Who needs the winter meetings? Apparently not Major League Baseball’s general managers, who, while evidently hopped up on krokodil, executed a flurry of trades and free-agent deals a week before the sport's offseason confab at Disney World. The 48-hour swirl of signings and swaps saw Jacoby Ellsbury commit the ultimate heel turn, the Nationals further solidify their starting rotation, and the A's begin filming their audition tape for Hoarders: Bullpen Strong. Tuesday's action was largely a series of middling moves and “my garbage for your trash” trades, but taken cumulatively, the effect was, well, startling.
As with any period of great upheaval, the stunned citizenry must have questions. Let's try to answer five of them, starting with the big one.
In the first blockbuster trade of this offseason, the Detroit Tigers sent Prince Fielder and $30 million to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler. This deal makes a ton of sense — for both teams.
Still, a one-for-one trade has rarely been so complicated. Given all the repercussions likely to follow, let's simplify this by examining the impact one team at a time.
What This Means for the Tigers
The Tigers had the most inflexible roster in baseball last year, and it wasn’t even close. In Miguel Cabrera, Fielder, and Victor Martinez, they carried three designated hitters who all needed to be in the lineup. That meant Fielder playing below-average defense at first base and Cabrera showing statue-like range at third. It all came to a head during the playoffs. Groin and abdominal issues further degraded Cabrera’s already poor defense, but the Tigers couldn’t shift their injured but still potent star to DH with Martinez raking and Fielder providing their biggest source of left-handed power. Trading Fielder loosens that logjam. Now Cabrera can move back to first base, where he’ll do less harm to Detroit’s defense. And if new manager Brad Ausmus decides to give Cabrera a bit of a breather, he can slide the two-time MVP to DH and let Martinez play first base, a position he has shown he can play semi-competently.
Hockey gets a lot of things right, but I'm particularly fond of its awards. While the NHL has the usual offerings — MVP, rookie of the year, coach of the year — the league separates itself with some really creative honors. Plus, all the awards have cool names, like the Art Ross Trophy!
Baseball needs more of this. So before the post–MLB awards week haze sets in and we all try to forget that we've been arguing about Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera for what feels like the last 65 years, let's create some hockey-style awards for America's favorite pastime.
The Bonnie Raitt Trophy
Description: The player who most gives 'em something to talk about.
2013 winner: Alex Rodriguez. Even though A-Rod only played in 44 games, nobody got the ol’ debate machine going this season quite like he did. Since at this point Yankees fans like criticizing Rodriguez more than they actually like baseball, we should probably just etch A-Rod’s name into the trophy (a guitar with a bat for the neck) for each of the past 10 seasons. Biogenesis, a drug scandal that feels like it was ripped from the pages of a bad John Grisham novel, certainly hasn't helped A-Rod. But while this year produced a particularly potent field of controversial ballplayers, if controversy were like hitting, A-Rod would be Ty Cobb.
If baseball's MVP voters allowed objective criteria to guide them, we wouldn’t have much of a debate about which two players deserve to win the award. But without debate, why bother caring about sports? Often, the empirics are so overwhelmingly in favor of one conclusion that the rest of us have to make up retorts in order to argue, or reconcile an individual’s performance with his team's performance, or simply tell a better story.
After last year's voters convinced themselves that Miguel Cabrera and David Price had better MVP and Cy Young claims than Mike Trout and Justin Verlander, respectively, I became certain that it's possible to argue any case as long as you do one thing: Instead of starting with evidence and using it to draw a conclusion, you have to start with a desired conclusion and then cherry-pick the evidence that supports it. You can pick and choose your data, ignore context, and, if necessary, contradict facts altogether. You just have to hope no one calls you on it.
Cabrera and Price were bad awards picks, but we regularly elect people to high office who make crazier arguments than "David Price should win the Cy Young" and nobody bats an eye.
Later today, Cabrera will likely beat out Trout for AL MVP honors for the second year in a row. That's stupid — but so is once again trying to explain why that's stupid. Instead, it’s time to sharpen our debate pistons and test the limits of our logical and rhetorical creativity. Because there’s an argument to be made — “there’s an argument to be made,” by the way, is the lifeblood of people who make inane points to get attention — for a couple truly outrageous MVP candidates.
In 1990, Nolan Ryan bought a bank in Alvin, Texas. It was an era of financial chicanery, of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. Ryan entered the industry as a folksy CEO. “When I was growing up,” he remarked, “customers knew their banker by name. That’s the way it should be.” Nearly two decades later, Ryan ran the Texas Rangers almost exactly as he had the Express Bank. You knew where he sat during games. You knew the plain and sensible thoughts that crossed his mind. And until his jarring resignation Thursday, everyone in baseball knew the Rangers team president by name.
Ryan says he “resigned”; the Rangers owners say “retired.” The distinction isn’t important. The Rangers came to the conclusion that GM Jon Daniels was doing the hard work of organization-building and Ryan was a useless figurehead. I want to alter that line of thinking only slightly. In six seasons with the Rangers, Nolan Ryan was an extremely useful figurehead. His mere presence offered the possibility of optimism, which is the second-best thing to signing Yu Darvish and Adrian Beltre.
These days, the Rangers are described as a “model franchise.” So let me take you back to the two times Ryan landed his spaceship in Arlington. The first was 1989. Ryan was 42 years old and still a baseball player. The Rangers had never won a playoff game, let alone appeared in a playoff series. That offseason, they traded for Julio Franco and Rafael Palmeiro and gave $1.8 million to Ryan.
