Who Will Be the Comeback Players of the Year?

Each year two players, one from the American League and one from the National League, are honored as Comeback Player of the Year.

Whether the player is returning from injury, illness, or ineffectiveness, each winner has overcome a hurdle of some sort and reversed their fortunes from the previous year.

As the season winds down, a few candidates in each league have separated themselves from the pack.

American League

The AL crop of players this year could probably include the entire Boston Red Sox lineup and rotation, but John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino have put themselves ahead of the pack.

Former Red Sox Victor Martinez returned to the Tigers after missing all of 2012 – and picked up where he left off with the bat. And of course Mariano Rivera, after missing most of last season, decided to have an elite season on his way into retirement.

After the 2012 season, despite not throwing a single pitch, John Lackey was not a popular man in New England. Saying that Lackey struggled since arriving in Boston (ERAs of 4.40 in 2010 and 6.41 in 2011) would be an understatement. Even factoring in his injury, which ultimately required Tommy John surgery, 2013 was expected to be a return to 2008-2009 Lackey.

That wouldn’t do for the big right hander. Lackey is 9-12 due to bad luck in terms of run support, but his 3.56 ERA is his best mark since 2007. Lackey is striking out batters at a higher rate (7.6 K/9) than any year since 2006 and is issuing walks at the lowest rate (1.9 BB/9) of his career.

Ellsbury entered 2012 with expectations running high. His MVP caliber season the year before looked like his entrance into superstardom. But a fluke shoulder injury resulting from a collision with Reid Brignac altered his season considerably. Even when he took the field, his performance was disappointing.

Turn the calendar to 2013 and Ellsbury was back to his old tricks: he’s leading the league in steals with 52, hitting .299/.355/.424, and playing excellent defense in center field. As a free agent to be, the timing is perfect for him in terms of negotiations. The one thing not going his way: Ellsbury has been sidelined since Sept. 5 with an injured foot.

Shane Victorino looked bad in 2012. His .255/.321/.383 combined performance with the Phillies and Dodgers was the worst of his career. When the Red Sox handed him a 3-year, $39-million deal in the offseason, there were worries that the Sox had signed a free agent after a down year in his early 30s who might not bounce back.

Once again, the Red Sox got everything they expected, and more, from their player. Victorino entered play Tuesday hitting .294/.352/.454 with 21 steals and 14 home runs. He’s missed some time with some small injuries and has been battling a sore hamstring limiting his ability to switch-hit, but it hasn’t slowed him down.

Victor Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera already on the team, looked like he might be the odd man out while fighting for playing time because he would essentially be limited to DH. After a big first year with the Tigers in 2011, .330/.380/.470, it was an open question how Martinez would bounce back.

Through May 31 the former catcher had an OPS under .600. It looked like Martinez would be in store for a disappointing season. He had other plans: a .334/.387/.473 line since June 1 would be enough to raise his batting average to .298 entering play on September 17. In May, a .300 batting average for the season looked unlikely, now, it is within reach.

What can you really say about Mariano Rivera? After missing most of the 2012 season he’s come back for a retirement tour pitching better than many ever do at their peak. His 2.30 ERA is the sixth worst of his career. He made his thirteenth All Star Game. And he has 43 saves. It’s like he didn’t miss any time at all.

National League

The NL has fewer major comeback stories. Some that were expected, like the return of Tim Lincecum, didn’t occur as planned, but there are a couple guys who stand out.

Francisco Liriano has had a strange career. He was dominant during his rookie campaign in 2006, teaming up with Johan Santana at the top of the Twins rotation before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Liriano wasn’t himself again until 2010, but then fell apart in 2011 and 2012.

When he joined the Pirates over the winter it looked like a good depth move for a team looking for veteran innings, and a move to the NL can do wonders for a pitcher. Liriano took that as a challenge and has posted the second best ERA of his career, 2.92, has struck out a batter per inning, and after two years of 5.0 BB/9 has scaled that down to a more reasonable 3.6.

Troy Tulowitzki played in just 47 games in 2012 and wasn’t at his best when he was on the field. Losing a player like Tulo is tough for any team, but for the Rockies, losing half of the very productive Tulo-CarGo tandem was brutal.

Healthy again, Tulowitzki has hit .315/.388/.539 entering September 17. While the Rockies are currently in last place, they are part of essentially a three-way tie for third in the NL West with the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. The speed isn’t there anymore, Tulo has just one steal, 22 home runs by a Gold Glove shortstop is always a nice thing to have.

2014

Looking forward, who might headline this list next year?

Could it be a pair of Angels, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and a third baseman looking to rebuild his value on a one-year deal in Chase Headley? Will an offseason cure C.C. Sabathia of his troubles this season?

It’s tough to predict MVPs ahead of time but Comeback Player of the Year might be just as tough, even with the head start of knowing who performed poorly.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

How Will Jacoby Ellsbury Fare as a Free Agent?

Jacoby Ellsbury made his major league debut on June 30, 2007 to give Terry Francona and the Red Sox some flexibility in center field with a banged up Coco Crisp trying to avoid the disabled list.

The rookie would eventually overtake the veteran, even getting playing time in the Red Sox World Series run. Ellsbury is approaching free agency at the end of this season and his career so far has been a journey of highs, lows, and a few injuries.

How does he compare to the recent crop of elite outfielders?

