The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “White Sox”

Remarkable Relief Pitcher Seasons (Or Why the Modern Closer is a Bore)

Cropped picture of Tony La Russa on the outfie...

“If only I had another dozen lefties in my ‘pen, the world would be a better place.”

There’s no tactful way to say this, but you have to be pretty old to remember when the best relief pitchers weren’t merely “closers.”  Certainly, you have to go back to at least before Tony LaRussa stuck Dennis Eckersley in that role in the late 1980’s.

In truth, if you want to rediscover a time when relief pitchers were true workhorses, you have to go all the way back to the 1950’s through the ’70’s. Looking back on some of the statistics compiled by several of the best relief pitchers of that era reveals how much baseball has changed over the past generation or so.

Next time you wonder why your favorite team often seems to run out of position players so quickly, especially during extra-inning games, keep in mind that it wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time, managers didn’t switch relief pitchers every time a new batter stepped up to the plate.

In chronological order, here are seven remarkable relief pitcher seasons from days gone by:

1)  Joe Black1952:  Back in the days when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, just a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, another 28-year old African-American played a significant role on the franchise from Brooklyn.

Manager Chuck Dressen utilized his rubber-armed rookie to great effect.  Black appeared in 56 games, leading the league in games finished with 41.  He pitched a total of 142 innings (which would be his career high), and posted 15 saves and an outstanding 2.15 ERA.

Now, the 15 saves might not seem like a remarkable total, but that was a pretty high total in those days.  Perhaps most remarkably, Black posted a record of 15-4.  Modern closers who accumulate 19 decisions in a year are as rare as a watchable Nicholas Cage film.

English: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Joe Black in...

English: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Joe Black in a 1953 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Hoyt Wilhelm1952:  There must have been something in the drinking water in 1952 that only affected older rookie relief pitchers.

Wilhelm, like Black, was an “old” rookie in ’52, throwing his first MLB pitch at age 29.  What a way for a Hall of Fame career to begin.

Wilhelm toiled for the Dodgers’ crosstown rival Giants over in the Polo Grounds.  Wilhelm’s numbers were also remarkably similar to Black’s.  Wilhelm appeared in 71 games and pitched a total of 159 innings.  Although his ERA was a little higher than Blacks’s (2.43), Wilhelm actually officially led the N.L. in ERA because Black just missed the number of innings pitched required to win the title.

Wilhelm also saved 11 games, and posted a win-loss record of 15-3, virtually identical to Black’s.  Joe Black won the Rookie of the Year award, and Wilhelm finished as the runner-up.  Black also finished 3rd in MVP voting in the N.L., while Wilhelm finished 4th.

But while Black was out of baseball after half a dozen years, Wilhelm pitched 21 years, until he was 49 years old!

3)  Roy Face1959:  Though he wasn’t a rookie, Roy Face was even older (31) than Black and Wilhelm when he enjoyed his most amazing season.  Face had some success in parts of five previous seasons with the Pirates, but nothing like the year he enjoyed in ’59.

Although his 57 appearances, 47 games finished, and 93 innings were not career highs, nor was the 2.70 ERA he recorded a career low.  And his ten saves, even by the standards of the day, don’t cause one to do a double-take. Yet there is no denying that Face’s 1959 season is one of the most awe-inspiring in baseball history.

Face recorded 19 decisions that season, the same number that Joe Black did in ’52.  While Black’s 15-4 record was fantastic, Roy Face’s final tally, 18-1, was simply unbelievable.  Face won 17 straight games in relief in one year.  He finished 7th in N.L. MVP voting in 1959, and would certainly have done well in Cy Young voting, but there wasn’t yet a Cy Young award to vote upon.

Though Face was never a serious Hall of Fame candidate, he did have a fine career, leading his league in saves three times, he pitched for another decade, finally retiring after the 1969 season at age 41.

English: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roy Face i...

English: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roy Face in a 1959 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4)  Eddie Fisher1965:  There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Eddie Fisher.  That’s what happens when you toil for the White Sox in the mid ’60’s (they actually finished in second place in ’65.)

Like Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher began his career with the Giants, then pitched for the White Sox.  In fact, Fisher and Wilhelm were teammates on the ’65 White Sox. The de facto staff ace of that team was Joe Horlen; he was the only pitcher on the team to top 200 innings pitched.

But there were six other pitchers on the team that pitched at least 140 innings.  Relief pitchers Fisher and Wilhelm were two of them.  Though Wilhelm finished with a better ERA than Fisher (1.81 to 2.40), and more strikeouts, Fisher saved 24 games to Wilhelm’s 20.

The biggest difference, however was that while Wilhelm garnered seven wins in relief, Fisher posted a record of 15-7.  In fact, Fisher led the White Sox in victories, and in win-loss percentage (.682.)

Fisher also led the A.L. in WHIP with a mark of 0.974.  His 82 appearances and 60 games finished also led the league.

Fisher would go on to pitch effectively for several more years, finally retiring in 1973 at the age of 36 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.

5)  Wilbur Wood1968:  If you’re old enough, you may remember Wood as one of those workhorse starting pitchers who was as likely to lose 20 games as he was to win that many.  In fact, in 1973, this White Sox pitcher posted a record of 24-20 in 48 (yes, 48) starts.  Wood enjoyed four consecutive 2o-win seasons (1971-74) to go along with his two 20-loss seasons.  But before he was a workhorse starter, he was a tireless reliever.

English: Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants

English: Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of 26, Wood produced his first of three consecutive years leading the A.L. in appearances.  In all three years, he tossed well over 100 innings.

The most impressive of those three seasons, though, was 1968.  That year, in addition to saving a respectable 16 games and posting a sparkling 1.87 ERA, he also managed to accumulate 25 decisions in relief.  On a team that finished the year 67-95, Wood was one of two pitchers on the team (the other being some kid named Tommy John) that finished with a record above .500 (minimum of ten decisions.)

Wood’s record was 13-12, but obviously his ERA (as well as his ERA+ of 171) demonstrate that he was a much better pitcher than his record indicates.  And yes, Hoyt Wilhelm was on this team, too.

Wood retired after a 17-year career in 1978 at age 36.  His career ERA+ of 114 is the same as Luis Tiant and Rick Reuschel.

6)  John Hiller1974:  Hiller’s story is one of the most remarkable in baseball history.

This native of Ontario, Canada, was drafted by the Tigers at the age of 19 in 1962.  He threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 25 in 1965.  By 1967, he was firmly entrenched in the Tigers bullpen.  In 1970, Hiller enjoyed what to that point was a typical Hiller season:  104 innings, mostly in relief, a 3.03 ERA, an ERA+ of 124, a 6-6 record, and a hat-full of saves.

Then in 1971, at age 28, Hiller suffered a serious heart-attack.  Though he survived, most analysts at the time doubted he would ever pitch again.  But Hiller was determined that he would not allow his career to end prematurely.  He worked himself back into shape, and enjoyed the best part of his career in the years immediately following his return.

Pitching just 44 innings in 1972, Hiller posted a 2.03 ERA, and proved that he was ready for an even bigger workload.  In 1973, Hiller led the A.L. in appearance (65) and games finished (60.)  His 38 saves (a career high) also led the league.  And his 1.44 ERA was also outstanding.  In can be argued that ’73 was his finest season, but 1974 was, in some ways, even more amazing.

Hiller, just three years removed from a near-fatal heart-attack, pitched 150 innings in relief for the Tigers.  His ERA rose to a still very nice 2.64, and he saved just 13 games.  His win-loss record, however, nearly defies belief.  In 59 appearances, Hiller posted a record of 17-14, leading the 6th-place Tigers in victories…as a relief pitcher.  Thirty-one decisions in relief is the most I was able to uncover, and will never be approached again.

