Flashback: Timlin Night

With Mike Timlin taking the mic tonight beside Don Orsillo, it feels like a good time to reflect on the past.

In Faithful, Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan followed the Red Sox 2004 season day-by-day, game-by-game. On September 24 of that year, the Sox lost to the New York Yankees.

On September 23, 2004 the Red Sox played the Baltimore Orioles and Terry Francona hard a test that Grady Little had failed just one year prior managing his bullpen:

“Tonight new manager Terry Francona shows his faith by resting the hard-ridden Mike Timlin and Keith Foulke and letting lefty specialist and submariner Mike Myers pitch to a right-handed hitter with bases loaded and the score tied in the eighth.”

Truly a tense moment for Red Sox Nation. The two authors go on:

“Then in the ninth, he lets righty specialist and submariner Byung-Hyun Kim (no, that’s not a typo) pitch to a left-handed batter with two on.”

Of course, the pair allowed four runs and cost the Red Sox the game.

But when Francona, in the next game, against the Yankees, left Pedro Martinez on the mound to start the eighth inning, with a pitch count over one hundred, the big metaphors began to emerge.

He-who-shall-not-be-named-Grady-Little had made a return appearance to the Sox dugout as Hideki Matsui continued his reign of terror against Boston.

O’Nan compares the pitching decision to the Kobayashi Maru; the tactical simulation faced by Captain Kirk and explained in both the 2009 Star Trek movie and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It is designed to be an unwinnable. And Terry Francona, knowing exactly how his predecessor had failed just one season earlier, seemed to make the same mistake.

Francona managed his bullpen brilliantly in the playoffs that year and maybe he had his reasons for taking a few risks late in the regular season, but for a few days in late September, in what would become the best year for the Red Sox in generations, there was still doubt.

With the playoffs starting next week, doubters will be back, but which team among the ten will prove the doubters wrong?

Flashback: John Burkett

Ten years ago today (September 19, 2003) the Boston Red Sox played the Cleveland Indians in Jacobs Field. Progressive Insurance was still five year away from buying the naming rights to the stadium, the Indians’ Eric Wedge was in his first season as a manager, and the winning pitcher was John Burkett.

While he didn’t know it at the time, Burkett was making one of his last appearances in the major leagues. No team would step forward to offer a contract to the then 38-year-old right hander.

The Red Sox would be the last of five stops in the career of the veteran pitcher. In 59 starts during the 2002 and 2003 seasons Burkett won 25 games and compiled a 4.85 ERA as the team’s fifth starter. Although he posted a shiny 3.01 ERA and struck out a career-high 20% of batters in 2001, his second of two seasons with the Atlanta Braves, Burkett was still nearly a decade removed from his fourth place finish in Cy Young voting for his work in the 1993 season.

Burkett would pitch two times in the Red Sox 2003 playoff run: once against the Oakland A’s and once against the New York Yankees. He held the A’s to four runs in 5.1 innings, which was enough for the Boston bats to overcome. In Yankee Stadium, Burkett started Game 6 of the ALCS and lasted just 3.2 innings while surrendering five runs, though only three were earned. The Red Sox would win that game, tying the series at three and giving Pedro Martinez the chance to send the Sox to the World Series with a victory in the final game.

That his career ended with the Red Sox is somewhat interesting in it’s own right because of a trade that took place in August of 1996. The Marlins traded Burkett for a young pitcher on the Texas Rangers, a guy in the A level South Atlantic League named Ryan Dempster. Still just 19 years old, Dempster wouldn’t make his debut in the majors for two more years.

What did he do after baseball? Bowling, of course. And it turns out he’s pretty good, just as the Nike commercial featuring Randy Johnson as a ten-pin pro would have you believe.

Thinking About: King Richard’s Faire

Immersive events are everywhere these days. Whether it’s one of the bi-coastal PAX weekends, San Diego Comic-Con or one of many local Comic Cons, Dragoncon, or a renaissance faire, cultural events creating a world are happening all the time. Cosplayers and fans dress up at conventions, movie launches, and any time that going out in costume is appropriate in a way that I don’t remember growing up, which makes sense, because many of these events either didn’t exist or took place on a much smaller scale.

When you arrive at King Richard’s Faire, a renaissance festival in Carver, Massachusetts, the atmosphere is designed to bring guests into another world. Almost.

