May 22, 2004 – Red Sox vs Blue Jays

That was then

Ten years ago today the Boston Red Sox won their second straight game against the Toronto Blue Jays. They didn’t know it at the time, but the winning streak would last five games. Well before The Trade, things were going well enough.

That game was started by Pedro Martinez, won by Anastacio Martinez, and saved by Keith Foulke.

Manny Ramirez hit a home run. David Ortiz and Mark Bellhorn scored runs. Kevin Youkilis played in his fifth major league game.

Ted Lilly struck out 10 in 5.2 innings but his bullpen failed to deliver on the “Ted Lilly always beats the Red Sox” curse.

This is now

Tonight, the Red Sox will play the Toronto Blue Jays in an attempt to prevent losing their seventh straight game.

Jon Lester, who was nearly traded prior to the 2004 season for A-Rod, will be playing the role of ace that Pedro did so well a decade ago.

David Ortiz is still on the team, the sole remaining player from the 2004 club.

Opposing the Sox will be Mark Buehrle, a veteran in his own right.

Ten years ago things went well enough for the Red Sox. Maybe tonight that echo of a boxscore will penetrate Fenway Park and end the current slump.

Or their talented players will do what talented players do – win.

How Will Jacoby Ellsbury Fare as a Free Agent?

Jacoby Ellsbury made his major league debut on June 30, 2007 to give Terry Francona and the Red Sox some flexibility in center field with a banged up Coco Crisp trying to avoid the disabled list.

The rookie would eventually overtake the veteran, even getting playing time in the Red Sox World Series run. Ellsbury is approaching free agency at the end of this season and his career so far has been a journey of highs, lows, and a few injuries.

How does he compare to the recent crop of elite outfielders?

For Ellsbury’s first three seasons in Boston he was a gifted athlete who sometimes needed more work on his routes, but was a threat on the base paths.

In 331 games from 2007-2009 Ellsbury hit .297/.350/.414 with 129 steals, leading the league in 2008 and 2009 with 50 and 70 steals, respectively.

Mike Cameron was brought in in 2010 to provide veteran insight into the center field position after Coco Crisp was traded, shifting Ellsbury to left, but a collision with Adrian Beltre would limit Ellsbury to just 18 games that year.

In 2011, Ellsbury was back and better than ever: .321/.376/.552 with 39 steals and 32 home runs. After hitting a total of 20 home runs in the major leagues to that point, Ellsbury found his power stroke. He won a Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and finished second in MVP voting.

With just two years remaining until free agency, Ellsbury looked like a player in his prime who might have just added a new aspect to his already strong game.

Unfortunately 2012 would be another injury-plagued season. In 74 games Ellsbury would hit just .271/.313/.370 with only four home runs and 14 stolen bases. In a season where everything that could go wrong for the Red Sox did, Ellsbury’s injury and step back in performance hurt a bit more.

With just two years remaining until free agency, Ellsbury looked like a player in his prime who might have just added a new aspect to his already strong game.

His 2013 reversed the tide: .299/.355/.424 with a league-leading 52 steals before fouling a ball off his foot and not appearing in a game since Sept. 5. He’s only hit 8 home runs this year, but with 31 doubles and 8 triples, has recovered the value he had outside of his MVP-caliber season in 2011.

As a fast, Gold Glove center fielder and an elite leadoff hitter, Ellsbury, even with an injured foot, is among the premier free agents this fall.

Johnny Damon, to whom Ellsbury has drawn many comparisons, hit free agency at 31 before signing a 4-year, $52 million contract with the New York Yankees.

Until that point in his career, Damon had hit .290/.353/.431 while averaging 12 home runs and 26 steals per year. Ellsbury’s career .297/.350/.438 line compares quite favorably to the sought-after leadoff hitter, and Ellsbury just turned 30 on Sept. 11, so he hits free agency a little earlier.

Of course, salaries for MLB players aren’t exactly what they were in the winter of 2005 when Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees.