Hiller finally retired in 1980 at age 37.  Now 70-years old, Hiller is still one of the most beloved of all Tigers players.

7)  Mike Marshall1974:  You and I both know that this post can only conclude with Mike Marshall’s fascinating 1974 season.  We began this post with a pair of relievers battling across one city in the same season, 1952, and now we’re ending it with a pair of relievers — Hiller and Marshall — battling across two separate leagues, again in the same year, 1974.

Mike Marshall had already won 14 games in relief twice, in 1972 and ’73, and had pitched as many as 173 innings in relief in 1973, his final season with the Expos.  Traded to the Dodgers (for Willie Davis) before the 1974 season, he set a record of usage that no reliever is ever likely to break.

In 1974, Mike Marshall pitched in an astronomical 106 games, finishing 83 of them, and he led the N.L. with 21 saves.  As if his record of 15-12, all in relief, wasn’t impressive enough, Marshall pitched a still unbelievable 208 innings in relief, more innings than many starters pitch in a season these days.  His ERA was a solid 2.42, and his ERA+ was 141.  Clearly, the excessive number of innings pitched didn’t hinder his performance.

Marshall dropped to “only” 109 innings in 1975, but as late as 1979, at age 36, he was still leading the league in saves.  Five times in his career, Marshall won at least ten games in relief.  It may come as no surprise that Marshall won the N.L. Cy Young award in 1974, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting as well.

Marshall was one of the last of a line of relief pitchers for whom the term “overworked” was not in their vocabulary.  It’s unlikely, thanks to the current philosophy of bullpen use, that we’ll ever see their like again.

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Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: A Team By Team Analysis

We all remember the best seasons enjoyed by our childhood heroes.  Many of us can even recite many of the particular statistics our heroes accumulated.

For example, my boyhood hero was Mets pitcher Tom Seaver.  I loved how he won his second of three Cy Young Awards in 1973 without even winning twenty games, an unheard of accomplishment in those days.  I was proud of the fact that my hero was the first pitcher ever to strike out over 200 batters in each of his first nine seasons.

I was much less proud of the fact that a player named Tommy Hutton, primarily a backup first baseman with the Phillies, used to absolutely own Tom Seaver, to the tune of a .320 career average in 62 plate appearances, with 11 walks, three home runs, and eleven RBI.

Yet there are many other players who exist just outside of our memory’s peripheral vision.  Players who, at the time of their best seasons, were widely discussed, lauded and analyzed.  Somehow, though, in the dust left behind by the army of baseball seasons that followed their achievements, these players, and their accomplishments, gradually faded into the background.

Nor am I talking about players from baseball’s most ancient seasons.  Recent baseball history, say from 1960 up through the 1990’s, is replete with impressive performances between the foul lines that now go absolutely unremarked upon, except perhaps in the mind’s eye of the players themselves.

Let this post, then, be the first of several planned installments of a mini-series called “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons.” Although this will take the form of a team-by-team analysis, a few of the most recent expansion teams will not be included, for reasons that I suppose are rather obvious.

My plan is to choose two players from each of the major league teams who I believe, (completely arbitrarily on my part), best represent the concept of Excellence Soon Forgotten.  The two players might both be position players, or a pitcher and a position player, or a couple of pitchers.

Having been born and raised in southern Connecticut, I was immediately most familiar with the Mets and the Yankees.  You had to get up closer to Hartford before you would encounter very many Red Sox fans.  So due to the geography and culture of my youth, I will begin this series with a couple of players from the New York Mets.

In future blog-posts on this topic, I plan to double-up, covering two teams, (four players total), instead of just the one team I am covering today.

The New York Mets:

The player who had the most to do with this particular blog idea  hatching in my brain was former Mets outfielder Lance Johnson.  Those of you who remember Lance Johnson are most likely to remember him from his years as a speedy stolen base threat atop the White Sox lineup from the late ’80’s up through 1995.

But one afternoon a few weeks ago, while doing research on the Mets teams of the mid-90’s (don’t ask me why I would do such a pointless thing), I was astonished to notice what a truly fantastic season Lance Johnson had as a member of the 1996 New York Mets.

It wasn’t that I didn’t follow the Mets that season.  And certainly, I knew who Lance Johnson was; I’m sure I had his baseball card.

Nevertheless, here are the Lance Johnson statistics from 1996 that I had somehow forgotten:  (The asterisks denote a league-leading total)

*724 plate appearances, *227 hits, 117 runs scored, 31 doubles, *21 triples, 50 steals, .333 batting average, 125 OPS, and a career high 327 total bases.  Johnson also led all N.L. center fielders with 390 put outs.  The 227 hits and the 21 triples are still Mets single-season records.

Unfortunately, for all of his hard work, 32-year-old Lance Johnson’s efforts just weren’t enough to keep the Mets from finishing the season with a 71-91 record, good for a 4th place record that year.

The other player who you may have forgotten about pitched for the Mets for just a couple of seasons.

Frank Viola was a local boy.  Having been born in Hempstead, N.Y., he attended St. John’s University.  He was drafted by the Twins in the second round of the 1981 amateur draft.  A very successful pitcher during his tenure with Minnesota, (he won the A.L. Cy Young award in 1988), the Mets obtained Viola from the Twins on July 31, 1989.

In 1990, pitching for the Mets, Viola enjoyed the second best season of his career.  His numbers for that season are below:

35 Games Started, 249 innings pitched, 182 strikeouts, a 20-12 won-lost record, a 2.67 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.150.  Viola finished 3rd in the N.L. Cy Young voting that year.  His 35 starts and 249 innings led the league.  His twenty wins were good for second place that year.

Viola pitched just one more year for the Mets, then was shipped off to the Red Sox for a couple more effective, although not fantastic seasons, before finally retiring in 1996 at age 36.

Thus endeth the first installment of “Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons.”

If you can think of any other Mets players who you believe should have been included here, (and I’m sure there are many), please let me know.

Stay tuned for the second part of this series, and don’t forget to check in on Friday for my #1 All-Time Best Scene From a Baseball Movie video blog-post. You won’t want to miss it.

Under the Radar, Part 4: Soldiering on in Chicago

This is the fourth installment of a periodic series I call “Under the Radar.”

In this series, I take a closer look at players who have enjoyed their fair share of success as major league baseball players, but who are not usually associated with baseball’s biggest stars, players such as Derek Jeter, A-Rod, or Albert Pujols.

These players have toiled, in effect, Under the Radar.

Yes, it is true that in their own baseball towns, they may enjoy a loyal, even affectionate fan-base.  They may even represent their team in the All-Star Game.  Yet somehow they manage to remain out of the gossip columns while being productive, though not flashy,  players for their respective teams.

In this edition of Under the Radar, I will take a closer look at a pair of first baseman who have soldiered on in Chicago for the past several years.

Specifically, I will be examining the careers of Derrek Lee of the Cubs, and Paul Konerko of the White Sox.

Once I began to take a closer look at the career statistics of these two players, it became strikingly clear how similar their respective careers have been.

To begin with, both players are 34-years old.  Both players bat and throw right-handed.  Both players made their professional debuts in the National League in 1997.  Therefore, they have each played thirteen seasons in the major leagues.

Both Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko are with their third major league organizations.  Lee began his career as a member of the Padres, played for the Marlins for six seasons, and is now about to enter his seventh season with the Cubs.

Konerko came up as a catcher in the Dodgers organization, played briefly with the Reds and has been a member of the White Sox since 1999.

Even many of their career statistics are strikingly similar:

Konerko has played in 1700 games.  Lee has played in 1681 games.