There are period buildings set up, actors roaming the grounds, craftsmen and women selling swords and clothes, storytellers, artists, and more. Attendees arrive in costume, some for fun, some to join the atmosphere, and some obviously to be seen. This elite group can even be better dressed than the pros and sometimes, like at PAX, they are an even bigger draw than the pros. At PAX, this is the Ghostbusters, complete with proton packs, or a woman in an intricately built robot suit.

But the fun falls short at one important place: food tickets. KRF is unapologetic about their pricing structure: “Food and beverage tickets cost $1.00 each and are sold in $5.00 lots only.” If you’ve ever been to an amusement park or event with this sort of structure you know there is no redeeming value to it. Everyone is upset. And I’d like to say, needlessly.

Rather than having the concessions stands, all with themed names and offerings, take everyone out of the moment with a clumsy cash exchange that results in wasted tickets and disappointment, they could leave the real world at the door.

The place to charge for food, say one “meal” worth, is at the gate, where money has to be exchanged. At the entrance to the faire, as an additional to the ticket, either a higher overall price or a second higher tier, include a number of period styled coins. Each coin has a value within the economy inside the park and can be exchanged for food and drink purchases.

The coins could be designed with a number of faces and phrases, shapes and sizes, and serve as an extension of the theme of the event. Rather than pulling out greenbacks or a Visa to buy food tickets, you’d pull out a small sack of collectible quality, themed coins, that enhance the experience of being taken to another world.

No interest in buying the food? Fine, you walk away with a small set of collectible coins, which, you can be sure, will have followers trying to complete their sets over multiple visits or years. Still hungry? Well, you can buy more coins inside the park of course. Just like tickets can be purchased today.

But if you are interested in eating on-site, since you usually can’t leave (and there’s nothing around King Richard’s Faire specifically if you were able to re-enter) you trade a number of coins for the food items you’d like, built in to the price. If you want more, purchase more coins!

By treating the coins as valuable, sought after, commodities, people won’t be stuck with three “wasted” dollars in tickets from their day out but a small token of the renaissance. The coins that are spent could be reused every year, with different years gaining more collectibility as time passes. New coins would be minted for each year to change things up and keep the collection growing.

Coins could be traded among the attendees like Disney pins, but also have a value of their own. They would have purchasing power, collectibility, and keep the experience integrated. After all, people attend these events to escape. Why frustrate that when it would be so easy to make another part of the day magical?

When Disney began to offer a McDonald’s stand inside the park, that broke the illusion. Pulling out a credit card and fighting “the man” over inconvenient ticket exchanging in a medieval town? Annoying. King Richard’s Faire prices the tickets in packs of five to boost profits. That pain would still exist. But keeping a small commemorative coin, that could be traded, sold or reused in the future: less pain, more fun, and a tangible memory of the trip.

Billy Hamilton Excites Us About Stolen Bases Again

Unlike nearly any other sport, an individual baseball game can be broken down into individual moments, isolated from some events during the game and connected with others.

On the offensive side of the game, two outcomes stand out above all others: home runs and stolen bases. This week the Cincinnati Reds called up Billy Hamilton to much fanfare.

Hamilton was Keith Law’s 30th ranked prospect this spring but failed to crack his midseason Top 50. So why are people excited? Because, without exaggeration, Hamilton has game-changing speed.

Sharing his name with a Hall of Famer who had four 100 steal seasons, the Cincinnati Reds incarnation of Billy Hamilton might just be the fastest player in a baseball uniform anywhere.

In his first full minor league season in 2011, with the Midwest League Dayton Dragons, Hamilton stole 103 bases in 135 games. He followed this up with 155 steals over two levels in 2012, including stealing 51 bases in 50 games at Double A against more advanced competition.

Hamilton was so fast that there was enough speculation the team might call him up for the playoff roster in 2012 that GM Walt Jocketty quashed the rumors. After losing to the Giants in five games in the NLDS, one game by one run, another by two runs, maybe that was a mistake.

In 2013 the Reds are rectifying that decision. After stealing “just” 75 bases at Triple A, a September promotion was in order. Since calling up Hamilton last week, the center fielder has appeared in four games, each time as a pinch runner. Each time he has stolen a base. Three times he scored a run.

The Reds are making a charge to secure a place in the playoffs and have added perhaps the best player for tactical use in years.

Stealing bases isn’t just about the runner, it’s about the pitcher on the mound and about the catcher behind the plate. Among catchers, the Molina family is a trio of living legends. Yadier Molina, the youngest, and possibly the best, has thrown out 44% of attempted base stealers in his career, leading the league in this measure three times. Hamilton stole his first two bases against him.

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, who has thrown out 43% of runners this year, was the victim of stolen bases number three and four.

