Friday, December 11, 2009

Backdoor Slider Managers & Teams of the Decade

We've already covered the best position players and pitchers of the Aughts. Today, we're going to run down the finest managers and teams the last ten seasons have offered. I don't have any specific criteria for my managers list. For the teams list, I'm considering only single seasons and those teams had to win the World Series (apologies to the '01 Mariners). Let's begin with the managers list:

5. Bobby Cox - Atlanta ('00-'09) 6x N.L. East Champs - N.L. Manager of the Year in '04, '05 - Record: 892-727 (.550)

Sure, the '90s were really the Braves' decade, only one Atlanta team made it past the NLDS in the last 10 years ('01), and the run of 14 straight division titles ending after '05 with the Braves rising no higher than 3rd place since. But six of those 14 division titles came during this decade when Cox and GM John Schuerholz were still outclassing so much of the National League. Cox still represents the old school, a no-nonsense guy who manages to command both respect and love from younger players and veterans alike. Is it any wonder why guys like Chipper Jones and John Smoltz stayed with Atlanta for so long? They loved Cox, and Smoltz only left because the front office pushed him aside. Part of that love comes from his willingness to stand up for his players. In '07 he passed John McGraw for first in all-time ejections, and unlike McGraw, Cox isn't a jerk. At the very least, Cox has always been entertaining, but players have fed off that intensity for 28 years. Sitting fourth all-time in managerial wins, Cox turns 70 next year and has pledged that '10 will be his last season. It won't be just Braves fans that will miss him.

4. Mike Scioscia - L.A. Angels ('00-'09) '02 World Series Champ, 5x A.L. West Champ, 1x A.L. Wild Card Champ - A.L. Manager of the Year in '02, '09 - Record: 900-720 (.556)

The Angels spent the last few years of the '90s mired in Terry Collins-led mediocrity but the franchise turned over a new leaf with Scioscia, the former All-Star Dodgers catcher, at the dawn of a new decade. In two rebuilding seasons Scioscia completely reinvented the Angels from also-rans into a perennial A.L. force. Behind the awesome power of the Rally Monkey, the Angels rallied their way to the World Series title in '02, and Scoiscia has taken them back to the playoffs five more times since with a rotating cast of players. GMs Bill Stoneham and Tony Reagins have constantly tried to supply Scioscia with the type of players he craves: versatile, fundamentally-sound ones who can grind out 2-1 and 3-2 victories, with the occasional power presence like Vlad Guerrero and Mark Teixeira thrown in. It's always been said that Scioscia prefers a N.L.-style team, but the truth is Scioscia just wants players that know how to win. More often than not, they have. Considering Scioscia is signed through 2018, the Angels are in his sure hands for years to come.

3. Tony La Russa - St. Louis ('00-'09) '06 World Series Champ, '04 N.L. Champ, 6x N.L. Central Champ, 1x N.L. Wild Card Champ - N.L. Manager of the Year in '02 - Record: 913-706 (.564)

When La Russa took an 83-win Cardinals team to a World Series title in '06, it was perhaps the greatest accomplishment in a career littered with milestones. Just ahead of Cox on the all-time wins list, La Russa won his second World Series 15 years after his first, and joined Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win a ring in both leagues. La Russa's enjoyed so much consistent success despite all kinds of changes to the Cardinals roster. Of course, having someone as good as Albert Pujols makes any manager look good. But the hallmark of St. Louis during the La Russa era has been pitching, and much of the credit goes to pitching coach Dave Duncan, who's worked with La Russa since 1983. From the late Darryl Kile through Adam Wainwright, the seven Cardinals playoff teams were driven by pitching and La Russa's creative bullpen configurations. He's not always easy to get along with (just ask Scott Rolen), but any player knows they'll win under La Russa's leadership.

2. Terry Francona - Philadelphia ('00), Boston ('04-'09) '04 and '07 World Series Champs, 4x Wild Card Champ, 1x A.L. East Champ - Record w/Philadelphia: 65-97 (.440), w/Boston: 565-407 (.581)

Not unlike his New England coaching counterpart Bill Belichick, Francona needed to fail before he could succeed. Tito never won more than 77 games in four Philadelphia seasons and was run out of town on a rail in '00. Then came a year in the Cleveland front office, and a year each coaching in Texas and Oakland. Theo Epstein gave Grady Little the heave-ho after '03, and Francona blew the Boston brass away with his interview. Here was a forward-thinking baseball man respected throughout the industry that just needed a chance to succeed. To say Tito's "succeeded" is an understatement. Besides '06, when a talented team was decimated by injuries, the Red Sox earned a playoff spot every season of Francona's tenure. When the chips were down against the Yankees in '04, and when things looked grim against the Indians in '07, he didn't allow his players to give up. He was rewarded both times with eventual World Series sweeps, making him the only manager to win multiple titles in the Aughts. Could I have imagined the Red Sox would have this kind of success when Francona was hired? Probably not. But he's become the best manager in franchise history due to his perfect mix of attributes (calmness, intellect, astute and clear handling of the media, warmth and dedication toward his players) at a time when the front office gave him the game's best talent. A lesser man certainly could have screwed all that up. But not Terry Francona. I hope he manages this team until the day he dies.

1. Joe Torre - N.Y. Yankees ('00-'07), L.A. Dodgers ('08-'09) '00 World Series Champs, '01 & '03 A.L. Champ, 7x A.L. East Champ, 1x A.L. Wild Card Champ, 2x N.L. West Champ - Record w/New York: 773-519 (.598), w/Los Angeles: 179-145 (.552)

The no. 1 manager of the Aughts was also the no. 1 reason why, as a Red Sox fan, it was always so hard to hate the Yankees this decade and most of the last. The Yankees were so often a likable, professional, classy bunch and it began with the most likable, professional, and classy of them all in Joe Torre. Always so grateful in victory, always so graceful in defeat. He was seldom confrontational with anyone, and never looked to start problems. Torre just wanted to win, and do it the right way, and win he did. Teams managed by Torre have made the postseason every year starting in '96, a mind-boggling reality only matched by Cox's 14 straight division titles. Like Francona, he's been blessed with amazing teams. But in the pressure-cookers of New York and Los Angeles, Torre has consistently managed personalities at Phil Jackson-level while commanding respect and an adherence to winning, team-oriented attitudes. It's a testament to his longevity and an undying love for the game. Never a fantastic manager before coming to New York, he survived the wrath of George Steinbrenner longer than anyone, which is no small feat. In L.A. he's presided over a wonderful mix of veterans and youngsters, not to mention Mannywood. With the franchise in turmoil, no one knows how much longer Torre will be around. L.A. is probably his last stop, and he'll deserve every ounce of praise when he retires. He's become the best manager of my lifetime, without a doubt.

Before I get to the teams of the decade, you will notice none of them are N.L. teams. I've railed against the N.L. many times on this blog, but know that A.L. teams won six of the last 10 championships and none of the N.L. teams won more than 92 regular season games. Had the 105-win '04 Cardinals not run into the Red Sox they certainly would be here, and the '07 comeback Rockies were close. I tried to combine regular season and postseason factors here, and the five best A.L. teams were better than any N.L. club. On to the list:

5. 2002 Anaheim Angels - regular season: 99-63, A.L. Wild Card Champs by 6 games - ALDS: 3-1 over NYY - ALCS: 4-1 over MIN - WS: 4-3 over SFG (11-5 postseason record)

Sometimes all you need are some new uniforms, a new manager and some faith. As I mentioned above, Mike Scioscia was in his third season reforming the Angels when all the sudden they were a force to be reckoned with in the A.L. Vets like Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad and lifelong Angel Tim Salmon shined for this club while 25-year-old Troy Glaus provided all the pop they needed. In the rotation, Ramon "Mini-Pedro" Ortiz, Jarrod Washburn and Kevin Appier earned sub-4 ERAs. On June 24, a 23-year-old from Abilene, Texas named John Lackey made his Major League debut and carried the Angels the remainder of the season, going 9-4 with a 3.66 ERA. At the back end was Troy Percival, the fearsome, herky-jerky closer with a 1.92 ERA and 40 saves during the regular season. This was a fun bunch, personified by grinders like Erstad, David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. Fans came to games armed with those annoying ThunderStix and went wild with every Rally Monkey appearance on the scoreboard. The team rolled through the A.L. playoffs, and a 20-year-old bespectacled Francisco Rodriguez came out of nowhere to dominate hitters with that ungodly curveball. Only Barry Bonds and the Giants stood in their way, and an epic series ensued. Three of the first four games were decided by one run before San Fran issued a 16-4 beatdown in Game 5, and all seemed lost with the Giants up by five late in Game 6. But the power of the Rally Monkey prevailed, the Halos scored six unanswered runs and captured the first World Series title in franchise history the next night. Glaus took home MVP honors by clubbing three homers with a 1.313 OPS in the series, while Lackey became the first rookie starter to win a World Series Game 7 in 93 years. Thus began the decade of success for the Angels, but they haven't reached the heights of '02 since.

4. 2007 Boston Red Sox - regular season: 96-66, A.L. East Champs by 2 games - ALDS: 3-0 over LAA - ALCS: 4-3 over CLE - WS: 4-0 over COL (11-3 playoff record)

This wasn't the same team that won it all in '04, not by a long shot. During the course of '05 and '06, Theo Epstein jettisoned many aging members of the '04 squad and infused the Red Sox with young draftees and hungry veterans from both sides of the Pacific. The '06 season ended in a bitter malaise of injuries, so armed with new blood like Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, Hideki Okajima and Julio Lugo, the Red Sox set out for something better. Dustin Pedroia struggled so much those first two months, but Francona stuck with him, and he wound up Rookie of the Year. Mike Lowell experienced a career renaissance, batting .324 and playing sterling defense at third base as the true team MVP of the Sox that year. Coming off a 54-dinger season, David Ortiz had to settle for 35 with a 1.066 OPS while still at the zenith of his hitting prowess. Josh Beckett bounced back from inconsistency in '06 to blow away everyone in his path in '07, evolving into a true ace with 20 victories, a 3.27 ERA and 194 strikeouts in 200 innings while anchoring a staff with a league-best 3.87 ERA. Jonathan Papelbon allowed just 12 earned runs all season and secured his spot as the game's best closer. In the playoffs the Red Sox found themselves in familiar territory, down 3-1 in the ALCS to the Indians. But Beckett lifted them up in Game 5, and Drew, who'd experienced a terrible first season in Boston both professionally and personally, crushed that grand slam early in Game 6 off Fausto Carmona. They feasted on the bad Cleveland bullpen in Game 7, and then swept the Rockies for the crown. It was never easy with the '07 Sox, as so many players battled injuries, ineffectiveness and expectations, but they stood tall once again. The best moment came when Jon Lester, who'd been diagnosed with lymphoma just a year before, pitched the Red Sox to victory in the clinching Series game.