Konerko has logged 6893 plate appearances.  Lee has 6860.

Konerko has 1690 hits.  Lee has 1701 hits.

Konerko has 326 homers.  Lee has hit 293 home runs.

Konerko has compiled 2991 total bases.  Lee has 3016 total bases, a difference of a scant 25 bases spread out over 13 seasons.

Konerko has produced 1601 runs in his career (Runs + RBI’s – Homers.)

Lee has produced 1592 runs in his career.

And, in case you have forgotten, both players have one World Series Championship ring to their credit.  Lee won his while playing with the Marlins in 2003.  Konerko won his World Championship ring just a couple of years later in 2005.

But, as you would expect, there are some differences as well.  Beginning with the obvious, Derrek Lee is a black man playing in Chicago’s North End, a predominantly white, Central and Eastern European-leaning culture.

Paul Konerko is a white man who plays in Chicago’s predominantly black South-Side.

It should be noted here that both players have enjoyed overwhelmingly positive experiences in Chicago, despite the color of their skin, and the ballparks they play in.

As far as their baseball skills are concerned, Derrek Lee has been the better defensive player of the two.  Lee has three Gold Gloves to his credit; Konerko has none.  Konerko was, however, a defensive upgrade over Frank Thomas who became a full-time D.H. once Konerko arrived.

Lee has also been the better base-runner of the two.  Lee has stolen 101 bases in his career, although he has also been caught 44 times.  Meanwhile, Konerko has only attempted 10 stolen bases in his entire career!  But he has been successful eight times.

Lee also has 28 triples to Konerko’s seven.

Although both players have been significant run producers, Lee has been better at scoring runs, while Konerko has been a little better at driving runs in.

Specifically, Lee has scored 90 or more runs in seven different seasons, while driving in 90+ runs in five seasons.

Konerko, on the other hand, has topped 90 runs scored three times, but he has driven in 90 or more runs seven times, topping 100 RBI’s four times.

Konerko has played in three All-Star Games; Lee has played in two.

Lee has finished in the top 10 in N.L. MVP voting twice; Konerko has finished in his league’s top ten once.

In 2005, the year Konerko won his World Series ring with the White Sox, Lee enjoyed the best season of his career.  He led the N.L. in hits (199), doubles (50), home runs (46) slugging percentage (.662) and total bases (393.)

Konerko, on the other hand, has never led his league in any category in any season, except Grounding Into Double Plays (28 in 2003.)

Lee’s career OPS (On Base plus Slugging) is .873.

Konerko’s career OPS is .843.

Overall, then, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that Derrek Lee has been a slightly better player than Paul Konerko over the past 13 seasons.

Are either of these players potential Hall of Fame candidates?  Probably not.  Although both have had very productive careers, the expectations  for Hall-of-Fame enshrinement tend to be greater for first basemen than for perhaps any other position.

After all, this is the position played by Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey, Hank Greenberg, Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Murray.

By the time each of them retires, Derrek Lee and Paul Konerko will probably finish their careers in the second tier of first basemen, a level that includes Will Clark, Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez and Fred McGriff.

Finally, it is interesting to note, however, that if you look up both players’ career statistics at Baseball-Reference.Com, you will discover, historically speaking, whose careers both players most closely match.

To this point in his career, Derrek Lee’s career most closely matches that of Kent Hrbek, Fred McGriff, Tim Salmon… and Paul Konerko.

To this point in his career, Paul Konerko’s career most closely matches that of Kent Hrbek, Fred McGriff, Boog Powell… and Derrek Lee.

On either side of the Windy City, then, the people of Chicago have been treated to solid, consistent, and extremely similar careers by each team’s respective middle-of-the-order, run-producing first baseman contemporaneously.

Can any other baseball town in America count itself so lucky?

Strange Baseball Seasons and Careers

Every once in a while, as I’m doing some research for this blog, I’ll come across a baseball statistic that stuns me.  What is most surprising, however, is that even after all these years of studying baseball and looking at stats, there are still surprises lurking in the shadows of the ancient statistical tomes.

I’m not suggesting that no one else has ever noticed any of these odd items before, either, but if they are new to me, they might just be new to you, too.

Further, as the title of this blog-post states, statistical oddities may not reveal themselves until a player’s career has long since ended.  Conversely, though, some unlikely stats will pop up and demand your attention like an inebriated, embarrassing  guest at a dinner party.

This blog-post claims no pretensions that its writer has any real idea of just what a dinner-party actually looks like, so in the name of Frozen Dinners and improvisation, lets eschew any formal organizational structure in this blog-post from here on out, and just indulge our (my) fascination with statistical oddities, free-style, as it were.

To begin with, who do you think were the toughest pitchers to hit (using Hits Given Up per Nine Innings) of all- time?

Did you say Walter Johnson?  Well, O.K., he is 33rd on the all-time list having given up 7.47 hits per nine innings in his career.  Randy Johnson?  You’re getting warmer.  He is 22nd on the list.

Remember, we are not talking about WHIP here.  Just hits per nine.  Yes, of course, you remembered Nolan Ryan.  He was the Number #1 toughest pitcher to hit, having given up just 6.55 hits per nine.

Sandy Koufax comes in at Number #2, posting a 6.79 hits per nine ratio.  Again, no surprise there.

Number #3 Toughest Pitcher to Hit, Ever?  Well, let me save you some time:

Sid Fernandez.  Yes, that Sid Fernandez.  El Sid.  The Mets’ secret weapon in the bullpen against the Red Sox in the ’86 World Series.

Sid Fernandez posted an incredible 6.85 hits per nine innings in his career in 1866 innings.  He pitched in parts of 15 different seasons and made exactly 300 starts in his career.

So how many wins did El Sid record out of those 300 starts?  Just 114 wins, against 96 losses.  In other words, Fernandez ended up with a no-decision in 30% of his career starts, a rather high percentage.

So why didn’t he win more games?  Apparently, El Sid just couldn’t get much past the sixth inning.  In fact, he completed only 25 games in his entire career!  Thus, his bullpen mates ended up swooping down for the win, or they blew the game and took the loss.

Sid Fernandez’s idea of a workout routine was a 6,000 calorie breakfast, followed by long periods of rest and idleness.

Fernandez only reached double-figures in wins in five seasons; his best win totals were 16 (in 1986), 14 (twice) and 12 (twice).  That’s it.

Sid Fernandez was, then, one the greatest six- inning pitchers ever.  But even though one inning specialists now routinely make it into Cooperstown, (they’re called “Closers”), El Sid will never get in without first paying for a ticket.

Now that’s a strange career.

Almost as strange was the career of a former teammate of Sid Fernandez:   David Cone.

At first glance you might not expect Cone to have had a weird career, but let me throw some numbers at you.  I’ll do it in the form of a Table so you can more clearly see what I noticed.

The first number represents a season with exactly that number of wins; the second number directly to the right of it represents how many seasons Cone reached that number of wins.  So let’s take a look:

20  –  2  (Cone had 2 twenty win seasons)

19  –  0

18  –  0

17  –  0

16  –  1

15  –  0

14  –  3

13  –  1

12  –  2

11  –  1

10  –  0

Cone finished with nearly 200 wins in his career in over 400 starts.  His career win-lost percentage was a very nice .606.

But where did all those 194 career wins come from?  How does a pitcher have two 20 win seasons, but NO 15, 17, 18, or 19 win seasons, and still have an excellent career?

Cone is the antithesis of Bert Blyleven.  Blyleven won nearly 300 games (287) in his career, but his entire career was made up of exactly the kinds of seasons Cone NEVER even had once in his entire career (except for the one lonely 16 win season.)  For example, Blyleven produced five 17-win seasons.