Different pitchers, different catchers, and everyone in the ballpark knowing Hamilton was summoned into the game for one purpose and he hasn’t been caught.

Reds fans around the country can surely envision Hamilton playing the role of Dave Roberts during the Red Sox memorable comeback against the Yankees during the 2004 ALCS. If Cincinnati can make it into the playoffs, Hamilton could be the difference maker they lacked in 2012. Already the Reds may have won an extra game that the Hamilton-less club, while remarkably talented, wouldn’t have been able to pull off.

Baseball lore speaks highly about runners getting into the minds of the pitchers and fielders. Reds manager Dusty Baker can now exploit this to the maximum level with Hamilton. Whenever Hamilton enters the game, the focus will be on first base. Could Baker call for a steal of home by another player already on third base? If Hamilton himself is on third, will he employ the squeeze play?

The Reds are making a charge to secure a place in the playoffs and have added perhaps the best player for tactical use in years. David Price emerged as a dominant relief pitcher for the Rays run to the World Series in 2008 and, now a Cy Young winner, has shown himself to be pretty good. Hamilton may never be an MVP candidate, but his speed could supply the winning run that keeps the Reds alive at a critical moment.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

The Long Odds of the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Playoff Path

Entering play on Sept. 4, the Arizona Diamondbacks were 12.5 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the lead in the NL West, and 8 games back in the race for a Wild Card spot.

Entering July, the Diamondbacks led their division by 1.5 games over the Colorado Rockies, and as of July 21 still had a .5 game lead on the Dodgers. As LA stormed through every team in their path, that lead vanished.

But is there still hope for the Snakes in baseball’s final month?

First, the Diamondbacks have seven games remaining against the Dodgers, four of which are at home. In 2013 Arizona has gone 7-5 against their rival, although their last win was on June 12, before the Dodgers awoke as a powerhouse.

The Dodgers swept a three-game series in Arizona in July. Most likely the Diamondbacks would need to sweep the remaining games, which, while unlikely, is possible, especially if they can avoid Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.

Arizona also has an MVP contender in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. After a 2012 that saw him hit .286/.359/.490 with 20 home runs, the 25-year old took his game up a level to .295/.399/.540 with 31 homers through the first five months of the season.

When the team traded Justin Upton over the winter many people wondered who would become the focal point of the offense. Goldschmidt has left little doubt that he is the best player on a team that, without the explosive second half of LA, would be firmly in the playoff chase despite trading sometimes superstar in Upton.

The player Arizona got in return from the Braves for Upton, Martin Prado, had a rough transition to the West Coast. On June 11 the third baseman was hitting just .244/.292/.333 with a .626 OPS. Prado signed a 4-year, $40 million contract extension after he was acquired and was playing as bad as at any point in his career. It looked like Upton, who had exploded out of the gate in April, was going to make the trade look foolish for his old club.

Since that day in June, in a loss to the Dodgers, Prado has turned things around. Hitting .333/.386/.519, Prado is playing more like the player Kevin Towers thought he traded for. After just multi-hit games through the 65-game stretch ending June 11, Prado has collected 28 multi-hit games in his 67 games since. He has 9 home runs, 20 doubles, 25 walks since his low point as opposed to 4 homers , 11 doubles, and 17 walks.

The Diamondbacks place in the standings doesn’t look good, but Prado has been a different player since the middle of June and a strong September can’t hurt the chances of a comeback.

Aaron Hill has been a player of two seasons for Arizona as well, but for a different reason: health. Hill played in just 10 games in April before injuring his hand and missing all of May and the first 24 days of June. His absence left a gaping hole at second base and kept the Diamondbacks from having their projected lineup on the field for nearly the entire first half of the season.

Since his return on June 25, Hill has done nothing but hit: .309/.377/.502. Considering that Robinson Cano’s season line stands at .305/.383/.508 and the Yankee second baseman is expected to sign a massive contract this winter, what Hill has done since his return to the lineup is nothing short of remarkable.

Playoff baseball may not be returning to Phoenix this fall, but Goldschmidt, Prado, and Hill are doing everything they can to make it happen.

If the Diamondbacks can put together an epic run, like the 2007 Rockies 21-win September, sweeping the Dodgers in the process, maybe they can find a way to change their fate. It won’t be easy, but September baseball isn’t always as straightforward as it seems.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

Yankee Offseason: Is A $300 Million Payroll Possible?

The number 300 has a special meaning in baseball. 300 wins is the traditional Hall of Fame measure for a starting pitcher. Striking out 300 batters in a season hasn’t been done since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002. The other men on that list include Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan, and Sandy Kofax.

