Friday, December 21, 2012

Blue Jays Rising

                          Thole and Dickey will be heading North

Right now, Vegas has the Blue Jays as the favorite to win the 2013 World Series. The Blue Jays haven't had this high of expectations in 20 years when they won back to back championships in 1992 and 1993. They haven't been terrible since their World Series days, but they've been average to mediocre since. Toronto has also been stuck in the American League East, a division which the Red Sox and Yankees have dominated since then. Those two teams have won 7 World Series since the Blue Jays last won one. However, the Red Sox finished in last place in 2012 after collapsing down the stretch the previous season. The Yankees won the division last year, but they have the oldest roster in the league. Almost all of the Yanks key players will be over 30 next year, some close to 40.

There is an opening at the top of the AL East with not as strong Yankee and Red Sox teams. It's still a tough division though. The Orioles made their first postseason in 15 years last season. The Rays have made 3 out of the last 5 postseasons, and should contend again next year. The Jays were probably the most excited team about the second wild card last year, but their pitching collapsed on them last year. Toronto used 12 different starters and 34 pitchers total last season. Their team ERA was 4.64, 11th in the American League.

The Jays made some big moves to upgrade their rotation. They added Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle in a monster trade with the Marlins. This week, they traded for 2012 NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey from the Mets. Dickey will bring his knuckleball to Toronto, and was given a 2 year, $25 million extension.

Dickey, Buehrle, and Johnson have made 7 All Star teams between the trio. Johnson won the National League ERA crown in 2010, but missed much of 2011. Johnson did pitch 191.1 innings last year, but had a 3.81 ERA. Buehrle is one of the most dependable starters in the league, pitching over 200 innings and winning over 10 games for the last 12 seasons. Buehrle was part of the 2005 White Sox championship team and has won the last 4 Gold Gloves. Dickey had a career year last season, winning 20 games and leading the NL with 230 strikeouts.

To fill out the last two rotation spots, the Jays have Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek, and Drew Hutchison to pick from. Romero was an All Star in 2011 and had a 2.92 ERA that season. Last year, Romero's ERA jumped nearly 3 runs to 5.77. The Jays hope that was an aberration. Morrow pitched a no-hitter last season, but was limited to 124.2 innings. Morrow could also move into the bullpen and could be a closer candidate if Casey Janssen falters. Drabek and Hutchison are young pitchers who pitched under 100 innings last season.

Toronto also added Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio, Josh Thole, Maicer Izturis, and Melky Cabrera this offseason. The Jays offense is led by right fielder Jose Bautista and  1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion. Encarnacion hit a career high 42 home runs in 2012, and had a career year last season. Encarnacion might be another late bloomer like Bautista, or he could be a fluke. It was his 8th season in the big leagues and he finally lived up to his vast potential. Bautista missed the last two months due to injury, and that's when the Jays crumbled.

After Bautista went down, the Jays young hitters fell off. J.P. Arencibia, Brett Lawrie, and Colby Rasmus all fell into slumps afterwards. Toronto will need those three hitters to have good seasons next year. They signed Cabrera, who was off to a career year last year before his PED suspension. He could take over at left field, although young speedster Anthony Gose will fight for playing time there. Cabrera could also DH, with Encarnacion moving to first base.

Toronto only won 73 games last year, there worst showing since 2004. They should be much improved for next season, but will it be enough to put them ahead in the division? It would be a major dissapointment if the Jays don't contend next year. I think with a much improved rotation and addition of a impact player like Reyes, they should be the favorite to win the AL East next year. But, there is some questions about this club. Their bullpen was shaky last year, and they'll need their younger players to step up offensively. The AL East is still a tough division as well. I don't know if I would say Toronto is a World Series favorite, but I think they should be a playoff team next year.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Hamilton Cashes In With the Halos

         Hamilton will be joining forces with Pujols and the big money Angels next year

New York, Boston, and sometimes Philadelphia have been the big spenders in the last decade or so, but the city of Los Angeles has been the place were the big stars have been going the last couple of years. Earlier this week, the Dodgers signed Zack Greinke to a record contract for a right handed pitcher. The Angels were trying to re-sign Greinke after trading for him midseason. Since they lost out on Greinke, they moved in on the biggest name out there, Josh Hamilton. Surprisingly, Hamilton signed a deal with the Rangers archrival for 5 years and $125 million.

The feeling in Texas has to be as bad or worse as it was in St. Louis last year when Albert Pujols left for Anaheim. Even worse for Rangers fans, they have to see Hamilton 18 times a year whereas Cardinal fans only see Pujols every few years. The Rangers weren't willing to give Hamilton more than a three years, but it was thought that Hamilton would get 6 or 7. He ended up getting 5, but will make more per year on average than Pujols will.