There are two types of Hall-of-Famers, and two kinds of HOF voters.  One group prefers the bright shining stars that flame out fast, but oh, what beauty when they shined.  The other group prefers slow-and-steady-wins-the race.  Cone is not in The Hall, nor is Blyleven.  But they are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the kinds of careers a pitcher who could be considered for The Hall might have.

Now, how about a hitter.

Hitters, of course, are mainly supposed to hit.  But it’s O.K., even lauded in some circles, if a particular hitter draws an occasional Base-on-Balls, too.

One particular hitter that, occasionally, did draw a walk was former infielder Alfredo Griffin.  Griffin played his first full season in the Majors in 1979, winning the A.L. Rookie of the Year award playing for the Blue Jays.  He retired in 1993.

Alfredo Griffin just might have been the worst regular, everyday offensive player in the history of baseball.

Now, I know, there have been lots of really bad offensive players throughout baseball history.  But this, as they say, you have to see.

Griffin’s highest single-season on-base percentage in his career was .333 in his rookie campaign of 1979 when he drew a career high 40 walks in 689 plate appearances.  He never walked as many as forty times in a season again.

But the season that truly boggles my mind was 1984 when in 441 plate appearances, Griffin drew exactly FOUR walks all year.

How is that even possible?

His batting average that season was .241; his on-base percentage was .248.  For his entire career, Griffin posted an OBP of .285 in over 7,000 plate appearances.

Folks, we are talking about a guy that played all 162 games in four different seasons, not some part-time late-inning defensive replacement.

Defensively, by the way, he was pretty good, although he managed to win just one Gold Glove award in his entire career.  But even fifteen Gold Gloves couldn’t justify those awful non-hitting skills of his.

You want to hear the best part?  1984, the year he drew just four walks, the year he posted an OBP south of .300, was the Only year he made an All-Star team.

Well, did he hit lots of homers?  Nope, just 24 in his entire career.

Did he score lots of runs.  Nope, he reached 80 runs scored only once, his rookie season.

Did he steal lots of bases?  Well, here’s the thing.  He did steal 192 bases in his career, but he was also caught stealing 134 times, a poor “success” rate of .588.  In fact, in a two year period, 1980-81, he successfully stole a paltry 26 bases in 61 attempts!  He did improve later on in his career, but was never truly an asset on the base-paths.

In 1980, he led the A.L. in triples with 15, and in outs made with 532.

In November of 1988, the Dodgers, enamored by Griffin’s .199 batting average and .965 fielding percentage from the ’88 season, signed Griffin as a free-agent for one million dollars.

Ladies and gentleman, am I missing something here?

To sum up, the weirdest thing about Alfredo Griffin isn’t his career numbers, it’s that he ever had a career at all, and a long career at that.

O.K.  Let’s follow Griffin up with a player who actually could hit.

Carlton Fisk was one of the best overall catchers in baseball history.  Suffering from numerous injuries early in his career, he nevertheless ended up playing in 2,499 games, amassing 9,853 plate appearances.

Most of his career numbers are pretty standard (meaning very good) for a player of his caliber, especially for a catcher.

But one season late in his career when he played for the White Sox stands out.  In 1984, when Fisk was already 36 years old, he slugged a reasonable 21 home runs.  Now, normally when a player hits over 20 homers and plays more or less every day, their RBI total lands somewhere in the 75-90 range, give or take a few.

Somehow, despite hitting 21 homers, Fisk managed to drive in only 43 runs in just under 400 plate appearances.  I am guessing that his RBI total that year has to be one of the lowest ever recorded, perhaps the lowest, for a player who hit at least 20 homers in one season.

I am not casting any aspersions on Fisk’s talent or on his career, but that is one fluky statistic.

Finally, there is the strange case of Storm Davis.

Davis was an extremely young man of 20 when he threw his first pitch for the Orioles in 1982.  By the age of 22, Davis had already pitched 525 innings in the Majors; there were no Joba Rules in those days.

By 1989, Davis was a member of a formidable Oakland A’s rotation.  In that year, his age-27 season, Davis enjoyed his career-year.  Despite tossing just 169 innings, Davis posted a record of 19-7.

It was the worst 19 win season in major league history.

Here are the ugly peripheral numbers behind that inflated win total:

ERA:  4.36, WHIP:  1.506,  Strike-Outs:  91,  Walks:  68,  K’s / 9 innings:  4.8,  Hits / 9 innings:  10.

In short, if Davis had pitched that year for virtually any other baseball team, he would have ended up with a sub-.500 win-lost record.

Of course, the Kansas City Royals, unable to see past Davis’ gaudy win total, signed Davis in the off-season to be the ace of their staff for over a million dollars (still big money in those days.)

The Royals were rewarded with a 7-10 season in 1990.

This is one reason why some small-market teams continue to be unsuccessful.  When they do splurge on a free-agent, it’s usually the wrong guy.

Davis’ career was strange because he was actually a pretty good pitcher who pitched terribly one season, still won 19 games, and was rewarded with a large contract as a free agent.

I’m absolutely positive there are many other players who have had strange, unlikely individual seasons and /or careers.  If you can think of others and would like to share them, by all means please do.  I’m not necessarily talking about One-Year Wonders; I already did a prior blog-post on that topic.

Now, let’s see what kind of strange, unlikely seasons we are in store for in 2010.  We know they’ll happen.  We just don’t know yet who they’ll happen to.

And once again, thank you for taking the time to read my blog.  I appreciate it.

Bill

A Delicate Imbalancing Act

It is the conventional wisdom among many fans and sports-writers these days that baseball suffers from a serious case of competitive imbalance.

The rich teams like the Yankees (always the Yankees) enjoy an unfair competitive edge over their disadvantaged competitors  due to the monstrously large size of their media-market.

A few other teams, notably the Mets, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and perhaps the Cubbies also get to bid on the high-profile free agents, leaving the small-market teams gazing woefully in the window like so many Dickensian street-urchins.

Things have gotten so bad, so the logic goes, that only a salary-cap can save baseball from itself.

The on-line blogosphere, Twitter, and all of the other domains frequented by the chattering masses, constantly sling arrow after arrow at this paper tiger, trying, ostensibly out of a sense of fairness, to slay this ravenous beast before it ruthlessly devours yet another season.

And yet, the reality is that the competitive balance between baseball’s thirty teams is as strong as it’s ever been, and is much stronger than it has often been.

Since the year 2001, eight different teams have won the World Series in nine seasons of competition.  Only the decade from 1978-87, when ten different teams won the World Series, featured a greater diversity of championship teams.

Moreover, although free agent signings have played a part in the overall formula of putting together a championship baseball team, a significant proportion of the star players on these teams have either come up through the team’s farm systems, or they were acquired in astute trades.

Let’s use the 2006 champion St. Louis Cardinals as an example.  Only two significant players on that team, Chris Carpenter and Jason Isringhausen, were obtained via free agency.  The combined cost of these two players, however, was a nominal three million dollars.  One would think that even teams like the Royals and the Pirates could have afforded one or both of those players.

The total team payroll for the Cardinals that championship season was a relatively modest 88 million dollars.

The 2005 Chicago White Sox are another example of how a franchise can build a championship baseball team without leading the league in spending.  The entire payroll for this team was about 75 million dollars, and the only significant free-agent the White Sox added that season was Jose Contreras, who ended up with a reasonably productive fifteen victories.

And although last season’s Yankees won the World Series after purchasing both Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia, they also had farm system products Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Robinson Cano, and Phil Hughes to thank as well for their 27th World Series Championship.

