Friday, July 31, 2015

Blue Jays Big Winners at Trade Deadline

The Blue Jays hope Price can pitch them into the postseason (NY Daily News)
When you trade for the best shortstop in baseball and one of your league's best pitchers in the span of 48 hours, you're having a pretty good week.

Unlike the Royals, with whom Toronto has shared the spotlight this week, the Blue Jays have made their share of headlines over the past few years. They traded for the first edition of the Miami Marlins (Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle), a reigning Cy Young winner (R.A. Dickey), and a legit MVP candidate (Josh Donaldson). They haven't been shy on the free agent market either, bringing on post-PED suspension Melky Cabrera and Russell Martin--one of the best catchers in baseball.

And yet for all their activity, the Blue Jays have nothing to show for it. Every year, it seems, Toronto is the dark-horse candidate to win the AL East, and every year they flop--usually because they don't have enough starting pitching. It's hard to believe that team, with all its talent, has lost more games than they've won over the past two and a half seasons, especially given the lackluster quality of their division these days. The AL East has been wide open the past couple of years but it's been the Orioles, not the Jays, who've taken advantage. Toronto's merely toiled in mediocrity, watching its playoff drought--the longest in American professional sports--grow longer by the day.

This year, with the Blue Jays again hovering around .500, GM Alex Anthopoulos pushed all his chips into the pile. He had already committed to going for it this year when he traded for Donaldson and gave $82 million to Martin last winter. Now, with his team in the hunt for the second wild card and still within striking distance of the Yankees, Anthopoulos made his move. First he went out and got Troy Tulowitzki, which seemed a bit puzzling given that he already had a really good, albeit injury-prone, shortstop in Jose Reyes, who went to Colorado along with two minor leaguers and Miguel Castro.

But Anthopoulos wasn't done. Yesterday, just two days after acquiring Tulo, he sent three players, including his organization's most promising young starter (Daniel Norris), to Detroit for David Price.

No disrespect to Tulo, but Price is the bigger get here. Toronto hasn't had a pitcher of his caliber since Roy Halladay, and Halladay hasn't thrown a pitch for the Jays since 2009. Like the Royals, they were a team in desperate need of an ace, and now they have one.

Price, who was dealt on deadline day last year, fits the bill. Dominant as ever, his stats this year are right in line with those from his Cy Young season of 2012. Furthermore, the one-time Tampa Bay Ray is not only comfortable pitching in the AL East, but also has postseason experience. The big lefty is exactly the kind of guy you want at the front of your rotation, even if it's only for a few months (Price will be a free agent this winter).

As for Tulowitzki, there's no doubt he's one of the best players in baseball whenever he takes the field. Taking the field isn't something he does all that often, but he's been healthy this year and makes the best lineup in baseball even better (but also impossibly right-handed). He's also under contract for five years beyond this one, which means Toronto's set at shortstop for a while.

Just two games out of the second wild card and with Price and Tulowitzki now on board, the Blue Jays are poised for a run that could result in their first postseason berth since 1993. Given all they've invested in this year's team and all the talent they just surrendered, however, anything less would be a colossal failure.

Royals Reel in Big Fish

Cueto can help Kansas City win it all (Kansas City Star)
It was surprising--nay, shocking--that the Royals were the first team to make a major splash leading up to the deadline, landing Johnny Cueto on an otherwise sleepy Sunday. Not just because they already had the best record in the American League and were favored to win the World Series, but because it was totally out of character for an organization known for its restraint whenever superstars become available.

They Royals, because they are a small-market team with an average payroll, rarely generate shockwaves of this magnitude. Their last was the intensely-ridiculed Wil Myers for James Shield swap, which happened nearly three years ago. That the trade actually ended up working out better for Kansas City than it did for Tampa Bay, who promptly dumped Myers on San Diego two years after the fact, is besides the point. The point is that the Royals rarely come up whenever big name players are discussed, largely because they can't afford them. Giving somebody a lengthy nine-figure contract is simply out of the question.

But while that's the case for many teams, most can afford a superstar's final months before he reaches free agency, even the Royals. The issue is no longer salary, then, but the prospects one must give up to net such a big fish. When you're in the playoff hunt and every win counts, it can be worth it to sacrifice tomorrow for today. But for Kansas City, an organization that builds and develops from within, mortgaging the future for a few months of an elite rental was never in their best interest, especially because they were never in contention. Two months of a star player doesn't make a difference when you're in last place.

Well, the Royals are no longer also-rans: they are legitimate contenders, and when you're a contender you have to try to separate yourself from the other contenders. You have to plug your leaks as best you can, whether that means shoring up the bullpen, adding a frontline starter, or bringing in another bat. Stand still, and you run the risk of getting passed.

It's been awhile since the Royals were buyers at the trade deadline--usually they're at the other end of the table--and it felt like a ravenous tiger being let of its cage. They pounced, coming away with Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist to kick off a busy week across baseball. They might not be done--they could still use another arm--but they have to be satisfied with impressive haul.

The cost for Cueto was steep--three young lefthanded pitchers--but should also pay big dividends in the short-term. In Cueto, the Royals finally have a legitimate ace to replace James Shields, who departed over the winter via free agency. He's somebody you want to hand the ball when a championship's on the line, because he's someone who's capable of doing what Madison Bumgarner did last October. We're talking about a guy who's had an ERA in the twos each of the past five seasons, who led his league in strikeouts and innings pitched last year, and who won 20 games last year while finishing second to Clay Kershaw in the NL Cy Young vote last year.

That's a stud.
Zobrist was brought in to help replace Alex Gordon's production (Grantland)
Most teams would have been happy to add Cueto and called it a day, but Kansas City didn't stop there. Two days later, in what was only the third-biggest deal of a wild day that saw Troy Tulowitzki (more on him later) and Jonathan Papelbon change hands, the Royals reeled in Ben Zobrist from the flatlining A's.

