Sunday, July 31, 2011

Decisions Decisions

This year's MLB trade deadline has proven exciting.  General managers from numerous teams have spent sleepless nights with no one other than their Blackberry for company.  Big-name players have moved, minor deals have been made, and contenders have filled holes while teams in the cellar have cut payroll.  One fact is certain, no team wins anything by making a trade.  Teams may upgrade their talent or replenish their farm systems, but two months of baseball remain unplayed and trades do not always correlate to wins.

Pundits, analysts, and fans listen, watch, and read about every trade rumor that comes across their computer screens, hoping their team's GM will strike a deal to help the winning cause.  One aspect of trades that goes overlooked by fans is the sacrifice made by players who are forced to move from one city to the next.  Although some players do not face any difficulties due to their young age and bachelor status, many players must leave a city they call home and worry about their family's future.

Let's go through a few examples.  The Mets recently traded 
Carlos Beltran across country to the San Francisco Giants.  Beltran had a no-trade clause in his contract allowing him to veto any preposed trade.  He used this clause to inform the Mets he would only accept a trade to an NL team contending for the playoffs.  His choices were professionally motivated, unrelated to personal matters.  Beltran cared little about moving from one coast to the other, putting winning above everything else.

Other players, like the Dodgers' 
Hiroki Kuroda, chose to invoke his no-trade clause in order to veto all trades, even a few scenarios that put him onto the Red Sox and Yankees.  Kuroda formerly pitched in Japan, but when he signed with the Dodgers, he moved his whole life to the United States.  His life would once again be turned upside down were he to move from Los Angeles to either Boston or New York.  Most would wonder why Kuroda would ever veto such a trade due to the Dodgers' abysmal season and financial troubles coupled with Boston and New York's strong desire to acquire him.  Kuroda chose family above winning, a choice that angers fans but does not baffle many players who understand such decisions. Being traded is akin to an army general being transferred from base to base requiring them to relocate their families.

As a Phillies fan, I have experienced the tension and joy that goes into making a big trade deadline acquisition.  Had I been a Red Sox or Yankees fan during the negotiations for Hiroki Kuroda, I would not have been pleased with his decision, but my opinion has recently changed.  Far too often we as fans see MLB players as chess pieces, easily sacrificed and exchanged, all towards the winning cause, but we overlook the fact that these players are men with families and responsibilities beyond baseball.  As fans we should have the right to boo a player for underperforming or refusing to be traded for purely superficial reasons, but not for refusing a trade due to personal reasons.  Although players make millions of dollars, and "trades are part of the game," these are not valid enough arguments to be made in favor of bashing a player for refusing a trade due to personal reasons.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Flush with Talent

Comebacks are rare.  Why else would ESPN cover every single underdog story in sports?  So it stands to reason that every network would want to write about the Rays.  Although most in the baseball world understand and admire the accomplishments of the Rays organization over the last 6 years, this is one comeback story that is only mentioned in passing, maybe due to the fact that most comeback stories concern singular figures, not organizations.

Between 1998 and 2007 the Devil Rays (now the Rays) compiled a whopping zero winning seasons.  During those ten seasons the team averaged 97.2 losses per season and only 64.5 wins.  That would make them the worst franchise over that time.  Not even the recently resurgent Pirates were as bad as the Rays from 1998 to 2007 (91.8 average losses and 89.9 average wins).  In 2008 the Devil Rays became the Rays, changed their jerseys and their usual status in winning percentage.  Since that time the Rays have won the American League East twice (2008 and 2010), considered the best division in baseball, and have made it as far as the World Series, losing to the Phillies in 2008. 

