BBRT 2015 National League Predictions

It's almost time to "Play Ball!"

It’s almost time to “Play Ball!”

With the players in camp and exhibition games approaching, BBRT is finishing up its 2015 pennant race predictions.  This post will focus on the National League – for the BBRT take on the American league, click here.  We’ll take a brief look at each divisional race and, for those who want a more detailed look, finish up with a team-by-team preview.

 

 

 

NL EAST

The Nationals ran away with the NL East a year ago (17 games over second-place Atlanta) and added the off-season’s premier free-agent – former Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. With arguably MLB’s best one-to-five starting rotation, Washington is poised to repeat.  The Mets and Marlins are likely to fight it out for second place – and  a possible Wild Card Spot. The Mets boast a strong starting rotation (particularly if Matt Harvey is back in form), an underrated bullpen and sound offense. Miami comes into the season with a strong offense, an effective bullpen and a combination of young and veteran arms in the rotation.  While the Braves still have a solid pitching staff (and one of the game’s top closers), they traded away too much of their offense to contend. The Phillies are in the processing of rebuilding – and their fans will need patience. Predicted order of finish:

Washington Nationals

New York Mets

Miami Marlins

Atlanta Braves

Philadelphia Phillies

NL CENTRAL

The Cardinals should have just enough offense to ride their pitching to another division title – although it wouldn’t surprise BBRT to see the Pirates, Cubs or Brewers atop this division either.  The Pirates, led by MVP-candidate Andrew McCutchen, have a nice balance of power, speed and defense in the lineup.  The pitching is a bit worrisome, but if the rotation holds up, they will be in the race to the end.  The Cubs improved on the field (Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, Miguel Montero) and in the dugout (new manager Joe Maddon). They also have a nice blend of veterans and up-and-coming youngsters in the lineup.  They will contend and, if the Pirates falter in the least, Maddon should be able to lead the Cubs into second place.  The Brewers led the division for 150 days in 2014, before a late season meltdown.  A healthy Ryan Braun would boost their chances, but the starting pitching seems a little thin.  While everyone else in the division seemed to be improving, the Reds appear to have given up more than they gained in the off-season market – particularly went it comes to the pitching mound.  Predicted order of finish:

Saint Louis Cardinals

Pittsburgh Pirates (Wild Card)

Chicago Cubs

Milwaukee Brewers

Cincinnati Reds

NL WEST

The Dodgers have the best pitcher in baseball in Clayton Kershaw – and the best starting rotation in the West. Plus, Los Angeles made a host of (surprising) off-season moves, improving their defense, without diminishing the offense. They should repeat as division champs.  We should see a battle for second place (and a Wild Card spot) between the defending World Series Champion Giants and the up-and-coming San Diego Padres.  BBRT is going to go out on a limb and say the dramatically improved Padres offense (particularly the all-new outfield) and strong pitching will bring the Padres home ahead of the Giants. The Giants will still be in it, but they will miss Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse, and they really could have used Jon Lester or James Shields to bolster their rotation.  (BBRT had San Diego predicted to finish behind the Giants until the Shields signing.) The Rockies face the usual dilemma – solid offense (if healthy) and suspect pitching (Who wants to sign on to pitch at Coors?).  Good health could help – the Rockies led the NL in trips to the disabled list in 2014 – but fourth place looks like the limit.  On a winning team, the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt would be one of the front-runners for MVP.  While the D-backs did improve over the off-season, look for a middle-of-the-pack offense to be offset by a below-average pitching staff. Predicted order of finish:

Los Angeles Dodgers

San Diego Padres (Wild Card)

San Francisco Giants

Colorado Rockies

Arizona Diamondbacks.

NL MVP

Winner: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

Contenders: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates; Anthony Rizzo, Cubs; Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks.

NL CY YOUNG AWARD

Winner:  Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Contenders: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Jordan Zimmerman, Nationals; Stephen Strasburg, Nationals; and, to break the trend, Johnny Cueto, Reds.

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Winner: Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers

Contenders:  Yasmany Tomas, Diamondbacks; Noah Syndergaard, Mets; Jorge Soler, Cubs; Kris Bryant, Cubs.

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Now, let’s look at the division races team-by-team.

NL EAST

First – Washington Nationals

Is this the year Bryce Harper breaks out?

Is this the year Bryce Harper breaks out?

No NL team won more games than the Nationals’ 96 in 2014 (and only the Angels in the American League topped that number with 98 wins).  Had the Nats simply sat back and watched the off-season marketplace, Washington would have still been the favorite in the East.  But the Nationals went out and got MLB’s most-coveted free-agent prize – Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15, with 252 strikeouts). The 2013 Cy Young Award winner, who has a 70-24 record over the past four seasons, joins a 2015 rotation that will feature: Jordan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez (the only lefthander in the rotation) and Doug Fister.  And, if any of these falter (or injuries surface), Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85 for the Nats last season) is ready to step in. This rotation is clearly among the best (if not the best in baseball) and will keep Washington on top of the East.

The bullpen will miss key setup man Tyler Clippard (traded to the A’s for infielder Yunel Escobar), Ross Detwiler (traded to the Rangers) and free-agent Rafael Soriano. The Nationals still have closer Drew Storen (11 saves, 1.12 ERA) and also signed two former closers: Casey Janssen (81 saves for the Blue Jays over the past three seasons) and Heath Bell (who saved 40+ games in a season as recently as 2011). Also in line for relief work are Aaron Barrett, Matt Thornton and Craig Stammen. Overall, the bullpen could use some help, but the starting rotation should keep the pressure off.

The Nats lost an offensive and defensive asset in free agent Adam LaRoche (who hit 26 home runs and played plus defense at first base).  Still there is plenty offense to support the National’s stellar pitching – a year ago the National gave up the fewest runs and scored the third-most runs in the NL.  Former third-sacker Ryan Zimmerman should take over at first base.  He has had shoulder problems (hence the position switch), but did hit .280 with five home runs in 61 games last season  –  and 26 home runs as recently as 2013. Even if Zimmerman doesn’t return to 2013 form, the Nationals can expect offensive punch from the likes of RF Bryce Harper (could this be the “breakout” year Nats’ fans have been waiting for), LF Jayson Werth and SS Ian Desmond – who will all benefit from the table-setting skills of CF Denard Span and 3B Anthony Rendon at the top of the order (the pair combined to score 205 runs and steal 48 bases in 2014).

Clearly, the National are favorites to capture the East – and will go as far in the post season as their rotation will carry them.

Key Question:  Who will be the Opening Day starter – Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Jordan Zimmerman?  Talk about an embarrassment of riches.

Nationals Fact: The Nationals were the only NL East team with a winning record in 2014 – taking their division by 17 games over the Braves.

Second – New York Mets

The Mets could use a big year from David Wright.

The Mets could use a big year from David Wright.

Meaningful September baseball is coming back to New York – and not at Yankee Stadium.

It all starts on the mound for the Mets – with a rotation likely to feature at least four of the following arms:  NL Rookie of the Year Jacob deGrom (9-6, 2.69), Zack Wheeler 11-11, 3.94), lefty Jon Neise (9-11, 3.40), Dillon Gee (seven wins) and 41-year-old Bartolo Colon (who won 15 games for NY in 2014).  But the final story of the effectiveness of the Mets rotation may be written by a pair of hurlers who did not take the mound for New York in 2014.  The Mets are counting on a rebound from right-handed starter Matt Harvey – who sat out last season, following Tommy John surgery, after making the All Star team in 2013 (9-5, 2.27 in 22 starts).  It’s also possible that prospect Noah Syndergaard may crack the rotation at some time during the season.  In five minor league seasons, Syndergaard has gone 31-19, 3.25 and fanned 474 batter ion 426 2/3 innings.  Interestingly (to BBRT), deGrom, Wheeler and Syndergaard are all right-handed throwers who bat left-handed.

The bullpen – while not boasting a host of big names – has the ability to get the job done.  Closer Jerry Mejia notched 28 saves in 31 opportunities, and whiffed 98 batters in 93 2/3 innings. Jeurys Familia, who appeared in a team-high 76 games last season – with a 2.21 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning – should again get plenty of work. Others in the pen are likely to include Vic Black (2.60 ERA in 41 games) and Josh Edgin (1.32 in 47 games).  The bullpen could also get a boost with the return of former closer Bobby Parnell (Tommy John surgery), who could challenge Mejia for the ninth-inning spot.

The Mets added some offense and veteran leadership with free-agent signee OF Michael Cuddyer.  Cuddyer is a proven run-producer who hit .332-10-31 in an injury-shortened season (49 games) for Colorado. Cuddyer is one-year removed from a .331-20-84 season. While he may not do that kind of damage away from Colorado, a .280 average with 20-25 home runs is a reasonable expectation. There is more punch available from 1B Lucas Duda (.253-30-92) and second baseman Daniel Murphy provides a steady bat (.289) in the number-two hole.  CF Juan Lagares showed a good glove and hit .281 (116 games) in the leadoff sport.  Still, to challenge the Nationals, the Mets will need a rebound from veteran 3B David Wright, who is coming off a shoulder injury that sapped his power in 2014 (just eight home run in 134 games) and LF Curtis Granderson  (.227-20-66 in 2014, but boasting a 40-home run season as recently as 2012). The new dimensions at Citi Field should help both. Behind the plate, the Mets would like to see the Travis d’Arnaud of the second half (.265 with seven home runs, as opposed to the first-half’s .217 with six homers.) It looks like a trip to AAA in June – where d’Arnaud hit .436 with six home runs in 16 games) may have resolved his offensive problems.

