Ernie Banks always felt lucky 

January, 24, 2015
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Ernie BanksAP Photo/Jim Prisching"Mr. Cub" Ernie Banks, who played 19 seasons in Chicago, passed away at the age of 83 on Friday.
In the first season of Home Run Derby, Ernie Banks vied against Mickey Mantle for the big money: The winner would get $2,000, the loser $1,000, with $500 bonuses built in for particular achievements. “Pretty lucky,” Banks said, after the first of his homers.

The modesty and the cash payout -- little more than what players would get in a week’s worth of meal money these days -- distinguish Banks as a man of a different time and place, when television was in black and white, when whites were only beginning to understand what it meant to be black in this country, only beginning to affect change.

But Banks was different even in his time, among his peers, seemingly free of cynicism and flush with joy, the way we all hoped someone fortunate enough to play baseball for a living would be. The way we all hope we would be.

Ernie Banks came through Nashville in the late '80s to pitch something – maybe it was a book, or a product – and the man seemed entirely happy, speaking about a love affair with game that he did not seem to take for granted. He praised his teammates and talked about the love of playing a game, about being outside on a warm day. The reality could be more complicated, of course; Wrigley Field can be one of the coldest places on earth, when the temperatures drop and the wind is gusting in from center field.

But Banks did not speak of that. There was no whining, no complaining, no off-the-record back-biting about the newest generation of ballplayers or the increasing salaries they were paid. For baseball, he conveyed only unabashed love; for his good fortune, he expressed only gratitude, and in the other two or three times we crossed paths, that never changed.

Banks was interviewed at the time he received the Medal of Freedom.

“I look at my life, look back, and say, ‘What have I done?’” Banks said. “I think we all do that as we get older in life.

“I think about baseball. America’s greatest pastime. Maybe that’s it -- hitting a baseball, going and catching it, playing against another team, playing against other players. And then it’s over, and what have I really done?

“They show the records. You won MVP awards, you did this, you did that. So it’s very special, as I think about it.”

Colleague Willie Weinbaum sent these notes from an interview he and Jeremy Schaap did with Frank Robinson. Jeremy asked Robinson how he would describe Banks.

“Be ready to listen,” Robinson began, laughing. “Because you are not gonna get much to say. He is gonna do all the talkin'. Ernie loves to talk. He loves the game, but he loves to talk. He loves people. He loved to be around people. And he loves to talk about everything and anything. But Ernie -- don't let Ernie fool you. He's a very smart individual. He knows a lot about different subjects. And you have to be prepared to discuss those things with him if you're around him for any length of time.”

Jeremy asked Robinson about Banks as a large man playing shortstop. “Very graceful,” Robinson replied.

“He was like a dancer. He’s just smooth, very graceful without putting any effort into it, it looked like. And he moved to first base. But he was -- he was a good shortstop. He was a good shortstop.”

• Ernie Banks passed away Friday, and nobody represented a team or a city the way that Banks did, writes Michael Wilbon.

• No other Cub will be adored in the same way that Banks was, writes Chris De Luca.

• Banks leaves this world to play two, and maybe more, writes Rick Morrissey.

• Banks was a man for all seasons.

Tim Kurkjian writes about Banks’ unbridled joy.

Dick Goldstein writes about the Banks mantra in his New York Times obituary of Banks.

Around the league

This is a big concern:

Pirates offense teeming with depth 

January, 22, 2015
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Clint HurdleAP Photo/Gene J. PuskarAfter not having a winning record for 20 seasons, Clint Hurdle and the Pirates now have two straight.
The transformation of the Pittsburgh Pirates has been gradual, encompassing the larger part of a decade. The growth has been steady, and the organization is now well past the time when the Pirates had only a handful of front-line players and almost nothing in the way of reinforcements. Year by year, the Pirates take on the shape of the St. Louis Cardinals, who have been the model for Plan Bs over the past 15 years, with veterans and young players stepping in seamlessly when needed. The Cardinals' front office has drafted the right guys, or picked the right veterans to support them.

