Who Will Be the Comeback Players of the Year?

Each year two players, one from the American League and one from the National League, are honored as Comeback Player of the Year.

Whether the player is returning from injury, illness, or ineffectiveness, each winner has overcome a hurdle of some sort and reversed their fortunes from the previous year.

As the season winds down, a few candidates in each league have separated themselves from the pack.

American League

The AL crop of players this year could probably include the entire Boston Red Sox lineup and rotation, but John Lackey, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Shane Victorino have put themselves ahead of the pack.

Former Red Sox Victor Martinez returned to the Tigers after missing all of 2012 – and picked up where he left off with the bat. And of course Mariano Rivera, after missing most of last season, decided to have an elite season on his way into retirement.

After the 2012 season, despite not throwing a single pitch, John Lackey was not a popular man in New England. Saying that Lackey struggled since arriving in Boston (ERAs of 4.40 in 2010 and 6.41 in 2011) would be an understatement. Even factoring in his injury, which ultimately required Tommy John surgery, 2013 was expected to be a return to 2008-2009 Lackey.

That wouldn’t do for the big right hander. Lackey is 9-12 due to bad luck in terms of run support, but his 3.56 ERA is his best mark since 2007. Lackey is striking out batters at a higher rate (7.6 K/9) than any year since 2006 and is issuing walks at the lowest rate (1.9 BB/9) of his career.

Ellsbury entered 2012 with expectations running high. His MVP caliber season the year before looked like his entrance into superstardom. But a fluke shoulder injury resulting from a collision with Reid Brignac altered his season considerably. Even when he took the field, his performance was disappointing.

Turn the calendar to 2013 and Ellsbury was back to his old tricks: he’s leading the league in steals with 52, hitting .299/.355/.424, and playing excellent defense in center field. As a free agent to be, the timing is perfect for him in terms of negotiations. The one thing not going his way: Ellsbury has been sidelined since Sept. 5 with an injured foot.

Shane Victorino looked bad in 2012. His .255/.321/.383 combined performance with the Phillies and Dodgers was the worst of his career. When the Red Sox handed him a 3-year, $39-million deal in the offseason, there were worries that the Sox had signed a free agent after a down year in his early 30s who might not bounce back.

Once again, the Red Sox got everything they expected, and more, from their player. Victorino entered play Tuesday hitting .294/.352/.454 with 21 steals and 14 home runs. He’s missed some time with some small injuries and has been battling a sore hamstring limiting his ability to switch-hit, but it hasn’t slowed him down.

Victor Martinez missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL and with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera already on the team, looked like he might be the odd man out while fighting for playing time because he would essentially be limited to DH. After a big first year with the Tigers in 2011, .330/.380/.470, it was an open question how Martinez would bounce back.

Through May 31 the former catcher had an OPS under .600. It looked like Martinez would be in store for a disappointing season. He had other plans: a .334/.387/.473 line since June 1 would be enough to raise his batting average to .298 entering play on September 17. In May, a .300 batting average for the season looked unlikely, now, it is within reach.

What can you really say about Mariano Rivera? After missing most of the 2012 season he’s come back for a retirement tour pitching better than many ever do at their peak. His 2.30 ERA is the sixth worst of his career. He made his thirteenth All Star Game. And he has 43 saves. It’s like he didn’t miss any time at all.

National League

The NL has fewer major comeback stories. Some that were expected, like the return of Tim Lincecum, didn’t occur as planned, but there are a couple guys who stand out.

Francisco Liriano has had a strange career. He was dominant during his rookie campaign in 2006, teaming up with Johan Santana at the top of the Twins rotation before succumbing to Tommy John surgery. Liriano wasn’t himself again until 2010, but then fell apart in 2011 and 2012.

When he joined the Pirates over the winter it looked like a good depth move for a team looking for veteran innings, and a move to the NL can do wonders for a pitcher. Liriano took that as a challenge and has posted the second best ERA of his career, 2.92, has struck out a batter per inning, and after two years of 5.0 BB/9 has scaled that down to a more reasonable 3.6.

Troy Tulowitzki played in just 47 games in 2012 and wasn’t at his best when he was on the field. Losing a player like Tulo is tough for any team, but for the Rockies, losing half of the very productive Tulo-CarGo tandem was brutal.

