White Sox's climb boosts AL Central 

November, 22, 2014
Nov 22
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Jose AbreuAP Photo/Andrew A. NellesThe acquisition of Jose Abreu kicked off Chicago's recent growth.
Maybe the American League Central has been better than previously advertised, in light of the recent postseason success of the teams. The Detroit Tigers played for the league championship three straight seasons, from 2011 to 2013, and really, all that stood between the Kansas City Royals and a championship at the end of a seven-game World Series this year was Madison Bumgarner. The Central fed two teams into the five-team playoffs each of the past two seasons, with the Cleveland Indians participating in 2013.

The division’s reputation for weakness has probably been built on its payrolls, besides that of the Tigers; the Indians, Royals and Twins typically operate with modest budgets, and the White Sox went through cuts in recent seasons. But, no matter how the perception was built, it is changing because the AL Central is evolving into something better.

The Tigers will again run out a rotation of stars, supported by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, and the Royals should be back in contention again, even if they lose James Shields (and perhaps replace him with someone such as Ervin Santana, Francisco Liriano or Brett Anderson).

Top 10 shortstops in MLB 

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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Brandon Crawford, Troy Tulowitzki, and  Andrelton SimmonsGetty ImagesThe priority at shortstop has shifted squarely to defense, something all of these guys play.
The question of whether you’d prefer to have Buster Posey or Yadier Molina at catcher has lots of layers, as does the debate about whether Miguel Cabrera is the game’s top first baseman.

But with Troy Tulowitzki coming back from major surgery and facing an uncertain future, there really is no clear No. 1 among the shortstops. You could take this in a lot of different directions, depending on what you value the most -- a preference for high-end offense, or Platinum Glove-caliber defense, or mere consistency.

Through conversations with team evaluators, general managers and our own statistical analysts, we probably considered four or five different guys in the No. 1 spot at one time or another.

We settled on this ranking of MLB shortstops:


1. Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta Braves

Simmons is not the perfect player, by any means; picking the No. 1 shortstop is not the same now as it was in 2001, when you had your choice of Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and others. Simmons had a .286 on-base percentage last season, with seven homers among just 29 extra-base hits in 540 plate appearances. It would be very reasonable here to make a case in the No. 1 spot for a better hitter, or maybe two or three others.

But a highly ranked executive put it best

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Top 10 second basemen in MLB 

November, 19, 2014
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Robinson CanoRick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsRobinson Cano topped big league second basemen in WAR in 2014 for the third consecutive season.
In keeping with the theme of the week, here's a ranking of the top 10 second basemen in the majors.

Again, this is not only about defense, or offense, but rather overall play, and ESPN Stats & Info's Mark Simon sent along the following: "Something to keep in mind when evaluating second basemen is there was a big drop-off in offensive production among second basemen last season, relative to the other infield positions." (See the table to the right.)

"So if you're looking at a second basemen and their offensive numbers held steady from 2013 to 2014, they did well."


1. Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners

This was the fifth consecutive year that Cano finished in the top 5 in the MVP voting, after he batted .314 with 53 extra-base hits. In the first season of his 10-year contract, he did everything the Mariners paid him to do, serving as an anchor in the lineup and helping teammates, and Seattle improved its win total by 16. At this stage of his career, he is a good second baseman (if not necessarily great).

By the way, Cano is approaching some major milestones, after playing at least 157 games in the past eight seasons.

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Offseason dominoes begin to fall 

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
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Giancarlo StantonRob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesGiancarlo Stanton is no doubt smiling today after agreeing to a 13-year, $325 million deal with Miami.
In one day, Major League Baseball served as the backdrop to a major trade, the second-biggest contract ever doled out by a team from Canada and the finalization of the largest contract in the history of North American professional sports.

Offseason, indeed.

Because of those deals, dominoes are falling all over the place.

A domino tumbles on … Giancarlo Stanton. He is well-liked and regarded within the sport as a really good person, which is certainly part of the reason the Marlins decided to invest in him. MLB is lucky to have Stanton, Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout as the best of its best.