A .300 batting average is the goal of nearly every hitter. $300 million is the next payroll threshold for major league teams to cross, and the Yankees could make a run at payroll history once again.

While there has been talk since early last year about the Yankees cutting payroll to under $189 million for the 2014 season to escape the luxury tax, the plan is not set in stone. In fact, the benefits to staying under the luxury tax threshold may be less than previously thought. The Bronx Bombers are unlikely to make the playoffs in 2013, will lose Mariano Rivera at the end of the season, and have to deal with Alex Rodriguez and a spectacle that could continue through the end of the third baseman’s tenure in New York.

The last time the Yankees missed the playoffs, in 2008, a spending spree ensued, bringing A.J. Burnett, C.C. Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira to New York.

With Curtis Granderson, Robinson Cano, and three-fifths of the starting rotation eligible for free agency this winter, a quick rebuild for Derek Jeter’s potential farewell tour in 2014 may be in the cards.

According to Cot’s Contracts at Baseball Prospectus, the Yankees have just $89 million committed in 2014, not including arbitration-eligible players. This may sound reasonable when thinking about $100 million in salary room to fill out the roster until you realize that nearly $90 million only pays for seven players: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano, Derek Jeter, and Vernon Wells.

Players like Brett Gardner, Ivan Nova, and David Robertson will likely be around in 2014 as well, but since even doubling Gardner’s $2.85 million salary in 2013 is a far cry from the large contracts, this piece will evaluate the stars to see how a rebuilding may get close to a $300 million target.

Catcher

The Yankees took heat right away in the winter of 2012 as Russell Martin left for the fair pastures of Pittsburgh and the Yankees decided to go with a catching platoon of Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. The two big free agent catchers this year: Brian McCann of the Atlanta Braves and Jarrod Saltalamacchia of the Boston Red Sox.

McCann has rebounded in a big way from a disappointing 2012 (.230/.300/.399) with a .270/.342/.498 line and 18 home runs in just 81 games after hitting 20 in 121 games last year. McCann is in the final year of a seven-year, $41.3 million deal and would probably warrant a qualifying offer, this year set at $14 million.

According to FanGraphs, the Braves’ catcher has been worth about $13.1 million so far this season, putting a multiyear deal of at least $14 million a year well within the realm of possibility. Combined with the fact that catchers are always in demand and the Phillies, among others, will be looking, it makes McCann a good buy-high opportunity for New York’s purposes.

Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia could represent a bargain for the Yankees should the Sox decide to move on from his services. Salty never became the superstar he looked like after a 2007 Double A season when he hit .309/.404/.617, but four years in Boston as a .240/.306/.451 hitter is a pretty good return when comparing him to other starters at the position.

His patience has taken great strides this season, his OBP is sitting at .341 in August 28, after back-to-back .288 marks in 2011 and 2012. Interestingly, FanGraphs values Salty at $13.1 million this season, the same as Brian McCann.

The Red Sox do have some young catchers on the farm, and Saltalamacchia is earning just $4.5 million, so he may avoid being offered a qualifying offer, and likely will be cheaper than McCann regardless of where he signs.

Contract guess: $15 million per year with McCann

Second Base

This one is a no-brainer: the Yankees must re-sign Robinson Cano. In a lost season for the Yankees, Cano has hit .305/.385/.506, right in line with his career (.308/.355/.503) and has been the rock in the offense diminished lineup.

He’s played in at least 159 games every year since 2007 and has appeared in five All-Star Games. Cano doesn’t have much speed, but he’s hit at least 24 home runs in each of the last five seasons.

Cano is the number one free agent this year according to MLBTraderumors and now being represented by Jay-Z’s agency, will look to exceed the $110 million contract extension signed by Dustin Pedroia.

Cano is definitely worth the $14 million qualifying offer and will likely be looking at a minumum of $25 million per year wherever he signs. While the Dodgers are supposedly downplaying their interest, teams on both coasts could get in on the bidding.

Contract guess: $27 million per year

Outfield

Curtis Granderson, finishing a six-year, $42.5 million contract originally signed with the Detroit Tigers, has battled injuries in 2013, but played in 136, 156, and 160 games with the Yankees from 2010-2012. The left handed slugger hit 43 home runs last year and 41 the year before.

Previously a center fielder, Granderson has split his time almost evenly this season among all three outfield spots, while also serving as designated hitter in a quarter of his games. Granderson’s stolen base numbers have fluctuated between the low double digits and mid-twenties every season since 2007 but he has swiped seven bags already, despite a short season.