Even at 34, Zobrist is still one of the most impactful players in the game today. Like Cueto, he's been criminally underrated despite ranking third among position players in fWAR since 2009, behind a couple of guys named Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen. Also like Cueto, he's going to be a free agent at year's end, meaning he'll likely be playing elsewhere next year.

Even so, two months (hopefully three) of Zobrist and Cueto beats no months of them. Because of Oakland's poor play and a knee injury that limited him to just 14 games through May 25th, Zobrist has flown under the radar even more than usual this year. When healthy, however, he's been his usual self, flashing strong on-base numbers, medium power, and the ability to man multiple positions. A jack of all trades who can hit--think Brock Holt--has real value, not just in the depth charts but on the field everyday. He can fill the void left by Alex Gordon in left field until Gordon returns--possibly by early September--then play wherever Ned Yost needs him.

Royals GM Dayton Moore has made numerous miscalculations during his underwhelming tenure, several of which occurred just this past winter, but it's safe to say trading for Cueto and Zorbist won't join them. On the contrary, this week has to be considered his finest hour. Although his team has the best record in the American League and a cushy lead over a mediocre AL Central, he wasn't content with cruising into the postseason. He knew that his team, as well as they've played, was not going to win the World Series without help, so he went out and got it.

Moore could have just as easily done nothing because hey, if it ain't broke, why fix it? But he looked at his team, saw an aceless rotation and a gaping hole in the lineup, and made the necessary moves to quickly address them. That's his job, sure, but for him to score two huge victories during the busiest week of the baseball year--when everyone and their mother is trying to do something--well, that deserves applause.

I wonder how much of his aggression, if any, can be traced back to Kansas City's Game 7 loss in last year's World Series. To come so close to winning it all and lose, with the tying run on third base, isn't just heartbreaking--it's soul-crushing. How much did that that inspire them to double down, like the Red Sox did after losing Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, in order to get over the hump? The Royals hadn't made the playoffs since 1985 before last year, so they know how rare these opportunities are. They've waited long enough. Their time is now, and they know there's a weak American League out there for the taking. They already had a clear path to the postseason, but now they're better positioned to get back to the World Series, where they'll have another crack at winning their first championship in 30 years.

As seen by this year's All-Star "voting," interest in the Royals has never been higher. Kudos to Moore for trying to capitalize on that by dramatically strengthening his team for the stretch run. Last year won the fans back, and this year's going to keep them there. Sometimes even when you're at the top, you have to reach just a little bit higher.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sox Going Opposite Ways

The White Sox have pulled out of their early season rut (Getty Images)
Although the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox wear different colored stockings, they were two birds of the same feather last year. Boston finished 71-91 with a negative-81 run-differential, while Chicago went 73-89 with a minus-98. They then took drastic measures to improve during the offseason, with Boston signing Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Rick Porcello to huge contracts while Chicago added Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, and Adam LaRoche. Having bolstered their lineups and upgrading their rotations, both teams looked like contenders in 2015.

Following disappointing first halves, both Sox again found themselves in similar positions at the All-Star Break. Boston checked in at 42-47, while Chicago was an equally tepid 41-45. Both were playing well at the time, though, seemingly poised to go on a second half run after finishing the first half strong.

Since the All-Star Break, however, they have veered off in completely opposite directions. Boston has floundered, losing eight in a row and 12 of its last 14. Chicago, meanwhile, has taken off, winning seven in a row heading into tonight's series finale at Fenway and improving its July record to 16-8 (only the Yankees have a better record this month).

Their extreme performances over the past few weeks have dramatically altered their rest-of-season outlooks. The White Sox were an afterthought until the end of June, at which point they became the hottest team in baseball. Since June 28th, Chicago has posted the best record in baseball. The Red Sox, meanwhile, have been among the coldest, with the third-worst record in baseball over that span.

The few weeks between the Midsummer Classic and trade deadline are typically make-or-break for the teams on the cusp, which is especially true this year considering only six American League clubs have won more games than they've lost. Teams have to decide whether to go for it or wave the white flag, which always makes for an intriguing game of will-they or won't-they. With the second wild card keeping so many teams in contention deeper into the season, it's become increasingly difficult for teams to separate from the pack, and thus distinguish themselves as buyers or sellers. For some, a few well-timed wins or poorly-timed losses near the end of July can make all the difference.

So while Chicago seemed like one of the few surefire sellers this time last month, that is no longer the case, with their recent tear vaulting them to within two and a half games of the second wild card. Boston, on the other hand, was pursuing an ace after trimming their divisional deficit to five games before the break, but such a move seems unlikely now that they find themselves 14 games out of first and nine back of the wild card. Whereas the White Sox are back in it, the Red Sox are effectively out of it.

Accordingly, Chicago should hold on to Samardzija (unless somebody blows them away) and seek to add reinforcements. For Boston, another fire-sale is in order.

Never were their diverging trajectories more apparent than during their four-game showdown this week at a steamy Fenway Park. With Boston mired in a brutal heat wave, the White Sox were even hotter than the Hub's sweltering temperatures. Boston's mediocre pitching made the AL's worst offense look indomitable by allowing 10 runs on 15 hits in the series opener, nine runs on 14 hits to spoil Pedro Martinez's retired number ceremony, and nine runs on 17 hits last night. The ball was flying around Fenway's friendly confines as Chicago feasted on Joe Kelly, Wade Miley, and Rick Porcello. Tonight's menu features another appetizing entrĂ©e in knuckleballer Steven Wright (3-4, 4.78 ERA).