That’s far more talent than the Royals and Pirates have produced from their farm systems combined over the past decade.

While it’s true that the Yankees broke the bank last season with a payroll in excess of 200 million dollars, it is also true that their example has been an anomaly over the past decade.  Most teams, like the Mets, for example, who have relied primarily on free agent signings (Johan Santana, Carlos Beltran, K-Rod) to bring a world championship home, have failed miserably.

Conversely, most teams that have won, or have simply played in the World Series over the past decade, have been in the middle or upper-middle tier of spenders.  A couple have even been near the bottom of the payroll list.

Now the argument at this point becomes, of course, that small market teams  just can’t generate enough revenue to compete with even the medium market teams.  Well, there are three basic flaws with that argument:

Flaw #1:  Each franchise is owned by a millionaire, or a group of millionaires, who have to decide how important it is for them to field a championship ball-club.  The truth is (as we have just witnessed with the penny-pinching Marlins signing of Josh Johnson to a long-term contract) that the money IS ALWAYS there, if ownership decides to open their collective checkbook.  Meanwhile, what is the excuse for poor scouting, player development, and lack of sound judgment when making trades?

Flaw #2:  The second argument that advocates of competitive reform make is that baseball is a business, and you can’t expect the owners of small market teams to throw good money after bad in a vain attempt at catching the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets, etc.

Yet in what other realm of the American business world do owners of small franchises EXPECT and, stunningly, RECEIVE, gifts of cash from their bigger competitors to “level” the playing field.  The owners of these small baseball franchises then generally pocket the cash, fail to improve their product-line, then expect that baseball will come up with even more creative ways to allow them to enjoy a profit without being held to even a minimum standard of improvement.

Flaw 3:  Teams like the Royals, Brewers, Pirates, Reds, A’s, etc, are NOT directly competing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or Angels.  These small market teams are more accurately competing directly with the other teams in their own division for a shot at the playoffs.

The Brewers, for example, simply have to play just slightly better than the Reds, Pirates, Astros and Cubs for a shot at the playoffs.  And once in the playoffs, as several Cinderella teams have showed over the years, anything can happen.  The team with the best record during the regular season does not always win.

This is why when I read respectable sports-writers make arguments that, for example, the Brewers should trade 26-year old Prince Fielder now for maximum value so they can obtain blue-chip prospects, the lack of logic in that argument leaves me dumbfounded.

Here’s why.

The Brewers, with Fielder and Braun in the middle of their lineup, and several other at least league-average players, have a legitimate chance of competing for the top spot in their division.  Isn’t that the reason franchises field teams in the first place?  Isn’t that why fans come out to the park to see their team?  Isn’t that why (perhaps ironically) the Brewers signed free-agent Randy Wolf?

Moreover, if the Brewers did put Fielder on the open-market and obtained a couple of blue-chip prospects in return (who might be only a couple of years younger than Fielder), wouldn’t they just end up with the same dilemma a couple of years from now regarding whether or not to keep these new young players?

Would you then turn around and trade them as well for prospects?  What’s the point of making trades for young talent in the first place if you don’t plan on keeping them around long enough to help your team make a run at the playoffs?

This is called a prospect-fetish; its danger is that it masquerades as a sensible solution to the apparent dilemmas posed by direct competition.

Let’s stop for a minute and ask another question.  Why do some people assume that what is in the best interests of small market teams is naturally in the best interests of Major League Baseball?

Those who advocate for a salary cap, for example, base their arguments on the presumption that because this salary cap would, in effect, “hurt” the Yankees chances of future success, then small market teams can only benefit.  And if this new system allows small market teams greater access to top-tier talent, they can only be more competitive as a result.

But I ask once again,  how is this zero-sum game philosophy (your loss is automatically my win) in the best interests of BASEBALL?

This is not a rhetorical question.  Here’s why.

Guess which teams benefit the most when the World Champion Yankees or Red Sox come to town?  It is the small market teams (who refuse, or, out of sheer incompetency, are unable, to field a quality team) that benefit the most.

Attendance is always higher in Kansas City, or in any of the smaller markets, when the Yankees or Red Sox come to town.  In other words, EVERYONE WINS when these high quality teams come for a visit.   Revenues go up for both the Royals AND the Yankees.

Does baseball really want to consider putting a system in place that could, in effect, kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?

There is one solution to this so-called competitive imbalance that was once used extensively as a means by which a team would seek to enhance its bottom line.

Move the franchise.

Take a look at how many teams moved from one city to another in search of greener pastures throughout the 20th century.  The Dodgers, Giants, Braves (twice), A’s (twice), and the Senators, are just some of the teams that moved primarily for financial reasons.  Some cities gained teams; others lost them, and some of those who lost teams later gained new franchises.

There are thirty major league franchises, yet several teams play in American cities that don’t rank anywhere near the top thirty in terms of population.  Kansas City, Oakland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh rank, respectively, 35th, 44th, 56th and 60th in population.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, NC ranks 18th, Las Vegas ranks 28th, and Tucson, AZ ranks 32nd.  Raleigh, NC, Mesa, AZ and several other cities are moving up fast.  These cities also have the advantage of being in the sun-belt, a more natural setting in which to play baseball.

Change is difficult, but baseball is a business. And if it is in the best interests of both the teams themselves and of Major League Baseball for a franchise to move, then sentimental posturing, aided and abetted by inefficient and ultimately pointless systems like revenue-sharing, shouldn’t stand in the way.

Ultimately, then, the Pirates,  assuming they commit themselves to top-notch scouting and player-development, might someday be able to afford to sign that free-agent who could turn out to be the last piece in their franchises’ championship puzzle.

Only it may happen in Charlotte instead of Pittsburgh.

But, hey, Pittsburgh, you would still have the Steelers.

Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide: The Hitters

This is the third of four installments of my Fantasy Baseball Preview. I’ve already discussed at length my Rules for a Successful Fantasy Baseball Season, as well as my Fantasy Baseball Strategies and Tips  in my two prior posts.  In this third post on the subject, I will submit my player ratings for position players.

Players in bold print are sleepers that I believe should be aggressively targeted.  Players listed in italics are potential bust candidates.   Where I believe it to be useful, I will explain my reasoning for a particular player’s  rating with some degree of detailed analysis.

For the sake of brevity, and because most leagues appear to use a mixed league approach to Fantasy Baseball, I will list players from each league together, position by position.  If you play in an N.L. only or A.L. only format, obviously you can simply focus on the players in your preferred league as you scan the list.

A final note, my ratings are weighted less on what a player has already accomplished than on what he can, and I believe quite likely will, accomplish in 2010.  Therefore, some of my ratings may seem overly optimistic to some, and unreasonably harsh to others.  So be it.  I’m trying to win this year, not last year.  How about you?

Position Players:

First Base:  Deepest Position in the Major Leagues

1) Albert Pujols – Do we really understand what we are witnessing with this future Hall of Famer?  He is already one of the top dozen players of all time.  He will be the first player drafted in virtually every fantasy league.

2) Miguel Cabrera – According to Baseball-Reference.com, the two players whose career profiles Cabrera’s is most similar to are Ken Griffey, Jr. and Hank Aaron.  Has a .925 career OPS in six full seasons.  Turns 27 in April.  The A.L. player most likely to win a Triple Crown.

3) Ryan Howard – Just can’t ignore those homers and RBI’s.

4) Prince Fielder – Better average, fewer K’s, than Howard.  Turns 26 in May.

5) Mark Teixeira – Yanks line-up is still loaded.  Professional switch-hitter.  Enjoys hitting at the new Yankee Stadium.  First Round caliber pick.