Key Question: Will either Wilmer Flores or Ruben Tejada step up and take over the shortstop spot?

Mets Fact:  For 2015, the Mets are moving the right-field and right-center field fence in five-feet and ten-feet, respectively. If those dimensions had been in place in 2014, the Mets would have hit 17 more home runs and given up seven more.

Third – Miami Marlins

The Marlins signed MVP candidate RF Giancarlo Stanton (.288-37-105, with 13 steals) to 13-year $325 million contract – and then worked to build a contending team around him.  The Marlins, in fact, were one of MLB’s busiest teams in the off-season. They did keep the outfield intact, and it’s one of the best – with Stanton joined by LF Christian Yelich (.284-9-54, 21 steals) and CF Martin Ozuna (.269-23-85).  All three can hit and all three have Gold Glove potential.  Miami revamped its infield, with the only holdover in the starting quartet being slick-fielding SS Adeiny Hechavarria, who hit .276 last season.  The corner infield spots will feature trade acquisition 3B Martin Prado (.282 with 12 home runs for the Diamondbacks and Yankees) and free-agent signee 1B Michael Morse (.279-16-61 with the Giants). The Marlins also added some needed speed top the lineup, picking up 2B Dee Gordon (.289 with 64 steals) in a trade with the Dodgers. The Marlins could use a comeback year from C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who slumped to .220-11-44 after .273-14-65 in 2013 – and also threw our only 17 percent of attempted base stealers.

The rotation will miss Jose Fernandez, who had Tommy John surgery last May and likely won’t be back until (or very near) the All Star break.  In 36 MLB starts, The 2013 All Star and Rookie of the Year is 16-8 with a 2.25 ERA and 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings. In Fernandez’s absence, the number-one spot will temporarily go to Henderson Alvarez (12-7, 2.65). Rounding out the starting staff will be: veteran Mat Latos (trade with the Reds), a quality arm, but an injury risk; 13-game winner Jarrod Cosart; Tom Koehler (10-10, 3.81); and Dan Haren (trade with the Dodgers).

The bullpen will be led by closer Steve Cishek (39 saves, 84 whiffs in 65 1/3 innings), with quality support likely to come from Mike Dunn, Bryan Morris, A.J. Ramos, Aaron Crow (trade with Royals) and Carter Capps.  (Crow, Morris and Ramos were a combined 21-2 a year ago).

The Marlins were big players in the off-season market – plugging some holes, adding a couple of starters to hold things down until Fernandez returns and even adding to an already solid bullpen.  They should fight the Mets for second place in the East, but aren’t ready to topple the Nationals yet.

Key Question:  When will Jose Fernandez return – and will Latos and Haren be able to fill the gap until he does?

Marlins Fact: In 2014, Giancarlo Stanton led the NL in intentional walks with 24.  The next highest NL total was 12 (Jody Mercer, Pittsburgh/Chase Utley, Philadelphia).

Fourth – Atlanta Braves

In trading away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis, the Braves parted with just over half their 2014 home run production – 62 of 123). Atlanta also let a number of free agents depart, including pitchers Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang (who won a combined 26 games for the Braves a year ago) and Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlin (neither of whom pitched in 2013 – Tommy John surgery).

These off -season moves did not help an already weak offense.  After scoring the second-fewest runs in the NL a year ago, the Braves may have taken a step backward with the Upton, Heyward and Gattis departures. Atlanta did add free agent Nick Markakis (.276-14-50 with the Orioles). That’s a pretty even exchange for Heyward in the OF – their offensive numbers are similar and they both captured Gold Gloves in 2014.  The rest of the outfield picture does not look as rosy.  Among the candidates are Jonny Gomes, Melvin Upton, Jr. (the artist formerly known as B.J. Upton) and Eric Young, Jr. – as well as rookies Todd Cunningham and Zoilo Almonte (18 home runs at Triple A). Gomes hit .234, with six home runs and 37 RBI for Boston and Oakland last year, while Upton put up a .208-12-35 line for the Braves – which, by the way, was an improvement over his 2013 stat line of .184-9-26. Young hit .229 in 100 games with the Mets, but did steal 30 bases. BBRT doesn’t expect a lot of offense from the Braves’ garden players. There is a little punch at the corner infield spots with returnees 1B Freddie Freeman (.288-18-78) and 3B Chris Johnson (.263-10-58). You expect more power form the corners and the good news is both Freeman and Johnson have shown they can do better.  Shortstop will be handled by Platinum Glove winner Andrelton Simmons, but second base is remains unsettled until prospect Jose Peraza, a 21-year-old who hit .339 with 60 steals at High A and Double A in 2014, is ready. In the meantime, free-agent signee utility infielder Alberto Callaspo is likely to handle most of the keystone duties – but there is a chance Eric Young, Jr. could slide into the second base competition as well.   Catching is in the hands of Christian Bethancourt (a fine defensive backstop) and free-agent signee A.J. Pierzynski, who can provide some offensive punch.  Overall, it looks like the Braves will again have trouble putting runs on the board.

The pitching is in better shape – even with the offseason losses.  The rotation will be led by Julio Teheran (14-13, 2.89) and southpaw Alex Wood (11-11, 2.78). Atlanta is also counting on the arms of newcomer Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74 for the Cardinals) and returnee Mike Minor (a left-hander who had an off-season in 2014, but won 13 games the previous season).  There should be competition for the number-five slot, with the most intriguing prospects being 2010 first-round draft pick Michael Foltynewicz (picked up in the Gattis trade) and ten-year veteran Wandy Rodriguez.

The bullpen should be a strong point, featuring flame-throwing Craig Kimbrel (47 saves), arguably the NL’s best closer, and free-agent signee Jason Grilli (who saved 12 games last season and 33 for the Pirates in 2013).  The Braves are also hoping for a rebound from free agent Jim Johnson, who had a rough 2014 (5-2, 7.09 with the A’s and Tigers), but topped 50 saves in 2012 and 2013.

In 2014, the Braves had the NL’s third-best ERA – and the pitching looks solid again in 2015.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be enough offense to translate the pitching into a .500 or better season.

Key Question: In his last two seasons with Tampa Bay, Melvin (then B.J.) Upton, Jr. hit .244, with 51 home runs, 159 RBI and 67 steals. In his first two with the Braves (2013-14), his totals were .198-21-61, with 32 steals.  This season, Upton announced he would go from being known as B.J. Upton to his given name of Melvin Upton, Jr.   The question is, will the “new” Melvin be able to live up to B.J.’s promise?  The Braves’ offense needs more from the 30-year-old.

Braves Fact:  In 2014, the Braves scored two or fewer runs in 64 games – 55 of them losses.

Fifth – Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies finished last in the East a year ago – giving up the most runs and scoring the second fewest in the division – and yet the core of the team is remarkably similar for 2015.  It would be foolish to expect a different result.

On offense, the key power spots – corner infield – are manned by returnees 35-year-old  1B Ryan Howard (.223-23-95, with an NL-leading 190 strikeouts) and 3B Cody Ashe (.252-10-44 in 121 games.) Ashe, however, may be pushed by power prospect Maikel Franco (16 HRs and 78 RBI at Triple A). Chase Utley, at 36-years-old, is back at 2B – after a .270-11-78 season.  He will have a new double play partner (longtime SS Jimmy Rollins was traded to the Dodgers), most likely 25-year-old Freddy Galvis (who hit just .176 in 43 games for the Phils in 2014).  Carlos Ruiz (.252-6-31) is back behind the plate.  If the infield seems bereft of reliable power, the outfield doesn’t offer any relief.  Gone via trade is Marlon Byrd (who led the Phillies with 25 home runs a year ago). Returning are: CF Ben Revere – an effective leadoff man who hit for a .306 average and stole 49 bases, but offers no power (his two home runs last year were the only round trippers of his 493-game career) – and RF Dominic Brown, who hit just .235 with ten home runs. Grady Sizemore is back and will compete (or platoon) for the LF spot with Darin Ruf. The pair hit .233 and .235, respectively last season).

We may see some changes before the season opens, but the rotation looks to be led by left-hander Cole Hamels – a legitimate “ace” who went 9-9 with a 2.46 ERA in 2014. Former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee (another southpaw) holds down the number-two spot, but he is 36-years old and coming off elbow issues.  BBRT wouldn’t be surprised to see either Hamels or Lee on the trade market.  After the front two, the Phillies are looking to free-agent signee Aaron Harang (a 12-game winner for the Braves, but also 36), veteran Jerome Williams (who pitched for Houston, Texas and Philadelphia last season) and either Dave Buchanan (6-8, 3.75) or free agent Chad Billingsley (attempting a comeback from elbow surgery).

Jonathan Papelbon (39 saves) will again handle the ninth inning, with notable bullpen support from Ken Giles (3-1, 1.18 in 44 games), Justin De Fratus (3-1, 2.39 in 54 games) and Jake Diekman (73 appearances, 100 strikeouts in 71 innings).

