Sneaky Good

A number of players have been reaching milestones lately.  A-rod crossed the 3,000 hit mark, as well as the 2,000 RBI mark.  Mike Trout became the youngest to reach both 100 HR and 100 SB in a career.  Prince Fielder hit his 300th HR.  And, these are all great achievements, and perhaps one day all of these will be in the Hall of Fame (though, Rodriguez is gonna have to wait quite a while, I imagine).  But, today, I want to draw your attention to a couple players that you might not realize are as good as they are.  Not because you’ve never heard of them.  Not because they haven’t been All-Stars.  But, because you may not realize what their career is shaping up to be.  One batter and one pitcher whose careers are very much on a Hall of Fame pace – and, I’m not sure too many are paying attention.

The Batter

adrian-beltreAdrian Beltre.  While it may seem as though Beltre has been around forever – he’s only 36.  Which, if he can stay healthy, means he has a solid 3+ seasons left in the tank.  And, as his career stands right now, he has 401 HR and 2,657 hits.  Let’s start with the hits.  If Beltre finishes this season with just 125 hits (the 2nd fewest of his career since he became an everyday starter), because he’s been injured, he would only need 90 hits per year the next three seasons to crack 3,000.  But, a realistic drop-off in production over the next three years has him going over 3,100 for his career – somewhere in the Tony Gwynn/Robin Yount neighborhood.

Only 29 batters in the history of the game have eclipsed 3,000 hits.  Though, by the time Beltre were to accomplish the feat, it would probably be 30 (Ichiro figures to beat him to the punch).  But, what is likely even more impressive, is the fact that Beltre will also finish his career with 450+ HR.  If he didn’t hit another HR this year, he would only need 17 per season the next three years to cross that barrier.  There are only 8 players ever to have 3,000 hits and at least 450 HR – Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray, Dave Winfield, Rafael Palmeiro (though his stats are highly questionable), and A-Rod (whose stats are questionable, but not nearly as bad as Palmeiro).

And on that list of eight players, do you know how many are third basemen? – one.  Sort of.  Rodriguez still hasn’t played as many games at third as he has at short.  But, Beltre has spent his career at the hot corner – winning 4 Gold Gloves in the process.  He has the potential to go down as one of the best all-around third basemen of all time!  But, who, outside of the state of Texas, even knows this?

The Pitcher

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego PadresZack Greinke.  Pitching in the shadow of Clayton Kershaw has been one of the best moves of Greinke’s career.  Since joining the Dodgers, Greinke is 37-14 with a 2.50 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 438 K’s in 474.2 IP.  It has also helped him stay well on pace for some impressive career numbers.  Like Beltre, I think most people think of Greinke as a veteran that’s getting on up there in age.  But, he’s only 31 years old, and doesn’t actually have a ton of innings already logged (just 1,966.2 in his career).  You see, Greinke came up at the age of 20, in 2004.  He had a couple rough years as a starter, and went back down to AA in 2006.  When he came back in 2007, he spent the majority of that year in the bullpen, before really catching on as a full-time starter in 2008, at the age of 24.

Through what we’ll call 11+ seasons (2007 hardly counts), Greinke has 128 wins and 1,770 K’s.  Now, I understand that projecting a pitcher who potentially has 7-8 more seasons left is very difficult to do.  But, let’s say that Greinke played 8 more full seasons (beyond 2015), and finished with 20 years in the big leagues.   Where were other 20-year pitchers at this point in their career?  Through 2032 IP, Fergie Jenkins had 135 W’s and 1650 K’s.  Through 1902 IP, Curt Schilling had 110 W’s and 1739 K’s.  Through 2060 IP, John Smoltz had 129 W’s and 1769 K’s.  Do you see where this is heading?

Zack Greinke could become just the 17th pitcher ever to record 3,000 K’s in a career – 14 of whom are already in the HOF.  He’s also on pace for at least 225+ wins.  Playing with arguably the best pitcher in the game on his team has caused many to overlook Greinke’s talent.  But, don’t be surprised if he goes down as one of the all-time greats, when it’s all said and done.

 

How Does Ruben Amaro Still Have a Job?

amaroRunning a baseball team is NOT an easy job. I get that. And, to those who are able to do it well, I am more than willing to give credit. But, I don’t believe that holding on to a GM for year after year after year of decline makes any sense. And if I’d written this article about 4-5 years ago, the name in the title might have been Jim Hendry.  But, in 2015, it’s time for a change in Philadelphia.

