Friday, January 15, 2010

The Marlins Ink Josh Johnson Long Term

It's probably only a coincidence that a few days after being scolded by MLB and the players' union for not spending the money the Yankees are giving them in payroll penalties, the Marlins have wrapped up Josh Johnson for four years at $39 million. Johnson is certainly worth the exception to what has been the rule for the Marlins. Johnson, of course is quite happy and perhaps Dan Uggla now has someone else to be jealous about.

Johnson joins Hanley Ramirez as young, extremely talented players tied up through their arbitration-eligible years and through the first couple of years of free agent eligibility. That has to be exciting for fans of the Marlins that they will be able to watch these amazing talents through the peak years of their careers.

Johnson is certainly worth the money. He was quietly among the best pitchers of the National League last year. His sparkling 15-5 record was not a fluke. If you look at his BABIP for 2009, it was right around .300, right where it should have been (despite a poor fielding team). But he was 7-1 the year before after returning from Tommy John surgery despite a BABIP way high in the upper .300s. That 22-6 record is pretty sweet since his surgery.

He gets little love from the PECOTA system from Baseball Prospectus. But they haven't revised their projections yet to account for 2009 results. And thus, the projections were based on a pitcher that struggled with elbow problems the years before. It seems a given that his projections will improve. Last year was his first as a starter with more than 200 innings pitched and he posted a 3.29 K/BB ratio, which is much higher than his career level of 2.42.

Johnson keeps the ball in the park, strikes out his share of batters, has improved his walk allowed and seems to be on the cusp of being a great pitcher for quite a few years. Of course these things always have to play out to see if he stays healthy. But the risk seems like a good one.

The other thing nice about this deal is that Johnson really wanted to stay with the Marlins. The linked post from mentions it several times. So it seems like a perfect deal for everyone involved. Johnson gets to stay where he wanted to stay, the Marlins tie up a budding superstar and Marlins' fans get a little hope that the Marlins are more serious about fielding a good team for a number of years.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Glad Vlad Landed in Texas

The Angels came within a whisker of getting into the World Series despite a hobbled Vladimir Guerrero having his worst year of a great career. It has become painful to watch Vlad play. It is obvious that he can barely walk, never mind run. 2009 was only the second time in the last twelve years that Guerrero did not reach 600 plate appearances. It was the first time in 12 years that he did not hit at least 25 homers. He had his lowest OBP and Slugging Percentage of his career. The Angels felt they needed a change, so they exchanged one creaky hitter with another and Hideki Matsui.

One can hardly blame the Angels. But don't count on Vladimir Guerrero being done hitting the ball with authority. He now goes to a Texas Rangers club that hits half the time in a very hitter-friendly park. He goes to a club that is the underdog and he won't have the pressure to be the "top dog" for a team that goes to the playoffs every year. He may thrive in Texas and put up good numbers there as the DH.

Watching Guerrero now reminds the viewer of past greats who faced the same wheel troubles. Tony Oliva, Andre Dawson and Orlando Cepeda come to mind. And Guerrero might be a better hitter than all of them. Oliva had one of the sweetest swings in history and won a batting title in his rookie year. He had less power though. Andre Dawson had better speed, but Guerrero beats him on everything else. Cepeda is in the Hall of Fame and Guerrero has better power, a higher batting average, higher on-base percentage and is clearly the better of the two.

All those guys had useful and productive years far after they started walking with a pronounced limp. If two of the three of those guys are in the HOF, then Guerrero needs to be in that discussion when he is done, especially if he can play productively for another three or four years.

Vladimir Guerrero has probably not gotten his due over the years for his excellence. Credit that mainly to playing all those years in Montreal when nobody was watching. But his career OPS of 954 and his career batting average of .321 tell a huge story. He is over 400 homers now and few people know what a great fielder he was before his wheels left him. His 125 career assists from the outfield give a good story of how great he was and despite the last few years when he couldn't run, his Runs over League Average as a fielder are still in the positive numbers for his career.

It's too bad really, that Vlad the Impaler only got national attention and regular television coverage after his best years. All today's fans will remember are the gimpy gate of what used to be a thoroughbred. If you were to poll the average baseball fan and ask them about Guerrero, they will probably remember his reputation of swinging at anything. But the guy has a .386 lifetime On Base Percentage with almost 700 walks. The guy never got to shine in the spotlight when he was at his best.

It is hoped that he has a great year in Texas and solid years for the remainder of what has been a wonderful career.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Reds Have Potential With Pitching

The Reds (of all people) outbid everyone for the right to sign Aroldis Chapman, the young (22) lefty fireballer from Cuba. Chapman is just the latest in an impressive collection of young arms the Reds have been stockpiling. Volquez should be back mid-summer from Tommy John surgery. He's already won 17 games in a season. Johnny Cueto has big-time talent and can be brilliant at times. Homer Bailey started living up to his hype in the second half of 2009 and Arroyo and Harang are still around.

The Reds are also stacked just below in the minors with Travis Wood, Matt Maloney, Brad Boxberger and Mike Leake. General Manager, Walt Jockety, who built the current Cardinals' empire seems to be focused narrowly on big time arms and has done an amazing job of collecting them. Chapman is just the latest.

