Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Options ...

As promised, a team-by-team look at the options still pending for 2007. Should they be exercised? Will they be exercised? Read on.
All contract information courtesy of the invaluable Cot's Baseball Contracts website.

Mike Mussina, Yankees
2007 Age: 38
2007 Option: $17 mil. club option
While I respect Mike Mussina as much as the next guy, it's hard to find any pitcher worth $17 million. Hell, there aren't many players at all worth $17 mil. Not only is Mussina a high-salaried pitcher, he was (in 2005) the highest-paid pitcher in baseball. Only four position players earned more (A-Rod, Bonds, Manny, and Jeter).
Is it even remotely possible that Mussina is worth bank-breaking dough? No. And while I respect Mussina a ton, as any man with a 237-132 lifetime record deserves, he's just not worth that much money, especially at an age of great injury risk.
I think the Yankees should decline his option and try to negotiate a new contract.
BUT I think the Yankees will pick it up. I'm not really sure, but this sounds like just the kind of desperation move the Yankees would make. It's true that they do need starting pitching, and it's also true that Mussina's been their best, most reliable starter this year. But "Moose" fought injury troubles in 2004 and 2005, and it's more than likely that they'll resurface next year; his top-notch, healthy performance this year is a surprise not likely to be repeated. But that doesn't mean that the Yanks won't act out of desperation, especially since it would be a bad PR move to non-tender your best pitcher, a pitcher who's starting to build a strong Hall-of-Fame case. Determining whether or not the Yankees pick up the option will let us know how much the team is really in Brian Cashman's control. Because if the option gets picked up, it will smell of the influence of George Steinbrenner.
Gary Sheffield, Yankees
2007 Age: 38
2007 Option: $13 mil. club option
Is Gary Sheffield worth $13 million? That's a tough question. If he hits like he did in 2004 (290/393/534 in 154 games) and 2005 (291/379/512 in 154 games), then yes, absolutely. But this year, Sheffield's eternally nagging injuries finally caught up with him, causing him to miss most of the season. Despite a well-earned reputation for being difficult, Sheffield is not as brittle as his reputation. Before 2006, he had played at least 130 games in every full season since 1992 (he played 87 and 63 games, respectively, in the strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons).
But the truth is that Sheffield's uncanny durability in the first two years of his Yankee deal was disguising pain that, while it did not disable him, has built up to a point where he had to miss most the year this year, and will likely limit him to playing first base and DH for the rest of his career. If we're gambling on whether Sheffield will be healthy and productive in 2007 or whether he will be injured, I think we'd have to guess injured. This isn't even considering the fact that he's entering the twilight of his career, a time when injuries tend to increase dramatically and plate production tends to decrease. That and the fact that the Yankees have effectively replaced him with the Bobby Abreu trade leads me to think that Sheffield's $13 million would be best spent on pitching.
I think that the Yankees should decline Sheffield's option. This will make him even crankier than he already is, and would likely make him unwilling to negotiate a new contract in New York. But with Bobby Abreu entrenched in right field and Jason Giambi stuck at 1B/DH, the Yankees would be much better off spending that money on pitching. The 2006 success of their pitching staff could very well be illusory: Mike Mussina is turning 38, Randy Johnson is turning 43 (!!), Mariano Rivera is turning 37, and the rest of the staff is populated by tricky youngsters (Wang, Farnsworth), and overpaid injury risks (Wright, Pavano).
AND I think the Yankees will decline Sheffield's option. I can't say this for certain; if there's any mistake the Yankees can be predicted to make, it's the mistake of spending too much money, and on the wrong people. But the cantankerous Sheffield may force the issue, especially since he hasn't done anything this year to justify further expenditure.

Mariano Rivera, Yankees
2007 Age: 37
2007 Option: $10.5 mil. club option*
* -- option is guaranteed with 60 GF in '06 or 114 GF in '05-'06

GF stands for "Games Finished." If I'm reading the contract correctly, Rivera's option year has already vested; he's finished 122 games in '05-'06 and has 55 so far this year (he'll easily make 60). This is good news; not only would the Yankees have picked up this year in a heartbeat, they absolutely should. Rivera is getting older, and can no longer be called the greatest closer in the game with absolute certainty. But you know what? He probably still is the game's greatest closer and considering Rivera's status as a Yankee icon, the Yanks would have to have a really good reason to get rid of him. He's given them no such reason; he's a Hall-of-Famer who's still pitching like one, even at his age.

Jorge Posada, Yankees
2007 Age: 35
2007 Option: $12 mil. club option*
* -- option is guaranteed with 330 games as catcher from 2004-2006

According to Posada's Baseball Prospectus DT Card, he's caught 377 games from 2004-2006, and will catch another month's worth this year. So the option has vested. It's not a bad thing at all. While you could certainly argue that Posada and his poor defense aren't worth $12 million, it's important to note a) the going rate for a catcher who can hit like an All-Star these days, b) the dearth of good catchers on the free agent market, and c) the absence of anyone in the Yankee farm system ready to carry Posada's jock strap, let alone take over his job. Yes, it's overpaying, but it's the Yankees; they can afford it.

Before we move on, I just have to point out some of the peculair nuggets contained in the Alex Rodriguez Contract from Hell. Note:

  • A-Rod's contract was for 10 years and $252 million.
  • From 2001-2004, his annual salary was $21 mil./year; from 2005-2006, it was $25 mil./yr. And from 2007 through 2010, A-Rod will break all records by earning $27 million per year.
  • He may opt out of the contract after 2007 (!) unless he gets an $8 mil./yr. raise, or $1 mil. more than the MLB's highest-paid player. What a vanity clause! Considering that, seven years later, A-Rod is still the game's highest-paid player, I doubt he'll exercise this clause, which would require opting out of a $27 million annual salary from age 33 through 35.
  • He has a no-trade clause, which he waived to come to New York in the 2003-4 offseason.
  • He gets a $100,000 All-Star incentive, plus a bonus for every MVP award. He got $500,000 for taking the award in 2003 and a cool million for his 2005 nod.
  • One year into the deal, A-Rod agreed to defer $45 million of his salary to 2011-2020 at 3% interest (the rate was later reduced). How generous of A-Rod to save the team money in the short term in exchange for a 10-year pension.
  • The Rangers, upon trading A-Rod, agreed to pay $67 million of the remaining $179 of A-Rod's salary. So the Yankees are really only on the hook for about 2/3 of what A-Rod makes; the Rangers paid him 1/3 of his contract just to go away.
  • A-Rod's agent is, of course, Scott Boras.

The only thing more amazing than a con man is the ignorant marks he takes advantage of.

Curt Schilling, Red Sox
2007 Age: 40
2007 Option: $13 mil. club option*
* -- option is guaranteed if the Red Sox win the World Series

I mentioned this earlier, but yes, Schilling's option was guaranteed if the Sox reversed the curse. They did, and now the Sox will be paying a 40-year old $13 million. To be fair, Schilling has made a great comeback from injuries in 2006 so far, and the Red Sox do need dominant starting pitching, more perhaps than they need anything else. But Schilling is quite a risk to give it to them. Again, however, it's the Red Sox, and they can afford to overpay almost as much as the Yankees can.

Keith Foulke, Red Sox
2007 Age: 34
2007 Option: $7.5 mill. club option ($1.5 mill. buyout) or $3.75 mill. player option

This is why everyone cringed when the Blue Jays signed B.J. Ryan to a record-breaking contract for a closer. Even a closer who looks like the most reliable guy around is still subject to the violent wheel of fortune surrounding relief pitchers. After helping the Sox to World Series victory in 2004, Foulke tried to pitch through injuries in 2005, and the results were disastrous (5.91 ERA). They were perhaps even more disasatrous for his long-term future, as he has failed to get back his rhythm even in 2006 (5.63 ERA, 9 HR allowed in 38.1 IP). Considering Foulke's recent past, combined with the fact that 34-year-olds tend to get more injury-prone and less effective, I seriously doubt the will plunk down $7.5 million to a guy whose career is completely off the tracks, and might be essentially over.
I think the Red Sox absolutely should not pick up Foulke's option, unless there's some great medical prognosis or statistical bias that I'm missing.
AND I think the Red Sox won't pick it up. The Sox have already replaced Foulke as closer, and even they can't take such a high-level risk with such little prospect of return. If Foulke could turn himself around, he might be a steal for some team willing to sign him to an incentive-laden 1-year deal. But even that is a long shot for a 34-year-old injury risk.

The Sox also have a $3.5 million mutual option for Jason Johnson (6.35 ERA), but my guess is that they'll decline their option and buy out Johnson's (for $500,000). Johnson's a great guy to have for a minor-league deal, or a low-end incentive-laden major league deal, but he's nobody you want to commit $3.5 million to, especially when you've got several good young starters on the cusp of establishing themselves in the majors. Ditto for Rudy Seanez ($2.1 mill. club option) and his 4.82 ERA.

The Toronto Blue Jays have a 2007 option on catcher Bengie Molina, but I don't think it merits the full-screen discussion. While Molina (277/312/441 this yera) is a good guy to have around, he's not nearly worth $7.5 million. I doubt the Blue Jays would disagree, desperate though they may be for a catcher.

The Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Devil Rays don't have any option years pending for 2007.


The Detroit Tigers don't have any option years pending for 2007.