The Phillies just don’t have enough offense to compete in the East.

Key Question:  Can former Rookie of the year and MVP Ryan Howard stay healthy and rebound offensively? From 2006 to 2011, Howard averaged 153 games, a .247 batting average, 44 home runs and 133 RBI per season.  His averages from 2012-14 were 101 games, .231, 16 home runs and 65 RBI. A return to .250-30-100 territory would put a smile on a lot of Phillies’ faces.

Phillies Fact:   On June 23, 1971, Rick Wise pitched a no-hitter for the Phillies, topping the Reds 4-0.  Wise drove in three runs on a pair of homers – and is still the only pitcher to hit two home runs in a no-hitter. Wise, by the way, hit six home runs and drove in 15 runs that season. In 2014, the entire Phillies pitching staff hit zero home runs and drove in nine runs.

NL CENTRAL

First – Saint Louis Cardinals

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals' Cy Young candidate.

Adam Wainwright, Cardinals’ Cy Young candidate.

The Cardinals will again have one of the NL’s top starting rotations.  Adam Wainwright (20 wins), Lance Lynn (15 wins), John Lackey (14 wins for Boston and St. Louis) return to lead the rotation. They are joined by Michael Wacha, who had some shoulder issues, and put up a 5-6 record, with a 3.20 ERA in 19 starts.  The final rotation spot appears slated for hard-throwing prospect Carlos Martinez – and, if he is not quite ready, youngster Marco Gonzalez and veteran Jaime Garcia (3-1, 4.12 in seven starts) could compete for the spot.  The strength and depth of their starting pitching, in fact, enabled the Cardinals to trade reliable starter Shelby Miller (10-9, 3.74) to the Braves for OF Jason Heyward (more on that later).

Closing duties will continue to belong to Trevor Rosenthal (45 saves) – despite some control problems in 2014. The Miller trade also brought the Cardinals reliever Jordan Walden, who appeared in 58 games for the Braves, with a 2.88 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 50 innings. He adds depth to the bullpen and protection at closer (Walden saved 32 games for the Angels in 2011). Randy Choate, Sam Freeman and Seth Maness should also get plenty of work.

The Redbirds worked to improve their offense in the off season (last season, they hit the fewest home runs and scored the tent- most runs in the NL). The first order business was to replace the tragic loss (in an off-season car accident) of top prospect Oscar Taveras.  In the Shelby Miller trade, the Cardinals picked up 25-year-old RF Jason Heyward (a Gold Glove defender, who went .271-11-58 with 20 steals for the Braves last season – and who many feel has yet to realize his full offensive potential).  Heyward will join CF Jon Jay (who hit .303, but only three home runs) and LF Matt Holliday (a professional hitter who will deliver a .300 average with 20-homer power). In the infield, a pair of Matts (Adams and Carpenter) hold down 1B and 3B, respectively. Both are reliable defenders and solid run producers. The middle of the diamond belongs to Kolton Wong (2B) and Johnny Peralta (SS) – who delivered steady defense and 33 home runs between them.  At catcher, they just don’t get any better than Yadier Molina – a six-time All Star and seven-time Gold Glover with a .284 career batting average.   Finally, the Cardinals added some off-the-bench punch by signing free agent Mark Reynolds – who has hit 20 or more home runs in seven consecutive seasons, with a high of 44 in 2009.  Reynolds, however, also strikes out A LOT and hit only .196 in 2014.  He can fill in at 1B, 3B and, in a pinch, OF, as well as provide a pinch-hitting threat.

Overall, the Cardinals – while aging a bit – have enough to repeat at the top of the Central.

Key Question:  Not too many questions on a well-balanced team.  If there is one, it’s whether Michael Wacha’s arm (shoulder) holds up for the long haul?

Cardinals Fact:  The Cardinals’ put the bat on the ball in 2014, striking out an NL-low 1,133 times.

Second – Pittsburgh Pirates

Andrew McCuchen - essential to Pirates' post-season hopes.

Andrew McCuchen – essential to Pirates’ post-season hopes.

When your offense stars with 2013 MVP, four-time All Star and Gold Glove (2013) defender Andrew McCutchen, you can expect good things.  The five-tool player went .314-25-84, with 18 steals in 2014 – pretty much an average year for him.  Batting behind “Cutch” will be likely clean-up hitter 2B Neil Walker – a switch hitter, who hit .271 with 23 home runs in 2014. Flanking McCutchen in the OF will be Starling Marte (.291 with 13 homers) and Gregory Polanco (.235 with seven home runs and 14 steals in 89 games).  Both Marte and Polanco are plus defenders and both are expected to continue to advance offensively.  SS belongs to Jody Mercer, a solid defender who contributed 12 home runs, while the corner spots will be manned by 1B Pedro Alvarez (moving over from third base) and 3B Josh Harrison, a surprising .315 with 13 homers and 18 steals a year ago. Harrison gets the full-time nod at the hot corner after spending time at second, third, shortstop, left field and right field a year ago.  His presence in the lineup and the acquisition of utility man Sean Rodriguez form Tampa Bay give Pittsburgh tremendous flexibility. Francisco Cervelli, acquired from the Yankees, will get a shot at the number-one catching slot after hitting .301 in 49 games last year, but he has health concerns and the Pirates will use Chris Stewart, who hit .294 in 49 games for the Pirates, as a backup on a regular basis.  The pair will have big shoes to fill – replacing free agent Russell Martin (a key part of the Pirates’ recent success), who signed with the Blue Jays in the off season.

The Pirates have a nicely balanced line-up – power, speed and solid defense.  The pitching has potential – the potential to be very good or to cause problems. Gerrit Cole is secure at the top of the rotation.  The 24-year-old went 11-5, 3.65, striking out a batter an inning in 22 starts.  Next in line is left-hander Francisco Liriano (7-10, 3.38) – a veteran with great stuff, but a history of inconsistency and injury problems.  Free-agent signee A.J. Burnett is also expected to take a regular turn, but he is 38-years-old and lost 18 games last year (albeit with the Phillies). Prior to 2014, Burnett had run off nine straight seasons with at least ten victories.  The final two rotation spots appear earmarked for Vance Worley and lefty Jeff Locke (who went a combined 15-10 in 39 starts for the Pirates last season).  Worley could surprise. He went 8-4, 2.85 after starting the season at Triple A. The Pirates’ rotation could get a boost with the return of Charlie Morton (hip surgery last September)/

The bullpen will again be strength, led by closer Mark Melancon (1.39 ERA, 33 saves). Tony Watson (10-2, 1.63) made the All Star team as a setup man last season, John Holdzkom has flashed a 100-mph fastball and Jared Hughes (7-5, 1.96) is solid. Other bullpen assets could include Antonio Bastardo, and Stolmy Pimentel.

The Pirates will contend again and, if the starting pitching holds up, could knock the Cardinals off the top of the Central,

Key Question:  Can the Pirates expect Pedro Alvarez to return to his 30+ home run production of 2012 and 2013?  Alvarez hit only 18 homers last year, in a season that saw defensive concerns lead to a move from 3B to 1B and an injury limit him to 122 games.

Pirates Fact: 3B Josh Harrison hit an NL-leading .372 with runners in scoring position in 2014.

Third – Chicago Cubs

Cubs win!  Cubs win! Cubs win!  They’ll be hearing a lot more of that at Wrigley Field this season – as the Cubs parlay proven All Stars like Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, emerging youngsters like Jorge Soler and Kyle Hendricks, free-agent pickups like Jon Lester and Jason Hammel, trade acquisitions like Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler, and new Manager Joe Maddon into a contending ball club. Yes, the Cubs – like the White Sox – were busy in the off-season, and Chicago fans could see post-season baseball on both sides of the city.

Let’s start with the rotation.  Free–agent signee southpaw Jon Lester should take the ball on Opening Day. Lester went 16-11, 2.46 for Oakland and Boston a year ago, but more important, he has won at least 15 games six times in the past seven season.  He gives the Cubs a true “ace.” The Cubs may have a second ace-in-waiting in Jake Arrieta (10-5, 2.53 in 25 starts). To round out a solid rotation, they brought back free agent Jason Hammel and have 2013 rookie sensation Kyle Hendricks (7-2, 2.46 in 13 starts for the Cubs). There will be a battle for the fifth spot, probably among Edwin Jackson, Travis Wood and Jacob Turner – all of whom have something to prove after off seasons in 2014.

Roles are still being sorted out in the bullpen, but it appears closing duties will go to Hector Rondon (29 saves). Free agent signee Jason Motte is further removed from Tommy John surgery (2013) and may be closer to the pitcher that recorded 42 saves for the Cardinals in 2012. Motte could be a key contributor in 2015. Neil Ramirez (1.44 ERA), Pedro Strop (2.21), and Justin Grimm (3.78) all took the mound at least 50 times last season.