If Cueto puts it together, Bailey grows from the second half, Volquez comes back strong and any two of those four prospects pan out, they could be scary good and scary bad for NL batters to face.

Have we finally seen the real Homer Bailey? His last nine starts of 2009 featured a 6-1 record with a 1.70 ERA. After two years of inconsistency that caused him to pinball back and forth to the minors, Bailey could be a stud. Cueto is hard to figure out. His strikeout per nine went down last year, but that could be explained by shoulder troubles that landed him on the disabled list. Even so, he went 11-11 with a 4.41 ERA. If he can pick up the strikeout rate and increase his K/BB ratio to 3 or so, then he could be dominant.

Harang has had two mediocre years in a row. He used to be a really good pitcher. It's hard to believe the last two years are the norm now, but unless he can prove otherwise, he's just a placeholder until the kids come up. Arroyo is a gritting fighter, with little else going for him. He finished fairly strong, but is at best, another placeholder.

Maloney was 13-5 in the minors and then came up and went 2-4 in late season starts with the Reds with a 4.87 ERA. But his K/BB was excellent at 3.5 as he has excellent control. He gave up too many homers, but that should correct itself. If he keeps the ball in the yard, he could win 15.

Reds' fans have a lot to look forward to. The future may or may not show up in 2010, but it won't be long beyond that if 2010 isn't the start of big things for the Reds. Just picture in your head a rotation of Volquez, Cueto, Chapman, Bailey and Maloney. Whoa. That could be fun to watch.

Mark McGwire Comes Clean

Mark McGwire confessed to what we always knew to be true. He took steroids. He admitted it and he put it all out there. And it's certainly ironic that many of the same people that said he had to do this before taking the hitting instructor job with the St. Louis Cardinals are now spewing venomous and self-righteous diatribes in his direction. Want proof? Try this one. Talk about asking a guy to walk the plank and then spanking him while he jumps in the water.

You want the Fan's take? You want it in the first person? I don't care. I'll say it again. I don't care. It doesn't change my opinion of Mark McGwire. It doesn't change the magic he performed in 1998. It doesn't change how he single-handedly helped me through my first Labor Day weekend after the end of my first marriage. He brought me joy in a dark time. He was majestic and heroic when I needed someone to root for. I needed a bridge to my long-lost father who would have enjoyed the moment as much as I had. He brought tears to my eyes when I was sitting all alone. None of that changes.

So how was Barry Bonds different? McGwire thought the stuff would get him back on the field and perhaps keep him there. Bonds started using out of jealousy for McGwire and Sosa and the accolades they were receiving. That's how it's different. But even all of that doesn't matter to me.

No one will convince me that steroids (or whatever PED was used) can help you hit a baseball. If 50 to 80 percent of major league players were using, how come nobody else hit that many homers and hit them that far? The same really goes for Bonds. He still had to hit those baseballs and that's still the hardest thing in sports to do.

I have to laugh at the outrage. I have to laugh at the statement from even my personal hero, Peter Gammons, that he won't vote for McGwire now that he has admitted "cheating." How exactly does Mr. Gammons or Mr. Brown know that Andre Dawson didn't take some things and that Roberto Alomar never used the stuff? They don't. Nobody does. With all we have come to know, the whole era is suspect. So we might as well continue to do what we've always done and that's vote the best players of their era into the Hall of Fame.

Soon, Jeff Bagwell will come up for his vote. Was he clean? How do we know? Was Mike Piazza? Who knows. Let's put those two up under the microscope like McGwire and see what happens. Let's hound them and tell them they can never work in baseball again unless they admit what they might have done. I am not accusing them. I'm just saying the whole generation is suspect.

There are two things I appreciated about today. First, Bud Selig took the high road and said that Mark McGwire did the right thing and that it was appreciated. Good for Bud. That's the right spirit of the thing. As has been written in this space ad nauseum, the past wasn't tested. The past wasn't legislated against. It should be left in the past and granted that the game was asleep at the wheel on the subject. Test now and crack down on those who fail the tests. But please, for heaven's sake, let's stop cracking the players of the PED era over the head.

The other thing I appreciate is the support McGwire is getting from the Cardinals and the organization. What a healthy thing that is. This guy was a product of his era. He did things we wish he didn't do. But he has admitted it and we want him to work for us. Good for them. And good for baseball. Because deep down, I believe Mark McGwire is a good guy. I believe he wanted to be a baseball player and toward that end, made choices that he now regrets.

Forgiveness is the most powerful tool given to us in this universe. It is the most wonderful ability once learned. It is humble and it is enriching. My ex-wife and I have both discovered this tool and we have made the best of our lots since. If I can be forgiven and she could, why can't Mark McGwire, or that guy that just cut you off in traffic?

I support Mark McGwire and I appreciate his candor. I actually wish he hadn't apologized. There really was no need for it since it can't be undone. And really, it's probably not all that sincere when it comes right down to it. If he had a life like Groundhog Day and lived his life over a hundred times, in the era and situations he was in, he'd probably make the same choice another hundred times. They all would have.

So thanks, Bud Selig. And thanks, Tony LaRussa. And Tim Brown? Get over yourself.