B.J. Upton signed a 5-year, $75.25 deal with the Atlanta Braves last year. With the Rays, Upton averaged .255/.336/.422 with 20 homers and 39 steals per year. There were ups and downs: Upton hit over .273 just once and totalled 20 home runs over two full seasons in 2008 and 2009. He posted his best OPS (.894) in 2007 and hasn’t came within 100 points of that mark since.

To make matters worse, Upton has been dreadful this season, hitting under .200 and finding himself on the bench at times even as the Braves cruise to victory in the NL East. Ellsbury hasn’t had the consistent power of Upton, but his skills are more well-rounded and he has never had the low seasons Upton has in his career.

Another center fielder signed this past offseason as well: Michael Bourn. A late signing by the Cleveland Indians, Bourn has been a speed-first player throughout his career. Bourn lead the league in steals three times from 2009-2011 and has averaged 49 steals per season during his career.

Again, Bourn is not a perfect match for Ellsbury because while Ellsbury has maintained a slugging percentage over .400 in three seasons, and .394 in a fourth, Bourn has little power to speak of, slugging just .362 in his eight-year career.

Which brings us to the target Ellsbury and his agent, Scott Boras, will likely try and compare him to: Carl Crawford. Crawford turned 29 in August of 2010, the year he hit free agency, so he was actually a year younger than Ellsbury when he signed a 7-year, $142 million dollar deal with the Red Sox.

The difficulty for Ellsbury in comparing him to Crawford, who was a .296/.337/.444 hitter coming off a career year, comes from the latter’s power and durability.

During his nine years in Tampa Bay, Crawford hit double digit home runs six time, hitting 15 or more on four occasions. While he was known for his speed, stealing at least 46 bases seven times, Crawford also brought some power. Sometimes, as with his triples, his speed and power worked together, letting the left fielder collect double-digit triples five times.

The difficulty for Ellsbury in comparing him to Crawford, who was a .296/.337/.444 hitter coming off a career year, comes from the latter’s power and durability. Crawford played at least 151 games six times in Tampa. Ellsbury has accomplished the feat just twice.

Crawford also has the stigma of being overpaid. When the Red Sox traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers, it wasn’t because they were desperate to move their first baseman, but to move what had quickly become a massive overpayment to Crawford.

In a relatively healthy 2013, Crawford has hit .280/.330/.395 with 5 home runs and 13 stolen bases in 108 games. While this production is valuable, the cost of $20 million is not in line with the production.

Ellsbury is an interesting player to hit free agency. He has shown legitimate power, elite speed, the ability to hit for average, defense, and patience, but not all at the same time. Recent free agents like Crawford and Upton have seemed like good signings, only to quickly lose value.

The Red Sox will certainly make Ellsbury the $14 million qualifying offer this winter and may even make a sizeable contract offer to their leadoff hitter.

While Ellsbury has missed time with injuries, he’s had broken bones and collisions take him off the field, not nagging soreness in a hamstring or shoulder, so he might actually be a more durable player going forward who simply has had bad luck.

Depending on how the market reacts to Ellsbury’s career numbers, and whether he is able to make a strong return this season from a broken bone in his foot, will decide how much and for how long the outfielder is signed.

With a low end of Bourn and a high of Crawford, Ellsbury may have a lot of negotiations before he finally chooses his next team.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Did the Baltimore Orioles Have a Successful Season?

The Baltimore Orioles won just 69 games in 2011. Thanks in part to a strong bullpen and a breakout season by Adam Jones, the Birds upped their win total to 93 in 2012 and lost the American League Division Series to the New York Yankees in five games.

Coming off the heels of their first postseason berth in more than a decade, Orioles fans were rightly excited for baseball to resume this spring. Would the team build on its 93 wins and second place finish in the AL East? Would the club prove that they were real competitors, not just a flash-in-the-pan aided by a Red Sox team that turned out to be a punching bag?