6) Adrian Gonzalez –  Once he gets out of San Diego, his stock will rise.

7)  Mark Reynolds – Big strikeout totals scare people off, but qualifies at two positions, and is still learning his craft at 26 years of age.  Also offers good speed.

8)  Joey Votto – Don’t bother reminding me about his anxiety problems.  This year, the only people who will experience anxiety problems will be the pitchers who have to face him.  26-year old pure hitter in a nice hitter’s park.

9) Pablo Sandoval – Hits any pitch anywhere.  Kung Fu Panda is 23 years old and qualifies at two positions.  Downside:  Terrible supporting cast, pitcher’s park, and no speed.

10)  Kevin Youkilis –  Now at the peak of his value, much more valuable as a third baseman.  Still, gets on base, hits for solid power, and has been consistent.  Home park helps.

11)  Justin Morneau – Coming off of both wrist and back surgeries, and moving into a new park that may be less hitter friendly than the Metrodome.  Most of his value is tied up in his RBI’s.

12)  Adam Dunn – Remarkably consistent hitter.  A poor man’s Ralph Kiner.  Power, walks, runs scored, lots of strikeouts, no speed.  Still qualifies in OF.  In his contract year.

13)  Kendry Morales –  Call me a skeptic, but I want to see him do it again before I jump on this bandwagon.  Late bloomer failed to score 90 runs in breakout season.  Don’t reach too soon.

14)  Billy Butler – This 23-year old may never hit lots of homers, but he’s a pure hitter who finished strong last season.  You could do much worse.

15)  Lance Berkman – A 34-year old trapped in the body of an unhealthy 38-year old marshmallow.  Can still hit and draw some walks, but past his prime.

16)  Derrek Lee –  Seems like very nice guy.  If you’re still looking at him as your potential first baseman halfway through the draft, your strategy left a lot to be desired.

17)  Paul Konerko – Deserves to be listed side-by-side with his north-side compatriot, Derrek Lee.  Konerko doesn’t embarrass himself, plays in a nice hitter’s park, and is ready to take a nose-dive at age 34.  You don’t need him.

18)  Todd Helton –  You get batting average and on-base percentage, that’s it.

19) Carlos Pena – The 31-year old Latin Dave Kingman.  Steer clear.

20)  James Loney – Has somehow managed 90 RBI’s each of the past two seasons, showing how over-rated that stat really is.  Still just 25 years old, may someday reach twenty home runs, but plays in a pitcher’s park.

21)  Adam LaRoche – Now hitting in the middle of the lineup in Arizona, a nice hitter’s park, LaRoche could put up some surprising numbers this season, perhaps 90-100 RBI’s and a solid OPS.  Keep an eye on this situation.

There are other first basemen, of course, but no one that should greatly interest you.  Victor Martinez of the Red Sox, primarily a catcher, also qualifies at first base, but a wise fantasy manager will only use him there in an emergency.

Carlos Delgado, still unsigned, was last seen hobbling around a first base bag in the Winter League.  Chris Davis of Texas may be, despite an obscene strikeout rate, on the verge of a modest break-out season.

Second Base:  No Reason to Panic

1)  Chase UtleyAside from the fact that he is fabulous hitter in a great hitter’s park, he stole 23 bases in 23 attempts last season.  Solid first round pick.

2)  Ian Kinsler –  Somehow, this guy worries me.  He constantly gets himself injured, and his batting average, considering the nice hitter’s park he finds himself in, is unimpressive, as is his on-base percentage.  Still, this 27-year old enjoyed a 3o-30-30 season last year (Homers, Steals, and Doubles.)  Not as solid as Utley, but offers lots of offensive ability.

3)  Dustin Pedroia  –  This 26-year old has already won an MVP award, and offers a nice power / speed combination.  Scores bushels of runs, and plays in a great hitter’s park.  What’s not to like?  There is no downside here.

4)  Aaron Hill –  Excellent run producer, but at age 28, let’s see him do it again.  Few walks, not much speed, and homer total way above anything he’s done before.  Still, easily a top five second baseman.

5)  Robinson Cano – This 27-year old should finish with the following numbers:  19 homers, 80 RBI’s, 187 hits, 90 runs, 4 steals, and few walks.  An aggressive young hitter who finished strong, but may already be nearing his ceiling.

6)  Brandon Phillips –  Ranks ahead of Brian Roberts primarily because he is four years younger, and offers a stronger power / speed combo.  Drives in runs, too.

7)  Brian Roberts –  Hits huge amounts of doubles, scores runs and steals bases.  He won’t disappoint you, but at age 32, he offers no upside, either.

8)  Ben Zobrist – Came out of nowhere last season.  Although he is a late-bloomer at age 28, his numbers may be for real, as evidenced by his 90+ walks, and has slugged over .500 two seasons in a row.  Qualifies at OF, too.

9)  Dan Uggla – Homers and RBI’s; next to nothing else.  May already be in decline phase at age 30.

10)  Jose Lopez – Kind of a strange, young 26-year old hitter.  Hits far better away from Safeco.  Knows how to drive in runs, but can’t score them.  Doesn’t steal bases, and practically never walks.  Yet may still offer good value.

11)  Asdrubal Cabrera –  This 24-year old qualifies at both second and short.  He can steal a base, score a run, and get a couple of hits.  Some upside, but not spectacular, and very little power.

12)  Martin Prado –  This 26-year finally seems to have won the second base job to himself in Atlanta.  Lots of doubles in a part-time role last season portend respectable power numbers to come, along with a .300 batting average.  Qualifies at three positions: first, second, and third base.

13)  Howie Kendrick – Now 26-years old, has been trying to land a starting job with the Angels for three years.  It appears he now has one.  Not a lot of speed or power, but should score some runs if he hits near the top of the order.

14)  Casey McGehee – Had a nice showing with the Brewers last season, and is now considered a sleeper in lots of Fantasy mags.  Don’t buy the hype.  There’s a reason he didn’t make it to the majors until he was almost 27 years old.

15)  Rickie Weeks –  Seems like we’ve been hearing how he is a can’t miss future star for about half a dozen years now.  Turns 27 this season.  Injured his wrist last year, 4th year in a row curtailed by injury.  Stay away!

There are actually quite a few nice options at second base, especially in the A.L.  If you play in an N.L. only league, Utley is worth his weight in gold.

Shortstop:  Now, it’s Time To Panic

1)  Hanley Ramirez – The second-best player in the major leagues.  Some owners were disappointed with his performance last season despite a .342, .410, .543 line.  Still only 26 years old.  Biggest power numbers are ahead of him.

2)  Troy Tulowitzki – Two of his three seasons have been outstanding, and he’s just 25.  Calls Coors Field home.  Hits for power, average, and has speed.  I’ll take him at the end of the first round, if he’s still available.

3)  Jose Reyes –  Do you feel lucky, punk?  Well, do ya?  Watch his wheels in Spring Training.  Don’t automatically assume a full recovery. But age (26) is on his side.

4)  Jimmy Rollins –  Should have played in the ’70’s, and that’s a compliment.  Still, he sported a shockingly low .296 on-base average last season.  You read that right.  But offers 20 homers and 30 steals at a week position.  Just beginning his decline phase, but isn’t all through yet.

5)  Derek Jeter –  First ballot Hall of Famer will see at least a 20% decline in his overall offensive output from last season, but still has enough to offer at age 35.  Will be drafted too early in most leagues due to rep and weak position.

6)  Jason Bartlett –  A case can be made that he should rate higher on this list, but a break-out season at age 30 should temper one’s enthusiasm.  Although some regression should be expected (he won’t hit .320 again), he is a useful option.