Mark Buehrle, White Sox
2007 Age: 28
2007 Option: $9.5 million club option ($1 million buyout)

Buehrle had never really had a bad year before; I guess he was due. After being one of the most reliable and top-notch starters in baseball since 2001, Buehrle is suffering through a 2006 that has seen his ERA balloon to 4.71, with peripherals to suggest that it's not a fluke, namely a big drop in his strikeout rate.
That being said, Buehrle is just 28 years old; finally, we have someone on the right side of 30 on this list! Unless there's some underlying mechanical or health problem I'm not aware of, then there's every reason to expect Buehrle to bounce back in the future. $9.5 million isn't a lot to ask for a pitcher who is regularly among the 10 best starters in the league, and sometimes among the top 3. He has thrown a lot of pitches and logged a lot of innings as a young man, but until that clearly manifests itself physically, we have to assume that Buehrle is just having an off-year.
I think the White Sox should exercise Buehrle's option.
AND I think the Sox will do just that. I'm sure they're well aware of everything I've said here, that plus the fact that Buehrle is the longest-tenured current Sox, a team institution, and a just plain ol' valuable guy to have, and I don't see why Kenny Williams would decline this option. The only reason would be if there is something more significant to Buehrle's bad 2006 than is readily apparent. The more realistic interpretation is that Williams is weighing his options and likely discussing a multi-year extension.

Jermaine Dye, White Sox
2007 Age: 33
2007 Option: $6 million club option

When discussing the good moves Kenny Williams has made, the Jermaine Dye contract is often overlooked. Having suffered a broken leg in Oakland that nearly ruined his days as a productive hitter, Williams took a flyer on Dye, on the hopes that he would be able to hit like he used to. He did just that in 2005, and this year is having a career year even by his standards, hitting 326/391/649 and garnering attention in the MVP race. And he did that for $4 million last year, and a bare $5 million this year, a true steal. But even if Dye hits more like his usual, 2005 self (274/333/512) next year, he's still worth $6 million, easily.
I think the White Sox should pick up Dye's option.
AND I think they will do just that. I can't imagine the Sox turning down the reigning World Series MVP, who will finish in the top 10 of the MVP voting (and maybe even top 5). It's a career year, yes, but he's worth it, and I think Kenny Williams knows it.

Tadahito Iguchi, White Sox
2007 Age: 32
2007 Option: $3.25 million 2007 option

I think Iguchi is one of the most overrated players out there. He gets by on a reputation for being a real "gamer," but he has a career hitting line of 279/340/422 in the AL's best hitter's park. That's not too bad for a second baseman, but one with Iguchi's defensive shortcomings isn't doing his team any favors. Iguchi managed an abysmal -14 Fielding Runs Above Average in 2005, and then proved his bad defense wasn't a fluke with -13 so far this year.
But, having said all of that, everyday second basemen don't grow on trees, especially nowadays. While Iguchi may be ripe for a trade to some goof, the Sox may be just better off keeping him for the relatively cheap price of $3.25 million. $3 million isn't bad at all for an everyday player who won't embarass you. I'm not familiar with the White Sox' organizational depth chart, but I don't think they have anybody in their farm system even remotely ready to step in as a big-league second baseman. The Sox should pick up Iguchi's option (a popular choice, since most South Siders haven't yet grasped his mediocrity -- yes, that means you, Ken Harrelson), live with his moderate production, and turn your attention elsewhere. And if the right deal comes along where you can get a good upgrade at the position, the White Sox can just move him along.
I think the White Sox should exercise Iguchi's option.
AND I think they will. Baboons like Harrelson have led South Siders to believe that Iguchi is something special. No need to offend them by suggesting otherwise.

Dustin Hermanson also has a 2007 option with the Sox, but my understanding is that injuries have essentially ended his career and forced him to retire.

Torii Hunter, Twins
2007 Age: 31
2007 Option: $12 mill. club option ($2 mill. buyout)

Speaking of overrated, we have Hunter. The Twins will almost certainly decline Hunter's 2007 option, but that's because they're cheap, not because they think he's overrated. Still, while Hunter is a good center fielder, he's not the Greek God suggested by his flashy catches (although the league seems to have fallen for that one). He's really an average hitter (.268 career batting average, .323 career OBP) who makes up for it somewhat with good power. Notice, though I said "good" power; not "great" power. Hunter averages a little over 20 homers a year, which is fine for a good-fielding center fielder.
But how much of Hunter's power will survive his move out of the Metrodome? If he were to end up in (god forbid) Dodger Stadium, his 20+ HR power would become 15-HR power. So unless Hunter signs to play in another hitter-friendly ballpark (Arlington would be a nice fit), he's likely to end up as an average or slightly above-average hitter. Add in good-but-not-astounding defense and low stolen base numbers completely cancelled out by his times caught stealing, and you've got something less than the perennial All-Star many commentators think he is. Some team desperate for a center fielder will problem convince themselves he's as good as Johnny Damon and sign him to a big-time contract. He's not as good as Johnny Damon; in fact, he's about the 5th-best center fielder in the league -- in a good year. Don't get me wrong, that's a valuable thing to have, and I don't mean to keep dismissing Hunter's defense, which is good, but this guy isn't worth $12 million a year. Not by a LONG shot.
I think the Twins should decline his option.
AND I think they will, but just because they're cheap bastards; not because they can see Hunter's shortcomings.

Luis Castillo, Twins
2007 Age: 31
2007 Option: $5.75 mill. club option ($500,000 buyout)

Castillo is usually a dependable source of good batting averages and good defense. And while I can't speak for his defense, his batting average has mostly deserted him this year. A move from cavernous Dolphins Stadium to the Metrodome didn't help Castillo even a little, even though his offense is entirely power-less.
With a player like Castillo, they have to hit for a high batting average, because that's all they do at the plate. Castillo will draw a decent number of walks a year, so that if he hits about .310 or .320, he's a valuable hitter, even with 0, 1, or 2 home runs. But when he's hitting .294 (as he is this year), with a 294/349/372 batting line, that's just awful, even for a second baseman. He helps make up for it with defense and a few steals (just 20 this year, nowhere near his career-high 62 back in 2000).
Therefore Castillo is something less than a promising investment for 2007. It's possible that his batting average will bounce back, but it's also true that his defense and base-stealing prowess are on the way down. Hell, his steals, once his calling card, are pretty much gone already; his 20-for-27 (74%) performance this year adds almost nothing to the team's offense.
It's true that everyday second basemen are hard to find, as I said before. But considering that Castillo's salary calls for $5.75 mill. next year, I just don't think it's worth it. If the Twins were desperate, maybe; but the Twins have several guys like Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto; cheap guys you can plug into an infield spot and get only marginally worse production than you can from Castillo. I'll take Nick Punto for half a million over Castillo and his $5 3/4 mill.
I think the Twins shouldn't pick up Castillo's option. (I'll admit right now the possibility that Castillo will bounce back, hit .330 next year, and make me look like a fool. But that's a risk I'm willing to take).
BUT I think they will. The Twins are just the sort of team that overvalues defense. They don't so much overvalue stolen bases as they undervalue the negative effect of getting caught. Castillo is the sort of player the Twins like even when other teams rightfully see him as marginal, at least at this point in his career. The biggest thing that would keep the Twins from renewing his option is money.

Rondell White, Twins
2007 Age: 35
2007 Option: Vesting Option: vests at $3 mil. with 400 PAs in 2006, vests at $8 mil. with 650 PAs each in 2006 and 2007

This is pretty complicated; basically, if White stayed in the lineup, he would get a pretty good option for 2007. But White hasn't stayed in the lineup; when he hasn't been injured, he's been awful(214/241/296). So far this year, he has 270 PAs (plate appearances). It's an impossibility for White to get 130 PAs in the last four weeks of the season, especially considering his awful play. So the 2007 will not be vesting, making White a free agent.

Also, the Twins have Carlos Silva under contract, with a $4 mill. club option in 2007 ($100,000 buyout). But Silva has yet to play six full seasons in the majors, so he's still under the Twins' control, even if the option is declined. It would just mean that the club would either have to sign him to a new contract, go to salary arbitration, or decline to tender him a contract, making him a free agent. I don't know if the club will pick up the option or not, but I'm thinking yes; awful though Silva's been this year, you'd rather take him for $4 million than risk arbitration.

Aaron Boone, Indians
2007 Age: 34
2007 Option: $3.75 mill. mutual option

1. Aaron Boone has become a very poor player.
2. The Indians have one of the game's top prospects, Andy Marte, ready to take over at third.
3. Refer back to Numbers 1 & 2.

The Indians really like signing up players to long-term contracts while they're still under their control. So while the club has options on Jake Westbrook ($5.6 mill.) and Casey Blake ($3.75 mill.), they're in the same situation as Silva; even if the team declines the options, the player is still with the Indians. They'll just have to come to terms on another deal. And my guess would be that both players will see their options picked up.

The Kansas City Royals don't have any option years pending for 2007. The only one they did have was a $3 million option on second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. But instead of exercising the option, the Royals signed the decidedly non-spectacular second baseman to an entirely new contract for 2007 for $4 million, with an option for 2008. Can't say as I understand that one.


The Oakland Athletics don't have any option years pending for 2007.

J.C. Romero, Angels
2007 Age: 31
2007 Option: $2.75 mill. club option

Romero is probably the most random name on the list. It's not enough teams feel so generous to lefty relief specialists that they grant them option years. Romero played his role well in Minnesota, but he's been awful his one year in L.A. (7.13 ERA in 41.2 IP, 25:30 BB:K ratio). I don't know what the Angels will do about the option. It depends on whether Romero is injured or not, or whether this is just a bump in the road. It also depends on Romero's relationship with management, which hasn't always been rosy. We'll see what happens.