While the visiting Sox thrived in the oppressive humidity, the hometown Sox continued to melt. After putting up eight runs in Monday's losing effort, they were silenced by Jeff Samardzija and Jose Quintana the last two nights. Boston doesn't figure to do much against Chris Sale tonight, either. A four-game sweep, which seemed unfathomable after Boston took two of three from Detroit over the weekend, is all but assured.

The state of both teams can be summarized as follows: With two months of baseball yet to be played, the White Sox still have hope, and the Red Sox don't.
Image courtesy of AP

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A-Rod's Renaissance

A-Rod may be old, but he's still hitting like the A-Rod of old (FNC Static)
Monday was Alex Rodriguez's 40th birthday, and of course he made the most of it.

Back in Texas, where he wowed Rangers fans with three of the best seasons a shortstop has ever had, Rodriguez added another feel-good chapter to his storybook comeback by slamming his 24th home run of the year and 678th of his career. The big fly was classic A-Rod--a heat-seeking missile launched the other way with the flick of his wrists. It's the kind of opposite field shot you see all the time when Rodriguez's swing is right, and it's become abundantly clear that his swing is in top form.

Rodriguez has had better numbers to be sure--take another look at those Texas years--but he's never enjoyed a campaign quite like this one. Nobody has, because nobody was ever suspended for an entire season and then returned to baseball on the cusp of 40.

As such, no one knew what to expect of Rodriguez this year, not even Rodriguez himself. It's safe to say nobody expected much. The odds were stacked against him, especially given that his last few years before the suspension were marked by injury woes and declining performance. Once one of the surest things in the game, A-Rod's future was overwhelmingly uncertain. How would his body hold up? Did he still have the reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination to hit major league pitching? Guys aren't supposed to miss a year in their late 30s and come back like nothing happened.

Except Rodriguez has. And while he hasn't been better than ever, he's almost as good as he used to be, something not even the most optimistic Yankee fans could have foreseen. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have believed that Rodriguez would return to being the middle of the order force he was during his prime, and yet that's exactly what he's done.

It would have been natural for A-Rod to start slow, given that he hadn't played major league baseball in more than a year, but he never displayed even a hint of rust. He reached base twice in his first game back, went yard in his third game, notched a pair of hits in his fourth game, and drove in four runs in game number six. Rodriguez hit the ground running, and he hasn't looked back.

And rather than wear down during the heat of the summer, as any slugger approaching 40 might, he's only gotten hotter with the weather. Rodriguez has nine home runs, 14 RBI, and a .726 slugging percentage since the Fourth of July. Three of those blasts came Saturday in Minnesota, when Rodriguez turned back the clock with his fifth career three-homer game (and first since 2010).

For an encore, Rodriguez smacked another home run on his birthday, making him just the fourth player ever to homer as a teenager and a 40 year-old (joining the unlikely trio of Ty Cobb, Rusty Staub, and former teammate Gary Sheffield). It was also his sixth birthday bomb--a new MLB record and a fitting milestone for his milestone birthday.

What may be even more surprising than A-Rod's resurgence on the field is the transformation of his perception off it.

Until a few months ago, Rodriguez was probably the most reviled athlete in sports. He was so hated that his own ballclub objected to his early spring training arrival. Yes, seriously. In ballparks across America, he was subjected to the worst booing since Barry Bonds made his run at Hank Aaron's home run record. You probably could have counted the number of Rodriguez supporters on one hand.

Now, well, there were legitimate objections to A-Rod being left off the All-Star Game roster. His teammates have welcomed him back with open arms, and Yankee fans have been quick to forgive. He still gets booed wherever he goes, but the jeers aren't fueled with the same level of vitrol. Fans appear to be booing him out of instinct more than anything else, because they always have and always will, and because they know that's what they're supposed to do (after all, the guy's a caught cheater! And a liar!).

After more than two decades in the big leagues, Rodriguez has finally discovered how to stay out of his own way, not to mention the tabloids (he did have 10 years to learn from the master--Derek Jeter). Thanks to wisdom, maturity, and an improved sense of self-awareness, his season has been shockingly devoid of controversy. He's handled everything with grace and poise; the transition to full-time DH (or: losing his starting job to Chase Headley), the incident involving his 3,000th hit, and the Yankees' refusal to honor his $6 million contract incentive for passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Each time he bit his tongue, refusing to let himself become a distraction.

He's also been a genuinely good guy, giving his batting gloves to kids in Fenway Park, of all places, after homering twice there earlier this month. Smooth move, A-Rod.

Rodriguez should be a pro at this PR stuff by now. His career has been a constant uphill battle to win back fans and media ever since he signed that first fat contract with Texas. The last 15 years have felt like one long apology tour for his various transgressions, of which there are now too many to count. The few times A-Rod has been tolerable during that span have been whenever he's simply shut up and let his bat do the talking.

Right now, his bat is talking pretty loud. Entering play today he has 24 homers, 60 RBI, and a .279/.379/.545 batting line, good for his best league and park-adjusted OPS since his most recent MVP season in 2007. Rodriguez can't run (only one stolen base) or field (he's played just six games in the field) like he used to, but he can still mash.

That's the one thing Rodriguez has always been able to do, no matter how much of a self-created hurricane is howling around him. Through all the scandals, controversies, and cringe-worthy mistakes, Rodriguez has always raked. Even the last few years, with injuries severely cutting into his playing time and limiting his production, he was still an above average hitter.

This year he's been way, way above average, and that has come as a major surprise. It seemed much more likely that he'd be a broken down shell of his former self like Jeter was last year. Instead, he's been an MVP candidate and one of the main reasons why New York currently leads the AL East.