For Ellsbury’s first three seasons in Boston he was a gifted athlete who sometimes needed more work on his routes, but was a threat on the base paths.

In 331 games from 2007-2009 Ellsbury hit .297/.350/.414 with 129 steals, leading the league in 2008 and 2009 with 50 and 70 steals, respectively.

Mike Cameron was brought in in 2010 to provide veteran insight into the center field position after Coco Crisp was traded, shifting Ellsbury to left, but a collision with Adrian Beltre would limit Ellsbury to just 18 games that year.

In 2011, Ellsbury was back and better than ever: .321/.376/.552 with 39 steals and 32 home runs. After hitting a total of 20 home runs in the major leagues to that point, Ellsbury found his power stroke. He won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and finished second in MVP voting.

With just two years remaining until free agency, Ellsbury looked like a player in his prime who might have just added a new aspect to his already strong game.

Unfortunately 2012 would be another injury-plagued season. In 74 games Ellsbury would hit just .271/.313/.370 with only four home runs and 14 stolen bases. In a season where everything that could go wrong for the Red Sox did, Ellsbury’s injury and step back in performance hurt a bit more.

With just two years remaining until free agency, Ellsbury looked like a player in his prime who might have just added a new aspect to his already strong game.

His 2013 reversed the tide: .299/.355/.424 with a league-leading 52 steals before fouling a ball off his foot and not appearing in a game since Sept. 5. He’s only hit 8 home runs this year, but with 31 doubles and 8 triples, has recovered the value he had outside of his MVP-caliber season in 2011.

As a fast, Gold Glove center fielder and an elite leadoff hitter, Ellsbury, even with an injured foot, is among the premier free agents this fall.

Johnny Damon, to whom Ellsbury has drawn many comparisons, hit free agency at 31 before signing a 4-year, $52 million contract with the New York Yankees.

Until that point in his career, Damon had hit .290/.353/.431 while averaging 12 home runs and 26 steals per year. Ellsbury’s career .297/.350/.438 line compares quite favorably to the sought-after leadoff hitter, and Ellsbury just turned 30 on Sept. 11, so he hits free agency a little earlier.

Of course, salaries for MLB players aren’t exactly what they were in the winter of 2005 when Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees.

B.J. Upton signed a 5-year, $75.25 deal with the Atlanta Braves last year. With the Rays, Upton averaged .255/.336/.422 with 20 homers and 39 steals per year. There were ups and downs: Upton hit over .273 just once and totalled 20 home runs over two full seasons in 2008 and 2009. He posted his best OPS (.894) in 2007 and hasn’t came within 100 points of that mark since.

To make matters worse, Upton has been dreadful this season, hitting under .200 and finding himself on the bench at times even as the Braves cruise to victory in the NL East. Ellsbury hasn’t had the consistent power of Upton, but his skills are more well-rounded and he has never had the low seasons Upton has in his career.

Another center fielder signed this past offseason as well: Michael Bourn. A late signing by the Cleveland Indians, Bourn has been a speed-first player throughout his career. Bourn lead the league in steals three times from 2009-2011 and has averaged 49 steals per season during his career.

Again, Bourn is not a perfect match for Ellsbury because while Ellsbury has maintained a slugging percentage over .400 in three seasons, and .394 in a fourth, Bourn has little power to speak of, slugging just .362 in his eight-year career.

Which brings us to the target Ellsbury and his agent, Scott Boras, will likely try and compare him to: Carl Crawford. Crawford turned 29 in August of 2010, the year he hit free agency, so he was actually a year younger than Ellsbury when he signed a 7-year, $142 million dollar deal with the Red Sox.

The difficulty for Ellsbury in comparing him to Crawford, who was a .296/.337/.444 hitter coming off a career year, comes from the latter’s power and durability.

During his nine years in Tampa Bay, Crawford hit double digit home runs six time, hitting 15 or more on four occasions. While he was known for his speed, stealing at least 46 bases seven times, Crawford also brought some power. Sometimes, as with his triples, his speed and power worked together, letting the left fielder collect double-digit triples five times.

The difficulty for Ellsbury in comparing him to Crawford, who was a .296/.337/.444 hitter coming off a career year, comes from the latter’s power and durability. Crawford played at least 151 games six times in Tampa. Ellsbury has accomplished the feat just twice.

Crawford also has the stigma of being overpaid. When the Red Sox traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, it wasn’t because they were desperate to move their first baseman, but to move what had quickly become a massive overpayment to Crawford.

In a relatively healthy 2013, Crawford has hit .280/.330/.395 with 5 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 108 games. While this production is valuable, the cost of $20 million is not in line with the production.

Ellsbury is an interesting player to hit free agency. He has shown legitimate power, elite speed, the ability to hit for average, defense, and patience, but not all at the same time. Recent free agents like Crawford and Upton have seemed like good signings, only to quickly lose value.

The Red Sox will certainly make Ellsbury the $14 million qualifying offer this winter and may even make a sizeable contract offer to their leadoff hitter.

While Ellsbury has missed time with injuries, he’s had broken bones and collisions take him off the field, not nagging soreness in a hamstring or shoulder, so he might actually be a more durable player going forward who simply has had bad luck.

Depending on how the market reacts to Ellsbury’s career numbers, and whether he is able to make a strong return this season from a broken bone in his foot, will decide how much and for how long the outfielder is signed.

