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MLB’s 25-and-Under Team

Today’s baseball landscape has perhaps a larger group of young superstars than any other time in the game’s history. Shortly after the Hall of Fame voting results were released in January, I took a look at the 25 active major leaguers who stand the best chance of eventually reaching the Hall of Fame. What I found was that there were very few who could be put into the category of “shoo-ins”. The only active players you could really say have a near 100% chance if they retired today are Pujols, Beltre, Cabrera, Ichiro, and possibly Kershaw. A large part of that is because the star power is shifting more towards younger players who have burst onto the scene the last few years. In fact, of the last six MVP awards winners (three AL and three NL), only Josh Donaldson was over the age of 25.

Because of all the incredible new talent entering the game, I went position by position to determine an all-star team of players who are 25 years of age or younger. Some choices were extremely tough, as you can imagine. For each position, I asked myself which player I would want to have for the next ten to fifteen years if I were building a team today.

Catcher: Gary Sanchez, Age 24 (Yankees)

This was a rather obvious choice, unless you count Kyle Schwarber as a catcher. Few rookies make as grand of an entrance as Sanchez did last season. He bashed 20 home runs in just 201 big league at bats, and with the dearth of good hitting catchers around the game, Sanchez already has a claim as one of the game’s top five backstops, regardless of age or experience. Keep in mind that only five catchers in all of baseball hit more home runs than Sanchez in 2016, and he only played 53 games. The Yankees are undergoing a youth movement and the 24-year old is front and center.

First Base: Greg Bird, 24 (Yankees)

First base happens to be one of the least represented positions when it comes to players under 25, so Bird gets the nod here over Ryon Healy of the Athletics. Unfortunately, Bird missed the entire 2016 season due to a shoulder injury, but he demolished opposing pitchers in Spring Training and now has a firm grasp on the Yankees’ first base job. Hitting left-handed pitching is still an area he needs to improve in, but it’s not unrealistic to envision Bird hitting 30 home runs this year, especially given the luxury of Yankee Stadium’s right field porch.

Second Base: Jonathan Villar, 25 (Brewers)

Honorable Mention: Rougned Odor, 23 (Rangers)

Many people probably would have gone with Rougned Odor here, but Villar was also one of baseball’s true breakout stars last year. Odor is still just 23 and coming off a 30-homer season, but Villar was the superior player in 2016. After struggling to establish himself in parts of three seasons with the Astros, Villar came out of nowhere to score 92 runs for Milwaukee and led the NL with 62 stolen bases. He also displayed good power for a middle infielder by hitting 19 home runs. The biggest disparity between Odor and Villar is their ability to get on base. Villar walked 79 times in 2016 to the tune of a .369 on-base percentage, while Odor walked only 19 times. The one flaw in Villar’s game is his high strikeout rate; he was second in the NL with 174 strikeouts and has always struck out frequently, even in the minors. Regardless, he is among the game’s most underrated players and is young enough that he can continue to develop as a player. He’ll make the move from shortstop to second base this year.

Third Base: Nolan Arenado, 25 (Rockies)

HM: Manny Machado, 24 (Orioles); Kris Bryant, 25 (Cubs)

This was another toss-up. There are four third baseman, three of them 25 or younger, who have a legitimate claim as a top ten player in all of baseball. How can you choose between, reigning MVP Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado? I ultimately went with Arenado, who has led the NL in home runs, RBI, and total bases each of the last two seasons. Some of that is attributed to Coors Field, but when you out-RBI the rest of the league by 20 in consecutive years, that should leave no doubt about your offensive prowess. Arenado has also gained a reputation as one of the premier defensive third baseman in the game; four Gold Gloves in four years back it up. Bryant, Machado, and Arenado are all extremely close in value, making way for some good debates. But as of now, Machado doesn’t walk nearly as much as the other two and Bryant is the most strikeout-prone, so Arenado gets the very slight edge. Regardless, it wouldn’t be a surprise if any one of them took home an MVP in 2017.

Shortstop: Carlos Correa, 22 (Astros)

HM: Francisco Lindor, 23 (Indians); Corey Seager, 23 (Dodgers)

Shortstop was easily the toughest position to choose. There are at least half a dozen shortstops under 25 who have the look of perennial All-Stars, but three especially stand out. Among those three, Corey Seager may currently be the best pure hitter, but I’m going with the all-around upside of Correa and Francisco Lindor, with Correa getting the edge. Lindor already does everything his team could ask for and is the type of player who can have a Derek Jeter-like impact on a franchise. However, I’m going with Correa because I think he’ll develop more power, improve defensively and on the basepaths, and become one of baseball’s top five players for a long time. Regardless, Seager, Lindor, and Correa all have monumental potential and perform well in nearly every aspect of the game, meaning any one of them could emerge as the best. Correa is the only shortstop in baseball history to hit 20 home runs in each of his first two seasons. Only nine other have done it in either of their first two years, including Seager. The talent level of young shortstops in today’s game in reminiscent of the mid-to-late 1990s, when Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Nomar Garciaparra all entered the league around the same time.

Left Field: Christian Yelich, 25 (Marlins)

HM: Andrew Benintendi, 22 (Red Sox)

Yelich hasn’t gotten the publicity he deserves, maybe due to the presence of his outfield partner Giancarlo Stanton, but all he’s done in his four seasons is hit and get on base. He’s always been known for his high batting averages, but Yelich greatly increased his power output in 2016. He also drove in 98 runs, and has a chance to score and drive in 100 annually now that he’s added more power. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Yelich named to his first of many All-Star teams in 2017.

Center Field: Mike Trout, 25 (Angels)

HM: Odubel Herrera, 25 (Phillies)

There are a number of good young center fielders, but Trout towers above them all. Although he won’t celebrate his 26th birthday until August, he has already built a compelling Hall of Fame case. What Trout’s been able to do so far has been nothing short of incredible. Since 1942, only Alex Rodriguez and Mickey Mantle scored more runs through their age-24 season than Trout. The five-time All-Star has finished first or second in AL MVP voting in every season of his career and could wind up as one of the greatest players of all-time.

Right Field: Bryce Harper, 24 (Nationals)

HM: Mookie Betts, 24 (Red Sox)

It was nearly impossible to choose between Harper and Mookie Betts for right field. Both are among the best players in baseball and Betts vastly outplayed Harper in 2016, nearly winning the AL MVP. But Harper has already won an MVP in 2015, a season which was historic for a player at his age on so many levels. For whatever reason, Harper doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he’s already accomplished. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t quite been on Mike Trout’s level (yet) or because people don’t like his personality, but neither argument makes a whole lot of sense. Critics tend to forget that Harper is still only 24, an age when most players are just getting started. Here’s some perspective on how good Harper has been since his debut; only six players have had at least 2,500 plate appearances prior to their age-24 season and had an on-base percentage over .380 and slugging percentage over .500 – Jimmie Foxx, Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Trout, and Harper.

Starting Pitcher #1: Noah Syndergaard, 24 (Mets)

There were so many great pitchers who could have been picked here, but Syndergaard is the one I believe has the highest ceiling of the bunch. It’s hard to believe 2017 is only the second time that Thor has made an Opening Day roster, but the big right-hander is already one of baseball’s most marketable stars, blessed with a breathtaking arsenal of pitches and a persona that fits perfectly in the Big Apple. Syndergaard is nearly untouchable when he’s on top of his game, with his triple-digit fastball and wicked slider that routinely reaches speeds in the low 90’s. Very rarely does a pitcher possess his strikeout ability and pinpoint control this early in a career, which makes Syndergaard one of the early frontrunners for the NL Cy Young award. With less than two full seasons of big league experience, there’s every chance Syndergaard continues to get even better, and that’s frightening to think about, especially if you’re a hitter in the NL East.

Starting Pitcher #2: Aaron Sanchez, 24 (Blue Jays)

The Southern California native burst onto the scene as a reliever in 2014, but has quickly emerged as one of the AL’s best starters. It’s no wonder the Blue Jays were so resistant to include him in trade talks while he was moving through their system. Sanchez led the league in ERA in his first full year as a starter in 2016 and may have had a shot at the Cy Young Award had Toronto not limited his innings down the stretch.

Starting Pitcher #3: Carlos Martinez, 25 (Cardinals)

HM: Michael Fulmer, 24 (Tigers); Marcus Stroman, 25 (Blue Jays); Steven Matz, 25 (Mets); Lance McCullers, 23 (Astros)

While the Cardinals enter 2017 amidst much uncertainty with their pitching, Martinez has become the team’s new ace and most reliable starter. The 2015 All-Star has turned in a 3.02 ERA the past two years. Martinez’s electric fastball and off-speed pitches have even drawn comparisons to Pedro Martinez.

Relief Pitcher: Roberto Osuna, 22 (Blue Jays)

HM: Edwin Diaz, 22 (Mariners); Cam Bedrosian, 25 (Angels)

One of the strengths the Blue Jays have is some great young starting pitching, but Osuna has been just as outstanding in the early part of his career as the team’s closer. What Osuna has done in his first two seasons is nothing short of historic. It’s rare enough for a pitcher this young to be a team’s undisputed closer; Osuna has already compiled 56 career saves, making him the youngest player ever to reach that total. In fact, among all pitchers who compiled 50 or more innings before turning 22, Osuna and Jose Fernandez are the only two to post an ERA under 2.75, WHIP under 1.00 and allow a batting average under .200.

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The Next Generation: Baseball’s Potential Breakout Stars

Nothing is predictable in baseball. Virtually every season, surprise teams contend for playoff spots and supposed favorites falter. As far as individual players go, established veterans can have down years and new stars emerge as key contributors.

Breakout stars are among the most intriguing players to follow, especially if they play for your favorite team. Here are 15 players who, for the most part, are not household names but have a chance to have outstanding seasons. Some of them have been around a few years or have been highly regarded prospects, and others are almost completely unknown, but all of them are players who I believe can take a huge step forward on the field in 2017.

The first group of players consists of ones who have yet to reach their full potential, but have still shown some talent in their brief time at the big league level…

Greg Bird, 1B (New York Yankees)

After missing the entire 2016 season with a torn shoulder labrum, the Yankees’ first base job is now Bird’s to lose. Any concerns over his ability to recover from that injury were quickly laid to rest after Bird abused Grapefruit League pitching, leading all of baseball in extra-base hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and finishing tied in home runs. There’s little doubt that he’ll hit for power, but if he can make improvements against left-handed pitching and cut back on his strikeouts, Bird will quickly become a franchise cornerstone for the Bronx Bombers.

