3 Biggest Surprises at the 1/4-Season Point

It may be hard to believe, but this week marks the quarter-season point for every team in baseball.  It’s around this time of year that we really begin to see what’s what.  A team that started out on a hot streak could easily come crashing back down to earth by this point in the season, if they aren’t a legit threat to win (ahem – Colorado Rockies).  And, the opposite is just as true.  A good team might have a rough April, but turn things around the rest of the way (watch out for the Nationals).  But, even though it’s difficult to judge a team or player based solely on 25% of a season, there are always some big surprises this time of year.  Here are the three biggest surprises, in my opinion.  In no particular order.

#1 – The Houston Astros

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the Astros are winning.  They have a quality core of young players.  But, I don’t believe anyone expected them to have the best record in the AL, and be one of only two teams with 27 wins at this point in the season.  I expect that most people (outside of Houston, anyway) expected this kind of performance in another year or two.  But, Dallas Keuchel has proven to be even better than advertised (6-0, 1.67 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, through 9 starts), and has placed himself in the early-season Cy Young conversation.  And, the bullpen in Houston has proven thus far that they are one of the best in baseball, sporting a 2.20 ERA (2nd only to KC in the AL), 11 wins (most in baseball), 16 saves (2nd only to TB in AL), just 30 walks (fewest in baseball) and 137 K’s (2nd only to NY in AL).   Their offense makes me a little nervous right now – it leads all of baseball in HR’s, but is only 8th in OPS, primarily because they’re 22nd in OBP (.305).  What that tells me is they’re relying pretty heavily on the HR to score runs at this point, and that usually isn’t the kind of offense you can count on for a full season.  But, for now, it’s working, and working well.

#2 – Clayton Kershaw

Four straight years leading the league in ERA.  Four consecutive years with an average ERA of 2.11, and average WHIP of 0.95.  Three Cy Youngs and a runner-up, in four seasons.  Coming into his age 27 season (normally the beginning of a player’s “prime” years), everyone expected the consensus best pitcher in the game to continue to cruise through the NL.  But, after 8 starts (right at 25% of his average full season), Kershaw is just 2-2, with a 4.24 ERA, and 1.24 WHIP.  If he averaged 7 innings per start the rest of the season, and reached 33 total starts (where he finished ’11,’12 & ’13), he would need an ERA of 2.11 over his next 25 starts, just to get his season ERA as low as 2.60 (which would still be his highest since 2010).  He’s on pace to allow more HR than ever before in his career, and he’s on pace to walk more than any of his Cy Young seasons.  A minor set-back wouldn’t shock me, after the way the postseason went for him last year.  But, this is pretty surprising for a guy that has been so dominant, and is still in the early stages of his career.

#3 – Nelson Cruz

The guy had never hit more than 29 HR in a season prior to last year, when he hit 40 at the age of 33 (the cynic in me begins to speculate as to exactly how that’s possible, but I’ll leave that alone for now).  And, the move to the cavernous Safeco Field in Seattle seemed like a poor choice for a strictly power-hitter.  But, something in the air in Seattle must agree with Cruz.  Through 39 games, he’s leading the league in batting (.351), HR (16), RBI (33), SLG (.715), OPS (1.121), and total bases (108).  While I don’t expect him to maintain this pace for the rest of the season (he’d challenge 60 HR, if he did!), he’s almost certain to turn in a better season than I ever anticipated – I expected 25 HR would be his max.  An early-season MVP candidate, Cruz has carried the Seattle offense (they’re 9th in the AL with a .706 OPS even with Cruz’s ridiculous stats), and kept their season from already being a bust (“just” 3 games below .500 and 8 games out of first place).

 

Do you have another big surprise that you think I missed?  Or, an entirely different top 3?  Tell me about it in the comments below!

All-Star Ballot #1

Since we are essentially a quarter of the way through the season, we are nearly half-way to the All-Star Game.  And, since voting ends July 2nd, it’s time to consider who deserves recognition for being an All-Star this year.  As I did last season, I will make 3 All-Star Game posts.  The first list will receive 5 of my 35 votes, the next list of players (posted in early to mid-June) will receive 10 votes, and my final ballot (posted near the end of voting) will receive 25 votes.  It might seem a bit convoluted, but I like to appreciate the guys who have started off the season well, even if they begin to fade by the time the Mid-Summer Classic arrives.  So, here is my first ballot, along with the stats to explain each choice (though, they may be slightly off, considering I wrote this a couple days ago).