However, while Granderson may be a decent bet to receive a qualifying offer, with so many outfielders under control, the Yankees may pass to sign Jacoby Ellsbury. The Red Sox center fielder hasn’t hit for the type of power he did in 2011, when he launched 32 home runs and 46 doubles, but with seven long balls and 47 steals, he’s on his way to another productive season anyway.

Missing large parts of the 2010 and 2012 seasons make it difficult to remember how good Ellsbury has been, averaging a .297/.350/.438 line in his career as a leadoff hitter for one of the best offenses of the past decade.

Joe Sheehan of Sports Illustrated thinks that Ellsbury is “a tremendously valuable player, and 5 years, $75-million is probably the buy-in for a guy like that … With Jackie Bradley Jr. not having a huge season at Pawtucket … I think the Red Sox will be big players here.”

This would be similar to the contract received by B.J. Upton from the Atlanta Braves last winter. Upton of course has been a flop in Atlanta, hitting well under .200 with just 8 home runs after hitting more than 20 each of the past two years and 18 the season before that.

Contract guess for Ellsbury: $18 million per year

Starting pitchers

The Yankees have three starting pitchers hitting the market this year: Andy Pettitte, Hiroki Kuroda, and Phil Hughes. Maybe Kuroda and Pettitte will return for one more season, but both pitchers are likely nearing the end of the line.

But bringing back two aging stars for short money isn’t the Steinbrenner way.

Target one: Matt Garza. Garza had a good run with the Tampa Bay Rays and a nice start with the Chicago Cubs before catching the injury bug. From 2008 to 2011 Garza stayed around the 200 inning mark, had an ERA between 3.32 and 3.95 and approached a strikeout per inning.

During those seasons he never started fewer than 30 games. Garza followed up in 2012 by starting just 18 games and after spending some time on the DL in 2013, has started 18 games between his time with the Cubs and Texas Rangers.

Proving that he can still cut it in the AL, Garza should be in for a nice payday. John Lackey’s five-year, $82.5 million deal could be the starting point as Garza will be signing his deal at a slightly younger age.

Target two: Ervin Santana. Traded by the Angels to Kansas City in the offseason as part of a move to clear salary to sign Zack Greinke, who ended up with the Dodgers, Santana is the second big pitcher this offseason.

Likely too expensive for Kansas City to retain, Santana has four 200-inning seasons under his belt and will come close to that mark this year. His ERA has fluctuated in the past, but his career mark is 4.21 and his career WHIP is a respectable 1.29. His price will likely look similar to Garza’s.

Target three: Ricky Nolasco. The mercurial right hander has been all over the place in his career performance wise. He’s started at least 30 games four times, and is just two away this season, had an ERA under 4.00 only once before 2013, and a 3.51 K/BB rate.

After seeing his strikeouts fall for three seasons after 2009, Nolasco has rebounded in this aspect of his game in 2013. Being on the Dodgers could help or hurt his salary negotiations.

On the one hand, the Dodgers have shown they are willing to spend, which could start a bidding war, but he’s behind Clayton Kershaw and Greinke in the rotation and the Dodgers want to sign their young lefty before he hits the market, which could put pressure on total spending for pitching in LA.

Unlikely to sign with the Yankees: A.J. Burnett. However, the team did bring back Javier Vazquez for a second tour of duty after a disappointing first time around, so anything is possible.

Contract guess for Garza: $18 million per year

Contract guess for Santana: $17 million per year

Contract guess for Nolasco: $15 million per year

A wildcard for the Yankees would be Tim Lincecum. He could come over the American League as a starter, although his struggles the past two seasons could make him more tempting as a reliever, perhaps even as relief ace who could pick up the mantle from Mariano Rivera.

What do you pay a two-time Cy Young winner converting to the bullpen at 29? He’s coming off a 2-year $40.5 million deal so maybe a deal along the lines of Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million deal, regardless of whether he starts of relieves.

Contract guess for Lincecum: $13 million per year

Third Base

Regardless of whether he misses the entire season or just part of the season, Alex Rodriguez is unlikely to play 162 games for the Yankees next year.

Aramis Ramirez of the Milwaukee Brewers is under contract for one more year at $16 million, with a mutual option for 2015. Given the Brewers fall from competitiveness, this could be a classic Yankee trade of absorbing a contract in a trade for a prospect of limited value.

As a right handed hitter he won’t benefit from Yankee stadium as much as a lefty, but when he’s on the field he still hits for power and average while getting on base at a .360 clip the last three seasons.