But while having the largest contract in history guarantees Stanton the accumulated wealth of a small nation, the sheer size of the deal will carry with it additional pressures no person could ever be truly prepared for.

As Darren Rovell tweeted on Monday, Stanton will now make about $68,000 a day for the next 13 years, an income that will separate him from the fans who will pay to see the outsized slugger with the outsized contract for years to come. When he goes through the inevitable slumps that happen to every player, the response will sometimes have a layer of venom he has not experienced before. Because of the contract, there will be an expectation for him to get five hits in every four at-bats, to hit 600-foot homers nightly. Some fans will be like the folks who would go to a Vegas show wanting to hear Sinatra do his best-ever version of "My Way," in a way he had never done it before.

It will be impossible for Stanton to live up to the contract, and the sooner he embraces that reality, the easier it will be for him to function.

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The top 10 first basemen in MLB 

November, 17, 2014
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Goldschmidt & Cabrera & Abreu USA TODAY SportsWhere do Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu rank in Buster's first-base rankings?
In the second installment of our rankings of the best players at each position -- we ranked the catchers Sunday -- we rank the top 10 first basemen Monday, with the selections following input and observations of MLB evaluators.

1. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks

If this ranking were built on offensive ability alone and Miguel Cabrera hadn't been taken down by ankle trouble this past season, the two-time AL MVP would be in the top spot. But players here are rated on overall play, and Goldschmidt is the best overall first baseman. He finished second in the NL MVP voting in 2013, and in 2014 he was on his way to another likely top-five finish until an Ernesto Frieri fastball broke his hand.

As it was, Goldschmidt clubbed 59 extra-base hits in 109 games, with 75 runs. He is regarded as an excellent defender -- he won an NL Gold Glove award in 2014 -- and he has even stolen 24 bases over the past two seasons.

Look, WAR as a statistic is an imperfect fit for first basemen. But it does at least attempt to measure all elements of play, and despite missing about one-third of the season, Goldschmidt finished near the top of his peers, at 4.4. (The Cubs' Anthony Rizzo led at 5.6.)

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The top 10 catchers in MLB 

November, 16, 2014
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Bumgarner and PoseyJohn Rieger/USA TODAY SportsIn Buster Posey's five seasons as the Giants' backstop, they've won three World Series titles.
In those handful of moments when the New York Yankees talked about an austerity drive a couple of years ago, when Hal Steinbrenner spoke of getting under the salary cap, they decided to let Russell Martin walk away as a free agent -- and he was snapped up by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In December 2013, as the Yankees pared down a roster flush with catching, they decided to trade Chris Stewart, and the Pirates grabbed him to be Martin’s backup.

Last week, as Pittsburgh looked to build a safety net in case Martin walks away as a free agent, the Pirates turned to the Yankees again, swapping veteran reliever Justin Wilson for Francisco Cervelli.

It’s not a coincidence that there has been a Yankees-Pirates catching pipeline in place, because both teams apparently place the same high priority on pitch-framing, a skill that Martin, Stewart and Cervelli all possess, and a skill that is being increasingly valued by teams as they look for the smallest (and largest) advantages. The days when teams are content with slapping shin guards and a mask on a slugger and living with defensive deficiencies are just about over.

With that as the context for how catchers are evaluated in 2014, here’s the first in a series of rankings of the top 10 players at each position, based on their overall skills on both offense and defense. The rankings are crafted with input from some general managers and other evaluators in the sport.

The top 10 catchers:


1. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

For every evaluator who prefers Posey, there’s another who would rather take Yadier Molina. Some prefer Molina’s defense, his ability to shut down a running game; others like Posey, because he has been the most consistently excellent hitter when compared to others at this position. He has a career OPS of .861, a neighborhood that Molina has achieved in only one season: 2012, when he had an .874 OPS.

Molina, a future Hall of Famer, is universally regarded as the better defensive player. But Posey’s defense is good, and his pitchers say it's improving in how he calls games and how he handles situations.