Bullpen

The Orioles famously went 29-9 in one-run games in 2012, a tremendous feat for any team. Even with a strong bullpen that sort of record is heavily aided by luck. Small victories are difficult to pull off, which is why so many teams build around the closer as the one guy they trust to protect a lead when it counts.

Orioles’ closer, Jim Johnson, saved 51 games last year, leading the league in saves, while Brian Matusz emerged as a weapon out of the bullpen as a lefty specialist. Essentially every move Buck Showalter made with his pitchers worked as well as he could have hoped.

Fast forward a year and Jim Johnson, while still very good, blew 9 saves on his way to a second-straight 50 save season.

Orioles magic in one-run games evaporated. Going 20-31 in one-run games this season, the O’s didn’t have the same type of success as last year. Finishing with an 85-77 record, six games behind the second place Rays, the same number of additional saves blown by Johnson over the 2012 season, and the O’s would have been in the battle royale with the Rays, Rangers, and Indians for the Wild Card.

Rotation

A deep rotation wasn’t a strength of the 2012 team or the 2013 incarnation. Given the margin of their loss, one more good starter could go a long way for the Orioles.

Chris Tillman stepped up in a big way this year throwing over 200 innings of 3.78 ERA baseball. The righty struck out just under eight batters per nine innings and walked three batters per inning. That’s not ace level performance, but over the last few seasons the Orioles have seen Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, and others fail to hang on to a rotation spot, so Tillman is a step in the right direction.

Jason Hammel, last year’s rotation leader, posted an ERA just under five in an injury-shortened 2013 season.

Dylan Bundy, the O’s pitching phenom, who made a brief debut down the stretch in 2012, missed the entire season trying to rehab before sucumbing to Tommy John surgery, putting his future in doubt for the 2014 season as well.

Offense

First baseman Chris Davis did everything he possibly could, and more, by putting up a monster season. 53 home runs, 43 doubles, an OPS over 1.000, 103 runs, and 138 RBI set the pace for the former Rangers prospect. It took Davis a few years to get adjusted to the majors, but when he put things together the result was nearly unbelievable. If he can duplicate even eighty percent of this performance in 2014, the Orioles will be back in the mix for a playoff berth.

Manny Machado, who turned 21 in July, had a big first half (.310/.337/.470) followed by a second half slump (.240/.277/.370). While he ended the season with an injury scare, the hope is that the third baseman escaped with a prescription for rest and rehab rather than surgery.

Conclusion

Was this a good season for the Orioles? Probably. With the emergence of Chris Tillman, the power of Chris Davis, the continued presence of Matt Wieters, and only scratching the surface of what Manny Machado can do, Baltimore is in position to continue building.

Had this season come before the breakout of 2012 things would look better for the fans, but this year’s Orioles were better, but not luckier, than last year’s model.

General Manager Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter have breathed new life into a team that sat along the bottom of the standings for too long. The Red Sox and Yankees aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, and the Rays are too well built to ignore, but the Orioles can use the new playoff format to make their push. And with just a little bit of luck, they might be back in the postseason next year.

 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

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

Happy Birthday Nomar!

Since Nomar Garciaparra and I share a birthday, I always imagine that he hit those three home runs on this date in 2002 for all the important people born on the 23rd of July.

According to @highheatstats, this is a unique feat: 

Did the Phillies Learn the Wrong Lesson from Boston?

 From 2006 to 2011 the Philadelphia Phillies won more games each season than the season previous, raising their win total from a modest 85 to an outstanding 102. 

Their front office built a starting rotation headed by a trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels that teams and fans around the sport would drool over. The Phillies finished first in the NL East in five consecutive seasons from 2007 to 2011. 

But like a character in a sitcom who is living “the life of Riley” until the show needs a ratings boost and they draw the short straw, the Phillies began to realize that the good times would not last forever

Posting a .500 record last year and on pace to lose more games than they win for the first time since 2002 this season, reality has arrived in Philadelphia. The time to rebuild their once championship-caliber core may be at hand.