3. 2009 New York Yankees - regular season: 103-59, A.L. East Champs by 8 games - ALDS: 3-0 over MIN - ALCS: 4-2 over LAA - WS: 4-2 over PHI (11-4 playoff record)

So far, each team on this list had to overcome some type of disappointment the previous season to prevail with a World Series title. For the Yankees, '08 was Joe Girardi's first year at the helm and an older Yankees squad experienced their fair share of injuries, missing the playoffs for the first time since the strike. In an winter of down contracts, GM Brian Cashman spent like a drunken sailor, but spent it on all the right guys for a change, bringing in CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.37 ERA in 230 innings), A.J. Burnett (13-9, 4.04 ERA in 207 innings) and Mark Teixeira (39 HR, 122 RBI, .948 OPS). The '09 season was far from a cakewalk for the Yankees; they stumbled out of the gate, Alex Rodriguez dealt with drama after drama, they lacked a fifth starter for the entire season and strong options in front of Mariano Rivera until Phil Hughes was converted to a full-time reliever. But they hit their stride in the summer, and a new, hitter-friendly park spurred an offense that ranked first in the A.L. in hits, runs, homers, OBP and OPS. Girardi employed a three-man rotation in the playoffs that somehow worked despite facing the Phillies and Angels, the second- and third-best teams of '09. Late in World Series Game 4, when it appeared the Phillies would rally to tie the series, Johnny Damon stole second off Brad Lidge and then stole third when he noticed no one was covering the base in the over-shifted infield. Lidge imploded, the Yankees prevailed, then took the title in six games. Unlike every Yankees team since '01, this was an amusing, loose group that captivated fans far outside the Bronx. Hell, even A-Rod finally had a good time, and it showed with his clutch playoff performance. Despite some deficiencies in pitching and a manger who often looked overmatched, this was the finest Yankees team since their '98 juggernaut. With that said, I will now take a kerosene bath and bring my Zippo with me.

2. 2005 Chicago White Sox - regular season: 99-63, A.L. Central Champs by 6 games - ALDS: 3-0 over BOS - ALCS: 4-1 over LAA - WS: 4-0 over HOU (11-1 postseason record)

The baseball gods were smiling upon long-downtrodden teams in the middle of this decade. The Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years in '04, and a year later, the White Sox and their fans were blessed with a championship club for the first time since 1917. They'd sucked for most of their history, yet for the entirety of the '05 season these South Side warriors were the team to beat, and few could. Fiery Ozzie Guillen was in his sophomore season as White Sox manager and while his ubiquitous personality made waves off the field, the players did most of their talking on it. Paul Konerko hit 40 homers and Jermaine Dye 31, while leadoff man Scott Podsednik swiped 59 bags. Podsednik and center fielder Aaron Rowand tracked down each fly ball with reckless abandon for an excellent defensive group. While they may have represented the end of an era for great MLB teams on the offensive side (they were just 11th in the A.L. in team OBP at .322, adopting what Guillen called a "smart ball" approach), their pitching was undeniably awesome. Their top four starters (Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras) all made either 32 or 33 stars, all had ERAs under 4, and only Contreras exceeded 60 walks. Longtime starter Dustin Hermanson was converted to closer, notching 34 saves with a 2.04 ERA before injuring his back in September and losing his job to 24-year-old flamethrower Bobby Jenks. The staff dominated October, most impressively in the ALCS. Outside of 2/3 innings by Neal Cotts to finish the Game 1 loss to the Angels (the team's only postseason defeat), the four aforementioned starters pitched the entirety of the series, all four victories coming on complete games. In the Series against Houston, Podsednik blasted the Game 2 walkoff (he hit no homers during the season), Geoff Blum provided the heroics in the epic 14-inning Game 3, and in perfect '05 White Sox fashion, Juan Uribe made a fantastic play up the middle to finish off the sweep in Game 4. Cubs fans everywhere are still shaking their heads.

1. 2004 Boston Red Sox - regular season: 98-64, A.L. Wild Card Champs by six games - ALDS: 3-0 over ANA - ALCS: 4-3 over NYY - WS: 4-0 over STL (11-3 postseason record)

Hard to believe it's been five years, huh? Of the 25 members of the '04 World Series roster, only Ortiz, Tim Wakefield and Jason Varitek remain in Boston, and by '11 even they'll probably be gone. But, no matter how much they may have angered Red Sox fans after the fact, all 25 were part of the most amazing sports story of my lifetime, an iconic piece of American history and the greatest baseball team of the last 10 years. That story begins in October '03, when Grady left Pedro in too long and Aaron Bleepin' Boone took the Yankees to the World Series, leading to another winter of discontent. Theo Epstein got to work, spent Thanksgiving with the Schillings and returned home with his ace. The '03 Sox lacked a closer, so in came Keith Foulke, who'd wind up tossing a whopping 83 regular season innings with a 2.17 ERA. Alex Rodriguez nearly hopped aboard, but went to New York instead. Nonetheless, Boston was an offensive powerhouse, leading the A.L. in runs, average, OBP and OPS, with Ortiz and Manny Ramirez each topping 40 HR and 130 RBI. The starting pitching quintet of Schilling, Martinez, Wakefield, Derek Lowe and Bronson Arroyo started all but five games in both the regular season and the playoffs. Just reaching the playoffs was a concern for much of the season's first half. We all remember the Vartiek-Rodriguez brawl, but the sea change came a week later when Epstein bravely dealt franchise hero Nomar Garciaparra for veterans Orlando Cabrera, Doug Mientkiewicz and Dave Roberts. Sitting at 56-47 on August 1, the revamped Red Sox went 42-18 the rest of the way. They gelled unlike any other Red Sox team, unifying behind free spirits like Ramirez, Cabrera, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar. I was at Fenway on a misty August night when an injury to Mark Bellhorn forced Mientkiewicz to play second base for just the second time in his career. He didn't complain, and the Red Sox still won, 8-4. It was the best time to ever be a Red Sox fan, and it would only get better. Ortiz walked-off the Angels series with a Game 3, 10th-inning blast over the Monster. For the second straight year, the Yankees were waiting in the ALCS. Everyone knew it was over after the 19-8 Game 3 demolishing. Everyone, except the Red Sox, and specifically Millar, who was telling everyone who wanted (or didn't want) to listen that New York couldn't let them win Game 4. Roberts swiped second off Rivera in the ninth, Bill Mueller brought him home, and then Ortiz found the bullpen in the 12th. You know the rest; Papi broke his bat in the 14th in Game 5 to keep it going, Schilling's bloody sock made its debut in Game 6, then Damon hit two blasts and Lowe, who wasn't supposed to start in the playoffs, pitched to victory in Game 7, capping the greatest comeback in sports history. Yet there was still one mountain left to climb. The '04 Cardinals were a force, a 105-win behemoth with no weaknesses. That was until the World Series, however. Only Albert Pujols, Edgar Renteria and Larry Walker proved they had a pulse. In the final three games, Sox pitchers allowed three runs, and when Damon went deep in the first inning of Game 4, it might as well have been a grand slam, because that's what it felt like. Foulke, who allowed one run in 14 postseason innings (and never pitched anything like that again), fielded a Renteria grounder and the '04 Red Sox passed into legend. What the Red Sox accomplished went so far beyond winning eight straight October games and breaking an 86-year string of disappointment. They untied an entire region, captivated an entire country and accomplished a comeback that will be talked about for generations to come. How could something like this happen? How could 25 guys who play a game so deeply affect millions who will never meet them? How could one of their most prominent fans write a book called "Now I Can Die In Peace" and nobody thought he was exaggerating? It's probably because baseball always meant a little too much to the people of New England, caused in part by a rampant desire to shake the Curse. Couple that with a skilled, exceedingly likable team, and the recipe for baseball romance was in place. For once, the Red Sox had a team that knew how to win, didn't feel sorry for itself down 3-0 against the Yankees, and refused to let up until the trophy was theirs. They were, more than anything, a team, in every sense, down to the very end. The '04 Red Sox didn't stay together past that final out and the ensuing duckboat ride. But trust me. There's no way the '04 Red Sox can ever die.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Winter Meetings Wonderland

I'll take a break from my end-of-decade posts to update on some hot stove happenings. The Winter Meetings, that annual rite of the snowy offseason, start today in Indianapolis. As much as I love the excitement of baseball talk dominating the airwaves in December, lots of times the Winter Meetings are a bunch of sizzle without any steak.

Two years ago, rumors were flying in every possible direction about Johan Santana, and some were even reporting a deal with Boston was just about done. It didn't happen, and it was another two months before Santana relocated to Queens. The groundwork is often laid for big deals, but big action often waits until just before and just after Christmas.

So for this week, take some advice from Marvin Gaye: Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.

One deal finalized this week was the Red Sox signing of Marco Scutaro, a Venezuelan shortstop who two years ago was a utility man on bad Oakland team. Now, one of baseball's elite teams will be asking him to be their shortstop for the next two seasons.

I wasn't thrilled about the possibility of Scutaro coming on board earlier in the offseason, mostly because he'd be costing the Red Sox their first round pick (29th overall) as a Type A free agent. However, whatever reluctance existed about that dissipated for myself, and probably for Theo Epstein, after the Braves signed Billy Wagner and handed Boston the 20th selection.

Scutaro is cashing to the tune of $12.5 million over two years mostly because of his career season in '09, when he posted these numbers (all career highs): .282/.379/.409/.789, 12 homers, 35 doubles 100 runs, 162 hits, 14 steals, 90 walks and 235 total bases. He did this while playing just above average defense at shortstop (UZR/150: 0.9). The caveat: Scutaro enjoyed this season at age 33.

I think it'd be a lot to ask for Scutaro to put up these numbers again. But he's a patient contact hitter with excellent discipline (he made contact on 93.3 percent of his swings last season, tied with Luis Castillo for best in the Majors), and that lends itself to continued success. He ran into some issues with plantar fasciitis late last year, but it wasn't enough to scare Boston away.