The only options the Texas Rangers have pending are to reliever Ron Mahay and backup catcher Miguel Ojeda. Mahay is a nice relief arm to have around, but it's hard to imagine why the Rangers felt the need for a $1.75 million insurance policy for 2007. The idea of an option year for Miguel Ojeda isn't too bad. If you pick up his option, he pays you money. But I understand the Rangers have it working the other way around, actually paying money ($500,000) to keep Ojeda around, which puzzles me.

Eduardo Perez, Mariners
2007 Age: 37
2007 Option: $1.5 mill. club option

Perez is a nice player to have on your roster, but again I wonder why the team felt the need to add an option year to such a player; an old guy with a severe platoon split who can kill left-handed pitching. Not a bad guy, as I said, but since most pitching in the majors is right-handed, that can throw a wrench in the works. It should be noted that the contract was signed by the Indians; Perez (and his contract) were traded to Seattle early this year.
I think the Mariners shouldn't pick up the option.
BUT I think they will. Perez's reputation as a lefty-killer has finally caught up with him, just in time for his career to come to a close. Ironic.

I'll be back tomorrow with the National League and all the goodies contained therein.

Monday, August 28, 2006

I would gladly pay you Tuesday ...

Reading over my last entry, it sounds more like an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation than a blog about baseball. So to remedy the hazy and inexact nature of my previous entry, I'm going to take this time to talk about cold hard business facts; specifically: options.
When people sign contracts, they often stretch the boundaries of good sense when defining its terms. Nowhere is this more clear than in the use of options: player options, club options, and mutual options. In an effort to find a middle ground in negotiating the length of a contract, player agents and club representatives will often add on an option year. This is a clause that allows either the club or the player to opt for an "extra" year on the contract, due to the previously agreed-upon terms.
For example, a team could sign a player to a 1-year contract for $1 million, with a club option for a second year at $750,000. This would give the club the choice to renew the player's contract for a second year. They can wait through the first year, decide if they want the player back, and then determine whether or not to opt for the option. By the same token, a player can include an option year of their own. A player could sign a 5-year deal for $8 million per year, with a player option for a 6th year at $5 million. This would give the player an added sense of security, and it would enable the team to further secure a player's services without definitely binding themselves to it.
There are three kinds of options. Two I've already mentioned: a player option, and a club option. There is also a "mutual option." A mutual option only kicks in if both the player and the club exercise it. There are usually certain stipulations involved if one party exercises and the other does not. There is also a fourth type of option, which isn't really an "option," per se. It's a "vesting option." It usually involves a certain level of performance to be met in order for the option to kick in. For example, a player could sign a 1-year deal with a vesting option for a second year, with the caveat that the vesting option only kicks in if a player meets a certain threshhold of performance, such as plate appearances or innings pitched. A pitcher might have to pitch 150 innings in the year before the vesting option, or a total of 250 innings in the two years prior, for example. Vesting options are often used with players who are injury risks; a team can secure a player's services for an extra year, but if the player gets hurt and misses significant time, the option won't vest, and the team gets off the hook. Vesting options are also seen as "inspiration" for a player. Most star players have clauses written into their contracts guaranteeing them an additional sum if they achieve any individual milestones; $25,000 for an All-Star appearance, for example. (It also must be noted that teams are often accused of benching or disabling players in order to keep them from reaching contract milestones that would kick in a higher salary). Some players have options that add a proportional amount of money based on their finish in the MVP Voting, or Cy Young voting. Sometimes, vesting options can be bizarre. Curt Schilling signed a 3-year contract with the Boston Red Sox; the option for the fourth year would vest if the Red Sox won the World Series anytime during the first three years. It was a pretty outrageous clause; a put-up or shut-up type. And of course, the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series, and Schilling's $13 million option for 2007 vested.
Given that contracts in modern baseball often tend to favor a player, you most often encounter player option years, giving the player the option to extend the life of the current contract or not, depending on which would be more financially prudent. Most player options (and club options as well) come with "buyouts." You can "buy out" an option year by paying a percentage of the year's salary. For example, Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds has a club option for next year for a $10 million salary. The Cardinals can either exercise the option and pay the $10 million, or they can pay Edmonds $3 million to buy out the option, making him a free agent after this season.
Needless to say, "option-renewal time" can give you some disgruntled players. John Smoltz, the otherwise good-natured face of the Atlanta Braves, recently surprised many people by going public with the issue of why the team hadn't made a decision on his 2007 option. It was an uncharacteristic move for Smoltz, which made it seem all the more odd that the team had let their marquee player go this long without any word as to whether he was going to stay in Atlanta or not in 2007.
Another practice that deserves mentioning and often bears upon the discussion of options is the practice of "backloading" contracts. If a player signs a contract for $40 million over 4 years, rarely are they actually going to get exactly $10 million each year. Most teams start out with small salaries in the early years, increasing as the contract goes on. Thus you have a "backloaded" contract, where the money is unevenly distributed to the later years of a contract.
The practice of "backloading" contracts is both understandable and fiscally irresponsible. On the one hand, it's often essential for a team to delay paying a player money that they just don't have yet; they're often counting on the very same star player to help increase revenues and make paying the last years of the contract more feasible. On the other hand, it's a wonderfully tempting chance to put off the payday until later. As Wimpy would say, "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." It's not much of stretch from that to "I would gladly pay you $15 million next year if you'll work for $4 million this year." Either out of blissful ignorance or sheer desperation, GMs put off the big payday until later. This isn't always a bad idea, but considering the heavily back-loaded contracts signed in recent years, it's hard to defend it as a sound economic practice. Until inflation shoots up to 20% per year (Ha ha! That $15 million won't buy you a gallon of milk in 2025!), these practices will be generally ill-advised.
Option years are another function of that; GMs will agree to "just one more year" when it's so far in the distant future. But the central problem with back-loading contracts is that they are completely bass-ackwards from the realities of a player's development. Because a major league team controls a player for his first 6 major league seasons, the vast majority of free agents are over 30 years old. Therefore, while their salaries are rapidly increasing, their skills are rapidly decreasing.
It wouldn't be such a bad thing if it all evened out. If you could get an equal amount of bargain from the first half of a contract as you got hosed on the last half, you could call it even. But a player's development is rarely that friendly. This especially true as players enter their late 30's, when they tend to suffer season- and career-ending injuries and their skills degenerate at an ever-increasing pace. Yes, it's a bargain to get an MVP-caliber season from someone making $6-7 million a year, but that doesn't even out if they're making $20 million at age 39 to sit at home an rehab an injury.
The best example of the latter is the Astros' Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell signed a heavily back-loaded deal with the Astros in 2002, at the age of 34, through his 2006 season, when he would be :erk: 38. There was also an $18 million club option for his age 39 season in 2007; on the off-chance that Bagwell was that historically rare player who still plays like an MVP at the age most ballplayers have taken up golf. To be fair, it was out of a bizarre sense of kindness that Bagwell signed the deal; he knew the Astros couldn't really afford to pay him what he was really worth (at age 34, at least), so he signed with them at a "hometown discount," knowing he would make it up in the later years of the contract, when the Astros had presumably discovered a grove of money trees.
The trouble was (as you can probably guess) that Bagwell got injured and -- shockingly -- got old. At age 39, Bagwell was not unlike most other ballplayers at that age -- hurting and degenerated. In fact, Bagwell will end up missing the entire 2006 season due to injuries that have basically ended his career. The Astros did try to recoup some of that money through insurance (the one saving grace for teams with brittle, rich ballplayers). However, the Astros' insurance claim was denied, basically because Bagwell played down the stretch in the 2005 season through his injuries. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time to get Jeff Bagwell for $8 million at age 34 and $10 million at age 35. But the Astros should have had the foresight to notice that although Jeff Bagwell is a Hall-of-Famer -- he's also human. The same could be said of Barry Bonds (except for the part about being human), who earned $20 million in 2005 to sit at home and nurse his knees. I don't know if the Giants were able to recoup any of that money, but this is a glowing example of the risks of heavily backloaded contracts for players entering their late 30's: it's nice to get a great season for $8 million, but it's much, much worse to pay $15-20 million for NOTHING. Baseball GMs should show more fiscal responsibility than a Popeye cartoon character.

OK, that went on a bit longer than I anticipated, but it was all meant to introduce you to the wonderful world of baseball contracts; specifically OPTIONS. While many baseball commentators are talking about next year's potential free agent class, I'd like to talk about the players on each team who still have decisions pending on their option years. Will their team pick up the option, and should they? These are the questions I want to ask about some pretty big All-Stars and some pretty mediocre humpties. And along the way, we can explore the bizarre nature of baseball contracts. Check back tomorrow, as I'll look at each team's 2007 options and discuss whether or not they should get picked up.

