Friday, March 25, 2005

Bonds v. McGwire

A recent article has pointed out that if a vote were to take place today among sportswriters, Barry Bonds would make the Hall of Fame, but Mark McGwire would not.

Now, I've been back and forth about McGwire in the past regarding the Hall of Fame, and I've got no issues with arguing his merit as a player, but the biggest argument against McGwire at this moment seems to be his use of "performance enhancers" during his playing career, namely during the latter part of his career.

Now, I'm not big on the whole steroid issue. I don't want to see records be broken by players using steroids. The issue though with McGwire is that he has not admitted (and there is no proof) that he used anything that was illegal, whether it be by Major League Baseball's rules or by state or federal law, during his playing career.

McGwire admitted to using Androstenedione during his career, which is now on the list of banned substances of Major League Baseball. At the time, andro wasn't illegal, so even if the product came up in McGwire's bloodstream, nothing could be said about it. McGwire retired after the 2001 season - andro wasn't banned until the 2004 season. If you're going to cast the finger of blame towards McGwire, you either have to determine that McGwire was using other suppliments during his playing days that [i]were[/i] illegal. Whether or not McGwire would have continued using andro after it had been banned isn't the issue. You can't disqualify someone for doing something that wasn't illegal, just like you couldn't ticket a driver for going 60 MPH in a 45 MPH zone if the speed limit was 65 when he drove through it.

My bigger question is, after you throw out the steroid/andro question, does McGwire have the qualifications to be a Hall of Famer?

The problem facing Fred McGriff, Rafael Palmeiro, and later Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, and possibly Jim Thome is that they were never the "best" player at their position - they were never standout players, like a Mantle or Mays were. How much of their success and statistical milestones can be attributed to longevity and the era that they played in instead of true "greatness"? McGwire doesn't have that problem - from 1995 to 2000, Mark McGwire was not only the best slugging first baseman in baseball, but quite possibly the most dangerous hitter in the game. Batting near .300, averaging over 50 home runs, and a slugging percentage of around .700, McGwire's numbers were several steps better than anyone else during that time.

The problem with that though is that we're talking six seasons - technically a little more than five, if you consider that McGwire only played in 104 games in '95 and 89 in 2000. When you look at the rest of his career, it looks something like this:

1986 (age 22) - cup of coffee (18 games total), 3 HR, .189/.259/.377
1987 (age 23) - Rookie of the year, 49 HR, .289/.370/.618
1988 (age 24) - sophomore slump, 32 HR, .260/.352/.478
1989 (age 25) - pitchers figure him out, 33 HR, .231/.339/.467
1990 (age 26) - a small step forward, 39 HR, .235/.370/.489
1991 (age 27) - the end of the line?, 22 HR, .201/.330/.383
1992 (age 28) - comeback season, 42 HR, .268/.385/.585
1993 (age 29) - lost to injury (27 games total), 9 HR, .333/.467/.726
1994 (age 30) - lost to injury again (47 games total), 9 HR, .252/.413/.474

Over the first nine years of McGwires career (technically six years if you don't count the '86, '93, and '94 seasons), McGwire was a .250/.362/.507 hitter, comparable to players like Cecil Fielder, Dave Kingman, and Norm Cash.

Of course, McGwire after that period was a different player - 345 HR, .278/.430/.683. So, does McGwire's five years of mind-boggling offensive numbers allow us to overlook six years of mediocrity?

It's possible, but there's something else that might stop Mark McGwire more than that.

Albert Belle.

While McGwire, doing the math, had 5 very good seasons and 6 mediocre seasons, Albert Belle had 10 seasons where he was at least among the better players in baseball. Belle's worst season (let's say 1992) saw him hit 34 HR, .260/.320/.477. In his ten full seasons in the majors, Belle never hit lower than that .260, never hit less than 23 home runs, never slugged lower than .474, and never drove in less than 95 runs. In fact, putting the two head to head, the two round out the 90's pretty even.