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More than money could sway Stanton 

November, 14, 2014
Nov 14
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Giancarlo StantonAP Photo/Morry GashThe Marlins are offering a lot of cash to a player who recently had his baseball life flash before his eyes.
There hadn’t been enough time to wipe the blood from Giancarlo Stanton’s face before he was lifted onto a golf cart after a Mike Fiers fastball crumpled his cheek on Sept. 11. But before he was taken away for treatment, Stanton reached out a hand to his father, who happened to be in Milwaukee that night and had made his way to the field. The gesture was seemingly meant to reassure his dad.

But the fact is that at that instant, Stanton didn’t know if he would be OK, and didn’t know if, with that one pitch, his career had been altered forever, in the way that one moment altered everything for other young players. The next time that Stanton spoke with reporters, after spending days with doctors, he acknowledged to them that if the pitch had struck him differently, millimeters in another direction, the injuries he sustained could’ve been career-threatening.

Millimeters in another direction, and the Marlins wouldn’t be willing to offer him a contract for something in the range of $325 million over 12 years, which is one of the options that has been discussed.

Only Stanton knows if his season-ending injury is a factor in how he feels about the Marlins’ varied and staggering proposals, which are designed

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Corey KluberMark Cunningham/Getty ImagesCorey Kluber's stoic demeanor is revered by Indians players and coaches.
Accolades for a teammate are always a good thing, but after Corey Kluber won the AL Cy Young Award on Wednesday, the joy that others within the Indians organization experienced ran deep.

Because of the person that Kluber is, and because of his work ethic, others are touched by the award's affirmation. "He is so solid and cares only about the team," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said in an email.

I had written Callaway and bullpen coach Kevin Cash to get their thoughts on Kluber, who is consistent in his stoicism. "In one game, he was coming off the mound and into the dugout after striking out 13 or something," Callaway wrote, "and I was elated on the top step, with my hand up, waiting for a big up-high five. And he, with no excitement at all, put out a low five, so no one could see he was actually having to high-five his overly excited pitching coach.

"And I came down with my hand ever so gingerly, and slapped him a low five, because I didn't know what else to do. Later on, around the other starters, with Kluber standing there, I told that story. Kluber -- in Kluber fashion -- responded with, 'What was I supposed to do?' That shows how good he is at controlling his emotions."

"It's hard to pick out something about his work ethic," Callaway added, "because he absolutely does the same thing every day between starts. He is so consistent."

Cash wrote, "What stands out is his consistency. It's obvious that he rarely shows much emotion on the field, but what's impressive is the way he evolved and took ownership in being the leader of our staff."

I had mentioned to Cash that the stories about Kluber and his demeanor and work ethic reminded me of what I used to hear from the Blue Jays and Phillies about Roy Halladay. "He is very similar to Doc with his work ethic," Cash wrote back (after interviewing for the Rays' managerial job), "and I definitely don't say that lightly because nobody worked like him.

"One [example] would be how much [Kluber] constantly tried to develop his changeup in his throwing program in between starts. I found it very impressive that as good as his season was going, he never wavered in his attempt to get a feel for a pitch that he would only use a handful of times throughout a game."

Kluber thought that Felix Hernandez would win the Cy Young Award, writes Paul Hoynes.

If I had had a ballot, I would've voted for Hernandez, but the notion that Hernandez was robbed or that Kluber is somehow unworthy is ridiculous.

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Game of DH musical chairs has begun 

November, 12, 2014
Nov 12
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Billy Butler and Evan GattisGetty ImagesThe plethora of DH types available hurts the value of FA Billy Butler and trade candidate Evan Gattis.
If you want to take a sample of how saturated the market is with designated hitters, consider a slice of Adam Lind's recent experience for examination.

Last season, the left-handed-hitting Lind was limited to 96 games because of injury, but in that time, he destroyed right-handed pitchers, batting .354 against them, the highest of any major league player with at least 275 plate appearances against righties. He also had a .942 OPS against them, even better than the stellar .924 OPS (and .385 on-base percentage) he posted against righties in 2013. Under the terms of his existing contract, Lind is set to make $7.5 million for 2015, with an $8 million option (or a $500,000 buyout) for 2016.