David Dahl, LF (Colorado Rockies)

Although Dahl is starting the season on the DL, he’ll provide a major boost to an already good Rockies lineup upon his return. As a rookie in 2016, Dahl started hitting right out of the gate, finishing with a .315/.359/.500 slash line in 63 games. He may face some competition for playing time, but the plan was for Dahl to be the everyday left fielder and nothing will change as long as he hits the way he’s capable of. The 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft has solid power and speed that could make him an annual 20-homer/20-steal player.

Maikel Franco, 3B (Philadelphia Phillies)

In his brief big league career, it’s already obvious that Franco has a ton of power. But at age 24, the Phillies’ prized third baseman still has plenty of room to improve. Despite hitting just .255 in 2016, Franco still hit 25 home runs and struck out only 106 times, which is not bad at all for a young slugger in today’s game. He needs to find some way to get on base more in order to become a truly elite player, but don’t be surprised if Franco has a huge year and approaches 35 home runs.

Jon Gray, SP (Colorado Rockies)

Gray quietly had a very good rookie season in 2016. It’s not surprising that his 4.61 ERA failed to open many eyes, but that’s the life of a Rockies’ pitcher. Look a little further and you’ll recognize that his 1.26 WHIP is quite impressive for a pitcher who spends half his time in Coors Field. Gray also struck out 185 batters in 168 innings for a rate of nearly 10 per nine innings, good for sixth in the NL. He actually pitched better at home, leading further credence to the idea that he can succeed in Colorado and break the curse which is often placed on the team’s young pitchers.

Aaron Nola, SP (Philadelphia Phillies)

Nola, along with Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez, leads a group of young Phillies’ starters who could be the key to a quick franchise turnaround. Although he faltered in the second half of the season and dealt with injuries, Nola was fantastic in the early part of the year and in his 2015 debut. One of Nola’s best assets is his ability to limit walks. In 188.2 big league innings, Nola has only issued 48 walks and has struck out just over a batter an inning. This type of control led to him being considered one of the most major league ready pitchers in the minors prior to his debut. Nola is one of a few Phillies pitchers who has a chance to take a huge step forward in 2017.

Hunter Renfroe, RF (San Diego Padres)

If nothing else, Renfroe figures to bring plenty of excitement to San Diego this season. His awesome talent was on full display during a late season call-up in 2016, highlighted by his cannon arm in right field and one memorable home run he hit on top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building at Petco Park. Renfroe hit 30 home runs in AAA last year, and should get every chance he needs to carry that over to a Padres’ team that is in heavy rebuilding mode.

Kyle Schwarber, LF/C (Chicago Cubs)

Schwarber is a very logical pick to have a breakout 2017 season, since he has already proven he can hit for power in the major leagues. Although he only had four at bats before missing the rest of the 2016 regular season, Schwarber miraculously returned in the World Series to collect seven hits in 20 at bats. It’s not known how much he will catch going forward, but Joe Maddon will try to get him into the lineup anyway possible. The slugger’s awesome power will play well in Wrigley Field and he also gets a boost by hitting in the Cubs’ juggernaut offense. He could easily reach 30 home runs in his first full season, and has the look of someone who can hit 40 when he reaches his prime. Fun fact – Schwarber actually holds the Cubs’ franchise record for most postseason home runs with five. All five of them came in 2015, where he also became the youngest player to hit that many homers in a single postseason.

Dansby Swanson, SS (Atlanta Braves)

Swanson continued the influx of fantastic young shortstops in baseball in 2016 and will attempt to take his game to new heights in his first full season. The 23-year old looks like he’ll be a fixture for the Braves for years to come and should be one of the biggest factors in Atlanta’s return to contention. Offensively and defensively, Swanson showed poise beyond his years in his debut season.

Jameson Taillon, SP (Pittsburgh Pirates)

The Pirates are relying heavily on Taillon to provide quality innings in their rotation, and they have good reason to. In 2016, the tall right-hander became the first rookie pitcher of the century to post a strikeout rate greater than 20%, ground ball rate greater than 50%, and walk rate under 5% (per ESPN). Prior to joining the Pirates last year, Taillon was just as good in the minor leagues. In 61.2 innings with AAA Indianapolis, he walked just six (!) batters in total. Taillon has long been considered one of baseball’s very best prospects, touted as a “near perfect pitching prospect” way back in his high school days in 2009 and drawing comparisons to Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole. Now he gets to be part of the same rotation as Cole. His development was slowed down by the Tommy John surgery he underwent in 2014 but it obviously didn’t stop him, if last year was any indication. Taillon is a special talent that doesn’t come around too often and truly has a chance to develop into a future Cy Young Award winner.

Next is a trio of guys who are slightly more well-known, since they’ve all been around a few years. However, while all three have already excelled at times in certain aspects of the game, there’s reason to believe they can elevate their games even further…

Billy Hamilton, CF (Cincinnati Reds)

Hamilton’s situation is different than the previous names on this list, as he has been an established big league player for a few years. In fact, he’s one of only six players since 2000 to have three different seasons of 50 stolen bases. But while, he is a nightmare on the basepaths for opposing teams, he hasn’t exactly been a great player. Hamilton’s baserunning ability will always give him value, but his career on-base percentage sits at a lowly .297. However, last year was Hamilton’s best offensively, and he drastically improved after the All-Star break, reaching base at a .369 clip. If Hamilton can get on base at even an average rate, he’ll be a legitimately good player rather than just a one-dimensional speedster. And if he performs like he did in the second half of 2016, he has a chance to steal north of 80 bases.

Yasiel Puig, RF (Los Angeles Dodgers)

How can someone who hit finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting and started the All-Star Game the following year possibly be a breakout candidate? Well, despite these accolades, Puig has never driven in 70 runs, hit 20 homers, or stolen 12 bases. The past two seasons, he’s been in and out of the starting lineup, and even got demoted to Triple-A last August. Following his recall, however, Puig had one of his best months of the season (although he had been hitting very well prior to his demotion). Maybe getting sent down will serve as a wake-up call for a player who has been known to be unpredictable at times. There is talk that Puig may have difficulty finding a spot in the Dodgers’ lineup every day, but I don’t buy it. Puig should be in lineup regularly and will be in a great position to have his best season to date and finally get the most out of his immense talent.

Devon Travis, 2B (Toronto Blue Jays)

For Travis to have a “breakout year”, he doesn’t actually need to be any better than he’s been. The challenge, of course, is staying on the field for a full season. Because Travis has missed so much time in his first two years, his accomplishments have not been so widely noticed. In two seasons, Travis has missed just about half of the Blue Jays games, but has put up the following numbers in what amounts to the equivalent of one full season – .301/.342/.469, 19 home runs, 85 RBI, and 92 runs scored. Pair that with his solid defense at the keystone and you have a high-caliber, All-Star second baseman. If Travis can play even 130-140 games, he could place among the AL’s top second basemen, which is no small feat when you run through the other names on that list. By the way, the trade Toronto made to get Travis in the fall of 2014 goes down as a major steal; he was acquired in a one-for-one swap for Anthony Gose.

Not all successful players started out as high draft picks or can’t-miss prospects. These next two players are in their late twenties and probably not known to casual fans. Yet, both put in the work necessary at every minor league stop they’ve been to and are now getting an opportunity to showcase their talents in the majors…

Stephen Cardullo, 1B/OF (Colorado Rockies)

The Rockies have perhaps been hit harder by injuries than any team at the onset of the season. Two of the players who are starting the year on the DL are David Dahl and free agent acquisition Ian Desmond, which creates a hole in left field and at first base. The silver lining for Colorado is that Stephen Cardullo can play both positions. The 29-year old had torrid spring training, placing near the top his team’s leaderboard in nearly every offensive statistic. Cardullo starred for the Can-Am League’s Rockland Boulders from 2013-2015, earning him a minor league deal with the Rockies, where he had a brilliant season for Triple-A Albuquerque last year. If Cardullo can find a way into Colorado’s lineup on a more regular basis, he’ll reward the Rockies with his ability to make contact and collect extra-base hits.

Brock Stassi, 1B (Philadelphia Phillies)

One of the biggest surprises of Spring Training was the performance of the Phillies’ Brock Stassi who tied Maikel Franco for the team lead in home runs (6) and RBI (17). The Phillies likely didn’t plan on Stassi winning their final bench spot, but his sensational spring gave them no choice. The 27-year-old has spent the last six seasons in the minors and was understandably overcome with emotion upon hearing the good news (his reaction is a must-watch). But while it’s easy to dismiss the former 33rd-round draft pick’s chances of getting significant playing time, that may not be the case. Stassi has real skill. Across Double-A, Triple-A, and winter leagues over the last two years, Stassi averaged 34 doubles, 16.5 home runs and 91 walks per season. Plus he’s only struck out 179 times over those years, which is quite impressive, especially next to his 182 walks. The Phillies’ incumbent first baseman, Tommy Joseph, slugged over .500 in 2016 with 21 home runs, but doesn’t have anywhere close to the plate discipline Stassi does. If the left-handed hitting Stassi starts to outperform the right-handed hitting Joseph, this could quickly develop into a platoon, with Stassi eventually winning the job full-time.

Last but not least is a player who hasn’t played in the United States since 2013, but became an instant legend in South Korea over the last three years. Now he’s getting a chance to prove his recent performance was no fluke…

Eric Thames, 1B/OF (Milwaukee Brewers)

Thames is one baseball’s most intriguing players to follow in 2017. Once a promising prospect in the Blue Jays organization, Thames signed with the Brewers in November after a trio of extraordinary seasons in South Korea’s KBO. From 2014-2016, Thames hit a robust .348 with 124 home runs and 379 RBI for the NC Dinos. His 2015 season was one for the ages – 47 homers, 40 steals, 130 runs scored, 140 RBI, and a video game-like slash line of .381/.497/.790. Although the KBO is a notoriously hitter-friendly league, other players from Korea have performed well in the major leagues, and none of them came with the offensive numbers that Thames has. At age 30, Thames hasn’t played a big league game since he was 25, so it’s very possible his mid-career turnaround is the result of true growth as a hitter and not just a disparity in competition.