This turnaround is outstanding.  How did they do it?  During the years of the Devil Rays, the organization stockpiled great young talent.  The consolation given to the biggest losers is a high draft pick.  Between 1999 and 2008 the Rays never selected higher than 8th, selecting first 4 times.  In the three drafts since they have drafted 30th, 17th, and 32nd.  With great scouting and draft selections, the Rays propel themselves into the mix every season in the AL east amongst giant spenders like the Red Sox and Yankees.  Not all of the high round draft picks have panned out, but many have.  Josh Hamilton, selected first overall, left baseball due to alcohol and cocaine issues and never played a game in the majors for the Rays.  Rocco Baldelli ended up with a mitochondrial disorder and is no longer in baseball.  Success stories include, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Ben Zobrist, and many others.

Despite being ranked 28th in the most recent MLB team valuations the team has recently been compiling lots of wins.  They have a small operating budget and rarely sign big name free agents.  Joe Madden and his coaching staff, the minor league coaching staffs, as well as the front office personnel have put together a winning package chock full of great talent.  The Rays may only have a 53-48 record, but it is good enough for 3rd in the AL east behind two great teams.  Yet the Rays’ are in an unique circumstance: they have a wealth of young talent, but many more players in the minor leagues ready to be called up to the majors.  As a result, the Rays have been forced to consider trading some of their top young players.  B.J. Upton's name has recently surfaced as a hot trade topic as well as James Shields, and even Jeff Niemann and Wade Daves.  The reason the Rays are looking to trade these players has everything to do with Desmond Jennings, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Alex Torres.  There is no other team that is forced to trade away great talent because they have better talent knocking at the door.  Obviously all of this talent hasn't led the Rays to enough success this season, but most teams would never consider trading the players the Rays have.  A perfect example comes from Colorado where Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez has been rumored to be traded.  He is a top talent entering the prime of his career, and the Rockies have attempted to quell trade talks in the hope they can keep the young righty.  The Rays may trade Shields, Davis, or Niemann, all good young talented starting pitchers.

The only organization that keeps up with the Rays amazing drafting and growing scheme is the Atlanta Braves.  The Braves have a mid level payroll and consistently bring up great young talent.  It would not surprise me if the Rays were to become a Braves-like organization.  I say kudos to the Rays on their amazing turnaround and I hope their fans support them better in the future because of any team, the Rays' future looks brightest.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mind Your Manners

Recently two major baseball ethics and etiquette issues have surfaced and crowded the headlines.  First, Derek Jeter, yes the same one who just collected his 3,000th hit, decided not to attend the All-Star game.  Second, a brawl erupted in Boston between the Red Sox and the bottom dwelling Orioles.  Let's begin with DJ and his rise and fall.

Last saturday, Derek Jeter became the 28th member of the 3,000 hit club and the first ever Yankee to accomplish the feat.  I congratulate Derek on his consistency, health, talent, and longevity, all of which contributed to reaching this milestone.  He hit a home run to collect this historic hit and not do allow personal accomplishments to trump the team, Jeter also drove in the eventual game winning run.  Unfortunately those who rise the highest have a tendency to fall the hardest (thanks Newton).  Jeter has not fallen hard, but his image has taken a small step backwards this past week.  One might wonder, "How can Jeter's image be smeared during the only part of the summer when there is a break in regular baseball activities?"  The simple answer is that generic baseball fans are stupid.  The more complicated answer has to do with the All-Star game and Jeter not handeling a simple situation well.

Why is generic stupidity affecting Derek Jeter?  Due to MLB allowing fans to vote on the starters for the All-Star game, Jeter was named the starter for the AL squad.  Recently coming off an injury, Jeter was likely to decline to play in the game, which is disrespectful enough, but instead of declining to play Jeter refused to catch one of the many non-stop flights from LaGuardia Airport to Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport. Jeter may not have deserved to be an All-Star, thus once again questioning the validity of allowing fans to vote on who is an All-Star, but if chosen by the fans, he should have at least humored them and shown up. I know from growing up with three strong willed and immensely bright women that sometimes it is best to humor those people who have influence on you because in the long run it is easier to smile and nod now than to take the verbal tongue lashing that will most likely ensue.  You might think Jeter would have liked to attend the game and be cheered by thousands of fans for being selected to his 12th All-Star game as well as reaching 3,000 hits only 2 days prior.