91: Belle
92: McGwire
93: Belle
94: Belle
95: Belle
96: McGwire
97: McGwire
98: McGwire
99: McGwire

But Belle doesn't have the questions surrounding him regarding suppliments, and the Hall of Fame has leaned towards consistent performance over a few good seasons. While I don't expect Belle to get into the Hall of Fame (he was never considered a popular player, especially towards the media), I think Belle has a stronger argument than McGwire, and if the two are put side-by-side, it may hurt McGwire's chances.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Erstad and the Angels

Many players in baseball have lived off of having a good glove. For certain positions on the field (shortstop, center field, catcher), teams are willing to look past offensive shortcomings. Darin Erstad could easily have a long career as that type of player.

The problem right now is that Erstad is being played much more than a "defensive specialist" would, and on top of that, is being played in his secondary position - a position where a "defensive specialist" isn't called for.

Erstad goes into 2005 as the Anaheim Angels' first baseman. Don't think that Erstad, a natural outfielder, is a bad first baseman. He won a Gold Glove at first last year. The question is what the Angels should do with Erstad, as they have to play him to justify the $16 million he is owed over the next two years. The Angels will be starting him at first base; his defensive abilities say that he should play in center field. Many Angel fans say he shouldn't be playing at all.

Well, let's look at the options:

Erstad at first - Erstad at first gives the Angels an outfield of Garrett Anderson in left, Steve Finley in center, and Vlad Guerrero in right. Jeff Davanon and Juan Rivera, the Angels fourth and fifth outfielders, sulk to the bench and fight over DH time, and uberprospect Casey Kotchman attempts to hit .400 in AAA. Now, Kotchman could make the major league roster, but the question is what hurts Kotchman more, letting him sit on the bench in the majors and playing every 5th day or so, or playing every day in AAA where he asks over and over again why he's there. Kotchman's the one with the most to lose here, as the Angels are putting their best bats in the outfield, and capable backups are getting the DH at-bats.

Erstad in center - Putting Erstad in center, his best position, means that either Anderson, Finley, or Guerrero go to the DH spot, Kotchman gets the opportunity to play first, and Davanon and Rivera struggle to see the playing field. While this doesn't seem like a feasable option now, it was possible several months ago, before the Angels signed the 40 year old Finley to a two year deal for $14 million. Finley, coming off one of his best seasons last year at the age of 39, seems like a lesser risk than many other 40 year olds, but with the $14 million to spend at one of two positions, one wonders how "necessary" it was for the Angels to put the resources in a center fielder when one was already on their roster.

Erstad on the bench - Understand that Erstad got the 4 year $32 million contract by doing more than flashing the glove. Erstad had a great year in 2000, batting .355 with 25 home runs and 28 stolen bases. As a 23 and 24 year old previous to that, Erstad posted an OPS over .800. Plus, Erstad was a hard-nosed player, a player who gave 100% on the field. While injuries (and perhaps other factors) have kept him from repeating those stats, he still had an OBP of around .350 last season, with success in 16 of his 17 stolen base attempts. While not necessarily a great player, he's not a horrible player. Putting him on the bench puts Kotchman into the spotlight, starting at first in Erstad's place.

So it all comes down to three players - Erstad, Kotchman, and Finley.

Kotchman had an opportunity to play last season, putting up .224/.289/.276 numbers in 38 games - not overly impressive. It's not really fair to judge Kotchman from those 38 games - he was 21 years old at the time, but that thought had to be sitting in the back of the minds of the Angels braintrust going into this offseason.

Sure, one could trade Erstad, but why? If Erstad gets traded, the Angels will likely pay most of his salary anyway, and have nothing to show for it except a mid-level prospect. While Erstad may not make the best starting player, he gives the Angels a flexabilty - even if the Angels decide to go with Kotchman, Erstad is there if Kotchman fails at the major league level again, and can play all three outfield positions, including center, a position currently manned by a 40 year old.

The Angels made a decision - they could have ignored Finley during free agency, put Kotchman at first and Erstad at center, but they felt that they had to add another bat during free agency, and instead of investing a lot of money in a Carlos Beltran in center (whom priced himself far out of what the Angels wanted to spend) or a Richie Sexson or Carlos Delgado at first (both of whom were also large financial investments that would have blocked Kotchman even more than Erstad), they went with a more "affordable" option with Finley, a good guy and a low risk option.

