Wednesday, June 28, 2006

News bits

My favorite format, bullet points:
  • Ozzie Guillen, manager of the White Sox, has come under scrutiny for calling Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jay Mariotti a "[bleeping] fag." Guillen claimed that the word has a different meaning in Venezuela, but I honestly doubt that that's true. Guillen issued an apology that wasn't actually an apology, refusing to apologize to Mariotti himself but actually "apologizing" (he added the quotes with his fingers) to anyone he might have offended. This is an unfortunate by-product of the macho/locker room sports world, a world that thrives on being inclusive. But being inclusive means, by definition, excluding outsiders, and most sports players consider homosexuals as such. It's unfortunate that Ozzie chose that word. I've seen Mariotti on ESPN as one of the commentators on the Around the Horn program. If there's a more arrogant and obnoxious sportswriter on television, I haven't seen them. He's a boorish ass who desperately needs to be taken down a few pegs. But this wasn't the way to do it.
  • Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was arrested for spousal abuse for allegedly hitting his wife -- in public. One would expect some sort of apology from Myers and some disciplinary action from the Phillies, but neither really took place. analyst Jayson Stark explains here how Myers and the Phillies completely screwed up the situation. The team is within its rights to at least discipline Myers somehow, especially as the alleged abuse took place, improbably enough, on a public street. Today, Myers agreed to take a "personal leave of absence" from the club through the All-Star Break, the first sign that either he or the team was treating the situation with gravity. Of course, when you say "leave of absence," I hear "the Phillies are praying this just blows over."
  • Roger Clemens has returned and, although he hasn't pitched too poorly, has lost his first two starts. It's too early to say, certainly, but I always contended that the Astros were way too far out of the playoff picture to plunk down the cash for Clemens. Especially since he just can't be nearly as good as he was last year (1.87 ERA).
  • is a wonderful place. In one day, you can find dueling articles by two of their commentators. Tim Kurkjian wrote an article about the intangibles surrounding certain players. The same day, Rob Neyer wrote an article asserting that intangibles are, by and large, bunk. I agree with Neyer, of course, and I especially enjoyed when he quoted Sandy Koufax (a fairly intelligent fellow), who said: "In the end, it all comes down to talent. You can talk all you want about intangibles, I just don't know what that means. Talent makes winners, not intangibles. Can nice guys win? Sure, nice guys can win -- if they're nice guys with a lot of talent. Nice guys with a little talent finish fourth, and nice guys with no talent finish last."
  • Today, the Dodgers traded starting pitcher Jae Seo, catching prospect Dioner Navarro, and a PTBNL to the Devil Rays for Mark Hendrickson and Toby Hall. Tomorrow, the Dodgers are expected to announce another deal: Danys Baez and Andy LaRoche to the Mets for a light fixture.
    Seriously, could the Dodgers have picked two less desirable players in baseball? Granted, neither are expensive, but there's nothing about either Hendrickson or Hall that makes you want them on your team. Hendrickson is a very tall man with a career 5.01 ERA and a pretty shabby 324 career K's in 646.1 career IP. He's 32 years old and is just a hair above "replacement level," i.e. a readily available low-level player. Jae Seo, the pitcher they're giving up, is 29 years old with a 4.13 career ERA. Granted, his strikeout ratio isn't very promising either, but he's been a much more successful major league pitcher than Hendrickson.
    The same could be said of Hall. I don't know what progress Navarro is making as a catching prospect, but I do know that he's a better solution -- long-term, short-term, any-term -- to your catching problems. Toby Hall is one of those players who is just good enough not to be released. He's like Hendrickson -- just a hair above replacement level. He's so bad that most teams wouldn't want him, but the Devil Rays will take him, because he's better than Joe Nobody. Hall's career hitting numbers are 262/298/382. Those are just plain bad, even for a catcher. Hall is not a bad defensive catcher, but he's certainly not making up for his weak bat. He's also 30 years old. Navarro is 22. So the Dodgers decided they wanted a catcher who was much older and much worse? Because although Navarro has only had 258 major league at-bats, he's hit 279/361/380, significantly better than Hall. And any catcher who is able to make the major leagues at the age of 22 is invaluable.
    This is one of those just plain stupid trades. One of those trades where you figure the GM must have sat down and said, "Okay, we need to make this team worse." It's not like the trade was an attempt to save money -- Seo is much cheaper than Hendrickson ($1.95 million), and the Dodgers have Navarro under arbitration (i.e. a huge bargain) for his first 6 major league seasons. Toby Hall is making $2.25 million and is a free agent at the end of this year. Navarro is making $330,000 and won't reach free agency until 2010 (or thereabouts).
    What dunderheads are running the Dodgers nowadays?
  • So what do the standings look like nowadays? Let's take a quick look: The Mets are totally running away with the NL East (11.5 game lead as of 6/27). I expected the Mets to be about this good, but I also expected the Braves and Phillies to put up more of a fight. But the Phillies can't get any kind of pitching, and the Braves are about to see their dynasty end, sadly enough. They've lost 7 of their last 10 and just today managed to move into at least a last-place tie with Washington (15 games back). As Rob Neyer pointed out in a previous article, the Braves have never been more than (I believe) 5 games back at the break. The great Atlanta comeback just ain't coming; it's too late, they're too far back, and there's no Fred McGriff to trade for. As the Braves fall, so do the Marlins rise, moving into respectability faster than they had any right to (they're now 34-40 and certainly not going to lose 110 games, as some predicted). But the Mets are tops in the NL in runs per game (5.33) and they've got enough pitching to sail into the postseason.
    In the NL Central, it's the good-but-not-great Cardinals leading the division. The Cardinals have more holes than Swiss Cheese, but they also have enough outstanding players to win the division; I see them as favorites. Yes, they've now lost 8 straight, but who in the division is going to beat them? The arrival of the Milwaukee Brewers will apparently have to wait a year, since they lead the NL in runs allowed. When I said that pitching could be a problem for Milwaukee, I was making a gross understatement. Their 414 runs allowed are tied for 2nd in all of baseball (behind Baltimore), and they're not even in the American League!
    Yes, the Reds are the Wild Card, but I refuse to just accept that they are for real. Yes, their offense is real (3rd in the league in runs scored), but their pitching? Their Pythagorean W-L record is 38-39, compared to a real-life 41-36. So I see the Reds returning to mediocrity sooner rather than later (although it must be said that, for the Reds, mediocrity is an improvement). The Astros are very far past their prime, and the Pirates have now lost 12 straight games and are (not to my surprise) the team with the worst record in the NL (26-52). They now actually have a worse record than the Royals (ouch).
    And then there's the Cubs. The Cubs are done, finished, stick the fork in. I said coming into the season that it would take a miracle to make them contenders, and I predicted something like 77 wins for them. Well, they've been even worse than that. Prior and Wood have injury trouble (no surprise), Derrek Lee misses 8 weeks (BIG surprise), and even Aramis Ramirez and Juan Pierre slump. It all exposes the fact that Dusty Baker has no idea how runs are created and may be partly or even mostly responsible for some injuries due to overworking his pitching staff. Expect him to get the boot after the season, if not before. Oh, and get this -- every team in baseball has outscored the Cubs -- even the Pirates and Royals.
    The NL West isn't as bad as it was last year, but there's still nothing that great about it. All 5 teams are within 3.5 games of each other, which is almost nothing in June. It's up to someone to make some good trades or at least turn around their present team if they want to win. I'm sticking with the Dodgers.
    The Red Sox have won 10 straight games and now have a 3.5 game lead in the AL East. The Yankees are suffering from a weakened outfield and a fairly crummy starting rotation, but are still absolutely in the race, especially once they start getting injured people back. The Blue Jays are a good team (42-34), but I still don't think they're a great team. They'll still be in the race come September, but I seriously doubt they'll see October. Leo Mazzone has failed to turn around the worst pitching staff in baseball in Baltimore, and their hitting has regressed to the point that they're looking like a pretty lost franchise. Newsflash: the Devil Rays suck.
    The Chicago White Sox have the second-best record in baseball. Not such a surprise. I sang Kenny Williams' praises for what he did in the off-season and it's bearing fruit -- most likely a return trip to October. But the White Sox are in 2nd place behind the team with the best record in baseball -- the Detroit Tigers.
    I'll pause for a while and contemplate what the f*** I just said.
    Yes, the Tigers have the best record in baseball (53-25). They've allowed nearly 30 fewer runs than any 0ther team in baseball -- and they're in the American League! Their offense has been good enough to get them by, with contributors like Shelton, Ordonez, Pudge Rodriguez and Guillen. Are they this good? I don't think so. But they still might make the postseason, because their pitching staff is actually quite good (witness the brilliance of Verlander and Zumaya). The Twins are a disappointment (41-35), but they're not such a bad team; they're stuck in the wrong division. They should improve. Everything's going wrong for Cleveland (35-41), and I just don't see them doing anything this year, despite my predictions to the contrary. The Royals suck, but at least they're no longer sucking on a historical level. They're on pace to win 54 games and lose 108, which is pretty awful, but it's actually better than what they were looking at in April.
    The Oakland A's are in first place, but they haven't dominated -- for various reasons. I don't see anyone else winning that division, especially given the A's knack for taking over in the second half. The Rangers and Mariners are much improved, with neither team sporting a losing record. The Angels are in last, at 35-42. I predicted that they were a worse team than last year, but didn't think it would be quite so bad. They could improve, but they're in a much stronger division and stand no realistic chance of making it back to the postseason this year.
  • On a more serious note, ESPN reporter Peter Gammons is recovering in ICU after suffering a brain aneurysm. says that he is out of surgery and resting. Peter is the best reporter in baseball today and was inducted into the Sportswriters wing of the Hall of Fame in 2005. I don't always agree with his opinions, but it must be said that Peter was one mainstream sportswriter whose use of statistical analysis truly helped its acceptance. Our thoughts are with him.

NL All-Stars

It's been a while since I've updated. As the All-Star Game is approaching, I thought I'd submit my All-Star ballots and take the opportunity to look at both leagues, position by position. (All stats are updated through the games of 6/26. Fielding Runs Above Average are taken from Baseball Prospectus' Davenport Translations).