Redemption. Resurrection. Resurgence. Whatever alliteration you want to use to describe Rodriguez's comeback, it can't possibly do him justice. What he's doing is unprecedented, but he's been doing unprecedented things for 20 years now. Let's appreciate this one for a change.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ortiz Over Slow Start

Ortiz, 39, was mired in a nasty slump for the better part of two months (4 KomMedia)
David Ortiz is no stranger to slow starts. In 2008, 2009, and again in 2010, Ortiz slumped badly at the beginning of the year. Every time fans and media questioned whether he was done, and each time Papi proved them wrong. Granted, those were the three worst seasons of his Boston career, but he still averaged 28 home runs, 97 RBI, and an .854 OPS, proving there was plenty of life left in his bat.

This year, however, it really looked like Ortiz was done for good. For more than two months he was helpless at the plate, scuffling through his worst slump in five years. Following play April 27th, he was hitting .200/.312/.415. One month later his line was even worse, at .216/.303/.377. A closer look revealed that he was not the victim of bad luck or small sample size, but rather was suffering from increased ground balls (which, in his case, means more outs into the shift) and weaker contact. Papi had become, at age 39, a demonstrably worse hitter.

John Farrell had seen enough, and gave his struggling DH a few days off to clear his head. The break seemed to pay off when Ortiz responded with six hits over his next four games, but the boost proved short-lived. On June 10th--more than a third of the way through the season--he checked in batting a lowly .219/.297/.372 with just six home runs and 21 RBI to his name.

More troubling than Ortiz's terrible average and on-base figures was the disappearance of his once-prodigious power. Just one year removed from his eighth 30-homer, 100 RBI season (and his second straight with a .255 ISO), Ortiz was on pace to finish with his worst power numbers since his forgettable Minnesota days. His signature power was absent for much of the spring: from April 25th through June 9th, he managed only two home runs and 13 RBI.

As his failures and frustrations mounted, it appeared increasingly obvious that Ortiz was near the end of the line. Boston's cleanup hitter was dragging down the lineup, with numbers that would make Mario Mendoza wince. Dan Shaughnessy compared Papi's pursuit of 500 home runs (he began the year with 466) to Tim Wakefield's interminable (and ultimately costly) quest to reach 200 career wins.  There were calls for him to be removed from the starting lineup against lefties--long his kryptonite--so that Hanley Ramirez could mercifully take a break from left field on occasion. Not wanting upset his team's elder (and notoriously cranky) statesman, Farrell refused, dutifully penciling in Ortiz's name every night in spite of his worsening skid.

With Ortiz's cold spell persisting into June, Boston faced a rather uncomfortable situation. Ortiz, who is due a pricey vesting option in 2016 (which, barring a season-ending injury, he will reach), swore he would block any trade, which he can do thanks to his 10-5 rights (10 years in the majors, five with one team). Boston and Ortiz were stuck together like Matt Damon and that guy who looks nothing like his supposed twin, only nobody was laughing.

Ortiz wouldn't budge, and Farrell wasn't about to bench his biggest star and a future Hall of Famer. All the while, Boston was stuck in the mud or, more accurately, the cellar. Even with the Sox stinking up the joint in the first half (and Ortiz was a big reason why), the team's longest tenured member preferred to go down with the ship rather than abandon them for a contender. Both sides refused, or perhaps were unable, to give up on each other.
Ortiz has turned his season around, but the Red Sox haven't (Fox Sports Radio)
Fast forward six weeks, and Farrell's patience (or was it just stubbornness?) has paid off.

Slump? What slump? All is fine with the three-time World Series champion's swing, thank you very much. The ball is jumping off his bat again and flying out of the ballpark. His OPS has climbed back over .800--a 133 point improvement since tumbling to .670 on June 10th. He's righted the ship, even if the team he plays for hasn't.

Slowly but surely, Papi's bat has come around. He rediscovered his power stroke as the weather warmed, slugging seven home runs and driving in 15 over the last three weeks of June. He still wasn't hitting for average, with just three multi-hit games and a .254 mark during that time, but at least he was back to clearing the fences with regularity.

In July he's been back to the Ortiz of old, tearing the cover off the ball and making pitchers pay for their mistakes. His hot streak culminated in one of the best games of his career Sunday night. Both the Red Sox and Ortiz were at their best, as Papi paced Boston's 11-1 romp over Detroit with two home runs and a career-high seven RBI as part of a four-hit day. He continued his torrid hitting last night as well, bashing his 20th* homer of the season off John Danks (a lefty!) in the bottom of the first.

*That makes 14 consecutive seasons with at least 20 round-trippers for Ortiz--the longest streak in the majors. Once in danger of missing that plateau, he now has his sights set on for another 30-homer season, which would be his third straight and ninth overall.

With 14 homers and a .616 slugging percentage over the past six weeks, Ortiz has followed up one of his deepest funks with one of his hottest tears. After the drought has come a deluge, washing away the misery of Ortiz's April and May. Someday he'll stop hitting, but that day doesn't appear to be coming soon. The lesson, as always, is never count David Ortiz out.

Monday, July 27, 2015

MLB Midseason Awards

The 2012 Rookies of the Year will likely both be named MVP this year (CBS Sports)
I'm a few weeks late with these, but I wanted to get them in before we get into the dog days of August. All stats through Saturday, July 25th except where otherwise noted.

AL MVP: Mike Trout
A few weeks ago I would have said Josh Donaldson, but Trout's recent hot streak After today's 4-for-4, two-home run performance, he's up to .315-31-64 on the season. The major league leader in home runs, runs, and total bases has fueled the Angels' recent rise to the top of the AL West, where they now reside after today's win and an Astros loss. Already the first player to ever win consecutive All-Star Game MVPs, he seems like a sure bet to win his second straight MVP award as well (which should be his fourth, but I digress).

