Tagged: Albert Pujols

Reasons To Watch: A Cooperstown Trio In The Making

Let the games begin. Almost.

Well here in the south, the Blue bonnets are up, the swallows and flycatchers are arriving back by the day , which is good as the bugs they snack on are coming out by the hour. Spring is here. In places like Minneapolis, Detroit, and my old Toronto stomping grounds, not so much. Nonetheless, MLB is about to kick off the 2019 season… with an asterisk… (*) because two games already took place, of course, in Japan between Oakland and Seattle. For those of us over on this side of the Pacific, action will begin before the weekend.

The two games in Japan weren’t of huge importance for the most part. After all, it was only two games and neither the A’s or the Mariners are widely expected to be playoff contenders, although that said, Oakland sure fooled everyone last year. What the fan really got to take away from it though was one last chance to see a future Hall of Famer play. In front of his home crowd no less.

The great Ichiro Suzuki, who essentially retired as a player mid-season last year was back in a Seattle uniform one last time, to thrill both the Mariners faithful and his fans back home in Tokyo. Alas, he didn’t do a whole lot in the two games. If it was a Disney film, his last at bat would have been a walk-off homer or else a single, with him stealing second, third then home to win the game. Instead Ichiro went hitless and to no one’s surprise announced his retirement following the second game.

Ichiro was great. He had it all. He hit for contact like few others in the game, had speed on the bases and in the outfield, a good throwing arm and although not often on display, a decent amount of power. It was refreshing seeing a “throwback” player like him in the era immediately after the Steroids era, leading into the current era of Rob Deer or Dave Kingman wannabes. Ichiro showed that talent was talent. The Japanese pro league may not be the equal of MLB but a great player there is still a great player here. Most of all, Ichiro played with class. He set an example for young players watching the pros.

That Ichiro will be a first ballot Hall of Famer should be a no-brainer. Consider for a moment just his American totals. Parts of 19 seasons played. Ten Gold Gloves. Ten All Star teams. 2001 Rookie of the Year. Over 3000 hits and 500 stolen bases, a combination only equaled by Lou Brock, Paul Molitor and Rickey Henderson in modern times. Ranked in the top 40 all-time in at bats, hits, steals and runs. Ten straight .300 or better seasons to start his career. That’s quite a resume in itself… and that puts aside the fact that he was already an established star in Japan before coming across the ocean. There he hit .353 over 951 games, and actually clipped one more homer there (118) than in the MLB. Worth noting since it is the Baseball Hall of Fame,not just the MLB Hall of Fame.

With Ichiro gone, that leaves by my reckoning, two sure-fire, carved in stone, Hall of Famers to watch and appreciate this season as they approach their sporting twilight: Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols.

Cabrera may be the only thing to really make people want to watch the Tigers this season (particularly after, not if but when they trade Nick Castellanos) Miggy, surprisingly is still only 35  but you can be forgiven for thinking him older. He’s not exactly the picture of athleticism anymore and this will be his 17th season to boot. It makes it easy for the ADD crowd to forget that in 2012 he won a Triple Crown … and that wasn’t even his best season, if going by the all-encompassing OPS. Four batting titles, 11 All Star games, two MVP awards. three years with a .600+ slugging percentage. 465 career homers and 1635 RBI, to go with a .316 career average putting him just behind Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. and Kirby Puckett among players who have graced the diamonds in the past three decades. While he might not get to 500 longballs this season, with just 13 he can pass Adrian Beltre to move into the top 30 all-time… and don’t utterly discount his chances of getting to 500 before 2020. Although he only hit 16 in a disappointing 2017 and 3 in a much-abbreviated (due to injury) ’18, reports are that he looks rejuvenated this spring and he’s launched 5 with a .739 slugging pct. in spring training. Get practicing those intricate “D”s for the cap, plaque carvers… Cabrera will be Detroit’s next inductee.

Even more of a shoo-in for Cooperstown, Albert Pujols gives you something to do when a certain outfielder whose name sounds like a fish isn’t at the plate for the otherwise rather run-of-the-mill Angels.