Healthy again, Tulowitzki has hit .315/.388/.539 entering September 17. While the Rockies are currently in last place, they are part of essentially a three-way tie for third in the NL West with the San Diego Padres and the San Francisco Giants. The speed isn’t there anymore, Tulo has just one steal, 22 home runs by a Gold Glove shortstop is always a nice thing to have.

2014

Looking forward, who might headline this list next year?

Could it be a pair of Angels, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and a third baseman looking to rebuild his value on a one-year deal in Chase Headley? Will an offseason cure C.C. Sabathia of his troubles this season?

It’s tough to predict MVPs ahead of time but Comeback Player of the Year might be just as tough, even with the head start of knowing who performed poorly.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Ubaldo Jimenez’s Comeback Gives Hope to Cleveland

In 2010 Ubaldo Jimenez made his name in the baseball world with a breakout season. Even more surprising, he was a dominant pitcher on the often pitching-troubled Colorado Rockies.

He was an All-Star, finishing third in NL Cy Young voting, and even picked up a few MVP votes.

The four-year, $10 million (before his options were exercised) deal the Rockies signed their young pitcher to before the start of the 2009 season looked brilliant. Colorado had found the ace who could lead them back to the World Series.

When 2011 began, Jimenez started slow, allowing at least four earned runs in five of his first nine starts after doing so just eight times the previous season. By the trade deadline he was a Cleveland Indian.

In the 2011 and 2012 seasons the former ace had a 5.03 ERA, a falling strikeout rate, and was handing out more walks than earlier in his young career. Instead of taking more steps forward, he was regressing.

2013 started out as more of the same. However, since the All-Star Break, Jimenez has been a different pitcher: 1.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and a 3.35 K/BB ratio. Opposing batters are hitting just .221/.290/.331 against him in the second half. The Indians are just 5-5 in his second-half starts, but by allowing just 16 earned runs in 12 games, Jimenez has given his team a chance to win when he’s taken the mound.

Since the All-Star Break, Jimenez has been a different pitcher: 1.86 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, and a 3.35 K/BB ratio.

The $8 million team option for 2014 looked like a complicated calculation entering this year but now looks like it might be off the table entirely – for different reasons.

As a term of his contract, Ubaldo’s right to void the 2014 team option came into play when he was traded. Rather than make the Indians decide if spending $8 million for one year is a better choice than the $1 million buyout, he can simply elect to be a free agent.

On a one-year deal for $14 million deal, this winter’s qualifying offer level, Jimenez might be welcomed back to Cleveland without hesitation. Should he be seeking more, given that the club added Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher to long-term deals last winter, the price may just be too high.

By rediscovering his ability to strike people out, Jimenez has returned to providing top-of-the-rotation production. There’s a good chance that he is the Indians’ game-one starter in the playoffs.

In the end, the Indians have fared quite well. The prospects sent to Colorado, a package lead by Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, have not fared as well as the player they were traded for. Pomeranz and White have combined for just 57 major league starts in parts of three seasons with a combined ERA over 5.00.

After winning 90 games in 2007 and 92 in 2009, the Rockies have had just one winning season, 2010, in the last four years. With Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez still signed for the long-term, the Rockies can build around their stars. They could even reach out to their former star in the offseason to orchestrate a reunion.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

How the Oakland A’s Vanquished the Texas Rangers and Won the West

On Sunday, the Oakland A’s topped the Minnesota Twins 11-7 for their 93rd win of the season and clinched first place in the AL West for the second year in a row.

For the first time since a run of four straight playoff appearances ended in 2003, the A’s have reached postseason play in back-to-back years.

The Texas Rangers, preseason division favorites for many, lost to the Kansas City Royals, dropping their record to 84-71. After leading the division for a good portion of the year, including Sept. 1, a 5-15 month has put Texas in a battle for the Wild Card. For the second straight season, the Rangers have collapsed down the stretch.

While these two teams did not look evenly matched on April 1, 2013, despite Oakland’s second half push last year, nobody picked the A’s as the superior team on April 1, 2012. With the Rangers following up back-to-back World Series appearances with two straight September collapses, what happened in the AL West to change these team’s fortunes?

Oakland

The Oakland A’s have taken a lot of grief from opposing fans and members of the media over the last decade because of Moneyball. Every time an A’s player doesn’t walk it seems like someone is ready to make a snarky comment.

What’s missing in people’s assessment of the team is that the full title is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Moneyball strategy is a way to combat a low payroll with moves, whatever they may be, that could improve the team for an affordable price.