First Base: Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Even considering his injury, Albert is the best first baseman in the National League and is still the early favorite for MVP. Albert's Equivalent Average (a metric that computes a player's offense into a batting-average-like number) is .368. That leads the National League by far. Florida's Miguel Cabrera is second with a .341 EQA. Albert has 26 HR in just 201 ABs (247 PAs), which projects to more than 70 over a full season (Albert, of course, won't play a full season because of the time missed to injury). Oh, and Albert's batting line? 313/442/741. That's a .313 batting average with a .442 OBP and a .741 slugging percentage. That's outstanding even over just half a season.
A lot of NL first basemen are off to a hot start. A lot of attention has been paid to Nomar Garciaparra (362/426/584), who is a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year and has helped keep the Dodgers in the NL West race. While Nomar has been great, look closely at Nick Johnson of the Nationals. Johnson has a 309/440/556 hitting line in a tougher ballpark. And we haven't even mentioned Ryan Howard of the Phillies, wh0's slugging the crap out of the ball (25 HR and a .618 SLG), although his 28:75 BB:K ratio is a bit of a problem. Todd Helton is having the opposite problem out in Colorado. He's hitting .307 with plenty walks (47, for a healthy .434 OBP), but his power numbers are lacking. Helton has managed just 8 HR so far this season (although he does have 18 doubles). Helton is probably not at 100%, and this is what we're seeing in the numbers.
An early candidate for Rookie of the Year is Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, who's hitting just like his dad; in the good way (14 HR and a .520 SLG) and the bad (.343 OBP, 24:64 BB:K ratio). Also keep an eye on Mike Jacobs of Florida (354/478/268) and Conor Jackson in Arizona (369/423/277, albeit in hitter-friendly Chase Field).
If there's an Unlikely Player of the Year Award, it goes to Scott Hatteberg, who has managed to stave off career disintegration for at least another year with Cincinnati (400/426/287). And if anyone is really looking for some cheap offense, ask the Pirates about Craig Wilson (354/495/271).
Having mentioned that, who is struggling or not playing as well as we would expect? Oddly enough, Carlos Delgado is having a bit of a rough time in New York. He's hitting 344/523/262, which is a slump by his standards. The difference is mostly in the batting average. Delgado hit 399/582/301 last year with Florida, and although it's hard to repeat something that good, he's taken a bigger dive in New York than expected. The difference is a .262 batting average this year (Delgado is a .283 career hitter). Is this just a blip -- an aberration of sample size given just 71 games this season? That's certainly possible. But it's also true that Delgado just turned 34 years old, and it's doubtful that he has any more seasons left in him like his 2005 in Florida.
You could call Atlanta's Adam LaRoche (336/482/250) a disappointment, except that his performance is almost entirely in line with his career numbers (326/472/262). LaRoche isn't a bad hitter, but his offense isn't really acceptable at first base. The solution for Atlanta would be to move Chipper Jones to first base and trade LaRoche. Chipper is getting too old for third base, and Davenport's Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) have him at -7, ranking him among the worst defensive third basemen in the league. The perfect solution would have been to move Chipper to first and install hot prospect Andy Marte at third, but the Braves traded Marte to get Edgar Renteria, a terrifically unequal deal that ruined what could have been a perfect solution to a problem. As it is, Chipper continues to suffer injuries and play poor defense, and Adam LaRoche isn't getting any better.
2B: Dan Uggla, Marlins
My policy in All-Star voting is to vote for the person who has performed the best -- regardless of their superstar status or the possibility that they're a fluke. There's every likelihood that the heretofore unknown Uggla (366/532/313 and a good glove) will return to mediocrity any minute now, but I simply have to say that he's been the best second baseman in the league. His .302 EQA is the best among NL 2Bs, and his 9 FRAA are second only to Colorado's Jamey Carroll.
It's certainly a close race, though. Chase Utley of the Phillies leads in the voting (I believe), due to his impressive 358/490/288 hitting line. But not only does Utley hit in a friendly ballpark in Philadelphia, but he's not a very good defensive second baseman. So although he's a fine player, I've passed him over.
Another possibility is Jose Vidro in Washington. Vidro is having a comeback year, hitting 362/404/307 in a cavernous ballpark. Jeff Kent probably would get my vote with his stellar hitting out in LA (381/472/274 with 9 FRAA), but injuries have limited Kent to just 59 games, so he hasn't contributed as much in that sense. If Rickie Weeks could field as well as he can hit (377/424/290), then he'd be a contender. But Weeks currently sports a -10 FRAA, which is just awful and unacceptable at such a defensively crucial position. Weeks' poor defense is common knowledge, and the word I've gotten is that if it doesn't get better, the Brewers will move him, likely to center field to exploit his speed.
The biggest surprise among second basemen is Brandon Phillips of Cincinnati. Phillips was a prospect that the Indians gave up on, but he's taken Cincinnati by storm, hitting 357/461/310 and is a perfect 14/14 in steals so far this year. Phillips, like Uggla, could just be a fluke, but if so he's been a very fortunate one for Cincinnati, who is currently leading the NL Wild Card race by a hair.
The biggest disappointment among NL 2Bs is easily Atlanta's Marcus Giles (there are many disappointments in Atlanta, as their Win-Loss record would suggest). Giles is hitting a measly 324/349/239. Now Giles is an excellent hitter, and this is probably just one of those slumps. But it came at the wrong time for the Braves, who were looking to Giles to be their leadoff man this year. Rookie Josh Barfield (255/289/368) has been a disappointment for the Padres, who expected him to be major league-ready at this point. Neifi Perez is just an awful player to actually select for your lineup (226/239/314), but then everybody in the entire world knows this, except for a certain thick-headed manager in Chicago named Dusty.
SS: Jose Reyes, Mets
I said that I would call Jose Reyes a prospect when he started playing like one. This season, at least so far, he has. His plate discipline has greatly increased; he's already drawn 29 walks in 330 ABs this year, whereas he only drew 27 last year in 696 ABs. His batting average has increased from last year to a fine .297, and add to that a power surge: 8 HR already this year compared to just 7 last year. But the most important thing is his defense; whereas Reyes had "tools" and flashiness last year, it got him -7 FRAA, poor for a shortstop. This year, he's been 1 run above average so far. This is great news for the Mets; since Reyes is improving across the board, it's less likely that his success is a fluke or just lucky.
It's slim pickens among NL shortstops, as many commentators have noticed. You won't find Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen, or Michael Young in the senior circuit. After Reyes, the best is probably Edgar Renteria of Atlanta. While the Braves did give up too much to get him in Marte, Renteria has at least put up good numbers, hitting 302/385/445with steady defense. I also have to mention Bill Hall in Milwaukee. Hall has been a super -utility man for years, bouncing from position to position and rarely holding a steady job. But he's a good hitter and a significant power threat (277/330/584 this year) and has actually played better defense this year than he has in the past. He's a pleasant surprise for Milwaukee, who had hoped that young J.J. Hardy would be ready for the everyday shortstop job. He wasn't (242/295/398).
Omar Vizquel and David Eckstein are having solid seasons, and then it gets pretty thin. Hanley Ramirez hasn't blossomed yet in Florida (266/334/395), and neither has Ronny Cedeno in Chicago (281/304/377). Rafael Furcal has been a big-league dud thus far in Los Angeles (334/340/254 with poor defense), and Khalil Greene looks to be regressing in San Diego (222/308/406). Now that the hitting streak is over, we can all admit that Jimmy Rollins isn't really such a great hitter (317/417/259 this year, right in line with his 327/416/272 career numbers). The worst everyday shortstop in the NL is Clint Barmes, who is hitting 206/239/321 despite playing for the Rockies.
3B: Miguel Cabrera, Marlins
There's already a campaign underway for Mets 3B David Wright as the NL MVP. This is because he's an inspiring young player on a turnaround team. But the truth is that, as great as he is, he's not been quite as good as Miguel Cabrera, who will never get a sniff from the voters, because he plays for the Marlins.
I mentioned earlier that Cabrera's EQA of .341 was second only to Phat Albert in the NL. His actual hitting line is 347/443/570. When you can hit .347 with walks and power and not suck at defense, you're an MVP candidate, easily. While Wright is hitting almost as well as Cabrera (336/402/606), his defense is much worse. Honorable mention goes to Scott Rolen, who appears to have fully recovered from his injuries of last season, hitting 341/409/559 with brilliant defense. Morgan Ensberg would be right at the top, except that his hitting (246/380/525) is partially due to his ballpark, and he too has defensive trouble.
The biggest surprise here is Freddy Sanchez of the Pirates. The Pirates, who are second only to the Royals in signing useless free agents, signed Joe Randa to play third base for them this year, but Sanchez won the job by hitting 351/388/500 thus far. Sanchez used to be a prospect, but certainly isn't one anymore now that he's 28. His breakout smells of a fluke, but it's been a blessing thus far to the otherwise dreadful Pirates. Other pleasant surprises have been Corey Koskie in Milwaukee (266/348/500) and young Edwin Encarnacion in Cincinnati (270/364/481). Garrett Atkins continues to hit well in Colorado (310/384/502, good even for Coors) but move the poor guy off the hot corner (league-worst -10 FRAA at 3B).
Disappointments include Nationals rookie Ryan Zimmerman, who is hitting 268/328/454. That's actually not bad at all in RFK Stadium, and Zimmerman has done terrifically on defense. But he was touted as the next Scott Rolen, so he's not quite there yet. Aramis Ramirez is having a huge off-year in Chicago (249/309/464). I knew coming into the season that the Cub offense was a bigger problem than many thought, but I also predicted that the two rocks in the lineup would be Ramirez and Derrek Lee. Well, Lee got injured and Ramirez is in a big slump, and the Cubs might be the worst team in the league.
The worst everyday 3B in the NL is Vinny Castilla, who is hitting a dreadful 234/268/325 in San Diego. Refer back to earlier in my blog, when I referred to the trade whereby the Padres acquired Castilla as "bone-headed."
LF: Jason Bay, Pirates
Bay is finally starting to earn respect as one of the best hitters in baseball. He's managed a 290/407/562 clip so far this year, and that despite being on the NL's worst team. Matt Holliday's numbers look just as good (349/395/606), until you consider that he plays for the Rockies. Still good numbers, but not great. Alfonso Soriano has gotten a lot of praise and All-Star support, mainly because of his 24 HR and .553 SLG. And while those are great numbers in RFK Stadium, balance that against a .275 batting average and a .340 OBP. It's not bad, certainly -- but it means that he's not in Bay's class. The same could be said of Milwaukee's Carlos Lee, who is having a fine year slugging the ball (24 HR, .569 SLG), but isn't getting on base that well (.339 OBP).
Other LFers having a good year include Pat Burrell with the Phillies (252/378/526) and Adam Dunn in Cincinnati (221/364/542). Dunn is a singular fellow; a player who can still be quite valuable despite a .221 batting average.
Left field is a deep position, and good play has also come from Dave Roberts in San Diego (295/365/432) and rookie Josh Willingham in Florida (274/350/467). Barry Bonds has hit quite well (252/476/516), but in limited duty; he's only appeared in 61 games and had 229 plate appearances. It looks like it will remain that way for the rest of the year. Although I must point out that most of Bonds' value lies in his OBP, which is fueled by his 67 walks. His batting average is low and so are his power numbers; he only has 11 HR and we're nearly halfway through the season. This would lead me to conclude that Bonds should be pitched to and challenged much more often than he is.
Who's having a disappointing year? Preston Wilson isn't doing so hot in Houston (279/314/414), but he's not so potent a hitter as Coors Field made him look. Young Matt Murton has yet to take off in Chicago (262/332/360) and Cliff Floyd is struggling in New York (238/330/403). The worst everyday LF in the NL is probably Atlanta's Ryan Langerhans, who is suffering through a big sophomore slump (250/338/389).
CF: Carlos Beltran, Mets
The doubters and boo-birds can finally be silenced in New York; the Carlos Beltran they paid for has arrived. He's hitting 285/395/607 with 20 HR, good defense, and some good base-stealing once again. There's really no challenger among the rest of the NL CFers.
Andruw Jones is back to his old self again, hitting 281/347/517. He has 18 HR and a .517 SLG so far this year. Those are quality numbers, but certainly a step down from his .575 SLG last year. He's not even going to approach the 51 HR he slugged last year, and will be lucky if he makes it to 40. Also, the defensive regression documented last year seems to continue; Andruw rates at 0 FRAA; a dead-average center fielder. It's certainly possible that FRAA isn't getting the whole story, but by all accounts, Andruw isn't the defensive phenom he once was. Eric Byrnes is doing well in Arizona (284/345/528), but I doubt that's anything but a fluke.
With so many good left fielders, a good center fielder is hard to find (as Flannery O'Connor might have said). Ryan Freel of the Reds is doing a fine job (302/390/442), especially considering that he's been jerked all around the diamond this year. Despite all the attention foisted upon Ken Griffey, Jr., may I suggest that Freel 7is actually having a better year than Junior, who is hitting 264/317/527. It's the Soriano syndrome, where people think that the slugger is having a better year than he actually is. Junior's 15 dingers are countered by his very low OBP and deteriorating defense. Right now, Junior rates an EQA of .275, whereas Freel stands at .289, and he has better defense. I don't think Griffey should be on the bench, of course, but neither should Freel. The Reds should move Griffey to LF, shift Adam Dunn to 1B, either trade or platoon Scott Hatteberg, and put Rich f'n Aurilia on the bench.
There are plenty disappointing CFers in the NL. Randy Winn out in San Francisco is showing a great glove, but is only hitting 263/338/415 after an excellent 2005. Mike Cameron is hitting decently in San Diego (252/337/420), but he too also carries a fine glove. Jim Edmonds is still hitting well (260/360/417), but it's not as well as his usual self, and it looks like his injury troubles have affected his defense.
Brady Clark (279/379/341) has turned back into a pumpkin over in Milwaukee; Aaron Rowand (273/320/449) is making the Jim Thome deal look like a steal -- for the White Sox; and Willy Taveras of the Astros continues to do everything well that doesn't involve the use of a bat (267/321/325).
But the biggest disappointment has to be Juan Pierre of the Cubs. Granted, Pierre had a very poor 2005 (276/326/354) and has never been as good as his reputation, but he's still a career .300 hitter and seemed like the perfect person to fill a hole in Chicago. Instead, he's been the hole, especially on offense, hitting a career-worst 252/297/323 despite moving into a friendlier hitter's park.
RF: Bobby Abreu, Phillies
Bobby Abreu does get paid a lot of money, and it might make sense for the Phillies to trade him, but let's remember that this is still an excellent player who might be on his way to the Hall of Fame. Abreu's power has really been lacking this year (only 8 HR so far), but he's still hitting an insane 290/451/482, thanks to an ML-leading 76 walks.
While Abreu is in a class of his own, there are several other NL RFers having fine seasons. At the top of the list is J.D. Drew (282/374/475), who is proving that he is still a fine hitter when healthy. Austin Kearns (269/346/476) is doing well in Cincinnati, although his batting average is rather low, and his BB:K ratio (29:72) is troubling. Brian Giles is suffering from a lack of power in San Diego, but is still a valuable guy, hitting 285/389/395. The most surprising NL RFer has to be Brad Hawpe of the Rockies (306/388/544), whose numbers look great even in context.
Jacque Jones is doing fairly well in Chicago (290/320/502), although his problem is the same as it's always been; an inability to draw walks. If you're Vlad Guerrero and you hit .330, you can afford to swing at anything. But if you're Jacque Jones and you hit .290, you can't afford a BB:K ratio of 10:51. But this shouldn't come as a surprise to the Cubs, since this is exactly what Jones did in Minnesota.
Who's the biggest disappointment among these players? I'm tempted to say Jose Guillen of the Nationals, but he has injury issues to explain his 210/267/398 hitting line. I could say Jeromy Burnitz, but really, no one but the Pirates could really be surprised that he's hitting 231/280/430.
No, my choice is Atlanta's Jeff Francouer. Francouer succeeded in 2005 despite a horrible lack of plate discipline. His success came from the fact that he hit .300 and didn't need a lot of walks to be successful. As a Braves fan, I hate to say this, but Francouer could very well be our generation's Pete Incaviglia; a phenom whose lack of plate discipline dooms his career as pitchers learn not to throw them strikes. I cautioned people against calling him the next Dale Murphy, but no one listened. Truthfully, Francouer's doing much worse this year (254/274/437) than he did last year (300/336/549). Nobody can really hold down a major league job with a .274 OBP. And his plate discipline has been worse this year, probably as a result of pitchers learning to get him out outside of the strike zone. In 2005, Francouer drew 11 walks in 257 ABs. This year, he already has 327 ABs, but has only drawn 7 walks. He hit 20 HR in his 257 ABs last year; he only has 9 so far this year. Despite the fact that he's already become an Atlanta institution, Francouer needs to go back down to the minors, because he is not major-league ready. But the Braves, because of the PR pressures, may end up keeping him in the majors too long. If they do that, he may well be an Incaviglia-esque failure.
C: Brian McCann, Braves
At last, some good news for Atlanta fans. I have to caution you that McCann's only player 56 games, so we can't really take his numbers that seriously. Even still, a 352/412/519 hitting line is pretty amazing. McCann has taken over as the Atlanta catcher of the future.
Catcher is another position where (like at SS), the NL is far behind the AL. Whereas the AL has Mauer, Varitek, Victor Martinez, Pudge Rodriguez, and Posada, the NL really has no one who can compare to those 5, although McCann could be getting there soon.
Exhibit A: the second-best catcher in the NL is Dodger rookie Russell Martin. Martin is hitting a fine 301/372/458 and has shown good defense behind the plate. I could have given the #2 spot to Chicago's Michael Barrett (308/370/508), but the poor man is a defensive liability (-10 FRAA, worst among NL backstops).
David Ross is hitting well in Cincinnati (323/397/697), but with just 99 ABs, can you say "lucky?" Damian Miller and Mike Piazza are having decent seasons, as are young catchers Ronny Paulino of Pittsburgh and Miguel Olivo of Florida.
Paul Lo Duca has been a disappointment in New York (280/321/394), but it comes as little surprise, since he hasn't been as good as his reputation in years. Brad Ausmus (257/328/326) is a millstone around the Astros' neck, but they'll never admit it. Brian Schneider, who looked like a breakout star and defensive whiz last year (at least by catching standards), is having an awful year in Washington (234/310/309). Mike Matheny is struggling with the Giants (231/276/338), but that comes as a surprise only to GM Brian Sabean, who mistakenly thought he was signing players for the Senior Tour. And good though the Cardinals' Yadier Molina is behind the plate, even a catcher has to hit better than 214/266/301 to stay in the majors.
SP: Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
My top 10 NL pitchers would be:
1. Brandon Webb, ARZ
2. Bronson Arroyo, CIN
3. Jason Schmidt, SF
4. Pedro Martinez, NYM
5. Chris Carpenter, STL
6. Carlos Zambrano, CHC
7. Chris Capuano, MIL
8. Brad Penny, LA
9. Chris Young, SD
10. Aaron Cook, COL
Notes on the top 10: It's great to see Webb finally getting the respect he deserves as one of the best young hurlers in the game . . . Arroyo is good, but I doubt he'll stay this good . . . If Jason Schmidt really is healthy again, the Giants can thank their lucky stars . . . Capuano is starting to look like the real thing in Milwaukee, and with Ben Sheets still hurting, he's the only good starter they have . . . Moving to San Diego has really suited Chris Young in a deal that looks better for them every day . . . Aaron Cook looks like a fluke, but it's possible that his brand of pitching is just what it takes to succeed in Colorado, because he's been doing it for a while now.
Other starting pitchers of note: Aaron Harang is a big reason the Reds are still contending, as his 27:105 BB:K ratio in 105.1 IP is a wonderful surprise . . . Keep an eye on Florida's Josh Johnson, who's posted a 2.20 ERA through his first 73.2 IP, allowing just 3 HR . . . Tom Glavine's resurgence is for real, as evidenced by his improved BB:K numbers (30:75) . . . Without Brett Myers (3.86 ERA, 82 K in 98 IP), the Phillies' rotation is ca-ca . . . John Smoltz is still a good pitcher (3.89 ERA, 25:88 BB:K ratio), but the Braves should trade him if the right deal comes along . . . Dontrelle Willis' early-season struggles are behind him; after posting a 6.45 ERA in May, he's managed a 2.50 mark in June . . . The Braves need to figure out what is wrong with Tim Hudson (4.27 ERA, 42:74 BB:K ratio), as that trade with Oakland isn't looking so hot right now . . . I hope the Dodgers really don't think Aaron Sele (2.73 ERA despite 17:26 BB:K ratio) is for real, but considering their recent behavior, they probably do . . . Jake Peavy is still mowing them down (21:101 BB:K ratio), but his HR allowed (14 in 94 IP for a 4.50 ERA) are killing him, despite pitching in Petco . . . Byung-Hyun Kim (4.31 ERA, 26:56 BB:K ratio, 5 HR allowed in 64.2 IP) might be a pitcher who can consistently succeed at Coors . . . Greg Maddux (4.94 ERA despite 19:56 BB:K ratio) should really consider retirement after this season, especially given the state of the Cubs . . . Whatever bothered Livan Hernandez last year (3.98 ERA, 84:147 BB:K ratio) is still bothering him this year (5.57 ERA, 43:61 BB:K ratio) . . . Who's surprised that Jorge Sosa turned out to be a dud (5.18 ERA)? Other than you, Mr. Schuerholz . . . Some people thought that Sidney Ponson had turned things around in St. Louis, but his poor strikeout ratio has finally started to bump up his ERA (4.95 and rising) . . . Jason Marquis' career has been spiralling steadily downward for a while now, and the Cards need to get rid of him while they still can (5.82 ERA, 45 K in 102 IP) . . . The formerly hot prospect Oliver Perez may be gone forever (6.63 ERA).
RP: Trevor Hoffman, Padres
A list of my top 5 NL closers:
1. Trevor Hoffman, SD
2. Tom Gordon, PHI
3. Brian Fuentes, COL
4. Billy Wagner, NYM
5. Mike Gonzalez, PIT
I didn't think Hoffman had enough left for one more year, but he has thus far (1.29 ERA, 18/19 in SV) . . . Whatever else has gone wrong in Philadelphia, Tom Gordon has done his job well (1.93 ERA, 20/21 in SV, 11:41 BB:K ratio) . . . Cross your fingers, Colorado fans, you just might have the real thing in Brian Fuentes (2.35 ERA, 12:41 BB:K ratio, 3 HR allowed) . . . Billy Wagner hasn't been that bad, it's just that the four saves he's blown have seemed really big. Give a 34-year-old man a break
Other NL Closers: Derrick Turnbow (MIL), Chad Cordero (WSH), and Mike Gonzalez (PIT) are doing a fine job . . . Florida's Joe Borowski really can't be for real (3.34 ERA and 25 K in 29.2 IP despite 16 BB) . . . Ryan Dempster may not be as bad as he looks (4.59 ERA), but the Cubs still overpaid him by a fair amount . . Jason Isringhausen has been teetering on the brink for years, and 2006 might be the year he falls -- or not . . . It's too easy to say that the problem is "confidence," but something is certainly happening to Brad Lidge -- I think it's the walks (21 already this year, despite allowing just 23 all of last year) . . . Chris Reitsma's ERA is 9.11, which is exactly what Bobby Cox should call. John Schuerholz belief that his bullpen would magically come together this year was more than just confidence; it was hubris, a hubris that may help the tragic fall of the Braves dynasty.
Back later with the AL.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Jason Grimsley