Opening Day 2017: American League

Few people would have picked the Cleveland Indians to come within one game of winning the World Series in 2016. This year, Cleveland is among the favorites, but there’s plenty of other American League ball clubs who are well equipped to challenge them. Here is Part II of my MLB Opening Day Outlook, plus one player from each team who is either destined to have a huge season or whose performance will be critical to his team’s success.

For “Opening Day 2017: National League”, click here.

AL EAST

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

The Orioles will once again boast one of the most powerful lineups in baseball, but they also went through another offseason where they passed on improving their mediocre starting pitching. There are some good arms in the rotation and the bullpen remains elite, but a shortage of trusted starters could become this team’s undoing.

Player to watch: Baltimore chose to bring back reigning MLB home run king Mark Trumbo on a three-year deal. That deal will be a boon for the Orioles if he can replicate his production from a year ago, but Trumbo also has a history of inconsistency from year to year.

BOSTON RED SOX

For the first time since 2002, the Reds Sox will enter a season without David Ortiz. Luckily, they still have plenty of offense to fill the void, led by MVP candidate Mookie Betts. The acquisition of Chris Sale also adds another ace to an already strong pitching staff, making Boston one of the most talented teams in the AL.

Player to watch: David Price may have escaped Tommy John surgery, but the left-hander will still begin the season on the DL. Although he performed adequately last year, the Sox need for him to perform better to justify his contract. If he does, Boston will possess one of the most imposing pitching staffs they’ve had in quite some time.

NEW YORK YANKEES

Unlike the Yankees’ teams of old, this year’s roster is filled with younger players who could form the next core of great talent. Although the future is bright, the starting lineup isn’t strong enough in 2017 to overcome a severe lack of pitching depth. For what it’s worth, the Yankees did hit have a better record and hit more home runs than any other team in Spring Training.

Player to watch: Gary Sanchez has already emerged as a fan favorite, and will get a chance to prove his rise to stardom is legitimate in his first full season. It’s not hard to imagine Sanchez taking the crown as baseball’s best hitting catcher by season’s end.

TAMPA BAY RAYS

The Rays had an interesting offseason, signing veterans like Colby Rasmus and Wilson Ramos on short-term deals but also trading away one of their best players in Logan Forsythe. The Rays just don’t appear to have enough tools to compete in a tough division, but they will certainly try to. If it doesn’t work out, they can deal some of their more established players at the trade deadline.

Player to watch: Chris Archer struggled in 2016, so if the Rays want any chance of keeping pace in the tough American League, they need their ace to get back to form. There’s no reason to think he can’t do it.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Toronto made a mistake in not bringing back Edwin Encarnacion, but at least they were able to retain Jose Bautista. Even without Encarnacion, Toronto’s offense is still good enough to carry the team at times. Much less heralded is their pitching, which may be the best in the American League. If the starters can build upon their success from a year ago, that will be the real key to reclaiming the AL East crown. The Red Sox have been labeled as the odds-on favorite to win the division, but the Blue Jays have a far better shot than they’re given credit for.

Players to watch: Bautista has something to prove after a down year and he’s the type of player that will make the most of it. He is still an incredibly disciplined and powerful hitter, so don’t be surprised if he surpasses 35 home runs again. Also, Marcus Stroman is a big game pitcher and will have a huge bounce back year.

AL CENTRAL

CHICAGO WHITE SOX

After trading two of its best players from a team that lost 84 games a year ago, Chicago will be tough to watch in 2017. More trades should come too, as the White Sox are undergoing a full teardown. As tough as it can be, it’s the right decision, as the team was going nowhere with the core they had in place. Instead, the White Sox have stockpiled a collection of talented prospects in hopes of a quick turnaround.

Player to watch: One of those prospects, Yoan Moncada, has higher upside than just about anyone in baseball. The speedster, who was acquired in the Chris Sale trade, will likely be called up to the White Sox sometime during the summer. That will give White Sox fans a look into what the future could hold, along with a lengthy list of other potential impact call-ups.

CLEVELAND INDIANS

Cleveland may have been a surprise World Series team last year, but a repeat would hardly be stunning. When Cleveland reached the Fall Classic, they did it without two of their top three starting pitchers in the postseason and without Michael Brantley for nearly the entire season. With those players returning, plus the addition of slugger Edwin Encarnacion, this isn’t only the best team in the AL, but maybe the best in all of baseball.

Player to watch: How well Brantley will play is still a huge question mark, but if he perform anywhere close to the level he was at before his injuries, Cleveland will be adding one of the most underrated, dynamic players in the game to an already great lineup.

DETROIT TIGERS

While it was thought that the Tigers might slash payroll, they chose to keep mostly all or their regular players, but didn’t add anybody of note either. Detroit certainly boasts one of the strongest lineups in baseball, but there aren’t many reliable pitchers in the rotation beyond Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer. The bullpen has been a concern for years, and many of Detroit’s best players throughout the roster are getting on in years. The Tigers certainly have the capability to make a playoff run, but the window could be closing.

Player to watch: Miguel Cabrera is too obvious of a pick, but he truly is a joy to watch hit. Even at age 33, Cabrera still finished third in the AL in OPS+ (157), fifth in on base percentage (.393), and second in slugging (.563). With no signs of slowing down, the four-time batting champion will once again be the focal point of Detroit’s offense.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS

The 2015 World Champions fell short of the postseason last year, but they are ready to make another run at the AL Central. With a nearly unprecedented number of notable free agents-to-be, the Royals could have done a full fire sale, but GM Dayton Moore knows that the current roster is too good not to try for another run. Instead, Moore sold high on some veterans, kept others, and added depth around the roster. The Royals have a decent team, but a Wild Card berth may be their best chance with powerhouse Cleveland in the division.

Player to watch: The Royals added a former top prospect in Jorge Soler in exchange for Wade Davis this winter. If Soler finally reaches his great potential, Kansas City will have a nice, controllable power bat to put in the middle of their lineup for years to come.

MINNESOTA TWINS

After narrowly missing the playoffs in 2015, it all fell apart for Minnesota last season. The Twins lost 103 games, which was nine more than any other team in baseball. There were very few contributions from veteran players outside of Brian Dozier, and many of the young Twins who stood out as rookies the previous season struggled. This year’s Twins will probably find themselves near the bottom of the standings yet again, but it will be encouraging if players like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler, and Jose Berrios can make big strides in their development. On a side note, the decision to outright Byung-Ho Park off the 40-man roster and subsequently keep him in the minors after a scorching hot spring makes little sense at all for a team like the Twins that has little chance to compete.

Player to watch: All of the aforementioned players (Buxton, Sano, Kepler, and Berrios) are expected to play a big role for Minnesota going forward and are all immensely talented in their own right. This is the perfect year to give them a long leash and see what they can do in a full season.

AL WEST

HOUSTON ASTROS

The biggest question surrounding the Astros is if their pitching will be able to support their explosive offense. Can Dallas Keuchel bounce back to where he was prior to 2016? How big of a factor will pitchers like Collin McHugh and Lance McCullers be? Offense should be no problem as Houston has a nice blend of enviable young talent and power-hitting veterans. The Astros spent big on offense, but didn’t add much pitching outside of Charlie Morton, who barely pitched last year.

Player to watch: Carlos Correa has already been unbelievable in his first two years, but he’s still just 22 and not even close to hitting his ceiling yet. That puts him among the early favorites for AL MVP.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS

The Angels chose to prioritize defense this offseason, so we’ll see if that helps to change their fortunes. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of productivity in their lineup outside of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and their starting rotation is one of weaker ones in the AL.

Player to watch: With Huston Street sidelined for the start of the season, Bedrosian will step into the Halos’ closer role. Bedrosian broke out in a big way in 2016, striking out an impressive 51 batters in 40.1 innings with a miniscule 1.12 ERA. If he can repeat that performance, it will alleviate some of the pressure off of a shaky starting rotation.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS

Oakland isn’t expected to compete in 2017, but the team did get some nice results last year from rookie starting pitchers Jharel Cotton and Sean Manaea. Sonny Gray is still dealing with injuries after a lost season, but he was one of the AL’s best starters from 2014-2015. Pitching could be a strength for this team, but they probably won’t have enough offense to support it.

Player to watch: Outfielder Khris Davis hit 42 home runs in 2016 and represents a bright spot for Oakland’s offense. His power outburst dates back to 2015, when he hit 21 homers after the All-Star break, giving him 63 in the last year and a half.

SEATTLE MARINERS

The Mariners currently have the longest playoff drought in baseball, but it again feels like this could be the year. Seattle had an extremely active offseason, even if the majority of their moves came from smaller trades. You may not find a better trio of hitters than Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager in all of baseball, and the pitching has the potential to be very good, especially if Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma can stay healthy. Without a clear front-runner in the AL West, this division could be for the Mariners’ taking.

Player to watch: The Mariners parted with a talented pitcher in Taijuan Walker to acquire Jean Segura, who had a quietly excellent season. The shortstop hit .319 with Arizona, while also belting 20 home runs and stealing 33 bases. Seattle has a lot invested in Segura, so his performance could be a major deciding factor for whether or not Seattle finally reaches the postseason.

TEXAS RANGERS

The Rangers may be the team most likely to regress in 2017. Despite winning an AL best 95 games, the Rangers amazingly gave up four more runs than they scored, resulting from a combination of both great luck and elite late-game pitching. That’s not entirely sustainable, so to make the playoffs again, Texas will need to play better than they did last year, which may be a tall task. There isn’t much to count on in the rotation beyond Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish and while Texas added some solid position players to fill their many roster vacancies, their lack of a bigger acquisition is a little puzzling.

Player to watch: Adrian Beltre is within reach of multiple milestones this season, including 3,000 hits, 450 home runs, 600 doubles, 1,500 runs, and 1,600 RBI. Only Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski have accomplished this.

 

AL Division Winners: Blue Jays, Indians, Mariners

AL Wild Card: Red Sox, Astros

The American League is slightly more wide-open than the National League in terms of teams that have a realistic chance at the playoffs. The best bet to win their division is Cleveland, since they are so good on paper, and because the AL Central could be the weakest division.