With a low end of Bourn and a high of Crawford, Ellsbury may have a lot of negotiations before he finally chooses his next team.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Ubaldo Jimenez’s Comeback Gives Hope to Cleveland

In 2010 Ubaldo Jimenez made his name in the baseball world with a breakout season. Even more surprising, he was a dominant pitcher on the often pitching-troubled Colorado Rockies.

He was an All-Star, finishing third in NL Cy Young voting, and even picked up a few MVP votes.

The four-year, $10 million (before his options were exercised) deal the Rockies signed their young pitcher to before the start of the 2009 season looked brilliant. Colorado had found the ace who could lead them back to the World Series.

When 2011 began, Jimenez started slow, allowing at least four earned runs in five of his first nine starts after doing so just eight times the previous season. By the trade deadline he was a Cleveland Indian.

In the 2011 and 2012 seasons the former ace had a 5.03 ERA, a falling strikeout rate, and was handing out more walks than earlier in his young career. Instead of taking more steps forward, he was regressing.

2013 started out as more of the same. However, since the All-Star Break, Jimenez has been a different pitcher: 1.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and a 3.35 K/BB ratio. Opposing batters are hitting just .221/.290/.331 against him in the second half. The Indians are just 5-5 in his second-half starts, but by allowing just 16 earned runs in 12 games, Jimenez has given his team a chance to win when he’s taken the mound.

Since the All-Star Break, Jimenez has been a different pitcher: 1.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and a 3.35 K/BB ratio.

The $8 million team option for 2014 looked like a complicated calculation entering this year but now looks like it might be off the table entirely – for different reasons.

As a term of his contract, Ubaldo’s right to void the 2014 team option came into play when he was traded. Rather than make the Indians decide if spending $8 million for one year is a better choice than the $1 million buyout, he can simply elect to be a free agent.

On a one-year deal for $14 million deal, this winter’s qualifying offer level, Jimenez might be welcomed back to Cleveland without hesitation. Should he be seeking more, given that the club added Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher to long-term deals last winter, the price may just be too high.

By rediscovering his ability to strike people out, Jimenez has returned to providing top-of-the-rotation production. There’s a good chance that he is the Indians’ game-one starter in the playoffs.

In the end, the Indians have fared quite well. The prospects sent to Colorado, a package lead by Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, have not fared as well as the player they were traded for. Pomeranz and White have combined for just 57 major league starts in parts of three seasons with a combined ERA over 5.00.

After winning 90 games in 2007 and 92 in 2009, the Rockies have had just one winning season, 2010, in the last four years. With Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez still signed for the long-term, the Rockies can build around their stars. They could even reach out to their former star in the offseason to orchestrate a reunion.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Did the Baltimore Orioles Have a Successful Season?

The Baltimore Orioles won just 69 games in 2011. Thanks in part to a strong bullpen and a breakout season by Adam Jones, the Birds upped their win total to 93 in 2012 and lost the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees in five games.

Coming off the heels of their first postseason berth in more than a decade, Orioles fans were rightly excited for baseball to resume this spring. Would the team build on its 93 wins and second place finish in the AL East? Would the club prove that they were real competitors, not just a flash-in-the-pan aided by a Red Sox team that turned out to be a punching bag?

Bullpen

The Orioles famously went 29-9 in one-run games in 2012, a tremendous feat for any team. Even with a strong bullpen that sort of record is heavily aided by luck. Small victories are difficult to pull off, which is why so many teams build around the closer as the one guy they trust to protect a lead when it counts.

Orioles’ closer, Jim Johnson, saved 51 games last year, leading the league in saves, while Brian Matusz emerged as a weapon out of the bullpen as a lefty specialist. Essentially every move Buck Showalter made with his pitchers worked as well as he could have hoped.

Fast forward a year and Jim Johnson, while still very good, blew 9 saves on his way to a second-straight 50 save season.

Orioles magic in one-run games evaporated. Going 20-31 in one-run games this season, the O’s didn’t have the same type of success as last year. Finishing with an 85-77 record, six games behind the second place Rays, the same number of additional saves blown by Johnson over the 2012 season, and the O’s would have been in the battle royale with the Rays, Rangers, and Indians for the Wild Card.

Rotation

A deep rotation wasn’t a strength of the 2012 team or the 2013 incarnation. Given the margin of their loss, one more good starter could go a long way for the Orioles.

Chris Tillman stepped up in a big way this year throwing over 200 innings of 3.78 ERA baseball. The righty struck out just under eight batters per nine innings and walked three batters per inning. That’s not ace level performance, but over the last few seasons the Orioles have seen Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and others fail to hang on to a rotation spot, so Tillman is a step in the right direction.

Jason Hammel, last year’s rotation leader, posted an ERA just under five in an injury-shortened 2013 season.

Dylan Bundy, the O’s pitching phenom, who made a brief debut down the stretch in 2012, missed the entire season trying to rehab before sucumbing to Tommy John surgery, putting his future in doubt for the 2014 season as well.

Offense

First baseman Chris Davis did everything he possibly could, and more, by putting up a monster season. 53 home runs, 43 doubles, an OPS over 1.000, 103 runs, and 138 RBI set the pace for the former Rangers prospect. It took Davis a few years to get adjusted to the majors, but when he put things together the result was nearly unbelievable. If he can duplicate even eighty percent of this performance in 2014, the Orioles will be back in the mix for a playoff berth.