You get the picture: He's a player with a history of success as a left-handed hitter at a relatively modest cost. Yet the Blue Jays had him out on the market for many days -- many weeks, actually -- without getting any traction, before they finally swapped him to the Milwaukee Brewers for 31-year-old pitcher Marco Estrada.

Lind will play first base for the Brewers, but he is generally viewed as a defensively challenged DH-type player, and there is an ocean of that type of player available. And this at a time when a lot of the AL teams are using the DH position to give some respite to players who no longer can take amphetamines to prop themselves up over the long regular season.

The full-time DH, like an Orlando Cepeda or Edgar Martinez or David Ortiz, has become something of a dinosaur, which is not good for the DH types who will be looking for jobs in the week ahead.

Victor Martinez is the best pure hitter available in the free-agent market, and he's going to get a lot of money, whether it's from the Tigers, White Sox, Mariners or some other team. Sources say that Nelson Cruz has a three-year offer in hand from the Baltimore Orioles, who are comfortable waiting to see if some other team steps up and surpasses that. Yes, Cruz can play the outfield, but he'll turn 35 next season, and the Orioles kept him healthy last season by using him a lot at DH, his future position.

If you don't win the bidding for Martinez or Cruz, or you don't want to pay those prices, there are a ton of alternatives:

Billy Butler: He's a free agent, recently cut free by the Royals, who might consider a reunion at a much lower cost than the $12 million option they rejected.

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Cole HamelsAP Photo/John BazemoreCole Hamels finished with a career-low 2.46 ERA in 30 starts last season in Philadelphia.
Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux has long been known as a great source of wisdom, and other pitchers quote him the way that politicians draw on the words of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

I’ve never actually heard Maddux discuss the difference in pitching in the American League versus pitching in the National League, so I can’t tell you whether the words attributed to Maddux are apocryphal or actually reflect his feelings. But through the years, I’ve probably listened to a dozen or so pitchers cite Maddux as a primary source in this vein of thought:

Stay in the National League.

Or: If you can, leave the American League and go to the National League.

Which brings us to Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who may come face to face with that very decision in the days and weeks to come.

Hamels, who turns 31 years old next month, is in the prime of his career, having posted a career-low 2.46 ERA in 30 starts last season. When the Phillies surrendered in their negotiations with the left-hander and signed him to a $144 million deal in the summer of 2013, their expectation was that Hamels could lead the staff for the foreseeable future.

But since then, the Phillies have collapsed, and executive Pat Gillick declared recently that the team likely won’t contend for at least a couple of more seasons -- and with the niceties aside, this stance allows them to openly shop Hamels and others for the prospects the team can build around.

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Sandoval contract could come soon 

November, 9, 2014
Nov 9
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SandovalJohn Rieger/USA TODAY SportsIt's believed that both sides want Pablo Sandoval to remain a Giant.
Optimism that a deal is going to get worked out hovers over the talks between Pablo Sandoval and the San Francisco Giants, to the degree that some potential bidders for the third baseman have started doing more background work on market alternatives.

Optimism doesn’t always translate into an actual deal, of course. If Sandoval’s side is stuck on a particular number, then the Giants could always move on to other options.

But rival officials are watching the Sandoval bidding and reading the tea leaves, and are increasingly having difficulty envisioning him signing elsewhere.

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Nelson CruzLeon Halip/Getty ImagesNelson Cruz led the majors in HRs, but his past suspension for PED use still worries some when it comes to a deal.
More than a decade ago, general managers elaborated on the murky business of investing in players who may or may not be using performance-enhancing drugs. Within that 2002 New York Times article, a couple of GMs from that time gave voice to the importance and the challenge of speculating:
"It's a fairly routine topic when discussing a player who suddenly is a lot bigger," said Randy Smith, general manager of the Detroit Tigers. "To me, you've got guys who look to enhance their performance and get a contract, and become much different than they were in the past. It's very hard to evaluate. You see guys with slider bat speed all of a sudden become good hitters with tremendous power potential.

"I think it's all over the industry, and I think with all the money that's out there it becomes more relevant."

When a player is acquired, San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers said, "you have to be very cautious if you feel the player is a user."

He added, "You are cautious about doing a long-term deal if he's had one or maybe two big years."