In a community where some pour seemingly endless money on a problem to cure it while others find it easier to complain about their lack of money, the Angels took the cards they were dealt and made the most of them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Bonds suffers knee injury at hands of media

Ah, Barry Bonds. Just when I'm trying to finish up a rant about how the Devil Rays love to screw themselves over, you give me more things to write about. My ADD made it difficult to finish that article with this popping on the newswire.

Ok, now I'm focused.

Barry Bonds is upset. He says he could be out for half the season, or he could be out for the whole season. He could be out forever. He doesn't seem to care if he is or not. He's tired.

Tired tired tired.

And the thing is, there's a ton of people now who are screaming "I KNEW IT! STEROIDS! HE'S AFRAID!" And it's understandable. If Bonds were on steroids in the past and not on them now, he risks having a dramatic decline in his numbers and pretty much proving that his inflated numbers over the last few years were a result of BALCO, or stay on the steroids and end up getting caught. By claiming injury and sitting out half the season, or just not playing any more, we take away any evidence of the post-steroid policy Bonds to compare to the pre-steroid policy and Bonds numbers still hold up and it just becomes a source of argument without proof.

But look at it from Bonds perspective. He's 40 years old, not 34 like Jason Giambi. Very few baseball players play until they're 40, and no 40 year old player has played at the performance level that Bonds has. Assuming Bonds never took steroids, he comes into 2005 with a bad knee and a 40 year old body where he has to perform at the same level that he did the previous season, or else the finger gets pointed at steroids. He doesn't get a pass because he's old, unlike any other superstar who may have "hit the wall". Recently retired Roberto Alomar hit his wall at 34 - coming off possibly his greatest season in 2001, Alomar's average dropped 70 points, OBP 84 points, and slugging 165 points. No one says that Alomar was coming off "the juice" in 2002, they just attribute it to the downside of his career.

Bonds doesn't have this convienence. Add onto this a knee injury (that can surely affect performance) and there are many reasons for Bonds to have an "off" season in 2005, none of them steroid related. Of course, they could be steroid related, and the media and many fans would love to point the finger to that being the only reasoning behind it.

Bonds hasn't made himself a popular figure outside of the San Francisco Giants fanbase. He's not an overly friendly personality like Sammy Sosa (or at least like Sosa was) or an "aw shucks" type like Mark McGwire was when they were both going after Roger Maris's home run record in 1998. Bonds at times has come off smug and uncaring - whether justified in that image or not - and hasn't endeared himself to the media or the general fanbase. That's not Bonds' fault; he shouldn't have to smile and be happy-go-lucky if that's not his personality. However, in a baseball era where longstanding records held by baseball icons look to be broken, we want certain people to break them if they have to be broken. Bonds isn't one of those people.

It's unfortunate for Bonds because if he were "popular", the issue might not be as big as it is now. Mark McGwire showed all the signs of steroid use (he even admitted using a performance enhancing drug - Androstenedione - which wasn't technically "illegal" at the time), but people turned their heads and looked the other way because they liked McGwire, and wanted to see him as a record book guy. The majority doesn't want to see Bonds as a record book guy, regardless of what he does. Therefore, when we have an opportunity to prove why Bonds shouldn't be in the recordbooks, we'll jump all over it.

It's unfortunate and unfair, but at the same time, Bonds hasn't made himself a sympathetic figure. Seemingly blaming his injury on the media, Bonds made sure that it seemed that the reason he wouldn't be back was because of the media instead of his knee or any other reasoning. "You guys wanted to hurt me bad enough, you finally got me," Bonds said most recently, referring to the media. The fans and the media aren't directly related, and attempting to guilt the media into apologising and stating that you're not going to go back to playing because you're tired of the media bothering you isn't going to endear yourself to the fanbase you've been slowly alienating.

