Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sox Spend Big, Strike Out

As expected, the Boston Red Sox had a busy offseason in the wake of 2014’s last place finish. They revamped their lineup, renovated the starting rotation, and made a host of smaller moves to bolster their overall depth.
They also went on an enormous spending spree, committing nearly $250 million (not including option years) to three players: Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Yoan Moncada. Was that the best way to spend a quarter billion dollars—more than the entire payroll of every major league team save the Los Angeles Dodgers?
Probably not.
Let’s start with Sandoval, 28, who fetched a five-year, $95 million deal with a $17 million team option for the sixth year: too much for a lumbering third baseman who plays mediocre defense and hacks at almost every pitch thrown his way.
These weaknesses are only becoming more pronounced. Sandoval hasn’t even attempted a stolen base since 2012. His 48.1 percent chase rate—the proportion of pitches outside the strike zone he swung at last year—was easily the highest in baseball. Consequently, his career already appears to be in decline, as his on-base and slugging percentages have fallen every year since 2011. Three straight seasons of sagging production is a worrisome trend that can’t be ignored, especially since thicker players like Sandoval tend to deteriorate more rapidly. He’ll be best suited for first base or designated hitter within a few years, meaning he’s not a long-term solution at third base.
Those deficiencies could be excused if Sandoval were an elite power hitter, but he isn’t. His power is surprisingly pedestrian for a man his size, as he has failed to top 16 home runs in four of the last five seasons. The league-average Isolated Power, which gauges raw power by measuring the average number of extra bases a player gets per at-bat, is usually around .140, but Sandoval has been below that in each of the past two seasons. He doesn’t offer the game-changing clout Boston needs to supplement aging sluggers David Ortiz and Mike Napoli, who turn 40 and 34, respectively, this year.
The Red Sox desperately needed a third baseman, as Will Middlebrooks proved incompetent and Brock Holt’s unexpected breakout was likely a fluke, but they didn’t need to splurge on Sandoval to upgrade at the hot corner. Chase Headley, a comparable hitter and former Gold Glove winner, re-signed with the Yankees for little more than half of Sandoval’s take. Boston also could have moved shortstop Xander Bogaerts back to third, where he played almost one-third of his games last year.
At least Sandoval filled a hole. Ramirez, who signed on the same day as Sandoval for four years and $88 million with a $22 million vesting option for the fifth year, only adds to Boston’s already crowded outfield situation. The Red Sox should have been trying to trade away outfielders, not bring more in, especially ones that have never played the outfield at the professional level before (Ramirez was previously a shortstop and third baseman).
Even more troubling than Ramirez’s outfield inexperience is the assortment of injuries that have caused him to miss nearly 29 percent of his teams’ games over the past four seasons. Ramirez has played well when healthy, but he’s going to be 31 next year and figures to miss additional time going forward. Boston better be prepared for long stretches without Ramirez, even though a player earning $22 million per year shouldn’t require a backup plan.
While Sandoval and Ramirez were rewarded for their past performance, Moncada, a 19 year-old infield prospect from Cuba, got paid based on what Boston believes (or hopes) he will become. The Red Sox surrendered $63 million to acquire him on February 23–a huge investment in a teenager who’s never had a whiff of American baseball. It’s one thing to throw gobs of money at someone with a lengthy track record of success; it’s quite another to invest heavily in a player with no track record at all. This gamble looks even more questionable coming just two weeks after San Diego’s acquisition of James Shields—an established ace who could have been had for just $12 million more.
The problem is that none of these signings addressed Boston’s most glaring need: starting pitching. Boston spent all that money, and somehow is still without an ace. Instead they got a fat third baseman, a converted outfielder, and a wet behind the ears teenager. Apparently $250 million doesn’t buy what it used to.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

No More Minosos

Another deserving HOFer died before he saw his day in Cooperstown (WTTW Chicago)
Minnie Minoso, also known as the Cuban Comet, died today in Chicago, Illinois. He was 89.