In the meantime, please pray for the National League.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Win Nexus

No decision is made in a vacuum. Consequently, all analysis must take into account the context in which decisions are made in order to assess their relative wisdom. Sabermetricians have done an excellent job in establishing a basic set of ground rules for winning baseball, and while it's not 100% reliable (what is?), it's still a very strong guide to setting about creating a winning baseball team, both on the field and off.
The nature of statistics, though, is to deal in generalities. Predicting the future is based on odds, just like any Las Vegas casino. A statistician will tell you that there's a 75% chance that's a certain decision was the wrong one. They would then conclude that it was a bad decision. But we cannot ignore the other 25%, nor can we ignore the circumstances that might make an otherwise huge risk a worthwhile one.
Simply put: statistics has given us a great general understanding of right and wrong, but little help in informing decisions and choices made in a much more real and complex environment. Is it possible, and even quite likely, that the "wrong" decision, statistically, is the right one to make under certain circumstances?
I think yes, absolutely. A more realistic approach to analysis, one gaining favor in sabermetric circles, is a "risk analysis" or "cost/benefit" analysis. It's a more comprehensive look at the situation, in that it can give you the relative probability of a certain result. It's one thing to say that the Mets' trade for Shawn Green is essentially useless. It's much more informative, and worthwhile, however, to state that there's a 5% chance that Green will increase the Mets' chances of winning the World Series, followed by a 20-30% chance that his skills will decline in 2006. Considering that Green stands to lose as much as 10% from his raw numbers in moving from hitter-friendly Chase Field to Shea Stadium -- and considering that the Mets will owe Green about $2 million this year and $9.5 million next year (not including the $2 million it cost to buy out his 2008 option), and you have a player whose cost is far, far greater than any potential reward.
But is it possible that, although this decision might seem bad in and of itself, that it's a good decision for the Mets right now? This is one of the points I'm trying to make. But the point is ill-made with Green; the Mets have (according to Baseball Prospectus) a %99.9 chance of making the postseason, so the addition of Green is superfluous in that regard. Green is no longer an impact offensive player (283/348/429 hitting line in hitter-friendly Arizona), especially for a corner outfielder with diminishing peripheral skills (baserunning, defense) as he gets older. Is the addition of Green (replacing prospect Lastings Milledge) an improvement for the postseason, where the Mets' odds are obviously less than %99? If so, it's by such a small margin that it doesn't begin to justify the expenditure.
Besides that, is it so important that the Mets win in October that they take a flier on a marginal replacement at an exorbitant cost? The simple fact that the Mets will make the postseason is great news for the franchise and all of Queens. While it would be nice to win in the postseason, the Mets are under no untoward pressure to do so. Granted, the Mets are always under untoward pressure in New York, but even winning the World Series won't shut talk radio up. If the Mets were an older team fading away, but with one last shot at the title, it would be a more defensible move to trade for Green. But as the Mets are assured to make the postseason and enjoy some success there, appear to be set for the next few years as the divisional powerhouse, and have no gaping hole for Green to fill, it makes their move to trade for him still indefensible, even under the circumstances.

Which brings me to the Win Nexus. The Win Nexus is the point at which a team's wins become more valuable than ever. Most analysis I've come across places the Win Nexus between 87-92 wins. This, then, is a critical gap in wins, the difference between them being more consequential than any other 5-win "nexus" in the game.
Let me explain. For a team that loses (or wins) more than 100 games, a difference of 5 wins is relatively small. If you win 100 or 105 games, you are almost certainly going to make the postseason (the last 10o-win team to miss the postseason was the 103-win 1993 Giants; the very next year, the MLB expanded to the 3-round postseason format). If you're racking up more than 100 or even 90 losses, what the hell difference is 5 games? From a baseball standpoint, an economic standpoint, and a business standpoint, 93 and 98 losses might as well be interchangeable.
So the question is, which wins in baseball make the most difference? That is to say, which wins are more valuable than any other a team can get? I don't mean from game-to-game, I mean in overall win totals. I think it's safe to say that the biggest difference in wins and losses is the difference between making the postseason and missing it. In baseball nowadays, regular season performance is becoming more and more irrelevant. Teams simply want to make it to the postseason, where even the underdogs and lesser lights have a chance to win ('87 Twins, '03 Marlins, a few others). Teams want to make the postseason, which will bring in more revenue, ever-increasing as they advance up the ladder to the World Series. So that's why I say that the most important "win nexus" in baseball is the 87-92 win threshhold. Teams that win 87 games rarely make the postseason. Teams that win 92 games very often do. If a team is wavering between the 87-92 win threshhold, it is more important than ever for them to take advantage of the opportunity to improve their team. Contracts and trades which would be awful for an 80-win team may be perfectly appropriate for an 89-win team. The 80-win team has very little to gain; the 89-win team has a shot at the World Series to gain, and everything to lose.
How does this manifest itself on a practical level? Teams in the Win Nexus can overspend on free agents, make risky trades, and work even more aggressively toward improving the team over the short term. It's a rare team that can count on remaining dominant for the next few years; most teams in the Win Nexus may not get another chance, and so can be excused for acting aggressively, and even recklessly, in pushing their team ahead of the 92-win plateau.
Of course, no one knows in advance how many games their team will win. Many teams may not even know on which side of the nexus they stand. That's why it's imperative to a) have a very good idea of your team's inner level of ability, and act accordingly: if you're below the win nexus, act conservatively and plan for the future. If you're above the win nexus (and how many teams can count on that?), try not to screw up what you've got. And if you find yourself in the middle, then there's a lot at stake. If you think your team is an 87-win talent, it's time to go for it, man.
A great example of this would be the 2005-6 Chicago White Sox. Despite winning 99 games and appearing to be on the safe side of the Win Nexus, GM Kenny Williams saw differently. First of all, the White Sox out-performed their Pythagorean record (91-71) by a large amount. This could be luck, or it could not. Williams was smart enough not to count on good luck (or whatever) to stay with the team the next season. Williams pursued free agent first baseman Paul Konerko and signed him to a free agent deal. Under other circumstances, the Konerko contract would be a bad one; an overrated hitter playing in a park that makes him look good entering the decline phase of his career isn't such a great investment. But Williams saw that Konerko was a high-impact bat in a free agent market nearly bereft of them. Williams made the canny decision that it was worth it to overpay Konerko, because he was worth more than usual to the White Sox -- not only would he help push them through the Win Nexus, he was an all-around offensive threat on a team that didn't have anybody else who could replace his offense. Williams may have also felt that his starting rotation simply couldn't be as amazing as they were in 2005; or at least, one or two of them were going to decline. So Williams exchanged 5th starters, losing Orlando Hernandez and gaining Javier Vazquez, a move which looked (at the time) like a fine insurance policy. Williams also committed a fair amount of money to Jim Thome in acquiring him from the Phillies, also losing his starting center fielder in the process. Not only was Thome an expensive risk, he was also coming off a major injury. But Williams felt that it was imperative that the Sox improve offensively, and that it was worth the risk if Thome could come back at even 80% of his former self.
The result has been a strong one for the Sox: Konerko has hit well, Thome has hit better than even Williams could have dreamed, and while adding Vazquez didn't improve the quality of the pitching staff (which took a very strong turn for the worse), it was probably the right move at the time.
The urgency of Williams' actions fits in with what I said before; he didn't see the White Sox as a dominant, 100-win team. He saw them as a team in the low-90s, right in the middle of the "do-or-die" win nexus. It must be said, too, that in the American League, the Win Nexus should probably be adjusted upward, as it looks like one or two teams will win at least 92 games and miss the playoffs. If Williams were in the NL Central, he could have sat back, let his team win 88-90 games, and still make the postseason. But Williams cannily realized the singular status of his team, a status that demands more action than a team at either end of the spectrum. The difference between a team that makes the postseason and a team that almost does may look like just one or two wins, but is much more than that in both the baseball sense, and more importantly in the economic sense. That explains the concept behind the Win Nexus.
On the other hand, we have the Kansas City Royals. The Royals spent a fair amount of money in the offseason on free agents such as Doug Mientkiewicz, Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, Joe Mays, and trade acquisition Mark Redman. Now, if the Royals were within the Win Nexus, some of these moves might be justifiable. Any reasonable analysis would conclude that these players are all overpaid; but, if the Royals were right on the cusp of making the postseason, it might make sense to overpay for role players in the short run, if it might mean the difference in making the postseason or not.
However, the Royals aren't even in remotely the same situation as the White Sox. The Royals were, going into this season, a 60-win team (56-106 last year) that did not look to be getting any better. The Royals, then, spent a lot of money overpaying the above players, which action would elevate them to about 65 wins.
Big f***ing deal.
The difference between 60 and 65 wins is academic; you suck, either way. When you're a team that has a base level of talent worth 60 wins, you do not need to be overpaying a group of role players just to elevate your team by 5 wins. You should just conserve money and resign yourself to the next couple years of awfuldom, while committing all that money (and your other resources) towards the future, namely the farm system. That the Royals made this bone-headed mistake shows either: a) a complete ignorance of their inner level of talent, b) an even greater ignorance of the level of competition in the American League, particularly the AL Central, c) a complete disregard for anything but making positive headlines and merely keeping the team afloat, or d) genetic mutation as the result of severe inbreeding.
But anyway . . .
Going back to the Green trade, applying the Win Nexus theory makes it even more puzzling. The Mets are on pace to win 99 games -- safely above the top end of the Nexus. Not only that, but the rest of the division is below .500, meaning that the Mets would likely still make the playoffs even if they did fall below the 87-win plateau, which they are in no danger of doing. The Green trade doesn't prepare for the future; the Mets are so far ahead of the rest of the NL East for the next couple years that it's not worth making trifling adjustments, especially those that cost in the tens of millions. And the National League as a whole is struggling; the Win Nexus needs to be adjusted downward for the NL.
It could be argued that because the Mets haven't won a World Series in 20 years, that they should act more aggressively than a team like the Yankees, a team for which making the postseason is a relatively small victory compared to other baseball teams. Would we allow Cubs GM Jim Hendry more leeway in his efforts to aggressively build a postseason contender than we would Yankees GM Brian Cashman or Red Sox GM Theo Epstein?
I think so, yes. The Nexus Theory is based on the importance of making a postseason to a team, particularly to their finances. So we have to be realistic and say that it's more important (and potentially lucrative) for some teams to make the postseason as opposed to others. Teams of historic futility deserve a wider hand; look at what winning the World Series did for the Red Sox, and you can understand the Cubs' aggressiveness on the free agent market. The Tigers of this year are another example; a franchise that hasn't won a World Series in 22 years or even made the postseason in 19. They have much more at stake in making the postseason than perennial contenders like the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, and A's, and so should be allowed to act more aggressively in this sense. For some teams, a win is much, much more than just another win.
While I don't advocate complacency for high-winning teams nor laziness for the losers, understanding the Win Nexus makes us see the singular situation these GMs find themselves in. It's something that sabermetricians should take into account when analyzing the bigger picture behind player performance, contracts and payroll. The interesting thing will be seeing which teams are in the nexus/on the cusp in the 2006-7 offseason: first, if they correctly identify themselves as such; second, if they act accordingly; and third, if the result reinforces the Nexus theory itself. Other than the fact that we need to adopt two separate nexuses (nexes? nexi?) for each league, I think the theory is a sound one. It's also an example of a very important non-statistical principle that is essential to understanding and evaluating the modern game, especially on a business level.