At the very least, if Scutaro struggles, Red Sox fans can't complain that they spent too much money on him like they did with Edgar Renteria and Julio Lugo. In a winter when they needed a shortstop with almost no good options on the table, I think the Sox did the best they could and aren't tying themselves down to a long-term deal as a result.

A few other thoughts:
  • Newsflash: The Phillies are awesome, and just got better. They pounced on ex-Phil Placido Polanco to play third base for the next three seasons at just $6 million per year. He might not be as strong defensively as Pedro Feliz, but does a lot more with the bat. It would be hard to imagine a better No. 8 hitter for a strong N.L. team given his contact hitting and situational prowess. They now have former All Stars or All Star-caliber players at every position, a terrific bench and two lefty starters capable of being aces. Now if they could only do something about that bullpen...
  • Has anyone been able to explain why the Dodgers didn't offer arbitration to Randy Wolf? Behind John Lackey, he's easily the best free agent starter available and will probably be paid around $10 million per year if not by the Dodgers than some other team for sure. It's not like Wolf would have accepted an arbitration offer, he's nearly guaranteed to get multi-year offers from around baseball. So why not go for it and collect the two draft picks? It really made no sense, unless there's something I'm missing.
  • Looks like a four-year, $36 million deal for Chone Figgins and the Mariners will be finalized sometime this week. Even if Adrian Beltre were to somehow accept the M's offer for arbitration, they could still make it work, with Figgins likely to supplant Jose Lopez at second base as long as they find a taker. Or they can just throw him in left field. Either way, it's a fantastic signing that makes their division rival Angels significantly weaker. They could swap third basemen and wind up with Beltre as a result. There's a lot of buzz surrounding Seattle as they're apparently flush with cash and might make runs at Jason Bay, John Lackey and look to extend Felix Hernandez.
  • I'm still formulating an opinion on whether I'd like the Red Sox to re-sign Bay or make the big run at Matt Holliday. Holliday is a better long-term investment, but Bay has proven he can handle the heat of Boston. Four years is the most Bay deserves to be offered while I don't think I'd hesitate to give Holliday five or six. Either way the Red Sox probably need to sign one or the other because otherwise they'll be, you know, screwed.
Unless something epic happens between now and then, my next post will be an all-decade twofer: the five best managers and five best teams of the Aughts. It'll be good. I promise.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Backdoor Slider Pitchers of the Decade

Last time, I ran down my list of the best position players of the Aughts. Now, I present to you my picks for the best hurlers of the last 10 seasons. I've decided to combine starting pitchers and relievers in one post instead of doing separate ones. Hopefully you know my feelings on relief pitchers. They don't deserve their own post on being the "best" of anything.

As for the starters, I'm doing an All-Decade Starting Rotation, the five starters you'd most want to take the ball this decade. Like with my position players, I required these guys appear in at least seven-and-a-half seasons over the last ten, which meant they needed to pitch at least 1,500 innings (Pedro Martinez missed by 32 innings. Sorry, man). The statistics are 162-game averages. I had to adjust the years I included for one pitcher in my rotation, and I'll explain that shortly.

For the relievers, you're getting three and that's it. See if you can guess who they are.

The Backdoor Slider Pitchers of the Decade:


NO. 1 STARTER: Johan Santana (1580 IP in considered seasons) 17-8, 2.89 ERA, 1.064 WHIP, 229 K, 57 BB, 4.07 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9, 9.3 K/9 - 2x A.L. Cy Young Winner, 4x All Star, '07 Gold Glove

Before I get to describing the awesomeness of Johan, an explanation is in order. These stats are collected from '02 through '09. Since Santana was primarily a reliever during his first two seasons in Minnesota, I elected not to include them for this ranking. He started 14 of 27 appearances in '02 and 18 of 45 appearances in '03. I did decide to include those, especially since he threw 158 innings in '03. Anyway, Johan became Johan in '04, when he compiled 265 punchouts in 228 innings, led the league in ERA (2.61) and WHIP (a positively insane 0.921), ran away with the Cy Young Award and allowed just one run in two ALDS starts against New York. The '04 season began a three-year run of Santana leading the A.L. in strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP, hits per nine and K per nine three times, ERA twice, wins and innings pitched once, and got a second Cy in '06. Outside of Pedro Martinez from '97 through '00, this was the best stretch for a starting pitcher over the last 20 years. I can't say this emphatically enough: during that period, Johan's change-up was the single greatest off-speed pitch I've ever seen. It didn't matter who he was facing, what the count was or what park he was in. That change-up was certain death. No one could hit it. After '07, he forced the Twins hand and left for Queens, signed a mega-deal and did not disappoint in his first N.L. season, predictably leading the league with a career-low 2.53 ERA in a career-high 234.1 innings. He finally broke down late in '09, but should be healthy and ready to go at the dawn of a new decade. I hope Santana has the opportunity to shine in the postseason before he loses his effectiveness, God knows he's earned it. He was simply the finest pitcher I saw over the last ten years. Nothing about him would suggest otherwise.

NO. 2: Randy Johnson (1885 IP) 18-10, 3.34 ERA, 1.114 WHIP, 262 K, 57 BB, 4.51 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9, 10.4 K/9 - 3x N.L. Cy Young Winner, 3x All Star, '01 World Series Co-MVP

What a career for the Big Unit. Johnson wasn't nearly as consistent over the last 10 years as he was the previous 10, and his position on this list is predicated on his unreal performance from '00 through '02 for Arizona. Unit's averages: 255 innings, 21 wins, 351 K, 4.83 K/BB and an eye-bulging 12.5 K/9. He also compiled 19 complete games and nine shutouts, in addition to two each in the postseason. Johnson famously earned three victories during the epic '01 World Series and shared MVP honors with Curt Schilling. Between the NLCS and World Series that year, RJ was 5-0, allowed five ER in 33.1 innings, struck out 38 and walked just six. Unit never regained his previous dominance after getting hurt in '03, but did toss a perfect game in Atlanta and finished second in Cy balloting in '04, pitched solidly in two tumultuous seasons in New York, won 11 games at age 44 back in Arizona, and won his 300th game last summer for the Giants. For so many reasons, we'll never see another Randy Johnson. At 6', 10", he was the most intimidating pitcher of his generation, with that mean, mustachioed stare and a mess of arms and legs coming at the hitter. I've heard it described that when RJ released a pitch he looked like he could reach out a grab the opposing batter. During his Arizona prime, his 100 mph fastball was complimented so well by that hard, diving slider. How lefty hitters even made contact on him always amazed me. His tough demeanor on the mound was backed up by a surly attitude off it, but Johnson was never in baseball to make friends. He just wanted to strike people out. Part of the dying breed of "give me the ball and I'll give you nine" pitchers, Unit might be the last to ever win 300 games and belongs with Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax on the Mt. Rushmore of Southpaws.

NO. 3: Roy Halladay (1883 IP) 18-9, 3.40 ERA, 1.171 WHIP, 176 K, 47 BB, 3.74 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9, 6.7 K/9 - '03 A.L. Cy Young Winner, 6x All Star

Halladay has been the definitive workhorse of his era, throwing at least 220 innings each of the last four seasons, and his 266 innings during his '03 CYA season was the most by any pitcher in the Aughts. It's one thing to be a workhorse and another to be a transcendent starting pitcher, and Halladay is both. After showing so much promise in '98 and '99, Halladay was a disaster in '00 for Toronto, sporting a 10.64 ERA in 67 MLB innings. As a result, the Jays sent him to Single-A to essentially start over. In '01, he pitched at every level of the minors, employed his uber-deceptive three-quarter delivery, started sinking his fastball and began his run of excellence in the A.L. East. Halladay is part of that dying breed I mentioned above, throwing a whopping 47 complete games in the Aughts with nine each the past two years, as well as 14 total shutouts for the decade. Even though his reputation comes as a ground ball artist, Halladay's actually become more of a strikeout guy as his career's progressed, going over 200 the last two years. His control is another calling card, finishing with a K/BB over five on four occasions. Like Unit, Halladay is physically imposing at 6', 6", and each in his wide array of pitches are deadly. The biggest injustice for Halladay is the fact that he's never pitched in the playoffs, and really hasn't come close. With one year remaining on his contract in Toronto, he'll either be traded to a contender this winter or walk after '10 for a big deal. He was nearly part of Philadelphia's run to the N.L. pennant in '09, but had to settle for fourth place in Toronto yet again. Still, I have little doubt he'd be excellent on a good team, and I'd feel confident giving him the ball in a Game 7 situation.

NO. 4: Roy Oswalt (1803 IP) 17-9, 3.23 ERA, 1.202 WHIP, 181 K, 51 BB, 3.58 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9, 7.4 K/9 - 3x All Star, '05 NLCS MVP

You probably didn't expect to see Oswalt here. But looking at the numbers, he's been so ridiculously consistent that it would have been impossible to keep him off. Yet Oswalt's never really stood out besides a few well-known flashes of brilliance. His sterling rookie season in '01 (14-3, 2.73 ERA, 144 K in 141.2 innings) was overshadowed by Albert Pujols and his own historic rookie campaign. A few years later, his efforts were again overlooked by the high-profile tenures of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in Houston. Since going to the World Series in '05, the Astros have struggled, and Oswalt's accomplishments have flown under the radar. Not that Oswalt particularly cares about recognition. He hails from tiny Weir, Mississippi, is married to his high school sweetheart, and when his career ends he'll probably go back there in quiet anonymity. But that's the way Oswalt likes it, a simple Southern man with incredible gifts. His small, six-foot frame surprisingly supports that demonic fastball. Like his former teammate Clemens, Oswalt mastered the rising heater to put hitters away. He's always depended primarily on that fastball, but his hard, biting curve can be equally lethal. Oswalt had everything going in the '05 NLCS against St. Louis. Remember when everyone and their brother said the Cardinals would win the final two games in St. Louis after Pujols' devastating blast off Brad Lidge in Game 5? I knew better. Oswalt had dismantled the Cards in Game 2 with steely confidence, and I knew he'd do it again. He did, allowing one run, striking out six and walking one in seven innings, securing the most important victory in franchise history at its most crucial juncture. That, my friends, is what we call an ace.