Manny Machado, who turned 21 in July, had a big first half (.310/.337/.470) followed by a second half slump (.240/.277/.370). While he ended the season with an injury scare, the hope is that the third baseman escaped with a prescription for rest and rehab rather than surgery.

Conclusion

Was this a good season for the Orioles? Probably. With the emergence of Chris Tillman, the power of Chris Davis, the continued presence of Matt Wieters, and only scratching the surface of what Manny Machado can do, Baltimore is in position to continue building.

Had this season come before the breakout of 2012 things would look better for the fans, but this year’s Orioles were better, but not luckier, than last year’s model.

General Manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have breathed new life into a team that sat along the bottom of the standings for too long. The Red Sox and Yankees aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, and the Rays are too well built to ignore, but the Orioles can use the new playoff format to make their push. And with just a little bit of luck, they might be back in the postseason next year.

 Cross-posted at The Sports Post

How the Oakland A’s Vanquished the Texas Rangers and Won the West

On Sunday, the Oakland A’s topped the Minnesota Twins 11-7 for their 93rd win of the season and clinched first place in the AL West for the second year in a row.

For the first time since a run of four straight playoff appearances ended in 2003, the A’s have reached postseason play in back-to-back years.

The Texas Rangers, preseason division favorites for many, lost to the Kansas City Royals, dropping their record to 84-71. After leading the division for a good portion of the year, including Sept. 1, a 5-15 month has put Texas in a battle for the Wild Card. For the second straight season, the Rangers have collapsed down the stretch.

While these two teams did not look evenly matched on April 1, 2013, despite Oakland’s second half push last year, nobody picked the A’s as the superior team on April 1, 2012. With the Rangers following up back-to-back World Series appearances with two straight September collapses, what happened in the AL West to change these team’s fortunes?

Oakland

The Oakland A’s have taken a lot of grief from opposing fans and members of the media over the last decade because of Moneyball. Every time an A’s player doesn’t walk it seems like someone is ready to make a snarky comment.

What’s missing in people’s assessment of the team is that the full title is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Moneyball strategy is a way to combat a low payroll with moves, whatever they may be, that could improve the team for an affordable price.

One tactic used in the book that was repeated in 2012 was trading a closer, in this case Andrew Bailey, for players that were less replaceable. Last year that player was Josh Reddick. Reddick broke out in 2012 with a 32 home run campaign.

Similarly, Brandon Moss, in just 84 games launched 21 homers. Combined with Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes and a solid starting rotation, the A’s were able to outlast the Rangers, taking the division on the last day of the regular season, their only day in first place in 2012.

This year holds a similar story in terms of breakout players: Coco Crisp has broken out for a 22 home run season in 2013 after hitting 27 home runs total during his first three seasons in green and gold.

Josh Donaldson, 2007 first round pick of the Cubs, has hit .307/.388/.510 and looked like one of the best third basemen in the game.

Reddick has battled injuries, but Moss has had another solid season as a 29-year-old picked up as a minor league free agent after the 2011 season.

Bartolo Colon, in the season he turned 40, one year after a suspension for PEDs, has put up and ERA under 3.00 for the first time since 2002. Rookie Dan Straily has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seventeen of his first 26 starts this year. Jarrod Parker, who had a brutal April, has pitched to a 3.09 ERA since the calendar turned to May.

The A’s also found a replacement for Reddick deserving of the breakout player of the year honors: Josh Donaldson. The 2007 first round pick of the Cubs, acquired as part of the return for Rich Harden, has hit .307/.388/.510 and looked like one of the best third basemen in the game.

Playing in the same division as Adrian Beltre, that’s saying something. Donaldson has been especially valuable down the stretch, hitting nearly .400 and getting on base half the time he stepped up to the plate. Five of his 24 home runs have come in September and he has scored 19 times in 20 games, his highest total in any month, through Sunday.

Texas

When Josh Hamilton signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this past winter, the Rangers knew he would be tough to replace. While Hamilton has been a disappointment in LA, the offense he provided during his years in Arlington hasn’t been replaced.

Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, David Murphy, and Mitch Moreland have all taken steps back from their performance in 2012. Jurickson Profar, their top prospect and “break glass in case of emergency” player has not yet made an impact at the major league level hitting just .232/.307/.324 while playing third base and left field in addition to his natural position, shortstop.

Nelson Cruz, in the midst of his best year since 2010, was suspended in August as part of the investigation into Biogenesis, the Miami clinic providing PEDs to ballplayers.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, pitching hasn’t been the answer either: Yu Darvish has been excellent as staff ace, but the rotation behind him has not been as impressive.

Adrian Beltre, of course, has remained excellent, hitting .317/.372/.505 and hitting at least 28 home runs for the fourth straight season. But the offense that lead the league in runs last year and hadn’t placed lower than fourth in runs since 2009, finds itself in seventh place.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, pitching hasn’t been the answer either: Yu Darvish has been excellent as staff ace, but the rotation behind him has not been as impressive. Alexi Ogando has battled injuries and thrown under 100 innings, Matt Harrison made just two starts before missing the season with shoulder troubles, Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch have combined for 34 low-quality starts, and trade acquisition Matt Garza has an ERA approaching 5.00 since being acquired.