Scandal hits Major League Baseball once again, as Arizona reliever Jason Grimsley allegedly admitted to federal agents that he used Human Growth Hormone (HGH) a designer steroid that current MLB testing cannot detect. Federal agents, aware that a shipment of HGH was coming to Grimsley's house, essentially caught him red-handed. They told him that if he showed them the "kit" of HGH that he had just received in the mail, then they wouldn't search his house. They would also take him to another location to question him. Grimsley, who apparently had company, complied.
Although he technically was not in custody, Grimsley cooperated fully with federal investigators. The affidavit filed by the investigating officer can be seen here. It's amazing, not just to the extent that they caught Grimsley so easily, but also that Grimsley was so forthcoming in the subsequent interview. Grimsley offered details of his usage, claiming he was a former steroid user who switched to HGH because he knew it was undetectable by current MLB tests. He also admits to rampant amphetamine use, saying that such abuse was endemic to the game.
Oh, yeah. And Grimsley named names.
He named lots of names. He named his supplier for the HGH. He named the MLB player who referred him to this supplier. He identifies the Latin players who gave him amphetamines (claiming that the "Latins" always had them). And when asked by federal investigators if he knew of any other users in the major leagues, Grimsley goes on to name several, claiming that "boatloads" of major league players are using HGH.
Now in the federal report in its online form, the names that Grimsley identifies are blacked out.