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
Finally healthy after a pair of injury-plagued seasons delayed his inevitable rise to superstardom, Harper's been healthy and Ruthian in 2015. His .331/.462/.679 (212 OPS+!) looks like it came off Ted Williams's statsheet, and his 27 long balls lead the Senior Circuit. Even if Giancarlo Stanton were healthy and Andrew McCutchen had avoided his slow start, Harper would still be the runaway winner.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
The White Sox have been major disappointments this year, but Sale's been as dominant as ever. His 170 strikeouts, 2.31 FIP and 11.5 K/9 rate are all tops in the American League, and his 2.85 ERA and 1.00 WHIP aren't too shabby either. So long as Sale stays healthy, this award is his to lose.

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
Despite getting roughed up in his last start at Pittsburgh, Scherzer still holds a sparkling 2.33 ERA (almost a perfect match for his 2.34 FIP) to go along with a 0.83 WHIP and major league best 10.38 K/BB ratio. Read that again, remember that he's leading the National League in innings, and you don't have to think too hard about anyone else (apologies to Johnny Cueto).

AL Rookie of the Year: Carlos Correa
Correa didn't debut until the first week of June was already in the books, but his Yasiel Puig-esque first month in the Show has him on the fast track to win this award. There's been a dearth of power-hitting shortstops lately, but the 20 year-old Correa has already established himself as one of the best sluggers at the position.

NL Rookie of the Year: Joc Pederson
It's a virtual toss-up between Pederson and Kris Bryant, but for now the edge goes to Pederson due to his advantages in playing time, positional difficulty, and park-adjusted production. As impressive as Bryant's first year has been, Pederson's been even better, as evidenced by his 26 point edge in OPS and eight additional home runs. Pederson's also played every game, while Bryant has not (through no fault of his own, but that matters).

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Rodriguez
With his three home-run outburst in Minnesota Saturday, A-Rod now has 23 big flies and 58 RBI to go with a .277/.375/.539 (152 OPS+) slash line. When Rodriguez returned to the field during spring training, most had those numbers on the optimistic end of his full-season projection. In other words, nobody expected him to have those numbers with 40 percent of the season yet to play. On track for his first 30-homer season in five years, he's been healthy and one of the best hitters in the American League--two things nobody thought he'd be in 2015.

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Joey Votto
The former NL MVP has returned to form after an uncharacteristically poor 2014, posting rate stats right in line with his career averages. His power's back after dipping last year, when he managed just six home runs and a .154 ISO (he has 18 bombs and a .218 ISO this year). The Reds are struggling again, but at least this time around Votto's not the reason why.

AL Team: Kansas City Royals
Kansas City has proved last year's magical run was no fluke, as they currently sport the best record in the American League and second-best in baseball with pretty much the same team and formula. All-Star (mainly Omar Infante) jokes aside, the reigning AL champs are a very well-rounded team, especially now that they have a true ace in Johnny Cueto. They could still use another starting pitcher, but with Detroit fading and Minnesota due for regression they're going to run away with their division regardless.

NL Team: St. Louis Cardinals
Despite losing Adam Wainwright for the season and enduring slow starts and/or injuries to numerous regulars, the Cardinals have been far and away the best team in baseball this year. Having won nearly two-thirds of their games thus far, they're in firm control of the NL Central and own the biggest divisional lead in baseball. With Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jason Heyward finally rounding into form, look for St. Louis to make a run at 100 wins as long as its pitching holds.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Pitchers Wanted

The Red Sox could really use a pitcher of Martinez's ilk these days (Fox Sports)
It's a good thing that Pedro Martinez is going into the Hall of Fame today, because Red Sox Nation needs something to celebrate.

They're not going to find it at Fenway Park, the place that shook with excitement every time Martinez took the mound during his seven Red Sox seasons. The team that was a perennial contender during Pedro's eventful time there, finishing second in the AL East every year (to the Yankees, of course) and winning 90+ games five times, is now the doormat in the division it used to own. And they're not just bad: they're boring. There's nobody close to Martinez's caliber in terms of talent or watchability on the current roster, -which just sent Brock Holt and Holt alone to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati (but kudos to Brock for making the most of it).

You don't need to look at a map to know that Cooperstown is a long ways from Beantown. While several current Red Sox may one day join Martinez there, none of them are as captivating as Pedro was in his prime. Heck, I'm pretty sure Pedey could come out of retirement right now and earn a spot in Boston's dreadful rotation.

It's been more than a decade since Martinez last suited up for the Red Sox, and a lot has changed since then. David Ortiz is his only active former teammate. The club has won two additional World Series after not having won any in the 86 years prior to Pedro's last in Boston, but has also finished last two (soon to be three) times. The sellout streak that began during Pedro's penultimate Red Sox season has since ended, and the once-fierce rivalry between New York and Boston has fizzled.

The intervening time has also reminded Red Sox fans just how lucky they were to witness Martinez at his best. Pedro was, without a doubt, one of the best pitchers of all-time. During his peak in 1999 and 2000, he was probably the best there ever was. Boston has had several aces come through since then, be it Josh Beckett or Jon Lester or pre-injury Daisuke Matsuzaka, but there may never be another Pedro.

Red Sox fans were particularly spoiled in that they had just experienced 13 years of Roger Clemens before Martinez arrived on the scene. From 1984-2004, there was only one season--a bridge year in 1997--where the Red Sox did not have either the Rocket or Pedro to call their own. It's just too bad Dan Duquette didn't keep Clemens, because the Sox probably would have ended their championship drought a few years earlier with that dynamic duo at the top of their rotation.

Ben Cherington opted not to pursue such an ace this year, a misstep that's yielded disastrous results and may potentially cost him his job. Boston's pitching has been as bad as everyone feared, and for the second year in a row the team has scuffled at the plate. What was supposed to be one of the best offenses in the American League has been among the worst, failing to generate much run support for a rotation that needs all the help it can get. Throw in shaky defense around the diamond, inexperience behind the plate with Blake Swihart, and the inability of John Farrell to ignite his team, and it's been a real bummer of a summer for Sox fans.