GM Ruben Amaro, however, is taking his time adjusting to the lean years. Looking at a roster that includes names like Lee, Papelbon, Hamels, Rollins, Utley, and Howard, the Phillies executive remains bullish on his club. 

Speaking with CSNPhilly.com in June, Amaro argued his team could duplicate the turnaround of the Boston Red Sox, a last place team in 2012 currently leading the AL East as the All-Star break approaches. 

Amaro expanded on this idea, saying, “There’s no blowing up. There might come a time when we make changes to improve for the future, but we don’t have reason to blow it up. Boston didn’t blow it up last year. They retooled.” 

Since then the GM has backed off his denials that the team could become a seller before the trade deadline, but his point stands: if the Red Sox could return to respectability in an offseason, why can’t the Phillies? It’s not quite that simple.

In Ben Cherington first year as general manager for the Boston Red Sox, the team fell on its face. 

One year after being heralded as the best team in baseball, only to miss the playoffs in embarrassing fashion, the Red Sox made a series of lesser free agent signings: Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, David Ross, and Koji Uehara. 

Rather than go after Zack Greinke or Josh Hamilton, Boston moved down a tier in their acquisitions and filled in gaps with players who had some question marks. 

Napoli and Victorino were coming off down years, Gomes had succeeded mainly as a platoon player, Dempster was moving to the DH league, Ross was only a backup catcher, and Uehara had been a very good relief pitcher who, as he neared 40, was scaling back his workload. 

Yet, the Red Sox are among the best in baseball, one season after losing more than 90 games.

Ruben Amaro would seem to be correct: the Phillies were a .500 team in 2012 and are just a bit off that pace this year, why can’t they stick with a their already-signed core (Lee, Hamels, Howard, Papelbon, and now, Dominic Brown) and match the Red Sox, adding a few complimentary free agents and return to the top of the NL East? 

Phillies fans, if you are starting to get excited, don’t hold your breath.

The Red Sox didn’t just retool, a storm of signings, health, and a miniature fire sale worked in concert to make the 2013 roster possible. Starting with The Trade, we know that the Red Sox didn’t just dump spare parts onto the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

They parted ways with Adrian Gonzalez, their starting first baseman who was acquired for a package of prospects just shy of two seasons prior. The Dodgers took on nearly all of the remaining 6 years and $127 million left on his contract. Gonzalez was a player the Sox did not want to trade. He was the result of a multi-year search for a new franchise first baseman. 

But the team did so to sweeten the rest of the trade: five years of Carl Crawford’s at approximately $85 million dollars and the remainder of Josh Beckett’s deal, worth approximately $31.4 million over two years. 

While Beckett pitched well down the stretch in 2012, his 2013 was disappointing before he succumbed to season-ending surgery. Crawford, battling injury himself, is on his way to a bounce back season hitting .284/.343/.443 with five home runs and nine steals when he’s been able to take the field. 

Adrian Gonzalez too has rebounded from his disappointing 2012 hitting nearly .300 with some decent power (13 homers, 19 doubles) in the first half. The Dodgers got a lot of talent for a number of years from the Red Sox in exchange for pitching prospect Allen Webster and and young pitcher Rubby De La Rosa, who was making his return from Tommy John surgery.

The 2012 Red Sox were not in last place simply because of a trade: the team was without Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, and Andrew Bailey for much of the season, all of whom have returned to the field and, with the exception of Bailey, performed above expectations in 2013. 

The Phillies are missing Roy Halladay, who struggled in 2012, dropped down another peg in 2013, and is now recovering from surgery. But other than that, the Phillies have their team on the field. And it’s performing like an aging roster is expected to: not that well.

The version of the Red Sox story that Ruben Amaro is telling is one of offseason additions. Roy Halladay, even if healthy, is a free agent at the end of this season. He is not signed for the future the way John Lackey was during his lost year. This is important to remember because Lackey has been a force for Boston out of the rotation when his contribution was expected to be minimal.