So let's discuss the implications of this in bullet form (my favorite):
  • If the feds caught Grimsley, they will catch others. Grimsley was having kits of HGH shipped to his home, not exactly the sign of a great criminal mind at work. The feds somehow (the affidavit isn't clear) found out about the shipment to Grimsley's house. This means that they know a lot (enough to get a search warrant), and it's more than likely that similar methods will lead them to other players.
  • This is a gold mine for the feds. This is true in the obvious police sense, of course. But it's also a major public relations score. The federal investigation had taken tremendous heat for its focus on BALCO and Barry Bonds. Bonds apologists claimed that the government was "out to get" Barry. This pretty much shoots down that argument, as the Grimsley case has nothing to do with Bonds, and is evidence that the government really is pursuing all leads in investigating illegal drug use in the majors.
    But the most important thing is that Grimsley was so forthcoming with names. After retaining counsel, Grimsley declined to cooperate with investigators anymore. But by then, it was too late. The feds have the name of Grimsley's supplier who, according to Grimsley, was also supplying a number of other players. Grimsley also named other suppliers of HGH and steroids. This is a coup for the federal investigation, enabling them to potentially nab suppliers, the so-called "big fish." As I type this right now, computers are being erased and records are being shred in anticipation of federal raids at HGH facilities across the country.
  • The names will come out. And it will be a disastrous scandal. I mentioned before that the names Grimsley mentioned were blacked out in the online copy of the affidavit, but if the names are on file, they will almost certainly be leaked to the public, probably within a week or two. This will be a tremendous black eye for baseball; Bud Selig has tried vehemently to get everyone to believe that the MLB has the problem under control; I mentioned this in my earlier article about the investigating commission. This completely shoots down Bud Selig's attempt to end the steroid scandal and make it seem like all of that is in the past. I recently came across a Sports Illustrated article by Tom Verducci entitled, "The Game is Good, Clean Fun Again." That's either horribly naive or an attempt to just make the problem go away. But the problem is still there, and if any good comes out of this scandal, it will be that it prevents Bud Selig from sugar-coating the steroids problem any more.
    Oh yeah, and how about those players Grimsley named? It will be a hell of a few weeks for any former teammate of Grimsley's who used steroids. The scary thing is, as Jayson Stark suggested, that Grimsley has played for so long with so many teams that his list of known users could be a laundry list of stars and former stars. What a horrific embarassment that would be for the MLB; it's been a big enough scandal with Palmeiro, Bonds, and McGwire at the center of controversy; what if Grimsley were able to add 10 or 12 more All-Stars and 20 more everyday players to the list of shame?
    But somehow I doubt that Grimsley will cooperate any more than he already has. Baseball is a game of loyalty, and as with any macho pastime, you don't rat out your buddies. But I doubt that Grimsley's supplier, if caught and incriminated, would be so mum. Whether it be actual documentation of use and distribution or simply an agreement to testify in exchange for a lesser charge, Mr. HGH Man may end up being the one who names names.
  • This is going to have some implications. The reason that HGH isn't tested for by the MLB (it is on the banned substance list) is that the only reliable HGH test is a blood test. (I've heard that they're developing a urine test that will be available within a year, but other sources say that a 1-year timeframe is wishful thinking). And the player's union, of course, has fought every attempt to get players to submit to drug tests.
    What we're about to see, I think, is a reprise of the Congressional showdown we saw last year. Congress (setting aside less important tasks like curbing the national debt and finding Osama bin Laden) will most likely recall all the old familiar faces to grill them about this obvious loophole in the testing process. Bud Selig will be sitting pretty, able to tell Congress (truthfully), "Listen, I wanted blood testing, but the union would never agree to it. It's their fault." And so union leaders such as Don Fehr will get a positive reaming from Congress, the press, and perhaps even the players themselves for refusing blood testing. The union will argue a violation of civil liberties, and while I certainly sympathize, it's simply come down to the fact that without blood testing, any existing testing system will be a paper tiger poked full of loopholes (as Grimsley so obviously demonstrated).
    Will the issue of blood testing have an effect on the upcoming negotiations to renew the Collective Bargaining Agreement? I think it probably will. The union took a lot of heat from hardliners (including Marvin Miller) for re-opening the CBA and revising the drug policy last year. The union's philosophy is to fight management tooth and nail and to never give in. It's a philosophy born of legimitate fears, but one that does not serve the best interests of baseball. We've all come to admit that the Commissioner's office and the MLB are concerned with their own self-interest much moreso than the best interests of the game. I would hate to see the union degenerate into the same thing on the other side. I'd hate to see the union degenerate into a group of leaders more interested in standing up for their unrealistic principles and fighting the other side, regardless of whether these actions are actually the best ones for the game, or even for the players they supposedly represent. In the old days, public sentiment was almost always on the side of the Player's Union; their cause was legitimate, they had great leadership, and they always seemed to be fighting on the side of justice. But since the 1994 strike, the public views the union increasingly as just another misguided batch of millionaires that could give a damn about the game, or the average player. The steroid controversy has only reinforced this view, as the union clings to its own singular principles without acknowledging the bigger picture. And the simple truth is that the union has been trained (under the tutelage of Miller) to always hate and oppose management under any circumstances. So we've reached the point where the union, out of habit and principle, opposes management even when they have good ideas. This isn't to say that the union's issues aren't justified; but rather to say that they are completely out of touch with the realistic state of the game today and even more out of touch with the average player they supposedly represent. We've come a long way from the days of "Big" Bill Haywood and Mother Jones, let alone Marvin Miller. Nowadays sitting alongside Big Business is the Big Union, more concerned with maintaining the status quo than actually serving its constituents. And it would be a tragedy for the baseball union, recognized for years as one of the greatest and most successful in the country, to degenerate to that level.
  • Get ready for more talking, talking, talking. If you own a television or radio that gets any sports show where talking or commentating occurs, please turn it off when the subject of steroids comes up. This applies doubly if you live in the New York metropolitan area.