Hamilton is a great player when healthy, but is injury prone. Last year, Hamilton played in 148 games, the second highest total in his career. Two seasons he's been limited to under 100 games in 2007 and 2009. Hamilton's  MVP season in 2010, he only played in 133 games. Hamilton set a career high with 43 home runs last year, but fell into a deep slump later in the year. There are also concerns about Hamilton re-lapsing, and  his mental makeup. Hamilton played lackadaisical in the stretch run last year, dropping a flyball during a pivotal game against Oakland.

Still, a team with Pujols, Hamilton, and Mike Trout is a team to be reckoned with. Pujols is a three time MVP, and Hamilton won it in 2010. Trout finished 2nd this year and will certainly be a perennial MVP candidate. They also will feature Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick in their lineup. They finished 3rd in the American League in runs scored last year, and are a good bet to lead the league next year.

 The Angels outfield is crowded now with Hamilton, Trout, Trumbo, Vernon Wells, and Peter Bourjos in it. Wells came over in a trade from the Blue Jays a couple years back and has been awful with the Halos. In two seasons, Wells has a .222 batting average and a .258 on base percentage. Wells is owed $21 million for the next two seasons, and the Angels are likely stuck with him. However, he's blocking younger, better players. It's also a albratross of a contract and it's unlikely they will release him.

Wells will likely play some DH, but Kendrys Morales is their regular DH and a better hitter. Bourjos is a terrific defensive outfielder, and led the league in triples in 2011. Bourjos won't be playing center since Trout is there, and that leaves the corner OF spots. Those are occupied by Hamilton and Trumbo, with Wells also getting some of the playing time. Bourjos was relegated to defensive replacement and pinch runner last season, and could be traded. It's also possible that Trumbo is moved to third base, although he's shaky defensively there. Alberto Callaspo was their primary 3B last year, but is average at best offensively and could be moved to a utility role.

Most likely, the Angels will trade either Trumbo or Bourjos. They could be traded for a third baseman or a starting pitcher. I have a hard time believing they will part with Trumbo. Trumbo hit 32 home runs last year, and the Angels now have 4 guys who hit over 30 last year(Trumbo, Trout, Pujols, Hamilton). Here's a look at the Angels projected lineup next year, assuming they don't make anymore moves.

CF Mike Trout
2B Howie Kendrick
1B Albert Pujols
RF Josh Hamilton
3B Mark Trumbo
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Vernon Wells
C Chris Ianetta/Hank Conger
SS Erick Aybar

Maicer Izturis
Alberto Callaspo
Peter Bourjos

We know that the Angels will score a lot of runs next year, but how will their pitching be? They had a shaky bullpen, and they led the AL with 47 blown saves the past two seasons. They have also traded Ervin Santana, declined Dan Haren's option, and lost Greinke to free agency. However, they have added four pitchers this offseason. They traded reliever Jordan Walden to the Braves for starter Tommy Hanson, and added starter Joe Blanton, lefty reliever Sean Burnett, and closer Ryan Madson via free agency. These guys aren't stars, but they are solid pitchers.

Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson head the Angels rotation, and will be followed by Hanson, Blanton, and probably Garret Richards. Weaver won 20 games last year, and is one of the best pitchers in baseball. In the bullpen, they retain Ernesto Freiri, Scott Downs, and Kevin Jepsen. Burnett adds a second lefty, and Madson ends the bullen by committee approach of last year.

With the Rangers late season collapse and with Los Angeles signing Hamilton away from them, the Angels are the likely favorites in the AL West next year. That was the case this time last year, but the small budget Oakland Athletics ended up beating out both Texas and LA. The Angels have an impressive team on paper, but they still have to play the games. I wouldn't start printing out World Series tickets just yet. There will be a lot of pressure on this team to perform and manager Mike Scioscia knows it. If they miss the playoffs again next year, Scioscia and GM Jerry DiPoto might lose their jobs.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dodgers and Royals Upgrade Pitching

         Zack Greinke moves crosstown after signing big deal with Dodgers

The Dodgers made a couple of big moves this past weekend. They signed Korean pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu after posting a $25 million posting fee to the Korean leagues to negotiate with him. Ryu was then signed to a 6 year, $36 million contract. Ryu is a 25 year old left hander, and had a 2.80 ERA in 1238 innings in the Korean leagues. The Dodgers have had many Korean and Japanese pitchers pitch for them in the last couple of decades including Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park, Kaz Ishii, and Hong-Chi Kuo.

Zack Greinke also agreed to a six year, $147 million deal this weekend. It is a record deal for a right handed pitcher, and the second biggest deal for a pitcher in history after CC Sabathia's deal. Greinke also can opt-out of his deal after three years if he chooses. Greinke won the 2009 AL Cy Young Award and has struck out over 200 batters 3 out of the 4 last seasons. Last season, Greinke went 15-5 with a 3.48 ERA in 212.1 innings for the Brewers and Angels.