The offense starts with proven performers 1B Anthony Rizzo (.286-32-78) and SS Starlin Castro (.292-14-65). There are also LF Chris Coghlan (.283-9-41) and newly acquired CF Dexter Fowler (.276-8-35 with the Astros).  After that, the Cubs are looking for production out of a group of highly touted youngster.  Early 2015 Rookie of the Year candidate Jorge Soler should handle RF after going .292-5-20 in 24 games during a 2014 call up.  They also hope for good things from 2B Javier Baez, who showed some power in 2014 (nine home runs in 52 games), but needs to develop plate discipline and patience (.169 average, 95 strikeouts in 213 at bats). If he’s not ready Tommy La Stella, who hit .252 for the Braves, could step in.  Over at third base, the fans – and front office – are waiting for top prospect Kris Bryant, who hit 43 home runs and drove in 138 in 138 games at AA and AAA a year ago. If Bryant’s not quite ready, Luis Valbuena gave the Cubs 16 home runs from the hot corner in 2014.  Catching belongs to 2014 All Star Miguel Montero, acquired in a trade with Arizona.

This is a good looking Cubs team, poised to contend not just for this year, but down the road.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see them take a Wild Card spot or even the division title – particularly if Kris Bryant is “Ready for Wrigley.” Ultimatley, though, the young Cubbies – Soler, Baez and Bryant – may need another year of experience to Chicago over the top.

Key Question:  What can the Cubs expect out of Javier Baez – and how much patience to they have?  Can he harness his swing and reduce his strikeouts?  If so, 35 home runs are not out of the question.  If not, 200 strikeouts are equally in play.  (BBRT note:  The Cubs had 21-year-old shortstop Addison Russell – considered one of baseball’s top prospects – spending time at second base in the Arizona Fall League.)

Cubs Fact:  No team struck out more often than the Cubs in 2014 – a club record 1,477 times.

Fourth – Milwaukee Brewers

Who are the Brewers?  The team that was in first place by 6 ½ games (17 games over .500) on August 17 – or the team that faded at the end and finished just two games over .500 and out of the playoffs? BBRT’s guess is that it’s somewhere in between and that the Brewers will be competitive in 2015 – but not in the playoffs.

Milwaukee fans have the joy of watching energetic CF Carlos Gomez lead off every game. Last season, the Brewers’ sparkplug turned in a .284-23-73 stat line, with 34 steals and 95 runs scored.  He gives the fans everything they expect (and more) from a top-of-the-order catalyst. In 2014, however, Milwaukee fans did not get all they expected from RF Ryan Braun.  A thumb injury hampered him most of the season and he finished .266-19-81.  The Brewers need Braun to get back to the player who routinely delivered 30 home runs and 100 RBI per campaign. The Brewers anticipate steady production from 3B Aramis Ramirez (.285-15-66), new first baseman Adam Lind (.321 for Toronto) and solid defensive backstop Jonathan Lucroy (.301-13-69). Khris Davis delivered some power form left field (22 home runs) and 2B Scooter Gennett hit .289 in 137 games.  The Brewers could use a rebound from SS Jean Segura, a 2103 All Star who slumped offensively

While the offense seems to have offer enough positives – particularly if Braun and Segura bounce back – the pitching offers some concerns.  With number-one starter Yorlando Gallardo gone in a trade with the Rangers, the Brewers rotation seems to come up a little short.  BBRT side note:  One of the young players the Brewers received in the Gallardo trade was SS prospect Luis Sardinas, which may reflect their concern with Segura’s future.  Wily Peralta 17-11, 3.53), Kyle Lohse (13-9, 3.54) and Matt Garza (8-8, 3.64) are the “locks” among the starting staff.  Matt Fiers looked good in ten starts last season, and would seem to have the edge for the fourth spot. Key competitors for the final berth would include Jimmy Nelson and Taylor Jungmann.

The bullpen starts with closer Francisco Rodriguez, who re-signed with the Brewers in late February. Rodriguez saved 44 games for the Brew Crew in 2014.  Jonathan Broxton (seven saves for Cincinnati/Milwaukee a year ago – 27 saves as recently as 2012) should be the main setup man.  Candidates for important roles in the pen include: Jeremy Jeffress, Will Smith, Brandon Kintzler and Jim Henderson.

While the Brewers have a potentially potent offense, there are concerns about both the back of the rotation and the bullpen.  They could surprise, but it would be a surprise. Remember though, with a similar roster, they did lead the division for much of 2014.

Key Question: Is Ryan Braun healthy (thumb) and what does that mean for his production?

Brewers Fact:  The Brewers were 15 games over .500 (70-55) with a three-game lead on August 17, but went 12-25 the rest of the way to finish 82-80 and out of the playoffs.

Fifth – Cincinnati Reds

Johnny Cueto (20-9, 2.25) and Aroldis Chapman (36 saves, 106 strikeouts in 54 innings).  That’s a pretty good start to any pitching staff.  Unfortunately, that pair can’t pitch all the innings, and the Reds are short on proven pitching depth – a situation they didn’t help by trading starters Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon in the off season. Looking at the rotation, the number-two and number-three spots look to go to Homer Bailey (9-5, 3.71, coming off September elbow surgery and possibly not ready on Opening Day) and Mike Leake (11-13, 3.70). After that, things are even less certain, but leading candidates seem to be newcomer Anthony DeSclafani (acquired form the Marlins), Dylan Alexrod (who looked good in a 2014 call up), left-hander Tony Cingrani and Cuban signee Raisel Iglesias.

Aroldis Chapman stands tall as the closer, but the rest of the bullpen suffered from injury and inconsistency in 2014. Despite Chapman’s 2.00 ERA, the Reds’ pen had a 4.11 ERA in 2014 – the NL’s second worst. Among candidates for the pen: Burke Badenhop (2.29 in 70 appearances for Boston), Pedro Villarreal, Sam LeCure, Jumbo Diaz and Manny Parra,  The Reds also signed veteran Kevin Gregg (coming off elbow issues) to a minor league contract.  Gregg – a 12-year MLB veteran – has 177 career saves.  Competition for bullpen spots seems wide open.

The Reds have the potential for a solid offense – starting with corner infielders 1B Joey Votto and 3B Todd Frazier (29 home runs). They need a full season from Votto, who played only 62 games (.255-6-23) last season due to a knee injury. A healthy Votto should deliver 25+ round trippers.  The Reds get added punch from All Star C  Devin Mesoraco, who hit 25 home runs in 114 games, but had a pair of stints on the disabled list.  Newcomer OF Marlon Byrd acquired from the Phillies) also brings 25-homer power to the lineup. Byrd should handle left field with RF going to Jay Bruce (who needs to rebound from a knee injury and his worst season ever) and CF stays with exciting speedster Billy Hamilton (56 steals).  While Bruce hit just .217-18-66 last season, he has proven capable of 30+ homers and 90+ RBI when healthy.  The Reds are strong defensively up the middle, with Zack Cosart at SS and Brandon Phillips at 2B.  They are paying for that defense with offense, however.  Cosart hit just .221 a year ago, while Phillips’ offensive production has been on the decline since his .288-30 home run-32 stolen base season in 2007.  In 2014, Phillips hit .266 with eight home runs and two stolen bases.

Given the competitiveness of the Central Division – and the Reds’ pitching uncertainties, fifth place seems a realistic prediction.

Key Question: Can the Reds’ keep Billy Hamilton fresh?  Hamilton got off to a great start in 2014, hitting .285 with 38 steals before the break, but seemed to wear down – hitting .200 with 18 steals after the break and only .123 with 2 steals in September.  The Reds need a full season of the high-energy Hamilton.

Reds Fact: Despite finishing ten games under .400, the Reds defense had the best fielding percentage in MLB in 2014 (.988) and committed the fewest errors (72, ten fewer than runner up Seattle).

NL WEST

First – Los Angeles Dodgers

Wow! What happened?  The Dodgers won the West again in 2014 – and then traded Matt Kemp and Dee Gordon and let free agent Hanley Ramirez walk. Notably, those moves were consistent with a long-standing Dodger tradition of winning with an emphasis on pitching and defense.

Clayton Kershaw - missed a month and was still a 20-game winner.

Clayton Kershaw – missed a month and was still a 20-game winner.

Up the middle, newcomers (acquired through trades) SS Jimmy Rollins and 2B Howie Kendrick should improve the reliability of the defense – and still provide adequate offense.  Rollins hit 17 home runs and stole 28 bases for the Phils last year, while Kendrick hit .293 with seven homers and 14 steals for the Angels. The Dodgers will miss Gordon’s 64 steals, but Rollins/Kendrick should provide comparable offense.  The trading of Kemp (287-25-89) removed some pop from the lineup, but helps clear an OF logjam.  For 2015, we can expect to see an OF (improved defensively) of RF Yasiel Puig (.296-16-60), LF Carl Crawford (.300-8-46 and 16 steals in 105 games) and rookie Joc Perderson in CF.  Pederson hit .303 with 33 home runs and 30 stolen bases (plus, importantly, 100 walks) in 121 games at AAA in 2014.  Even after trading Kemp, the Dodgers have depth in the OF, with Scott Van Slyke and Andre Ethier on the bench. Rounding out the lineup will be Adrian Gonzalez (a four-time Gold Glove winner who can deliver 25-30 home runs) and 3B Jose Uribe (who hit .311 in 2014). Catching duties will be split between Yasmani Grandal and A.J. Elllis. The fact is, the Dodgers improved their defense in the off season and the offense – particularly if Joc Pederson meets expectations – should not miss a beat.