Derek Holland has been OK this year, but the Rangers have lost each of his four starts in September, including two games to Oakland and one to Tampa Bay, their competition in the division and for a Wild Card spot.

While Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin may be on the cusp of back-to-back Manager of the Year awards, his counterpart in Texas, Ron Washington could find himself looking for work at the end of the season.

Joe Nathan is having another fine season and heads into the final week of September with 40 saves and an ERA under 2.00. Because he’s the closer and usually saved for games the team is already winning, between Sept. 1 and Sept. 16, Nathan made just two appearances. It’s hard for a pitched to help his team without taking the mound.

Which brings us to what might be a difference maker in the AL West: the managers. While Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin may be on the cusp of back-to-back Manager of the Year awards, his counterpart in Texas, Ron Washington could find himself looking for work at the end of the season.

Washington was at the helm for two World Series losses, and now will have overseen two late-season collapses, managing his team right out of postseason discussion.

The Rangers were just one strike away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series but let the Cardinals come back to win. The year before they ran into the Giants.

Terry Francona had two World Series rings with the Red Sox, helped break the 86-year championship drought, and oversaw one collapse in September 2011 and then was done.

Ron Washington may not have the rings on his hand, he may not have the most talent, and postseason series are not always won by the best team, but to watch his team enter September competing for the division and fall short, he may not have the benefit of the doubt anymore either.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Flashback: Timlin Night

With Mike Timlin taking the mic tonight beside Don Orsillo, it feels like a good time to reflect on the past.

In Faithful, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan followed the Red Sox 2004 season day-by-day, game-by-game. On September 24 of that year, the Sox lost to the New York Yankees.

On September 23, 2004 the Red Sox played the Baltimore Orioles and Terry Francona hard a test that Grady Little had failed just one year prior managing his bullpen:

“Tonight new manager Terry Francona shows his faith by resting the hard-ridden Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke and letting lefty specialist and submariner Mike Myers pitch to a right-handed hitter with bases loaded and the score tied in the eighth.”

Truly a tense moment for Red Sox Nation. The two authors go on:

“Then in the ninth, he lets righty specialist and submariner Byung-Hyun Kim (no, that’s not a typo) pitch to a left-handed batter with two on.”

Of course, the pair allowed four runs and cost the Red Sox the game.

But when Francona, in the next game, against the Yankees, left Pedro Martinez on the mound to start the eighth inning, with a pitch count over one hundred, the big metaphors began to emerge.

He-who-shall-not-be-named-Grady-Little had made a return appearance to the Sox dugout as Hideki Matsui continued his reign of terror against Boston.

O’Nan compares the pitching decision to the Kobayashi Maru; the tactical simulation faced by Captain Kirk and explained in both the 2009 Star Trek movie and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is designed to be an unwinnable. And Terry Francona, knowing exactly how his predecessor had failed just one season earlier, seemed to make the same mistake.

Francona managed his bullpen brilliantly in the playoffs that year and maybe he had his reasons for taking a few risks late in the regular season, but for a few days in late September, in what would become the best year for the Red Sox in generations, there was still doubt.

With the playoffs starting next week, doubters will be back, but which team among the ten will prove the doubters wrong?

john_burkett

Flashback: John Burkett

Ten years ago today (September 19, 2003) the Boston Red Sox played the Cleveland Indians in Jacobs Field. Progressive Insurance was still five year away from buying the naming rights to the stadium, the Indians’ Eric Wedge was in his first season as a manager, and the winning pitcher was John Burkett.

While he didn’t know it at the time, Burkett was making one of his last appearances in the major leagues. No team would step forward to offer a contract to the then 38-year-old right hander.

The Red Sox would be the last of five stops in the career of the veteran pitcher. In 59 starts during the 2002 and 2003 seasons Burkett won 25 games and compiled a 4.85 ERA as the team’s fifth starter. Although he posted a shiny 3.01 ERA and struck out a career-high 20% of batters in 2001, his second of two seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Burkett was still nearly a decade removed from his fourth place finish in Cy Young voting for his work in the 1993 season.

Burkett would pitch two times in the Red Sox 2003 playoff run: once against the Oakland A’s and once against the New York Yankees. He held the A’s to four runs in 5.1 innings, which was enough for the Boston bats to overcome. In Yankee Stadium, Burkett started Game 6 of the ALCS and lasted just 3.2 innings while surrendering five runs, though only three were earned. The Red Sox would win that game, tying the series at three and giving Pedro Martinez the chance to send the Sox to the World Series with a victory in the final game.

That his career ended with the Red Sox is somewhat interesting in it’s own right because of a trade that took place in August of 1996. The Marlins traded Burkett for a young pitcher on the Texas Rangers, a guy in the A level South Atlantic League named Ryan Dempster. Still just 19 years old, Dempster wouldn’t make his debut in the majors for two more years.

What did he do after baseball? Bowling, of course. And it turns out he’s pretty good, just as the Nike commercial featuring Randy Johnson as a ten-pin pro would have you believe.

Billy Hamilton Excites Us About Stolen Bases Again

Unlike nearly any other sport, an individual baseball game can be broken down into individual moments, isolated from some events during the game and connected with others.

On the offensive side of the game, two outcomes stand out above all others: home runs and stolen bases. This week the Cincinnati Reds called up Billy Hamilton to much fanfare.