Monday, August 21, 2006

DHL Hometown Heroes

If you've come within 5 channels of a baseball game on TV recently, then you've seen the commercials for "DHL Hometown Heroes." In it, some MLB merchandise gets delivered to a sports bar, and the bartender says soemthing like, "Albert Pujols, he's the greatest." Whereupon the Babe Ruth plaque comes to life and barks about "I hit 714 home runs!" An Ozzie Smith baseball card and a Cal Ripken newspaper chime in (both players playing themselves) as does a Honus Wagner baseball card (played by some man with a giant prosthetic chin). Ozzie talks about his stolen bases, and Wagner says, "In my day, we didn't have bases; we had rocks." I've never heard of a rock before, but oh well.
The gist of the commercial is to get fans to vote for the DHL Hometown Heroes. My first thought was, "What's a hometown hero?" My second thought was, "Why would I want to vote for one?"
Going to the mlb.com website, I find that it's simply a fan vote for "the most outstanding player in each club's history." I don't know why there's some pressing need to vote on this now, or why anyone would be passionate about such a vote. This came completely out of nowhere, although it's not only gotten an obnoxious amount of TV time, but it's also available in ballparks; fans can vote there, just like with the All-Star Game.
You have to register before you can vote, with one of the requirements being that you enter your phone number. I deselected the option that allows for mobile updates from the MLB, but I still don't trust the MLB with my phone number. Nevertheless, as a committed journalist (or something), I went ahead with the voting. The catchphrase is "It's About Time We Settled This." Yes, because fans have been waiting for years for some corporate-sponsored chance to vote on which baseball player they like a whole lot.
There are five nominees for every team. Which creates several problems. Sure we can quibble with which 5 Yankees to go on the ballot, but how in the hell do you pick the 5 best Devil Rays of all time? The MLB came up with: Wade Boggs, Carl Crawford, Roberto Hernandez, Aubrey Huff, and Fred McGriff. Even the Phillies have got that beat (Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Chuck Klein, Robin Roberts, Mike Schmidt). Although none of them are as odd as seeing Todd Stottlemyre's name on the list (for Arizona).
My larger point is, why did this award even happen? There was no fan impetus for it, nor is there any pressing business or PR need to have such a generic, random vote. But the MLB is pushing this hard; not just with the TV ads, but everywhere else.
After the voting, you get this message:

The Hometown Heroes winners will be announced in a three part series on September 26th, 27th and 29th on ESPN. The show will showcase the winners' greatest career moments and highlight each of the nominees on the official Hometown Heroes ballot. Tune in to ESPN to see if your Hometown Hero made the cut.

Look out Monday Night Football, the three-part Hometown Heroes selection show will be the highest-rated program on cable. Three parts (I assume three hours) of hearing why Rusty Staub was such a good Expo, or trying to make fans remember who Luke Appling was.
So why did this award happen? Here is my suspicion: DHL, not content with simple advertisement and endorsement, bought itself an award. This is not exactly new; the official award given to the best relief pitcher in each league is the "Rolaids Relief Man" award. I'm sure Rollie Fingers and Trevor Hoffman were thrilled to be so closely associated with acid reflux. Anyhow, at least there was some merit in giving an award to the otherwise award-less relief pitchers. But while even the Latino Legends team had a specific purpose and a sense of belonging (whatever its insincere origins), the Hometown Heroes Awards are as bland as you can get. But I'm sure that if DHL paid enough money, MLB would be glad to give official recognition to the award as a form of uber-advertising. It's not as crass as putting the Spider-Man 2 logo on the bases (which almost happened), rather it's sad in a dull and pointless way. I can't imagine ESPN clamoring for the broadcast rights to the show; it was probably stuck in the package deal they recently signed with the MLB. "Yeah, you can have 100 games a year, and we'll give you a 2% discount if you take this three-hour wad of time." "*Sigh*, okay."

If you're curious, here are the nominees for each team (thus saving you the trouble of giving the MLB your phone number):

Baltimore Orioles: Eddie Murray, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson
Because it's the "hometown" heroes, members of the St. Louis Browns weren't included, even though it's the same franchise. But really, who would notice? Are George Sisler and Vern Stephens going to bump any of these guys off the list? I voted for Ripken.

Boston Red Sox: Roger Clemens, Jim Rice, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Cy Young
Jim Rice makes the list . . . well, I don't know why. He's a sentimental favorite for some because he's not in the Hall of Fame, but there are about a dozen better candidates for the spot. Like maybe, I don't know, PEDRO MARTINEZ?! Hell, Jimmie Foxx didn't make the list for the Athletics, so he should be on here. Foxx only spent the end of his career with the Sox, but then so did Cy Young. Why they put Young here instead of Cleveland is beyond me. I voted for Williams.

Chicago White Sox: Luke Appling, Harold Baines, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Frank Thomas
No Shoeless Joe? Understandable, but why not him when Pete Rose is on Cincinnati's list? The nature of the awards are much less "ouststanding players" than fan favorites, which is why a good-but-not-great star like Baines makes this list over Hoyt Wilhelm or Billy Pierce. Or Ted Lyons, Dick Allen, Robin Ventura ... I voted for Thomas, in spite of his ugly exit from town.

Cleveland Indians: Earl Averill, Larry Doby, Bob Feller, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker
They're all Hall-of-Famers, but none of them have played in FIFTY YEARS. Couldn't we at least throw somebody like Kenny Lofton out there to spice things up? Or hell, I'm surprised that Rocky Colavito didn't make the list, given that he was a Cleveland institution for years. That seems to be what these awards are really about; and who nowadays remembers Earl Averill? I voted for Speaker, a forgotten legend.

Detroit Tigers: Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Alan Trammell
If only the Cooperstown voters were so kind to Trammell. Depending on how PC the voters are, the award will either go to Cobb (the amazing asshole) or Greenberg (the gentle Jewish giant). I voted for Cobb, but my heart was saying Gehringer.

Kansas City Royals: George Brett, Amos Otis, Bret Saberhagen, Mike Sweeney, Frank White
Despite their youth, the Royals have had some really good players. Sweeney is on the list to give it SOMEBODY who's played for them in the last 15 years. I voted for Brett, duh.

L.A. Angels: Jim Abbott, Don Baylor, Rod Carew, Chuck Finley, Tim Salmon
This may be the oddest selection of any of the teams. Abbott was the one-armed pitcher who had a couple really good years in Anaheim before blowing his :ahem: arm out and never pitching that well again. He was good at his peak, but Dean Chance and Andy Messersmith were better. So was Don Sutton, Ken Forsch, Troy Percival and any number of other top Angel pitchers. Baylor was an outfielder-DH who won the MVP in 1979. He was good, yes, but he was only with the team for a couple of years; his inclusion instead of longtime-Angel Brian Downing is astonishing, especially since Downing was a better player who was with the team longer. Carew was a Hall-of-Famer, but he came to the Angels for the tail end of his career. Bobby Grich should be here. Carew was a better PLAYER than Grich, but he wasn't a better Angel. Finley and Salmon I can live with. I voted for Salmon, by default more than anything. Where is Jim Fregosi?

Minnesota Twins: Rod Carew, Kent Hrbek, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Kirby Puckett
I half-expected them to put Johan Santana on here, but great though he is, he's only been with the team for 5 years. No love for Bert Blyleven here, but that's no surprise. The main problem is that the Twins used to be the Washington Senators for the first half of the 20th century. Granted, the Senators didn't have many superstars, but they did have Walter Johnson. Johnson isn't a "hometown" hero for the Twins, no. But the MLB put Lefty Grove on the Oakland A's list, even though Grove's major league career was spent entirely on the other side of the Rockies. If Grove is on the A's, Johnson is on the Twins. I voted for Killebrew, but I could have gone for Puckett, who will probably win.

New York Yankees: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth
Surprised? Neither am I. Although given the nature of the awards, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Derek Jeter here. But whose place is he going to take, really? I voted for the Babe.

Oakland A's: Dennis Eckersley, Lefty Grove, Rickey Henderson, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson
As I said, Grove's inclusion here is odd, as he played with the Philadelphia Athletics. Philadelphia and Oakland are separated by a really big continent. And if you're going to split hairs to put Grove on the team, then as I said, Walter Johnson should make the Twins. Other than that, recent history dominates. No McGwire, Canseco, or Giambi, but, uh, that's to be expected (talk about your bad PR). Bending the rules to include the Philadelphia A's makes for some odd choices, because there are several old A's (Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Eddie Plank) who would knock Eckersley and Hunter right off this list. But, of course, recent history prevails. I voted for Grove by a hair over Rickey.