Monday, June 05, 2006

1998 Expansion

Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks broke every record for expansion franchises when they won the World Series in 2001, just their 4th season of existence. They did it almost exclusively through free agent signings, as owner Jerry Colangelo spared no expense to bring a World Series winner to Arizona. The weight of the free agent money and the lack of a strong farm system eventually brought down the former World Champions, but new ownership and a sharp young GM have restored hope to the franchise.
The Arizona franchise was awarded to Jerry Colangelo, who also owned the NBA's Phoenix Suns. Even before the 1998 season started, Colangelo worked feverishly to put together his franchise, spending as much money as necessary. The first move was an agreement on a publicly-financed stadium to be built in Phoenix in time for the Diamondbacks' debut. The Bank One Ballpark (or the "BOB") was a natural-grass stadium with a retractable-roof. It was more than just a baseball stadium, as evidenced by the swimming pool in right-center field, a conversation-starter in baseball circles if ever there was one.
Colangelo also signed former Yankees manager Buck Showalter to a massive contract three years before the team ever took the field. Showalter served in an advisory capacity, consulting on team-wide issues such as the ballpark and the uniforms. Joe Garagiola, Jr. was signed as the team's General Manager.
Before the expansion draft even started, Colangelo made waves by signing middle infielder Jay Bell to a 4-year, $32 million contract. Bell was a truly underrated performer and many other teams saw the move as wild spending that served to drive up contracts around baseball (which was partially true).
The expansion draft itself was fairly fruitful for the Diamondbacks, certainly when compared to their expansion-mates in Tampa Bay. Arizona's first two picks in the draft were Brian Anderson (Cleveland) and Jeff Suppan (Boston), neither of them aces, but both valuable arms. Suppan would be sold to Kansas City mid-season, but Anderson stuck around, providing good depth to what would soon become a historically good starting rotation.
Arizona's third pick, Gabe Alvarez (San Diego), was a third base prospect that never developed into anything at all. But the day of the expansion draft, the D-Backs packaged Alvarez with another pick, Pittsburgh 3B Joe Randa, as part of a trade with Detroit to get 3B Travis Fryman. But two weeks after getting the underrated Fryman, the Indians made another, more momentous trade. This one sent Fryman and relief pitcher Tom Martin to the Cleveland Indians for 3B star Matt Williams. The move really helped legitimize the Diamondbacks, giving them an established star right from the beginning. Williams was never really great in Arizona, but he was certainly very good, and he (along with Bell) gave the D-Backs a strong infield foundation from the very beginning. The D-Backs were also able to take advantage of the Florida fire sale by trading for CF Devon White.
Other useful players taken in the draft included: catcher Jorge Fabregas (Chicago-A), Karim Garcia (Dodgers), Cory Lidle (Mets), Tony Batista (Oakland), Omar Daal (Toronto), David Dellucci (Baltimore) and Russ Springer (Houston). Buried at the bottom of the draft was young Minnesota catcher Damian Miller (47th overall pick), who would serve as the young team's catcher for its first 5 seasons.
But Colangelo & Co. weren't done on the free agent market. The team nabbed Cardinal ace Andy Benes to a 2-year deal worth $12.5 million. It wasn't a very fruitful deal for the team, as Benes followed up a decent 1998 with a dismal 1999 before returning to St. Louis via free agency.
The most unlikely successful signing would be that of reliever Gregg Olson. Olson had attained stardom as a rookie phenom with the Orioles in the late 80's and early 90's, but the mid-90's saw him bouncing from team to team as a spare arm. His glory days seemingly over, the D-Backs signed him to a 2-year deal with barely more then $1 million. Olson was the comeback story of the year in 1998, when he saved 30 games as closer for the team, posting a 3.01 ERA (143 ERA+). He had a decent year as closer in 1999 (3.71 ERA; 119 ERA+), then left as a free agent.
But even with all these promising developments, the biggest "star" of the 1998 team was super-prospect Travis Lee. After being drafted by the Twins in 1996, Lee was (with the help of "advisor" Scott Boras) declared a free agent on a technicality. The loophole made the hot prospect a real-life free agent. The Diamondbacks signed him, with lots of high hopes for the future star. What followed was a fairly familiar story in modern baseball; after playing hard to get as an amateur free agent, Lee never developed into anything like people had expected. He had a decent rookie campaign in 1998 (269/346/429), but considering the context of the 1998 National League and his hitter-friendly home ballpark, that hitting line isn't too impressive for a first baseman, even a good-fielding one. After nearly two seasons of Lee getting even worse, the D-Backs traded him to Philadelphia as part of the blockbuster trade for Curt Schilling in 2000.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The 1998 Arizona Diamondbacks went 65-97, finishing last in the NL West. It wasn't much of a surprise for an expansion franchise to finish last, but it was still a bit disappointing for Arizona fans considering the money Colangelo spent on the team (the D-Backs' payroll was over $32 million, compared to about $27 million for Tampa Bay).
Team highlights were provided by the free agents -- Bell and Williams (20 HR each), Devon White (22 HR), and young Travis Lee (a career-high 22 HR). The pitching staff wasn't dreadful; in fact it was better than the ballpark made it look. Benes pitched fairly well, as did draft picks Anderson (4.33 ERA) and Omar Daal (2.88 ERA). Olson shined as closer, although the team sported a weak bullpen behind him.
It wasn't an awful first season, but (as I said) it must have been disappointing for Colangelo, Garagiola and Showalter, who had spent a lot of time, energy, and cash to field something better than your average expansion team.
So Colangelo went into the offseason ready to spend more money. The early returns were fairly promising; in November and early December, the team signed Greg Swindell, Greg Colbrunn, Armando Reynoso, and Todd Stottlemyre to significant free agent deals. Each player contributed to the team's 1999 leap forward; the only real "busts" would be Reynoso, who never pitched nearly that well again, and Stottlemyre, whose career was basically ended by injuries in 2000; but he still collected $8 million a year through the 2002 season.
But the deal that really put the team over the top occurred on December 10, when the team signed Randy Johnson as a free agent. Johnson signed a four-year contract and went on to win the Cy Young Award in all 4 years, a truly amazing feat. Johnson was a star and had been a star for years in Seattle, but he ascended to the elite when he went to Arizona, an unlikely accomplishment at age 35.
Colangelo followed that up by plunking down big money to center fielder Steve Finley. While not nearly as lucrative as the Johnson deal, Finley was a key part of the team's later success, giving them an all-around gem of a ballplayer for just a little more than $5 million per year.
Two other deals that offseason that went (nearly) unnoticed at the time were the acquisition of Erubiel Durazo and Luis Gonzalez. Durazo was a raw talent from the Mexican leagues, whereas Gonzalez was a 9-year veteran who was an underrated hitter, but otherwise not much of a star. Arizona took Gonzalez in a trade with Detroit that sent off Karim Garcia. The gross inequality of the deal would soon become apparent.
This time, all the money spent paid off. The Arizona payroll skyrocketed up to $68.7 million in 1999, making them 3rd in the NL behind only Atlanta and Los Angeles. But it worked and thensome; the 3 million+ who came to the BOB in 1999 saw history in the making as the Diamondbacks went 100-62 and cruised to the NL West title; they saw an expansion franchise making the postseason in its 2nd year of existence, a new record.
The team sported all-around talent and a balanced attack. Their 5.60 runs per game was 1st in the NL, better even than the Rockies. And despite their ballpark, Arizona's pitching and defense limited the opposition to 4.17 runs per game, tied for 2nd in the NL. Only the Braves were better.
While Travis Lee and free agent Finley slumped (his 34 HR were offset by a .336 OBP), veterans Bell and Williams picked up the slack; Bell with 38 HR and Williams with 35. Right fielder Tony Womack made a lot of headlines with his 72 stolen bases, but this just exposes the baseball media's bizarre fascination with stolen bases. While Womack's 72-for-85 stolen base performance was amazing, stealing bases was the only thing that Womack could do on a baseball field. Womack was similar to Vince Coleman in that his skills at stealing bases made him a star in spite of the fact that he couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. Womack hit a truly dismal 277/332/370 in 1999 and currently sports an awful 273/316/356 career batting line. His defense in right field wasn't good (and it's even worse at second base), but Womack still gets work in the majors; after getting kicked out of New York and Cincinnati, Womack is currently wasting at-bats with the Cubs, thanks most likely to Dusty Baker, a manager who has shown a remarkable ignorance of how runs are actually scored.
But I digress. The real superstar fueling the '99 Diamondbacks was Randy Johnson. In the midst of a hitting renaissance, Johnson posted a 2.48 ERA in 271.2 IP, walking 70 batters and racking up an ungodly 364 strikeouts, good for 3rd on the all-time list behind Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.
As a side note, it must be said that it took Ryan and Koufax 326 and 335.2 innings, respectively, to set their strikeout records. And the truly all-time strikeout kings come from the 19th century, when people were still throwing 500 innings in a year. A better measure of strikeout effectiveness (which also adjusts for a pitcher's era) is strikeouts per 9 innings. The top 10 single seasons of strikeouts per 9 innings are listed on Randy Johnson holds first place, with 13.41 K/9 in 2001. He also holds 4th place, and 5th place . . . and 6th place, and 7th place . . . In fact, Johnson holds 7 of the top 10 positions on the single-season list. Only Pedro Martinez (1999 and 2000) and Kerry Wood (1998) share the space with him. This gives us an idea of just how historically amazing Randy Johnson truly is.
The Diamondbacks didn't have much behind Johnson in the starting rotation, but they did have a strong bullpen. Matt Mantei, obtained from Florida, took over as closer and managed 22 saves with a 2.79 ERA. The bullpen was rounded out by veterans Swindell (2.51 ERA), Olson (3.71), Darren Holmes (3.70) and Dan Plesac (3.32).
The D-Backs went into he 1999 postseason as history-makers and left as disappointments. Ace Johnson only got one start in the 4-game NLDS loss to the Mets, a Game 1 loss that saw him allow 7 ER in 8.1 IP. The D-Backs made it close in Game 4 at Shea Stadium, but the Mets sent the game into extra innings and won it in the 10th inning on a walk-off, series-ending homer by backup catcher Todd Pratt.
The '99 postseason was a setback, but it looked like the Diamondbacks had arrived as true contenders in the NL. It was thus a big disappointment when the 2000 club struggled to an 85-77 finish. Despite the presence of a juggernaut outfield of Gonzalez, Finley and the unlikely Danny Bautista (317/366/511), the D-Backs were short on offensive depth, with veterans Bell and Williams starting to show their age. And despite another historic Cy Young season from Randy Johnson (2.64 ERA, 177 ERA+, 248.2 IP, 347 K), the team was still struggling to fill out the starting rotation behind him. Brian Anderson was a reliable arm (4.05 ERA), but not the kind of guy you want as your #2 starter behind a Cy Young winner. With Reynoso and Daal tanking and Stottlemyre's career essentially over, Colangelo decided the time had come to take on more money. This time it was via trade, a trade that sent Curt Schilling from Philadelphia in a cost-cutting move that netted the Phillies disappointments Daal and Travis Lee, as well as young pitchers Nelson Figueroa and Vicente Padilla. The team soon signed Schilling to a contract extension that would pay him $20 million for his last two years in Arizona. While Schilling pitched well for the team down the stretch in 2000 (3.69 ERA in 13 starts), it wasn't soon enough to turn around the season. But the Schilling deal would pay big dividends in the coming years.
Considering that the 2000 club's payroll had risen again, this time to over $81 million (3rd in NL), there would be some accountability for the 2000 disappointment. Despite his energetic role as team-builder, manager Showalter got the axe in October, with the chief complaint being that he kept the team too tense (a similar story heard during his days as captain of the Yankees). The job went to the chief complainer, broadcaster Bob Brenly, who would take the helm in time for the 2001 season.
It was more free agent fun during the 2000-2001 offseason. The biggest names coming in were first baseman Mark Grace and right fielder Reggie Sanders. Grace was a veteran team leader with the Cubs for years who left when the team preferred to give his job to a cheap 1B prospect. Sanders was a nomadic hitter-for-hire who was never great, but was good enough to keep getting jobs as a starting outfielder. There were worries that the team had come to rely too much on free agency, making the team not only too expensive but too old. These fears seemed justified when hitters like Bell and Williams made an immediate impact, then started to deteriorate with age. Indeed, the average hitter on the 2001 team was 31.9 years old, the oldest in the league. Their pitchers were 30.9 years old, 3rd-oldest in the league. The franchise was still waiting to produce a useful player from its farm system. Was this team really fundamentally sound in the long run?
2001 gave a striking answer to that question: the team was very sound, although the long run was still yet to come. But the short run showed a 92-70 record that was good enough for the NL West crown -- a bare 2 games ahead of San Francisco. The lineup was generally strong, with their 5.05 runs per game 3rd in the league. Free agent Grace proved that he had at least one year of stardom left (298/386/466), but the mega-star was left fielder Gonzalez. Gonzalez had already experienced a career renaissance in Arizona, hitting like an All-Star for the first time ever. But in 2001, he ascended to the next level. He hit for a 325/429/688 line, amazing under any circumstances. But the number that caught everyone's eye was his 57 home runs. Gonzalez was part of the year-long chase to break Mark McGwire's record, and thus became a true superstar (while Karim Garcia dwelt in mediocrity). The only downside was that despite his 57 dingers, Gonzalez finished 3rd in the home run race -- behind Sammy Sosa's 64 and Barry Bonds' record-breaking 73.