Although no longer the superstar he was in his prime, and now often pointed to as an example of the perils of large, multi-year contracts for teams , Pujols’ career has really been something. Three MVPs, 10 All Star Games, two Gold Gloves (even though he’s never been one to come to mind for most when thinking about great defensive players), ten 100 run seasons, 8 years with an OPS over 1.000 and a career begun with 12-straight 30 or better homer seasons. Add it up and he’s got a .302 career average (despite diminishing returns of late), 3082 hits, 633 homers and 1982 RBI. By the time the summer heats up, every at bat of Pujols could be an event – just 18 more RBI and he’ll be only the fourth player of the post-WWI era to notch 2000, putting him on the same footing as Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and, umm, A-Rod. Speaking of the future Mr. Jennifer Lopez, Albert can top him with 105… a longshot, it would seem when looking at the last few years (in 2018, he hit just .245 with 19 homers, 64 RBI and struck out more than twice as many times as he walked) but if he gets slotted in behind Mike Trout in the lineup and keeps up his torrid spring pace (a .571 slugging percentage with 3 homers this spring in the cactus league) and don’t put it past him. And when he clips his 28th next homer, he’ll pass Willie Mays for fifth all-time. Mind you, last time he hit 28 HR in a year was 2016, but if not this year, don’t doubt he’ll get there. Los Angeles Anaheim have him signed through 2021, at no less than $28 million per season. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he’ll be there with Hammerin’ Hank and the Bambino as the only 700 home run hitter not tainted by PED scandal. Pujols is a no doubter, Hall of Famer five years after he retires, although whether he goes in wearing the St. Louis red cap, the Anaheim red cap, or as seems the current trend, no team emblem at all, remains to be seen.

The two players to watch to be able to tell future generations of fans, or Cooperstown visitors, “I saw them play.”

Yes, if Mike Trout keeps up even a fraction of his productivity for another three or four years, he’ll be in. Maybe Pujols’ former teammate Yadier Molina will make it. If little Jose Altuve is half as good over the next two or three years as he’s been for the past half dozen, he’ll represent Houston in that building in upstate New York. Perhaps a future blog will look at the careers of CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander and how they stack up compared to Hall of Fame pitchers… but for all that, mark it down. Pujols and Cabrera are guaranteed Hall of Fame players on the field this month. The list starts, and ends with those two.

Next up, we start to look at the predictions for the 2019 season…

“Lack of Interest” In Manny, Bryce, Shows MLB Is Learning

The “story” of the MLB off-season so far has really been a non-story. Just like last year, the free agent market has been a bit slow and the two players everyone seems obsessed with talking about – Manny Machado and Bryce Harper – remain unsigned. What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be nearly as much interest in them as one might have anticipated. The market for Harper is, if rumors are correct, limited to the Phillies, the White Sox, the on-again, off-again Nationals (the only team he’s played for thus far) and possibly the Dodgers. The market for Machado is slimmer still – the White Sox, the Phils and if we believe his agent “a mystery team.”

This shouldn’t be as big a surprise as most people think it is. First off, both are quality, star players that could add to any lineup. However, neither is really a highest-level superstar; both also have knocks against them (albeit small ones.) Machado didn’t make any new fans when he offhandedly complained he’d never be a “Johnny Hustle” kind of guy. Perhaps that was a bit of miscommunication due to English being a second language for him, but you can bet it made owners look a bit more carefully at hours of video of every at bat he took last year to see just how much he does hustle. As for Harper, he does seem to slowly be maturing, but he didn’t make many fans with the media with his arrogance and at times flippantly worded answers early in his career. Others note that his Natonals have been the most talented team in their division for almost his whole career but for that they’ve missed the playoffs entirely three times and never advanced beyond the NLDS level. It would be unfair to blame Bryce alone for their lack of performance, but it can’t be ignored that he hasn’t yet rallied a team around him to great heights.