Contract for 2014: $16 million

Where We Stand

In this experiment the Yankees begin 2014 with seven players under contract for $89 million. We’ve retained Robinson Cano and added a catcher, at least one outfielder, a third baseman, three starters, and a relief ace or potential upgrade on current fifth starter Ivan Nova.

The additions are worth $139 million next year, putting the Yankees at $228 for fifteen players. That leaves ten roster spots left to fill. Will that cost $72 million dollars? Probably not, but that doesn’t take away from what could be another offseason sweep of the free agent market.

Should the club choose to retain Granderson or add Shin-Soo Choo and trade Ichiro or Gardner, that could add a few million to the total as well.

Whether the Yankees will try to save money or remind the Dodgers who the big spender in baseball really is remains up for debate.

But if you believe the team retains Cano, the rest of the signings aren’t unreasonable for a club with the sort of money the Yankees have to spend in any given offseason. After all, we saw this type of offseason rebuild from the Yankees in 2008.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

Melky Cabrera Revisited

After the 50-game suspension which removed him from the San Francisco Giants’ playoff run and, by his own choice, the batting title, Melky Cabrera will always be tied to PEDs.

His breakout in San Francisco — .346/.390/.516 before being suspended — included the 2012 All-Star Game MVP award during the good times and a fake website in the bad times. But Cabrera didn’t have a long, steady career that was suddenly enhanced by drugs, rather his eight more-or-less full seasons in the big leagues have been a mix of failure and success.

If we forget for a moment that Melky was ever busted for a positive drug test, does his big year in 2012 and decline in 2013 seem like the product of drugs, or just random fluctuation in the career of a young, journeyman outfielder?

Aside from a brief six-game stint with the Yankees, filling in for an injured Bernie Williams, in 2005, Melky Cabrera’s major league career didn’t begin until the following season.

Entering 2006, Cabrera was the 15th rated prospect in the Yankees system by Baseball America, behind such notables as Eric Duncan (#2), Marcos Vechionacci (#7), and J. Brent Cox (#11). Although to be fair, in terms of major leaguers from that prospect ranking, Cabrera trailed Phil Hughes (#1), Jose Tabata (#3), Austin Jackson (#5), Tyler Clippard (#10), and Brett Gardner (#13). The Yankees did produce a fair amount of talent from those top 15, even if it didn’t all end up in pinstripes.

The knock on Cabrera at the time was that he “profiles defensively as a corner outfielder, but doesn’t have the power to play there regularly in the majors at this point.”

In his four full minor leagues seasons, 2003-2005, Melky reached double digits in home runs twice, notching 13 in 2004 and 10 in 2005. His doubles totals were not as wanting: 36 in 2004 and 25 in 2005.

But once Cabrera was in Double A and Triple A, his numbers became less exciting: in 132 games across both levels in 2005 he hit just .269/.319/.402. Not exactly the kind of performance that teams expect from an outfielder who in more at home in the corners than in center field.

In the majors, once he was up for good, Cabrera was a mixed bag. In his five seasons with the Yankees the outfielder combined for a .269/.331/.385 line, but this was bookended by a .280/.360/.391 performance in his 2006 rookie year and a similar .274/.336/.416 line in his finale in 2009.

The two years in between: just .263/.316/.369. It’s not hard to see why the Yankees sold, relatively, high on Cabrera after the 2009 season, shipping their headache to the Atlanta Braves for Boone Logan and a second tour of duty for Javier Vazquez.

Needless to say, things did not go well in Atlanta. Cabrera showed up somewhat out of shape and put up, essentially, his 2008 season with a .671 OPS and a miniscule 4 home runs.

To this point in his major league career Cabrera’s batting average, home run, and OPS numbers looked like this:

The Braves released the then-25-year-old outfielder, who would sign with the Kansas City Royals.

With his second straight change of scenery, Cabrera flourished: .305/.339/.470 with 18 home runs, 44 doubles, 102 runs, 20 stolen bases, 201 hits — all career highs, aside from his OBP, which was trumped by his rookie mark of .360.

Cabrera had shown signs in the past of having power and speed that could make him an impact player in the major leagues. He made his debut at 20, something few players do, and his first full year at 21 was solid before falling into a two-year slump. Still, the Royals were observant of his tendencies and flipped their outfielder for a starting pitcher: Jonathan Sanchez of the San Francisco Giants.