2015_asg_logo_cin_banner_500x283

First Basemen

ALMiguel Cabrera (DET) – .333/.436/.601, 10 HR, 30 RBI.  Leads all AL 1B in batting, OBP, SLG, OPS and RBI.  He’s also 2nd in HR (by 1 to Mark Teixeira).  There are a few potential contenders here, but many of them have glaring weaknesses in their stats, when compared to Miggy – Teixeira’s batting .248, Edwin Encarnacion has a .311 OBP, etc.  The most complete contender at this point is in the same division – Eric Hosmer (.324/.402/.554, 7 HR, 29 RBI).  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Jose Abreu (CHW).

NLAdrian Gonzalez (LAD) – .356/.429/.681, 9 HR, 32 RBI.  Leads all NL 1B in avg., SLG, OPS and RBI.  He’s 3rd in OBP (behind Anthony Rizzo & Paul Goldschmidt) and 2nd in HR (by 1 to Goldschmidt).  This is a very tight 3-man race.  Even though Gonzalez leads the others in most categories, his edge is slim.  Rizzo and Goldschmidt are both having excellent seasons thus far, and could easily take over this spot in the coming weeks.  Also impressive is the fact that Rizzo & Goldschmidt have 8 & 6 SB, respectively.  Rizzo’s on pace for a 30/30 season!  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Freddie Freeman (ATL).

Second Basemen

ALJason Kipnis (CLE) – .340/.406/.507, 4 HR, 17 RBI, 5 SB.  Leads all AL 2B in batting, OBP, SLG, and OPS.  He’s 5th in HR & RBI, and tied for 2nd in SB.  This is a tough one to judge, because the league leaders are fairly spread out.  Devon Travis leads the league in HR & RBI, but is 5th in batting and 7th in OBP.  Jose Altuve leads the league in SB, is 2nd in batting and RBI, and 3rd in OBP, but 5th in SLG.  I’ll give Kipnis a slight edge right now, because he’s playing for the worst scoring offense among the contenders.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Logan Forsythe (TB).

NLDee Gordon (MIA) – .420/.444/.513, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 12 SB.  I know we aren’t supposed to care about batting average anymore, but batting .420 at this point in the season is impressive, no matter what.  Gordon also leads all NL 2B in OBP, SLG, OPS, and SB.  He also simply does not strike out.  The only second baseman in the league with a lower strikeout rate is Daniel Murphy.  Behind Gordon is a group of 3 players whose stats are all fairly similar, and have a shot at this spot should Gordon falter – Danny Espinosa, Kolten Wong, and Howie Kendrick.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Joe Panik (SF).

Shortstops

ALMarcus Semien (OAK) – .314/.356/.510, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 6 SB.  This is currently a 2-man race, and it’s ever so close.  Semien has the edge in HR, RBI, SB, SLG and OPS.  Jose Iglesias has the edge in batting, OBP, and doesn’t strike out nearly as often.  Plus, Iglesias is only 1 SB behind Semien, and their OPS is only separated by .035.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Brad Miller (SEA).

NL – Brandon Crawford (SF) – .285/.380/.512, 6 HR, 25 RBI.  Leads all NL SS in HR, RBI and OPS.  He’s 2nd in OBP & SLG.  Zack Cozart (leads SS’s in SLG) and Jhonny Peralta are just behind Crawford in most categories – but, not by much.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Freddy Galvis (PHI).

 Third Basemen

ALJosh Donaldson (TOR) – .307/.379/.527, 8 HR, 25 RBI.  He leads AL 3B in RBI, OBP, SLG and OPS.  He’s 2nd in HR and batting.  This one isn’t even really that close right now.  He leads the league in OPS by more than 50 points, and even though he’s 2nd in HR, the HR leader (Luis Valbuena) isn’t in the top 5 in anything else significant besides SLG (4th).  Mike Moustakas is the best competition for Donaldson right now.  He’s 2nd in OPS, and leads AL 3B in batting.  But, he has essentially half as many HR & RBI as Donaldson (4 & 13, respectively).  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Manny Machado (BAL).

NL –  Matt Carpenter (STL) – .328/.391/.619, 7 HR, 24 RBI.  Not sure he can sustain it, but, Carpenter is 1 HR away from matching last year’s total, and over half-way to a career high.  He’s leading all NL 3B in batting, SLG, OPS and RBI.  But, it’s a tight 3-man race.  Kris Bryant is tied with Carpenter for the RBI lead, and leads the league in OBP.  Todd Frazier is 1 RBI behind Carpenter & Bryant, leads the league in HR, and is 2nd in OPS.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Nolan Arenado (COL).

Catchers

ALStephen Vogt (OAK) – .327/.426/.645, 9 HR, 30 RBI.  This is easily the widest gap at any position right now.  Vogt leads all AL C in every significant offensive stat.  And, in many cases, it isn’t even close (136 point lead in OPS!!).  Russell Martin is having a really good year, and is actually 2nd to Vogt in everything but batting.  But, the gap is going to be tough to close over the next 6 weeks.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Salvador Perez (KC).