Hamilton was Keith Law’s 30th ranked prospect this spring but failed to crack his midseason Top 50. So why are people excited? Because, without exaggeration, Hamilton has game-changing speed.

Sharing his name with a Hall of Famer who had four 100 steal seasons, the Cincinnati Reds incarnation of Billy Hamilton might just be the fastest player in a baseball uniform anywhere.

In his first full minor league season in 2011, with the Midwest League Dayton Dragons, Hamilton stole 103 bases in 135 games. He followed this up with 155 steals over two levels in 2012, including stealing 51 bases in 50 games at Double A against more advanced competition.

Hamilton was so fast that there was enough speculation the team might call him up for the playoff roster in 2012 that GM Walt Jocketty quashed the rumors. After losing to the Giants in five games in the NLDS, one game by one run, another by two runs, maybe that was a mistake.

In 2013 the Reds are rectifying that decision. After stealing “just” 75 bases at Triple A, a September promotion was in order. Since calling up Hamilton last week, the center fielder has appeared in four games, each time as a pinch runner. Each time he has stolen a base. Three times he scored a run.

The Reds are making a charge to secure a place in the playoffs and have added perhaps the best player for tactical use in years.

Stealing bases isn’t just about the runner, it’s about the pitcher on the mound and about the catcher behind the plate. Among catchers, the Molina family is a trio of living legends. Yadier Molina, the youngest, and possibly the best, has thrown out 44% of attempted base stealers in his career, leading the league in this measure three times. Hamilton stole his first two bases against him.

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who has thrown out 43% of runners this year, was the victim of stolen bases number three and four.

Different pitchers, different catchers, and everyone in the ballpark knowing Hamilton was summoned into the game for one purpose and he hasn’t been caught.

Reds fans around the country can surely envision Hamilton playing the role of Dave Roberts during the Red Sox memorable comeback against the Yankees during the 2004 ALCS. If Cincinnati can make it into the playoffs, Hamilton could be the difference maker they lacked in 2012. Already the Reds may have won an extra game that the Hamilton-less club, while remarkably talented, wouldn’t have been able to pull off.

Baseball lore speaks highly about runners getting into the minds of the pitchers and fielders. Reds manager Dusty Baker can now exploit this to the maximum level with Hamilton. Whenever Hamilton enters the game, the focus will be on first base. Could Baker call for a steal of home by another player already on third base? If Hamilton himself is on third, will he employ the squeeze play?

The Reds are making a charge to secure a place in the playoffs and have added perhaps the best player for tactical use in years. David Price emerged as a dominant relief pitcher for the Rays run to the World Series in 2008 and, now a Cy Young winner, has shown himself to be pretty good. Hamilton may never be an MVP candidate, but his speed could supply the winning run that keeps the Reds alive at a critical moment.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

The Long Odds of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Playoff Path

Entering play on Sept. 4, the Arizona Diamondbacks were 12.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the lead in the NL West, and 8 games back in the race for a Wild Card spot.

Entering July, the Diamondbacks led their division by 1.5 games over the Colorado Rockies, and as of July 21 still had a .5 game lead on the Dodgers. As LA stormed through every team in their path, that lead vanished.

But is there still hope for the Snakes in baseball’s final month?

First, the Diamondbacks have seven games remaining against the Dodgers, four of which are at home. In 2013 Arizona has gone 7-5 against their rival, although their last win was on June 12, before the Dodgers awoke as a powerhouse.

The Dodgers swept a three-game series in Arizona in July. Most likely the Diamondbacks would need to sweep the remaining games, which, while unlikely, is possible, especially if they can avoid Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

Arizona also has an MVP contender in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. After a 2012 that saw him hit .286/.359/.490 with 20 home runs, the 25-year old took his game up a level to .295/.399/.540 with 31 homers through the first five months of the season.

When the team traded Justin Upton over the winter many people wondered who would become the focal point of the offense. Goldschmidt has left little doubt that he is the best player on a team that, without the explosive second half of LA, would be firmly in the playoff chase despite trading sometimes superstar in Upton.

The player Arizona got in return from the Braves for Upton, Martin Prado, had a rough transition to the West Coast. On June 11 the third baseman was hitting just .244/.292/.333 with a .626 OPS. Prado signed a 4-year, $40 million contract extension after he was acquired and was playing as bad as at any point in his career. It looked like Upton, who had exploded out of the gate in April, was going to make the trade look foolish for his old club.

Since that day in June, in a loss to the Dodgers, Prado has turned things around. Hitting .333/.386/.519, Prado is playing more like the player Kevin Towers thought he traded for. After just multi-hit games through the 65-game stretch ending June 11, Prado has collected 28 multi-hit games in his 67 games since. He has 9 home runs, 20 doubles, 25 walks since his low point as opposed to 4 homers , 11 doubles, and 17 walks.

The Diamondbacks place in the standings doesn’t look good, but Prado has been a different player since the middle of June and a strong September can’t hurt the chances of a comeback.

Aaron Hill has been a player of two seasons for Arizona as well, but for a different reason: health. Hill played in just 10 games in April before injuring his hand and missing all of May and the first 24 days of June. His absence left a gaping hole at second base and kept the Diamondbacks from having their projected lineup on the field for nearly the entire first half of the season.