Ruben Amaro Jr. is now in his 7th season as the GM of the Phillies.  He took over as the GM in November of 2008, after the Phillies had just finished winning a championship. His first three seasons looked promising – winning the division each year. But, this wasn’t a team Amaro built. He inherited a winner. And, each year, the team finished one step further from a championship – losing the World Series, then losing the NLCS, then losing the NLDS.  Since that 2011 season, the team has yet to finish above .500.  And, at the rate they’re playing this season, they’ll be guaranteed a losing record about half-way through August.

But, a few losing seasons isn’t an automatic hook.  Just look at some of the teams that are playing well this season.  The Twins, the Cubs, the Astros – they’ve all endured a few bad seasons of late.  But, if you looked closely at what those clubs were doing, you would have noticed that there was a rebuilding taking place.  Right now, even as all three of those teams are poised to make playoff runs, those are three of the strongest farm systems in the game.  These are three teams that are now primed to succeed in 2015 and beyond.

So, after three consecutive seasons at or below .500, and as they’re well on their way to the worst record in baseball in 2015, what does the future look like for the Phillies?  In a word – bleak.  The farm system feeding the Philadelphia team is generally ranked in the bottom 1/3 of baseball.  Usually somewhere around #21.  They have just 2 prospects in the top 100 in baseball, and their best prospect is still at least a year away from the majors (J.P. Crawford – a SS who has played just 21 games at AA).

The moves (and lack of moves) made by Amaro has turned a team that looked like a perennial contender into a team with no hope on the horizon.  Let’s start with the first big move made by Amaro – acquiring Roy Halladay.  This transpired after the 2009 season.  In December of ’09, he maneuvered a trade that looked promising.  Halladay essentially replaced Cliff Lee (whom they shipped off to Seattle), and they even got a couple top prospects from Seattle in the process.  There were a lot of other moving parts, but let’s keep it simple.  Halladay was given a 3-year extension for $20 million per season, which would carry his contract through the 2013 season.  Four years of Roy Halladay for a sum of just over $75 million.  The story was that the Phillies were worried Cliff Lee was going to want a 6-7 year deal worth over $20 million per season.  So, they were able to get Halladay for 4, at a slightly cheaper rate.

Problem #1 with this logic – Lee is two years younger than Halladay.  The 2010 season was Halladay’s age 33 season.  Yes, Halladay won a Cy Young that year.  But, the wheels came flying off his career in spectacular fashion half-way through his contract with the Phillies.

Problem #2 – Amaro turned around and signed Lee the very next offseason to a 5-year deal worth over $100 million!  That contract, by the way, will pay Lee $50 million over 2014 & 2015 – during which time he has pitched a total of 81 innings (and probably won’t be pitching again until close to August).

Problem #3 – The best prospect the Phillies got back from Seattle (Phillippe Aumont – a 2011 1st round pick), has turned out to be a sub-par relief pitcher, who took his first stab at starting at the major league level last week – 4 IP, 7 BB, 2 HR, 6 ER.

Problem #4 – The best prospect the Phillies sacrificed in this deal (Travis d’Arnaud – a 2007 1st round pick), was 7th in ROY voting last year, and outside of a couple unfortunate injuries this year, has played very well (.873 OPS as a catcher).

Perhaps some of this would have been impossible to predict – but, signing aging pitchers to 4 and 5-year deals doesn’t usually work out.  So, even if you miss on a couple big free agents or a bad trade, good draft picks will keep your farm system healthy.  So, let’s take a look at Amaro’s draft picks that have made a significant impact at the MLB level . . . [crickets].  Well, how about draft picks that have made some contribution at the MLB level? – just one.  Ken Giles, a 7th-round pick in 2011, looks like a good set-up man.  He might even become a quality closer one day, if he can cut down his WHIP a little (currently 1.27).  But, that’s it.  That’s the list.  No one else drafted by Amaro has made anything close to significant contribution at the major-league level – through 6 years of drafts.  I’ll concede the fact that the Phillies’ top 2 prospects are their last two 1st-round picks.  But, those are also the only two they have in the top 100 in baseball.

Now we come to the biggest reason the Phillies’ future is grim:  trades – but, primarily, the lack thereof.  During the 2011 season, they made a trade-deadline deal for Hunter Pence, in an effort to boost their offense.  There’s no question Pence had an impact, and was a big part of the Phillies’ run to the playoffs.  But, they still lost the NLDS – and traded away two top-100 prospects to Houston (Jarred Cosart & Jon Singleton).  This move made even less sense a year later.  By the end of June in 2012, the Phillies were 10 games out of 1st, and 8 games below .500.  So, Amaro figures Pence is a good trade chip, as he’s nearing the end of his contract.  Another trade-deadline deal sends Pence to the Giants (who went on to win the World Series), and in return the Phillies get . . . 3 guys who were never once ranked in the top-100 prospects.  Only two have even made it to the majors, and the best of the lot was Nate Schierholtz, a journeyman outfielder who retired with a .253 average in parts of 8 major-league seasons.