Improved defense will only make the Dodgers superior pitching even better.  It all, of course, starts with Cy Young/MVP winner Clayton Kershaw (generally agreed upon as the best pitcher on the planet). We don’t need to cite statistics here –they’re almost legend already.   Behind him is Zack Grienke (17-8, 2.71), who would be the ace on most staffs.  The three-spot goes to under-recognized Hun-Jin Ryu (14-7, 3.38).  Then it gets a little dicey, as the Dodger are counting on a free-agent signees Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson – who have both been injury prone in the past.

In the bullpen, incumbent closer Kenley Jansen (44 saves) will likely miss the first month of the season (foot surgery).  There are plenty of hurlers to audition for temporary replacement status including former closers Brandon League (72 saves since 2011), and J.P. Howell (17 saves for Tampa Bay in 2009).  Other options include hard- throwing Chris Hatcher and reliable Joel Peralta, both picked up in off season trades.  Once a closer is selected the bullpen roles should take shape.  It’s a bit unsettling, but not unworkable.

Key Question:  Who will fill the closer’s role until Kenley Jansen returns?

Dodgers Fact:  The Dodgers hold the MLB franchise record for no-hitters at 22 – with Josh Beckett and Clayton Kershaw contributing no-no’s in 2014.

Second – San Diego Padres

James Shields - new Padres' "Ace."

James Shields – new Padres’ “Ace.”

In 2014, the San Diego Padres finished third in the West (77-85) despite scoring the fewest runs (535) in the NL (in MLB, actually). How did they do it?  The Padres gave up the second-fewest runs in the NL (523) and only the Nationals in the NL bested their team ERA of 3.27.  Going into the 2015 season, the Padres actually improved that sterling pitching – the addition of premium free agent James Shields – and dramatically added to their offensive punch.  They are ready to contend. BBRT is ready to go out on a limb and pick the Padres to finish ahead of the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

On the mound, veteran free-agent signee James Shields (14-8, 3.21 for the Royals) will not only be the staff ace on the field, he will also provide the kind of veteran leadership that will make the Padres’ young staff even better. Shields joins a rotation that should include Andrew Cashner (5-7, 2.55 in 19 starts), All Star Tyson Ross (13-14, 2.81), and veteran innings-eater Ian Kennedy (13-13, 3.63).  The final spot in the rotation is likely to go to Odrisamer Despaigne (4-7, 3.36) or free-agent signee Brandon Morrow. Cashner has proven to be an injury concern in the past, so both Despaigne and Morrow may see time in the rotation.  The Padres also signed free agent starter Josh Johnson – who missed the 2014 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Johnson, who has a career 58-45, 3.40 record over nine seasons, is expected to be back in late May of early June – and could give San Diego a mid-season boost.

The bullpen – and manager Bud Black’s ability to get the most out of it – will be a Padres’’ strength again (an NL-best 2.73 bullpen ERA in 2014). Closer Joaquin Benoit notched 11 saves with a 1.49 ERA – but is 37-years-old and did miss time with a shoulder injury last year.  In Benoit’s absence, set up man Kevin Quackenbush picked up a handful of saves plus one (six total). Also in the pen are Alex Torres, Nick Vincent, Dale Thayer and Shawn Kelly (trade with Yankees).

While Shields represents a notable improvement in the pitching, the offensive upgrade is far more remarkable.  Trades with the Rays, Braves and Dodgers give the Padres an all-new – and much more explosive –outfield.  Left field now belongs to former Brave Justin Upton ( .270-29-102), center goes to former Ray Wil Myers (2013 AL Rookie of the Year, who missed time with a wrist injury and hit six homers with 35 RBI last season) and former Dodger Matt Kemp (.287-25-89) will hold down right. How much of an improvement is that? Last season’s three most often used starters in the Padres’ outfield – Seth Smith, Will Venable and Cameron Maybin – combined for fewer home runs and RBI (21-96) than Upton alone.  Around the infield, we should see Yonder Alonso (1B), Jedd Gyorko (2B), Alexi Armarista (SS) and Yangervis Solarte or Will Middlebrooks (3B). Gyorko is a key piece.  The second sacker hit .210 with just 10 home runs last season – after a .249, 23-homer season as a rookie in 2013.  A rebound to 15-20 round trippers would further boost the Padres’ offense.  Third base will be a competition between Solarte (.260 with 10 home runs as a rookie) and Middlebrooks, whom the Padres hope can rebound from an off season. Newcomer Derek Norris will handle the catching. All in all, the changes should not only improve the Padres on the field, but also bring a new, more confident, attitude to the club house.

The Padres look greatly improved and ready to move up to second place.

Key Question:  Will the new outfield deliver offense as expected, or will pitcher-friendly Petco Power sap their power and confidence?

Padres Fact:  In 2014, fewer home runs were hit in Petco Park (101) than any other MLB park

Third – San Francisco Giants

The Giants have won three World Series titles in the last five years (2010-2012-2014), so no one could blame the defending world champions if they opted for stability in the off season. And the Giants HAVE been pretty quiet since October. They did lose a key player – and part of the club’s character – when free agent Pablo Sandoval (.279-16-73 and .429 in the World Series) signed with the Red Sox.  San Francisco will also miss OF Michael Morse’s nearly identical production (.279-16-61).  But they did go out and pick up replacements for both.  They added 3B Casey McGehee (trade with the Marlins), last year’s NL Comeback Player of the Year, to replace Sandoval. McGehee (four home runs) has less power than Sandoval, but did hit .287 with 76 RBI. (BBRT note: McGehee will also represent a step back on defense.)  Nori Aoki (free agency, Royals) will take Morse’s spot on the roster. Like McGehee, less power, but a steady bat (.285 with 17 steals in 2014).  The rest of the lineup is pretty much intact, not a bad thing after a World Series win (unless, of course, your main opposition improves).  For power, the Giants will look to C Buster Posey (.311-22-89), reliable and energetic RF Hunter Pence (.277-20-74, with 13 steals)and 1B Brandon Belt – a slick defender, who hit the disabled list three times last season, but still managed 12 home runs in 61 games.  A healthy Belt should provide 20-HR power.  CF Angel Pagan (.300 with 16 steals in 96 games) should lead off.  Pagan, however, has been injury prone and, in his absence, we could see Aoki at leadoff and backup George Blanco and Juan Perez (both solid defenders) in the OF.  Joe Panik (who took over 2B in June, defending ably and hitting .305 in 73 games) is back, as is shortstop Brandon Crawford, who has  a high ceiling, but needs to add consistently to his game in the field and at the plate.\

Not much has changed on the mound either, where the rotation will be led by World Series’ hero Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98).  After that there is considerable potential – but just as many question marks. Matt Cain, All Star and 16-game winner as recently as 2013, had elbow surgery in July and finished 2-7, 4.18. Jake Peavy pitched well after coming over from Boston (6-4, 2.17), but was 1-9 with the Sox. Tim Hudson won nine games and pitched well (3.57), but turns 40 in July. Ryan Vogelsong made a career-high 32 starts, but won only eight times (but did win 27 games in 2011-12). Tim Lincecum, despite a 12-9, 4.74 record was inconsistent last season and is now four seasons away from his last winning record.

In the bullpen, the Giants will look to Santiago Casilla (19 of 23 in save situation after taking over the ninth-inning job in mid-season).  Also returning are Sergio Romo, who lost the closer job, but then straightened out and did fine as a setup man in the second half; Yu Petit, who proved considerably more effective as reliever (1.84 ERA) than a starter (5.03); Jean Machi; Javier Lopez; and Jeremy Affeldt.  Ultimately, the bullpen should be a strength for the 2015 club.

It’s hard to argue with success – three World Series titles in five years. However, those titles all came in even-numbered years.  This is an odd-numbered year, and while the roster has been pretty stable, issues with the starting rotation and roster improvements in Los Angeles and San Diego seem likely to keep the Giants out of the playoffs.

Key Question: How much will the Giants miss Kung Fu Panda’s (Pablo Sandoval) bat, glove and attitude – on the field, in the club house and at the ticket counter?

Giants Fact: The Giants won the first-ever regular-season interleague game, beating the AL’s Texas Rangers 4-3 on June 12, 1997.  Mark Gardner got the win, Rod Beck the save and RF Stan Javier the game-winning RBI.  Lead-off hitter CF Darryl Hamilton singled on a 1-1 offering from the Rangers’ Darren Oliver in the first inning to get the first-ever interleague hit. Javier also had interleague play’s first home run.

Forth – Colorado Rockies

As usual, the Colorado Rockies seem to have plenty of offense – and the kind of pitching that mandates they’ll need it.  The Rockies finished 30 games under .500 a year ago – and had MLB’s worst team ERA at 4.84, while leading the NL in runs scored.  Still, the losses weren’t all about the pitching.  The Rockies also led the majors in player trips to the disabled list (26).  They didn’t do much in the off-season (in fact, the most meaningful off-season change may have been the departure of RF Michael Cuddyer).  Colorado is counting on better health to lead to a better record.