NO. 5: CC Sabathia (1889 IP) 16-10, 3.62 ERA, 1.232 WHIP, 188 K, 70 BB, 2.69 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9, 7.6 K/9 - '07 A.L. Cy Young Winner, 3x All Star, '09 ALCS MVP

Sabathia should be higher on this list. After winning 17 games and putting up a league-best 7.4 H/9 his rookie year, this hefty lefty spent the next five seasons showing touches of his potential but never reaching it. It wasn't like Sabathia sucked, posting a 3.87 ERA and throwing over 188 innings each year. We just knew he could be an ace. Finally, in '07, he reached the top of the mountain. He led the Indians to baseball's best record by going 19-7 with a 3.21 ERA and walking just 37 with an ungodly 5.65 K/BB in 241 innings, by far the most of his career to that point. Blown out from carrying the load, Sabathia bombed in the playoffs, allowing 12 runs on 17 hits in two ALCS starts against the Red Sox. Both the Indians and Sabathia got off to a lackluster start in '08, so the impending free agent was shipped north to Milwaukee. The results were astonishing. No pitcher in the Aughts was ever as dominating over a short stretch as Sabathia against National League hitters. Seven of Sabathia's 17 regular season starts for the Brewers were complete games, three for shutouts. He wound up going 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and threw 253 innings total for the year. He actually came in sixth in N.L. MVP balloting. Once again, however, he was wiped from pitching the Brewers into the playoffs and struggled in his only NLDS start. The Yankees came calling that winter, and he signed the biggest contract ever for a pitcher at $161 million. In '09 Sabathia pitched like an ace all regular season, and for the first time, the playoffs as well, bringing home a World Series title. He's got another six years in New York to continue being that ace we knew he'd be.


Mariano Rivera - 42 SV, 2.08 ERA, 0.960 WHIP, 70 K, 15 BB, 4.88 K/BB - 9x All Star, '03 ALCS MVP

Trevor Hoffman - 46 SV, 2.77 ERA, 1.043 WHIP, 52 K, 12 BB, 4.22 K/BB - 5x All Star

Billy Wagner - 35 SV, 2.40 ERA, 0.990 WHIP, 70 K, 17 BB, 4.11 K/BB - 5x All Star

Did you guess right? If you've been paying attention at all over the last 10 years, you should have. I'm sure you at least got Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history who just turned 40 and is showing no signs of wear or rust, that cutter still as unhittable as ever. Sure, he provided two of the decades' most prominent collapses ('01 WS Game 7, '04 ALCS Game 4), but you can't argue about his October dominance. Mo pitched an incredible 85.2 postseason innings during the Aughts and allowed just nine earned runs for a 0.95 ERA, not to mention 26 saves. Hoffman hasn't been nearly as decorated, but just about as great. The change-up guru had a mini-renaissance in '09 with Milwaukee after 16 years in San Diego, finishing with a 1.83 ERA and 37 saves at age 41. Just three years earlier, Hoffman was second in the Cy voting after putting up 46 saves and a 0.968 WHIP. Not too shabby for the all-time saves king. As for Wagner, fans in several cities know how frustrating he can be in big spots, but the lefty flamethrower is reliable over the long haul. He's never put up worse than a 2.85 ERA in a full, healthy season and whenever he pitches his love for competing is palpable. I'd also like to thank him for signing with the Braves and giving Boston the 20th pick in the '10 draft.

Please let me know what you think of this list, or the previous one. Next up in this series will be the best teams of the decade. I'll likely have a Winter Meetings post before then.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Backdoor Slider Players of the Decade

We've reached the end of professional baseball's 14th full decade of action. It's time for some lists. (Have we decided on a name for the decade that's about to end? The Double-Zeroes? The Double-O's? Or my favorite, the Aughts? I'm going with the Aughts.)

I've followed baseball in the Aughts with rabid intensity, from beginning to end. Since I love lists, I decided this was the perfect time, between now and New Year's Eve, to reveal my picks for bests and worsts of the decade. We'll begin with the top position players of the last 10 seasons.

My only qualifying criteria for this list: players must have appeared in 1,200 games this decade. My rationale is that number equates to roughly 7.5 seasons, and to be considered one of the best players in a decade, that seems like a fair number. A lot of excellent players were kept off this list as a result, but hopefully the 2010s will be their decade. Players are eligible for positions where they played the majority of their games. I've created first, second and third teams, with extended sections on first-teamers and brief sections on second and third-teamers.

I decided the best way to compare players and rank them was to use 162-game averages. It wasn't fair to use season averages when some guys missed almost entire seasons due to injury. Missed time is not reflected as deeply in the 162-game averages, but it still gives the best sense about that player's talents during what should be the best part of their career. I tried to stick with stats and awards for these rankings, but players that were part of excellent teams had an advantage. The averages listed with each player are in this order: batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage/on-base plus slugging.

One final note before we dive in: I didn't take alleged or confirmed steroid use into consideration in formulating this lineup. Three members of my final team are tied to PEDs in one way or another. I won't rehash my feelings on PEDs here, but what happened on the field happened. We can't change any of it. All we have are the games and our memories. Just know that Barry Bonds won't appear here because he played fewer than 1,000 games this decade and for no other reason.

Without further ado, the Backdoor Slider Players of the Decade:

CATCHER: Jorge Posada (1302 GP) .283/.386/.492/.878 - 26 HR, 102 RBI, 85 R, 156 H, 2 SB - 5x All Star - 2x World Series Champion ('00, '09)

Joe Girardi left the Yankees after winning the '99 World Series, allowing Posada to blossom as one of the premier hitting catchers in baseball. In '00, he caught a career-high 142 games, slugged 28 homers and helped propel a somewhat-mediocre Yankees team a World Series title. Posada has been so reliable since, hitting just about anywhere in the order and displaying power from either side of the plate. He's never been great defensively, however he's dealt with so many different pitchers and the Yankees only missed the playoffs once all decade. In '08, in the second year of a four-year, $52 million contract, Posada went down with a debilitating shoulder injury and many feared his days as a catcher were over. This would not be the case. He caught 100 games in '09, hit 22 home runs and started every non-A.J. Burnett postseason game as the Yankees finished the Aughts with World Series title bookends. While two other Yankees on this first team will be more decorated by history, Posada is just as much of an icon for a generation of Yankees fans who know him as their catcher. He also has massive, comically-huge ears.

2ND TEAM: Ivan Rodriguez (1219 GP) .298/.335/.477/.812 - 22 HR, 86 RBI, 88 R, 184 H, 9 SB - 6x All Star, 5x Gold Glove, '03 NLCS MVP - World Series Champion ('03)

3RD TEAM: Jason Varitek (1208 GP) .257/.347/.431/.778 - 20 HR, 80 RBI, 69 R, 141 H, 3 SB - 3x All Star, 1 Gold Glove - 2x World Series Champion ('04, '07)

There weren't many catchers that qualified under my 1,200 game rule. As a matter of fact, these three were pretty much the only ones. That's quite telling about the demands of the position in the modern game. I gave Posada the nod over Pudge because of the former's consistency, and I think Pudge's best work came in the decade before. Pudge has bounced around a bit over the last few seasons, even playing with Posada in '08. I'd rather Varitek was bouncing around at this point, but the Red Sox and their fans aren't so lucky.

FIRST BASE: Albert Pujols (1399 GP) .334/.427/.628/1.055 - 42 HR, 129 RBI, 124 R, 199 H, 7 SB - 3x N.L. MVP, '01 N.L. ROY, 8x All Star, 1 Gold Glove, '04 NLCS MVP - World Series Champion ('06)

I highly doubt the Cardinals knew what they were getting when their head scout announced via conference call that Pujols would be their 13th round selection in the '99 draft. A little over 10 years later, we're discussing Pujols in the same breath with guys like Ruth, Aaron, Mays and Williams. Don't for a second believe that's hyperbole. His '01 rookie campaign was one of the best in history while playing at least 39 games at four different positions. Moved to first permanently in '04, Pujols is baseball's best defensive first baseman not named Youkilis. Pujols clubbed the famous home run in the '05 NLCS that briefly destroyed Brad Lidge's career. He was the leader of a ragtag '06 Cardinals championship crew that shocked the baseball world. He's only finished lower than fourth in the N.L. MVP voting once. Since overcoming some elbow issues, Pujols has entered into legend over the past two years, sending opposing pitchers into shaking fits and causing many an opposing manager to go gray. Extrapolating his numbers over another ten years, Pujols could hold every relevant offensive record before age 40. Albert Pujols is the Player of the Aughts. He might wind up as the Player of the Teens, too.

2ND TEAM: Todd Helton (1466 GP) .331/.436/.569/1.006 - 29 HR, 109 RBI, 113 R, 195 H, 3 SB - 5x All Star, 3x Gold Glove

3RD TEAM: Lance Berkman (1473 GP) .300/.413/.559/.972 - 34 HR, 113 RBI, 106 R, 171 H, 9 SB - 5x All Star

Helton's been so good for so long that I'm sure he wishes Pujols never existed and everyone could remember him as the best first baseman this decade. Actually, that's probably not true because Helton seems like the nicest guy. Berkman presented an interesting case for me. He actually played 850 games in the outfield during this time and just 623 at first base, but his outfield games were spread amongst all three positions. He spent the majority of his time this decade at first base. This unfortunately came at the expense of Derrek Lee.

SECOND BASE: Jeff Kent (1266 GP) .300/.371/.518/.889 - 28 HR, 109 RBI, 97 R, 183 H, 6 SB - '00 N.L. MVP, 4x All Star

I settled on Kent because I didn't feel like any other second baseman made as lasting an impact this decade. Kent did all sorts of damage to pitchers throughout his entire career, and reached his apex from '00-'02, his final three seasons in San Francisco. He won the '00 MVP, averaged 31 homers, posted a .943 OPS and was the emotional leader of a Giants team that came within nine outs of winning the 2002 World Series. He famously clashed with Mr. Bonds and departed for Houston after that season. Everyone forgets, for obvious reasons, the classic '04 NLCS between the 'Stros and Cards, and Kent slugged a Game 5 walk-off dinger in Houston to set up the dramatic final two games in St. Louis. In L.A., he rounded out his career playing second base for a predominantly young team, posting excellent hitting campaigns until hanging 'em up after the '08 NLCS. Kent was never the best defensively, but it should say something that he played 116 games at the keystone corner at age 40. I'm leaving out the elephant in the room here: Kent was a gaping asshole. But he was also a damn good ballplayer.