For the Phillies to duplicate the revival of Boston they need to free salary, move valuable assets (Lee, Papelbon, pending free agent Chase Utley) with a bad contract like Ryan Howard’s. Hopefully they can acquire some prospects in the exchange and then use the money freed up from the veteran players to do what the Red Sox did and fill in their lineup with fresh, new, players. 

The Red Sox did all three of these things, not just the last bit about signing free agents in the offseason after a down year that Amaro is pointing to as the retooling rather than rebuilding.

There is a lesson to be learned in what the Red Sox have accomplished: big market teams working with other big market teams, can unload contracts, grab a few prospects, and trade a slice of their competitive window for a temporary step back. 

The Red Sox were still at .500 on August 6, 2012, and just six games under .500 when the trade with the Dodgers occurred. Without the trade they might have avoided last place in the AL East, but would not have had the financial or roster flexibility to do what they did in the offseason. 

There is no reason the Phillies can’t take some dead money, tie it to a few valuable players who can bring back a solid return in terms of prospects, and have plenty of room to spend in the offseason, reallocating a couple big deals into several small ones.

Baseball Confession Time

It’s become something of a punching bag for the media, analysts, fantasy sports folks, and more recently but I like the All-Star Game. Is it perfect? No. Is it the game my dad watched as a kid (well, one of two ASGs back in the day apparently), no. But it’s still fun to see a living fantasy team take the field. 

The voting system isn’t perfect – not the fan voting or the player voting – the roster use can be a mess, and the game isn’t played like it counts, despite holding what can be a decent advantage for the winning league, home field for the World Series. 

Our Father, who art in Calgary, Bobsled be thy name. Thy kingdom come, gold medals won, on Earth as it is in Turn Seven. With Liberty and Justice for Jamaica and Haile Selassie. Amen. – Irving Blitzer

Without getting too into it, what would I change to improve an event I already enjoy?  

First, either go all-in on “it counts” and run the game like a real game or return it to the exhibition it was in the past. Just picking one of these eliminates a number of issues because if the game doesn’t count for anything, who actually plays doesn’t matter as much.

Second, change up the selection system. Take the two MVPs from the previous season and make them captains. Each chooses a starting 9. The fans get to vote on the bench and the starting pitcher. The manager gets to assemble a bullpen and choose the “final vote” candidates so that a Bryce Harper or Yasiel Puig can get on the team because everyone wants to see them play. 

Third, eliminate the rule requiring every team to get an All-Star representative. Back when Joe Torre loaded every team with Yankees this seemed like a logical move to prevent too many teams from being left out, but today the manager doesn’t have as much control and with online voting, fans can make their voices heard in a more powerful way than ever before.

And that would be it. Shake up the game, mess with the rules, and have fun. Oh, and each All-Star Game format would last say, five years, and then shake it up again. The game should be fun but it should be a game.

San Diego Padres: A Team on Friar

On May 1, the San Diego Padres were 10-17, good enough for last place in the National League West. They had allowed a NL worst 129 runs while scoring just 103. The team’s run differential of -26 was the second worst in the National League, ahead of only the Miami Marlins. 

Since losing that night to the Chicago Cubs, the Padres have gone 30-23 (15-11 in June, as of Friday night’s victory over the Marlins) and sit just three games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the division lead, tied with the Colorado Rockies, and ahead of the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants.

How is a team that finished 76-86 last season looking like a competitor? There must be a reason why Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan picked the Padres to win the NL West when no one else did. What did he see?

At first guess, you’d probably figure the Padres third baseman, Chase Headley, who finished fifth in MVP voting last season was the one leading the team back to respectability. But, not so much. Headley has, to this point, put up his worst numbers since he became a full time player at the Major League level. His .227/.325/.355 line is a far cry from last year’s .286/.376/.498 mark and the nearly identical, aside from slugging, numbers he put up in 2011: .289/.374/.399.