One tactic used in the book that was repeated in 2012 was trading a closer, in this case Andrew Bailey, for players that were less replaceable. Last year that player was Josh Reddick. Reddick broke out in 2012 with a 32 home run campaign.

Similarly, Brandon Moss, in just 84 games launched 21 homers. Combined with Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes and a solid starting rotation, the A’s were able to outlast the Rangers, taking the division on the last day of the regular season, their only day in first place in 2012.

This year holds a similar story in terms of breakout players: Coco Crisp has broken out for a 22 home run season in 2013 after hitting 27 home runs total during his first three seasons in green and gold.

Josh Donaldson, 2007 first round pick of the Cubs, has hit .307/.388/.510 and looked like one of the best third basemen in the game.

Reddick has battled injuries, but Moss has had another solid season as a 29-year-old picked up as a minor league free agent after the 2011 season.

Bartolo Colon, in the season he turned 40, one year after a suspension for PEDs, has put up and ERA under 3.00 for the first time since 2002. Rookie Dan Straily has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seventeen of his first 26 starts this year. Jarrod Parker, who had a brutal April, has pitched to a 3.09 ERA since the calendar turned to May.

The A’s also found a replacement for Reddick deserving of the breakout player of the year honors: Josh Donaldson. The 2007 first round pick of the Cubs, acquired as part of the return for Rich Harden, has hit .307/.388/.510 and looked like one of the best third basemen in the game.

Playing in the same division as Adrian Beltre, that’s saying something. Donaldson has been especially valuable down the stretch, hitting nearly .400 and getting on base half the time he stepped up to the plate. Five of his 24 home runs have come in September and he has scored 19 times in 20 games, his highest total in any month, through Sunday.

Texas

When Josh Hamilton signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this past winter, the Rangers knew he would be tough to replace. While Hamilton has been a disappointment in LA, the offense he provided during his years in Arlington hasn’t been replaced.

Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, David Murphy, and Mitch Moreland have all taken steps back from their performance in 2012. Jurickson Profar, their top prospect and “break glass in case of emergency” player has not yet made an impact at the major league level hitting just .232/.307/.324 while playing third base and left field in addition to his natural position, shortstop.

Nelson Cruz, in the midst of his best year since 2010, was suspended in August as part of the investigation into Biogenesis, the Miami clinic providing PEDs to ballplayers.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, pitching hasn’t been the answer either: Yu Darvish has been excellent as staff ace, but the rotation behind him has not been as impressive.

Adrian Beltre, of course, has remained excellent, hitting .317/.372/.505 and hitting at least 28 home runs for the fourth straight season. But the offense that lead the league in runs last year and hadn’t placed lower than fourth in runs since 2009, finds itself in seventh place.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, pitching hasn’t been the answer either: Yu Darvish has been excellent as staff ace, but the rotation behind him has not been as impressive. Alexi Ogando has battled injuries and thrown under 100 innings, Matt Harrison made just two starts before missing the season with shoulder troubles, Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch have combined for 34 low-quality starts, and trade acquisition Matt Garza has an ERA approaching 5.00 since being acquired.

Derek Holland has been OK this year, but the Rangers have lost each of his four starts in September, including two games to Oakland and one to Tampa Bay, their competition in the division and for a Wild Card spot.

While Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin may be on the cusp of back-to-back Manager of the Year awards, his counterpart in Texas, Ron Washington could find himself looking for work at the end of the season.

Joe Nathan is having another fine season and heads into the final week of September with 40 saves and an ERA under 2.00. Because he’s the closer and usually saved for games the team is already winning, between Sept. 1 and Sept. 16, Nathan made just two appearances. It’s hard for a pitched to help his team without taking the mound.

Which brings us to what might be a difference maker in the AL West: the managers. While Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin may be on the cusp of back-to-back Manager of the Year awards, his counterpart in Texas, Ron Washington could find himself looking for work at the end of the season.

Washington was at the helm for two World Series losses, and now will have overseen two late-season collapses, managing his team right out of postseason discussion.

The Rangers were just one strike away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series but let the Cardinals come back to win. The year before they ran into the Giants.

Terry Francona had two World Series rings with the Red Sox, helped break the 86-year championship drought, and oversaw one collapse in September 2011 and then was done.

Ron Washington may not have the rings on his hand, he may not have the most talent, and postseason series are not always won by the best team, but to watch his team enter September competing for the division and fall short, he may not have the benefit of the doubt anymore either.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

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

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