In his 113 games as a Giant Cabrera was excellent: he had 11 home runs, put himself in position to contend for the batting title while hitting .346, and once again looked like he would be setting career highs in many categories. Of course, he only played 113 games because a suspension ended his season.

At 27, could this type of breakout have been entirely unexpected? Chris Davis is 27 this year, Jose Bautista was 29 during his breakout year in 2010, and Adam Jones was 26 last year during his run at the MVP during the Orioles magic season. Even Jacoby Ellsbury, who hasn’t even sniffed PED accusations was 27 when, out of nowhere, he hit 32 home runs.

Let’s look at our chart again, with one more category added:

According to FanGraphs, BABIP or Batting Average on Balls in Play, “measures how many of a batter’s balls in play go for hits” with three main variables impacting the number: defense, luck, and changes in talent level. Players who hit more ground balls will have higher BABIPs than players who hit fly balls because defense will come into play more and when the defense needs to make plays, sometimes they just don’t, hence the luck factor.

For his career, Cabrera owns a .310 BABIP and when Cabrera’s ground ball rate spike, his BABIP tended to also. In 2012 he hit 52.2% of his balls on the ground. He managed to turn 71.4% of his bunts into hits as well.

Nothing here really lends itself to the typical “he’s a cheater” storylines. Cabrera has been a player with some power and some speed, which can help each other out if he both hits home runs and beats out ground balls. His career began to take off at 26 and 27, the exact ages we associate with a player entering his peak years.

On a lesser note, Atlanta doesn’t necessarily suit everyone. Nate McClouth suffered a sudden decline when he became a Brave as well. In six seasons as a Pirate, McClouth hit .256/.334/.451, followed by three in Atlanta where he fell to .229/.335/.364 and parts of two seasons in Baltimore where he picked up almost where he left off hitting .275/.344/.418. B.J Upton and Dan Uggla have had their struggles since joining Atlanta as well.

With a career that was already up and down, then peaked right when it would be expected to, the biggest question for Melky Cabrera and PEDs is why risk it?

It’s possible that he would have rebounded anyway reaching his mid-20s and, although we can’t know for sure, it’s possible that his PED use didn’t even help him during the season in which he was suspended. Maybe he was able to train harder and recover faster.

But if Melky Cabrera hadn’t been caught and put up his down 2013, it would be just as likely that he was Gary Matthews Jr. peaking at the right time to sign a free agent deal or Adrian Beltre, who spent five down years exiled in Seattle before resuming what could be a Hall of Fame career.

And that’s the worst part about the drug battles, for fans and player: we just don’t know what is luck, what is skill, and what is enhancement.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

Game Review: Out of the Park Baseball 14

August is a tough month for baseball fans. The All-Star Game is in the rear-view mirror, the trade deadline has passed, and, outside of one or two teams every year that put an amazing run together in the final two months, the playoff race is settled with 12 or 13 teams competing for 10 spots.

The same might be true for your fantasy team. Football is only just getting started and won’t have real games for a few more weeks. What’s a baseball fan to do? Video games.

Although this is the first year since 2008 that my hometown Red Sox are playing really well, I can’t say no to more baseball. Enter Out of the Park 14, the ultimate baseball simulation game.

My baseball video game past has been checkered with everything from Bases Loaded to Wii Sports to MVP Baseball 2004 (which still has one of the best soundtracks in a game). My simulation experience has included classics like Lemonade Stand, SimCity, DinoPark Tycoon, and the Civilization series, so it was a great sign that Civilization V lead designer Jon Shafer gave OOTP his seal of approval.

OOTP is unlike any other baseball game I’ve played. If you have ever dreamed about being a general manager or a George Steinbrenner-style active owner, this is the game for you.

Rather than just managing a roster in a dynasty mode or creating a player and taking him through a lengthy career with personalized stats, OOTP puts the player in charge.

You can start your manager anywhere from Short Season A ball to MLB and customize everything: the lineup each game, the 25 and 40-man rosters, AAA, AA — literally every league your organization has a team is at your disposal when you are in charge.

I started with Short Season A ball in the Orioles organization and planned on working my way up, but soon realized that would take me a lot longer than I was prepared to jump into for the review, so I took another challenge: the Houston Astros.

After swindling (or so I thought initially) the Mariners for Justin Smoak, signing Jeremy Bonderman, and getting Michael Bourn for a package lead by Ronny Cedano, I was sure I was well on my was to storming through the league and rebuilding in one season whereas the real Astros are taking several years to implement their plans.