Seattle Mariners: Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jamie Moyer, Ichiro Suzuki
No surprises here. It's sad not to see Alvin Davis on the list, but then all these guys have earned it. I voted for Edgar, just because I know everyone else will vote for Griffey.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays: Wade Boggs, Carl Crawford, Roberto Hernandez, Aubrey Huff, Fred McGriff
Imagine if the Yankee list looked like this: Roy White, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, Mark Koenig, Wally Pipp. Except all those players were much better than these 5. Boggs is a legit HOFer, but his career in Tampa was honorary only; he was playing out his days to get to 3,000 hits. I voted for McGriff, who was actually good over a fair number of years.

Texas Rangers: Rusty Greer, Ivan Rodriguez, Nolan Ryan, Jim Sundberg, Mark Teixeira
Rusty F'n Greer? I appreciate that Greer was an underrated hitter . . . but Rusty F'n GREER?! The early years of the Rangers are entirely absent; I'd much prefer to see Mike Hargrove, Toby Harrah, Buddy Bell, Charlie Hough, and even (dare I say) Juan Gonzalez on the list ahead of Greer and Sundberg. I voted for I-Rod.

Toronto Blue Jays: Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Tony Fernandez, Pat Hentgen, Dave Stieb
Thanks for the homer, Joe, but other than that, you weren't much. Replace Carter and Hentgen with Delgado and Halladay, and I'm a happy man.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez, Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, Matt Williams
It's amazing how someone can mean to write "Curt Schilling" and accidentally type in "Todd Stottlemyre." That's a hell of a typo. I voted for Johnson.

Atlanta Braves: Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones, Phil Niekro, John Smoltz, Warren Spahn
Yay, hooray, Smoltz spent his whole career in Atlanta, but I'd prefer the guy with the 3 Cy Youngs as a Brave, Greg Maddux. And if you're going to select a third baseman from the Braves, it is not Chipper Jones; it is Eddie Mathews. I'm REALLY surprised that super-fan favorite Dale Murphy didn't make the list, but it is a tough one to crack. If the MLB really had balls, they'd add in "King" Kelly, a Boston superstar from the 1880s. He never played in Atlanta, but then neither did Spahn. I voted for Hank.

Chicago Cubs: Ernie Banks, Ferguson Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Billy Williams
A sentimental list for sentimental fans. You know, the Cubs haven't won a pennant since 1945; therefore it's odd that their 5 "most outstanding" players are all from the post-war era. But then, who would really vote for Mordecai Brown (besides me)? No room here for Brown, Hack Wilson, Frank Chance, Gabby Hartnett, or Billy Herman. Cap Anson was a racist, yes, but so was Cobb, and he's on here. And few people have meant more to Chicago baseball than Anson. I voted for Williams, because I think Banks is really overrated.

Cincinnati Reds: Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose
It's the Big Red Machine plus Robinson. I know it wasn't a glorious era, but could we throw a bone to the first hundred years of Cincinnati pro ball? Or the last twenty? Barry Larkin would slide nicely into Perez's place on this list. I'm really shocked he didn't make it. I voted for Morgan, but leaned toward Robinson.

Colorado Rockies: Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Andres Galarraga, Todd Helton, Larry Walker
The high-altitude Hall-of-Fame; it's like the NCAA Division II. I voted for Helton, who's legit.

Florida Marlins: Josh Beckett, Luis Castillo, Jeff Conine, Robb Nen, Dontrelle Willis
I know Gary Sheffield wasn't the congenial sort, but he's probably the all-time best Marlin in terms of pure baseball. And Robb Nen?! I voted for Willis by default, although if he makes the list, then so should Miguel Cabrera.

Houston Astros: Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Larry Dierker, Nolan Ryan, Jimmy Wynn
I'd go for Lance Berkman myself, but Wynn's hard to argue with; it gives the lineup more balance in terms of era. Hard to pick between Bagwell and Biggio; I chose Biggio.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Roy Campanella, Sandy Koufax, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider
The only non-expansion team who picked 5 players all from the same era. Not that I expect to see Zack Wheat or Dazzy Vance get a lot of write-in support. I voted for Jackie, and so will everyone else.

Milwaukee Brewers: Cecil Cooper, Rollie Fingers, Jim Gantner, Paul Molitor, Robin Yount
Gimme Ted Simmons instead of Gantner, and you've got yourself a deal. This list says a whole lot about the Brewers in recent years; the only guys who stand a chance to crack it are just now getting started. I voted for Yount, basically because he spent his whole career in Milwaukee.

New York Mets: John Franco, Tug McGraw, Mike Piazza, Tom Seaver, Darryl Strawberry
Congratulations for being Italian in New York, Mr. Franco, here's your spot. Congratulations on being colorful, Mr. McGraw, here's yours. Let's start with Keith Hernandez, Jerry Koosman, and Dwight Gooden. Hmmph. I picked Seaver, and it wasn't a hard choice.

Philadelphia Phillies: Richie Ashburn, Steve Carlton, Chuck Klein, Robin Roberts, Mike Schmidt
I'd actually take Bobby Abreu ahead of Klein, even though the latter is in Cooperstown. Other than that, this list looks great; we could have used Grover Cleveland Alexander or Jim Bunning here, but other than that, it's fine. I picked Schmidt. If he doesn't win, then the Philadelphia really are pure evil.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Roberto Clemente, Ralph Kiner, Bill Mazeroski, Willie Stargell, Honus Wagner
There were a whole lot of good Pirate teams in the first two or three decades of the 20th century, and all they have to show for it is Honus. It's a joke to see Kiner and Maz here instead of Paul Waner and Arky Vaughan, but the list skews modern, I understand that. If he stays with the team, Jason Bay could break in here. Other than that, this list exposes the singular fact that the Pirates have been horrible at finding really good pitchers. Wilbur Cooper is the all-time wins leader for the team, and that's not an inaccurate evaluation of their standards. Sure a guy like Vern Law is a great pitcher, but when he's the best you've done in over 100 years, there's something wrong. I voted for Honus, but I think Clemente will win.

St. Louis Cardinals: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith
Again, we see that the list is based more on public perception than quality. They should just take out that part about "most outstanding;" we all get what this is. That would explain the presence of Brock and Smith. Both were great players and legit HOFers, but St. Louis has seen a LOT of great baseball over the years. 5 years in the league or not, Albert has earned his spot here. Albert has the potential to be as good as Stan Musial. But until he realizes it, he's not as good as Stan. I voted for Stan, who is remembered warmly for being such a great guy and consistent hitter -- but let's remember just how phenomenal he was at the plate for such a long time. Imagine Pete Rose with power.

San Diego Padres: Brian Giles, Tony Gwynn, Trevor Hoffman, Randy Jones, Dave Winfield
Giles has only been with the Padres for three years now and has obviously left his best seasons in Pittsburgh. Still, it's not a stretch to put him on this list. The problem was that, other than Gwynn and Hoffman, the Padres don't tend to hold on to their superstars for very long. Gwynn is, therefore, my pick, and should win going away.

San Francisco Giants: Barry Bonds, Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Mel Ott
Again, they just "snuck" one New York Giant onto the list. Ott belongs, don't get me wrong, but so do a LOT of other New York Giants, perhaps the greatest National League dynasty of all time. I love Marichal, but he wasn't better than Carl Hubbell or Christy Mathewson. Bonds and Mays get their spots regardless, of course. I like McCovey, but think he's a bit overrated (just a bit). I voted for Mays, who should get 99.9% of the vote.

Washington Nationals: Gary Carter, Livan Hernandez, Brian Schneider, Rusty Staub, Jose Vidro
Out of necessity, they tried to balance the list between Expos and Nationals, and it just came out wrong. The fact that Brian Schneider was even CONSIDERED for this list is a joke. It's nice that we end with this one, as we get the biggest snub and the biggest mistake made on any team anywhere. Tim Raines is not on this list. He would get my vote in a heartbeat, but he's not on the list. If this is the public perception of Raines, then I'm afraid he never will make it to Cooperstown after all. And that's a damn shame. I voted for Carter, but in retrospect, I should have written in Raines.

Don't forget to catch all three parts of the special ESPN presentation! I might, just to celebrate the fact that we won't have to see those damn commercials anymore. Ugh.

Friday, August 18, 2006

League Dichotomy

It's August, and the American League pennant races are really heating up. In the AL East, it's the Yankees and Red Sox still quite close, with a big weekend series at Fenway coming up. The Yankees are 2.5 games up, but that's not a whole lot, all things considered. In the AL Central, the once-invincible Tigers have lost 7 of their last 10 and are starting to look mortal. Granted, they still enjoy a healthy 6-game lead over the White Sox, but things are a lot closer than they were a month ago, making things a lot more interesting. The Twins are still in the race as well, only 8 games back.
In the AL West, we have the tightest race of them all, although the red-host Oakland A's have once again forged a second-half comeback and currently have a 5.5 game lead over the Angels, with the Rangers just 6 out. The A's have won 8 of their last 10 to give them this lead; on the other hand, we have the Mariners, who have lost 8 of 10 and dropped out of the race, now 12 games back. The AL Wild Card race is a tight 3-team race, barring a historic run by the Blue Jays, Rangers, or Angels. The White Sox currently lead the race by 1 game over Minnesota, with B0ston just a bare 2.5 back.
Simply put, there's a lot of good baseball in the AL and no matter what happens in September, some really good baseball teams will be left out of the postseason. The Tigers are on pace to win an amazing 105 games! The Red Sox, the team furthest back in the Wild Card race, are on pace to win 93 games. If we can assure the A's and Tigers a spot in the postseason (which we will, tentatively), that leaves just 2 playoff spots for the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, and Twins. Two of these teams will go home in October, despite the fact that they are all likely to win 90 games.
Which brings me to the point of this article . . .