At Coors field, it all starts with offense – and, when healthy, the Rockies have plenty of it.  SS Troy Tulowitzki and CF Carlos Gonzalez need to lead the way.  The pair were both hit by the injury bug and played a combined 161 games a year ago – putting up 35 home runs and 90 RBI.  Healthy, they can put up double that production – and they are both solid defenders.  Keys to the offense also include CF and lead-off man Charlie Blackmon (.282 with 19 home runs, 82 runs scored, 72 RBI and 28 steals); former AL MVP , 2014 NL Batting champ and plus defender Justin Morneau (.319-17-82) at 1B; and Gold Glover Nolan Arenado (.287-18-61 in 111 games – finger fracture) at 3B,. LF Corey Dickerson surprised a few people by hitting .312 and leading the Rockies in home runs with 24 in just his second MLB season.  Dickerson’s emergence makes Drew Stubbs a valuable fourth outfielder – especially given the Rockies’ injury history.  In 2014, Stubbs hit .289 with 15 home runs.  Second baseman DJ LeMahieu’s contributions get lost in the Rockies’ offensive fireworks (he hit just .267), but he’s the NL’s 2014 Gold Glove winner at 2B. The Rockies added more defense when they picked up free-agent catcher Nick Hundley – a solid defensive catcher and game caller.  Wow, plenty of offense, sound defense – sounds pretty good so far.

When it comes to pitching – the key word in Colorado is “Ouch!”  The injury bug and the Coors Field atmosphere both worked against the Rockies’ staff in 2014, and the end result was the NL’s highest ERA – both among starters and relievers.  That does not win many ball games. The rotation is Jorge De La Rosa (14-11, 4.10 and a surprising 10-2, 3.08 in his Coors Field innings).  After De La Rosa, there is a notable drop off.  Jhoulys Chacin should be the number-two man, but was limited to eleven 2014 starts (1-7, 4.50) due to rotator cuff issues. If healthy, he could return to his 14-10, 3.47 form of 2013.  The Rockies did sign Kyle Kendrick, who won ten games for the Phillies a year ago, and he could slide into the number-three sport.  Others in the running for the rotation are Jordan Lyles (7-4, 4.33, who missed time due to a broken bone in his non-pitching hand); Tyler Matzek (6-11, 4.05); Charlie Bergman (3-5, 5.93) and prospect Eddie Butler.  We may see Colorado auditioning starters into the season. Last year, the team used 15 different starters.

The bullpen should see plenty of work once again.  LaTroy Hawkins saved 23 games in 26 opportunities, but he is 42-years-old.  The Rockies are hoping for better things from reliever Boone Logan (6.84 ERA) and Rex Brothers (5.59). There is hope.  Logan is one more season removed elbow surgery and was 5-2, 3.23 in 2013, while Brothers (once considered a closer-in-waiting) had a 2.82 career ERA going into 2014.  Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino and Brooks Brown are also expected to find spots in the bullpen,

All in all, the Rockies – if healthy, have plenty of offense and solid defense to improve on their record – especially if the pitching staff can induce ground balls at Coors.  Ultimately, however, they will need to add pitching to make win enough games to contend.

Key Question:  How long can 42-year-old LaTroy Hawkins keep getting batters out?

Rockies Fact:  No pitcher likes Coors Field more than Jorge De La Rosa.  He is 45-14, 3.98 for his career in the hitters’ paradise. (His overall career record 84-68, 4.60)

Fifth – Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondback finished last in NL West last year and they did do some work on their problem areas in the off season. Arizona had the league’s second-worst ERA (only the Rockies and Coors Field – finished worse).  They set about to fix that – trading away C Miguel Montero, SS Did Gregorius and P Wade Miley – and picking up a handful of hurlers, including at least three likely to be in the 2015 rotation. They also looked to the offense – signing international free agent Cuban Yasmany Tomas.  The 24-year-old was signed to a six-year, $68.5 million contract and is expected to bat in the middle of the lineup and provide a solid power source for the D-backs. (In his last three seasons in the Cuban National Series, Tomas hit .293, with 40 home runs and 137 RBI in 215 games.)  Tomas should provide a boost to D-backs, who hit the NL’s third-fewest home runs a year ago.

Let’s look at the rotation.  At the top will be Jason Collmenter (11-9, 3.46), whose fastball tops out in the high 80s, but who manages to keep hitters off balance.  That contrasts with newcomer Rubby De Le Rosa (gotta love that name), who has been known to hit triple digits with his heater, but is also coming back form 2012 Tommy John surgery. De Le Rosa was 4-8, 4.43 in 19 games for the Red Sox in 2014. Jeremy Hellickson (AL Rookie of the Year in 2011) should also be in the mix. He logged double-digits in victories and at least 29 starts and 170+ innings per year for Tampa Bay for three years (2010-13), before surgery to remove bone chips held him to 13 starts and one victory in 2014. Allen Webster is another newcomer who should be in the D-backs’ rotation. He was 5-3, 5.03 for the Red Sox and 4-4, 3.10 at Triple A last season. Webster is a hard-thrower who needs to harness his control. Competing for the number-five spot will be returnees Victor Nuno, Chase Anderson and Trevor Cahill. Anderson went 9-7, 4.01 in 21 starts last year, but Nuno may be the most interesting candidate. The southpaw went 0-7 in 14 starts after coming over from the Yankees – but averaged six innings per outing and put up a 3.76 ERA.  Pat Corbin, an All Star and 14-game winner in 2013, is returning from Tommy John surgery could provide a boost in the second half.

Arizona will depend on Addison Reed (32 saves) to close games.  Getting to Reed will be the responsibility of (among others) side-armer Brad Ziegler (5-3, 3.49 in 68 games); Evan Marshall (4-4, 2.74 in 57 games); and former starter Oliver Perez (3-4, 2.91 in 68 games). The numbers at the top of the pen look okay, but overall Arizona had the third-worst NL bullpen ERA last year and the second–worst ratio of saves to save opportunities.

The lineup has offensive potential – starting at the corners with Yasmany Tomas, expected to provide plenty of power at 3B, and 1B Paul Goldschmidt (back in the heart of the order and healthy). Goldschmidt put up a .300-19-69 line, with nine steals, in just 107 games (fractured hand). In 2013, Goldschmidt went .302-36-125, with 15 stolen bases (and a Gold Glove).  Expect him to be a force in 2015.  BBRT sees an MVP Award somewhere in Goldschmidt’s future.  Other power sources include RF Mark Trumbo (a free swinger who delivered 14 home runs – and 89 strikeouts – in 89 games) and LF David Peralta (.286, with eight home runs in 88 games as a rookie). The Diamondbacks also look set at the leadoff spot with CF A.J. Pollock, who was on a tear (.302-7-24, with 14 steals in 75 games), before a broken hand cost him more than half the season. The middle of the infield (2B-SS) will be sorted out among Aaron Hill, Chris Owings and slick-fielding prospect Nick Ahmed.  If Ahmed shows he can hit major league pitching at an acceptable rate, BBRT expects him at shortstop and Owings at 2B. If Ahmed needs more seasoning, Owings can move to short and veteran Hill can handle second.  Tuffy Gosewisch (.225-1-7 in 41 games) talks over at catcher for the traded Montero – primarily on the basis of his defensive skills.

Overall, the Diamondbacks have enough offense to make it interesting, but their pitching is likely to keep them from being competitive.

Key Question:  Will Yasmany Tomas live up to his contract – can he provide the promised power at the plate and can he handle third base (There’s always LF)?

Diamondbacks Fact:  Rookies played an MLB-high 656 games for the injury-plagued Diamondbacks last season.

So there’s BBRT’s National League predictions. Again, for a look at BBRT’s American League predictions, click here.

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

Coming soon – a look at how major league team’s set up their promotion and giver-away schedules. 

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BBRT – 2015 American League Predictions

It's getting closer every day!!!

It’s getting closer every day!!!

James Shields has finally signed, pitchers and catchers are heading for Spring Training and it’s time to take a look at what
expects in 2015.  We’ll start with a look at the American League – and BBRT’s predictions for the standings and contenders for the major awards.  Coming soon:  NL predictions.

Let’s look first at the standings, where – thanks to one of the most active off seasons ever – BBRT expects some new faces making the playoffs.  We’ll go over the  basics first, and then consider the division races team-by-team.

AL EAST

The Red Sox added offense and depth and look positioned to once again make the trip from worst-to-first.  The Blue Jays, also active in the off-season,  should provide the toughest competition – led by newcomer Josh Donaldson.  The Orioles lost a couple of key offensive pieces (Nelson Cruz/Nick Markakis) and were pretty much non-participants in the off-season marketplace, which may put them out of the playoff picture.  New York has too many “age & injury” questions and Tampa Bay is short on offense – and likely will miss Joe Maddon in the dugout. Predicted order of finish:

Boston Red Sox

Toronto Blue Jays (Wild Card)

Baltimore Orioles

New York Yankees

Tampa Bay Rays

AL CENTRAL

Possibly the closest division (top-to-bottom) in all of baseball, the White Sox appear to have made all the right moves in the off season. Still, it wouldn’t surprise BBRT to see less than a dozen games separating these five teams at the end.   The White Sox added pitching and offense, while Detroit lost some key hurlers – paving the way for Chicago’s rise. Still, Detroit – behind David Price, Justin Verlander and Anibel Sanchez – may have enough to hold first place. The Royals, who had so much go right last year, seem unlikely to make another Cinderella run, but have enough talent to be in the hunt. Cleveland and Minnesota are good enough to cause problems for the top of the division, but do not appear ready to challenge Detroit and Chicago.  Predicted order of finish:

Chicago White Sox

Detroit Tigers

Kansas City Royals

Cleveland Indians

Minnesota Twins

AL WEST

The Angels and Mariners are the powerhouses – and LA will be hard pressed to hold off Seattle.  BBRT is picking LA, but this is an LA/Seattle toss-up – a lot may depend on Josh Hamilton’s performance when he returns to the Angels’ lineup. Oakland traded away too many All Stars in revamping their team. Houston is on the rise, but with a long way to go.  Texas has too many injury concerns – but, if healthy, could surprise.