The AL East should come down to the wire, but I gave the edge to Toronto based on the strength of their starting pitching, which is also why I have the Orioles narrowly missing the postseason.

Seattle’s offense is so exceptional that 2017 is as good a year as any for them to snap their postseason drought, especially if the Rangers take a step back. However, the Astros will give the Mariners a run for the money in terms of whose offense is better. The Tigers and Royals should at least be in the Wild Card race as well if things go right.

The 2016 World Series featured two teams that hadn’t won in a combined 176 years. If that proves anything, it’s to expect the unexpected when it comes to baseball.

Opening Day 2017: National League

The turning of the calendar into April means it’s time for Opening Day and while it’s impossible to predict how every team will fare come October, it’s still fun to try. Here is a brief outlook for each National League team, plus one player from each club who is either destined to have a huge season or whose performance will be critical to his team’s success.

NL EAST

ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves have been undergoing a rebuild, but they brought in a number of veterans to mentor their younger players and stay competitive at the same time. They did perform very well towards the end of last season, so it remains to be seen whether or not they can carry that momentum into 2017. Atlanta is a team on the rise, and although they probably won’t be in contention come September, they could improve to around .500 as they debut their brand new ballpark.

Player to watch: Dansby Swanson was impressive in his brief debut last year and looks primed to become one of game’s best shortstops.

MIAMI MARLINS

Miami has an intriguing collection of offensive talent, from speedster Dee Gordon to the outfield trio of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, and Marcell Ozuna. The Marlins spent big on the bullpen, but the starting rotation is a huge area of concern following the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez.

Player to watch: We know about Stanton’s tape measure power, but Yelich is getting better and better each year. Yelich more than doubled his career high in home runs last season and although he’s never made an All-Star team, that’s about to change.

NEW YORK METS

The roster the Mets will open the season with is a true rarity in the modern game, since it’s nearly identical to the one that clinched a Wild Card berth last season. That could be a good thing, since the 2016 Mets were devastated by injuries, yet still won 87 games. If they can stay healthy, New York should be on par with the Nationals and could very well have the best starting pitching in baseball.

Player to watch: Yoenis Cespedes was the star the Mets needed to keep, so they handed him the largest contract of the offseason. Cespedes has grown tremendously as a hitter in his year and a half in the Big Apple. There’s a chance he has his first 40 home run season and could make a run at the NL MVP.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

The Phillies’ had one of baseball’s worst offenses in 2016, but there are reasons for fans to be optimistic. Maikel Franco has the skills to become a perennial 30 home run bat and former Rule 5 pick Odubel Herrera has become a fine player. Prospects J.P. Crawford and Jorge Alfaro should also help in the coming years. On the pitching side, Philadelphia has three good young arms in Aaron Nola, Jerad Eichkoff, and Vince Velasquez, along with veteran Jeremy Hellickson. In all likelihood, the Phillies won’t be serious playoff contenders for another year or two, but this team isn’t far off.

Player to watch: Franco has already shown to have serious power, but he’s a good candidate to have a huge breakout in 2017.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

The Nats made it back to the postseason in 2016, but this is a team that surely has greater aspirations in mind and there’s certainly no shortage of star power in Washington. The pitching duo of Maz Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is as good as any in the game. The lineup is very deep, anchored by Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Trea Turner, who is on his way to becoming one of the best all-around players in the game. From one to eight, it’s arguably the deepest lineup in the NL.

Player to watch: After a down season, Harper should have no trouble getting back to his MVP form from 2015. It’s easy to see him entering the MVP conversation once again and if that happens, the rest of the National League has another reason to be worried about the Nationals.

NL Central

CHICAGO CUBS

The defending World Series Champions will enter the season as the favorites once again. Perhaps no team has as deep of a 25-man roster as the Cubs, with superstars all over the roster on both sides of the ball. It would be a big surprise if Chicago didn’t win the NL Central.

Player to watch: The nation got a chance to witness the immense talent of Javier Baez in the playoffs. Joe Maddon can play Baez almost anywhere on the diamond, and will surely try to get him into the lineup as much as possible. The Cubs may have more accomplished stars, but Baez’s ceiling is still incredibly high.

CINCINNATI REDS

Reds’ fans will get a look at what the future holds, as the departure of Brandon Phillips opens the door for infielders like Jose Peraza and Dilson Herrera. Billy Hamilton showed some improvements late last year and Joey Votto remains an on-base machine, but Cincinnati’s patchwork pitching rotation eliminates any chance of being competitive this year.

Players to watch: The Reds intend to use Raisel Iglesias and Michael Lorenzen as multi-inning bullpen options, sort of like a throwback to an earlier era. If they follow through, each pitcher could exceed 100 innings out of the pen. It will be interesting to see if other teams adopt a similar strategy if the Reds have success with it.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Milwaukee is another team in rebuild mode, but Jonathan Villar has developed into a franchise cornerstone. Villar led the NL in stolen bases a year ago, while also hitting 19 home runs to go along with a .369 on base percentage. The Brewers have done a nice job stockpiling prospects the past few years, but this year’s club will more than likely be battling the Reds for last place in the NL Central.

Player to watch: Eric Thames will be a fascinating player to watch as he returns to the states after three monster seasons in South Korea. Can he carry the momentum over to Milwaukee?

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Much of the low-budget Pirates’ offseason revolved around speculation over whether Andrew McCutchen would be dealt. McCutchen is still in Pittsburgh and it’s a very similar team around him, at least offensively. Pitching , on the other hand, is a big question mark. The Pirates have some intriguing talent on their staff, including rookie Jameson Taillon, but a lot is unproven. Rotation ace Gerrit Cole has become injury prone and the decision to deal Francisco Liriano near the end of last season didn’t make much sense.

Player to watch: Starling Marte has played much of his career in McCutchen’s shadow, but his blend of power and speed make him one of the best, and underappreciated, outfielders in the National League.

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

The Cardinals fell short of the postseason in 2016 and played uncharacteristically poor defense. That should improve this year, but St. Louis also led the National League in home runs in 2016, which is hard to see happening again. This team should be solid, but will need a lot to go right in order to make a postseason run.

Player to watch: Free agent acquisition Dexter Fowler improves the Cardinals in all areas of the game. He could be the difference maker that puts St. Louis into the postseason.

NL West

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Arizona’s high hopes crashed miserably in 2016, en route to a 69-93 season. The D’Backs didn’t add a whole lot to their team in the offseason, so their success remains tied to the expectation that a number of players can rebound from bad seasons.

Player to watch: If A.J. Pollock can make a strong comeback after missing nearly the entire 2016 season, Arizona’s chances of reaching the playoffs will drastically improve. Even in that event, however, the Diamondbacks will still need much better contributions from players like Zack Greinke.

COLORADO ROCKIES

Colorado looked like a team on the rise last season, with as much offensive talent as any team in the game. If Colorado’s pitching can even be average, they should be a playoff team. However, the Rockies already have multiple key players injured before the season has even begun. The Rockies focused on bullpen help this offseason in the hopes of giving their starting rotation a greater margin of error.

Player to watch: Colorado’s best pitcher is probably Jon Gray, who opened eyes last year with his adept strikeout ability (9.9 K/IP). He has the kind of stuff that can help him overcome the difficulties most pitchers face when pitching in high altitude.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Like the Mets, the Dodgers put most of their resources into signing their own free agents. Since these included a lot of the top players on the market, why not? Health concerns still linger over their pitching rotation, but the Dodgers are an extremely talented team, so it appears only bad luck with injuries will keep this team out of the postseason.

Player to watch: No active pitcher is better than Clayton Kershaw. He’s been on an unreal run over the course of his career, but did miss some time last year with a herniated disc in his back. The Dodgers will hope he is fully healthy, in which case he’ll once again be the favorite for the NL Cy Young Award.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

San Diego might have the worst roster in major league baseball. However, Andy Green will use the opportunity to give substantial playing time to young, unproven players who could play a role for the team in the future. Wil Myers finally broke out last year and is now a key building block for the Padres.

Player to watch: The Padres do have one of baseball’s most intriguing players in pitcher/catcher/outfielder Christian Bethancourt. Two-way players have been nearly nonexistent in the last century, so it would be pretty cool if Bethancourt succeeds with it.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Since it’s not an even numbered year, do the Giants even have a chance? They certainly do if their bullpen can stop blowing leads and their offense is more consistent. But the Giants also failed to add a big bat to a lineup that went through prolonged dry spells in 2016, especially in the power department.

Player to watch: The Giants gave a lot of money to Mark Melancon in order to bolster the back of their bullpen. This was San Francisco’s only major offseason addition, so the team is placing relief pitching at a very high value.

 

NL Division Winners: Mets, Cubs, Dodgers

NL Wild Card: Nationals, Rockies

Like last year, the National League appears to be very top-heavy, with only about seven or eight teams that have a real shot. I’m guessing the NL East race will be the tightest of all the divisions, and it could come down to whose players stay healthier. If the Mets starting pitchers can avoid lengthy stints on the disabled list, they will be awfully tough to compete with. But if their elite pitching is compromised at all, the Nationals, who have the superior offense, could start to run away with it.

The Rockies are my surprise NL team in 2017. With an abundance of offensive talent and some promising young pitching, it’s easy to envision them ending their seven-year playoff drought, especially in a year when other competitors like the Cardinals, Giants, Pirates, and Marlins all have some major flaws.

Extra Inning Rule Changes Won’t Solve Anything

Extra inning games will look a lot different in rookie ball this year. MLB announced that they will be testing out a new system in the Gulf Coast League and Arizona Fall League which will automatically place a runner on second base at the start of the tenth inning. The drastic new rule, which has the approval of Hall of Fame manager and current Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, falls in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to improve baseball’s pace of play.

Only, it won’t really change the pace of play at all. MLB is missing the fact that pace of play and game length are two very different things. I’m all for quickening the pace of games, so long as it doesn’t change the actual rules of the game itself. There are plenty of little adjustments that could be made, some of which Manfred has already implemented, and I commend him for that. One of those is limiting the length of the breaks in between innings. Another good thing he did was requiring batters to stay in the dirt area behind home plate for the entirety of their at bat. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as though this was working initially, until umpires decided to stop enforcing it after a few months.

