Buster Olney: MLB

Notes from the MLB awards dinner 

January, 25, 2015
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Clayton Kershaw and Sandy KoufaxGetty Images, USA Today SportsClayton Kershaw has dominated his era, just like former Dodger great Sandy Koufax.
Our colleague Willie Weinbaum filed this from Saturday night’s annual baseball soiree.

On a night of transitions and tributes, the 92nd annual awards dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America began with a moment of silence in memory of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. The evening concluded with the remarks of obscure former Cub Bob Hendley, who pitched a one-hitter nearly 50 years ago in the same game that the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax achieved perfection.

Koufax, who sat on the dais between one commissioner whose term was about to begin and another whose tenure was about to end, fulfilled the wish he articulated at the event a year ago -- to present Los Angeles' Clayton Kershaw with another National League Cy Young Award. Kershaw’s three awards equal Koufax’s career total, and he also received the NL MVP Award from Koufax, so the dominating lefties of eras a half-century apart each have one MVP too.

About 24 hours before Kershaw traveled to the banquet, his wife Ellen gave birth to their first child. In an emotional speech citing his family, Kershaw gave thanks by name to every Dodgers player and staffer he said he encountered daily last season. Surprisingly, he also expressed gratitude to the St. Louis Cardinals, the team that eliminated him and the Dodgers from the postseason.

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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Top 12 surprise stats of 2014 MLB season 

December, 26, 2014
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Garrett RichardsAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillGarrett Richards allowed an MLB-low .261 slugging percentage in 2014.
No sport overflows with information the way baseball does, with each pitch of each plate appearance adding to the growing expanse of an analytic universe. The players begin generating these numbers in early March, in exhibition games, and this continues until the final pitch -- and in 2014, that meant a popup caught by Pablo Sandoval in foul territory in Kansas City.

But in spite of the eight months spent peeling away the layers of this daily data, there are still surprises to be found in the winter, upon further review:

1. Garrett Richards allowed an MLB-low .261 slugging percentage last season.

So, in other words, Richards effectively reduced hitters into the immortal Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza line is named; Mendoza had a .262 career slugging percentage. This number reflects the hitters’ sentiments last season that the challenge of trying to hit Richards was an absolute nightmare because of the staggering movement of his cut fastball and because of how hard he threw.

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Top 10 MLB storylines of 2015 

December, 25, 2014
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Rob ManfredAP Photo/Steve RuarkNew MLB commissioner Rob Manfred should have a plan to better market stars nationally.
As 2015 approaches, here are my 10 biggest storylines to watch in the world of baseball.

1. The new commissioner

Rob Manfred can probably relate to Prince Charles somewhat, because he’s been waiting patiently for his turn at the throne in recent years. But his time will begin next month, when Bud Selig will follow through on his threat of many years and walk away from the job.

Manfred presumably will get all of the perks of the post, the use of the private jet -- hopefully, its code name is Fastball -- and the staggering salary that all commissioners get these days. We’ve already gotten a reaffirmation of what matters most to Manfred in recent days, when MLB worked out a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with the umpires. The current labor agreement with the players’ union has two years remaining before it is set to expire, and if Manfred stays with a proven formula for financial growth in the sport, he’ll make the next agreement happen.

But what’s next for him?

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Who’s ready to move on from 2014? 

December, 24, 2014
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Shin-Soo Choo, AP Photo/Richard RodriguezShin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, major acquisitions by Texas last offseason, both struggled in 2014.
These are some folks in Major League Baseball who probably can’t wait to put 2014 behind them.

1. The Texas Rangers

Last year began with what was effectively a season-ending collision between Derek Holland and his dog Wrigley, and it went downhill from there. Prince Fielder played his last game May 16, managing just three homers, and Shin-Soo Choo reached base 180 times, after reaching base 300 times leading up to his free agency in 2013. The Rangers’ win total plummeted from 91 in 2013 to 67 last season, and Texas finished 31 games out of first place. Manager Ron Washington resigned after a personal scandal.

Texas should have better luck in 2015.

Right?

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Hamels would make Pads a top contender 

December, 22, 2014
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Cole HamelsHunter Martin/Getty ImagesCole Hamels is owed $90 million for the next four seasons, with a vesting option for 2019.
The Padres are said to be pursuing Cole Hamels, writes Ryan Lawrence.

San Diego still has three of its top four prospects remaining after its flurry of trades, based on Baseball America’s rankings -- catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Matt Wisler, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe -- and the Padres have a potential trade chip in Wil Myers, who will be under team control for five more seasons. So San Diego has the roster firepower to put together a trade for Hamels, because it’s hard to imagine the Phillies trading the left-hander without at least asking for at least two in that group of four players.

Don’t forget that Hamels grew up in the San Diego area and the Padres are among the teams to which he could be traded without his permission. This distinguishes the Padres from a team such as the Red Sox, who are one of the teams to which Hamels could veto a trade.

But the money involved ... that’s where the most significant question of any San Diego-Hamels deal will linger.

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A-Rod a mystery for the Yankees 

December, 16, 2014
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Alex Rodriguez, Joe GirardiTim Farrell/USA TODAY SportsJoe Girardi and the Yankees face many questions as Alex Rodriguez returns to the team this season.
The strangest spring training saga will begin when the Yankees’ full squad emerges from the clubhouse for their first pre-workout stretch. International star Masahiro Tanaka will be there, and so will Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller and other players of renown, but the platoon of cameras will be focused on a guy with an undefined role: Alex Rodriguez.

Reporters will trace his every movement and log Rodriguez’s interaction with teammates, looking for signs that the others around him might shy away from him. After all, the last time he was with the Yankees, folks on the staff were wary that any conversation they had with him would be subject to subpoena. Will he be embraced by his teammates? Will they keep him at arm’s length, generally? Will they be merely polite with a disgraced player coming back from the longest PED suspension in baseball history, or will they treat him warmly?