2ND TEAM: Alfonso Soriano (1313 GP) .279/.326/.510/.836 - 36 HR, 94 RBI, 106 R, 186 H, 26 SB - 7x All Star

3RD TEAM: Luis Castillo (1346 GP) .298/.374/.362/.735 - 4 HR, 45 RBI, 99 R, 186 H, 34 SB - 3x All Star, 3x Gold Glove - '03 World Series Champion

I thought long and hard about this one, and in the end, I just couldn't reward Soriano as the best second baseman of the Aughts. He was a notorious butcher at second before his move to the outfield, he's always struck out way too much for anyone's good, and no manager has ever been able to figure out where to hit him in the order. He also openly defied Frank Robinson before a spring training game, refusing to take the field as an outfielder. That's heinously unforgivable. Enjoy the last five years of that contract, Cubs fans.

THIRD BASE: Alex Rodriguez (1524 GP) .304/.401/.587/.988 - 47 HR, 132 RBI, 127 R, 185 H, 19 SB - 3x A.L. MVP, 8x All Star, 2x Gold Glove (as SS) - '09 World Series Champion

It's been quite a decade for A-Rod. Consider these ten years: he played his final season in Seattle; signed the biggest contract in baseball history for the Rangers; posted three phenomenal (enhanced) years in Arlington; forced a trade to the Red Sox that was nullified by the union; was eventually dealt to New York for Soriano; switched positions; collapsed mid-way through the ALCS and turned an entire sport against him when he slapped the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's hand; won the '05 MVP; was forced to hit 8th in the '06 ALDS against Detroit and cemented his reputation as a playoff choke artist; signed an even bigger contract than his previous one after winning the '07 MVP; dumped his wife and dated Madonna; revealed that he'd used steroids and every Yankees fan "permanently" disowned him; started dating Kate Hudson, settled down as a baseball player and a human being, shed the playoff goat tag and finally earned a World Series ring in '09 while Yankees fans conveniently forgot they hated him. Phew. A-Rod is only 34, has eight years left on his contract, and could wind up battling Pujols atop the record books soon. Now that he has a ring, I'm intrigued to see where his career goes.

2ND TEAM: Chipper Jones (1387 GP) .311/.413/.547/.960 - 32 HR, 108 RBI, 108 R, 180 H, 7 SB - 3x All Star

3RD TEAM: Aramis Ramirez (1320 GP) .289/.347/.513/.861 - 32 HR, 113 RBI, 87 R, 177 H, 2 SB - 2x All Star

Have you ever met a baseball fan that didn't like Chipper Jones? For fans around my age I think he represents the type of player we miss from our early years watching. He's been with only one franchise for almost 20 years, and we've seen less and less of that type of loyalty . You have to respect a guy who wins a batting title at age 36 while playing through all kinds of injuries. We're heading into a golden era for third basemen (Longoria, Wright and Zimmerman to name a few) and I hope they model their careers after Larry Wayne Jones.

SHORTSTOP: Derek Jeter (1500 GP) .317/.387/.456/.844 - 18 HR, 79 RBI, 118 R, 210 H, 24 SB - 8x All Star, 4x Gold Glove, '00 World Series MVP - 2x World Series Champion ('00, '09)

Is Jeter overrated? In many of my angry anti-Yankees rants through the years I've probably said yes. But it seems like we've gotten to a point where we've argued about whether Jeter's overrated that he might now be underrated. He's played in at least 150 games each of the last six seasons. He posted an incredible campaign in '06 and should have been the MVP, collecting 214 hits and driving in 97 runs with an even .900 OPS. His detractors constantly rile against his defense, but he was solid if non-Gold Glove worthy and it's rare for a 35-year-old shortstop to actually improve his defense. There's so many intangible factors that have helped his legend grow, and it's the impossible-to-quantify stuff that often causes Jeter arguments. Where you stand on things like "clutch performances," "leadership qualities" or "annoying fist-pumps" helps determine how you view him. But all this leads to something undeniable: Jeter has been the most consistent player on the most consistent franchise in baseball. That's the real reason why teammates, opposing players, the media, Yankees fans and non-fans alike respect him.

2ND TEAM: Jimmy Rollins (1406 GP) .274/.329/.439/.768 - 17 HR, 72 RBI, 109 R, 188 H, 38 SB - '07 N.L. MVP, 3x All Star, 3x Gold Glove - '08 World Series Champion

3RD TEAM: Miguel Tejada (1581 GP) .297/.347/.481/.827 - 26 HR, 107 RBI, 98 R, 190 H, 3 SB - '02 A.L. MVP, 6x All Star

Rollins earned second team status by being a better all-round player than the better-hitting Tejada. J-Roll experienced his ups and downs with Philly and their fans through the years, but he's a flashy, fun player who I love to root for. I've personally never been a big Miggy fan. The guy leaves a great team in Oakland for $72 million and a lousy team in Baltimore, then spends every winter demanding a trade? As if he didn't know what he was getting into? I wish the O's had kept him on principle.

LEFT FIELD: Manny Ramirez (1358 GP) .317/.419/.599/1.018 - 42 HR, 132 RBI, 112 R, 186 H, 2 SB - 9x All Star, '04 World Series MVP - 2x World Champion ('04, '07)

Oh, Manny. Has baseball ever produced such an enigma, such a savant, such a talent trapped inside such an unpredictable persona? That's the first of so many questions around Manuel Aristides Ramirez. Has he always gotten along with teammates? No. Have his antics, at one time or another, pissed off everyone who cares about baseball? Probably. Is he horrendous in the field? No doubt. Did he cheat, and worse yet, was he stupid enough to get caught? Of course. But deep down, as a fan, would you want him on your team? If you say no, you never watched the guy, especially in his Fenway prime. I can honestly say that when Manny was motivated and healthy, I've never seen a better right-handed hitter. That swing. A picture of perfection, spraying the ball to all fields. He thrived under pressure, hitting .338 with 16 homers in the postseason this decade. Manny reached his zenith once he was paired with David Ortiz, and from '03 through '05 the Red Sox were an unstoppable offensive force because of their two vaunted sluggers. He shoved his way out of town, and was suspended for steroids last year. But you know what? The Dodgers fans didn't care. Manny Ramirez is that good. There's no use in denying it.

2ND TEAM: Carlos Lee (1513 GP) .291/.346/.506/.852 - 32 HR, 110 RBI, 94 R, 180 H, 12 SB - 3x All Star

3RD TEAM: Raul Ibanez (1379 GP) .287/.350/.485/.834 - 24 HR, 99 RBI, 88 R, 167 H, 4 SB - 1 All Star

Alright, it's pretty strange to see Raul Ibanez listed as the third-best left fielder of this decade. But like I mentioned before, Bonds was ineligible based on my criteria, and Berkman played the majority of his games at first base. Beyond that, the Aughts were a surprisingly thin decade for transcendent left fielders. Ibanez has always been a consistent offensive player who just had his best season in '09 at age 37. As for Lee, it's easy to forget how solid he is since being stuck in baseball purgatory in Houston. It's sad when good players make such awful career decisions.

CENTER FIELD: Carlos Beltran (1392 GP) .282/.363/.505/.865 - 30 HR, 107 RBI, 112 R, 174 R, 30 SB - 5x All Star, 3x Gold Glove

The Most Underrated Player of the Aughts was the best center fielder of the last 10 years. Beltran missed significant time in '00 and '09. In between, he never played fewer than 140 games in relative anonymity in Kansas City or on the grand stage of New York. There's nothing Beltran does poorly on the field, whether it's displaying patience at the plate and hitting for terrific power, stealing bases (recording 256 steals this decade while being caught 30 times) and consistently scoring around 100 runs regardless of where he's hitting in the order, and saving runs as one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport despite his lack of hardware. Beltran is a quiet superstar who's become a national hero in Puerto Rico. His best season in New York came in '06, when the Mets won 97 games and he put up 46 homers, a .982 OPS and won the Gold Glove. The horrendous results of the last three seasons for New York has nothing to do with Beltran, who's been terrific when healthy. At 32, Beltran has plenty of excellent seasons left, and hopefully more people will take notice.

2ND TEAM: Torii Hunter (1357 GP) .276/.331/.479/.810 - 27 HR, 101 RBI, 93 R, 168 H, 19 SB - 3x All Star, 9x Gold Glove

3RD TEAM: Johnny Damon (1487 GP) .291/.360/.445/.805 - 18 HR, 80 RBI, 122 R, 191 H, 29 SB - 2x All Star - 2x World Series Champion ('04, '09)

Hunter is another universally beloved player, a gregarious talent who loves nothing more than to work with younger players. He doesn't deserve to be winning Gold Gloves anymore, but hopefully he gets an opportunity to play in the World Series before all is said and done. I suppose the years have softened my hatred for Damon, the creator of the Idiots, but it wasn't easy watching him win the title this year with New York. He's no longer a center fielder, and could find himself DHing somewhere in '10.

RIGHT FIELD: Vladimir Guerrero (1432 GP) .323/.392/.569/.960 - 36 HR, 118 RBI, 105 R, 17 SB - '04 A.L. MVP, 7x All Star

Like Beltran, Vlad began the Aughts in a small market before moving to a big one. The Montreal version of Vlad was certainly something to behold. Here was a 6', 3" behemoth roaming right field with an absolute cannon for an arm, speed on the basepaths and power to all fields. He was the complete package then, nearly going 40/40 in '02 with a league-high 206 hits. He moved to L.A., concentrated more on power, and became one of the most feared hitters in the game. We all know Vlad's greatest attribute; he can hit any pitch, thrown to any location, strike or ball. He's the greatest bad ball hitter ever next to Yogi Berra. Given his inclination to swing at everything, you'd think his strikeout totals would be high. In fact, Vlad never struck out more than 88 times in any of these past 10 seasons and his near-.400 OBP speaks to his amazing ability to make contact. Of course, as Jonathan Papelbon learned in October, you can't throw him a pitch down the middle without getting burned, either. Vlad has lost all his footspeed and entered the DH phase of his career. But his power is still there, and sense of terror he can wield with that bat won't go away soon.