Los Angeles Angels

Seattle Mariners (Wild Card)

Oakland A’s

Houston Astros

Texas Rangers

Now for the Awards:

MVP:  Mike Trout, Angels.

Contenders: Robinson Cano, Mariners; Jose Bautista, Blue Jays; Miguel Cabrera, Tigers; Jose Abreu, White Sox.

Cy Young Award: Felix Hernandez, Mariners.

Contenders: Chris Sale, White Sox; David Price, Tigers; Yorlando Ventura, Royals.

Rookie of the Year:  Rusney Castillo, Red Sox.

Contenders: Francisco Lindor, Indians; Steve Souza, Rays; Carlos Rodon, White Sox; Ryan Rua, Rangers.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Here’s a more detailed look at how BBRT sees the AL 2015 races.

 

AL EAST

First – Boston Red Sox

Big Papi should have plenty to smile about in 2015.

Big Papi should have plenty to smile about in 2015.

Worst – to first – to worst – to first again?  Three years ago, the Red Sox finished fifth in the East (26 games out), two years ago they topped the division and, last season, they dropped back to fifth (25 games out). It looks like they have put the pieces in place to get back to the top of the AL East in 2015.  Offensively, key additions include free agents Hanley Ramirez (slated to move from the infield to left field to accommodate the Red Sox’ depth) and 3B Pablo Sandoval.  Toss in the likes of DH David Ortiz, 2B Dustin Pedroia, rising star RF Mookie Betts, early Rookie of the Year favorite CF Rusney Castillo – and more – and the Red Sox have a solid, and deep, lineup. They also have considerable OF depth (Allen Craig, Shane Victorino, Danial Nava, Jackie Bradley, Jr.) from which to make a trade – particularly for pitching.

The rotation does not have a true ace, but with newcomers Rick Porcello (who won 15 games for the Tigers last year), Justin Masterson and Wade Miley joining Clay Bucholz and Joe Kelly – and a bullpen featuring closer Koji Uehara, Edward Mujica and Craig Breslow – it should be enough to bring Boston home on top in the East.  If any members of the projected rotation falter, prospect Anthony Renaudo is waiting in the wings.

Key question:  Which Clay Bucholz shows up – last year’s 8-11, 5.34 version or a healthy version of the 2013 All Star?

Red Sox Fact: Brock Holt provides the Sox protection around the Diamond. In 2014, he played 39 games at 3B, 35 in RF, 12 at SS, 11 at 2B, eight at 1B and eight in RF – hitting .281, with four homers, 29 RBI and 12 steals (finishing eighth in Rookie of the Year balloting).

Second – Toronto Blue Jays

Jose Bautista will again lead the Blule Jays offense.

Jose Bautista will again lead the Blule Jays offense.

Like the Red Sox, the Blue Jays will count on their offense to take them to (or near) the top of the division.  The key to that offense will be new 3B Josh Donaldson – acquired in a trade with the Athletics.  Donaldson hit .255 with 29 home runs and 98 RBI in pitcher-friendly Oakland last season (after .301-23-93 in 2013). The 2014 All Star should find Rogers Centre to his liking.  There is plenty of power up and down the line up with RF Joe Bautista, 1B Edwin Encarnacion and free-agent newcomer Russell Martin behind the plate.   SS Jose Reyes will provide some speed at the top.

The pitching is not as strong as the offense – but is sound.  Four returning starters – R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchinson – were all double-digit winners a year ago.  The off-season trade of 11-game winner J.A. Happ opens the door for either Aaron Sanchez or Daniel Norris – two high-potential youngsters. The bull pen will likely be led by new closer (now that Casey Janssen has left via free agency) Brett Cecil and may include Sanchez if he doesn’t make the rotation (Sanchez has closer potential). Newcomer Marcus Estrada and Aaron Loup provide bullpen depth and a return to form by 2013 All Star Steve Delabar would be a plus.

Overall, it looks like the addition of Donaldson and Martin will enable the Jays to improve on their third-place finish of a year ago – grabbing a Wild Card spot or even unseating the Angels.

Key Question:  Will 22-year-old Dalton Pompey – who hit .231 in 17 late season games for the Jays – be able to handle the regular CF spot?  Pompey is a plus defender and hit .317 in three minor league stops a year ago.

Blue Jays Fact: The Blue Jays have MLB’s longest current post-season drought – having not earned a berth in the post-season since 1993.

Third – Baltimore Orioles

Basically non-participants in the off-season marketplace, the O’s will feel the loss of free agent outfielders Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis.  In 2014 the pair combined for 54 home runs (25.5% of the O’s total)  and 158 RBI  (23.2% of the O’s total). Still, there are reasons for optimism: 1) The Orioles have Buck Showalter, who knows how to get the most out of his resources; 2) They did win the East by 12 games a year ago, so they have a bit of a cushion in the quest to repeat; 3) They have some players returning from injury who could close the offensive gap left by the Cruz/Markakis departures.

There is still the potential for a potent offense, with returnees CF Adam Jones and RF Steve Pearce.  A strong return from catcher Matt Weiters (Tommy John surgery). a rebound by Chris Davis (who hit 53 HRs just two seasons ago) and a year of good health from 3B Manny Machado (.278-12-32 in 82 games a year ago – knee surgery) could also boost the Orioles’ 2015 success.  The middle of the infield (SS J.J. Hardy and 2B Jonathan Schoop) is dependable and defense should remain a Baltimore strength.

Even without a true ace, starting pitching may be the Orioles’ “ace in the hole.” The rotation features four double-digit winners with 2014 ERAs under 3.75:  Chris Tillman; Wei-Yin Chen; Bud Norris; and Miguel Gonzalez. Closer Zach Britton (37 saves and a 1.65 ERA) will lead a bullpen that also features quality arms in the likes of Brian Matusz, Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter.

Baltimore will be in the hunt, but BBRT sees the Birds falling short of the post season.

Key Question: Will 1B Chris Davis rebound? Two years ago, Davis put up a .286-53-138 line. Last year, Davis declined to .196-26-72, struck out in 38.4 percent of his at bats and faced a 25-game suspension (positive test for amphetamines associated with the Adderall).

Orioles Fact:  Baltimore led all of MLB in home runs in 2014 (211) and has topped 200 dingers in three straight seasons.

Fourth – New York Yankees

There’s trouble coming to the Big Apple – Jeter is gone, as is closer Dave Robertson (free agency) and starter Huroki Kuroda, who led the team in games started (32) in 2014.  The Yankees still do have some big names (and a big payroll), but that is both a blessing (proven players) and a curse (age and injury concerns). Among the starting nine, it’s possible incoming shortstop Didi Gregorius (trade with Arizona) will be the only player under 30.  The 24-year-old will be a defensive improvement over Jeter, but still is a work in progress at the plate (.226-6-27 in 80 games for Arizona).   The fact is, the Yankees have plenty of question marks in the expected line-up.  In the outfield 37-year-old Carlos Beltran is coming off one of his worst seasons ever (and elbow surgery). First baseman Mark Teixeira hit only .216 and will be spelled by newcomer Garrett Jones. While C Brian McCann contributed 23 home runs and 75 RBI, his .232 batting average was 40 points below his career average.  There are bright spots.  CF Jacob Ellsbury and LF Brett Gardner delivered power and speed as expected. Switch-hitting 3B Chase Headley continued to flash a solid glove – although it’s unlikely he will ever match his 31-homer, 115-RBI campaign of 2012 (the only season he’s topped 13 home runs).

On the mound, particularly given Kuroda’s departure, the Yankees need healthy seasons from Masahiro Tanaka (13-5, 2.77 in a season interrupted by an elbow injury) and oft-sidelined Michael Pineda. A healthy C.C. Sabathia (coming off knee surgery) would significantly improve the Yankees’ outlook.  Other likely starters are former Marlin Nathan Eovaldi, whose upper 90s fastball offers significant promise, 36-year-old Chris Capuano and Ivan Nova (coming off Tommy John surgery). In the bullpen, 6’ 8” flamethrower Dellin Betances looks ready to step into Robertson’s closer shoes. The Yankees added quality to the pen with free agent Andrew Miller. David Carpenter, Adam Warren, Esmil Rogers and Justin Wilson give the Yankees plenty to choose from in filling out the relief corps.

Looking at the roster, it’s hard to see the Yankees being a factor in 2015.

Key Question:  Will Alex Rodriguez be back and, if so, what will the 39-year-old have left in the tank?

Yankee Fact:  In 2014, the Yankees were the only AL team to not have a single player receive a vote in either the MVP or Cy Young Award balloting.   (Note: While Tampa Bay’s final roster did not include vote-getters in either category, CYA votes did go to David Price, who played the majority of his games with Tampa before the trade to Detroit).