That said, the reasons they are attracting so little attention is obvious. Many teams can’t afford the kind of money they are looking to get and many others which could, prefer not to pay out that much over a long term. And who can blame them? Before Manny and Bryce complain and hint at “collusion”, perhaps they should go and yell at some of their counterparts. Troy Tulowitzki, Miguel Cabrera, Felix Hernandez, Albert Pujols for starters. All were in similar positions of being elite free agents and signed huge, longterm contracts (albeit all of them except Pujols with their previous team). Few of those contracts have paid off well, at least on the long-term.

Take for example, Tulowitzki. He, like Machado and Harper, was a youngish 26 when he re-upped with the Rockies prior to 2011 on a 10 year deal worth $158M. Note that after 2010, the MLB average salary was pegged around $3M even (currently it’s a shade over $4M, give or take. Exact figures vary due to different critieria about which players are counted as rostered, how to factor in bonuses etc.) Tulo was at the time one of the most promising players in the game, an All Star shortstop with a great glove and bat. the two years before his big contract (2009, 2010) he had numbers like this: .297/32HR/92RBI and .315/27/95. His OPS was 31 and 38% above league average those years and his WAR was 6.5 and 6.7. Signing him for years seemed the only thing for Colorado to do.

It didn’t sour right away. His 2011 campaign lived upto all expectations and got him another All Star spot. He hit .302/30/105 that year with an OPS again 31% better than league average and a WAR over 6. However, the injury bug kicked in in 2012, limiting him to 47 games, 8 homers, and a WAR of a mere 0.4 games better than a replacement. His numbers rebounded in ’13-14, but by 2015 (when he was traded much to his consternation, to Toronto) he’d dropped off to .280/17/70 with a .761 OPS that beat the league norm by only 7%. His WAR- 1.5. After a decentish ’16 with the Jays, he got injured again in 2017, playing just 66 games witha lacklustre .249 average, 7 homers, much reduced infield range and a WAR of a microscopic 0.1. In 2018, he collected about $18M to sit out the entire year due to surgery on his feet. As we know here, he’ll be paid about $18M again this year, mostly by Toronto, to play for the Yankees where he’s seen largely as a stopgap bench player. He’ll get over $20M next year too, no matter if he plays or not.

Or look at King Felix, the onetime heir apparent to Randy Johnson as the Mariners best-ever pitcher. Felix Hernandez had won a Cy Young when he re-signed with Seattle at age 27, for 7 years for a then unheard of $175M. He was coming off a 2010 Cy followed by two seasons in which he went 14-14/3.47 over 234 innings then 13-9/3.06 over 232 innings. His WARs those years were 3.6 and 5.3. What team couldn’t benefit greatly from a stud starter who can toss 230+ innings and add about 5 wins to the team’s total? The Mariners could and did, and for the first few years three at least, it worked out not too badly for them. 2013-15 yielded the following numbers: 12-10/3.04, 204 innings; 15-6/league best 2.14 ERA (70% better than norm), 236 innings; 18-9/3.53 over 202 innings. WARS of 5.3,6.4,4.5. that’s when the pendulum swung back against Seattle. Since then, three years of 11-8, 6-5 and 8-14 with ERAS of 3.82,4.36and 5.55. Under 160 innings each year. WARS of 1.4,0.8 and -1.2. Meaning statistically, the Mariners lost one more game by having Felix around last year for his $26.9M than if they’d used any random minor leaguer in his place. They don’t expect a lot of upside for the $27.9M they owe him this year… consider that while they jettisoned their high-paid talented players like James Paxton and Edwin Diaz this winter, they seemed to have no calls at all inquiring about the “King.”

Or perhaps the granddaddy of the bad big contracts, Albert Pujols. Pujols was arguably the best player in the game through much of the first decade of this century, so at first glance, no one could knock the Angels for signing him to a 10 year, $240M deal prior to the 2012 season. Mind you, he was already 32, around the typical peak for a position player, so there were warning flags there alone. The two last seasons he played with St.Louis were stellar, as usual: .312/42/118 with an 1.011 OPS (some 73% better thanleague average) then .299/37/99 , .906 OPS. The WAR those years were 7.5 and 5.3. Brilliant.