And so Boston enters play today a season-worst 12 games below .500 and 12 out of first in the AL East--their largest deficit of the season. They just endured an eight-game losing streak that effectively ended their season, and their bats have gone back into hibernation mode (they've scored 16 runs in nine games since the All-Star Break). With Dustin Pedroia back on the DL, Clay Buchholz sidelined until September, and Joe Kelly rejoining the rotation, things are only getting worse.

At least with the trade deadline now only five days away, a shake-up appears imminent. Not the kind that will save Boston's season--it's too late for that--but the kind that may allow them to play respectable baseball again in 2016. Hopefully Cherington and co. will re-evaluate whatever idiotic reasoning led them to give Rick Porcello nearly $100 million before he ever threw a pitch for the Red Sox rather than re-sign Jon Lester at a similar cost last spring, or bring in James Shields for less over the winter. Hopefully they go out and acquire some real pitching talent for a change rather than try to make do with a rotation of Justin Mastersons and Wade Mileys.

Pedro Martinez won't be trying on a Red Sox jersey at a press conference next winter, but David Price or Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija better be. Because if they aren't, then Boston hasn't learned a thing from this busted season.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

RIP Red Sox

Image courtesy of CBS Boston
It's over. There's no coming back from this: last place, nine games out of first and nine below .500. Better luck next year.

Boston's ill-fated 2015 season died a horrible death yesterday in Anaheim, as the soaring Angels (first place, 11-3 in July) annihilated the Sox 11-1 and 7-3 in what was a decidedly lopsided doubleheader. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and co. treated the twin-bill like batting practice, feasting on Boston's thin pitching staff while sending Sox starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright (6.2 innings between them) to early exits. In the span of four days, but mostly within eight-hours yesterday, the Halos erased three weeks of strong play from the Bosox, who seemed to be turning things around after an ugly spring.

This weekend's bloodbath snuffed out any such illusions, all but eliminating the Sox from contention. Sure, they're technically still in it by virtue of seven American League teams (Boston included) being below .500 today (two more--Detroit and Toronto--are .500 exactly). But even if the Angels series didn't totally eradicate their chances (they're only five out of the second wild card), it was still a major setback, if not a fatal blow, for the stop-and-go Red Sox.

Just two weeks ago, you see, they were rolling, finally showing signs of life after a sluggish first half. Boston appeared to be gaining steam just before the All-Star Break, winning eight out of 10 at one point and cutting their AL East deficit from 10 games to five in three weeks' time.

Then, just when things were looking up, they fell flat on their faces. With the first-place Yankees in town and a chance to cut deeper into New York's lead, the Sox dropped two out of three to their former rivals. The 8-6 loss in the series finale was particularly painful, as Boston left baserunners all over the place (10 total) and lost with the tying run at the plate.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the mid-July reprieve seemed to sap all their momentum. They must've left their bats behind in Boston, because the Red Sox lineup sleepwalked through those four games in Anaheim. They managed one run--one measly run--in the first 32 innings of the series, largely because their incredibly frustrating woes with runners in scoring position persisted (Boston was 2-for-19 in such situations). By the time their hitters woke up in the finale, they were already down 6-0 in the top of the sixth. It was too little, too late.

And that's what any type of midseason upgrade is going to be for this team at this point. They've lost too many games, they've fallen too far behind. Talk of Boston possibly pursuing an ace (because Ben Cherington realized he needs one about six months too late) at the trade deadline now seems as unlikely as Dustin Pedroia enjoying a delayed growth spurt. The Sox are sellers again, only this time they don't have much to sell. When a 27 year-old utilityman, 40 year-old closer, and Alejandro De Aza are your best trade chips, you're in trouble.

The Red Sox find themselves in a similar situation to where they were in 2012 (minus, thank God, the Bobby Valentine shenanigans): a bad, expensive team drowning in bloated contracts. Only this time, the Dodgers aren't coming to the rescue. The Sox are kidding themselves if they think they're going to find someone dumb enough to bite on the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Rick Porcello, whose contracts all smelled rotten before the ink had dried and reek even worse now. They're not going anywhere, and it's going to be tough to find any takers for the team's other overpriced, over-the-hill veterans (Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Allen Craig, et. al). Who would a) want those guys, and b) give up anything meaningful (beyond salary relief) in return?

Ten days. That's how long Ben Cherington has to answer those questions and purge his roster of as many bad contracts as he can. Ten days to strip this hunk of junk for parts and get whatever he can in return. He's been very active during his tumultuous tenure, so he'll probably do his share of wheeling and dealing before the dust settles on July 31st. It's just too bad he doesn't have anything good to sell.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dozier, Kershaw for Final Vote

Image courtesy of Sporting News
Today is the final day to vote in the All-Star Game's Final Vote, which allows the fans one last chance to send another Kansas City Royal (um, I mean player) from each league to next Tuesday's Midsummer Classic in Cincinnati.

With Brett Gardner, one of the five American League candidates, already getting the call to replace Alex Gordon, who will miss eight weeks with a strained groin, the AL field has already been reduced to four, which makes the voting somewhat easier. All American Leaguers are position players, which makes comparisons easier, but hardly easy as they all play different positions (one outfielder, a second baseman, a third baseman, and a shortstop).

Not surprisingly, the National League ballot is dominated by pitching. There are three starting pitchers up for election, all of whom are having fantastic years and all of whom just strengthened their cases with outstanding efforts this week. They're easy to compare, but there's also a closer and a shortstop throwing a wrench into the debate. Given that there are entirely too many relief pitchers named as All-Stars every year, I can tell you right now the closer won't be getting my vote and shouldn't be getting yours, either.