Over in the National League . . . well, things aren't pretty. While the American League is setting the world on fire, the National League is limping along, threatening to set records for mediocrity. Oh sure, the Mets are a good ballclub; they're 73-48, 14 games up in their division, and on pace to win 98 games. Granted, the Mets have played most of their games within their own division, which is a pretty sorry division, all told. Even considering the low level of competition, no other team in the NL East is above .500. Oh, you can find some promising things to say about each team, I guess. The Phillies are in 2nd place, which sounds good, until you realize that their record is 59-62. The Braves have been a big disappointment (57-64), but at least they've got the young talent to portend better days ahead. The Marlins, although sporting a dismal 56-65 record, have to be considered a major surprise, considering many people predicted 100+ losses for them this year. They're on pace to go 75-87; not great, but a pleasant surprise. And the Nationals . . . okay, I lied, there's nothing promising about the Nationals.
In the NL Central, everyone expected the Cardinals to dominate, just as the Mets are doing this year and just as they themselves did the past two years, winning 105 games in 2004 and 100 games last year. Instead, the Cardinals have limped to a disappointing 65-56 record. Their starting pitching has been abysmal (outside of Carpenter), and their lineup has no depth and is getting older. They're on pace to win 87 games. That's not awful, but it's a major disappointment for any team to drop 13 games in the standings in just one year. But there is good news for the Cardinals: they're still in 1st place.
Yes, as dismal as the Cardinals have been, they've still been better than the rest of the sorry NL Central. The Reds are in 2nd place but, like the Phillies, it's not so much due to talent but rather by default; they're currently 62-60. That puts them 3.5 games out, still with a fighting chance despite their woeful pitching and defense. The Houston Astros still are a long shot at 7 games back, but despite their 58-63 record, we can't rule them out. The former NL champions have been a disappointment, although with their offense, it wasn't a complete surprise. What was a surprise was the big step back taken by the Milwaukee Brewers. After finishing an even 81-81 last season, it looked like the Brewers had the young talent to make a run at the Wild Card, especially give the bare opposition. But while their young hitters have hit (when healthy), their pitching has stunk. Ben Sheets has missed most of the season, and Chris Capuano has been the only reliably good pitcher they've had. The Cubs (52-69) and Pirates (47-75) were out of the race in May.
The NL West is probably a step better than it was last year, but that's faint praise indeed. The Padres won the West last year with an 82-80 record. The 1st-place Dodgers currently sport a 64-57 record, which means they're on pace for 86 wins. That's an improvement, but it's still a poor record for a division leader. Behind the Dodgers are 4 teams scattered thinly across the .500 line. The 2nd-place Diamondbacks are very much alive at just 3 games out, even though they're just 61-60. The defending champion Padres are in 3rd place at 60-61. To quote Major League, "60-61 is hardly a great job." A little further back are the Rockies (59-63) and Giants (58-63) who have played poorly enough to fall out of the race except for the fact that the rest of the division is only a few inches ahead of them.
What this also means is that the NL Wild Card race is an even bigger sham. If we've got the Dodgers and Cardinals winning their division with 86 and 87 wins, respectively, what the hell kind of second-place team deserves a spot in the postseason?
The Reds currently lead the Wild Card with their shockingly mediocre 62-60 record. Arizona is 1/2 game back, San Diego is 1.5 back, and 8 teams total are within 5 games of the Wild Card-leading Reds. It sounds like a close, exciting race, but it isn't -- it's not a "race" to the .50o line, it's a statistical regression. We'd expect about 8 or 9 teams to be right around average -- what we wouldn't expect is for so few teams to be above-average.
The 2006 NL is shaping up to be historically awful, in terms of wins and losses. The record for the team with the worst winning percentage to make the postseason was broken last year; the 2005 Padres were 82-80 and won the division. That broke the record of the 82-79 New York Mets of 1973 who, it must be said, not only won their division but won the NLCS against the Big Red Machine and took the dynastic Oakland A's to 7 games before losing the World Series.
So can we really compare the state of the 2006 NL to the 1973 NL? Not really. While the NL has had this deteriorating problem for a couple years now, the 1973 NL East was a fluke. From 1970-1972, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the NL East with 89, 97, and 96 wins, respectively. After the 1973 Met upset, the Pirates came back to win the division with 88 wins in 1974 and 92 wins in 1975. After that, the Philadelphia Phillies emerged as a power in the division, winning the division title three straight years from 1976-1978, winning 101 games twice before falling to 90 wins in 1978. In 1979, the Pirates had their last hurrah (literally) with a 98-64, division-winning campaign.
So the NL East wasn't a bad division at all in the 1970's; it was just one year, 1973, when the Pirates fell to 80-82 and the Mets won by default. It's probably true that the East was a worse division that the West in the 70's. The East sported two really good (and underappreciated) Pennsylvania ballclubs. The Pirates and Phillies were the powers of the NL East in the 70's, winning every division title except for 1973. But while these teams were indeed great, the rest of the division was weighed down by teams like the Expos, Cubs, and Cardinals, that drifted from mediocrity to awfuldom. Meanwhile in the NL West, the Big Red Machine was running wild, and the Dodgers were putting together a brilliant if less-historic run, winning 3 pennants in the decade. The NL West beat the NL East in the NLCS every year except 1971, 1973, and 1979. The Reds won 4 pennants; the Dodgers won 3.
The point I'm making is that the only other time in history that such a bad team managed to sneak into the postseason, 1973, doesn't really compare to the present day at all. The Mets won a weak 6-team division, and with a small number of teams per division, you're going to get your oddities, like the 1973 NL East, the 1994 AL West, and the 2005 NL West. But the Wild Card -- a race between all 13 non-division winners -- should produce at least one team better than 62-60. The problem has never been as league-wide as it is now -- at least, not in the modern era of free agency, the amateur draft, and increased competitive balance.
The point I was making about the 1973 NL is one I can make about the MLB today. The problem with the league wasn't overall bad play; rather, it was an imbalance. The good teams happened to be in one division, purely by a matter of chance. And baseball is set up not so that the two best teams go to October, but that the two division-winners go to October, no matter what division they may be in. The Wild Card was created to help compensate for that; the second-place 1973 Dodgers, who went 95-66, would have been rewarded with a playoff berth because they were simply in the wrong division -- they would have won the NL East by 13 games.
That imbalance is exactly what affects the MLB today; but instead of it being a divisional imbalance, it is a league imbalance. The general superiority of the American League has grown on us over the past few years. It becomes more evident every year as the AL whips the NL in the All-Star Game and dominates interleague play. Over the past 20 World Series, the AL has won 13. If you go back two more years, it's 15 of the last 22.
Every qualitative and quantitative measure has reinforced the same findings. I can't cite any specific studies, nor am I qualified to run my own, but I'm sure any measures taken to compare the leagues would find the AL superior.
The best I can do is to offer my own opinion in my favorite fashion -- position-by-position. I've noticed for a while that the AL enjoys an absurd advantage in shortstops. This has been true ever since the AL came up with Nomar/A-Rod/Jeter, Miguel Tejada, and Omar Vizquel, whereas the NL could manage was Rafael Furcal. The ascension of Michael Young, Jhonny Peralta, Carlos Guillen, and Bobby Crosby has only made the advantage more marked. But let's start at first base and see who's got the edge:

First Base:
AL: Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau, Paul Konerko, Kevin Youkilis, Lyle Overbay, Richie Sexson
NL: Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee, Lance Berkman, Nick Johnson, Ryan Howard, Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Prince Fielder
The NL laps the field with this one. Even assuming that Morneau Teixeira go on to compete for some MVP awards, and that Kevin Youkilis continues to get on base like a maniac, the NL has the edge. Albert alone would make the difference, but he's supported by borderline Hall-of-Famers like Berkman, Helton, Delgado, and Garciaparra, not to mention to young mashers in Howard and Fielder. There's also Nick Johnson, the NL equivalent of Kevin Youkilis.
Here's the snag: how do we consider DHs? We can't compare DHs between leagues, so we have to put all those AL DHs somewhere else to make a fair comparison. Even assuming that the existence of the DH favors the AL simply by giving more jobs to hitters, I still think this tips the balance back to the junior circuit. It all depends on how you want to look at it.
Here's the revised list:

AL: David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas, Morneau, Konerko, Teixeira, Youkilis, Overbay, Sexson
NL: Pujols, D. Lee, Berkman, N. Johnson, Howard, Nomar, Delgado, Fielder

There, it's advantage AL.