2ND TEAM: Ichiro Suzuki (1426 GP) .333/.378/.434/.811 - 10 HR, 59 RBI, 111 R, 231 H, 39 SB - '01 A.L. MVP and ROY, 9x All Star, 9x Gold Glove

3RD TEAM: Magglio Ordonez (1349 GP) .316/.379/.523/.902 - 28 HR, 115 RBI, 97 R, 194 H, 9 SB - 5x All Star

You're probably thinking I'm an idiot for picking Vlad over Ichiro here. Believe me, I spent a while debating it. I ultimately decided Vlad had a greater on-field impact and Ichiro was the most overrated player of the Aughts. For supposedly being the best leadoff man of the era his .378 OBP isn't exactly terrific. Yes, he collected over 2,000 hits in just nine years. But only 18.7 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Vlad's extra base hit percentage? 38.2. Ichiro's great defensively but not historically exceptional, and he's now overshadowed by Franklin Gutierrez as the M's best fielder. Throw in that Ichiro hasn't been on a good team since his rookie year and Vlad's teams consistently make the playoffs, this isn't as outlandish as it seems. Maybe Ichiro had a bigger cultural impact, but the impact of Vlad's bat was bigger.

DESIGNATED HITTER: David Ortiz (1340 GP) .283/.378/.554/.932 - 38 HR, 123 RBI, 101 R, 166 H, 2 SB - 5x All Star, '04 ALCS MVP - 2x World Series Champion ('04, '07)

Two months into his tenure as Red Sox GM, Theo Epstein plucked the under-utilized Ortiz off the scrap heap for $1.25 million. Within two years, Ortiz would be a beloved hero to an entire region. Generations of Red Sox fans will remember Big Papi for his three walk-off hits during the '04 postseason, keeping the team alive twice while facing elimination at Fenway against the Yankees. As I mentioned during the Manny section, the Manny-Papi tandem presented an offensive wrecking crew rivaled only by Ruth and Gehrig in baseball history. Ortiz's finest hour came during the disappointing '06 campaign, when he broke the team record for homers (54) and the led the league in homers, RBI, walks and total bases. In '09, he got off to a putrid start, not hitting his first home run until six weeks into the season. In the face of many harrowing circumstances, he put together a tremendous four-month stretch, finishing with 28 homers and 99 RBI. None of us know what to expect from Papi going forward. But this production during the best era in Red Sox history, and that gap-toothed grin that captivated fans and teammates alike, will always represent what he meant not just to New England but to the game itself.

Interestingly enough, I couldn't find anyone else that played 1,200 games with the majority coming at DH. The closest was Jim Thome, who was a DH for 639 of 1,367 games. I think this speaks to how Ortiz and the Red Sox have altered the usage of the DH position. It's a common trend now for teams to use one guy as their set DH, and this wasn't done as often in the past (guys like Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines and Don Baylor come to mind). I'll bet next decade we'll have plenty of guys in Ortiz's category.

So that's it. If you've sat and read all of this, you're probably insane, but thanks for reading. If you disagree with any of my choices, voice your opinions in the comments, on Facebook, on Twitter, or wherever else you feel comfortable. Up next will be the All-Decade Starting Rotation, and it will hopefully be done by the end of next week.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cy Young Voters Finally Get It

A couple programming notes first: You may have noticed I've changed the name of the blog to "Backdoor Slider," one of my all-time favorite baseball sayings. "Can O' Corn" just didn't have the same ring to it. I started this blog over two years ago, and I finally realized how stupid and boring "Jake's Baseball Blog" was. For now, the URL stays the same.

Also, expect the first installment of my "Lists of the Decade" series to go up Wednesday morning for you to chew on through the holiday weekend. The first will be the Backdoor Slider MLB All-Decade Position Players, with rankings for first, second and third teams. Lists for the best starting pitchers, relief pitchers, teams and games will follow through the rest of 2009. I'm also pondering some "worsts" lists, like worst teams and most catastrophic contracts. Should be fun.

What I'd like to talk about today is what appears to be a fundamental shift in awards balloting for MLB, and we've seen it twice this week with Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum winning the 2009 Cy Young Awards for their respective leagues. Both of these young righty hurlers were the best candidates and most deserving winners this year. But, based on the nature of their statistics and the teams they played for, I feel like five or 10 years ago neither of these men would have captured their awards.

Let's start with Greinke. He had a phenomenal year by any stretch: a 2.16 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 242 Ks in 229.1 innings, a 4.75 K/BB, and a league-low 0.4 HR/9. It's one of the best seasons by an A.L. pitcher since Pedro Martinez was dominating for the Red Sox from '98-'00. But working against him were excellent seasons by Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander, both of whom benefited by playing for much better teams.

Greinke finished '09 with just 16 wins while both Hernandez and Verlander had 19. The Royals won 65 games, while Detroit and Seattle won 86 and 85, respectively. Hernandez finished with the best quality start percentage (0.85), win percentage (.792) and the second-best ERA (2.48). Verlander pitched the most innings (240), had the most Ks (263) but was relatively far behind in ERA (3.45).

Even though Hernandez was spectacular, the only real edge he held over Greinke was the three extra wins. Greinke had more strikeouts, gave up fewer walks, hits and homers. These are all much more important stats than wins, which is something a pitcher ultimately can't control (a pitcher can't always control hits and homers either, but that's another debate). Greinke was the best pitcher in the A.L. this year regardless how how bad his team played.

So I was very pleased on Tuesday when Greinke was overwhelmingly voted to win the A.L. Cy Young. He received 25 of 28 first-place votes, with Hernandez getting two and Verlander one. It was historic in the sense that only David Cone had won the A.L. Cy Young as a starter with as few as 16 wins, and that was in a strike-shortened season.

In the past, I suppose Greinke could have still won, but not so convincingly. Voters would have talked themselves into the superficial wins deficit. It may have been impossible for Greinke to win at all had Hernandez or Verlander reached the magical 20-win mark. But like I said before, by any relevant statistical measure, Greinke had the best season, and the voters got it right.

The N.L. race was much closer, and more interesting. This wound up being one of the tightest Cy Young votes in history between three top-flight righties: Tim Lincecum, Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.

Lincecum had the highest quality start percentage (0.81) and the most strikeouts (261). Carp earned the best winning percentage (.810), the lowest ERA (2.24) and WHIP (1.01). Wainwright had the most wins (19) and innings (233). Carp won 17 games and Lincecum just 15 pitching for an offensively-challenged Giants team.

I had Wainwright third because he finished behind in ERA (2.63) and strikeouts (212). To me, Lincecum beats out Carp because Carp pitched just 192.2 innings to Lincecum's 225.1. Lincecum's ERA might have been slightly higher (2.48), but his numbers are more impressive because he made four more starts than Carp. Throw in that Carp had only 144 Ks and clearly relied on his defense more than either Lincecum or Wainwright (which is why Keith Law left him off his ballot entirely) and I think it's obvious that Lincecum was deserving of his second straight Cy Young.

The voters, again, got it right, but barely. Just six points separated Lincecum from Carp and 10 from Wainwright. Wainwright actually beat Lincecum in first-place votes, 12 to 11. But like the A.L., voters discounted wins and gave the award to the best pitcher. Lincecum becomes the first starter to win a Cy Young Award with as few as 15 wins. Again, had Wainwright managed to get one more victory, he probably would have won.

This is truly hair-splitting because all three were deserving winners. Had either Carp or Wainwright won, I'd have been fine with it. It's just that Lincecum deserved it the most and it wouldn't have been right to discount him solely because he won just 15 games. Thankfully, it didn't happen.

I hope this means we're headed for a new era in baseball award balloting where common sense and meaningful statistics rule the day. It only took a hundred or so years, but it seems like we're finally here. Now if only we could fix the Gold Gloves so they weren't a complete joke.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Yo, Adrian! (Get Used To That, Hopefully)

Have you been left cold by the end of another baseball season? Well, hold your frosty mitts out towards the hot stove. It's throwing some heat already, but we're just getting started. Teams can talk to any free agent starting November 20, and the deadline for arbitration is December 1.

The Red Sox have already engaged in a bevy of minor moves, the most important being the acquisition of one-time top prospect Jeremy Hermida from the Marlins. Hermida has not lived up to the high expectations after being the cover boy for Baseball America's Prospect Handbook in 2006. While it's hard for me to see Hermida as an adequate replacement should Jason Bay sign elsewhere, it's also hard to complain about the trade at all.

Boston dealt two minor league relievers to get Hermida, who's only 25 and has plenty of time to round into the player he can be. The Marlins were so gung ho to rid themselves of Hermida after committing to an absurdly low $36 million payroll for 2010 and his upcoming salary of $3.5 million was just too much to bear (equally absurd for a franchise opening a new park soon and expecting people to show up). I honestly think they could have done better, but again, I won't complain about any of this. The worst case scenario is Hermida gets platooned with a right-handed hitter and the Red Sox get close to Bay's production that way. Hopefully Hermida enters the season as a fourth outfielder with trade value down the line.

I fully expect the team to engage Bay in the coming days about a contract while they still have an exclusive negotiating window. That said, I'll be surprised if he takes whatever offer they come up with before getting the chance to see what else is out there. You can't blame the guy. He's never been a free agent and he's entering a thin market where he's easily the second best position player available behind Matt Holliday. In the end, I have confidence the Red Sox will pull out all the stops to keep Bay. Not a lot of teams can afford him at this point anyway.

The signing of Bay will hopefully not keep Theo Epstein and company from finding additional ways to improve an aging offense with not much in the way of minor league reinforcements. The name that's been mentioned over and over: San Diego's slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. The Sox were a player for Gonzalez at July's deadline, but couldn't get it done. In 2009, Gonzalez hit 40 homers, posted a .958 OPS and played Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. On top of that, he's signed to the best contract this side of Evan Longoria: over the next two seasons he's owned $10.25 million.

Other team will likely be interested in Gonzalez, but the Red Sox could have the inside edge. The two organizations have long been friendly, and perhaps just got even friendlier with Epstein's former right hand man Jed Hoyer taking over as GM in San Diego.'s Alex Speier wrote yesterday this development might actually make a trade more difficult, including this money quote from Epstein: "He's knows all my tricks, and I know his."

Either way, Hoyer knows the Red Sox system in and out, and knows exactly what he'd want from Epstein in trade discussions. I'd love to be able to listen in on potential trade talks between the master and his apprentice. Interesting stuff, to say the least. Based on this report, those talks could come sooner rather than later.