Surprisingly, this ballot is devoid of first basemen, who typically show up on these things due to the plethora of players having strong offensive seasons at the position. I'm not at all surprised by their omission on the AL ballot, as the only worthy candidates were Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols (not the still-adjusting Jose Abreu, shockingly), but there absolutely should have been a place for Joey Votto in the NL.

Anyways, on to the analysis. Candidates for each league are presented in alphabetical order, and I have included their WAR totals (Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs) in parentheses besides their names. All WAR really shows is that most of these guys have been remarkably similar in terms of value up to this point, which makes the decisions that much tougher.
Gardner is going to his first All-Star Game (River Ave Blues)
American League

Xander Bogaerts (2.6 bWAR/2.3 fWAR)
Bogaerts has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise disappointing Red Sox roster. He's also been, according to FanGraphs, the best shortstop in the American League. Granted, that's not saying a lot when Jose Iglesias, Brad Miller, and Alcides Escobar are your closest competition (and Carlos Correa has barely played a month), but someone's gotta be number one. He's hitting over .300 and flashing improved defense at short, though his average is largely empty as he's managed just three home runs and 16 walks to date. Bogaerts should go by virtue of being the best at his position outside of Brandon Crawford, but he's simply not the best on this ballot. Despite being a big Red Sox fan who does not want Brock Holt to be my team's sole All-Star, I must pass.

Yoenis Cespedes (2.9 bWAR/2.8 fWAR)
Cespedes has been outstanding in his Detroit debut, making Ben Cherington look foolish for giving him and two minor leaguers up for the dreadful remains of what was once Rick Porcello. The Cuban slugger is on pace for his best season since his now-forgotten stellar rookie year. He still hasn't figured out this thing called patience, but that's fine so long as he keeps hitting close to .300 with top-shelf pop (he's third in the AL in doubles and fifth in extra base hits). The hard-hitting outfielder's power is second to a fellow candidate's, however, making him an indefensible choice in light of his .318 OBP.

AL Brian Dozier (3.2 bWAR/fWAR)
An All-Star snub last year, Dozier was again shut out this year despite being the best player on what was a first place team for much of the first half. The Twins second baseman has been one of the league's best power sources, pacing the AL in extra base hits and ranking second in doubles (one behind Jason Kipnis), fifth in total bases, and tenth in home runs and slugging. He's also second in runs with 64--as many as Mike Trout and just one behind Josh Donaldson for the league lead. Dozier has also made an impact on the bases, stealing nine bags in a dozen attempts, and is playing well defensively, leading the league at his position in range factor, assists, and double plays turned while placing second in fielding percentage. Put it all together, and you have the second-best second baseman in baseball. I think we have a winner.

Mike Moustakas (2.7 bWAR/2.1 fWAR)
Absolutely not. We already have enough Royals going to the All-Star Game. Plus he's come crashing back to earth since his fluky April, batting .276/.329/.397 since. Sorry. but that's not an All-Star third-baseman, unless we want to invite Pablo Sandoval, too.

Vote: Dozier
Dozier deserves to be an All-Star (Twin Cities)
NL National League

Johnny Cueto (2.9 bWAR/2.6 fWAR)
Cueto is coming off his best start of the season, a two-hit shutout of the Nationals in which he struck out a season-high 11 batters. Last year's NL Cy Young runner-up has been phenomenal again this year, posting a 2.61 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 5.29 K/BB ratio to date. The numbers say Cueto is worthy of his second straight All-Star nod, and it would be nice to see the hosting Reds get another representative.

Jeurys Familia (1.9 bWAR/0.6 fWAR)
As great as Familia has been for the Mets, you can toss him out immediately. The last thing the All-Star Game needs is more relief pitchers.

Clayton Kershaw (2.3 bWAR/3.7 fWAR)
The reigning NL MVP and Cy Young winner has slipped a bit only compared to last year's historic numbers. In a vacuum, though, his stats can only be considered otherworldly. With an ML-leading 160 strikeouts in 123 innings, he's currently whiffing nearly a dozen batters per nine innings and is on pace to threaten 300 K's for the season. He also boasts a 2.85 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, and 5.93 K/BB ratio, all of which are quite impressive. Though Cueto's numbers are slightly better, Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball over the past five years, and you can't have the All-Star Game without him. Furthermore, he's pitched better than his ERA and 6-6 record would indicate.

Carlos Martinez (2.5 bWAR/1.5 fWAR)
The 23 year-old Cardinal has been sensational in his first season as a full-time starter, going 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in the first half. He's been incredibly dominant lately, allowing just nine earned runs over his past ten starts and providing ace-level production in Adam Wainwright's absence. He doesn't have the name recognition or mind-blowing peripherals of Cueto and Kershaw, which is why I'm going to pass, but there's no shame in finishing behind those two.

Troy Tulowitzki (1.5 bWAR/1.2 fWAR)
It's been a strange year for Tulo, who's taken a notable dive in his age-30 season. His power is down, strikeouts are up, and plate discipline has disappeared. His formerly Gold Glove defense has also deteriorated. On the bright side, he's hitting well over .300 and has hit safely in 33 of his past 34 games, including his last 21 straight--a major league season-high. More importantly the injury prone shortstop has stayed on the field, missing just eight Rockies games to date. If he were in the American League he'd be a no-brainer, but against the Senior Circuit's more formidable field he doesn't quite make the cut. It also must be said that his numbers would be much more impressive if he didn't play half his games in Coors Field.

Vote: Like last year's AL Cy Young race between Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber, it's a virtual toss-up between Cueto and Kershaw. Both have their arguments--Cueto pitches for the hometown team but Kershaw has the better reputation, and their performance has been almost indistinguishable. Both are worthy and I'm sure both will get to go once somebody inevitably backs out or decides he's unavailable to pitch. I simply can't fathom an All-Star Game without Kershaw, who's pitched tremendously this year and my gut tells me has been more dominant (Cueto's benefiting from a .229 BABiP), so that's why I'm going with him.