Teams are already limited to one mound visit by a coach or manager per pitcher per inning, but I would also be in favor of limiting player mound visits to one per inning. The catcher shouldn’t be allowed to visit his pitcher for every single batter in the inning. If you can’t get on the same page, that’s just too bad. Making that a rule could shave off ten or more minutes from each game.

Implementing a pitch clock is another idea that’s been thrown around and it sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure it would work very well in practice. Again, this is something that was attempted to some degree a few years back, but it never seemed to be enforced very consistently. A better solution would be to have coaches train pitchers from a young age to get rid of the ball quickly and practice rhythm. It would actually be an advantage to the pitcher, since it would throw some batters off more by giving them less time to prepare for the next pitch. There’s no reason it can’t be done; Mark Buehrle made a career out of it, and if you look at clips from the 70s and 80s, pitchers would routinely get the ball back from the catcher and throw the next pitch within five to ten seconds. As a batter nowadays, you can take a pitch, run to the supermarket, and get back before Pedro Baez or Clay Buchholz throws the next pitch.

The rule changes that the league has been proposing this offseason badly miss the point. Earlier this month, MLB made proposals on two different rule changes, one being the raising of the strike zone and the other the elimination of the intentional walk. Raising the strike zone approximately two inches, as has been proposed, would have more of an impact on the game, presumably leading to an increase in balls in play. While I would love to see fewer strikeouts, I’m not sure if this would accomplish just that or have the adverse effect of causing a spike in walks. Jayson Stark of ESPN notes that nearly 30% of all plate appearances in today’s game result in either a walk or a strikeout, a higher percentage than any other time in MLB history. Besides, every umpire already has their own unique strike zone, so I’m skeptical that veteran umpires would change the way they’ve been calling games for decades.

Doing away with the practice of tossing four balls to the plate for an intentional walk won’t change anything significantly and for that reason, it’s a fairly curious proposal. Stark also points out that intentional walks only happen once every 2.6 games on average. That means this new rule would eliminate one whole minute every two and a half games. That’s one entire minute. Every two and a half games.

Both of these proposals will need to be approved by the player’s union, but if MLB is serious about cutting dead time out of games, this will not solve anything. Nor will tinkering with the extra inning rules. Before you panic, the extra inning modifications are not going to be implemented in the major leagues, just the lower minors. Since it will only be implemented in the minor leagues, it does not need approval from the player’s union. However, the pessimist in me knows that there’s a possibility the rule gradually works its way up the levels of the minors until MLB adopts it.

That would be a real shame. It won’t have any effect of the majority of games, but the ones that go into extra innings are usually the most interesting and most compelling to watch. Torre says that in the event of an 18-inning game, “It’s not fun to watch when you go through your whole pitching staff and wind up bringing a utility infielder in to pitch.” Well, if managers are so concerned about that, maybe they should manage their bullpen better, instead of using five different relievers to get three out in the seventh inning. True baseball fans love the intensity and strategy that extra innings provide, and to mess with that would be inconsiderate of the sport’s fan base.

Active Players Most Likely to Make the Hall of Fame – 2017

For the second straight year, I’ve chosen to compile a list of active MLB players who have the best odds of winding up in the Hall of Fame after the conclusion of their careers. A lot has changed in a year. Some of the players from last year’s list have retired, and other players have performed at a level that greatly enhanced their odds. In addition, I have added ten more spots on this year’s list so that I could evaluate more players and avoid redundancy.

Keep in mind that I wouldn’t vote for every player on here, nor am I suggesting that every one of them is better than certain players who were left off the list. It’s whom I believe has the best chance at reaching the Hall of Fame based on career accomplishments, projected output going forward, and voter tendencies. Service time also needs to be taken into consideration, because it’s way too early to predict how the careers of players who are early in their careers will shape up. Players like Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, and Carlos Correa won’t appear on here. Instead, I’ll be writing a separate piece similar to this one which will cover the best young stars in the game.

1) Albert Pujols

Nothing has changed since last year; Pujols will end up as one of the greatest hitters in history. Even in decline, he is still a very productive bat and has a legitimate chance to break Hank Aaron’s career record for runs batted in. When it’s all said and done, it will be his incredible run with the Cardinals – which included an OPS+ of 170 and three MVP – that cements his legacy.

2) Miguel Cabrera

Cabrera is behind Pujols only based on service time. He is already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and continues to be one of the most feared hitters in the game. The only question is whether he or Pujols will ultimately finish up on top. Cabrera is three years younger and still going strong, while Pujols isn’t quite the hitter he once was. If Cabrera can continue to hit the way he has heading into his late 30’s, he could overtake Pujols as the greatest hitter of our generation.

3) Ichiro Suzuki

When Ichiro notched his 3,000th career MLB hit last season, he further solidified his eventual Hall of Fame induction. Reaching the rare milestone despite not playing in the majors until age 27 speaks for itself, but Ichiro also carries the added factor of acting as a pioneer for future Japanese players coming over to the U.S. and forever changing the game.

4)Adrian Beltre

Over his outstanding 19-year career, Beltre has very quietly put together a resume that places him among the best third baseman in the game’s history. He will be 38 this upcoming season and is under contract with the Rangers for two more years, so there’s every reason to believe Beltre can put together a couple more productive seasons. He has been at his best during his six-year tenure in Texas, and is a virtual lock to reach 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, with a shot at 500 home runs. Five Gold Glove Awards don’t hurt him either.

5) Carlos Beltran

Like Beltre, Beltran has somewhat quietly put together a career worthy of serious Hall of Fame consideration. He too has boosted his credentials by remaining productive into the latter part of his career. Beltran is less of a first ballot lock, but he should still get in rather quickly. Beltran has brought a unique blend of offense, defense, and speed to the game, and has also made nine All Star teams. What will put him over the top is his historic postseason performance. Beltran is a .323/.432/.646 hitter with 16 home runs in 55 playoff games. The only thing he’s missing is a World Series ring.

6) Clayton Kershaw

At the rate he is going, Kershaw could wind up being one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. Pitchers nowadays are much more prone to injury than hitters are, making it fairly difficult to project out the rest of their careers. Kershaw, though still only 28, may have already solidified his case. There aren’t too many players in recent memory who you could count as Hall of Fame locks before they turn 30, but Kershaw is currently enjoying a run of brilliance that hasn’t been seen since another legendary Dodger lefthander, Sandy Koufax. In fact, Kershaw may have already surpassed Koufax in career accomplishments. Koufax amassed an ERA+ of 167 over his final five seasons in what is considered by some to be the greatest peak of any pitcher ever. Over the last eight seasons, Kershaw’s ERA+ is 166. He’s also won three Cy Young Awards; the other eight players to accomplish this feat were all first ballot Hall of Famers, with the exception of Roger Clemens.

7) Robinson Cano

His first two years in Seattle were slightly down from what he did as a Yankee, but last year was among Cano’s best, during which he set a career high with 39 home runs. Showing no signs of slowing down, the 34-year old has missed only a handful of games over the last ten years and is already in select company in terms of offensive achievements among second basemen. He currently has 479 doubles and seems a good bet to surpass 3,000 hits. Cano has a chance to finish as the greatest offensive second baseman since World War II.

8) Felix Hernandez

King Felix was less dominant than usual last year, but he’s still only 30 and has already logged well over 2,000 innings in his career, so the total numbers are there. In an era when starting pitchers are given shorter leashes and injuries derail far too many great careers, Hernandez has been a model of consistency and excellence since he debuted as a 19-year old in 2005. Unfortunately, he’s played for a lot of bad Mariners teams over the years, so his win total isn’t as high as it should be. Luckily, baseball writers and analysts put far less weight in wins than they used to and look more at the whole picture (Hernandez himself won the AL Cy Young Award in 2010 with a 13-12 record). Felix is on the doorstep of the Hall of Fame, but it would be a shame if he didn’t get to pitch in the postseason at least once while he’s still in his prime.

9) Mike Trout

Trout would have appeared on last year’s list if I hadn’t set a requirement of at least seven major league seasons. I realize now that it shouldn’t matter because the odds of Trout making the Hall of Fame even with just five full seasons under his belt are better than most active players. He has finished either first or second in MVP voting every year since 2012, has led the league in runs scored four times, and has already accumulated 48.5 WAR by the age of 24, for those who use advanced metrics. Rarely has a player taken the league by storm so early in his career the way Trout has.

10) Jon Lester

Lester has steadily been building a strong Hall of Fame case for years, and may have had his best season in 2016. The left-hander has made at least 31 starts each of the last nine years and holds a solid 3.44 career ERA, despite pitching a good chunk of his games in the AL East. Although not the best barometer for a pitcher’s effectiveness, Lester averages about 15 wins a year and has a .635 lifetime winning percentage, which will surely sway some voters in an era where wins are much harder to come by for starters. And of course, we can’t discount the three World Series rings he’s won. The Red Sox and Cubs both owe a lot to Lester, because without his exemplary World Series accomplishments (4-1, 1.77 ERA in 35.2 innings), who knows how those series would have turned out.

11) Justin Verlander

Following the 2014 season, Verlander looked to be in decline, but he’s bounced back the last two years, nearly winning the AL Cy Young Award in 2016. Verlander has been very durable over his 12-year career, leading the league in innings pitched three times and strikeouts four times. He’s received Cy Young votes in seven different seasons, and when he appears on the ballot, voters will remember him being the best pitcher in his league for a period of time.

12) Dustin Pedroia

He doesn’t have the same power as Cano does, but Pedroia is nonetheless a lifetime .301 hitter at a premium defensive position, who’s also won an MVP and four Gold Glove Awards. There is a certain intangible factor that needs to be counted for too. As the obvious choice to take over as vocal leader and unofficial captain of the Boston Red Sox following the retirement of David Ortiz, Pedroia should get a long look once he’s eligible for the Hall.

13) Cole Hamels

Hamels compares very favorably to another pitcher on this list, Jon Lester. The similarities between the two are actually pretty striking. Both lefties debuted in 2006 and will be 33 years old in 2016. They’ve both made 30 or more starts in each of the past nine years and have nearly identical career records and ERAs. While Lester has slightly more postseason experience to his credit and has three rings, Hamels has a lot of postseason success as well, and he won World Series MVP honors in 2008. The bottom line is that if Lester is building a solid Hall of Fame case, Hamels is right there with him.