In any case, I want to see the Red Sox make this happen. Gonzalez is an elite middle of the order presence, and at 27 is just entering his prime as a superstar. To facilitate a trade, the Red Sox will of course have to give up quality. If that means they have to include Clay Buchholz, I don't think Epstein should hesitate.

Yes, Buchholz is only 25. Yes, Buchholz showed signs of excellence down the stretch last year and was in line to win his first playoff start before Billy Wagner and Jonathan Papelbon intervened. Yes, he could blossom into a front-line starter at a very low cost.

The operative word there is "could."

Red Sox fans who fawn over prospects need a reality check. Sure, it's tantalizing to think about how good Buchholz could be. But it's even more tantalizing to think of a Red Sox lineup that starts off with Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Kevin Youkilis, Gonzalez and Bay for 2010, with everyone besides Martinez signed beyond that. That lineup will compete with the New York Yankees for the best in baseball and wreak havoc on pitchers throughout the game.

So if the only thing keeping the Red Sox from assembling that lineup is including a 25-year-old starter who might be a very good major league pitcher in the trade, I'd like to think that's a relatively easy decision for Epstein. The trade would include Buchholz, Lars Anderson, and probably three other prospects, at least one of whom would project as a major league starter. I'm not sure who that would be, but I'd think Hoyer knows one or two potentials. Daniel Bard should be left out of discussions unless a deal lands the Red Sox Heath Bell, a proven big league closer.

A trade for Gonzalez would put the Red Sox in position to address at lot of other needs. By adding such a big bat, the team could afford to go with a low-cost stopgap at shortstop to accompany Jed Lowrie (maybe a return engagement for Alex Cora?). They'll be more inclined to deal Casey Kotchman for a reliever. They would have to trade either Mike Lowell or David Ortiz, with Lowell the likelier candidate. Philadelphia nearly signed Lowell in 2007, so perhaps Epstein could deal him there and eat some salary.

They'll announce, by trading Buchholz, that they have every confidence in Daisuke Matsuzaka's conditioning and that he will return to his pre-2009 form as a consistent third starter. Remember, Buchholz might not have gotten his opportunity had Dice-K not struggled so much early on.

It will also open up a rotation spot for a winter acquisition. This could be a high-risk, high-reward type like Rich Harden or Erik Bedard, or the one big ticket FA starter out there, John Lackey. Or they could empty the rest of the farm system for Roy Hallady. It's my opinion that any of those options could be better than Buchholz next year anyway.

But it all hinges on what happens with Gonzalez. Here's hoping the old friends can find some common ground.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Yankees Win, I Puke

When the Yankees were closing in winning last night's Game 6 and earning their first World Series title since 2000, I told myself that I wouldn't let their inevitable victory get to me. So what? I watched these guys win four World Series when I was growing up. It's been years since it happened. Big freakin' deal. It wasn't like they were beating the Red Sox.

Then Shane Victorino battled Mariano Rivera, grounded out to Robinson Cano, and it was over. The Yankees were once again World Champs. They celebrated like little kids as thousands of Yankees fans cheered on.

Everything I told myself went away. It got to me. I was pissed. Nothing about the Yankees winning made me happy. As much as I like and respect 95 percent of the team, I wasn't happy at all. Not even remotely. Even though the Red Sox have won twice in between Yankees titles, the Yankees winning the World Series will always piss me off.

Why? Because I'm still a fan.

Because the Yankees broke my heart so many times as a kid. [EDIT: My dad correctly pointed out that this doesn't sense. The Yankees might have been the cause of the heartbreak, but it was the Red Sox that broke my heart. I just needed to clear this up.]

Because in 1999 both the umpires and the fates were against my team. Because in 2003 Aaron Boone rendered me motionless on the very couch from which I type these words.

Because my childhood heroes Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens left to get rings in New York just to rub it all of our faces.

Because they employ Alex Rodriguez, my least favorite player of all time.

Because their owner gave control of his team to his sons, who'd spent the majority of their lives hanging around horses.

Because they built a bloated new stadium with pop fly homers and ticket prices even rich people can't afford.

Because their fans think they have to win the World Series every year or otherwise the manager should be fired, the whole team should be blown up, etc. Because I have absolutely no idea how their fans actually get pleasure out of watching them win and I often compare rooting for the Yankees to rooting for health insurance CEOs.

But most of all, it's because I just simply hate the New York Yankees. No number of Red Sox World Series championships will change that.

Of course, I'm not irrational. The Yankees were the best team in the 2009 regular season, and despite my protestations, they wound up being the best team in the playoffs, too. Joe Girardi will go down as one of the worst managers to ever win a World Series, and nothing about winning the Series convinces me he's a good manager.

How a team with a $200 million payroll wins it all with three starters, one effective reliever and a manager with no living clue how to, you know, manage them, is beyond me. The offense carried them, they only had to use Andy Pettitte once on three day's rest, and if not for Brad Lidge's Game 4 meltdown this could have been an entirely different series.

The Phillies played valiantly throughout but never came up with the big hits when they mattered outside of Pedro Feliz's bomb in Game 4. Like the Red Sox losing at any point over the last five years, the blow of this loss won't sting so badly for the Phillies fans. I feel pretty good for that awesome city and I know their club will be a World Series contender for years to come.

But what made this year so much different than the last eight for the Yankees?

Year in and year out since the strike the Bombers always had the biggest payroll. After winning the 2000 World Series, they started tinkering. Mike Mussina was signed for $88 million and the Yankees came within three outs of beating Arizona for the World Series but Rivera couldn't close the door. Buster Olney famously declared that evening "the last night of the Yankee dynasty."

From there, the team that brought so many titles began to unravel. Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius retired, Tino Martinez and Chuck Knoblauch were shown the door, and the Yankees began a practice of plugging all holes with costly free agent signings instead of building through the farm system. After losing to Arizona, Brian Cashman gave Jason Giambi $120 million, brought aboard has-beens Raul Mondesi, Rondell White and Robin Ventura, and splurged $21 million on reliever Steve Karsay (an unmitigated disaster). In '02, the Yanks were bounced from the ALDS by the eventual champion Angels.

For the '03 campaign, Cashman had already traded promising lefty Ted Lilly to acquire headcase Jeff Weaver, and the result would not be pretty. He spent $32 million on Jose Contreras just to keep him away from Boston (Contreras would be traded to the White Sox before '04 was over), and $21 million on Hideki Matsui. Of course, the Yankees did get back to the World Series, but were defeated by Florida, a team that had virtually no wasteful free agent signings.

More retooling came for '04, in the form of adding over $30 million to their payroll. The Yankees took the opportunity to consume the many millions remaining on Rodriguez's contract after a deal with Boston fell apart in the 11th hour. Instead of going after Vladimir Guerrero, Cashman signed the older Gary Sheffield for $39 million. Acquired via trade were Javier Vazquez (given a $45 million extension) and Kevin Brown (the 'roid-raging righty with $30 million remaining on his ridiculous contract). Meanwhile, their bullpen was filled out by hacks like Tanyon Sturtze and Felix Heredia. The Yanks were all set to go back to the World Series before the Red Sox decided to stage the greatest comeback in sports history and secured bragging rights for years to come.

For '05 things appeared to be turning around as they allowed homegrown talent like Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang to flourish. But they still added almost $25 million to their gaudy payroll, going over $200 million for the first time. Much of that came from two massively failed free agent pitchers, Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano, who won a combined 25 games during their New York careers. Despite Vazquez's extension, he was part of a trade that brought in Randy Johnson. He'd famously clash with teammates and media during two productive seasons there while pocketing $32 million. The Angels once again beat them in the ALDS.

Bernie Williams was relegated to part-time status after Johnny Damon was signed away for roughly $10 million more than what anyone else was offering. They also resigned Matsui for $52 million and kept tossing money at a black hole of a bullpen that wasn't improving (Kyle Farnsworth and the unintentionally comedic signing of Mike Myers). They got Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle during the season for a bucket of baseballs and pissed off Sheffield in the process. While heavily favored, the Yanks were bounced by the Tigers in the ALDS, Joe Torre batted the truly embattled A-Rod eighth and fans became increasingly restless.

Pettitte and Clemens went for one last go-round in the Bronx in '07. But the most hilarious signing of this entire era came when the Yankees lost out on Daisuke Matsuzaka and settled instead on Kei Igawa at an overall price tag of $46 million. Igawa's MLB career numbers: 2-4, 6.66 ERA, 53 K, 37 BB in 71.2 IP. The tide towards homegrown players continued with Melky Cabrera, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain playing key roles. But gnats swarmed Chamberlain in Cleveland, the Yankees were again defeated in the ALDS, the fans had to watch the Red Sox hoist the World Series Trophy once again, and Torre was unceremoniously forced out in favor of Girardi.

Injuries and ineffectiveness caused the Yankees to miss the playoffs in '08 for the first time since the strike. They'd decided to let their kids play with mixed results. Lots of people questioned in Girardi was right manager and what the Yankees would do to fix the problems. This gets back to the question I asked before: why was this year different than the others? Cashman took advantage of a depressed market to sign the three highest-impact free agents last winter. Yes, it totaled almost $500 million, and the Yankees appeared to be on the verge of "buying another title."

Well, those signings had actual purpose to them as opposed to just throwing money at a problems. They needed two power starting pitchers and someone to hold down first base for the foreseeable future, and from a production standpoint, they got the right guys. But perhaps bigger than production on the field, the new Yankees bring something to the table so many of their 2000s free agent brethren lacked. Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira are all first-rate personalities and teammates.

Along with Nick Swisher, these players caused the longtime tension in the Yankees clubhouse to dissipate. They even made it so Rodriguez finally looked comfortable. Like so many World Champions in recent years, and like the dynastic teams of a decade ago, these Yankees actually like each other. It's sad that it took Cashman and the Yankees brass so much time to figure it out. Unfortunately for me, they finally did.

The Yankees have a lot of questions to answer now, specifically who plays left field and whether WS MVP Matsui will return. But they can celebrate now, providing championship bookends for a decade with so much strife in between.

And no matter what, I'll always hate it.


With that, another baseball season ends. It's a double-dose of suck that I can't watch baseball for six months and the last image I have is of the Yankees winning the World Series. I look outside my New Hampshire window right now and see snow flurries. It's going to be a long winter, with the free agent market likely just as depressed with year as last year.