Penalties for drug testing began two years later, and by 2006, even the players' association bought into the idea of strengthening the penalties and working to create a level playing field for a silent union majority that didn’t want to have to think about using drugs to keep up.

But more than a decade after Smith and Towers elaborated on the guessing game that general managers faced, the newest generation of GMs continues to guess, to speculate, to wonder.

Major League Baseball teams are starved for power, and for right-handed hitting particularly

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Alex RodriguezKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesYankees veteran Alex Rodriguez continues to make news off the field.
The Miami Herald story on Alex Rodriguez confirmed what many probably already assumed: that his ardent and angry defense of 2013, his words and his legal strategy, was spectacular deceit.

And by spectacular, I mean sheer enormity, not quality. He always seemed as transparent as a 3-year-old denying an illicit cookie raid with a face smeared in chocolate.

Rodriguez has the tens of millions of dollars needed in an attempt to make a mockery of Major League Baseball's drug-testing system, and he tried, without any regard to the collateral damage.

Because we all really want to forget the ridiculous circus of his Biogenesis defense, highlighted by the chanting and sign-holding A-Rod commission in front of the offices of Major League Baseball, we won't have a full recounting here of the months of untruths.

But it is worth touching on a couple of the most brazen aspects of his conduct to define the lengths of his duplicity, which, with the benefit of hindsight, looks like one giant web of deceit.

1. Michael Weiner, the leader of the players' association, was dying throughout 2013, and after the Biogenesis scandal broke, he represented the implicated players as they faced the evidence and the penalties. One by one, from Ryan Braun to Nelson Cruz, the defendants agreed to what amounted to plea bargains. Everybody, that is, except Alex Rodriguez, who continued to fight the charges all the way through the absurd and protracted arbitration hearing that was highlighted by his walk-out.

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Nine free-agent bargains to consider 

November, 5, 2014
Nov 5
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Edinson Volquez and Torii HunterUSA TODAY SportsBoth Edinson Volquez (left) and Torii Hunter could play useful roles for winning teams.
Plenty of free agents available now, but here are nine free-agent bargains worth exploring:

1. Edinson Volquez, starting pitcher

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He is way down the pecking order of available starting pitchers in the market, far behind the likes of Max Scherzer, Jon Lester, James Shields, Francisco Liriano and Cole Hamels, a standing which will likely knock down his price tag. And his history of erratic performance will scare away teams from making a long-term commitment to him.

But Volquez did excellent work for the Pirates in 2014. From June 23 on, he had a 1.85 ERA, allowing just six homers in 111 2/3 innings. Is some of that due to PNC Park? Absolutely. The great defensive outfield behind him? Unquestionably. The pitcher whisperer, Pirates coach Ray Searage? Of course. But Volquez demonstrated last season that a short-term investment in him can pay off. He could merit a decent two-year deal for a team such as the Mariners or White Sox.

2. Rickie Weeks, second baseman

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When he was with the Brewers, he was always measured against the perception of his potential, and he sometimes did not live up to that due to injuries or too many missed swings.

But if you forget all that and consider only what he is right now at age 32, he is an interesting player as a reduced-role option: He had a .357 on-base percentage last year, with some pop (28 extra-base hits in 286 plate appearances), and he had an .865 OPS against left-handers.

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Is Ryan Howard tradable? 

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
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Ryan HowardAP Photo/Alex BrandonRyan Howard is owed $60 million, with $25 million salaries for each of the next two seasons.
Ryan Howard has had his last at-bat as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

That’s what the Phillies hope, anyway. That’s their goal, according to rival executives.

The Chicago Cubs want to add high-end pitching and contend. The Los Angeles Dodgers are thinking World Series or bust, again. And the Phillies want to trade Howard (and others).

If you imagine general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. doing his offseason work like this guy, you might not be that far off. The mantra on Howard appears to be: He is priced to move.

But it will cost the Phillies, undoubtedly, because Howard -- who turns 35 later this month -- is still owed $60 million, with $25 million salaries for each of the next two seasons, plus a $10 million buyout of a 2017 team option of $23 million.

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