Cueto's numbers are a bit better, but Kershaw's the bigger star (Rant Sports)

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Brock Star All-Star?

Holt has had an All-Star impact on the Sox this year (CBS Boston)
If you had predicted before the season that a) the Red Sox would have only one All-Star representative and b) it would be Brock Holt, you might have been committed to an insane asylum shortly thereafter.

For starters, Holt lacked the track record and name recognition of more talented (and expensive) teammates such as David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez. An everyday player for the first time in 2014, Holt had tailed off mightily in the second half, posting a .548 OPS after the All-Star Break. Holt had been exposed and worn down, making his All-Star caliber first half (.834 OPS) look like a flash in the pan. As such, he seemed better-suited for a bench role and did not crack the team's Opening Day lineup. Finding steady playing time, let alone standing out on Boston's star-studded roster, seemed unlikely.

And yet, the 27 year-old Holt has find a way to do both. He's appeared in 66 of the team's 84 games to date, becoming a regular in John Farrell's lineup card. That's largely a byproduct of the versatility that has allowed him to play every non-pitching and catching position, though I'm sure he'd do either if you asked.

Of course, Farrell has to find a way to get Holt into the lineup everyday because he's been arguably Boston's best player. His 3.1 bWAR rank second on the team only to Mookie Betts (FanGraphs has him third after Betts and Clay Buchholz), and his .383 OBP leads the Sox. He's 10th in the AL in bWAR, seventh in OBP, and ninth in triples with four.

It's not just his elite production which makes him among the team's most valuable players to date: it's that versatility. His ability to play anywhere and everywhere gives Farrell the flexibility to rest a different regular every night if he so chooses. The breathers players receive while Holt holds down their positions can at least partially explain why seven Sox have played at least 80 percent of the team's games thus far. The best medicine for a long baseball season may, in fact, be Brock Holt.

Holt also acts as an emergency dressing, capable of filling in when players inevitably go down. He's already filled the void left by injured All-Stars such as Shane Victorino in right and now Dustin Pedroia at second. His all-around abilities ensure a seamless transition when a player is lost for an extended period of time, preventing Farrell from relying on an inferior replacement and lessening the need for Ben Cherington to seek help on the trade market or prematurely promote a minor leaguer. Who knows how many nights of sleep Holt has saved for his superiors?

Not only has he been one of Boston's best players, but he also brings his best everyday regardless of where Farrell plays him or slots him in the batting order. A true sparkplug, he provides tremendous energy and enthusiasm on a daily basis, which is truly invaluable to a slumping, frustrated group like the Red Sox. He's great for morale, and you can't ask for more out of a player.
As good as Holt has been, Betts (and Buchholz) have been better (Buffalo Sox)
Now for the real matter at hand: as Boston's lone All-Star representative, has Holt--as the title suggests--been Boston's best player thus far? Did Ned Yost, manager of the AL squad, make the right call in selecting him?

The numbers say no. B-R has Betts leading the Sox in WAR, while FanGraphs has Buchholz pacing the club with Betts second. Two Red Sox are batting over .300, and neither one is named Holt. His two home runs are one fewer than Alejandro De Aza has hit since joining the Sox, even though De Aza has been with the team only a month. Holt leads the team in OBP and positions played and...that's it.

Betts would have been a better choice. Not only has the 22 year-old phenom been Boston's most exciting player, but he's also been unequivocally better than Holt. His OPS (.799) is virtually the same as Holt's (.807), but he's maintained it over 99 additional plate appearances. In fact, Betts leads the team in games played as well as plate appearances, plus hits, doubles, steals, and total bases. He's also second on the team in RBI despite seeing the lion's share of his at-bats at the top of the order and the rest towards the bottom when he was briefly moved down. Not surprisingly, he leads the Sox in both baserunning and offensive value.

Even more impressively, Betts has done all this not only as a second-year player, but also while manning center field in all but four of Boston's games. No major leaguer has played more games in center than Betts, who ranks fourth in the bigs in putouts and assists. He's been one of the league's smoothest center fielders despite coming up as a second baseman, only to be converted following Jacoby Ellsbury's defection to New York.

One could also make the case that Clay Buchholz, who just pitched the team's first complete game of the season, was more deserving of the honor. A two-time All-Star (most recently in 2013), Buchholz has re-established himself as team ace in the wake of Jon Lester's exit and a miserable 2014. He hasn't just been the best pitcher on the Red Sox: he's been one of the best pitchers in the American League. He's currently in the top 10 in pitcher bWAR, innings pitched, strikeouts, walk rate, and K/BB ratio. He's also flashing the league's lowest home run rate--truly impressive considering he pitches half his games in front of the Green Monster--and fourth-best FIP.

Dustin Pedroia (.306/.367/.452) would have been a better choice, too, if not for his hamstring strain, but his injury and strong competition at the keystone (Jason Kipnis, Jose Altuve, Brian Dozier) ruined his chances. Pedroia, 31, is also much more accomplished, having made the All-Star team four times before to go along with his Rookie of the Year, MVP, two World Series rings, and four Gold Gloves. Now in his 10th season, he is a fixture in Boston and well-known by baseball fans across the world for his towering success in spite of his diminutive stature.

And what about Xander Bogaerts, maybe the best and clearly one of the top two shortstops in the American League this year (the other being onetime teammate Jose Iglesias)? It's possible the fans will elect him in the Final Vote (consider this my plug!), but that seems unlikely given that a Royal--Mike Moustakas--is on the ballot alongside him.

So while Holt was not a bad choice, there are several Red Sox who have been better than him this year. One of them should be making the trip to Cincinnati next week instead.