Los Angeles Anaheim could have looked good if they signed him to a four-year deal, even though he’s only made the All Star team once with them. 2012-15, he was still a star performer. He drove in over 100 twice, had better than average OPS each year, andwhen his batting average dipped to .244 in 2015 he compensated with 40 longballs. His WAR for the cumulative four seasons was over 13. Not bad. Even 2016, at age 36, was quite good: .268/31/119, WAR 1.3 (by this time, he wasn’t adding anything defensively, it should be noted- he was probably a below average first baseman and frequently was a DH instead.) The last two years…not so good. In 2017, he hit .241 with 23 homers, a below-average .672 OPS and actually had a negative WAR of -1.8. Oops, not pleasant for a team to pay $25M to a player who actually was losing games for them.

2018 was a tad better, but not that much- .245/19/64,WAR of 0.5. The real bad news for the “halos”… they have him under contract through 2021, and due to their questionable bookkeeping, his salary keeps going up! He’ll make $30M in 2021, when he’ll be 41 years old.

So yes, right now Machado and Harper look very good Machado’s last two years saw him miss only 6 games in total, play solid “D” at both third and short and post 33 and 37 homers, WARS of 3.4 and 5.7. Harper, although he missed 41 games due to a knee injury (something you bet owners will have in the back of their minds when looking at his long term durability) in 2017, still posted a remarkable .319 average and 1.008 OPS that year and came back with a 34 homer, 100 RBI year last season. His WAR has added to 6 over those years.

Good? Of course. And in all likelihood, they’ll both be good for the next three or four years. Beyond that… things look a bit foggier. Can you blame a team for not wanting to sign them for ten or more seasons? I can’t.

One more thing. Manny and Bryce should perhaps look at Moneyball. Because while they are almost bound to add to any team they go to; there is a point where the reward isn’t as great as the cost. Statistically, if they get into the $30M or more a year plateau they are asking for, a team could likely add more by spending it on several players. As an example, the Yanks were marginally interested in Machado. But they added pitcher JA Happ who’s had WARS of 3.4 and 3.6 over the past 2 years, for about $17M a year. That leaves them about $13M in which they could add another player. Jed Lowrie went to the Mets for a mere $10M a year and over the past two years he’s tallied an 8.8 WAR. So,unless a team can bank on a huge boost in attendance from a marquee player there’s little benefit in adding one “megastar” at the expense of missing out on two or even three above average “character players.”

Harper and Machado will play somewhere in 2019, and will probably be very good. But they might not have $300 million or more contracts in their pockets… and that is good for baseball.

Owners Collusion? More Like Players Delusion

The bad news for Blue Jays fans so far this off-season is that Toronto hasn’t done a whole lot to noticeably improve upon last year’s 76-win, 4th place team. The good news is that with catchers and pitchers in Spring Training in less than a month, neither have their divisional rivals (although the Yankees adding Giancarlo Stanton isn’t nothing they did have to give up a decent everyday player in Starlin Castro and have otherwise not been too active.)

Of course, it’s been noted widely that it’s a slow off-season in general, with players beginning to utter the taboo word – “collusion” – since stars like JD Martinez and Yu Darvish are still out there without contracts.

This of course might at first glance make sense since usually by now, the primo free agents have been snapped up and are driving their shiny new fully-loaded Brinks trucks to the Grapefruit or Cactus League. However, there are many reasons to dispute the charge and think that rather, it may reflect owners starting to collectively come to their senses a little.

First off, of course, some free agents have found new landing spots while others have opted to stay put. CC Sabathia fits the latter description, apparently turning down offers from Toronto and perhaps others, to stay in pinstripes. Wade Davis is maybe the best example of the former, signing one of the most lucrative deals ever for a relief pitcher, over $50 million for 3 years, with Colorado of all teams. Plenty of other mid-range players have signed, including Curtis Granderson with Toronto. This sort of thing wouldn’t have occurred had the 30 owners , or their general managers, somehow agreed to freeze out the nearly 200 free agents.