Of all the players Amaro could have traded – he gets rid of the only starting position player on the team under the age of 30?  And for essentially nothing of any consequence?  Meanwhile, over the last 3+ seasons he has continued to pay an aging Chase Utley $15 million per year (he was 33 in 2012, and could have been traded at a number of points in the last 3 years for prospects), Ryan Howard is making over $20 million per year (he was 32 in 2012, and even with his steep contract and lagging numbers, if Amaro would have eaten some of that contract, he could have at least received something in return), and Jimmy Rollins continued making $11 million per year until he was finally traded for two mediocre prospects this past offseason (which sadly, are the Phillies’ #4 & #5 prospects in their system).

And, what about Jonathan Papelbon?  Signed after that 2011 season, but the team hasn’t been anywhere near contention since.  Several teams over the years would have given up a quality prospect for Papelbon.  But, here he is, 34 years old, making $13 million per year, doing nothing of significance for the Phillies.  But of all the boneheaded non-moves Amaro has made – the worst has to be his dealing with Cole Hamels.  Hamels is a legit stud ace.  And everyone has been waiting for the Phillies to pull the trigger on that trade for a couple years now.  But, we just keep waiting.  And, the price teams are willing to pay keeps getting lower and lower and lower.  If Hamels and Papelbon are still on the Phillies roster at the end of the 2015 season, Amaro should be looking for employment elsewhere.

The Phillies should have been in “rebuilding” mode 2-3 years ago.  Instead, their fans have suffered through what is going to be 4 seasons of sub-par baseball, while their GM has done nothing to help their future.  Now, they’re stuck looking up at the rest of the NL East, and appear to be poised to remain there for a few more years.  How does Ruben Amaro still have a job?

All-Star Ballot #2

There have been some interesting developments over the last 3 weeks since I posted my first All-Star Game ballot.  First off, let’s take a look at where the first 5 votes went:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Of these votes, only 4 in the NL are leading their position (Gonzalez, Gordon, Carpenter & Harper), and just 3 in the AL (Cabrera, Trout & Cruz).  Of course, this is one of my pet peeves about the All-Star Game – fans that vote only for their team, rather than voting for the player who actually deserves to be the starter.  The state of Missouri as a whole should be ashamed of themselves for voting so much for the likes of Alcides Escobar (about the 4th best AL SS right now), Matt Holliday (maybe the 8th or 9th best NL OF right now) and Salvador Perez (the 4th or 5th best AL C right now).  The sheer number of Royals and Cardinals that are currently leading their position is embarrassing.  Yes, those two teams are playing very well – but, that in no way means that every player (if any) on that team deserves a spot in the starting lineup of the ASG.  So, let’s take a look at who actually deserves to be starting in the Mid-Summer Classic, at this point.

First Basemen

AL – This is still Miguel Cabrera‘s spot to lose.  He’s the more complete hitter at the position, even though Mark Teixeira has closed the gap somewhat.  Cabrera holds nearly a 100-point lead in OPS, and is batting over 90 points higher.  Tex has surpassed him in the traditional power numbers (HR & RBI), but not enough to make me change my vote.

NLPaul Goldschmidt (ARI).  “Goldy” has been on a tear lately, and has overtaken Gonzalez in pretty much every significant offensive stat (batting, OBP, SLG, OPS, HR, RBI).  I would still say it’s a 3-man race (with Anthony Rizzo (CHC) still in the hunt), but Goldschmidt is the obvious choice right now.

Second Basemen

AL – Kipnis has only widened the gap between himself and the rest of the league at this position, in my opinion.  He continues to be one of the league leaders in batting (not just at 2B), and even though he doesn’t hit as many HR’s as Brian Dozier (MIN), his SLG is only .009 behind.  Which means he has a comfortable 50+ point lead in OPS at 2B.  And, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also one of the top 3-4 defensive second basemen in the AL, too.

NL – Gordon is still my leader, but by the smallest of fractions.  In my previous post, I pointed out that the longshot at this position was Joe Panik (SF).  Well, he’s not a longshot anymore.  Panik’s game has significantly more power, Gordon’s has significantly more speed.  So, which do you take?  I tend to look at OPS as one of the equalizers in this kind of debate – and Gordon leads Panik by .001!  But, at the same time, Panik’s wRC+ is nearly 10 points higher (a stat that accounts for total bases as a player’s contribution to the offense).  Right now, I’ll give the edge to Gordon because he’s also the more skilled defender.  But, this could change on a nearly daily basis between now and the ASG.