Bud Selig recently stood behind one of his league's star players, saying, "I think I'd have made the same decision that Derek Jeter did."  No matter the reason, Jeter should have respected the game that has given him so much over the last 15 years.  Jeter's seniority does not give him special status that allows him to skip what I consider obligatory events.  Selig's diplomacy is laudable but not right, he should have forced Jeter to attend.  Phillies third baseman Placido Polanco, and center fielder Shane Victorino, both voted All-Stars by the fans, have injuries that precluded them from playing in the game, but still travled to Phoenix and heard their names announced before the game, taking their hats of to the fans who were gracious enough to provide them with All-Star status.  Maybe Derek Jeter could take a lesson from his peers.  Other offenders similar to Jeter include Aramis Ramirez, who when asked to serve refused.  This peccadillo is less offensive than Jeter's snubbing of the fans because Ramirez was a manager's choice, but it still shows immaturity and a "better than thou" attitude.  In contrast to the bad etiquette of Jeter and Ramirez is Albert Pujols, who publicly expressed interest in being a part of the All-Star team.  Robinson Cano's unbridled joy following winning the Home Run Derby, showed why attending the All-Star game has its perks.  Jeter should have hopped on a private jet and attended the game, he could even have brought Minka Kelly, i'm sure no one would have minded that.

In other baseball etiquette news the Boston Red Sox played the Baltimore Orioles this past weekend.  Seeing as these two teams play three to four series a season, what could be the interest?  Well, in lue of the Sox trouncing of the Orioles (big surprise), an amateur boxing match erupted during Friday night's game.  In the right corner weighing in at 230 lbs was Orioles bullpen pitcher Kevin Gregg and in the left corner weighing in at a surprisingly 230 lbs was Red Sox DH David Ortiz.  Gregg threw 3 straight fastball inside to Ortiz, one of which seemed intentional.  Ortiz took offense to these inside heaters and took a few steps closer to Gregg gesticulating towards him while most likely warning him, "I'm David Ortiz and I will eat you alive if you continue to almost plunk me in the ribs with 94mph fastballs."  Gregg, probably frustrated with a thus far subpar season, painfully one-sided game, and Ortiz's bravado barked back.  If not for the home plate umpire putting his body between the two hot heads the bell may have rung for round one to begin.

 Instead Ortiz returned to the batter's box and awaited the 3-0 pitch from Gregg.  Gregg threw a 4th consecutive inside fastball which would have resulted in  ball 4.  Here lies the quagmire.  It is traditional that on a 3-0 count, the batter does not swing.  Sometimes, managers, to my dismay, allow their better hitters to swing away 3-0 thinking it may be a perfect pitch due to the likelihood that the hitter will not swing and the need of the pitcher to throw a strike.  If Ortiz's stroll to the mound was "strike one", swinging at the 3-0 pitch was "strike two".  "Strike three" came next, when Ortiz hit a lazy fly ball to right field and instead of respectfully jogging to first base the slugger took a few steps, stopped moving and began to retreat to the confines of the Red Sox dugout.  Gregg, seeing this breach of baseball etiquette decided is was his civic duty to remind Ortiz to run to first.  This did not sit well with Ortiz who decided that "them be fightin' words" and proceeded to charge the mound and swing widely at Gregg who swung back.  Benches cleared, punches were thrown, and foul words exchanged.  Not surprisingly Ortiz and Gregg were ejected for their crimes, and luckily neither player actually made contact during the bout thus lessening the possibility of injury.  During the myriad of post-game interviews, Gregg capitulated his side of the story and even left a warning saying,
"We're not backing down. We're not scared of them," Gregg said. "Them and their $180 million payroll, we don't care. We're here to play the game and we have just as much right to play the game, and we're going to do everything we can to win."
Sox starter Josh Beckett backed his teammate saying,
"I felt like [Gregg] should have been thrown out before any of that [expletive] even happened," Beckett said. "The rule is, if something like that happens and you leave the mound, you're automatically ejected. It wasn't handled that way and now we've got other guys probably looking at fines."
No matter who is right or wrong, brawls should never happen because of a player disrespecting the game and not running out a fly ball.  Gregg was obviously trying to get Ortiz out by throwing inside fastball, eventually succeeding, but he also bears some blame by nearly missing Ortiz's chest with a 94mph fastball that would most likely have caused some damage had it connected with its target.  In the end, these things happen and the most important thing is that both players and teams' egos shrink and tempers subside, but I do not realistically see that happening.  The Red Sox travel to Baltimore on July 18th for a three game series at Camden Yards.  Sparks may fly, but hopefully they will not be due to a lack of etiquette or respect of the game.  Both David Ortiz and Derek Jeter could use to reread the book of unwritten rules of baseball, which can be found in the plaque gallery at the baseball Hall of Fame.  Nonetheless my hope is that both events are behind them because the second half of the season is set to begin tomorrow, the trade deadline looms, and teams begin to fortify their resumes for a chance to play October baseball.  With so many great headlines and so much baseball to be played let us focus for a moment on Jeter and Ortiz's transgressions but not for long.