One Padres player, Everth Cabrera, is hitting .300. Unfortunately, he’s also on the disabled list right now. Regardless, Cabrera has been a revelation for the Friars. At 26, in his fifth season in the majors, the shortstop was in the midst of a breakout before subcuming to injury. His entire triple slash line, .305/.382/.418, would represent career highs by at least 58 points per category. Just 69 games into the season, Cabrera already hit more triples (4) than in any year since his rookie season in 2009 when he recorded eight three-baggers. 

His four home runs are already a career high, while his 24 RBI ties his 2012 production. Did I mention Cabrera can run? Even with a week on the DL, he’s leading the senior circuit in steals (31) and is on pace to shatter last year’s league-leading 44 stolen bases. Typically, you imagine a player having a breakout and “carrying” his team to be a slugger, but for the Padres, it has been their table setter.

The Padres aren’t without other offensive sources. Carlos Quentin, who was hitting just .169 with two home runs on May 8, has rebounded for a .319/.412/.534 line with six homers since his nadir. The slugging outfielder has a 22:15 strikeout to walk ratio over this stretch and has exposed himself to four hit by pitches. When the Padres signed Quentin to an extension rather than looking to move him in a trade, it raised a few eyebrows, but in a tight division, having another good player on the roster is looking pretty smart.

Quentin is joined in this journey with a revitalized Kyle Blanks. Injury and ineffectiveness have diminished Blanks’ stock over the last year, and the outfielder/first baseman was a non-entity entering this season. But, when called on, Blanks has come through.

In his first big league experience in 2009, Blanks launched ten home runs in 54 games. Through 56 games this season, he has 8 home runs. The similarity between the two seasons, separated by three lost years, is shocking. Runs: 24 in 2009, 25 in 2013. Doubles: 9 in each season. Walks: 18 in 2009, 16 in 2013. Strikeouts: 55 in 2009, and just 47 in 2013. His triple slash was .250/.355/.514 in 2009 and stands this year at .278/.350/.472 through approximately the same number of games this year. This is the guy who looked like a slugger whose power would play anywhere, even Petco Park, and San Diego fans are finally seeing him perform.

And that’s what’s amazing about this Padres team: the offense is where the talent lies. The rotation is the promising flamethrower Andrew Cashner and castoffs from the Island of Misfit Toys. Eric Stults, Jason Marquis, Edinson Volquez, and Clayton Richard round out a rotation without a big name.

While there are rumors of a trade with the Cubs for Matt Garza, so far the Friars have put together a run without anyone even approaching an ace to lead the rotation. Which take us to the last point: the Padres run isn’t a mirage built upon a weak schedule. They’ve won seven of their last nine games against teams with records over .500 and are performing against winning teams better than they have in either of the past two seasons.

In a division with a flawed Dodgers team, a Giants rotation that isn’t what it has been the last few years, and a Rockies club without Troy Tulowitzki, the Padres can’t be counted out.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Today In “Greek” History: Kevin Youkilis

Per @HighHeatStats on Twitter, the Kevin Youkilis era of the Boston Red Sox concluded one year ago today. It’s strange to look back and think about how much Youkilis was around for and how quickly he became irrelevant. 

When Kevin Youkilis was called up to the Red Sox in May of 2004,  Moneyball mania was in full swing. The Red Sox were coming off a disastrous 2003 ALCS and the batting champion, third baseman Bill Mueller, was on the disabled list. Youkilis was a savior, and excitement, and a bit of a worry because Mueller had made such an impression the previous season. I still remember I had a friend who was doing a summer semester in Greece and was freaking out when he got back that Youkilis had been called up.

Youkilis was around for both World Series runs, played in three All-Star Games, and showed Boston fans what he could do at first base and third base. You could even say “Youk knows third AND Youk knows first.”

Now that he’s back on the disabled list with back surgery, the end may be near for Youkilis. If so, he would finish with a career .281/.382/.478 line, 104 hit by pitches, and 539 walks.