Sure enough, an poll asking what site visitors wanted to see Bonds do next saw "retire" leading the voting with almost 70% of the vote. Cal Ripken would never have run into a similar situation.

I feel bad for Bonds, but it's hard to feel sympathy for someone who seemingly asked for it this past announcement. Bonds says that he's tired of his kids crying because their dad keeps getting run down in the paper. If you know your father is clean and innocent, can't you take solice in knowing that the papers aren't telling the truth?

It's hard to find a "right" and "wrong" in this situation. There's a lot of gray.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Danny Bautista... Danny Bautista?

Let's start this off with a very telling quote:

"Everyone's kind of dumbfounded today. We just lost our cleanup hitter and we don't know what happened. It's kind of a weird situation. It's a zoo around here today."
--Devil Rays DH Aubrey Huff, on right fielder and cleanup hitter Danny Bautista announcing his retirement just a day after Roberto Alomar did (St. Petersburg Times)
Now, seeing this quote brings up two immedate questions. First, what's wrong with Danny Bautista? Bautista had just come off a season where he started 137 games, the most in his career. He was 32 years old at the time of his announcement, not necessarily the time that a player steps down in his career, especially coming off his first full season as a starter and signing a free agent contract to be the starting right fielder in Tampa. Bautista suffered a serious shoulder injury in 2002, but outside of that, had no real history of injuries breaking down his body any quicker than normal.

Bautista didn't give any reasoning as to why he was retiring, and he shouldn't necessarily have to. When you make a decision to leave your job (and this might sound hypocritical for how I've lashed out at Ricky Williams and his retirement) you shouldn't have to explain yourself if you don't want to. Bautista has made a few dollars over his career - enough that he should be able to live the rest of his career without having to work again. If that's how he feels, so be it.

The more alarming thing (and the thing I wanted to get to) was the fact that Tampa was seriously considering (at least in Aubrey Huff's eyes) Bautista as their cleanup hitter. While Bautista wasn't necessarily a bad player (a decent defensive outfielder, VORP of 14.4 last season with Arizona), he's more of an ideal 6-8 spot batter on regular teams. While he hits for a decent average (a batting average no lower than .275 over the last few seasons), he's not a player who takes a lot of walks, and is better suited near the lower part of the order.

So was Huff confused, or was the concern legitimate? Let's look at the projected starters for the 2005 Tampa Bay Devil Rays (with Bautista in the mix)

C Toby Hall (.255/.300/.666)
1B Travis Lee (.275/.348/.807)*
2B Jorge Cantu (.301/.341/.803)**
3B Alex Gonzalez (.225/.263/.632)
SS Julio Lugo (.275/.338/.734)
LF Aubrey Huff (.297/.360/.853)
CF Carl Crawford (.296/.331/.781)
RF Danny Bautista (.286/.332/.733)
DH Josh Phelps (.251/.304/.754)
* 2003 season
** over 50 games

Two things that jump out at you looking at this lineup. The first is that Alex Gonzalez as a starting third base option should never ever be considered, and the other is that Danny Bautista isn't the best hitter in this lineup, justifying a #3 or #4 spot in the order. Hell, he'd have a tough argument for 5th best.

While Cantu is untested over a full season and Lee is coming off an injury that robbed him of most of his 2004 season, Bautista never showed much to justify him being a go-to bat. While Gonzalez's inability to hit and Toby Hall struggling to live up to his supposed potential anchoring them to the bottom of the order, a more reasonable order might look like this:

SS Julio Lugo
CF Carl Crawford
1B Travis Lee
LF Aubrey Huff
DH Josh Phelps
RF Danny Bautista
2B Jorge Cantu
C Toby Hall
3B Alex Gonzalez

There's several areas of flexability here - Lee seems more of a fit in the #2 slot, but I put Crawford in the #2 due to his speed - he's far from a leadoff guy, though. If Phelps turns the corner and learns to hit righthanded pitchers as well as he hits lefties, he could push Huff into the 3 and settle into the 4, pushing Lee to the #5.