That leaves the point that there are still some top talents out there unsigned, perhaps unusual for late-January, but all indications are this is a result of collective greed of the players and a willingness to play a sort of Career Russian Roulette. Teams are talking to the stars and even making offers, it’s the players who are dragging their feet. Doubtless they’re hoping to drive up the price but at the risk of finding a much-reduced market by springtime. Newspaper reports said at least 5 teams are negotiating with Yu Darvish; he immediately tweeted there were 6. Eric Hosmer has apparently got not one but two $140M + deals on the table, both from small market teams (San Diego and Kansas City ) to boot. But he’s still without a team. I guess he thinks a $160M deal can’t be far off if he’s patient.

To me it seems ridiculous to think there is, or could be, collusion on the owners’ part. With the amount of backstabbing that goes on between owners and accusations they throw around (“those guys steal signs”, “they probably hacked our computers” and so on) it seems dubious to think somehow all 30 could have a top secret meeting, agree to something sketchy if not downright illegal and then all honor it. How long would it take for one rebel to break the “agreement”, not afraid of being publicly called out on it (after all, how could other owners publicly berate a fellow exec for breaking an agreement that would land them in court if they admitted to its existence in the first place?) and seize the opportunity to scoop up some bargain-priced, desperate talent? For that matter, how long would it take a team to break the “agreement” once rivals began to trade up? Do you imagine the Red Sox would , in that scenario, sit back and let New York get a 50-homer outfielder and not say, “to hell with it- we need to sign Martinez to compete?”

No, the answer lies in a rare combination of factors. First, many teams are consciously downsizing and looking years down the road, not to a Championship ’18. Tampa Bay, for example, got rid of their “franchise player” , as did the Pirates who also shipped out their best, young, still under team control pitcher for good measure. What sense would it make a team like that to suddenly cough up $75, 100 , 125 mil or more to get a player who’d not make them competitive for perhaps 3 years? Add to that the many teams, Toronto being one (Baltimore being another within our own division) that seem to be fence-sitters – not ready to throw in the towel but not confident of much more than a .500 season ahead – and one can see how some of the superstars phones aren’t being rung off the hooks.

Which brings me to the point that many teams may be realizing that winning through the nine-digit superstar contract may be as obsolete as… well, phones that had hooks to hang on! The World Series champ Astros, it is worth remembering, were a mid-level team salary-wise. The projected list of the top 10 salaries in the league for 2018 was released this month and while few would dispute the worth of a Mike Trout or Clayton Kershaw, it doesn’t take long to see how things can backfire on a free-spending team.

The Cubs will still be ponying up at least $22M a year to Jason Hayward through 2023 , despite the fact that he’s a run-of-the-mill outfielder on the downslope of his career already at age 29. In the 2 years since they lost all sense and gave him a $184M deal, he’s hit a combined .246 with 18 homers and 15 stolen bases. Again, that’s over two full seasons, not counting his rather lacklustre 2 for 17 , no RBI performance in last year’s playoffs. Hope every last fan going through the turnstiles at Wrigley this year feel he’s well worth the $8 he adds to their ticket price.

The Red Sox haven’t done as badly with pitcher David Price, but one might think they could have done better with a spare $217M. In his two seasons in New England, he’s 23-12, logging a little over 300 innings in total. He’s maintained his regular better than a K per inning, but his 1.2 WHIP last year was worst since his ’09 rookie year. It could be argued that he had some injury troubles last year, but that actually heightens the insanity of offering a starting pitcher better than $30M per year, given their fragile nature these days. The Sox might still think they had done fine with the signing had Price been a model citizen along the way. Instead, he publicly commented on how he’d rather pitch for a rival team (the Jays as it were) and got himself into an ugly war of words with a favorite local broadcaster there who happens to be in the Hall of Fame.