Monday, July 11, 2011

All-Star Game and Home Run Derby

The 2011 All-star game festivities begin tonight in Phoenix, Arizona.  Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, will be buzzing with excitement in anticipation of seeing 8 of the best home run hitters in Major League baseball display their power in the Home Run Derby.  Tomorrow the break will culminate with the All-Star game in which the National League will compete against the American League with the winner collecting home field advantage in the World Series.  For the last few weeks much of the baseball buzz has centered around the selection or election of the now 84 All-Stars.  Although the All-Star break is just that, a break, the select few (11%) players who are honored to call themselves 2011 All-Stars will arrive in Arizona to represent their respective squads as well as add more credentials to their already packed resumes.

Since all MLB teams are comprised of 25 players, one might wonder why 84 players were named All-Stars.  25 + 25 is 50 isn't it? For those of you who don't find yourselves familiar with the rules for choosing All-Stars let's go through them.

The way it is done: For starters (no pun intended), each team compiles a roster of 34 players.  The starting position players, not the pitcher, are chosen by the fans.  The fans vote for more than a month before the game for the most deserving players as well as the most popular players.  The top vote getter at each position starts for their respective league.  The players/coaches/managers get to vote for the next 16 roster spots.  They vote on backup position players for each team as well as 8 pitcher spots.  If the top vote getter in the player poll was already chosen by the fans, the second place winner takes that spot.  The last 9 spots are chosen by the manager of AL for his squad, and the NL manager for his team.  They have no restrictions on who they choose, except they must choose the DH.  The managers choose these last players in consultation with the commissioners office and other managers in their league.  Finally, the fans get to another chance to vote on the final 34th player (non-pitcher) added to the roster.  The only other way to make the team is to replace an already chosen All-Star who is injured or a starting pitcher who pitched the day before the break begins (this season that would be this past sunday).

Now, these rules may satisfy MLB and the majority of baseball fans, but I am neither impressed nor

The way I would do it:  I have no issues with the number of players on each roster because fans want to see as many All-Stars as possible play in the game and doing so implies having pitchers throw 1 to 2 innings and position players get 1 to 2 at-bats.  I am a notorious hater of fans voting for the starting position players because 50% or more of the players are chosen due to popularity or past success as opposed to the purpose of the game, which is to reward and honor this (half) season's best players.  The players/coaches/managers/general managers should vote on all of the starting players as well as one backup for each position.  Then, similar to the method already used, the manager of the team, in consultation with his coaching staff, fills in the rest of the roster.  I am a big fan of the fan final vote because it allows the fans to have some affect on the game as well as provides them a chance to possibly get another of their team's players in the All-Star game.  MLB requires that every team, regardless of deservingness, send at least one representative to the All-Star game.  This rule should remain because all fans should have the chance to cheer for someone they know in the game, as well as be proud of their team.  I would also let the fans choose the starting pitcher.  The manager of the respective team chooses 4 pitchers already named to the team and the fans vote on one of the four to start the game.  This allows for fan involvement that does not negatively affect who is and is not an All-Star but still minutely affects the game.