14) Madison Bumgarner

He hasn’t been around as long as some of the other hurlers on this list, but Bumgarner has already accomplished a heck of a lot in his eight-year career. The Giants’ ace currently carries a career ERA of 2.99 and a WHIP of 1.10, and he keeps getting better. The last four seasons have been the best of his career and at age 27, Bumgarner figures to have plenty of great years left in him. Like teammate Buster Posey, his role on three San Francisco World Championship teams will play a big factor in cementing his legacy. With a pristine 2.11 ERA in 102.1 postseason innings, Bumgarner may just end up being the greatest postseason pitcher the game has ever seen. His World Series heroics are already the stuff of legends – four wins and a save in five appearances and just one run given up in 36 innings.

15) Buster Posey

Catcher is somewhat of an underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame, and among the 19 backstops enshrined, only five have played in the last 50 years. Following the recent elections of Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, there isn’t a viable candidate entering the ballot any time soon, so the next catcher inducted will be a player who is currently active unless the veterans committee puts someone in. Posey is currently the league’s best catcher and already has a pretty stacked resume – Rookie of the Year, an MVP, three World Series rings, a Gold Glove, and three Silver Slugger Awards.

16) Adrian Gonzalez

Gonzalez is has an interesting case. He doesn’t have the gaudy power numbers often required of Hall of Fame first basemen, but he has been incredibly steady and consistent over the course of his career. A big reason is because A-Gon has managed to play at least 156 games in each of the past 11 seasons. Four Gold Gloves help his case too, as do ten consecutive seasons with 90 or more RBI. A good comparison would be Tony Perez, who may not have ever been the best at his position, but got into the Hall due to his consistency year in and year out.

17) Andrew McCutchen

McCutchen had a down year in 2016, but he’s only 30, so it’s reasonable to think he could bounce back. If that happens and he can maintain it into his mid-to-late 30’s, the player who finished in the top five in MVP voting each year from 2012-2015 and has made five All-Star teams should have a solid Hall of Fame case.

18) Chase Utley

Last year, I compared Utley’s Hall of Fame case to Nomar Garciaparra’s. Both were incredible players in their primes, but numerous injuries hampered a good chunk of the latter half of their careers. Sure, Utley is a far better player than a lot of the guys in the Hall, but how much weight can be placed on a player’s peak versus his overall output? From 2005-2009, Utley’s performance was legendary, but he has missed so much time since then that his total numbers probably fall a bit short. Although he intends to play in 2017, he didn’t look like he had much in the tank towards the end of last year.

19)  Yadier Molina

Molina’s case is a complicated one because it will test just how much value the voters put into outstanding defense. There’s no denying Molina is one of the greatest defensive catchers of all-time, but his offense doesn’t stack up to most players in the Hall of Fame. He had a few seasons where he hit well enough to garner serious MVP consideration, but for the most part, he’s been average or mediocre even for his position, and he looks to be in decline. One thing he has going for him is that there’s really no qualified catcher coming on the ballot anytime soon. Omar Vizquel, another player whose case rests mostly on defense, enters the ballot in 2018, so how well he does could give a good indication of Molina’s future prospects.

20) Ian Kinsler

Kinsler’s name might be one of the most surprising on here, but upon closer examination of his numbers, you might find that he’s a lot better than you thought. Although Kinsler has never gotten a great deal of national attention, he is everything a team could ask for in a second baseman. He plays great defense, hits for power, steals bases, and produces runs hitting at the top of the order. It might be tough for him to ever get much Hall of Fame support since he flies so under the radar, but if he continues to play at his current level for another five years, picture where he’d wind up statistically among second basemen. A strong finish could put Kinsler over 2,500 hits and 1,500 runs. Even if he doesn’t reach those numbers, he’s already one of five second basemen with 200 home runs and 200 stolen bases. The other four are all Hall of Famers – Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, and Biggio.

21) Joey Votto

Votto is the type of player who may have been underappreciated had he played in an earlier era. His .313 career batting average would have garnered plenty of attention, but his ability to walk and get on base at a ridiculous rate (.425) is more recognized in today’s game than ever before. Detractors can point to his somewhat low RBI totals from 2012-2015, and as crazy as it sounds, you could definitely make the argument that Votto walks too much considering his role in the Reds’ lineup. However, I would argue that the problem isn’t so much Votto’s approach as it is the team’s lineup strategy. If Votto is going to be a guy who is more willing to work the count in any situation than swing away with runners in scoring position, he should probably be batting first or second instead of third, so that’s not exactly his fault. Anyway, Votto’s contract runs thought at least 2024, so if he’s able to continue reaching base at a prodigious rate for a while, it should be enough to take him to Cooperstown.

22) Joe Mauer

In order to evaluate Mauer’s career, we can focus on his first ten years, during which he hit .323 with a .405 on base percentage, and compare it to other Hall of Fame catchers. Among all players who caught 500 games, Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey are the only ones with a career average higher than .310. Cochrane and Johnny Bassler, a catcher for the Tigers during the 1920s, are the only two with an on base percentage over .400. However, Mauer’s time behind the plate ended at age 30. He hasn’t caught a game since 2013, and while he was moved to first base in part to prolong his career, his production has fallen off pretty significantly. A first baseman who hits around .265 with limited power is a pretty mediocre player, so Mauer will have to hope the voters place a high value on his remarkable peak as a catcher.

23)  Jimmy Rollins

Although he’s in the twilight of his career, Rollins was a mainstay for the Phillies at one of the game’s toughest positions for a decade and a half. I’m guessing his career OPS+ of 95 will keep him out, but Rollins’ offensive totals are still better than a lot of shortstops in the Hall of Fame. He did win an MVP, and is close to 2,500 hits, 500 stolen bases, and 1,500 runs scored. Deadball Era Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and George Davis are the only shortstops to accomplish that feat.

24) Max Scherzer

Over the past four years, Scherzer has emerged as one of the more dominant starting pitchers of our time. During that span, he’s led his league in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio twice, strikeouts once, and has an ERA+ of 137. Scherzer has also had his share of memorable moments, which is something that acts as a big bonus for Hall of Fame candidates. The superb right-hander has thrown two no-hitters, won two Cy Youngs, and tied a major league record for strikeouts in a game with 20. He hasn’t yet accumulated the major career milestones that many of the other players on this list have, but there’s no reason to think a pitcher with Scherzer’s talent can’t get there.

25) Francisco Rodriguez

He’s probably not the first guy that comes to mind when you start thinking of future Hall of Famers, but with teams starting to place a greater value on relief pitchers, you never know. Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera will both get inducted in the next two years, which could open the door for more relievers in the future. Rodriguez already has 430 career saves, good for fourth all-time, is the type of dominant closer voters like to see. K-Rod is probably the most logical choice for an active relief pitcher to make this list.

Obviously, this list is mostly speculative. There will always be players that look like Hall of Famers who begin a steep decline and other players who aren’t even in the conversation that emerge later in their careers. I’m sure nobody thought Adrian Beltre would be a Hall of Famer after 2009.

There’s a whole group of active players who’ve had wonderful careers that could easily have made this list as well. Ace pitchers like Chris Sale, Zack Greinke, and David Price came close, along with veterans C.C. Sabathia and David Wright, who could re-enter the Hall of Fame conversation if they have major career rejuvenations. Lights out closer Craig Kimbrel was tough to leave off. In addition, late bloomers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, or Josh Donaldson could rack up some huge career numbers if they remain productive until they’re almost 40. Maybe Bartolo Colon can pitch until he’s 50 and get to 300 wins. Anything can happen.

Bagwell, Raines, and Pudge Reach Baseball Immortality

Congratulations to the National Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2017. The results of the always anticipated election were announced yesterday, revealing that Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez will be inducted in Cooperstown this summer, joining former general manager John Schuerholz and former baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who were elected in early December via the Today’s Game Committee.

Bagwell finally received the great honor in his seventh year on the ballot, and it’s about time. The Houston Astros’ franchise icon ranks among the greatest first basemen in the game’s history by just about any measure. With a voter pool that is becoming much better at looking at a player’s career from multiple angles rather than relying solely on raw numbers, Bagwell was this year’s top vote getter (86.2%).

Raines was inducted on his last try, joining Red Ruffing, Joe Medwick, Ralph Kiner, and Jim Rice as the only others to be make it in their final year on the ballot. Like Bagwell, he is another player whose case has been greatly aided by the changing voter pool and by strong internet campaigns. For a stretch in the 1980s, Raines was among the best players in the game, and one of the most effective leadoff hitters ever, stealing 70 or more bases for six straight years from 1981-1986 and only getting caught 69 times during that entire period. At 86.0% of the vote, he will become the third and possibly last player to enter the Hall of Fame as a member of the Montreal Expos (depending on which cap Vladimir Guerrero chooses have on his plaque). On a side note, Raines was the first former player I met in person. I got the chance to speak with him prior to a game back when he was managing the Newark Bears of the Can-Am League and he couldn’t be any friendlier.

Finally, “Pudge” Rodriguez becomes just the second catcher ever to enter Cooperstown on his first ballot, following in the footsteps of his boyhood idol, Johnny Bench. The longtime Texas Ranger won a record 13 Gold Glove Awards as a catcher throughout his career and made 14 All-Star teams. He received 76.0% of the vote from the writers.

Coming painstakingly close to induction was Trevor Hoffman, who missed by a total of five votes out of 442 ballots cast (74.0%). First-time candidate Vladimir Guerrero missed narrowly by 15 votes (71.7%), while Edgar Martinez experienced a significant increase in percentage from last year, moving from 43.4% to 58.6%. Luckily, Hoffman and Guerrero shouldn’t have to wait too long as they both appear to be near locks for induction in 2018. Martinez has two years left on the ballot, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can gain some more momentum next year and make a push for a 2019 induction.