7)  Yunel Escobar – Spends a lot of time in Bobby Cox’s doghouse, but hits quite effectively when he plays.  Walks almost as often as he strikes out, and is entering his age 27 season.  Could see 80 RBI’s and 90 runs scored this year.

8)  Stephen Drew –  Will always be as maddening to own as his brother, J.D.  At times, he will hit like an MVP candidate.  At other times, he will be the ghost of Rey Ordonez.  Basically hits well at home vs. right-handed pitching.  His career is at a cross-roads this, his age 27 season.

9)  Asdrubal Cabrera –  See Second Base Ratings for details

10)  Alcides Escobar – Played well enough to take job away from J.J. Hardy. Should continue to play well enough to keep it, but has no power.

11)  Rafael Furcal –  At age 32, won’t see 600 at bats again as he did last year.  The player Jose Reyes most fears becoming.

12)  Miguel Tejada –  Astros will be terrible this season, and he might be, too.  Gotta love those 19 walks, five steals, and 14 homers.  36-years OLD.

13)  Alexei Ramirez –  This 28-year old disappointed many of his owners who expected too much out of him last season.  Offers a complete package of mediocrity.

14)  Ryan Theriot –  Brett Butler without the power.  Just kidding, he actually slugged seven last season, one for every fan who enjoyed owning him.

15)  Fill in the blank –  It just gets uglier and uglier from here, folks.  Don’t do this to yourself.

Shortstop is chock full of potential pitfalls including age (Jeter, Furcal, Tejada and perhaps Rollins), injury (Reyes and Furcal, again) , and inconsistency (Drew, A. Ramirez, and maybe Bartlett.)  At least three or four owners will be sorely disappointed with the end results by their choices at this position.  Proceed with extreme caution.

Third Base:  Where We Can All Live Happily Ever After

1)  Evan Longoria –  Has the potential to lead the A.L. in homers and RBI’s.  Potential MVP candidate.  Hit a few rough patches last season, which just might make him available to fall into your lap.  Count your blessings.  This 24-year old is just getting started.  A decent bet to hit 500 homers in his career.

2)  A-Rod – Your were expecting, perhaps, David Wright?  The Human Soap Opera missed April recovering from hip surgery, but looked damn good in his return.  This 34-year old will be a big run producer once again, but his days as a base-stealer are nearing an end.

3)  Mark Reynolds – Is Adam Dunn with fewer walks and more steals.  See First Base Ratings for further comments.

4)  Ryan Zimmerman – May be the best overall third baseman in the N.L.  Nice power surge last season at age 24.  Will hit for power and average, but won’t steal many bases.

5) David Wright –  What a difference a year makes.  Exhibit A that there are no sure things in baseball.  Last season, he was among the first five players taken overall in most drafts.  Now he is just a top-five third baseman.  Has more to prove than perhaps any other player in the majors this year.  Will be interesting to see in which round he is drafted.

6)  Pablo Sandoval –  See First Base ratings.  Has more value at third base.

7)  Kevin Youkilis –  Yet another 1B / 3B qualifier.  See First Base ratings.

8)  Aramis Ramirez –  It’s a deep position that offers a guy who can hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs as only its 8th best player.

9)  Michael Young –  Power surge last season masks a player who, at age 33, is at the beginning of a slow decline.  But may still offer plenty of value as a mid-round pick.

10)  Gordon Beckham – ChiSox are apparently going to try to convert him into a second-baseman this season, which isn’t as much of a slam-dunk as it may seem.  Has huge potential as a power-hitting run producer, though.  Could be on his way to a string of some very fine seasons.  This 23-year old no longer qualifies at shortstop, as he did last season.

11)  Chone Figgins –  One of Seattle’s aggressive off-season acquisitions.  The Angels will realize how much they miss him this year.  But at age 32, isn’t going to get any better.  Still, he offers, hits, runs scored and steals.  Not your classic third baseman, but after him, this position begins to go downhill fast.

12)  Martin Prado –  See Second Base Ratings

13)  Jorge Cantu –  A definite bust candidate.  A classic example of what to expect from a player who bursts into the majors relatively late (age 27) with a big season.  Last season’s owners were disappointed.  This season’s owners will have only themselves to blame.

14)  Chipper Jones – At this point, listing him at all is as much a sentimental choice as a practical one.  You know he’ll get hurt again (and again.)  What we don’t quite know yet is if he’s about done as a hitter.  Do you really want to find out?

15)  Adrian Beltre –  Leaving an excellent pitcher’s park for an excellent hitter’s park, and having more support around him in the lineup may result in a modest resurgence of his career.  But eight homers, 44 RBI’s and 19 walks last season in over 450 at bats means he is far from a sure thing to produce solid, credible numbers.  Have a back-up plan.

16)  Casey Blake – Dodgers third baseman

17)  Mark DeRosa – Giants big off-season acquisition will ensure that Matt Cain still won’t get much run support from his offense.

There are, of course, other players I could list at this position, but I would take no pleasure away from such a task, so let’s leave it at that.  I do like this group of third basemen more than I have in years.  Most Fantasy owners should do pretty well at this position, providing their pick fits into some kind of coherent, overall plan.

Catcher:  Draft Early, or Draft Late

1)  Joe Mauer – Has already won three batting titles, as many as all other A.L. catchers in history have won combined.  His power finally showed up last season, too.  Given his edge over other catchers, a definite first round pick.

2)  Victor Martinez – You have to love the fact that the Red Sox will let him stay fresh by allowing him to play first base on a semi-regular basis.  A pure hitter who hit extremely well in his limited stint at Fenway last season.  Will be gone by middle of third round, perhaps sooner.

3)  Brian McCann – This 26-year old is already an established veteran of four MLB seasons.  Should continue to hit for power with a decent average, and has been durable.  No downside, except for, of course, the fact that he’s a catcher.

4)  Jorge Posada –  At 38-years old, I was tempted to affix a “bust” designation on him, but his skills haven’t shown any obvious signs of erosion.  Still a very productive hitter at a weak position.  Just keep his age in mind, and don’t draft too early; someone will.

5)  Miguel Montero –  Kurt Suzuki put up similar numbers last season, but Montero plays in a better hitter’s park, and his OPS was nearly a hundred points higher than Suzuki’s.  Montero will move up a notch or two in these rankings by season’s end.

6)  Kurt Suzuki –  He is just 26-year’s old, and has already had an 80 RBI season as a catcher.  But a surprisingly low OPS indicates there is some cause for concern here.  Plays on a team with no offense in a good pitcher’s park.  You will have to draft him a little too high for mediocre production.  Let someone else take a chance on him.

7)  Matt Wieters – I have him rated a little higher than most others because I would rather take a chance on his excellent upside, at a lower position in the Fantasy draft, than take an inferior talent higher simply based on last year’s numbers.  An obvious future All-Star.

8)  Russell Martin –  Some of that power has to come back, right?  He is still just 27-years old, and may experience a bit of a Renaissance this season.  Still a top-ten catcher, overall, with possibility of moving up a couple of notches.

9)  Ryan Doumit – Now you are entering dangerous territory.  If you haven’t drafted a catcher in a mixed league by now, you might as well wait until the mid-to-late rounds.  Doumit had a lost season, but deserves to start for someone.

10)  Mike Napoli – With departure of Figgins and Vladdy, more may be expected of players like Napoli to step up their game a notch.  At age 28, he may be ready to do so.  Playing time is all that prevents him from being rated higher on this list.

11)  Geovany Soto –  Could he really be as bad as he showed last season?  Could he really be as good as he showed in ’08?  We’ll see.