In a perfect "Ben Horrow" world:  This situation is what I would love to see happen to the All-star break but has a 0% chance of ever coming to fruition.  I would get rid of the All-Star game all together.  I would give every player a, much needed, 3 day break in the middle of the season while keeping the home run derby and nothing else.  All-Stars would be chosen by the players/managers/coaches/GM's at the end of the season so as to choose these honors based off of a whole season's effort as opposed to just the first 90 or so games.  For Phillies fans, think Raul Ibanez in 2009.  Ibanez posted 22 home runs, 60 rbi, a .303 batting average, and 1.015 on base + slugging in 64 games played before the All-Star break.  Following the break, he compiled 12 home runs, 33 rbi, .232 batting average, and .774 on base + slugging in 70 games.  Although his final numbers are good, they may not have been All-Star caliber.  The opposite situation occurs as well.  Many times a player has a rough first 90 games but finds the throttle following the short mid-season break, finishing with great "All-Star" like numbers.  Why should this type of player be excluded from the coveted All-Star status while 2009 Raul Ibanez garners All-Star status for playing excetionally in 64 specific games.  In my book, the actual playing of the All-Star game is meaningless.  MLB attempted to insert meaning into the game by ruling that the winning team's league receives home field advantage in the world series.  This is arbitrary enough that I would just have the winner of the home run derby's league receive this honor, or better yet revert back to the previously implemented method of determining home field advantage, the team with the better record.

Now that I've solved the All-Star game problem let's move on to the home run derby.  The other major event during the All-Star break proves fun to watch and from what players have said, fun to participate  in.  In the recent past MLB has asked the most prolific home run hitters in each league to participate in the derby and the best/first four to agree participate in the event.  The 2011 derby participants found their way into the contest by being selected by the predetermined "captain" of their league's derby "team".  There are no teams in the Home Run derby, each player competes against each other, thus having a captain who arbitrarily selects the other contestants leads to Rickie Weeks, Robinson Cano, Matt Kemp, and Matt Holliday participating.  Weeks, Cano, Kemp, and Holliday are all players who hit primarily for average but have hit a decent number of home runs this up to this point in the season.  Although they may very well make their captains proud, I would rather see players who swing for the fences often and think later.  Players like Ryan Howard, Mike Stanton, Adam Dunn, Carlos Pena, and Justin Upton might have been better selections.  These players strike out an obscene amount of time, and do not have the best batting averages, but they have one thing that cannot be taught, raw power.  Choosing these players would be more fun for the fans as well as the players.  In addition, of the 5 players named above, only Upton has All-Star caliber numbers.  Let the big boys show off their muscles.

So, in the end, non of the changes proposed in this article will ever see their way into the All-Star game or home run derby, but it is always important to constantly consider improvements.  If I surveyed 100 baseball fans asking, "How would you improve the All-Star game?" I might get 25-50 different responses.  All-Star games, no matter the sport, will always have flaws and will always disappoint some, but ultimately the All-Star game's purpose is to entertain the fans.  If MLB entertains at least 67% (2/3) of fans who watch the game and its subsidiary events than more power to the league for making more people happy than vote for a presidential candidate.  Roy Halladay will start the 2011 All-Star game for the NL while Jared Weaver will start for the AL.  I can only hope that Halladay, Weaver, and the rest of the All-Stars enjoy themselves and entertain the fans to the maximum.  Happy All-Star break to all.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Young Talent