However, looking at this, one can actually see where a Lou Pinella would be batting Bautista in the #4 slot. Keeping with the Lugo-Crawford top of the order, if one decides to take their best hitter and put him in the #3 spot (which many managers employ), that leaves three options for the cleanup spot - Lee, Phelps, and Bautista. Against righthanded pitching, Phelps has batted horrible, so it comes down to Lee and Bautista, and both are reasonably even options.

But how did Tampa get here? Granted, an injury to Rocco Baldelli put a major wrench into the works, but it's not like Baldelli was a cleanup hitter, or even a player that would put Bautista out of the lineup - when Baldelli returned, Huff would switch from left to third base and get Alex Gonzalez's horrid bat out of the lineup.

The Devil Rays used four players for the majority of the season in the cleanup position in 2004 - Huff, Baldelli, Tino Martinez, and Jose Cruz Jr. Martinez and Cruz have since departed - Martinez because he was too expensive (he had an $8 million option for 2005 that was bought out for $1 million) and Cruz was traded - also possibly because he was too expensive. Cruz signed a two year deal with Tampa in 2004 that was scheduled to pay him $2.5 million in 2004 and $3.5 million in 2005, both years getting a 500k bonus if Cruz reached 600 plate appearences in 2004 (which he did). With Cruz's numbers steadily declining (and his defense apparently eroding - the former gold glover made 10 errors in Tampa last season), the Rays dumped his salary off to Arizona.

Would the Rays have dumped off Cruz had they known Bautista would be gone? Perhaps. But as it stands right now, the Devil Rays have two healthy outfielders on their 25 man roster - Crawford and Huff. If the Devil Rays don't turn face and reconsider Jonny Gomes and Joey Gathright (both of whom were recently reassigned to their minor league clubs, the Rays have to pick two, possibly three outfield options out of Dee Brown, Tom Goodwin, and Chris Singleton. Goodwin lost most of his value many years ago - outside of a "veteran influence", he brings minimum value as a hitter, and doesn't have the range he once had as an outfielder. Singleton plays a decent center field, but didn't play in the majors in 2004, and has a career OBP of .311. Brown, a Royals prospect who never panned out, has value as a backup outfielder - in fact, he's the ideal player to invite to camp and carry on the roster - very liitle risk involved. But is he an every day starter? Not likely.

Enter Alex Sanchez. Cut loose by Detroit, Sanchez walks into an ideal situation in Tampa. A career .292 hitter, Sanchez immedately becomes the best option the Rays have in camp. Sanchez can play center field, putting Huff in right and Crawford in left until Baldelli returns. But a closer look at Sanchez shows an undiciplined hitter (Sanchez walked SEVEN times last year) and a mediocre runner who uses pure speed instead of instinct (a career 68% basestealer) and has difficulty fielding his position (a career fielding percentage of .975, including 9 errors in 78 games last season).

Is Sanchez really that much of a better option than Joey Gathright? Gathright had a cup of coffee with the Rays last season and looked overmatched at times, but so does Sanchez. Both seem to be similar hitters, with Gathright having more upside.

Or perhaps Jonny Gomes? Gomes needs perhaps another year of seasoning in AAA and would have to play left, pushing Crawford over to center, but Gomes has the power bat that Tampa seems to need. If Gomes could be counted on for 20 home runs and a .240 batting average, it wouldn't be a horrible situation - it'd replicate the numbers that Jose Cruz put up last season.

An even better idea? Matt Diaz. Diaz, who turned 27 two weeks ago, batted .332 for Durham (AAA) last year, hitting 21 home runs and playing a good right field. Diaz also has good speed, stealing 15 bases in 19 attempts last season. For a little more than league minimum, Diaz can get a shot at a starting position and see if he can take his game to the next level while allowing Gathright and Gomes a full year at AAA.

Oh, wait. Diaz was designated for assignment in the beginning of February when the Rays signed Travis Lee and needed a 40 man roster spot - the same day they traded Cruz away.

As easy as it might be to blame the failures of a franchise on their lack of money and "inability to compete", shortsightedness and poor roster management will make sure that the Devil Rays aren't competitive with teams even within their same financial situation.