Greinke may be the highest paid right handed pitcher in baseball, but I don't think he's the best. I think he will pitch well in Dodger Stadium, but there is a lot of pressure for him to perform now. The Dodgers had some bad luck 13 years ago when they signed Kevin Brown to the first $100 million contract. Brown had a couple of dominant seasons for them, but was injury prone the rest of the contract and was dealt away to the Yankees later. Brown was also in his mid-30's when he signed the deal compared to Greinke being 29.

The Dodgers now have a surplus of starting pitching. They are led by ace left hander Clayton Kershaw, who won the 2011 NL Cy Young Award. Kershaw has led the NL in ERA and WHIP the past two seasons and will likely be offered a big extension soon. Kershaw will be eligible for free agency after the 2014 season. Kershaw and Greinke is a one of the best pitching duos in the league, and might remind Dodger fans of Orel Hershiser/Fernando Valenzeula, Don Sutton/Tommy John, and even Sandy Koufax/Don Drysdale. After that, the Dodgers still have Josh Beckett, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, and newly acquired Hyun-Jin Ryu. They also still have Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly, who were both injured at season's end. It's possible the Dodgers could put one or two of these guys on the market.

Another team who has been busy is the Kansas City Royals. They already signed Jeremy Guthrie to a three year deal and traded for Angels right hander Ervin Santana. Sunday night they made a big splash making a deal with the Rays. They traded for James Shields and Wade Davis, giving up prospects OF Wil Myers, RHP Jake Odorizzi, LHP Mike Montgomery, and 3B Patrick Leonard. Myers is a highly rated prospect and hit 37 home runs in the minors last season. Odorizzi was part of the Greinke deal with the Brewers two years ago. Tampa Bay got some good players in return as well, but the Royals desperately needed to upgrade their pitching.

Bruce Chen has been the Royals top starter the last two seasons. When Bruce Chen is your top starter, you know your team is in trouble. 2006 #1 pick Luke Hochevar took a huge step back in 2012, posting a 5.73 ERA. Hochevar may end up as a bust, and is not guaranteed a rotation spot next year. Journeyman Luis Mendoza was one of the Royals best starters last year, but could move to the bullpen next year. The Royals see alot of promise from lefty Danny Duffy, who will be coming back from Tommy John surgery next year. It looks like the Royals rotation will consist of Shields, Davis, Santana, Guthrie, and either Chen or Mendoza til Duffy gets back.

The Royals have a pretty decent bullpen in Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, and Aaron Crow as setup guys and Greg Holland as their closer. They traded Jonathon Broxton at the trading deadline last year. Former closer Joakim Soria missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, and signed with the Rangers earlier this month. With an improved rotation and some rising talent on offense, the Royals could be a much improved team next year. Billy Butler and Alex Gordon have developed into really good players. Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Salvador Perez look like they will be pretty good players as well. The AL Central is the weakest division in baseball, and the Tigers won it winning only 88 games. I still think the Tigers are the class of the division, but the Royals might be able to make a run next year.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Steroids and the Hall of Fame


                                    McGwire and Bonds talking in 2001

In a month, one of the most interesting Hall of Fame elections is going to be annnounced. There are some holdovers on the ballot with no steroid connections like Jack Morris, Lee Smith, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, Don Mattingly, and Dale Murphy. Morris got almost 67% of the vote last year and will only be on the ballot one more time if he don't get in this year. Raines has been gaining support, and considering he was one of the game's best players in the 80's, may eventually get in. Smith is around 50%, and since he's no longer the alltime saves leader, his case isn't as strong as it once was.

More recent retirees like Bernie Williams, Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Fred McGriff are also returning on this year's ballot. Martinez got the highest support last year with 36.5%, and there has never been any steroid/PED connection to any of these players. This is the third time on the ballot for Jeff Bagwell, who I thought was a surefire Hall of Famer when he retired. Bagwell only got 41% his first year, and jumped up to 56% last year. There is no evidence of Bagwell juicing, but is he being punished for his big build and the generation he played in? I don't know for sure if Bagwell didn't juice, but its also unfair to punish him without any evidence of it considering most of his career there wasn't rules against it.

Also returning to the ballot this year is Mark McGwire and Rafeal Palmeiro, two 500 home run hitters. McGwire admitted to using steroids almost 3 years ago after declining to discuss it in front of Congress years before that. Palmeiro failed a PED test soon after obtaining his 3000th hit. While these guys both put up unbelievable numbers, their steroid use has clearly hurt them with the HOF voters. Raffy is on the ballot for the third time, and only got 12.6% last year. Big Mac will be on the ballot for the 7th time, and the best showing he did was in 2010 when he got 23.7%. Palmeiro was always considered to be a second tier star when he played despite his impressive career numbers, and only made 4 All Star teams in 20 seasons. McGwire was also considered to be a one dimensional slugger who walked alot during much of his career. That been said, 10 years ago they both were considered to be likely Hall of Famers when they were eligible.