Or look at Albert Pujols. Now, Pujols is a lock for the Hall of Fame somewhere down the road. Few players have been better than him in my lifetime, and if you’re under about 115, that’s true of yours too. His .305 career average is Pete Rose-like without the drama, but unlike Rose, he’s got 614 homers and a mind-blowing .947 OPS over his career. That doesn’t improve the fact for the Angels though that he’s a weary 38 years old, limited to DH’ing and let’s be honest, isn’t great at that anymore. Last year he still knocked 23 out of the park, but that was a career low save for injury-shortened years. His OPS of .672 would be low for a middle-infielder, let alone a DH. By contrast, he’d had one of over 1.000 three of his last 4 years in St. Louis before going to the West Coast. It’s doubtful that he’ll get better at his age, but it’s a fact the Angels still owe him $114M by the time 2021 comes to an end.

One look at those types of numbers might- should – give any owner reason to pause before offering up the apparent $200M JD Martinez wants or think about bringing Darvish on board through the mid-2020s.

If the players feel hard done by this off-season, they should point their gaze of disapproval around their own clubhouses instead of to the people paying their sizable cheques.

**Next we’ll examine the Blue Jays few offseason moves so far, including the new OF duo of Granderson and Grichuk.

A Hall of a Career for Ichiro and Albert

 

One of the many ways baseball is best of the four “main” team sports in North America is how they keep fan interest high in the off-season. Example A, nothing livens up a dull off-season month like Hall of Fame announcements and subsequent debates. so in keeping with that theme, I’ll take a moment to consider the Hall. Not so much this year’s inductees- Ken Griffey Jr., his 630 home runs and scandal-free career was a no-brainer and few would really argue Mike Piazza didn’t belong – but by thinking ahead. Not ahead to 2017, but years down the road. I tried to consider which active players were assured of a spot in Cooperstown when they retire and came up with just two. And no, A-Rod isn’t one of them.

The only shoe-ins that will be hitting fungoes and jogging in the outfield in a month’s time are Ichiro (like music’s Madonna, no last name required!) and Albert Pujols. Now, that’s not to say that some other current players won’t make it in, just that they still need to work a bit more on their resumes to be assured.

Ichiro Suzuki would be a done deal even if he’d only played here. 15 seasons, two batting titles, ten All Star games, just shy of 3000 hits (he needs 65 to crack that elite club, something that’s going to be “hit” or miss playing as a backup for Miami this year) , ten gold gloves and that magical 2004 season when he set a record clipping 262 hits. Add in a .314 career average and 498 steals and you’d have a rather strong case for his inclusion. But factoring in how big a star he was with the Orix blue Wave in Japan before coming to America (seven batting championships , over 1200 hits with a .353 career average there) and he ranks favorably with the best of all-time. Granted, it may be fair to equate Japanese pro ball with AAA, or something a rung below the majors, but being the best there is over there for seven consecutive seasons has to count for something… as does the job he did opening doors for more Asian players to come to MLB. Before Ichiro, there’d been a decent Japanese pitcher or two in the bigs, but many doubted the Asians ability to hit or play positions. No more .

Pujols, like Ichiro, has 15 stellar big league seasons under his belt, but unlike the wiry Japanese outfielder, he’s only 36. It’s not unthinkable to imagine Pujols playing out most of his current ten-year deal with the Angels, which would put him at 41. And quite possibly the undisputed all-time home run leader. Even if that doesn’t happen, even if he chose to walk away from it all right now, he’d still be representing the Cardinals in the Hall in five years. A .312 career average, .977 OPS, 2666 hits… right now his 560 homers is 14th best-ever, but another two dozen this year will move him into the top 10. Ten 100-run years, seven 40-home run years, three MVPs, ten All Star games. No question about it, or him.

Perhaps more interesting though, are the players close to being in. the players who’d generate debate and probably (but not necessarily) fall a wee bit short were they to retire now. Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre, I’m thinking of you- and don’t expect either to retire anytime soon.