Since his return on June 25, Hill has done nothing but hit: .309/.377/.502. Considering that Robinson Cano’s season line stands at .305/.383/.508 and the Yankee second baseman is expected to sign a massive contract this winter, what Hill has done since his return to the lineup is nothing short of remarkable.

Playoff baseball may not be returning to Phoenix this fall, but Goldschmidt, Prado, and Hill are doing everything they can to make it happen.

If the Diamondbacks can put together an epic run, like the 2007 Rockies 21-win September, sweeping the Dodgers in the process, maybe they can find a way to change their fate. It won’t be easy, but September baseball isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

Yankee Offseason: Is A $300 Million Payroll Possible?

The number 300 has a special meaning in baseball. 300 wins is the traditional Hall of Fame measure for a starting pitcher. Striking out 300 batters in a season hasn’t been done since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002. The other men on that list include Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, and Sandy Kofax.

A .300 batting average is the goal of nearly every hitter. $300 million is the next payroll threshold for major league teams to cross, and the Yankees could make a run at payroll history once again.

While there has been talk since early last year about the Yankees cutting payroll to under $189 million for the 2014 season to escape the luxury tax, the plan is not set in stone. In fact, the benefits to staying under the luxury tax threshold may be less than previously thought. The Bronx Bombers are unlikely to make the playoffs in 2013, will lose Mariano Rivera at the end of the season, and have to deal with Alex Rodriguez and a spectacle that could continue through the end of the third baseman’s tenure in New York.

The last time the Yankees missed the playoffs, in 2008, a spending spree ensued, bringing A.J. Burnett, C.C. Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira to New York.

With Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and three-fifths of the starting rotation eligible for free agency this winter, a quick rebuild for Derek Jeter’s potential farewell tour in 2014 may be in the cards.

According to Cot’s Contracts at Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees have just $89 million committed in 2014, not including arbitration-eligible players. This may sound reasonable when thinking about $100 million in salary room to fill out the roster until you realize that nearly $90 million only pays for seven players: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, and Vernon Wells.

Players like Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova, and David Robertson will likely be around in 2014 as well, but since even doubling Gardner’s $2.85 million salary in 2013 is a far cry from the large contracts, this piece will evaluate the stars to see how a rebuilding may get close to a $300 million target.

Catcher

The Yankees took heat right away in the winter of 2012 as Russell Martin left for the fair pastures of Pittsburgh and the Yankees decided to go with a catching platoon of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. The two big free agent catchers this year: Brian McCann of the Atlanta Braves and Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox.

McCann has rebounded in a big way from a disappointing 2012 (.230/.300/.399) with a .270/.342/.498 line and 18 home runs in just 81 games after hitting 20 in 121 games last year. McCann is in the final year of a seven-year, $41.3 million deal and would probably warrant a qualifying offer, this year set at $14 million.

According to FanGraphs, the Braves’ catcher has been worth about $13.1 million so far this season, putting a multiyear deal of at least $14 million a year well within the realm of possibility. Combined with the fact that catchers are always in demand and the Phillies, among others, will be looking, it makes McCann a good buy-high opportunity for New York’s purposes.

Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia could represent a bargain for the Yankees should the Sox decide to move on from his services. Salty never became the superstar he looked like after a 2007 Double A season when he hit .309/.404/.617, but four years in Boston as a .240/.306/.451 hitter is a pretty good return when comparing him to other starters at the position.

His patience has taken great strides this season, his OBP is sitting at .341 in August 28, after back-to-back .288 marks in 2011 and 2012. Interestingly, FanGraphs values Salty at $13.1 million this season, the same as Brian McCann.

The Red Sox do have some young catchers on the farm, and Saltalamacchia is earning just $4.5 million, so he may avoid being offered a qualifying offer, and likely will be cheaper than McCann regardless of where he signs.

Contract guess: $15 million per year with McCann

Second Base

This one is a no-brainer: the Yankees must re-sign Robinson Cano. In a lost season for the Yankees, Cano has hit .305/.385/.506, right in line with his career (.308/.355/.503) and has been the rock in the offense diminished lineup.

He’s played in at least 159 games every year since 2007 and has appeared in five All-Star Games. Cano doesn’t have much speed, but he’s hit at least 24 home runs in each of the last five seasons.

Cano is the number one free agent this year according to MLBTraderumors and now being represented by Jay-Z’s agency, will look to exceed the $110 million contract extension signed by Dustin Pedroia.

Cano is definitely worth the $14 million qualifying offer and will likely be looking at a minumum of $25 million per year wherever he signs. While the Dodgers are supposedly downplaying their interest, teams on both coasts could get in on the bidding.

Contract guess: $27 million per year

Outfield

Curtis Granderson, finishing a six-year, $42.5 million contract originally signed with the Detroit Tigers, has battled injuries in 2013, but played in 136, 156, and 160 games with the Yankees from 2010-2012. The left handed slugger hit 43 home runs last year and 41 the year before.

Previously a center fielder, Granderson has split his time almost evenly this season among all three outfield spots, while also serving as designated hitter in a quarter of his games. Granderson’s stolen base numbers have fluctuated between the low double digits and mid-twenties every season since 2007 but he has swiped seven bags already, despite a short season.