NLMiguel Montero (CHC) – .313/.430/.500, 4 HR, 15 RBI.  Leads all NL C in OBP, SLG and OPS.  He’s also 2nd in HR and batting.  Just a notch behind him is Yasmani Grandal (2nd in OBP, SLG, OPS & HR), and then a step behind Grandal is Buster Posey (who leads the league in HR).  Some want to use defense as a decisive stat at this position, but at this point in the season, no one is standing out in an especially good or bad way.  Perhaps that will become more apparent as the season wears on.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Derek Norris (SD).

Outfielders

ALMichael Brantley (CLE), Josh Reddick (OAK), Mike Trout (LAA).  Brantley leads all AL OF in batting, OBP, SLG and OPS.  Reddick is 2nd only to Brantley in SLG and OPS, and leads all OF in RBI.  Trout leads all OF in HR, and is 3rd in SLG and OPS.  Adam Jones is 4th in OPS, and makes for a nice competitor.  Chris Young and Avisail Garcia are also worthy of mention.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  J.D. Martinez (DET).

NLBryce Harper (WSH), Andre Ethier (LAD), Justin Upton (SD).  Harper is absolutely on fire.  He leads the entire league (not just OF) in HR, RBI, BB, TB, OBP, SLG and OPS.  He also leads NL OF in batting.  But, after Harper, the decision-making gets tough.  There are several candidates worth considering, depending on which stat you want to emphasize.  In the end, I chose OPS, and these are the top 3 OPS’s in the NL OF right now.  Some guys, like Giancarlo Stanton, are crushing the ball . . . if they make contact (just a .329 OBP, and an alarming 31.7% K-rate).  Others, like Matt Holiday, are getting on base all the time, but fall short in the power numbers (just 3 HR).  But, just a slight uptick in one area, and they could make me change my vote.  Others I considered were Joc Pederson, Denard Span and Starling Marte.  Longshot to keep an eye on:  Mark Trumbo (ARI).

Designated Hitter

ALNelson Cruz (SEA) – .340/.395/.694, 15 HR, 30 RBI.  He leads all DH in every category but OBP (Prince Fielder – .401).  No one is within 100 points of him in OPS.  The only category that’s close, other than OBP, is RBI, which he’s tied with Kendrys Morales for the lead.  Alex Rodriguez is having a nice year, but it lags far behind Cruz.  And, even though he’s currently 2nd among DH’s in OPS . . . longshot to keep an eye on:  Jimmy Paredes (BAL).

They Get It (part 2)

Some franchises seem to understand how to put together a team that can win a division consistently, or who can win enough games to make the playoffs on a regular basis.  But, just making it into the playoffs isn’t really what we’re looking for here.  The Braves of the ’90’s and early 2000’s won 14 “consecutive” division titles (so long as you aren’t counting the ’94 season that ended because of the strike, when they were 6 games behind the Expos), but were only able to convert that into a championship once.  The Dodgers have 6 playoff appearances in the last 11 seasons – but, half of those led to first-round exits, and they have a total of 4 wins in three NLCS appearances.  Regular season success is only moderately admirable.

The three teams that made my cut are teams that have consistently made it into the playoffs – and have been a consistent threat to win it all.  Teams that, even in the years they didn’t win it all, made it really difficult for the teams that beat them.  In order to do this on a regular basis, you have to really understand how to put a quality team together.  And, the second of three teams that really seem to get it is…

1960CARDINALS

St. Louis Cardinals

Over the last 15 seasons, the Cardinals have missed the playoffs just 4 times.  In other words, in a decade and a half, the Cardinals have as many playoff appearances as the Nationals, Rockies, Marlins and Rays have in their franchises’ history . . . combined.  And, of those 4 seasons without a playoff appearance, only one ended with a losing record (2007 – 6 games below .500), and none ended with the Cardinals in last place.  And, they aren’t just getting into the playoffs – they’re winning.  Only 2 of their 11 appearances ended with a loss in the first round.  Four NL pennants, and two World Series championships aren’t coincidental.  So, how do they do it?

The primary answer to that question is this – they know who they are.  St. Louis is the #21 television market in the U.S.  There are only 6 teams in all of baseball in smaller markets (Pirates, Orioles, Padres, Royals, Reds & Brewers).  But, that doesn’t mean they underspend.  They generally are in the top 10 payrolls in the league, but their total payroll still pails in comparison to the richest teams.  And, that’s because they keep the players that are particularly valuable, and let go of the ones who are asking for more money than they are worth (Pujols).  It all starts with the farm system.

