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.