And so it goes now for the Pirates. Andrew McCutchen is homegrown, and so are Neil Walker, Gerrit Cole, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez, and time and again, the veterans added in the Pirates' modest free-agent signings or trades have flourished, from A.J. Burnett to Francisco Liriano to Edinson Volquez. Increasingly, Pittsburgh is seen as a place where a free agent can go to thrive, especially among pitchers, and through this perception, the Pirates get better, the roster deeper.

As Pittsburgh has constructed its roster for 2015, it has built in alternatives, maybe the best the Pirates have had since the advent of free agency in the 1970s. Not only will manager Clint Hurdle have a lot of options to rest his every-day players, but he also will have the flexibility to make adjustments if any player is struggling.

Pedro Alvarez is penciled in as the first baseman, for example, after a throwing problem forced his move away from third base.

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Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis Getty ImagesColby Rasmus and Evan Gattis were two of the Astros' most notable additions this offseason.
The 2015 Houston Astros will hit for a lot of power, with a whole lot of strikeouts, and newcomer Colby Rasmus, who, as Jerry Crasnick writes, will get $8 million in his one-year deal, will fit right in. Over the past two seasons, Rasmus banged 40 homers in 763 at-bats, and also had 259 strikeouts.

Two hundred sixty-three hitters had at least 300 plate appearances in 2014, and five of the hitters who appear poised to start in Houston's lineup finished in the top 19 in the majors for highest strikeout percentage. Here's a look at their possible lineup, with last season's K percentage and ranking:

2B Jose Altuve, 7.5 percent (262nd highest among 263 hitters)
3B Luis Valbuena, 20.7 percent (93rd)
SS Jed Lowrie, 14.0 percent (219th)
DH Chris Carter, 31.8 percent (14th)
RF George Springer, 33.0 percent (7th)
CF Colby Rasmus, 33.0 percent (9th)
LF Evan Gattis, 23.2 percent (53rd)
1B Jon Singleton, 37.0 percent (1st )
C Jason Castro, 29.5 percent (19th)

The Astros will be the latest team to test the theory that all outs are created equal, and it really doesn't matter whether you slap a ground ball to second base or strike out.

The Atlanta Braves were a baseball team masquerading as a sabermetric experiment the past two years after stacking their lineup with hitters who tend to swing and miss a lot, from the Upton brothers to Gattis to Freddie Freeman. In 2013, Atlanta had the third-most strikeouts in baseball and still had a decent offense, finishing 13th in runs scored, while winning the NL East.

But the team's run production disintegrated in 2014.

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Winners and losers of the Scherzer deal 

January, 20, 2015
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When a big deal goes down the ripples always roll out in many directions, as seen in the Nationals' signing of Max Scherzer -- a deal with a multitude of winners and losers.

Let's take a look

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Does Scherzer improve MLB’s top team? 

January, 19, 2015
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Max Scherzer and Jordan ZimmermannGetty ImagesMax Scherzer will join an already-formidable rotation anchored by Jordan Zimmermann.
The Washington Nationals have agreed to a seven-year contract with Max Scherzer for a reported $210 million, half of it deferred -- Scherzer reportedly will receive $15 million annually for 14 years -- the most ever spent on a free-agent pitcher, the most ever paid out to a right-handed pitcher and the second-most dollars doled out for any pitcher, with the deal slotting in behind Clayton Kershaw's and ahead of Felix Hernandez's.

With that kind of payout, the Nationals can reasonably expect a marked upgrade in 2015, yes?

Well … not really.

Scherzer is an outstanding pitcher who has 492 strikeouts in his past 434 2/3 innings, and perhaps he'll be the guy who pushes the Nationals to a place they haven't gone before, the World Series.