The search for signs of awkwardness will continue the first time the Yankees’ infielders move to their positions. Given that the Yankees just signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52 million contract, Headley will go into camp as the third baseman. But players have long respected a pecking order, and whatever you think of Rodriguez, he is still a former MVP, and he is still stalking Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Will A-Rod step in the front of the line, in front of Headley, among those awaiting grounders at third base? Or will Rodriguez defer to Headley?

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What it will take to acquire Jon Lester 

December, 8, 2014
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Jon LesterKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJon Lester is arguably the top left-handed starter available this offseason.
SAN DIEGO -- The Levinson brothers, Seth and Sam, are the gatekeepers of these winter meetings as the representatives for free-agent pitcher Jon Lester, and they are known among club executives for being grinders in how they negotiate.

They don’t really accept team offers, one club official noted. They determine what they believe to be a fair market price and then challenge the clubs to meet it, dangling a number. In the current circumstances, of Lester being pursued by big-market teams, you might think of the Levinsons the way you would someone holding a treat over a dog that leaps repeatedly, while saying, You can get it, Sparky! You can get it! Just a little higher!

Except in this case, there are four leaping dogs. And by the time it’s over, all will be exhausted, only one happily.

Early in the process, the perception of the target to reach -- the place that those involved thought the Levinsons wanted them to aim for -- was $150 million. But there’s no telling where that is now that the Dodgers are involved, either to grab Lester for themselves or to push the division rival Giants.

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Will Cole Hamels reject a deal to the AL? 

November, 11, 2014
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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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Is Ryan Howard tradable? 

November, 4, 2014
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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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Phillies could move Cole Hamels 

October, 24, 2014
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Cole HamelsDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesCole Hamels had a 2.46 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP this past season in Philadelphia.
This is called lowering the bar: Interim team president Pat Gillick says the Philadelphia Phillies are not likely to contend in the next two seasons.

From his interview with CSN Philly:

"I think where we are right now, it's probably a couple years," Gillick told CSN's John Clark in a one-on-one interview Thursday. "I wouldn't think [2015] or [2016], I don't think is in the cards. I think somewhere around 2017 or 2018."

Whether he meant to do this or not -- and Gillick is a really, really smart person -- his words prepare the Phillies’ fan base for a possible deal of star pitcher Cole Hamels.

Look, if the Phillies’ baseball operations department doesn’t believe that the team is going to contend in the next two seasons, then now is the time to trade the left-hander. Hamels, who turns 31 in December, is guaranteed $90 million for the next four years, with a vesting option for the 2019 season, and if the Phillies follow the timeline laid out by Gillick, then Hamels will be in the last seasons of his deal and in his mid-30s when the club becomes relevant again.

Given the landscape of the pitching market right now, and considering how great Hamels threw in 2014 -- a career-low 2.46 ERA in 30 starts -- his trade value will never be higher than it is right now, and the Phillies could flip him for a really good package of prospects that could help Philadelphia move forward.

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No perfect time to pull a starting pitcher 

October, 5, 2014
10/05/14
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Jordan ZimmermannPatrick Smith/Getty ImagesJordan Zimmermann was dominating the Giants, but was pulled with two outs in the ninth.
LOS ANGELES -- If there’s a common denominator in the first extraordinary week of the playoffs, it is this: There is no perfect time for a manager to pull his starting pitcher.

On one day, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was criticized for leaving Clayton Kershaw in the game too long, and the next day, he was questioned about perhaps pulling Zack Greinke too soon.

Ned Yost called for relief for James Shields after 88 pitches and would’ve never been forgiven by the Kansas City fan base if the Royals hadn’t come back to win their wild-card game against Oakland. On Saturday, Matt Williams may have unwittingly contributed to the list of longest games in history by removing Jordan Zimmermann after just 100 pitches and a stretch in which he retired 20 of 21 batters.

Generally, there are a few things are at play here

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Kershaw with no answers for loss 

October, 4, 2014
10/04/14
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Clayton KershawRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw may not get a chance for redemption.
LOS ANGELES -- A brood of reporters and cameramen waited near the locker of Clayton Kershaw, gathered for the expected confessional. With his hair still damp from the shower, Kershaw -- taller than most in the crowd before him -- glanced around the room, in the modestly sized Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse, and decided to move, probably so he wouldn’t inconvenience his teammates any more on this day.

Kershaw walked into the hallway outside the clubhouse and the media horde followed, and after Kershaw backed against a wall and the cameras and iPhones settled in a semicircle around him, he went about the business of dispensing blame.

On himself. Entirely.

It makes no sense that the best pitcher on the planet blew a five-run lead.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
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Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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Jeter's legacy: consistency, reliability 

September, 26, 2014
9/26/14
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Derek JeterAl Bello/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter hit a game-winning RBI single Thursday night in his final game at Yankee Stadium.
Two camps have warred throughout Derek Jeter’s career -- those who claim he has raised his level of play in crucial moments, versus the crowd of skeptics, who countered that Jeter merely cashed in on a fragment of his extraordinary number of opportunities on the big stage.

I always thought both sides missed the point. I don’t believe Jeter suddenly got better when we were all watching, but he has never been diminished by the pressure, either. We’ve seen accomplished veterans playing in a critical spot, and they disintegrate, putting too much pressure on themselves -- trying too hard to get a big hit or struggling to command a fastball.

Jeter’s greatest attribute has always been that he reduced the playing of games to the lowest common denominator: He just had fun. After the contracts were signed and the media questions were answered and the fans were acknowledged, he just had fun, treating a World Series game the same way he treated a season opener at Kalamazoo Central High School.

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