In light of Angels outfield prospect Mike Trout's promotion to the majors I thought it applicable to discuss the best young talent in baseball.  MLB teams face difficult choices when young players succeed in minor leagues to the point at which they reach the cusp of the Majors.  Trout is 19 years old, young even for Major League Baseball.  Not all players are created equal, thus this promotion could be a great success for the Angels organization and Trout.  The opposing view, that Trout is too young and needs more minor league experience, may be more popular amongst pundits and experts alike, but as one scout said of Trout, "You can put Trout as the main entree. He's ready." (according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports)  

Overall, major league clubs must decide if a player is both baseball deserves a promotion as well as mature enough to handle the speed, excitement, disappointment, and media frenzy surrounding the majors. Trout seems to have the talent for the majors.  In 75 games at AA Arkansas he sported a .324 batting average, .415 on-base percentage, .950 OPS, collecting 94 hits, scoring 69 runs, hitting 9 home runs, knocking in 27 rbi, stealing 28 bases, and collecting 38 walks.  Trout has plate discipline, a knak for getting on base, some power, speed on the bases, and a tendency to produce runs.  The Angels need help in many of these categories  relying on the dynamic pitching of Dan Haren, Jared Weaver, and Jordan Walden to propel them to one game behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West.  The Angels rank 11th in the AL in both runs scored and team OBP, both of which are below the league average.  Mike Scioscia's teams usually play small ball.  They steal bases, walk, and sacrifice in order to win.  Trout's stats show he will fit into this style of play perfectly, giving the Angels another weapon on the base paths and at the plate.

The three most prominent young players currently in the majors are Starlin Castro of the Cubs, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward of the Braves, and Mike Stanton of the Marlins.  None of these players was born after March of 1990 where as Trout is a whole year younger.  Castro's career began on a high note going 2-5 with 6 rbi a home run and a triple in his MLB debut.  He continues to impress and improve.  Castro hits for a high average, gets on base, and despite not putting it all together defensively he has an unbelievable arm and above average range at shortstop.  Jason Heyward has proven to be a great mix of power and speed from the left side of the plate with a very good arm and speed in the outfield.  Freddie Freeman, like Heyward, has shown immense power to all fields and the ability to play a good first base.  Mike Stanton may possess more power than Heyward and Freeman combined, his mammoth home runs continue to amaze baseball fans everywhere.   He shows speed and a cannon-like arm in right field, but his propensity to strike out too often constricts his assent to complete hitter status.  

The Angels selected Trout out of high school with the 25th pick in the first round of the 2009 MLB draft.  Two other big name prospects taken directly from high school in the same round and draft as Trout include Donavan Tate of the Padres and Shelby Miller of the Cardinals.  Tate would probably find himself in the big leagues had he not been plagued with the injury bug and a suspension for PED's.  Miller is a pitcher for an organization that sports a healthy and talented pitching staff.  Due to these circumstances, neither player has cracked the major leagues, but both remain very close.  For another bit of perspective go no further than Ken Griffey Jr.  Brought up as a 19 year old, Jr. compiled 61 rbi, 19 home runs, 120 hits, 61 runs scored, a .264 batting average, and .329 on-base percentage in 127 game played.  He finished 2nd in rookie of the year voting and the next year he made the all star team as a 20 year old.  With 73 games left in the season, Trout could produce for the team, but we will not know his true potential until he starts at least as many games as Griffey played in his inaugural season.

Trout may become a huge major league star, touting god-like numbers in the stat columns as well as in his bank account.  On the other hand he may be over rated, and never make any impact in the Majors.  There exist a number of other scenarios in between those two, but for the #2 ranked prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, he has high expectations to meet.   Personally I hope Trout finds success in the majors even if it isn't stardom because the let down that would befall him were to fail would crush any man's spirit.  These complicated and difficult decisions fall to the general manager and his many associates; to them I wish good luck because bringing up a 19 year is a gutsy move.  Trout is not the first talented youngster to be thrown into the majors before his 20th birthday and he will not be the last, so until then we can only watch and see.