Second Base
AL: Brian Roberts, Robinson Cano, Tadahito Iguchi, Mark Loretta, Ian Kinsler, Placido Polanco, Jose Lopez, Luis Castillo, Howie Kendrick
NL: Chase Utley, Rickie Weeks, Jeff Kent, Dan Uggla, Marcus Giles, Ray Durham, Orlando Hudson, Jose Vidro, Josh Barfield, Craig Biggio
I think I'd have to call this one about even. Utley and Weeks are probably better players than any of their AL counterparts, but both suffer from severe defensive issues. Jeff Kent is valuable, but old, and Marcus Giles can't be taken for granted. The AL has a plethora of solid second basemen, such as Roberts, Cano, Iguchi, Polanco, and Castillo -- any one of whom could break out for an All-Star-caliber year at any given moment -- it's just not as top-heavy as the NL. But note the presence of Kinsler and Kendrick on the AL list; they could tip the balance quite quickly.
AL: Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen, Michael Young, Jhonny Peralta, Orlando Cabrera, Bobby Crosby, B.J. Upton, Brandon Wood
NL: Jose Reyes, Edgar Renteria, Omar Vizquel, Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal, Khalil Greene, Bill Hall, David Eckstein, Stephen Drew, Adam Everett and assorted other hitless glovemen.
Even with Nomar defecting to the NL and A-Rod moving to third, the AL still dominates. It's a good thing Jose Reyes came into his own this year, or else the NL would just be a horde of above-average guys with some star-quality years in them. The AL has two legitimate MVP candidates in Jeter and Tejada, as well as two guys who hit like MVPs in Guillen and Young (their defensive skills are a bit lacking). Peralta showed every indication of ascending to their level last year with big-time power and a great glove, but has regressed this year. He's still a stud in the making. As if that weren't enough, the AL is grooming two future monsters in Upton and Wood, although it's doubtful that Upton will stay at short.
Third Base
AL: Alex Rodriguez, Troy Glaus, Eric Chavez, Joe Crede, Mike Lowell, Melvin Mora, Adrian Beltre
NL: Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Garret Atkins, Freddy Sanchez, Chad Tracy, Aubrey Huff
"And out of the NL West came a three-headed monster named DaveRyanBrera." The NL East alone wins the battle here, with the three young wunderkinds Wright, Cabrera, and Zimmerman. Cabrera is already a legitimate monster with the chance to become a historically great third baseman, and Wright isn't far behind him. Zimmerman's bat hasn't yet fully caught up, but he's the best defender of the three by far. And we can't forget old stalwarts and likely HOFers Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen, injury-prone though they may be. The AL has A-Rod, but he's not been himself lately, and neither has Eric Chavez, who just hasn't put together the career we all thought he was capable of. And after Troy Glaus, you've just got the above-average guys who are either overpaid (Beltre, Lowell, Mora) or likely to become so very soon (Crede).
Left Field
AL: Manny Ramirez, Carlos Lee, Carl Crawford, Raul Ibanez, Frank Catalanotto
NL: Jason Bay, Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn, Barry Bonds, Pat Burrell, Matt Holliday, Luis Gonzalez, Andre Ethier
This is just continuing the trend of excellent NL left fielders in recent years. It came to a head back in 2001, when the NL had MVP-caliber seasons from seven left fielders: Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, Gary Sheffield, Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Brian Giles, and Cliff Floyd. And think what it would look like if the Brewers had kept Carlos Lee . . .
Center Field
AL: Grady Sizemore, Vernon Wells, Johnny Damon, Torii Hunter, David DeJesus, Curtis Granderson, Gary Matthews, Jr., Rocco Baldelli
NL: Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Mike Cameron, Ken Griffey, Eric Byrnes, Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand
Sizemore and Wells are a dynamic duo. While they can't yet match the output of Beltran or Andruw, they soon will. This is a pattern; the NL center fielders are getting older and decreasing in value -- Edmonds and Griffey especially -- whereas the AL has youth on its side with Sizemore, DeJesus, Granderson, and others.
Right Field
AL: Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Ichiro Suzuki, Jermaine Dye, Alexis Rios, Magglio Ordonez, Nick Swisher, Trot Nixon
NL: J.D. Drew, Austin Kearns, Ryan Freel, Shawn Green, Brian Giles, Brad Hawpe, Jacque Jones, Jeff Francouer, Jeremy Hermida
The Abreu trade only made more pronounced what was already evident. The AL sports two perennial MVP candidates, plus top-notch players like Ichiro. Drew is that good when healthy, which is rare, and after that it goes back to the good-but-not-great stars like Kearns, Hawpe, and Giles (at this age).
AL: Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek, Ramon Hernandez, Kenji Johjima, Javier Lopez, A.J. Pierzynski, Mike Napoli
NL: Brian McCann, Michael Barrett, Mike Piazza, Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, Russell Martin
This might be even more pronounced than the "shortstop gap." The AL has possible MVPs (Mauer, Martinez) and former MVP-level players (Posada, Pudge, Varitek, Javy). The NL has McCann, who's a legitimate superstar, but that's about it. Michael Barrett hits very well, but is a woeful defender; ditto Mike Piazza, who's only getting older.
Starting Pitcher
AL: Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Francisco Liriano, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, John Lackey, Curt Schilling, Scott Kazmir, Danny Haren, Mike Mussina, Jeremy Bonderman, Jered Weaver, C.C. Sabathia, Erik Bedard, Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito, Chien-Mieng Wang, Ervin Santana, Freddy Garcia, Jarrod Washburn, Kenny Rogers, Josh Beckett, Randy Johnson, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon
NL: Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano, Pedro Martinez, Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt, Ben Sheets, John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Chris Capuano, Bronson Arroyo, Dontrelle Willis, Tom Glavine, Aaron Harang, Josh Johnson, Brett Myers, Greg Maddux, Derek Lowe, Scott Olsen, Zach Duke, Andy PettitteTim Hudson, Mark Prior
Here is where it becomes clear. A list of the 5 best pitchers in baseball, now and for the foreseeable future, would probably be a list of 5 AL pitchers, depending on how you like Ben Sheets or Jake Peavy. The AL stands dominant, especially with the youth of their pitchers. The AL has seen the debut of a historic number of ace rookie pitchers in recent years, while the NL has seen a relative trickle. There are some prospects to watch in the NL, and guys like Willis and Webb are still young yet, but there is simply nothing to match Santana, Liriano, and King Felix. Nothing.
Relief Pitchers
AL: Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonothan Papelbon, B.J. Ryan, Francisco Rodriguez, Joel Zumaya, Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz, Akinori Otsuka, Huston Street, Chris Ray
NL: Trevor Hoffman, Tom Gordon, Billy Wagner, Eric Gagne (?), Takashi Saito, Chad Cordero, Brad Lidge, Mike Gonzalez
ADVANTAGE: AL by a mile
With the fall of Gagne to injuries and Lidge to . . . something, the AL proved its dominance in closers and relievers. Rivera and Nathan are the two best in the game, and Ryan and Papelbon aren't far behind. All four probably rank ahead of any of the NL closers. Not only that, but the AL has a great depth of good closers and relievers, whereas the NL simply does not. Heavy advantage AL.
Conclusion? While you could quibble about the position players, it seems that the AL enjoys the advantage, particularly at catcher and shortstop. However, the AL pitching roster truly overwhelms that of the NL, making it even more understandable how they became the superior league. My little position-by-position examination only reinforces my hypothesis, although I never realized the true supremacy in pitching.
But what are the larger reasons for this? How and why did the AL ascend to a higher level of competition than the NL? I don't know for sure (no one really does), but here are a few ideas:
  • Buying power. The two biggest payrolls in baseball are in the AL: Boston and New York. Last year, the average AL payroll was about $75.2 million. The average NL payroll was about $70.9 million. It may not sound like a whole lot, but when the whole AL averages $5 million more on payroll, that tells you something. And the averages above don't reflect the statistical outliers; The Yankees' $208 million payroll was about 69% higher than the second-highest Boston Red Sox ($123.5 mil.) and more than twice as much as any NL team (the Mets were tops at $101 million). So while the NL might enjoy a certain equality among teams in their own league, they can't compete with the AL, especially for free agents.
  • Developing Talent. You really can't judge the relative skills of each league's player development by making a short list of players. While names like Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Johan Santana and Travis Hafner all jump out at you, so does the name Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball. It also must be said that both Santana and Liriano were originally signed by National League teams. It's beyond my power to do a comprehensive team-by-team study of farm system output. However, the anecdotal evidence is very strong; looking at Rookie of the Year voting and generally gauging the young talent in the game would make you suspect that the AL is lapping the field in that regard.
  • Smarts. This may be more speculative, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the two teams to most heartily embrace statistical analysis are both in the AL. In addition to the A's and Red Sox, there is also the Toronto Blue Jays, although their statistical outlook didn't help them nearly as much in the won-loss column. But with the exception of Paul DePodesta's abortive stint in Los Angeles, the NL doesn't have any one team that has whole-heartedly embraced the use of stats. All teams use stats, of course, to some degree, especially in recent years, and it must be said that teams like the Cardinals have given stats room in their front office.
    But looking just beyond stats, it would seem that the AL has incorporated "new baseball knowledge," of stats and more, much more quickly than the NL. Not only do you have trailblazers like the A's and Red Sox, you also have the less-successful Blue Jays and the hybrid Indians, a success in their own right. There is no comparable team in the National League that has embraced this "new knowledge," and I stress again that this isn't limited to sabermetrics or statistics but just the revolution in thought that has taken place in the game for years now. This could have the cumulative effect of increasing the dispartiy between leagues in a slower and more subtle way, through canny drafting and scouting as opposed to flashy free agent signings.
  • Style of play. This is, again, speculative on my part. But I wonder if the presence of the Designated Hitter, which forces teams to abandon most "smallball" tactics, makes the American League superior. Statisticians have acknowledged for half a century that "smallball" tactics are indeed small and while valuable, are often grossly overused by managers. Could it be that the DH, which features more of a "homer-and-walk" Earl Weaver offense, is inherently superior to the "smallball" tactics used more often in the NL, the league of pinch-hitting and sacrifice bunting? Could it be that, unconsciously, AL managers use strategies which fit their league and their extra hitter, whereas NL managers, stuck in the 1890s, waste outs to such an extent that it makes the AL a superior league? I think I'm onto something here, and I think this may be a tangible difference between leagues. I don't know that it would be a very significant factor, but then you never know -- the ascension of the American League more or less coincides with the return of baseball to an offensive era. And in an era of high offense, smallball tactics, which give up a base for an out, are harmful when overused. The DH has unconsciously forced the AL to adopt a superior in-game management strategy, which has grown to benefit them over the years, particularly in the current era.

These are just thoughts; take them for what you will. But think about it in October, when one or maybe two AL teams with 90 wins sit at home, while three 80-win teams stumble into October in the National League.