But if Washington had maintained the status quo with its rotation -- arguably the best in the majors as it was -- the Nationals probably would've had an excellent chance to get to the postseason again. Here is the WAR (wins above replacement) for each member of the Nats' rotation in 2014:

Jordan Zimmermann 4.9
Doug Fister 4.5
Stephen Strasburg 3.5
Gio Gonzalez 2.3
Tanner Roark 5.1

That's a tremendous group, reflected in its cumulative 20.3 WAR, and there really is no reason to think that quintet wouldn't do something close to that in 2015, or maybe even better. Fister, who turns 31 in a couple of weeks, is the oldest of the group, and seems to be getting better and better. Gonzalez is 29, Roark is 28, Zimmermann is 28 and Strasburg is 26.

But the Nationals appear poised to break up the band.

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Christian Yelich, Marcel Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton Getty ImagesChristian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton are 23, 24 and 25 years old, respectively.
Giancarlo Stanton got a lot of attention in 2014 for his record-setting contract, for leading the National League in homers, and for that frightening moment when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers fastball. All of that obscured Stanton's improvement as a player defensively, just one more reason why he and teammates Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna make up the No. 1 outfield combination in the majors.

With that, here's Part VI of the team element rankings: The top 10 outfields, based on the thoughts of MLB evaluators:

1. Miami Marlins

The Marlins' trio of Stanton, Yelich and Ozuna is incredibly young, and while colleague Jonah Keri might consider this blasphemous, it's not unreasonable to wonder whether these guys might eventually compare favorably with some of the trios that the Montreal Expos fielded through their extraordinary history of outfielders, such as the trio of Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Ellis Valentine (or Warren Cromartie), or the Moises Alou/Marquis Grissom/Larry Walker set. Stanton appears destined to be remembered as one of Major League Baseball's great power hitters, Yelich's career is off to an excellent start, and the other day, ESPN Insider Tony Blengino explained why Ozuna looks ready to break out.

Opposing pitchers already worked carefully to Stanton -- especially lefties, given his 1.000-plus OPS against them -- but this probably will be the season he starts to get a steady dose of the Barry Bonds treatment, as Andrew McCutchen and Freddie Freeman did last season. Stanton had 94 walks last season, and a rival scout mentioned the other day that it's a wonder he didn't have a lot more than that.


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Top 10 infields in MLB: Rockies No. 1 

January, 17, 2015
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Troy Tulowitzki, Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau Getty ImagesThe Rockies have issues elsewhere, but the infield is an enviable one.
Among all the team elements ranked in the ongoing series, getting a consensus on the top infields was the most difficult. At one point or another, more than half a dozen teams were mentioned for the top spot.

This is the fifth installment of the series, which has also covered the top 10 rotations, the top 10 bullpens, the top overall lineups and the top team defenses.

Today, it's the top 10 infields for overall play.

1. Colorado Rockies

The winter has been spent debating the value of Troy Tulowitzki

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Royals No. 1 in MLB team defense ranks 

January, 15, 2015
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Kansas City RoyalsJamie Squire/Getty ImagesThe formidable OF trio of Alex Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Lorenzo Cain sets the tone for the Royals' D.
More and more, the use of defensive shifts is impacting the play of individuals. Last summer, there might not have been a better example than Jhonny Peralta. If a coach stood at the plate and mashed ground balls at Peralta and some of his peers, Peralta might be among the least impressive, lacking the range or the arm strength of someone like Andrelton Simmons.

But the Cardinals bought into the use of shifts last season, and Peralta, who was regarded as so limited in range at shortstop that the Tigers replaced him, finished third in Defensive Runs Saved. Some of the Pirates' defenders might be dressed up in a similar way by Pittsburgh's advanced use of shifts.

That's a factor in Part IV of our team element rankings. Earlier this week, we laid out the top-10 rotations, the top-10 bullpens and the top lineups. Now it's time to rank the defenses.

1. Kansas City Royals

In the postseason, casual baseball fans got to see the vision of GM Dayton Moore, who decided to fill the vast Kauffman Stadium outfield with guys who can cover a whole lot of ground and infielders who can make plays.