In the last decade, here are some of the Cardinals’ first-round picks (keeping in mind that they were never drafting very high):  2005 (#28) – Colby Rasmus; 2007 (#18) – Pete Kozma; 2008 (#39 – supplemental) – Lance Lynn; 2009 (#19) – Shelby Miller; 2011 (#22) – Kolten Wong; 2012 (#19) – Michael Wacha (2013 NLCS MVP).  But, what impresses me most about the Cardinals scouting and farm system is not just that they were able to make first round picks that succeeded, but that much of their overall success has been the product of their own player development.  Just look at this list of names:

All of these are players that have made significant contributions to the winning ways of the Cardinals over the last 15 years.  And, they all went through the Cardinals’ farm system.

Timely trades, for the right kinds of players, has also been an important part of the Cardinals’ success.  David Freese was the 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP – and he was the lone minor league player they received in return from the Padres in 2007 for Jim Edmonds.  Matt Holliday has been one of the most consistently productive players in St. Louis over the last 5+ seasons.  He was traded to the Cardinals by the A’s in exchange for 3 minor leaguers – none of whom have made any significant contribution at the major league level.  Adam Wainwright is a 3-time All-Star, and has finished in the top 3 in Cy Young voting four times.  But, he didn’t begin his career in St. Louis.  He was a part of the trade that sent J.D. Drew to the Braves after the 2003 season.  Along with Drew, the Cardinals sent utility man Eli Marrero to Atlanta for Wainwright, reliever Ray King (who would put together a 2.91 ERA over 163 appearances in the next 2 years in St. Louis), and starter Jason Marquis (who won 15 games with a 3.71 ERA the next year for the Cardinals).  Scott Rolen won 3 Gold Gloves, went to 4 All-Star games, and helped the Cardinals to two World Series.  He was also the primary piece of the trade between St. Louis and Philadelphia, in which the only other player of note was Placido Polanco going to Philly.

The Cardinals also don’t go out and buy up the top-name free agents.  They make the moves that make the most sense for them.  Jeff Suppan was not the most sought after starting pitcher after the ’03 season (especially with Clemens, Colon and Pettitte available).  But, the Cardinals filled a need, and Suppan went 44-26 with a 3.95 ERA over the next three seasons, and was the 2006 NLCS MVP.  Two days into the free agent market of 2004 (an offseason that included the signing of Beltran, Beltre, Glaus, and others), the Cardinals jumped at the chance to sign . . . David Eckstein for 3 years, $10 million.  The Angels were willing to let him go, because they went on to sign the much more well-known commodity that was Orlando Cabrera for more than twice as much money – and, over the next three seasons, Eckstein & Cabrera had nearly identical stats (though, Eckstein was slightly better). And the Angels had two playoff appearances that fell short of the Fall Classic, while Eckstein was the World Series MVP in ’06.  We don’t even have time to get into the timely signings of Chris Carpenter, Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman and other key role players in St. Louis’ success.

For well over a decade now, the Cardinals franchise has proven that they get what it takes to build a championship caliber team.

They Just Don’t Get It (part 2)

Why is it so painfully obvious to the rest of the baseball world when some franchises just can’t seem to get it right?  How is it possible for a guy to hold a general manager position year after year after year, only to watch the team flounder under his watch?  Although, it isn’t always the GM that’s at fault.  Maybe he’s hamstrung by ownership that isn’t willing to properly invest in a winning team.  Maybe it’s a team that can’t generate enough revenue because the fans in a market that’s plenty big enough just don’t support their team (Tampa).  Perhaps it’s a franchise in one of the largest TV markets in the country that acts like it’s a small-market team that can’t spend money on high-end free agents (ahem, Houston).  There may be a number of contributing factors to why a team seems to struggle to ever succeed.

But, while there are often a number of reasons why a team struggles to succeed, there are some teams that seem to be the Barney Fife’s of MLB.  They consistently shoot themselves in the foot.  We saw last week how the Mets (in spite of what seems like a number of rising stars in their farm system), just can’t ever seem to get things rolling in the right direction.  Today’s team that just doesn’t seem to get it…

pMLB2-5637638dt

Seattle Mariners

Granted, this is a team that has only been in existence for 38 seasons.  But, only one other franchise in baseball has never been to the World Series (Expos/Nationals – and, I think we’d all agree they’re a lot closer to ending that drought than Seattle is).  And, no other franchise as old as Seattle has fewer playoff appearances.  The Mariners clustered together four playoff appearances from ’95-’01 – and that’s it.  Nearly 40 years of history, and just 4 playoff appearances without a single appearance in the Fall Classic (and going a combined 5-12 in the three ALCS’s they’ve made it to).