While a class of three certainly clears up some space on next year’s ballot, there will still be plenty of backlog, judging by who is coming onto the ballot. Chipper Jones will coast in easily and could be the first unanimous inductee, although I highly doubt it. Jim Thome has a strong chance to get in as well, so that pair will essentially replace two of Bagwell, Raines, and Rodriguez on many ballots. Also appearing for the first time will be Omar Vizquel, who undoubtedly will receive strong support, Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones, who could appeal to more sabermetrically-minded voters but have far fewer credentials based on traditional measures, and Johnny Damon and Jamie Moyer, for whom the opposite is true. Finally, there’s the possibly-still-active Johan Santana, who was great for a time but was unfortunately too limited by injuries to have much of a chance.

Although many voters will still have to make some tough cuts next year, it looks almost certain that at least three more players will get voted in, with a strong possibility of four. However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for players who have been lingering in the 10%-25% range due to the backlog of great candidates and the restraints of a ten-player ballot limit. After 2018, there aren’t a ton of overwhelming candidates entering the ballot. Based on my observations, there won’t be any ballots after next year’s that include more than one first-ballot inductee for the foreseeable future. That creates a window for players like Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Larry Walker, and Billy Wagner to make up some serious ground.

Last but not least, no matter how much we can argue about who gets in and who doesn’t, it’s awesome how much interest is garnered by the months leading up to the election results. It’s true when they say there’s no other Hall of Fame that is so captivating and drums up as much good conversation as this one does. Part of that is due to the excellent writing of people like Jay Jaffe and Graham Womack, who have done a ton of research on the Hall of Fame and provide so much valuable insight. In addition, the work Ryan Thibodaux puts into his Hall of Fame Tracker is second to none. Being able to track the votes “live” makes the whole process all the more enjoyable.

Reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame is not easy. There are 317 people in the Hall of Fame which, considering there’s 146 years of history, is pretty exclusive. Only slightly more than 1.5 MLB players reach baseball’s greatest honor for each season that the sport is played. The exclusivity of the Hall is celebrated, which is why we care so much about who goes in and why it can’t be denied that any player voted in by the BBWAA is truly among the elite. Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Ivan Rodriguez deserve every bit of this incredible honor.

Breaking Down the 2017 Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot

In just two weeks, the National Baseball Hall of Fame will announce its new inductees for the Class of 2017. The announcement will take place on January 18, and as someone who is fascinated with the history of the game, it’s always fun for me to make my hypothetical ballot. This year I’ve taken it a step further by digging deeper into each candidate’s credentials and highlighting points in favor of all legitimate candidates on the ballot. Players who played in ten MLB seasons and have been retired for five years are eligible to appear on the ballot, as well as all players who received at least 5% of the vote the previous year. This year, 34 former players were selected to have their cases examined. Of those 34, there are 19 who you could make an argument for and who have a realistic chance at reaching the 5% threshold. Tim Raines and Lee Smith are each in their final year of eligibility.

Barry Bonds

If you just focus on him as a player, there’s no doubt about it. Bonds is one of the greatest players of all-time. What people tend to forget is that before he started hitting home runs every eight at bats in the early 2000s, Bonds should have already been a first ballot Hall-of-Famer. After the 1998 season, he had already hit 441 home runs and stole 445 bases to go along with a Cooperstown worthy .290/.411/.556 slash line. He had also collected three NL MVP awards, eight Gold Gloves, and seven Silver Sluggers. The biggest hurdle in Bonds’ path to induction is getting enough voters to change their minds regarding steroid era candidates. Since it’s impossible to know exactly who used and who didn’t, when Hall of Famer voters have tried to determine who should be punished, it’s led to inconsistencies. Players who have never been connected to PEDs at all, like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, have been unfairly penalized on past ballots. Plus, odds are that there is someone, if not multiple players, already in the Hall of Fame who used steroid that we’ll never know about. From the 1990s into the new millennium, baseball largely turned a blind eye to the issue. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it was a characteristic of the era. If the league didn’t care to do anything about it, the Hall of Fame should honor the best players of the era. That is my stance on the steroid era, although many voters and fans will understandably disagree.

Jeff Bagwell

Bagwell is one of the more underrated players in history. It’s widely accepted that he was a great player, but he never gets mentioned as one of the all-time great first baseman. He should. Even in an offensive era, Bagwell was still a significantly better than average hitter, amassing a career 149 OPS, good for 38th all-time. Most players with 1,500 runs and RBIs are in the Hall of Fame, but Bagwell was able to achieve the feat despite playing just 15 seasons. Of the players to reach those significant career milestones, only nine others also have over 400 home runs and 200 stolen bases. Bagwell is the only first baseman. In addition, there are only 11 players in history to match his career slash line (.297/.408/.540). I’m not sure why it’s taken Bagwell so long to reach the Hall of Fame, but hopefully this will be the year he finally gets the honor he is long overdue.

Roger Clemens

The same rationale used to explain Barry Bonds’ case also applies to Clemens. The Rocket was an exceptionally great pitcher who would be an easy Hall of Fame selection if he retired after 1996. He went on to blow away hitters for over another decade, ending up with 4,672 strikeouts (3rd all-time) and a record seven Cy Young Awards. His 3.12 ERA is remarkable considering the era and division in which he pitched, and his 354 wins are a total that will probably never be surpassed again. Like with Bonds, I am choosing to ignore the PED connection that Clemens carries and focus on him as one of the best players of his era. Players who were caught after drug testing began following the 2005 season, like Manny Ramirez, are a different story. I’ll get to that later.

Vladimir Guerrero

Guerrero will go down as one of the best players of the 2000s. Immense power, speed, and a cannon arm made him fascinating to watch, so I’m hoping he will get in sooner rather than later. His case is unfairly hurt by his relatively short career (by Hall of Fame standards), very much like Jeff Bagwell’s. Guerrero’s career totals are very good, but they don’t tell the whole story. If you look at his best ten-year stretch from 1998-2007, there was not one year in which Guerrero failed to have an OPS+ under 138, hit under .307, or slug under .547. That’s not just one of the stretches of hitting in the last 20 years; it’s one of the greatest ten-year runs in the history of baseball. Guerrero’s career WAR of 59.3 isn’t as impressive as some of the other players on this year’s ballot, but it’s again more of a product of his shorter career than anything else. My best memories of Guerrero were when he played in Montreal earlier in his career, and at that time he was probably the most talented player I’ve ever seen.

Trevor Hoffman

His chances depend upon how different voters value his role. For what his job demanded, Hoffman was easily one of the most effective closers in the baseball history. Then again, he was only a one-inning pitcher, unlike the other relievers in the Hall of Fame who would typically close out games by pitching the last two or three innings. There isn’t really a precedent for the modern closer getting into the Hall of Fame, but after Mariano Rivera (who will be elected easily in 2019) ranks Hoffman and another pitcher who happens to be on this ballot. From 1994-2009, Hoffman never had a WHIP over 1.18 and only had three seasons with an ERA over 3.00. Known for having one of the best changeups ever, he managed to strike out 9.4 batters per nine innings even though he was never considered to be as dominant as other closers. Relief pitchers are very much a critical part of baseball, so we must recognize those who filled that role the best. Like DH’s however, the limited capacity of their role means that they should be judged by a higher standard for Hall of Fame consideration. Luckily for Hoffman, he fits into the highest standard of relief pitchers.

Jeff Kent

Kent’s biggest claim to fame is that he hit more home runs than anybody else who played second base. He passed Ryne Sandberg in that category on October 2, 2004, although Sandberg was a better player as an elite defender who also stole 344 bases. That’s not to say Kent’s career was all offense. He wasn’t a bad second baseman, and turned a double play about as good as anyone. A bit of a late bloomer, his career really took off near age 30, when he became a potent run producer for the Giants, often acting as Barry Bonds’ protection in the lineup. From that point forward, Kent remained remarkably consistent, batting .295 and averaging an even 25 home runs, 100 RBI, and 85 runs scored per season for the rest of his career. 560 career doubles boost his resume as well. He’s a Hall of Famer in my mind, but unfortunately with the 10 player limit, he’ll be left off of many ballots for more qualified candidates. It’s going to be a long uphill climb for Kent to get inducted, but at least he got to compete on Survivor.

Edgar Martinez

Martinez is another guy whose role is one with virtually no Hall of Fame precedent. There are players currently enshrined who spent significant time at DH, but none to the extent that Martinez did. To put a player who barely spent any time in the field over the last ten years of his career, his hitting stats should have to be significantly better than the average Hall of Fame hitter. If Martinez doesn’t fit that bill, he at least comes close. He wasn’t really a power hitter until age 32, yet he still ended up with over 300 home runs and 500 doubles. His .312/.418/.515 slash line is quite impressive considering he played into his 40’s, when most other guys experience a big drop off in production that hurts their rate stats. Believe it or not, there are only 23 .300/.400/.500 players in history (with at least 3,000 plate appearances), and all but one of them who is eligible for the Hall is either already in or still on the ballot. If you raise the criteria to .310/.410/.510, Edgar becomes one of just 16. I’ve long considered him a borderline candidate, but I’m finally convinced that he belongs in the Hall.

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The Skyrocketing Cost of Relief Pitching

What has become apparent during the MLB offseason is that the price of relief pitching is through the roof. Mark Melancon (Giants), Aroldis Chapman (Yankees), and Kenley Jansen (Dodgers) all signed free agent pacts that easily surpassed Jonathan Papelbon’s old record for largest contract by a reliever, with Chapman and Jansen both surpassing $80 million over the duration of their contracts. In addition, the Cubs were forced to part with a talented young player in Jorge Soler in order to swing a deal for the now former Royals’ bullpen ace Wade Davis. While the Davis deal should have less of a long term impact on the Cubs, I’d be surprised those huge free agent signings didn’t turn out to be a total disaster for the clubs involved.

Before breaking down the implications and logic (or lack thereof) of these moves, let’s first try to understand why the price of relief pitching has become so sky high. Recent teams that have reached the World Series have not relied on their starting pitchers going deep into games. The 2015 Royals and 2016 Indians (at least in the postseason) lacked quality starting pitching depth and therefore counted on their starters simply keeping their teams in the game long enough to hand it over to a horde of dominant relievers. These teams possessed such a great bullpen that if the starters could get through five or six innings with a lead, you probably weren’t going to beat them.