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Sandoval/RamirezUSA TODAY Sports, AP PhotoPablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez should return the Red Sox's offense to its glory days.
Last year, the world of run production was turned upside down, with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who almost always finish in the top 10 in runs scored, ranking among the worst rather than the best.

In 2015, that usual world order will return. In Part III of our team element ranks -- we ranked the rotations Monday and the bullpens Tuesday -- here are the top 10 MLB lineups:

1. Boston Red Sox

Even before the Red Sox closed a 2014 season in which they finished 18th in runs, Boston GM Ben Cherington had brought change.

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Top 10 bullpens in MLB: Royals No. 1 

January, 13, 2015
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DavisBrad ManginGetty ImagesWade Davis ranked No. 1 among all relievers with 60 or more innings in limiting opponents' OPS.
When baseball executives and players try to explain why run production has plummeted in recent seasons, they offer a range of theories, from MLB played without amphetamines and steroids to the impact of defensive shifts. But there is one common thread: The bullpens have become stacked with guys who throw really, really hard, with many teams presenting a parade of relievers firing mid-90s fastballs after the fifth inning.

In the second part of our top 10 team element rankings, let's break down the bullpens.

1. Kansas City Royals

If not for Giants starter Madison Bumgarner's superhuman feats, the Royals would’ve won the World Series and their relief corps would’ve taken a place in history alongside the Reds’ Nasty Boys for being the core of a championship. But in some ways, the Royals’ trio of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera accomplished stuff we really hadn’t seen before. That group faced 960 hitters last season, struck out 309 and allowed a total of three homers. Davis ranked No. 1 among all relievers with 60 or more innings in limiting opponents’ OPS last season (.408); Holland was sixth, and Herrera was 21st. Even if the Royals had a lot of mediocrity in other spots in their pen, the work of that trio would have Kansas City at No. 1 in these rankings.

But the Royals will also have Jason Frasor and Tim Collins, and Luke Hochevar is expected back after missing all of last season because of elbow reconstruction.

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Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmerman & Stephen StrasburgGetty ImagesDoug Fister, Jordan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg form a solid top three for the Nationals.
Max Scherzer remains unsigned, as does James Shields, and executives from all teams continue to circle the market, monitoring the asking price on the likes of Cole Hamels and others.

But for most of the 30 teams, what you see is what you get, and their winter work is just about complete, which makes this a good time for our annual top 10 team rankings.

Today we begin with the top 10 rotations, based on input from talent evaluators around the majors:

1. Washington Nationals

Some evaluators believe the Dodgers should be No. 1, given the presence of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke at the front of the rotation and some interesting investments at the back.

But the Nationals' depth is staggering. Four of the top 16 qualified NL pitchers in terms of ERA in 2014 were in the Washington rotation, and the one Nats guy not in that 16, Gio Gonzalez, had a respectable 3.57 ERA. Washington's rotation ERA of 3.04 was the best in the majors last year, and the group held opposing hitters to a .657 OPS, also the best mark in the bigs.

Jordan Zimmermann is headed toward a nine-figure payday, thanks to his dominance, and somehow Stephen Strasburg has become underrated because of the perception of what he hasn't accomplished.

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Oakland's unique problems, advantages 

January, 11, 2015
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Josh DonaldsonBob Stanton/USA TODAY SportsSome teams wouldn't dare trade a young star like Josh Donaldson. The A's are not in that cohort.
The occasional sewage overflow is the worst part of the Oakland Athletics' existence, probably. Every time there’s an extended period of rain or the Oakland Raiders play a home game, or some combination of those factors, the pipes in the O.co Coliseum are overwhelmed and the coaches are left to tiptoe through a river of human production for which no sabermetric analysis is needed.

Then there are the limitations of the Athletics' strategic position in their market, which is a little like being vice president of the United States. Oakland operates in the shadow of the San Francisco Giants and in the midst of territory controlled by the Giants; in short, the Athletics are at the mercy of the Giants and the inaction of the commissioner’s office. The Giants have more financial power, they have an iconic ballpark (without flushing problems), their seats are filled, they have won three titles in five years, and, oh by the way, they have the Athletics under their thumb.