It would be one thing if they were competitive every now and then, and had just missed the playoffs.  But, in 38 seasons, the Mariners have had a losing record 26 times!  Which means that in every decade of baseball in Seattle, you’ll get 3 winning seasons, and maybe one of them will be a playoff team – but the other 7 seasons, you might as well throw in the towel.  In fact, before their miraculous ALDS win over the Yankees in ’95, things were so bad that there was serious talk of moving the franchise out of Seattle.  That playoff victory saved baseball in Seattle.  Though, I’m not sure that baseball is better for it.

So, why have they been so bad for so long?  Let’s start with their drafting skills.  Yes, the draft in baseball is considerably different from the NFL or NBA.  There are far fewer “sure things.”  First round busts are about one out of every three or four.  But, with Seattle going through several lackluster seasons, they were privileged enough to be drafting much higher in the draft, which offers them several opportunities to put together quality picks.  Yet, they found a way to swing and miss almost every time.  If we go back to the 2012 draft (generally, the players we’d expect to be seeing soon), we see the Mariners chose Mike Zunino as the #3 overall pick.  He cracked the top-100 prospect list just once while in the minors, and in a year and a half in the majors (183 games), he has posted a whopping .203/.265/.383 stat line – not good, even for a catcher.  In the 2011 draft, the Mariners had the #2 pick, and chose Danny Hultzen – who has missed most of the last two seasons in the minors due to shoulder surgeries.  In 2010, they drafted Taijuan Walker at #43, as a part of the supplemental first round (their regular pick was gone to the Angels) – Walker has potential, but the jury’s still out.

Then things start getting really ugly.  2009 #2 pick – Dustin Ackley (.239/.300/.355 stat line in three full seasons in Seattle); 2008 #20 pick – Josh Fields (traded in ’11 for Trayvon Robinson, who has a .215/.272/.330 stat line in 90 games in the majors); 2007 #11 pick – Phillippe Aumont (part of the Cliff Lee trade in ’09, which got them half a season of Lee, to finish in 3rd place); 2006 #5 pick – Brandon Morrow (traded in ’09 for Brandon League, who was traded in ’12 for inconsequential minor leaguers).  So, even the best first-round pick they made in several years ended up being traded away for basically nothing.  Then, there’s 2005.  The Mariners had the #3 pick in what turned out to be an extremely talented draft.  And, they chose . . . Jeff Clement.  In four major league seasons, Clement played in 152 games, and bat .218.  Meanwhile, the other top 7 picks in that draft – Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Ricky Romero, and Troy Tulowitzki (all of whom have been All-Stars at least once).  The list of bad draft picks goes on, but I’ll stop there.

With this kind of drafting, it should be no surprise that the Mariners don’t have a strong farm system.  At the end of last season, they only had 2 of the top 100 prospects in baseball.  But, this is just the beginning of the troubles for Seattle.  Because even if your farm system isn’t great, you can make the right moves to improve your major league team here and there.  But, Seattle has consistently made the wrong moves.

Jeff Cirillo was supposed to be worth trading three prospects (including Brian Fuentes – who went on to 4 All-Star selections), after four consecutive .300 seasons.  But, in two years in Seattle, he compiled a .234/.295/.308 stat line.  After the 2006 season, they traded Rafael Soriano (who has saved 191 games over the last 6 seasons) for Horacio Ramirez – who lasted one season in Seattle, and put together a staggering 7.16 ERA.  Prior to the 2008 season, they traded Adam Jones (a first round draft pick), Chris Tillman (a second round draft pick) and George Sherrill along with two other minor leaguers to the Orioles for . . . Erik Bedard.  Granted Bedard had a good season in 2007 (13-5, 3.16 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) – but, oh what a price to pay for a #2 starter.  Especially when he ends up starting just 46 games over 2.5 years, goes 15-14 with a 3.31 ERA, and 1.23 WHIP.  But, trades aren’t the only bad moves the Mariners make.

Safeco Field, the home of the Mariners for the last 15 years, is not a hitters’ ballpark.  It consistently ranks in the bottom 1/4 of baseball in run production.  So, what do the Mariners do?  Continue to sign big power-hitters to inflated contracts, only to see their numbers trail off significantly when playing half their games in Seattle.  Adrian Beltre hit 48 home runs the year before signing a huge contract with the Mariners in 2004.  He averaged 21 HR per year while in Seattle, despite those being his prime years.  Yet, when he left Seattle at the age of 31, over the next 4 seasons, he averaged 32 HR.  Robinson Cano was given a lucrative 10-year contract worth $240 million – at the age of 31.  Nevermind how little sense that makes on the surface, but from the ages of 26-30 in New York, he averaged 28 HR per season.  In his first year in Seattle – 14 HR.  After never having made more than $10.5 million in a single season, Nelson Cruz signed a 4-year deal with the Mariners this past offseason . . . for $57 million!  At the age of 34!  He has averaged 29 HR per year over the last six seasons, in much more hitter-friendly ballparks, during the prime of his career.  If he cracks 20 HR in 2015, I’ll be shocked.