Shortstops

ALJose Iglesias (DET).  Iglesias still trails Semien in the HR & RBI department, but he has caught up in SB, and overtaken the lead at SS in OPS (and now leads Semien by over 40 points).  Iglesias is also a significantly better defender – arguably the best defensive SS in the AL.  And, for now, I’d say he’s playing the best all-around offense at SS as well.

NL – Can I call it a tie?  This has gone from a 3-man race to a 2-man race.  I’ll give Crawford the vote, but it’s by the slimmest of margins.  He and Jhonny Peralta (STL) are separated by just 10 OPS points (Peralta is leading), and are tied for the lead in HR.  Crawford has the edge in RBI, and SB.  The tie-breaker, for me, has to go to defense.  And, the advanced metrics paint a clear picture that Crawford is the better defender.

Third Basemen

AL – Donaldson is now running away with this position.  He has a comfortable lead in HR, RBI, SLG and OPS.  Mike Moustakas (KC) is still his best competition, but the gap isn’t really even that close.

NLTodd Frazier (CIN).  Frazier has overtaken Carpenter in OPS (though, by only .003 over Carpenter) as well as RBI, and is well ahead of Carpenter in HR.  He’s also leading all NL 3B in SB.  Carpenter is still in the race, but Frazier is the clear choice at this point.  Kris Bryant (CHC) and Nolan Arenado (COL) are a notch behind the other two, and are certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Catchers

AL – Vogt now, and Vogt often.  It’s a travesty that Vogt isn’t leading this position.  It’s not even close.  The guy is leading every offensive category, and while he’s no Russell Martin (TOR) (who should probably be choice #2 – but, he’s not even close to Vogt) behind the plate, he’s not a liability either.

NLBuster Posey (SF).  This is a really tough call.  Not because there are a couple guys playing really well, and it’s hard to choose.  But, because there isn’t really anyone doing anything spectacular.  I do know one thing though – Yadier Molina (STL) should NOT be leading this position.  The guy’s batting .285, which isn’t bad.  But, beyond that, his offense is atrocious.  He’s one of the worst overall batting catchers in the league.  I don’t care how good his defense is (and there’s not really a big gap between him and the other top catchers in the NL) – he’s a liability with the bat, and that doesn’t spell All-Star.  Posey gets my vote because he’s leading all C’s in HR, is 2nd in RBI, 2nd in OPS, he’s throwing out 40% of baserunners, and has yet to commit an error.  Yasmani Grandal (LAD) is arguably having a slightly better offensive season thus far (has the lead in OPS), but his defense is definitely behind Posey.  Overall, this race is still pretty wide open.

 Outfielders

AL – I’m actually keeping my AL OF exactly as it was.  Which is unfortunate, because that hurts Prince Fielder (TEX).  And, you say, “huh??”  As a technicality, Nelson Cruz has played just over 60% of his games in RF, so he should probably be listed in the OF, instead of at DH.  But, there’s no chance anyone will think to do that, so he will continue to lead the ballot at DH.  Fielder, meanwhile, has actually played the majority of the season at DH, and should be the leader on the ballot at that position, were Cruz not listed already at DH on everyone’s ballot.  Got it??  The order I would put the AL OF in right now is Trout, Reddick and Brantley.  But, David DeJesus (TB) and Jose Bautista (TOR) are making a run at it.

NL – Harper is playing out of his mind, and deserves to keep his spot.  Upton has maintained his level of play, and is 4th among NL OF’s in OPS.  The newcomer to my ballot is Joc Pederson (LAD).  He would actually be 2nd behind Harper at this point, trailing only Harper in HR, SLG and OPS.  Upton gets the nod ahead of Ethier, because he’s ahead of Ethier in HR, RBI, batting & SLG.  Giancarlo Stanton (MIA) is crushing the ball, but the guy’s batting just .231 with a .325 OBP, which gives him just the 8th best OPS in the NL OF.  The guy to really keep an eye on is Andrew McCutchen (PIT).  He has finally started looking like his old self, and is creeping up the stat lists.

Designated Hitter

See AL Outfield discussion above.  Fielder is 48 points behind Cruz in OPS, trails in HR by 8, but is tied with Cruz in RBI, and has a 30-point lead in batting.  I’ll still vote for Cruz here, but it’s begrudgingly.

Only 1 change in my AL ballot, but 4 new names on the NL side.  There are some extremely close races.  Stay tuned…

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).

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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…

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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.