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.