But this is a simulation that knows everything. Players have injury histories and Michael Bourn is listed as fragile. Soon Bourn, Chris Carter, Carlos Pena, and my top four shortstops were on the disabled list, and I was wheeling and dealing to prevent having to use my Single A shortstop in the majors. And that only got me to the All-Star Break.

Like a real GM, you’re in constant contact with scouts, ownership, and more. The season kicked off with a nice message from Jim Crane, giving my fictional Terry Francona a long leash, but after releasing Rick Ankiel, things took a turn and fans let their anger be known.

Every piece of data you can imagine is at your disposal: injuries and recovery time, stats of all sorts, box scores, fielding stats, and WAR. That’s just the player side. You also have complete financial records for every player and transaction.

You can choose where players hit, build platoons, set anything from a one-man to six-man rotation and can even designate whether you want your starters available to pitch out of the bullpen.

You can craft an in-game strategy that uses pinch runners and hitters or not. Bunts or not. And all of the in-game decisions are made along a continuum: you get to choose just how often you team runs, bunts, or employs the shift.

This is not a game for casual players. If you are looking for NBA Jam, this is about as far away as you can get. But if you want to put your money where your mouth is, draft players in June, make trades, set lineups, and build a dynasty in the majors and minors, Out of the Park 14 will let you experience the entire process.

The baseball season doesn’t have to end in November, it can be year-round and under your control.

Cross posted at The Sports Post

San Francisco Giants: Rotation Questions

When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010 they did so with a rotation comprised of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, and Madison Bumgarner. 

Barry Zito, their free agent acquisition from a few years earlier, didn’t even make the postseason roster. 

By 2012, Sanchez had been traded and Lincecum spent most of the postseason pitching out of the bullpen. They were replaced by Zito and Ryan Vogelsong and the Giants managed to beat the powerhouse offense of the Detroit Tigers with a rotation that, while not at it’s 2010 level, was more than up to the task.

Lincecum, the Giants’ ace for their first World Series run was relegated to the bullpen, although he was lights out in that role, for their 2012 Championship, and is a free agent at the end of this season. 

Zito, absent in 2010 but present for 2012, is in the final year of his 7-year $126 million dollar deal and is unlikely to return to San Francisco next year. 

Vogelsong, who has been on the disabled list since May 20 but should return this Friday, struggled mightily before succumbing to injury. The Giants have a team option on the 36-year old at a reasonable $6.5 million, if he can pitch better in the second half.

Cain and Bumgarner are both signed to long-term deals, not reaching free agency until 2018. 

But the Giants face a question: who are their next two starters after Cain, Bumgarner, and Vogelsong in 2014?

The Giants had a prospect waiting in the wings to follow in the footsteps of their recent home-grown starting staff. In the 2011 Baseball America Prospect Handbook, pitcher Zack Wheeler was San Francisco’s number two prospect. 

Later that season, the right-hander was moved to the New York Mets in exchange for Carlos Beltran. While his major league debut has been rocky at times, he now figures to join Matt Harvey atop the Mets rotation for years to come.

In Keith Law’s mid-season top 50 prospects released in July, the Giants had just one prospect, right handed pitcher Kyle Crick. Law say that Crick has “huge stuff” with “less than perfect command.” For the immediate future, he’s still a ways away, with the Giants High Class A affiliate in San Jose.

On the free agent market, Ervin Santana, currently enjoying a career revival with the Kansas City Royals may be the the top of the class, although Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees will be available as well. 

Another Yankees pitcher, Phil Hughes will hit free agency this fall as well and perhaps a move to the NL: and pitcher-friendly AT&T Park can get his career back on track as a low-risk option. 

Current Oakland A’s pitcher Bartolo Colon is set to reach free agency as well and would only have to cross the Bay to join the Giants. He does come with a PED question mark, serving a suspension last year and being revealed to have purchased the offending drugs at the Biogenesis clinic.

While the prices would certainly be high, the Giants could turn to a team like the Red Sox, with number of pitching prospects like Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Henry Owens, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman. The Sox also have a stable of veteran arms: Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Ryan Dempster and Clay Buchholz. 

At some point the Sox are likely to hit a staff crunch where someone has to be traded, whether from the young kids coming up or the established starters approaching free agency or simply taking up enough salary that moving them for a smaller return to clear room for a prospect makes sense.

The Giants under General Manager Brian Sabean have built the success around pitching and Buster Posey. 

With Posey signed through 2022, acting as both primer bat and the starting catcher handling the pitching staff, the next goal for the team to to find a new wave of arms, and let them pitch the team back to the playoffs.

Cross posted at The Sports Post