The Mariners have some nice pitching.  But, when your stadium is already a great pitcher’s ballpark, perhaps you should spend more time seeking out quality contact hitters who will get on base, and keep the offense flowing.  I guess the fact that the Mariners don’t seem to realize this shouldn’t surprise us.  38 years of less-than-mediocre success isn’t a fluke.  They just don’t get it.

They Get It (part 1)

In conjunction with the series on the franchises that just don’t seem to get it, I’m going to write three posts on teams that really do seem to understand how to develop a winning team.  I don’t mean that they have been able to just win a World Series.  I don’t even necessarily mean that they’ve been able to win more than one lately (though, that does help).  Because the Florida/Miami Marlins have won two World Series titles, but I would hardly qualify what they do as “getting it.”  Especially considering that outside their two championship runs, they have never even made it into the playoffs, and have only finished as high as 2nd in their division one other time in the team’s 22-year history.  So, winning a championship here or there only gets you so far in my book (that goes for you, too, Phillies, White Sox, and Angels).

I’m looking at the teams that have built a consistently winning team.  Organizations that have been able to build something impressive, with timely trades, shrewd free agent acquisitions, and quality player development in their minor league system.  I don’t believe that any of my three choices will surprise you, because they are teams that we constantly see in October.  But, at minimum, I hope we will all gain a greater appreciation for what the front office has been doing with these teams.

So, the first team that really gets it is . . .

SanFranciscoGiantsSleevePatch8-35849

San Francisco Giants

Like I said – this should be a shock to no one.  Unless you’ve had your head buried in the sand the last 5 years, it’s been impossible to miss the almost clockwork success of the Giants.  Three World Series titles in five years.  That’s a feat that only four other franchises in the history of baseball have been able to accomplish – Athletics (1910, ’11 & ’13; ’72-’74), Red Sox (1915, ’16, & ’18), Cardinals (1942, ’44, & ’46), and, of course, the Yankees (4 times – ’36-’39; ’49-’53; ’58, ’61 & ’62; and ’96 & ’98-2000).  Even in the years between championships, you can see specific reasons why they weren’t especially competitive (2013 – practically their entire starting rotation tanked in the same year!; 2011 – Buster Posey‘s gone for the whole season, and they finished just 4 games out of the playoff picture).

But, the success of the Giants goes further back than just their recent run of championships.  In the last 18 years, this is a team with 7 postseason appearances, 4 National League pennants, and 3 titles.  And, they were 6 outs away from winning all 4 World Series appearances, if the bullpen had been able to hold up in game 6 in 2002.  But, in this same period of time, the Giants have just one last-place finish (2007), and have finished in either first or second place in their division 12 times.  And, my favorite part about the success the Giants have had, is the way they have built it – which is the primary reason they’re featured in this series.

Madison Bumgarner isn’t an “out of nowhere” phenomenon.  He was the Giants’ #1 draft pick in 2007, and was a highly-touted prospect leading up to his debut in 2010.  But, that’s just the beginning.  Buster Posey was their #1 pick in 2008, Tim Lincecum was their #1 pick in 2006, Matt Cain was their #1 pick in 2002 – all of whom have made major contributions to the Giants’ success of late.  Then there’s 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval (signed as an amateur free agent in 2003), Brian Wilson (drafted in 2003), Sergio Romo (drafted in 2005), Nate Schierholtz (2nd round pick in ’03), Russ Ortiz (4th round pick in ’95), and even Joe Nathan (6th round pick in ’95) – all of whom have contributed to winning seasons in San Francisco.

Why does all of this matter?  While the Giants do reside within the 6th largest U.S. television market, they also share it with another MLB team (Oakland).  Which means they aren’t going to generate the revenue of a Boston, Atlanta or Dallas.  And, that’s been born out most years by the amount of money they have been spending on their payroll.  The 2014 championship team was, by far, their most expensive – $140 million (6th in MLB) – while they were much more average spenders in other years – $117 million in 2012 & $98 million in 2010.  Other than making Barry Bonds the highest paid player in baseball in ’92, when was the last time you remember the Giants going out and spending huge money on a single player?  Barry Zito, I guess? (And, they almost immediately regretted that decision)  No, the Giants spend their money in the right places – developing their own talent, and adding key pieces to help them win.