If it was possible, though, the performance of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling dwarfed even that of "Gonzo." Schilling went 22-6, posting a 2.98 ERA in 256.2 IP with 293 K against just 39 walks. But Johnson was even better -- 21-6, 2.49 ERA, 249.2 IP, and 372 K (just one short of the record) against just 71 walks. They finished 1-2 in the Cy Young race, with Johnson winning his third straight. Their brilliant performance drew comparisons to Koufax/Drysdale as one of the dominant pitching duos of all time, a comparison that has a strong basis in fact.
The dominance continued into the postseason, as the team beat the Cardinals in a tense, 5-game NLDS. Curt Schilling pitched a complete game in the finale, allowing just one run, but he was matched by St. Louis' Matt Morris, and the game was tied going into the bottom of the 9th. After a failed suicide squeeze saw the potential winning run out at home, Tony Womack saved the day with an RBI single that won the series for Arizona.
The NLCS against Atlanta was a relative cakewalk; Johnson and Schilling made 3 starts between them and won all 3, allowing just 3 ER in 25 IP and striking out 31. The true test would come in the World Series, one for the ages, against the vaunted New York Yankees. The Yankees had won the past 3 World Series and were considered by many to be the favorites, despite the possibility of Arizona getting 5 starts from the Schilling-Johnson duo.
It got off to a great start for Arizona; they took Game 1 9-1 behind Curt Schilling and then won Game 2 thanks to a Randy Johnson shutout. But things changed when the Series went back to New York. Starter Brian Anderson held his own against Roger Clemens, but the Yanks squeaked out a 2-1 victory.
Things brightened up in Game 4 when the D-Backs got a great start from Schilling and took a 3-1 lead into the 9th. The Diamondbacks had Byung-Hyun Kim was on the mound. Kim was signed out of South Korea in 1999 and had quickly established himself as a premiere relief pitcher with his unorthodox sidearm motion. He had been brilliant as the Arizona closer during the regular season, but it wasn't his day. Tino Martinez tied the game with a home run in the 9th inning, sending the game into extras. Despite the fact that he had already pitched two innings, Brenly sent Kim out to the mound in the 10th (one of many questionable moves the Arizona skipper made during the Series). Derek Jeter added more to his "clutch" aura when he hit a walk-off home run to tie the Series 2-2.
Game 5 was hideous deja vu for Arizona. They got a great start once again, this time from Miguel Batista, who shut out the Yanks for 7.2 innings. With the team leading 2-0, Brenly sent Kim to close out the 9th. And after giving up a leadoff double, Kim gave up a home run to Scott Brosius, which tied the game. It was a horrible two days for Kim, who was otherwise brilliant in 2001. Brenly took a lot of second-guessing for his decision to send Kim out again after allowing the Game 4 homer, but this is the worst kind of second-guessing. Kim was his closer and had done the job brilliantly throughout the regular season. Every closer has an off day, and you don't give up on them afterward, even if it happens in October. On this point (at least), I'll stick up for Brenly. Game 5 went into extra innings, but the Yankees won in 12, taking a 3-2 Series lead.
The more romantically-inclined baseball writers (read: all of them), took this as a sign of fate; September 11 was barely 6 weeks past, and it seemed like the perfect story for the Yankees to win the World Series. The unlikely comebacks in Game 4 and 5 (not to mention the eerie similarities) seemed to prove it: the Yankees were fated to win the World Series. Not just for New York . . . but for America.
But this is baseball; it's a sport, not a Greek tragedy. And when the Series returned to Arizona for Game 6 it left the world of media fancy and returned to the world of realism.
This was dramatically displayed by a 15-2 thumping of the Yankees in Game 6 that evened the Series 3-3. But although it was a great victory, there were still mistakes being made. Despite the fact that the D-Backs got out to a huge lead, manager Brenly left starter Randy Johnson in the game. It became clear, when Arizona led 15-0 in the 4th, that the game was a foregone conclusion. It seemed prudent for Brenly to take out Johnson early in order to save him for a possible relief appearance in the crucial Game 7. But despite the fact that even Rick Vaughn could protect a 15-0 lead, Brenly left Johnson in all the way through the 7th inning before taking him out. It's a point energetically pointed out by Rob Neyer, and although the move didn't end up costing the Diamondbacks, it very well could have.
It was winner-take-all in Game 7 with Roger Clemens facing Curt Schilling. This was turning into a World Series for the ages, and it seemed as though America was watching. It was a true pitcher's duel, but Clemens was just a bit better. A solo homer by Alfonso Soriano gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the 8th, forcing Schilling out of the game. Brenly brought in Randy Johnson to close out the 8th (with the seemingly-mutant Johnson pitching on 0 days rest). But Joe Torre brought in ace closer Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning, which certainly seemed to be the end of it for Arizona. Not only was Rivera an ace, but he seemed to save his best pitching for October. Rivera had already thrown 5 shutout innings in the Series, and he put on a display in the 8th inning, striking out the side. Johnson retired the Yankees in the 9th, but the Diamondbacks were down to their last 3 outs against Rivera in the 9th.
It started out innocently. Mark Grace led off the inning with a single. The next batter, catcher Damian Miller, bunted Grace to second, but was safe at first when Rivera made a throwing error. Jay Bell came up next as a pinch-hitter and tried to sacrifice the runners over, but Rivera was able to throw out the runner at third. With runners on first and second and one out, it was again Tony Womack who played the hero, doubling to right and tying the game, with Bell stopping at third base. Rivera again seemed to feel the pressure when he hit Craig Counsell with a pitch, loading the bases. After that, Luis Gonzalez came up. With one out, the infielders came in to keep the Series-winning run from scoring. Rivera threw a pitch that jammed Gonzalez; it was a blooper into center field, but it was enough to get past the drawn-in infield. Bell scored from third, and the Arizona Diamondbacks had won one of the most exciting World Series ever played. To honor their pitching co-dominance, Schilling and Johnson were named co-MVPs of the Series.
It seemed impossible to follow up such an amazing season, but the D-Backs came close in 2002, going 98-64 and winning the NL West. Johnson and Schilling were as sharp as ever, with the Big Unit taking home a record-tying 4th consecutive Cy Young Award. Johnson also earned the "Pitcher's Triple Crown" by leading the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts. It was much the same team that returned to October, again facing the Cardinals in the NLDS.
What followed was a complete upset. Johnson got blown out in Game 1, and the Cardinals won 12-2. Schilling pitched well in Game 2, but was matched by Chuck Finley, and the bullpen allowed the go-ahead run in the 9th, as St. Louis won 2-1. Having defeated both Johnson and Schilling, it was thus anti-climactic when the Cardinals defeated Miguel Batista 6-3 in Game 3, completing perhaps the most unlikely sweep in the short history of the NLDS.
Arizona fans didn't know it at the time, but 2002 was the last hurrah for the teams that had been so strong since 1999. Injuries hampered first both Johnson and Schilling in 2003 and although Johnson bounced back with a 2004 that almost (ahem, should have) won the NL Cy Young, Schilling was already gone; traded to Boston in a salary dump. Johnson would follow in the 2004-5 offseason, going to New York.
There was some hope for the 2003 team, even as their Dynamic Duo struggled with injuries. With veterans Bell, Williams, and Grace long gone, a group of young players -- dubbed the "Baby-Backs" -- came on the scene, helping the team to a respectable 84-78 finish. The most prominent of these were first baseman Lyle Overbay (276/365/402), second baseman Junior Spivey (255/326/433), shortstop Alex Cintron (317/359/489), and relievers such as Oscar Villarreal (2.57 ERA, 80 K in 98 IP) and Jose Valverde (2.15 ERA, 71 K in 50.1 IP).
But the best Baby-Back of them all was also the first real star to come out of the franchise's farm system. Starting pitcher Brandon Webb brought his sinker and his penchant for LOTS of ground balls to the majors in 2003. The Kentucky native's 10-9 record was belied by a 2.84 ERA and a fabulous 68:172 BB:K ratio in 180.2 IP. Webb finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year voting, behind flashier (though not necessarily better) players Dontrelle Willis and Scott Podsednik. Webb regressed in 2004, allowing a league-high 119 walks against 164 K in 208 IP. But he managed a good ERA (3.59), and his 7-16 record was more a product of the team he was playing for (we'll get to them in a minute). Webb bounced back with a fine 2005 that saw him establish himself as one of the best young pitchers in the game. Again, his W-L record was deceiving (14-12), but Webb posted a 3.54 ERA (124 ERA+) and put his 2004 wildness behind him, walking only 59 against 172 K in 229 IP. 2006 has thus far been very kind to the 27-year-old, who is currently making a bid for the Cy Young Award with an 8-0 record and a 2.01 ERA.
So while 2003 was a setback, the presence of a strong group of young players meant that there was no reason to panic in Arizona. Sure, the team was trading away its more expensive players (Steve Finley, Curt Schilling), but how bad could that be?
As it turned out, very bad. Very, very bad. Very, very, very, oh-my-God-so-TERRIBLY bad.
A sign of things to come was a move by GM Garagiola that soon become known in infamy as the "Sexson trade." Garagiola, seeking an impact hitter, traded for Milwaukee first baseman Richie Sexson, despite the fact that 2004 was Sexson's last season before reaching free agency. So unless he could negotiate a contract extension, Arizona would only be "renting" Sexson for one season (which is exactly what happened). But that wasn't the worst thing. The worst thing was how much Garagiola gave up to get Sexson. I can't imagine WHAT Brewers GM Doug Melvin slipped into Garagiola's drink to convince him to line up the Arizona players and let Melvin take his pick, buffet-style, but here's a list of the players Arizona gave up in exchange for Sexson (see also previous entry on the Brewers):
Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell, Lyle Overbay, Chad Moeller, Chris Capuano, Jorge de la Rosa
So most of what kept the Diamondbacks competitive in 2003 (84-78) was gone to the Brewers for Sexson -- who only appeared in 23 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
So not only were the Diamondbacks without the players listed above, they were also without the impact bat that was supposed to replace them (although how a good first baseman can replace a good shortstop, good first baseman, decent second baseman, and good pitching prospect all by himself is beyond me). How did they fare?
They went 51-111.
To put that into context that is -- you read it right -- one hundred and eleven losses. That's not just a bad year, that's a 2003 Tigers/1962 Mets type of bad year. That's the kind of bad year that stains a franchise for years to come. The last NL team to lose more than 111 games was the 1965 New York Mets, who went 50-112. So the 2004 Diamondbacks were the worst National League team since the worst years of early Met history. That's the kind of fact that makes you shudder.
The Diamondbacks were bad in a diverse way; they had bad hitting, bad pitching, and bad defense. Their 3.80 runs scored per game was the worst in the league, even worse than the lame-duck Montreal Expos. Their 5.55 runs allowed per game was 14th-worst in the league. Only the Reds and Rockies were worse, and the Rockies at least have their ballpark as an excuse. Arizona's ERA+ in 2004 was 89, an awful number that ranked them 15th in the league. They were simply lucky that the Reds chose that moment to field the worst pitching staff in franchise history (Cincinnati's ERA+ was 77). And yes, the D-Backs also led the league in errors with 139 for the league's worst fielding percentage (.977). The more accurate metric of Defensive Efficiency ranks them as 15th in the NL -- slightly better than the Rockies, which is about as dubious a compliment as there is.
Upper management's response to the fiasco was about what you'd expect -- absolute panic. Brenly didn't survive the season, getting replaced by interim skipper Al Pedrique. After the season, it was owner Colangelo who got the ouster by the team's board of directors. He was replaced by Jeff Moorad, a former superstar player agent. It was an odd arrangement that saw an agent switch sides to management -- something akin to an Israeli partisan hanging a picture of Yasser Arafat in his den. When asked about a possible conflict of interest -- Moorad had represented players such as Arizona star Luis Gonzalez -- the commissioner's office saw no problem. In other news, the Institution for Wolves saw no misconduct by the Big Bad Wolf in the Little Red Riding Hood affair.
Ownership, along with GM Garagiola, decided that the best way to put 2004 behind them was on the free agent market. So despite trading away Randy Johnson to lower payroll, they turned around and raised payroll with the signing of questionable free agents Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz to big-money contracts. Glaus was a great hitter when healthy, but his playing time had been limited while with the Angels. That and his poor defense at third was enough to make him a poor choice for a big-money investment.
Ortiz, on the other hand, just wasn't that good under any circumstances. Ortiz is the textbook example of a pitcher whose circumstances made him look good, while he himself wasn't. Ortiz had amassed a lot of wins in his career, yes; but Ortiz had spent his career with the Giants and Braves, two perennial NL powerhouses of the era. In fact, let's take this opportunity to compare Ortiz's W-L record to that of his team:

1998: S. F. Giants (89-74); Ortiz (4-4)
1999: S.F. Giants (86-76); Ortiz (18-9)
2000: S. F. Giants (97-65); Ortiz (14-12)
2001: S.F. Giants (90-72); Ortiz (17-9)
2002: S.F. Giants (95-66); Ortiz (14-10)
2003: Atlanta Braves (101-61); Ortiz (21-7)
2004: Atlanta Braves (96-66); Ortiz (15-9)
2005: Arizona D'Backs (77-85); Ortiz (5-11)

Some coincidence: Ortiz's first losing season as a pitcher comes during his season with a losing team. Now not all of Ortiz's value is tied up in his team; he is a generally good pitcher. But he fooled most of the baseball world -- who are still too easily fooled by these things -- that he was a great pitcher, based mostly on his W-L record. Not only that, but it must be said that the Braves and Giants generally had a strong defense behind Ortiz; he wouldn't be so lucky in Arizona.
As if all that weren't enough, the D'Backs should have been troubled by Ortiz's last season in Atlanta. Yes, he went 15-9, but see above: his team went 96-66 and the 2004 Braves had a good defense. But Ortiz turned 30 that year, and his skills were starting to deteriorate. He allowed 112 walks against just 143 strikeouts; the worst BB:K ratio of his career. And a pitcher's walk rate and strikeout rate are much more closely tied to his actual level of talent than wins, losses, and even ERA (Ortiz's 2004 ERA was a decent 4.13). A clever eye would notice that Ortiz's "peripherals" (stats such as walk rate and strikeout rate) showed a pitcher on the decline. But either the Diamondbacks did not see these things or they chose not to see them. They paid the price not only in dollars -- $7.4 million, about twice as much as a league-average pitcher is worth, let alone one whose stats show a steep drop ahead -- but on the field. Ortiz's 2005 was cut short by injuries to just 22 starts and 115 innings pitched. That was merciful -- because he posted a 6.89 ERA and walked more batters (65) than he struck out (46). While injuries go away, bad pitching does not -- especially if you're 32 years old; and now the D-Backs are stuck with the rest of Russ's contract.
But even considering all of that, anything would be better than 51-111. And the D-Backs were a lot better than that; they went 77-85 and finished 2nd in the awful NL West. It wasn't without some pre-season controversy, though. The team signed Wally Backman as their new manager, but apparently didn't do much of a background check on the candidate. It was up to local media to point out that Backman had been convicted of physical harassment and drunk driving in his days as a minor league manager. This was a huge management gaffe, which left the team no choice but to cut ties with Backman and choose Bob Melvin to run the team. It was perhaps a fitting footnote to such a season that was embarassing on-the-field to see the front office made to look like fools and incompetents.
But the 2005 team wasn't as good as it looked. This was partially due to the weak competition in their division, but is also suggested by the team's Pythagorean W-L record. Judged by runs scored and allowed, the 2005 D-Backs should have gone 66-96. Instead, they went 77-85, outperforming their Pythagorean projection by a historic 11 wins. This could be due to great on-the-field management and "clutch" hitting, or it could be a sign that it's very, very hard to revamp a 111-loss team in just one season.
Team highlights included the development of talented corner infielder Chad Tracy (308/359/553), the good health of Glaus (258/363/522), and the unlikely renaissance of platoon first baseman Tony Clark (304/366/636 with 30 HR). Pitcher Javier Vazquez, obtained from New York in the Johnson trade, was a bit more disappointing, posting a 4.42 ERA despite 192 K in 215.2 IP. The culprit was likely his 35 HR allowed. The pitching slack was picked up by Webb and closer Jose Valverde. Free agents Ortiz and Shawn Estes weighed down the rotation, and what had looked like a great young bullpen had by and large fizzled out.
More change was in order for the 2006 season. GM Garagiola was out, replaced by Boston Assistant GM Josh Byrnes, a widely-respected young executive with a fine reputation. Byrnes' focus thus far has been to prepare for the arrival of the fruits of their stacked farm system. Expensive third baseman Troy Glaus was traded to Toronto for second base glove whiz Orlando Hudson and former D-Back Miguel Batista. To replace Glaus, Byrnes shifted 1B Chad Tracy to third, making room for vaunted first base prospect Conor Jackson. To fill the gaping hole at catcher, Byrnes traded away two relief arms for Atlanta backstop Johnny Estrada. He also brought in Eric Byrnes and Jeff DaVanon as temporary fixes in the outfield. Byrnes traded the disappointing Vazquez to the White Sox for starter Orlando Hernandez (whom he recently sent to the Mets for reliever Jorge Julio). So while there are still expensive former stars such as Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green still on the payroll, Byrnes has managed to assemble a competent, competitive team without making any expensive, long-term commitments (with the exception of the untradable Russ Ortiz). They've paved the way for the arrival of young players like Jackson while keeping the pitching staff strong with the likes of Webb and Batista. The NL West is an up-for-grabs division right now, and Arizona's deep farm system and keen GM make them favorites for a return to glory sometime in the near future.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups by Rob Neyer