However, while Granderson may be a decent bet to receive a qualifying offer, with so many outfielders under control, the Yankees may pass to sign Jacoby Ellsbury. The Red Sox center fielder hasn’t hit for the type of power he did in 2011, when he launched 32 home runs and 46 doubles, but with seven long balls and 47 steals, he’s on his way to another productive season anyway.

Missing large parts of the 2010 and 2012 seasons make it difficult to remember how good Ellsbury has been, averaging a .297/.350/.438 line in his career as a leadoff hitter for one of the best offenses of the past decade.

Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated thinks that Ellsbury is “a tremendously valuable player, and 5 years, $75-million is probably the buy-in for a guy like that … With Jackie Bradley Jr. not having a huge season at Pawtucket … I think the Red Sox will be big players here.”

This would be similar to the contract received by B.J. Upton from the Atlanta Braves last winter. Upton of course has been a flop in Atlanta, hitting well under .200 with just 8 home runs after hitting more than 20 each of the past two years and 18 the season before that.

Contract guess for Ellsbury: $18 million per year

Starting pitchers

The Yankees have three starting pitchers hitting the market this year: Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and Phil Hughes. Maybe Kuroda and Pettitte will return for one more season, but both pitchers are likely nearing the end of the line.

But bringing back two aging stars for short money isn’t the Steinbrenner way.

Target one: Matt Garza. Garza had a good run with the Tampa Bay Rays and a nice start with the Chicago Cubs before catching the injury bug. From 2008 to 2011 Garza stayed around the 200 inning mark, had an ERA between 3.32 and 3.95 and approached a strikeout per inning.

During those seasons he never started fewer than 30 games. Garza followed up in 2012 by starting just 18 games and after spending some time on the DL in 2013, has started 18 games between his time with the Cubs and Texas Rangers.

Proving that he can still cut it in the AL, Garza should be in for a nice payday. John Lackey’s five-year, $82.5 million deal could be the starting point as Garza will be signing his deal at a slightly younger age.

Target two: Ervin Santana. Traded by the Angels to Kansas City in the offseason as part of a move to clear salary to sign Zack Greinke, who ended up with the Dodgers, Santana is the second big pitcher this offseason.

Likely too expensive for Kansas City to retain, Santana has four 200-inning seasons under his belt and will come close to that mark this year. His ERA has fluctuated in the past, but his career mark is 4.21 and his career WHIP is a respectable 1.29. His price will likely look similar to Garza’s.

Target three: Ricky Nolasco. The mercurial right hander has been all over the place in his career performance wise. He’s started at least 30 games four times, and is just two away this season, had an ERA under 4.00 only once before 2013, and a 3.51 K/BB rate.

After seeing his strikeouts fall for three seasons after 2009, Nolasco has rebounded in this aspect of his game in 2013. Being on the Dodgers could help or hurt his salary negotiations.

On the one hand, the Dodgers have shown they are willing to spend, which could start a bidding war, but he’s behind Clayton Kershaw and Greinke in the rotation and the Dodgers want to sign their young lefty before he hits the market, which could put pressure on total spending for pitching in LA.

Unlikely to sign with the Yankees: A.J. Burnett. However, the team did bring back Javier Vazquez for a second tour of duty after a disappointing first time around, so anything is possible.

Contract guess for Garza: $18 million per year

Contract guess for Santana: $17 million per year

Contract guess for Nolasco: $15 million per year

A wildcard for the Yankees would be Tim Lincecum. He could come over the American League as a starter, although his struggles the past two seasons could make him more tempting as a reliever, perhaps even as relief ace who could pick up the mantle from Mariano Rivera.

What do you pay a two-time Cy Young winner converting to the bullpen at 29? He’s coming off a 2-year $40.5 million deal so maybe a deal along the lines of Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million deal, regardless of whether he starts of relieves.

Contract guess for Lincecum: $13 million per year

Third Base

Regardless of whether he misses the entire season or just part of the season, Alex Rodriguez is unlikely to play 162 games for the Yankees next year.

Aramis Ramirez of the Milwaukee Brewers is under contract for one more year at $16 million, with a mutual option for 2015. Given the Brewers fall from competitiveness, this could be a classic Yankee trade of absorbing a contract in a trade for a prospect of limited value.

As a right handed hitter he won’t benefit from Yankee stadium as much as a lefty, but when he’s on the field he still hits for power and average while getting on base at a .360 clip the last three seasons.

Contract for 2014: $16 million

Where We Stand

In this experiment the Yankees begin 2014 with seven players under contract for $89 million. We’ve retained Robinson Cano and added a catcher, at least one outfielder, a third baseman, three starters, and a relief ace or potential upgrade on current fifth starter Ivan Nova.

The additions are worth $139 million next year, putting the Yankees at $228 for fifteen players. That leaves ten roster spots left to fill. Will that cost $72 million dollars? Probably not, but that doesn’t take away from what could be another offseason sweep of the free agent market.

Should the club choose to retain Granderson or add Shin-Soo Choo and trade Ichiro or Gardner, that could add a few million to the total as well.

Whether the Yankees will try to save money or remind the Dodgers who the big spender in baseball really is remains up for debate.

But if you believe the team retains Cano, the rest of the signings aren’t unreasonable for a club with the sort of money the Yankees have to spend in any given offseason. After all, we saw this type of offseason rebuild from the Yankees in 2008.

Cross posted at The Sports Post