This year, there are many big name first time eligible players on the ballot. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, Curt Schilling, David Wells, Kenny Lofton, and Steve Finley will all appear on the ballot for the first time this year. Finley and Wells were very good players, but not HOF worthy in my opinion. Lofton is a notch below the Hall of Fame as well. That still leaves six players that have very impressive career resumes. Schilling isn't likely to be a first ballot guy, but his postseason heroics could put him over the hump someday. Biggio has no connection to PED's and is in the 3000 hit club. I would say Biggio is the most likely candidate to get in from that bunch this year.

Piazza has never been connected to steroids, but some writers seem to think he might of used them. I wouldn't be surprised either way, but with no evidence against him, it's similar to what's happening to Bagwell. Piazza is clearly the best offensive catcher in baseball history and should be a slam dunk choice. I've heard a lot of people in baseball call Ivan Rodriguez a future Hall of Famer, and there is more steroid innuendo to Rodriguez than Piazza. Rodriguez was named in Jose Canseco's book and there are rumors he failed a test in 2003. There was no punishment in 2003, and baseball agreed to only start punishing people for PED's if over 5% of the players failed those tests. Obviously, they did. However, Rodriguez never failed any tests since then, and its not certain if he did in 2003. Piazza never failed any tests either, and should get treated the same in my opinion.

That leaves Bonds, Clemens, and Sosa. None of these three players have admitted to steroid use, nor did they fail any tests after baseball started testing. That been said, I think all three of them used steroids during their careers. Clemens flat out denied using, and Bonds said he never knowlingly used steroids. When they played all kinds of players were using steroids, even bench players like FP Santangelo and Manny Alexander were named on the Mitchell Report.

Sosa has the weakest case of the three, although he did hit over 600 home runs during his career and won the 1998 MVP. I'm not sure when he started taking steroids, but I'm pretty sure it happened before the 1998 home run chase. Would Sosa of put up HOF numbers without using steroids? That's a question that's impossible to answer.

Clemens and Bonds both put up Hall of Fame resumes before their alleged juicing started. Most people think these guys started using PED's in the late 90's to extend their careers and compete with the many other players who were using. Still, Bonds was considered the best player in the game and Clemens the best pitcher long before they used a syringe. Bonds won 3 out of 4 MVP's in the early 90's and was a five tool player back then. Clemens won at least 3 Cy Young Awards before any PED allegations happened. While both of these guys were jerks during their careers, it's impossible to deny their greatness. Bonds is the only 7 time MVP, and Clemens is the only 7 time Cy Young winner in baseball history.

Cooperstown isn't a church though. There are racists, drunks, cheaters, drug users, and violent people in the Hall of Fame now. I know many of the writers want to keep the Hall pure of steroid users, but someday that line will be crossed. If a steroid user gets in, should Pete Rose and Joe Jackson get in? I've always thought both players should get in despite their breaking of the gambling rules. I also think there are some steroid users that should get in someday as well. There is no dispute that steroids helped players out, but leaving great players out of the Hall of Fame from the steroid era leaves a hole in the history.

In the next few years, there will be many impressive candidates on the ballot. In 2014, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, and Luis Gonzalez will be on the ballot. In 2015, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield will join them. in 2016, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Edmonds, Trevor Hoffman, and Billy Wagner will be on the ballot for the first time. Someday in the future admitted steroid users like Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez will be on the ballot.

I also think getting steroids out of the game is a good thing. It's a different style of game than it was 10 years ago, and the power numbers aren't as ridiculous as they once were.Instead of relying on rumors and innuendo, there is a testing program that proves rather players used or not. However, I do think its unfair to punish players of the past who may or may not of used in a different time in baseball history. Some guys like Piazza and Bagwell are being punished by voters who have no proof of PED usage.

There is little chance that Bonds or Clemens make the Hall this year. The Associated Press polled 112 HOF voters, which is about one-fifth of the overall voters. Bonds only got around 45%, Clemens 43%, and Sosa 18%. There are many voters who will flat out refuse to vote for any player who has steroid connections. What are they going to do when someone who did use steroids at some point during their career makes the Hall of Fame? It will happen someday, if it hasn't already happened. Is it fair to punish players for something that wasn't against the rules for most of their careers? Should there be a seperate wing or a asterisk on their Hall of Fame plaques if they make it? It will be interesting to see what happens in the next 5-10 years.

                   Clemens/Piazza bat throwing incident during the 2000 World Series