There is a lot of merit to the idea that to win in the playoffs you need to have a good bullpen. Even last year’s Cubs, who were so talented in every facet of the game, including a major league best starting pitching staff, still won a lot of their playoff games on the strength of their bullpen. Joe Maddon went to his relievers early and often. But it takes at least three or four good pitchers to piece together a solid bullpen and that’s if you have good starting pitching. The Royals, Indians, and Cubs bullpens may have been highlighted by one incredibly good pitcher, but all of those teams had extremely deep bullpens as a whole, which is what really allowed them to rely on bullpen arms so heavily.

Despite teams in recent years advancing deep into the playoffs off of the strength of their bullpens, it’s crazy to pay relievers the same type of money that’s given to players like Ian Desmond or Dexter Fowler. As good as Melancon, Chapman, and Jansen have been, using up so much payroll space to sign a player who might pitch 70 innings is absolutely outrageous. None of them will pitch enough for their value to equal that of an all-star level position player or starting pitcher. It seems as though teams are expecting to replicate what the Royals, Indians, and Cubs have done in the playoffs, but it’s unrealistic to manage the same way that Joe Maddon or Joe Terry Francona managed in last year’s Fall Classic. You just can’t afford to pitch your best reliever for two innings every other day in mid-July in the way that Chapman or Andrew Miller did in the playoffs. As good as the two of them were, even they began to run out of gas by Game 7. Imagine if they were used that heavily over the course of the entire season. They might give their teams a significant edge in the playoffs, but their impact on that team qualifying for the playoffs is far less.

It’s obvious why the Giants made signing a pitcher like Melancon their biggest offseason priority. Their bullpen blew 30 saves in 2016, most in MLB. Melancon has been one of the best closers in baseball over the past four years, with a minuscule 1.80 ERA over that span. San Francisco may also lose both Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, two very good pitchers in their own right, to free agency, so they had some spots to fill. But how much better does Melancon alone make the Giants, and is it really worth $62 million?

The case of Chapman is especially curious. The Yankees have the potential to be extremely good in a couple of years, but they probably aren’t ready to contend just yet. The AL East loaded and the Yankees don’t appear to be much better than they were last year. A year ago, they were a pretty average team even when they had Miller, Chapman, and Dellin Betances in the bullpen. They haven’t upgraded their mediocre offense or starting pitching much either, and chances are they won’t make too many more major moves in the offseason. Chapman could opt out of his new contract after two years, so if he indeed leaves, the Yankees could have potentially paid him a ton of money without a single postseason appearance. And if he stays for five years, that contract has all the markings of becoming one that is greatly regretted. The history of relievers on long-term deals is not promising, and while there is very little precedent for a pitcher of Chapman’s caliber, there is even less precedent for a pitcher who throws as hard as he does with his kind of delivery. It’s hard to picture Chapman throwing 102 miles per hour for the next five years. It’s possible that he’ll be able to make the necessary adjustments when his velocity inevitably diminishes, but it’s perhaps more likely that his performance comes crashing down with it. A similar type of pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, while still very good, already appears to be trending downward at age 28.

On top of all of the baseball risks the Yankees are taking on, Chapman’s off-field character is what truly puts the decision under the most scrutiny. To hand out a contract of such significant length and dollars to Chapman, who served a suspension for domestic violence last year, sets a bad precedent and a bad example. Furthermore, Chapman never seemed to show any remorse over the incident and has skated around questions that have been asked to him regarding it. From the outside, it is pretty difficult to see anything that justifies the Yankees giving Chapman the contract that they did.

Kenley Jansen got a deal of similar value and length from the Dodgers, who have now solidified the back end of their bullpen with a player who has been very valuable for them in recent years. The Dodgers are not a team that typically cares about taking risks on huge contracts, but paying a relief pitcher $16 million a year could have an impact down the road for Los Angeles, who would probably want to stay under MLB’s new luxury tax threshold. However, he is younger than Melancon, and it just feels like he’ll hold up better than Chapman over the long term, since he is less reliant on pure velocity than he is on the great movement and deceptiveness of his cutter. Also, the Dodgers are in position to contend for a World Series title this year, so it makes a lot more sense to give big money to an elite closer than it does for the Yankees or the Marlins, who were said to have interest in both Chapman and Jansen.

The other elite closer who moved during the winter meetings was Wade Davis, whom the Cubs acquired for Jorge Soler. It’s a significant price to pay for a reliever who only has one year left on his contract, but this makes sense for both teams. Soler didn’t have a defined role on a stacked Cubs team, and as reigning World Series champs, Davis solidifies the back end of the bullpen for a team that is the odds-on favorite to be the best team in baseball again. From the Royals perspective, they get a young player with a lot of potential for a pitcher who they probably wouldn’t have been able to re-sign anyway.

While this trade makes sense, it also continues a trend dating back to the last couple of years, in which teams are willing to give up high-level talent for bullpen arms. The Yankees got huge returns in exchange for Miller and Chapman at the 2016 trade deadline. It was easy to be critical of the Indians and Cubs at the time for giving up so much, but both teams knew that they had championship contending teams, and both moves worked out pretty well for them. One trade that hasn’t worked out so well is the Astros decision to trade five prospects for Ken Giles, who disappointed in his first season in Houston. That was a head-scratcher when it happened just over a year ago and it doesn’t make any more sense now.

Even if relief pitchers have become greatly overvalued, what are teams to do if they feel that their biggest need is improving their bullpen? After all, obtaining quality free agents requires meeting the market value. One strategy that could pay off is what the Marlins have done just this week. Miami reached agreements with Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa, and could conceivably add a third quality reliever and end up paying about the same average annual value for three guys as they would have for Chapman. Several good pitchers are still on the market, including Boone Logan, Luke Hochevar, and Greg Holland, so the teams who have waited on adding relief pitching could be rewarded by paying much less than the teams who spent big on the top-of-the-market guys.

There’s no easy answer as to how front offices should navigate through the inflating cost of bullpen help, because a good bullpen is a very important aspect of wining in the playoffs. But if teams start to allocate large chunks of their payrolls towards single relief pitchers at the expense of more pressing roster needs, they may find themselves falling short of the postseason altogether.

 

The Impact of Bud Selig on Hall of Fame Voting

On Monday, the Baseball Hall of Fame welcomed two new members. Longtime Royals and Braves GM John Schuerholz and former Brewers owner and Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig were elected from a pool of ten players who appeared on the newly minted Today’s Game Era ballot. This was the outcome I predicted two months ago when the ballot was first released, and the two newest Hall of Famers do not come as much of a surprise. Still, the results are interesting nonetheless, and could have some major residual effects on Hall of Fame balloting in general.

On one hand, not many pure general managers are enshrined in Cooperstown, so the inclusion of Schuerholz is a nice addition. The only GM to win a World Series in both leagues, Schuerholz stands as one of the most successful front office executives in history.

Selig, however, is the candidate who will generate the majority of the discussion. While it can’t be overstated how large of a role he played in shaping the game that we know today, Selig also presided over the steroid era, and many of that era’s top stars have been denied induction by the writers. Selig was checked off on 15 out of the 16 ballots by the Today’s Game Committee, but no player who is strongly connected to PEDs has yet to receive 50% of the writers’ vote.

Many of the baseball writers simply don’t factor steroid use into their criteria, chalking it up to an unfortunate characteristic of the era. I’ll save my stance on that issue for another time, since it is far too complex to get into here. Yet, it seems sort of odd that while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have waited and waited to get into Cooperstown, the man who oversaw all of it for so many years would get in so quickly and so easily. Even certain players with no connection whatsoever to PEDs have been slighted by voters in the past, for no reason other than hitting a lot of home runs in the 1990s. Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, who both should have been elected on the first ballot, had support withheld from them by account of some people’s unwarranted suspicions.

Since the regular ballot is not voted on by the same people who vote on the era committees, it’s possible that these committees will tend to have a softer stance on the issue of steroids. Judging by the overall reaction, I don’t believe that Selig would have been voted in this year if his case was voted on by the hundreds of writers who vote for the regular ballot. It’s too early to reach any conclusions on the era committees’ voting tendencies regarding the issue, since Monday’s election marked the first time there was a player connected to PEDs on one of these ballots. Mark McGwire, whose time on the BBWAA ballot expired last year, received fewer than 5 votes on Monday. But unlike Bonds or Clemens, he isn’t a shoo-in candidate even if you just focus on his stats.

In terms of the BBWAA ballot, the fact that Bud Selig is now in the Hall of Fame could result in a shift in momentum for some other candidates who have been in limbo. A number of Hall of Fame voters have already said that they will now support Bonds and Clemens after not doing so in the past, in light of Selig’s election. Among these voters are Susan Slusser and Steve Buckley. Slusser brings up a great argument in pointing out the hypocrisy of keeping the greatest players of the era out of the Hall of Fame while the people who enabled the problem to happen are in. Buckley echoes that sentiment, even though he acknowledges how unfortunate it is for the players who resisted the urge to turn to PEDs in the mid-90’s and were often overshadowed. Bonds (44.3%) and Clemens (45.2%) have both inched closer to the halfway mark in vote percentage in 2016, but neither has experienced a major jump since debuting on the ballot in 2013. This trend suggested that both candidates’ support would remain mostly stagnant until they fall off of the ballot after 2022. However, if more and more voters are willing to ignore Bonds’ and Clemens’ connection to PEDs, there is at least a chance that they could be inducted by the writers eventually. Furthermore, other steroids-related players like Manny Ramirez, who is eligible for the first time this year, and Alex Rodriguez, suddenly have a clearer path to induction.

I’ve long believed that it would just take one proven steroid user getting into the Hall of Fame to turn the tide for candidates like Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa. Whether that happened via someone like Bonds getting voted in by the writers or somebody who is already in admitting to have used steroids, it would function all the same. As it turns out, Selig getting in may be enough to change the mindset.

For the record, the goal of this writing is not to slam Selig or to say that he shouldn’t be in. His legacy involves many other aspects aside from the steroid era. It’s simply to point out the connection between his election and some of the more controversial players currently on the ballot. It will absolutely have an effect on how voters view the era in regards to the Hall of Fame. The only question is how much of an effect it will have. Plenty of people will disagree on how to handle steroid candidates. There are a number of different stances you can take on the issue, but it’s part of what makes the Baseball Hall of Fame great. It’s so exclusive and leads to so much more discussion that we don’t see in other halls of fame.