12)  Yadier Molina –  Lots of people seem to prefer his older brother, Benjie, because of those gaudy 20 homers.  Big deal.  Yadier is, by far, the better hitter, recording more walks than strikeouts, hitting for a solid average, and even stealing more bases.  Also, Yadier is only 27-years old with room to improve his numbers; Benjie is 35 and has clearly seen his best days.

12)  Benjie Molina –  The overrated of the Molina brothers.  See above.

13)  Chris Iannetta – Still just 26-years old, but how do you hit .228 for the season when you play half your games in Colorado?

14)  A.J. Pierzynski – .300 batting average masks little run-producing ability.  Now 33-years old, holds no interest for me.

This is where I get off the bus.  Take a look, if you desire, at all the kids on the Rangers.  One of them might eventually pan out.  And I guess there are worse catchers than John Baker, too.  But the rule of thumb here is, either use an early pick and draft a quality catcher, or just let the position slide to the mid-to-late rounds.  Guys will be available much later than you think.

Outfield – Where Hall-of-Famers Used to Play

1)  Ryan Braun – Should be the obvious choice.  If not, you’re not really paying attention.

2)  Justin Upton – No, not Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, etc.  Upton is the next great super-star at this position, as early as this season.

3)  Matt Holiday – A full season hitting 3-4 with Albert Pujols?  Every hitter’s dream.  Conservatively, 30-100-100-.300.

4)  Matt Kemp – Fantastic combo of power and speed, but hampered a bit playing half his games in Chavez Ravine.  Also has to hit regularly in PetCo and San Fran.  Still, easily worth a second round pick.

5)  Carl Crawford –  His first half last season was fantastic; his second half was below average.  Playing on the turf definitely takes its toll.  But at age 28, and in his contract year, he will be extra-motivated for that big pay-day.

6) Jacoby Ellsbury –  Entering his fourth season at age 26, look for him to turn his whole game up a notch.  He might not steal 70 again, but we haven’t seen his best total season yet.

7)  Grady Sizemore –  Rated this highly because of what he is capable of doing, if healthy.  At age 27, he is capable of enjoying his finest all-around season, even hitting in a weak line-up.

8)  Jason Bay – Mets overpaid, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be productive enough to serve as your #2 OF.  Just don’t go drafting him as your #1.

9)  Adam Jones –  Played extremely well the first couple of months of last season, then tailed off badly at the end.  But he is very talented, very young (24) and is part of a reviving franchise in Baltimore.  Stay-tuned.

10)  Nick Markakis –  Some of the luster may have worn off after a mediocre season last year.  But, still just 26-years old with three years experience under his belt, the best is yet to come.

11)  Andre Ethier –  Solid young power hitter.

12)  Adam Lind –  Broke out in a big way last season.  Look for a small overall decline in his numbers, but at age 26, he was not a complete fluke.

13)  Jayson Werth –  At age 30, we witnessed the best he has to offer last season, which is plenty good.  As with Lind, a slight decline is in order, but doesn’t project to be a bust.

14)  Manny Ramirez – Even at age 37, plenty capable of hitting 30+ homers and driving in 100+ runs, along with the usual sulking, goofing, and other immature, irresponsible behaviors.  Your circus, if you want it.

15)  Curtis Granderson – Inconsistent as hell last season, but multi-talented and still (29) young enough to have one of his best seasons.  Has power and speed, and will benefit from hitting in Yankee lineup in better hitter’s park.

16)  Bobby Abreu –  Just doesn’t seem to age, yet it has to happen some year.  Look for his steals to finally decline this year, but OBP should remain strong.  Draft as a borderline #2-#3 OF in mixed leagues.

17)  Hunter Pence –  The learning curve for Pence has been long, and a little slower than anticipated, but at age 27, he could be in line for his best all around season.  Too bad it’ll happen on one of the worst teams in the league.

18)  Andrew McCutchen –  This youngster is the real deal.  Future all-star may hit a few rough patches here and there, but stick with him and watch him finish as a top 20, perhaps a top 15, OF.

19)  Adam Dunn –  As unlikely as it seems, still qualifies at OF.  Given the depth at first base, it would make sense to draft him and stick him in your OF and consider him your backup first baseman in injury situation.  What you see is what you get from this 30-year old.

20)  Carlos Gonzalez –  May be the most exciting young outfielder in the game, and that’s saying a lot, considering the competition.   Has power and speed, can hit for average, and plays half his games at Coors.  Gotta love it.

21) Ichiro –  What do you call a player who hits .352, with yet another 200 hit season?  A Hall-of-Famer, but a mediocre fantasy baseball asset.  Now 36 years old, Ichiro’s stolen base totals are in decline, he doesn’t walk, and all those hits produced a surprisingly low 88 runs last season.  At best, he will hold his own.

22)  Torii Hunter –  Pretty reliable 34-year old who may begin to show some decline in his skills this season.  Draft as a #3, and you should be fine.

23)  Nate McLouth – Had an off-year, but age 28, should provide solid value as a #3 OF.  May score 100 runs, and go 20 – 20 (homers / steals.)

24)  Josh Hamilton –  Demonstrated too much ability in ’08 to rate lower than this, but I wouldn’t look for a return to his  ’08 numbers.  Too much can go wrong here.

25)  Raul Ibanez –  This 37-year old should, perhaps, rate higher on this list, considering he set a career high in slugging percentage last season.  But I don’t believe in “new” careers beginning at age 37.  If  I’m wrong, so be it.

26)  Shane Victorino – An important part of a well-balanced Phillie offense.  Provides runs, steals, and a decent average.  Draft as a #3.

27)  Carlos Lee –  Clearly in decline.  Drops in slugging, on-base, and runs scored should scare you off those Home Run / RBI totals.  Less here than meets the eye.

28)  Johnny Damon –  Still unsigned as I type this blog post.  Apparently super-agent Scott Boras blew this one.  But Johnny still has some life in the old tank, and will probably get signed in a week or two.

29)  Shin-Soo Choo – Was perhaps the most consistent hitter on the Indians for much of last season.  May be underrated.  Solid #3, at least.

30)  Michael Bourn – 60 steals are hard to ignore.  But needs to draw more walks to take his game to the next level.

31)  Brad Hawpe – Started off well last season, but declined badly in second half.  Still, finished with an OPS over .900.  Could provide solid late-round value.

32) Alfonso Soriano –  Has the been the most overrated player in baseball for several years now.

33)  Mike Cuddyer –  Probably won’t match last season’s career year numbers of 32-94-.520 slugging.  At age 31, in a new ball-park, play it very conservative.

34)  Jay Bruce –  Has the power to hit 40 homers, but might also hit .235.  Odds are, this 23-year old will provide some quality weeks for some lucky owner, but there is a lot of risk here.

35)  Jeff Francoeur –  Barely deserves a job as an everyday major league OF.  Do not draft!

Remember when the Outfield was where you would routinely go to find your biggest bats?  Not all that long ago there was Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Juan Gonzalez, Jim Edmonds, Tim Salmon, a young Manny Ramirez, Ken Griffey, Jr., etc.  Maybe we are simply in a transition year or two here, and Upton, Kemp, Sizemore, etc. will one day also be household (or at least Fantasy Baseball household) names.

I could add a small sub-category regarding DH’s.  But since you can use any hitter you choose as your DH, I don’t see why you need to thumb through a separate category here.  I will conclude by saying that I think that David Ortiz is nearing the end of the line in terms of Fantasy usefulness, but I know some loyal Red Sox fan will shout otherwise.  So be it.  It’s your team.  Do what you want with it.  But when big guys decline, they tend to go down faster than the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Next Blog Post:  Fantasy Baseball Player Rating Guide:  The Pitchers

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