Speaking of key additions, how could we ignore the important players the Giants front office has signed (or traded for) that have been invaluable pieces of their winning seasons?  Edgar Renteria was the 2010 World Series MVP in one of just two seasons he played in San Fran.  Cody Ross was the NLCS MVP that same year, and he was a late-season pick up from the Marlins.  Other mid-season trades brought in Marco Scutaro (2012 NLCS MVP) and Travis Ishikawa (hit the HR to win the NLCS in game 5 in 2014).  And, we can’t ignore Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence – the only two players on the team that will make 8-figure salaries over the next couple years that aren’t home-grown talent.  And, considering their contributions to the Giants over the last few years, they are well worth what the Giants are paying them.

While they may have gone through a lull in their success from 2005-2008 (4 of their 5 losing seasons out of the last 18), they certainly seem to have figured out how to win consistently, and how to build a champion by the Bay.

They Just Don’t Get It (part 1)

During this offseason, there was a flood of action.  Big name free agents were available.  Big names were traded.  The face of some franchises was completely changed.  Several teams made moves that could push them into playoff contention (both Chicago teams, Boston, San Diego, Miami, etc.).  Some teams made less appealing moves (I’m looking at you, Billy Beane), but we’ll have to wait and see how they work out.  But, today’s article is the first of six in which I hope to highlight some of the recent history with a handful of teams.  We’re going to begin with the teams that simply don’t seem to understand how to build a championship caliber team.

As soon as you read that sentence, I imagine a team or two popped into your head.  Most teams in the league go through ups and downs – good years and bad.  But, these teams fail repeatedly.  They’re the teams that can’t seem to get out of their own way.  They’re the Oakland Raiders of MLB.  They’re the teams that you almost feel bad for a guy when he’s traded there (unless, of course, you happen to be a fan of that team).  And, for a litany of reasons, they will continue to fail unless they stumble by sheer luck into a great player, or some drastic changes are made in the front office.

“Honorable” Mention:

Chicago Cubs:  Until they prove that they can actually win – and win consistently – all the impressive talent in their minor league system is just that: the minor leagues.  Prior to the signing of Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, et al., by new ownership, I would have absolutely included the Cubs in one of these posts (the previous front office spent money in all the wrong places).  But, while they have finished in last place each of the last 5 seasons, the new regime has used their advantageous draft position (as well as timely trades) to turn one of the leagues most dilapidated farm systems into one of (if not the) best in the game.  Additionally, with the acquisitions of Jon Lester, Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero, they have added key pieces to a team that is likely to see that young talent start producing.  It all remains to be seen whether or not it will work – but, for now, we will avoid accusing them of simply “not getting it.”

Now, for today’s team that just doesn’t get it…

NewYorkMetsSecondarylogo

New York Mets

Over the last 26 years, the Mets have made 3 playoff appearances.  And, they haven’t even sniffed the playoffs since 2008.  But, what will drive Mets fans crazy is the fact that they have only finished in last place three times, in that same stretch of time.  They consistently field a . . . mediocre team.  They aren’t the laughing stock of the league, like the franchise was when it first got its start in 1962.  But, they aren’t ever able to really put it all together.  Why?  There are a plethora of reasons.  Let’s start with the farm system.  The Mets currently have a respectable farm system (generally considered to be one of the top 10 in the game at the moment).  But, they can’t seem to translate minor league potential into major league talent.  Even when guys make it into the major leagues and do well (Jason Isringhausen), they immediately plummet back to earth, and are soon traded away – in Isringhausen’s case, he went on to great success as a closer, after the Mets gave up on him as a starter, and traded him away.  But, think about some of the big-time talent over the last several years that didn’t pan out from the Mets’ farm system:  Lastings Milledge (their #1 draft pick in ’03), Jason Tyner (#1 draft pick in ’98), Paul Wilson (#1 overall pick in ’94), Bill Pulsipher (2nd round pick in ’91 – one of the supposed “Generation K” group of pitching prospects in the Mets farm system, which included Wilson and Isringhausen).  Then there’s prospects they’ve picked up in trades.  Alex Ochoa was the prospect that the Mets were waiting for, in order to pull the trigger on a trade that sent Bobby Bonilla to Baltimore.  And, while the jury’s still out on him, wasn’t Travis d’Arnaud supposed to be the key piece of the R.A. Dickey trade with Toronto?  Yet, despite destroying AAA pitching for two years, in his 139 games at the major league level, he has a whopping .233/.299/.384 stat line.  All of these, at various times, were considered top-quality prospects.

Some might suggest that it’s unfair to judge a team or front office by their drafting abilities, because it’s so difficult to get from the minors to the majors.  And, while I do think that better scouting and better minor league coaching is going to have a significant impact on your major league team, I can see why some would defend these moves by the Mets as something they couldn’t have necessarily seen coming.  But, that doesn’t excuse the moves they should have seen coming.