Few players had more historical impact than Minoso, who became the first black Cuban to appear in the major leagues when he debuted with the Cleveland Indians on April 19th, 1949, at the age of 23. It was Opening Day for most teams, and the Tribe were in St. Louis to play the lowly Browns. Minoso pinch-hit for Mike Garcia, who had relieved future Hall of Famers Bob Feller and Early Wynn and would be replaced by another Cooperstown-bound player by the name of Satchel Paige. The rookie walked, loading the bases for Larry Doby--the American League's first African-American player. With Cleveland trailing 5-1, Doby represented the tying run, but flew out to end the inning.

It was a star-studded debut for Minoso, who has yet to take his rightful place alongside those hallowed names in Cooperstown. Minoso was just up for election on the Golden Era ballot, but fell short of induction along with the rest of the candidates (including Dick Allen, Luis Tiant, Gil Hodges, and Ken Boyer). Given his age (89), the voters must have known that this could be their last chance to elect Minoso while he was still alive. They failed.

That Minoso is still outside the Hall of Fame 66 YEARS after his debut is inexcusable, and to me ranks right up there with Ron Santo's belated election as one of the Hall's most egregious travesties. Somebody please explain to me why Bill Mazeroski, Jim Rice, and Andre Dawson were elected before Minoso. Tell me how Tony Oliva, Maury Wills, and Jim Kaat all pulled more votes on that screwy Golden Era ballot than Minoso.

When are people going to realize that Minoso was one of the most dominant players of his time? From 1951-1961, in which he played nearly 90 percent of his career games, he was the sixth-most valuable position player in baseball per fWAR, a rounding error behind Henry Aaron at number five. Among American Leaguers, he was second only to Mickey Mantle during this time. The Commerce Comet trailed by the Cuban Comet; how fitting is that?

In the AL during this time, Minoso ranked first in doubles and hit-by-pitches while placing second in hits, runs scored, triples, and stolen bases. He was third in RBI and offensive value, and fourth in walks. He was even 10th in home runs, despite never having a season where he slugged 25. A perennial .300 hitter, Minoso did so eight times and batted .298 for his career. He also walked a lot--way more than he struck out--and mastered the art of getting plunked, ending up with an impressive .389 OBP. For his career, he was 33 percent better than the average hitter after adjusting for league and park.

Minoso sustained his brilliance for more than a decade. He made seven All-Star teams, won three Gold Gloves, and drew MVP consideration eight times, finishing fourth in four of those years. That run probably would have stretched even longer had he not been forced to play in the Negro Leagues for several years early in his career, preventing him from playing his first full season until he was already 25. What if he had come up in 1946--his first year in the Negro Leagues? He matured quickly, after all, becoming an All-Star in 1947 and 1948. Give him a handful of seasons at the beginning of his career and he probably winds up with close to 2,500 hits, 1,500 runs/RBI, 200+ homers, and 300+ steals. Those sound like Hall-worthy numbers to me.

For whatever reason, Minoso has never received the credit he deserves for being a pioneer. Paige, Doby, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, and many others all sailed into the Hall of Fame with far lesser career statistics. Why not Minoso, who paved the way for generations of Cuban ballplayers? He was the first black player in Chicago White Sox history, and one of the first Latin American players to make the All-Star team. I'm sure he faced his share of prejudice and discrimination. Who knows how that affected his performance on the field?

Hopefully Minoso's death will force voters to realize their mistake and induct Minoso the next time he is eligible. But it will be too late, just as it was too late for Ron Santo, and Joe Gordon, and all the other posthumous inductions. Their numbers didn't change in the decades it took to deem them worthy of baseball's highest honor. Neither will Minoso's.

Those tasked with putting people in the Hall of Fame must do a better job of identifying and electing deserving candidates as soon as possible, to admit them while they're still alive and capable of giving a speech at their ceremony. It's nice to honor and remember the dead, but I think we can all agree it's even better to celebrate the living.