I want to try and concentrate on hockey writing through the winter, so hot stove posts might not be as plentiful this year. I do, however, have some things planned for JBB over the next two months, including a few best (and worst) of the decade lists. You know how much I love lists.

Pitchers and catchers report in just 107 days.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2009 World Series Preview

Anyone who knows me is aware of my undying love of baseball's history. It's the biggest thing that separates baseball from the other professional sports, in my opinion. For example, is there any other sport in 2009 where one of its championship participants began play in 1883? Think about that for a second; the Philadelphia Phillies were founded 18 years after the Civil War ended. Couple their history with that of their opponent, the New York Yankees, and you've got generations of fans and decades of stories with a new chapter still to be added.

Despite the long histories of these two franchises, they've only locked horns in the World Series once before. In 1950 the Yankees were in the midst of the most dynastic run in baseball's history, maybe in sports history.

From 1947 through 1964, the Bombers won the American League pennant in all but three seasons (the Indians won in 1948 and 1954 with the White Sox winning in 1959). In a pre-free agency world, the Yankees could keep all their best players at whatever price they chose. When those players lost their effectiveness, there was always another young superstar ready to take their place.

And they did. And they won, just about every year. They won 10 World Championships, and a list of their best players reads like an all-time team: Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, Tony Kubek, Bill Skowron, Joe Pepitone, Ralph Terry, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson and Don Larsen amongst so many others under legendary managers Casey Stengel and Ralph Houk.

The 1950 Phillies won 91 games, edging out the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League title. It was their first since 1915, and the young team was called the Whiz Kids by the media and fans. There were led by two eventual Hall of Fame talents; Robin Roberts, who won 20 games and would be a dominant starter for another 15 years, and Richie Ashburn, a Nebraska farmboy who became a franchise icon with blazing speed in center field and a preternatural on-base ability. It was a storybook season for a team and city short on luck for so many years.

Unfortunately they ran headlong into the Yankees' dynastic buzz saw. The Pinstripers won four close contests in a row and swept the Whiz Kids. The longest game played in the series was Game 2, clocking in at three hours and five minutes (something to shoot for this year, guys). The Yankees' pitchers dominated to the tune of a 0.73 ERA. DiMaggio (who's on my "Top 5 Players I Wish I Could Have Seen" list along with Ruth, Williams, Cobb and Mays) hit .308 and knocked the game-winning home run in Shibe Park in Game 2.

So what does any of that have to do with 2009? Absolutely nothing. But I find it cool that we can have the same World Series match-up in 2009 that we had in 1950, and could have had dating back to the first World Series in 1903.

This World Series should be different from 1950. They've both come through the postseason only losing two games apiece, both overstocked with quality starting pitching and offense, both a bit thin in the bullpen, and both brimming with confidence. One side is coming off a World Series win, the other expected to win every season. I say this just about every year, but this is the best hope for an exciting World Series since 2002.

Presenting my 2009 World Series Preview, the Phillies vs. the Yankees, aka every Mets fans' nightmare:

OFFENSE: Believe me when I say neither club is lacking in this area. They Yankees have enjoyed the best lineup one through nine since Opening Day with threats to go deep everywhere in the order. Alex Rodriguez continued his October re-birth against L.A., coming up with huge hits and causing an entire fan base to do a total 180 since the spring (don't think I haven't noticed, Yankees fans). Derek Jeter looks ready to once again be Mr. November. While Nick Swisher's troubles have been well-documented, the biggest question mark for the Yankees in this series is Mark Teixeira. He's hit just .205 in October, but appeared to be coming out of it in ALCS Games 5 and 6.

For the Phillies, they've been anchored by Ryan Howard, the best left-handed pure power hitter of his generation. He's sporting a cool 1.203 OPS this postseason and how he'll do against the Yankees' dearth of southpaws will be a major factor. Jayson Werth has broken out, smashing five homers so far, many coming in clutch situations. Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Carlos Ruiz also have that flair for the dramatic. Expect to see Greg Dobbs DH in Game 1 with AL veteran Matt Stairs likely to get some hacks in Game 2 (they will indeed be hacks, trust me). Chase Utley has just one extra-base in these playoffs, and like Teixeira, he needs to get it going for his team to be successful.

Edge: New York.

STARTING PITCHING: No inkling of a doubt here; this series hinges on whose starters are more effective. Apparently all CC Sabathia ever needed for October success was rest in September. It's possible Sabathia could get three more starts before all is said and done. He's been truly spectacular so far, giving up just four earned runs in 22.2 postseason innings. A.J. Burnett gets the ball in Game 2, and he must get over his poor ALCS Game 5 start. Despite strong performances so far, I wonder how much longer before Andy Pettitte breaks down a bit. He's not young, it's been a long year, and his next start will take him out of the confines of Yankee Stadium. Joe Girardi will once again go with just three starters.

Cliff Lee has been nearly as dominant as his old teammate Sabathia and he won't be intimidated in Game 1 against an AL lineup. If the Phillies win this World Series, the Lee trade will likely go down as the single-best midseason trade for a pitcher in baseball history. I defy anyone to come up with one better. Pedro Martinez will take the hill in Game 2 in front of the fans that destroyed him in 2004 ALCS Game 7 and saw him choke in 2003 ALCS Game 7. The Yankees are, after all, his daddy, and I question the decision to put him out there for this game. But Pedro will be Pedro, and nobody in baseball has ever relished a challenge more. Cole Hamels is due to break out of his funk, and I predict a strong Game 3 start. Either J.A. Happ or Joe Blanton will go in Game 4, and they could take advantage if Sabathia finally tires.

Edge: Philadelphia.

DEFENSE: Defense might not win championships in baseball, but it can certainly lose them. Just as the 2006 Tigers. Or the 1986 Red Sox, for that matter. (I need to cancel out that last sentence by wishing all Red Sox fans a happy 5th anniversary of winning the '04 Series. Now I feel better). I don't have an awful lot to say about this on either side, but since the Yankees' smartened up and now only use Matsui at DH, they've improve immensely on defense although they aren't great. Sometimes I wonder if Robinson Cano has any clue out there. Teixeira is far and away this team's best defensive player.

The Phillies are much more sound in the field with Pedro Feliz and Rollins patrolling the left side with Victorino and Werth making great plays in the outfield. Utley made some costly throwing errors in the last series but he's normally very good. I'll be watching how Raul Ibanez handles the spacious turf of left field in Yankee Stadium.

Edge: Philadelphia.

BULLPENS: So, if Brad Lidge hasn't given up a run yet in the postseason, does that just mean he's due to implode, or is he back to his history-making greatness of a year ago? We will find out in the coming days. Lidge's success, and the overall success of the Philadelphia bullpen, has been one of the biggest surprises of the playoffs. Scott Eyre and Chad Durbin are coming up big, and they'll have to continue their ways especially in a situation like Game 2 where Pedro might not be able to go longer than six frames.

I really don't feel like extolling the virtues of Mariano Rivera (who may or may not love Jesus more than Kurt Warner), so I'll focus on the other members of the Yankees' bullpen instead. I gave them crap for not having a solid unit all year, but Joba Chamberlain's move back to a setup role has provided a stabilizing presence. What I don't get is why Girardi insists on using Phil Hughes in key spots when he's been anything but good in the postseason while David Robertson, Phil Coke and Damaso Marte have all been solid in relatively little action. Girardi has had difficulty managing his bullpen this postseason, which is something I'll get to shortly. But there's one Yankee that can make any manager look good, and that might be all that matters.

Edge: New York.

MANAGERS: Charlie Manuel cracks me up. You take one look at the guy and without knowing anything about him you'd guess he was a baseball manager just based on his aesthetics. Then he opens his mouth, and it's hard not to laugh at his garbled diction. But he's awesome. He was on the brink of getting fired going into last season, now he's ready to lead the Phillies to the World Series for a second straight time. Manuel's players adore him, and the city has certainly warmed to him over the last couple years. Unlike his counterpart, he's actually won a World Series, and that means something here.

The Yankees might lose this series solely because of Girardi. I know the Yankees have only lost twice this postseason, but their Game 3 extra inning loss in L.A. was a direct result of a poor choice by Girardi. He brought in right-hander Robertson to start the 11th, and after getting the first two batters out, abruptly removed Robertson for another right-hander, Alfredo Aceves, to face Howie Kendrick. Kendrick singled, then Jeff Mathis doubled him home. If anyone can figure out why this happened, please let me know. He pinch-runs for hitters like Rodriguez and Teixeira in close or tied games, something that might cost them down the line. The word "overmanaging" has been used constantly, but again, it hasn't cost them more than one loss yet. The Phillies are better than the Angels, and should make them pay in case Girardi slips up again.

Edge: Philadelphia.

INTANGIBLES & LOOSE ENDS: I'm suffering from broken record syndrome here, but the Yankees have been and will continue to be very difficult to beat in Yankee Stadium. I hate to sound like the many lazy sportswriters that cover baseball these days, but maybe there is some sort of "mystique" about the place. The Yankees just win there, and other teams can't seem to break through. If the Phillies can take one of these first two games it will be quite a feat.

Philadelphia's bench is much deeper than the Yankees, and in close games late that could prove to be very important. Without a doubt, the Phillies want to make some history. They can go down as one of few teams to win back-to-back titles, and given the lack of championships in the history of the franchise and the recent history of the city, the Phillies have an opportunity to go down as the beloved group of athletes assembled in the City of Brotherly Love.

The Phillies will take one of two in New York, and the Yankees will take one of three in Philadelphia. Behind Pettitte the Yankees win Game 6 in New York. Then in Game 7, Sabathia and Lee do battle for the third time in the series. They lock up in a duel reminiscent of Jack Morris and John Smoltz in Game 7 of the legendary 1991 World Series. In the top of the 10th, Howard blasts a two-run bomb off Sabathia to break the deadlock.

Lidge enters, gets the first two out, then gives up a solo home run by Johnny Damon. Teixeira works a walk. Then comes A-Rod. After an epic at-bat, Rodriguez swings and misses at a 3-2 heater, and the Phillies celebrate wildly. A-Rod runs off the field crying and even Kate Hudson can't make him stop.

It's all going to happen. I guarantee it.

Prediction: Phillies in seven. Enjoy the series.