One thing the Mets seem to be interested in doing is waiting to see a player blossom into a great talent, spend his prime years with another team, and then overpay him when he’s past his prime (but still a recognizable name in the league, so their fans will think they’re getting someone great).  The list is long.  And sad.  And, it begins with Bobby Bonilla.  Five years and $29 million is a quality second baseman’s contract these days (see Howie Kendrick).  But, in 1991, it made Bonilla the richest player in the game.  But, the richest player in the game was far from the best player in the game.  Before being traded in the midst of his 4th year of the contract (see above discussion of Ochoa), he made 2 All-Star game appearances (never as a starter), and never received a single MVP vote.  Bonilla wasn’t a bad player – but, richest contract in baseball?  Not even close.

But, the saddest part about all this is – that’s not even the worst decision the Mets made regarding a Bonilla contract.  When they re-signed him before the ’99 season (at the age of 36), it was for two years at nearly the same salary, after having played just 100 games the previous season due to injury.  The ’99 season was a disaster – only 60 games, batting .160, and creating all kinds of havoc in the clubhouse.  It made perfect sense that the Mets wanted to buy out Bonilla’s contract for 2000.  What didn’t make sense, was the way they bought him out.  Instead of doing the logical thing, and paying him his $5.9 million, they decided to defer the payment until 2011.  Why would Bonilla agree to this?  Because that $5.9 million would turn into $30 million.  From 2011 through 2035, the Mets will owe Bobby Bonilla about $1.2 million per year.  Only the Mets…

Want more bad contracts from the Mets?  How about a 4-year, $66 million contract for a 31-year-old Jason Bay in 2010?  That one was so bad that after his pitiful 2012 season, they were willing to pay him $21 million to go play somewhere else.  What about the “power-hitting” and “can’t miss defender” that was Kaz Matsui?  Three years and $20 million later, the Mets realized he was actually a singles hitter at best (.256/.308/.363 stat line in NY), and an average defender.  Six years, $137-million for a 29-year-old Johan Santana doesn’t sound ridiculous.  That is, until you realize he was coming off the worst season of his career.  And, when he wasn’t injured, and could actually play for the Mets, he only won 46 games.  That’s about $3 million per win.  Pedro Martinez is a Hall of Fame pitcher.  But, signing him at the age of 33, for 4 years and $54 million in 2004??  He only reached double-digit wins once in NY.  For more bad ideas, see the Mets’ signings of Oliver Perez in 2009, Luis Castillo in 2008, Vince Coleman in ’91, Roger Cedeno in 2002, and so on.

There’s a reason the Mets have just 7 playoff appearances in their 53-year history.  And, unless they get some legitimate batting talent, all this talk of their vaunted pitching prospects isn’t going to matter, and they will continue to view the postseason from their couch at home.

2015 Predictions: Playoffs

Yes, we’re barely on the cusp of Spring Training, and I’m already talking about October baseball.  But, what’s the point of making division-by-division predictions, if we aren’t going to try and guess who will finish the season on top??  So, here’s how I see the playoff picture coming into focus at the end of the year:

American League

Division Winners:  Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Oakland A’s

Wild Card Teams:  Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers

I don’t believe the Red Sox have improved enough with their pitching staff to overtake Baltimore.  And, I honestly don’t think they’ve done enough to end up even as a Wild Card team.  It will be a tight race between Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and the White Sox – I only have 4 games separating them all.  But, in the end, the AL Central will have 3 playoff teams.

 

National League

Division Winners:  Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Dodgers

Wild Card Teams:  Chicago Cubs, San Diego Padres

Until the Padres signed Shields, I had them two games behind the Cardinals for that second Wild Card spot.  But, I think Shields will make just enough of a difference to push them over St. Louis.  To me, the Cubs are the bigger surprise here.  Everyone has heard about their stellar young offensive players that are on the cusp of breaking through for big years.  But, if their bullpen and rotation perform as well as last year, they could have the best overall pitching staff in the league.

 

Now that we have the general playoff picture set, let’s talk winners…

AL Wild Card:  Cleveland def. DetroitSan_Diego_Padres_041e44_fcfefcCleveland_Indians

NL Wild Card:  San Diego def. Chicago

 

ALDS:

orioles-badgeBaltimore def. Cleveland (3-1)Oakland_Athletics

Oakland def. Kansas City (3-2)

 

NLDS:

Washington_NationalsWashington def. San Diego (3-0)th_Pittsburgh_Pirates

Pittsburgh def. Los Angeles (3-2)

 

 

ALCS:athletics-vs-orioles

Baltimore def. Oakland (4-2)

 

NLCS:Pirates-vs-Nationals

Washington def. Pittsburgh (4-1)

 

WORLD SERIES:

Washington def. Baltimore (4-2)

Washington_Nationals