Cabrera’s career so far has been one for the record books. A .321 career average reflects his 4 batting championships and ten .300+ seasons (he last missed that mark in ’08). Almost 31 homers a year is a pretty respectable clip as well and like Ichiro and Albert P., he’s already been put on ten All Star squads. What is marginal however, are the career tallies. His 408 HR ranks him only 52nd all-time, and well behind Carlos Delgado (473) and Fred McGriff (493) who are on the outside looking in. His 2331 hits is a final total for 13 years, but doesn’t even put him in the top 100. All this should be somewhat irrelevant soon though; as much as he seems to have been around forever, Miggy is only turning 33 this spring. Another three or four years is quite reasonable to expect and assuming decent health, a Cabrera sporting 500 homers, 2750 or more hits and his tractor-trailer full of awards and titles should ensure him passage into Cooperstown, circa 2023 or so.

Adrian Beltre is a bit more of an enigma. At 37 this spring, he’s older than Pujols and younger than Suzuki, but he’s already logged a remarkable 18 seasons. When the umpires yell “Play Ball” in a little over two months time, Beltre will be joined by Bartolo Colon as the only players who heard the same call back in the last century. Watching Beltre handle the hot corner fo r the Rangers in the last few seasons and seeing the regard he’s afforded by teammates and opponents as well would make him seem a sure thing too. But one doesn’t have to turn over too many rocks (or bases) to find someone who recalls a younger, West Coast Beltre who seemed to lack the same work ethic he has now and who seldom posted the big numbers we expect of him. Bottom line is that over a long career of 2567 games, he has a career .285 average, .814 OPS, 2767 hits and 413 home runs. He has five 175 hit seasons and six 90-RBI campaigns, and of course his prowess with the glove is legendary. Twice he has won the “Platinum Glove” award for best overall defensive player, but he’s only got two extra Gold Gloves on top of that. I’d probably vote for him, but I’d also have likely given the nod to Alan Trammell- another great infielder with four Gold Gloves and a .285 career average to show for it. To the dismay of Michigan fans of course, Trammell hasn’t come close to being voted into the Hall. My guess though is that Beltre still has fire in his belly and another two, maybe three good years at third left and maybe another season or two as a DH somewhere. It will be hard for voters to ignore a Beltre with 3000 career hits, 475 or more homers and five or six Gold Gloves.

Following the march towards Cooperstown should make watching Texas and Detroit all the more interesting this season. Perhaps with a bit of luck, I can be writing a similar column three or four years from now about Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion!

Anyone I’ve forgotten on the list? Let me know…

NL Central, Pt 2- Red birds flying high again?

 

And now, an abbreviated look at the rest of the National…

 

we last looked at three teams of the central. Cinci, it should be noted will now be hard-pressed to hit their target 89 wins without high-price, high-profile closer Ryan Madson (out for the season with torn ligaments in his elbow.

 

Milwaukee: not looking as sure thing as they were last year and Aramis Ramirez, though still a solid hitter, is hardly a replacement for Prince Fielder. That said, the Brew Crew have the best bullpenin the division (co-headed by Canadian John Axford, of 46 saves last season and bar-tending at an East Side Mario’s in Ontario fame and Francisco rodriguez) and one which shouldn’t be too over-taxed with the decent starting rotation they follow. Greinke, Marcum (terrible playoffs notwithstanding), Gallardo and Wolf aren’t exactly the new 90s Atlanta Braves but are as good as any in their division if not better. Ramirez should hit 30 homers and with Ryan Braun dodging a bullet (bet it takes a lot of testosterone to do that!) and avoiding a suspension, Milwaukee should score quite a few runs.

Ace: Ryan Braun. Say what you will about the loophole he used to beat the drugging rap, he is cleared for April play and has averaged 187 hits and 107 RBI over past couple of seasons. No reason to expect that to change in ’12.

Wild Card: Norichika Aoki- Japanese free agent will face tougher pitchers than he did as a Yakult Swallow, where he hit .292 last season. The next Ichiro or the next Nishioka?

Joker: Alex Gonzalez- not terrible actually but at 35 his range in field and prowess with bat are on downslope and with Ramirez to his right and Rickie Weeks to left, middle infield balls might be a bit of an adventure.