Thursday, June 01, 2006

1998 Expansion (preview)

"Interim" commissioner Bud Selig did not take long after coming into power to implement some radical ideas. Well, they weren't that radical, but in the most tradition-minded sport of them all, they did seem radical. But Selig, unlike many other wild dreamers of the past, was able to see his ideas to fruition. This illustrates not just Selig's position as one of the more powerful owners (and a man working among friends), but someone who can effectively put through his ideas. And to Selig's credit (much though I mock him elsewhere), many of his ideas have been good ones.
After the 1992 expansion, it became even more clear that baseball was facing the same problem it faced in the late 1960's: too many teams out of contention. In the late 60's, 20 teams competed for 2 postseason berths (10% of teams reached postseason). This was fixed when baseball expanded to two divisions in 1969, making it 4 postseason berths for 24 teams (17%). This was done in part to make the postseason more exciting, but mainly to provide room for other teams, especially underdog teams, to make the playoffs and make the pennant race much more accessible.
The MLB faced a similar problem in 1993. Things hadn't changed much since the first divisional split; now 28 teams competed for the 4 berths (14%). But baseball was facing growing competition from the other major sports. The NBA and NHL playoffs are admittedly a joke; when more than 50% of teams make the postseason, the first few rounds are pretty dull. But the great benefit of this was giving more teams a shot at the postseason; therefore more teams would be considered competitive and able to draw fans, and fewer teams would have to live through utterly meaningless Septembers.
Baseball decided to take a limited solution to this problem; they looked to the example of the NFL. The NFL had expanded to 4 divisions, with the addition of one or two "Wild Cards," where the team with the best record (after the division leaders) took a spot in the postseason as well. This was essentially what Selig had in mind.
Selig envisioned breaking baseball into 3 divisions; 2 divisions of 5 teams each and one division of 4 teams to make up both 14-team leagues. Here's what he had in mind:

Baltimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
Detroit Tigers
New York Yankees
Toronto Blue Jays
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Kansas City Royals
Milwaukee Brewers
Minnesota Twins
California Angels
Oakland Athletics
Seattle Mariners
Texas Rangers
Atlanta Braves
Florida Marlins
Montreal Expos
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
One added benefit of the new divisional system was that it was geographically correct -- teams were located in divisions in keeping with their physical location -- so no more Atlanta Braves in the Western division.
The three division winners would each receive a postseason berth, and the 2nd-place team with the best record would get a Wild Card berth. While the MLB didn't go to "seeding" teams in the postseason like the NBA, they did set up advantages and disadvantages. The Wild Card would have to face the team with the best record in the league in the first round of playoffs (unless they both came from the same division; in which case they would face the team with the 2nd-best record). The team with the best record in the league would also be guaranteed home-field advantage in the ALDS and ALCS.
This meant, of course, a new round of playoffs, termed the Division Series. The Division Series would be a best-of-5 affair, with the two winners then advancing to the ALCS. It meant more postseason games ($$$), more teams in contention deeper into the season ($$$), and a move toward becoming more competitive with the other major sports.
Traditionalists were outraged. The idea of a 2nd-place team making it into October baseball was considered akin to sacrilege. It meant that a lesser team stood a greater chance of making it to the World Series and winning it (which was precisely the idea, although they prefer to call themselves "underdogs"). It also meant that two divisions in baseball would consist of only 4 teams. So you only had to beat 3 other teams to make it to the postseason. And with a 6- or 7-team division, there was always a measure of competitive balance. But with a 4-team division, you're going to have years where all 4 teams are good and some years when they're all bad.
The reality, though, was that it didn't make that much of a difference. It was probably a necessity to include more teams in the postseason, especially since the owners kept adding more franchises all the time. In 2006, 30 teams are competing for 8 postseason berths (27%). It's a lot more than it used to be, but it's nowhere near the NBA or the NHL.
Bud Selig announced that 1994 would be the first season played under this new format. And it started off well . . . at least, until the player's strike hit. One of the forgotten casualties of the '94 strike is Bud Selig's 3-division system. What was supposed to breathe more life into baseball soon became old news compared to the more monumental events in the game.
For those who are curious, here's what the postseason would have looked like when the strike hit:
New York Yankees (70-43; AL East Champs) .vs. Cleveland Indians (66-47; Wild Card)
Chicago White Sox (67-46; AL Central Champs) .vs. Texas Rangers (52-62; AL West Champs)
Montreal Expos (74-40; NL East Champs) .vs. L. A. Dodgers (58-56; NL West Champs)
Cincinnati Reds (66-48; NL Central Champs) .vs. Atlanta Braves (68-46; NL Wild Card)
I've mentioned before that the '94 players' strike crushed the hopes of the Expos, who would never be that good again. It wasn't so bad for the other NL teams; the other three would return to the postseason in 1995.
Over in the AL, the New York Yankee renaissance had to wait another year before making the postseason. And a very good Chicago White Sox team missed a chance at postseason glory. Both Cleveland and Texas would be back in '95. The '95 Rangers are a great footnote to baseball history; they're the only team to win a division with a losing record. True, it wasn't a full season, and true, there was no postseason, so it wasn't a real division title. But it's still a pretty sorry distinction, and one of the real dangers of the 4-team division.
When baseball came back in 1995, so did Selig's format. It saw the Braves beat the Rockies in the NLDS and then sweep the Reds in the NLCS (Cincinnati having defeated L.A. in the NLDS). In the AL, the Indians beat the Red Sox in the ALDS and then toppled the Mariners in 6 games in the ALCS (Seattle having defeated New York in the ALDS). The Braves then took the World Series in 6 over the Cleveland Indians. There was really no scandal involved; both pennant winners sported the best record in their league and were certainly worthy competitors in what was a memorable World Series.
Everyone knew it would happen eventually, and it did in 1997, when the Florida Marlins became the first-ever Wild Card World Champions. It was certainly an exciting journey, culminating in a 7-game World Series that made the Marlins look like the underdogs, but realists pointed out that the Marlins certainly weren't the best team in baseball in 1997. But with the addition of a 3rd round of playoffs, the odds are that much greater that the best man will lose. The Marlins repeated the trick as Wild Card World Champions in 2003. No franchise has ever won a World Series without finishing in first place at some point in its history. Except the Marlins -- they've done it twice. And they're still waiting on their first-ever 1st-place finish.
Selig the Mad Scientist went into 1998 with even more crazy ideas. It was termed "Radical Realignment," and this time it proved too radical for even the most ardent of his supporters. Specific plans were never publicized, but Selig reportedly wanted multiple teams changing leagues, let alone divisions.
This was all to accommodate the 1998 addition of two new franchises. They couldn't just put one in each league, because that would make it an uneven 15 teams per league, with one team in each league idle at all times. No one was ready to go for constant, year-round interleague play, so Selig stepped in with his plan.
Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and a plan was put in place whereby one team would be added to each league, but with one AL franchise switching to the NL to make it a more practical 16/14 split. As I've mentioned before, Kansas City was the first choice to move, but local fans rejected the idea. The Milwaukee Brewers were open to the possibility of the move (which would hopefully make their owner, Bud Selig, more money), and so it was decided. After a couple division-switches and just a little realignment, baseball agreed upon the divisional format that still exists today:
Baltiimore Orioles
Boston Red Sox
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Devil Rays*
Toronto Blue Jays
Chicago White Sox
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers (moved from AL East to accommodate Brewers' switch to NL)
Kansas City Royals
Minnesota Twins
Anaheim Angels (later Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim)
Oakland Athletics
Seattle Mariners
Texas Rangers
Atlanta Braves
Florida Marlins
Montreal Expos (later Washington Nationals)
New York Mets
Philadelphia Phillies
Chicago Cubs
Cincinnati Reds
Houston Astros
Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates
St. Louis Cardinals
Arizona Diamondbacks*
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
* -- denotes 1998 expansion team
This had the added benefit of removing at least one of the 4-team divisions and adding a super-competitive 6-team NL Central.
Stay tuned, as I'll wrap up this entire series by discussing the two 1998 expansion teams: the Arizona Diamondbacks and . . . uh . . . what do you call them . . . uh . . . the . . . starts with an "S"? . . . No, no, a "D" . . . Are we, um, are we sure that there's another "major league" team to discuss? Are we? Really?