8th, 2013 against the New York mets. Leading off the bottom of the ninth, Giambi represented the tying run and was promptly removed for a pinch-runner. He cracked his 400th double the same year. There were also moments like these.

That's how the last act of Giambi's career played out; a lot of pinch-hitting and DH-ing and even more time spent on the bench. But during his heyday during the late 1990s and early 2000s, at the height of the steroid era, Giambi was an absolute terror. He had a beastly four-year peak from 1999-2002 when he batted .326/.452/.612 (177 OPS+) with a .448 wOBA. He was in the top-eight of the MVP voting every year, winning outright in 2000 and finishing runner-up to Ichiro Suzuki the following year. There were only two position players more valuable than Giambi during this time (according to fWAR): Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

Like Frank Thomas, another burly slugging first base/DH type, Giambi remained effective throughout his 30s but slipped as his body began to break down (probably a result of his admitted steroid use). Perhaps seduced by Yankee Stadium's short right field porch, he became more of a three-true outcomes kind of guy, especially once teams began employing defensive shifts against him. His BABiP, which had been above .310 every year from 1996-2002, fell below .295 in every one of his last dozen seasons, during which time Giambi batted a mere .238. Pretty shocking considering he nearly beat out Ichiro for the batting title in 2001.*.

*The same thing has more or less happened with Mark Teixeira, a first baseman who, like Giambi, signed a big long-term deal with New York, only to follow up a monster first season with several very good years before injuries, shifts, and a pull-happy approach wrecked him. 

Giambi's time in New York overlapped with the seven years where they failed to win the World Series. He signed on with them six weeks after Mariano Rivera's Game 7 meltdown in Arizona, only to depart the winter before New York hoisted its 27th championship banner. Giambi played 20 years, all in the wild card era, without ever winning a title, albeit through no fault of his own. He hit well in the postseason, flashing a .290/.425/.486 line with seven homers and 19 RBI in 45 games.

Interestingly, Giambi retires as the active leader in walks and hit by pitches. Few players had a better batting eye than the five-time All-Star, who led the league in free passes four times and posted a 15.3 BB% for his career. He also knew how to take one for the team, which he did 180 times throughout his career. In fact, only 10 players have ever been hit by more pitches.

Giambi, of course, was also a phenomenal power hitter and run producer. He topped 40 homers three times, 30 eight times, and 20 11 times. He went yard 440 times in all, good for 41st on the all-time list. He also came close to knocking in 1,500 runs, settling at 1,441 with seven seasons over the century mark (and another at 96). That's why Steinbrenner and Cashman paid him the big bucks.

Giambi's star may have faded away, but he had a damn good career, on par with David Ortiz, Carlos Delgado, and Jim Rice in terms of overall value. Had he been able to remain productive throughout his late 30s like Ortiz or if his peak had extended a few more years in either direction, we'd be talking about a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. Instead, Giambi must settle for the Hall of Very Good, but that's still a pretty great place to be.

MLB Offseason Losers

The Giants will not be repeating in 2015 (Live4SportNetwork)
Earlier today I weighed in on the teams that I felt improved the most this winter. Now it's time to look at the ones that really dropped the ball.

Atlanta Braves
The Braves slumped from 96 wins in 2013 to 79 wins last year, then promptly blew up their team. Gone are three of their top position players--Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis--as well as Ervin Santana. Good thing they shelled out $44 million for Nick Markakis, though.

Kansas City Royals
The Royals celebrated their first postseason trip since 1985 by blowing three years and $33 million on Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez--a fourth outfielder and poor starting pitcher. A small market team like Kansas City can't afford to burn money like that, especially considering they weren't even really that good last year (pythag W-L was 84-78). They also lost James Shields, easily their best starting pitcher. Expect the Royals to finish closer to 80 wins than 90 this year.

New York Mets
The Mets were almost a .500 team last year without Matt Harvey, and with a few key upgrades could have established themselves as the clear no. 2 team in the NL East behind the Nationals (who are absolutely stacked, by the way). Instead, all they did was sign Michael Cuddyer, which is probably going to work out about as well as those Jason Bay and Curtis Granderson signings did. The Mets may play in a big market, but they certainly don't act like it.

Philadelphia Phillies
The Phils traded Jimmy Rollins, which was a start, but have failed to trade either Ryan Howard or Cole Hamels. Howard's a tough sell, but Hamels would net Philadelphia a bevy of prospects. So would Cliff Lee. The Phillies still have too much veteran talent for a team in desperate need of a rebuild/youth movement/whatever you want to call it when a team needs to make itself worse in order to get better.

San Francisco Giants
The Giants didn't do much besides re-signing Jake Peavy and Sergio Romo. Being inactive would typically be forgivable considering they just won it all (again), but there's a big difference between a 98-win powerhouse and an 88-win wild card team, which is what the Giants were last year. With Los Angeles and San Diego both getting better, San Francisco really couldn't afford to stand pat, especially after overtaxing their best pitcher (the one and only Madison Bumgarner) during their championship run and losing one of their best hitters in Pablo Sandoval afterwards. They also missed out on James Shields, Jon Lester, and everyone else they were in on this winter. I'd bet a lot of money that they miss the playoffs next year.

Dishonorable Mentions: Colorado Rockies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Pittsburgh Pirates, Milwaukee Brewers