 

2012 Prediction: 89 wins, 2nd place. (Yes I put Cincinnati at 89 also, but now, given Madson’s injury, I’d give the edge to Wisconsin)

 

Pittsburgh: After 17 straight losing seasons and an average of 98 losses per year over the previous five, last year’s 72-90 season seemed downright lofty and inspirational. Sometimes it pays to place the bar low. Thus expectations are high at Three Rivers this year; if everything falls into place they might hit .500 for the first time since the era of a skinny Barry Bonds. Tough to imagine that everything will fall into place however, as injury-prone Erik Bedard and excuse-laden AJ Burnett head up a rather uninspiring rotation and for all the talk of superstardom, Andrew McCutcheon hit just .259 with a .456 slugging percentage last year and has thus far only swatted 51 home runs in his young career. Perhaps he should be playing in the following team , as my reaction to him is “Show me.” Nonetheless, Neil walker is one of the best young second baseman in the game, veteran Rod Barajas will knock a few balls into the river and diminutive Alex Presley may be the next big thing if McCutcheon fails to live up to his hype. The Pirates are no longer terrible, and for now that might be enough for western Pennsylvanian fans to feel over-the-moon.

 

Ace: Neil Walker- only his third season but completed more Dps than any other 2Ber in league last season and thus far has a .280 career batting average.

Wild Card: Erik Bedard – everyone knows what the Canuck lefty can do if he’s got his A-game. Or any game for that matter; more than say tom Glavine, Bedard seems to channel Mark Prior. Has managed 212 innings, which would be respectable- if it wasn’t the sum for the past three years!

Joker: Nate McLouth- returning his career home to die , like an elephant. The elephant in the room is that Nate can’t play anymore.

 

2012 Prediction: 78 wins, 4th place.

 

St Louis– Big questions on the Mississippi; will the reigning World Champions soar like eagles or waddle like turkeys now that the two iconic redbirds have migrated? Few would argue that the 2011 crew were statistically the best team in baseball yet when it counted, they were. Thus the intangibles can’t be discounted when it comes to this team, however are they enough to overcome the very tangible loss of franchise player Albert Pujols and future Hall of Fame manager tony LaRussa? Lance Berkman isn’t quite a replacement for Pujols, but he was the NL Comeback of the Year and his .301/31 HR/.547 slugging was much closer to his usual norms than his previous enigmatically poor 2010 in Houston…and he’ll be back on comfortable ground, playing first this season. If he can match last year’s average and drive in 100, he’ll actually be doing better than Albert did last year for the cards; meanwhile Carlos Beltran replaces Berkman in the outfield. Beltran is apparently healthy now and played 142 games last year, driving in 84 while hitting an even .300. Out of the black hole that is the Mets, Beltran could still have a couple of all-star campaigns left in him and with Matt Holliday thrown in, the lineup is pretty powerful.

Pitching wise, the good news is that Adam Wainwright is back from Tommy John surgery and throwing this spring . The bad news is that co-ace Chris carpenter is out indefinitely with neck problems. However, with Kyle Lohse and jaime Garcia in the middle of the rotation and a very sound bullpen, the pitching should be solid until Carp returns and better than that after.

The Cards aren’t the best team in baseball again, but they are the best in this division. Can history repeat? No one should be betting on the Cards to repeat as World Series winners if they can’t afford to lose their money. Nonetheless, a Wainwright-Carpenter one-two on the mound and a Beltran/Berkman/Holliday combo mid-lineup could surprise people once again if they got red-bird hot in October.

 

Ace: Chris Carpenter. Sure he’s out for a little at the start of the season, but this is a guy who won threw 237 innings and had an ERA under 3and a half last year in a “bad” season then outdueled his buddy Roy Halladay in a playoff game 7.

Wild Card: Adam Wainwright- if he’s back to 100% health, he can dominate like few others and should be back to his .654 career winning percentage. If he’s back. Many arms take more than a year to regain full former speed and control.

Joker: Rafael Furcal- one time “can’t miss” infielder wore out his welcome in Atlanta and LA, hit all of .232 last year and is erratic with the glove. And now, at a surprisingly old 35, he’s not likely to discover the superstar stuff under the Arch.

 

2012 Prediction: 90 wins, 1st place.