“Probably the most important byproduct of all that change is a change in their image and self-image,” Sandy Alderson told The Sporting News.
This is not a great World Series pairing for neutral fans. Scrappy underdogs Pittsburgh, Tampa, Cleveland, and Oakland are out. Cincinnati lasted one game, despite fielding one of baseball's best offenses. The ebullient Dodgers are gone, and with them the postseason's best pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) and most intriguing player (Yasiel Puig). No more lightning-rod Braves, no more outstanding and well-rounded Tigers.
We’re left with two very good but very vanilla teams. And the matchup is as bland as the clubs: We’ve seen this show not only in 1946 and 1967, but as recently as 2004. In the past 10 years, the Red Sox and Cardinals have combined for 11 LCS appearances, five pennants, and four World Series. This isn’t just a remake; it’s Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, and that makes it hard for baseball fans who aren't from New England or greater St. Louis to pick a team to support.
Luckily, there is something impartial observers can love about each of these teams.
Ben Lindbergh, editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, is learning how to be a baseball scout. He is enrolled in MLB's Scout Development Program, where he is getting an education in how to trust his eyes as much as he trusts the numbers.
According to a fellow Scout School student who works for the Arizona Fall League, roughly 40 percent of AFL players never make the majors. Considering the quality of the AFL player pool — 36 of this year’s MLB All-Stars were at one time in the AFL — that’s a surprisingly big bust rate. If, as I reported in Part 3, a player’s goal is to trick scouts into liking him for as long as he can, then AFL players are among the most convincing con artists. The majority have made it to their early twenties, and to Double-A or Triple-A, without playing themselves out of prospecthood. But even among the cream of the minor league crop, the attrition rate is high.
That was an important point to remember for fledgling scouts exposed to top prospects for the first time, especially when the report-writing process took a twist. Up until our final trip to the ballpark, we wrote up players as if they were amateurs, even if they had already played pro ball. But after spending close to two weeks improving our evaluation skills, we spent our last full day at Scout School treating the players like professionals.
There are a lot of good reasons to hate the Boston Red Sox, but I'm pretty sure David Ortiz is someone upon whom everyone can agree. Remember his speech after the Boston Marathon bombing this year? Characters like Big Papi are one of the reasons sports will always be the greatest.
With four teams left in the MLB playoffs, we wanted to cover all the bases on the Jonah Keri Podcast.
First, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Derrick Goold discusses the Cardinals' wildly productive farm system, the Albert Pujols decision, and the secrets to the Cards' success. Then MLB.com'sJason Beck shares his thoughts on Miguel Cabrera's lingering injuries, Jim Leyland's decision-making, and the Tigers bullpen. Providence Journal writer Tim Britton breaks down a wild ALCS Game 2 and how the Red Sox might fare the rest of this series. Finally, on the 25th anniversary of one of baseball's most indelible moments, Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts walks us through the puzzling thought process behind Don Mattingly's moves, then looks ahead to the rest of the series.
Ben Lindbergh, editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, is learning how to be a baseball scout. He is enrolled in MLB's Scout Development Program, where he is getting an education in how to trust his eyes as much as he trusts the numbers. You can read his first dispatch here and his second here.
After 10 days at Instructs, Hohokam Stadium looks like Yankee Stadium.
Throughout the first phase of Scout School, scouting was an intimate experience on baseball’s back fields, something special shared between the program’s students and instructors, the players, and the player development staff. Granted, when the Scout School group crashed those private parties, the players mostly ignored us, save for an occasional glance full of curiosity, resentment, and what was probably pity. (Those who can’t play, scout.) But at those nearly deserted facilities, separated from the field by little more than a chain-link fence, we could almost believe that the games were being played for our benefit — or at the very least, we were privileged participants in the process.
That was before the beginning of the Arizona Fall League, an annual competition between many of the minor leagues’ most promising players that runs from the second week of October through mid-November. The AFL is open to the public and attracts considerable interest in an age when many fans can rattle off the names of their team’s top 20 prospects, some of whom they might already own in their dynasty leagues. And with that increased attention comes the kind of luxuries one becomes unaccustomed to at Scout School.
Earlier this summer, while stuck — or, if my girlfriend asks, thrilled to be — in Syracuse for a wedding, I went to see the Toledo Mud Hens play the Syracuse Chiefs. The Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, featured few promising prospects. Their starter that day was Shawn Hill, an injury-prone pitcher who helped save my fantasy season in 2007 and had hardly been seen since. Toledo, the Tigers affiliate, had players with similar stories: low-ceiling hitters and pitchers who’d followed the Peter Principle up the minor league ladder and found they could climb no further, and bitter veterans who still believed they should be in the big leagues. But the Mud Hens also had the most interesting man on the field: 21-year-old outfielder Nick Castellanos, the Tigers’ top prospect and, according to Baseball Prospectus and Baseball America, one of the 20 best prospects in baseball.
I watched Castellanos closely that day, willing myself to see something that would set him apart from the pack and mark him as the major leaguer he was destined to be. Instead, I saw him go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and left wondering whether the real Castellanos had swapped uniforms with another nonprospect. If I hadn’t been briefed before the game or peeked at his full-season stat line, there’s no way I would’ve known there was something special about him. And it wouldn’t have helped if I’d gone back the next day, when he went 0-for-5 with another 4 K’s. Yet six weeks later, Castellanos got the call to Detroit. At 0-for-9 or not, he was major league material.