If there is one significant upside to being the Athletics, it’s that they can do stuff without really worrying about fan fallout, such as the nearly complete overhaul of a team that had the best record in the majors for a lot of last summer

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Tigers using faith as bullpen fix 

January, 10, 2015
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Joe Nathan and Brad AusmusTom Szczerbowski/Getty ImagesWill Joe Nathan continue to be Detroit's closer in 2015?
The definition of insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result -- a notion that the Detroit Tigers will put to the test in 2015.

The Tigers will have essentially the same cast of relievers as the group that crumbled last year, when Detroit ranked 27th in bullpen ERA, at 4.27. But no numbers fully reflect the agita generated by that group’s performance. Joe Nathan blew a save on April 2, kicking off a summer-long debate among Tigers fans about who should be the closer, an exercise highlighted by Nathan’s gesture of annoyance to fans who had booed him. Detroit's year of late-inning apprehension culminated with repeated failures by other relievers in the Tigers’ season-ending playoff series against Baltimore.

After that sort of frustration, more reactive organizations would’ve gone for a complete overhaul -- to change the conversation, at the very least, and to change the result. And it’s possible that an overhaul might have been the correct response.

But the Tigers are not reactive, as Jose Valverde can attest.

Rather than rebuilding the bullpen, Detroit has taken the long view -- that the circumstances that worked against the Tigers’ relievers last summer will inevitably turn around.

“If you look at it just from a numbers perspective,” manager Brad Ausmus said over the phone Friday, “they’re due to have a correction.”

There was a Murphy’s Law feel to the group last year.

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Tim LincecumEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesThe Giants know Tim Lincecum isn't what he was, but they still see plenty of glimpses.
The Giants are nearing the end of their offseason work, and while they continue to monitor the market and check to see if the asking prices have dropped and if a match might develop -- Max Scherzer and James Shields would certainly represent pricy upgrades for San Francisco -- it’s very possible that they will go into the season with what they have in their rotation this morning.

That begins with Madison Bumgarner, of course, and Jake Peavy, who signed a two-year deal in the winter. They have been told that Matt Cain, shut down in the midst of last season so that bone chips could be removed from his elbow, should be good to go for the start of spring training. Tim Hudson had surgery the other day, and even if he’s not ready at the outset of the 2015 season, he should be good to go soon thereafter, and San Francisco has Yusmeiro Petit on standby, like last year.

The Giants also are counting on

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Stephen Drew and Didi GregoriusGetty ImagesIt appears the Yankees are loading up on lefties, including Stephen Drew (left) and Didi Gregorius.
The price on Stephen Drew dropped far enough that the Yankees made a move -- the two sides are close to finalizing a one-year deal -- to at least share some of the at-bats at second base, platooning with either Rob Refsnyder or Jose Pirela, and serve as a safety net if young shortstop Didi Gregorius struggles as the first to follow Derek Jeter.

In an era when specialization is the rule rather than the exception, with defensive shifts that are altered pitch to pitch and eight-man bullpens, the Yankees will have the ability to stack up nine hitters who can bat left-handed.

C Brian McCann (bats left-handed)
1B Mark Teixeira (switch hitter)
2B Stephen Drew (left)
SS Didi Gregorius (left)
3B Chase Headley (switch)
LF Brett Gardner (left)
CF Jacoby Ellsbury (left)
RF Carlos Beltran (switch)
DH Garrett Jones (left)

That the Yankees value left-handed hitting is hardly a revelation. With the exception of a few years in the middle of George Steinbrenner's time as owner, the Yankees have always placed a premium on left-handed hitting, driven initially by the success of Babe Ruth and the construction of their home ballpark.

But the ability to stack up left-handed hitters might be especially relevant in 2015 in the AL East, which generally lacks left-handed pitching and, more to the point, elite left-handed pitching, such as David Price and Jon Lester, who were traded out of the division last season.

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