Fifth – Tampa Bay Rays

If you’re going to examine the Rays, you have to start with their strength – the pitching – because offensively there just isn’t a whole lot to talk about.  Let’s look at the Rays’ rotation.  While they are missing a bonafide number-one guy – thanks to last year’s in-season David Price trade – the Rays have three starters who could fit into the number-two or number-three role on most teams: Alex Cobb; Chris Archer; and Jake Ordozzi.  By mid-season, the Rays hope to have Matt Moore back from Tommy John surgery. Moore, 17-4, 3.29 in 2013, would slide into the number-one spot. Backing up the rotation is a bullpen led by Bryan Boxberger, pressed into the closer’s role due to Jake McGee’s off-season elbow surgery.  McGee went 5-2, 1.89 with 19 saves and 90 strikeouts in 71 1.3 innings last season – and should return sometime in May.

The Rays offense was 27th in runs scored a year ago, and little was done to address the problem.  In fact, potential offense was traded away when 2013 Al Rookie of the Year Wil Myers was sent to San Diego as part of a three-team multi-player trade and two-time All Star 2B Ben Zobrist (arguably the face of the franchise) was sent (along with SS Yunel Escobar) to the A’s for C/DH John Jaso, prospects and cash. Escobar will be replaced by free agent signee Asdrubel Cabrera, who should be an upgrade. What qualifies as the heart of the Rays’ offense beats through 3B Evan Longoria (.253-22-91). James Loney is steady at 1B, possessing a good glove, but lacking the power you expect from a corner infielder (.290-9-69). Similarly, CF Desmond Jennings appears slotted into the leadoff spot, but doesn’t get on base at the rate you expect at the top of the order. The other two OF spots will likely go to Steven Souza and Kevin Kiermaier.

The Rays starting pitching will keep them in games, and could bring them home as high as third place.  But there just isn’t enough offense to get them into the post-season.  Souza (picked up in a trade) could surprise. In three 2014 minor league stops, Souza hit .345-18-88, with 26 steals. He was voted the International League’s (AAA) Rookie of the Year AND Most Valuable Player.  At the major league level, Souza went only 3-for-23 with the Nationals – although two of his hits were home runs.

Key Question: How much will the Rays miss previous manager Joe Maddon’s 11 years of managerial experience (twice AL Manager of the Year).  Maddon’s replaecment 37-year-old Kevin Cash (former major league catcher and Indians bullpen coach) has no managerial experience.

Rays Fact: The Rays’ 96 double plays in 2014 are the lowest total ever in a 162-game season.

AL CENTRAL

First – Chicago White Sox

Wow!  No really, wow!  The White Sox are poised to make the jump from fourth place to first in the AL Central – and they did it with a combination of free agent signings, trades and the development of home-grown talent.

Chris Sale - an early Cy Young award favorite - will lead the Sox' rotation.

Chris Sale – an early Cy Young award favorite – will lead the Sox’ rotation.

Consider the rotation.  It’s led by potential Cy Young winner Chris Sale (the Sox first- round pick in 2010) and Jeff Samardzija (picked up in an off-season trade with the Athletics). The number-three spot goes to Jose Quintana, with John Danks and Hector Noesi likely to round out the starting five.  Waiting in the wings, but needing a little more seasoning, is the Sox’ 2014 first-round draft pick Carlos Rondon.  The 22-year-old moved from Rookie League to AAA in his first minor league season – and could find his way into the rotation some time this season.  The bull pen – a trouble spot last season – is in good hands for 2015, led by free-agent signee closer David Robertson, who saved 39 games for the Yankees.  The Sox also added a solid set up man (again through free agency) in Zach Duke.  These two moves will enable the Sox to develop the bull pen roles (last season, three different relievers each reached double-digits in save opportunities for the Sox, who had 21 blown saves).

Chicago also upgraded its offense, adding free agents Melky Cabrera (OF) and Adam LaRoche (DH) to complement Rookie of the Year 1B Jose Abreu (.317-36-107), RF Avisail Garcia, SS Alexei Ramirez and top-of-the-order catalyst CF Adam Eaton. The Sox also added flexibility to the roster, signing free agent Emilio Bonifacio, who hit .259 in 119 games last season (Cubs/Braves) – and spent time at all three outfield spots, as well as second base, third base and shortstop.

They also picked up left-hander Dan Jennings – 0-2 with a 1.34 ERA in 47 appearances in 2014 – in a trade with Miami.  BBRT Note:  The Jennings acquisition might not have the impact of some of the other ChiSox moves, but I wanted to include it so I could point out that LHP Dan Jennings was traded away by Marlins GM Dan Jennings (no relation).

Key Question:  What kind of season will Avasail Garcia (torn labrum early in 2014) put up? Garcia showed promise in 2013 (.304-5-21 in 42 games), but did not fare as well in the injury-interrupted 2014 campaign (.244-7-29 in 46 games).  Garcia did hit .312 with power in the Venezuelan League and has been labeled by some as the most underrated hitter in the Sox line-up.

White Sox Fact: Chris Sale is only the fourth White Sox pitcher to record two consecutive 200 strikeout seasons (226 in 2013/208 in 2014). The others are Javier Vazquez (2007-08); Tom Bradley (1971-72); and Ed Walsh (1907-08 & three consecutive 1910-12).

Second – Detroit Tigers

The Tigers need a healthy Miguel Cabrera to win the Central.

The Tigers need a healthy Miguel Cabrera to win the Central.

The Tigers added some offense, but may have lost/given up too much pitching to finish atop the division.  The key loss was Max Scherzer (18-5, 3.15), who signed with the Nationals.  In addition, they gave up 15-game winner Rick Porcello in the trade for outfielder Yeonis Cespedes (22 HRs and 100 RBI for Oakland/Boston a year ago). The Tigers went right to work to replace Porcello – via a trade with the Reds – adding Cincinnati’s 15-game winner Alfredo Simon to the roster.  Still, Simon is 33-years-old and has only 51 starts in seven major league seasons, so he is not a sure thing.  Detroit also picked up right-hander Shane Greene from the Yankees (as part of a three-team deal also involving the Diamondbacks). Greene, the Yankees’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013, is considered to have a high ceiling.  And, keep in mind, the Tigers still have David Price, Justin Verlander and Anibel Sanchez in the rotation.

The bullpen – which had the AL’s highest batting-average against last season (.270) remains a question mark.  Closer Joe Nathan had 35 saves, but also a league-leading seven blown saves and a 4.81 ERA. Others in the pen are likely to include Joakim Soria, Joel Hanrahan, Al Alburquerque and promising youngster Bruce Rondon.

The offense still looks potent, with hitting machine 3B Miguel Cabrera, DH Victor Martinez, 2B Ian Kinsler, LF J.D. Martinez  and Cespedes providing plenty of power (a combined 114 home runs in 2014). Defense up the middle should be improved with the return of Jose Iglesias at shortstop, Alex Avila at catcher and the addition of CF Anthony Gose (via trade).

So why not pick the Tigers to repeat?  Three reasons – the suspect bullpen, questions about Verlander and, finally,  injury concerns. 1B Miguel Carbrera had ankle surgery in the off-season; DH Victor Martinez had knee surgery; SS Jose Iglesias missed all of 2014 with stress fractures in his shins; C Alex Avila has suffered multiple concussions; relievers Bruce Rondon and Joel Hanrahan have had recent elbow surgeries (2014 and 2013, respectively) and starter Anibel Sanchez’ 2014 season was injury-shortened.  Lots of talent, but also lots of potential for problems – likely to bring the Tigers home in second place.

Key Question:  Can Justin Verlander reverse a trend that has seen his ERA increase in each of the past four seasons (from 2.40 in 2011 to 4.54 in 2014) and his strikeouts per nine-innings drop from 9.0 to 6.9 in the same time span.

Tigers Fact: The Tigers appear to have turned up the speed dial.  In 2014, the Tigers stole 106 bases, fourth in the AL.  In 2013, Detroit stole only 35 bases – the lowest total in all of MLB.

Third – Kansas City Royals

A lot of things went right for the Royals in 2014 – in both the regular season and the post season.  After the departure free agents James Shields, Billy Butler and Nori Aoki, they’d have to go even better for Kansas City to make the post season in 2015.  Still, the Royals 2014 success was based on a blend of speed, defense and pitching (particularly the bullpen) – and there is still considerable talent in those areas.

The offense will be led by returnees LF Alex Gordon (a team-leading 19 home runs and  74 RBI a year ago); 3B Mike Moustakas; C Salvador Perez; and CF Lorenzo Cain.  The Royals are hoping free-agent signees Kendry Morales and Alex Rios (who both had off-seasons in 2014) can rebound and replace Butler and Noaki. The defense will be there again with the Royals boasting plus defenders nearly all around the field.

On the mound, KC will miss Shields, but 23-year-old Yorlando Ventura (14-10, 3.20 a year ago) seems ready to step into the number-one rotation spot. Number-two in the rotation cpould very well be Danny Duffy (9-12, with a 2.53 ERA).  Rounding out the rotation are veterans Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and free-agent signee Edison Volquez. The bullpen is one of the best in baseball, led by closer Greg Holland (46 saves and a 1.44 ERA in 2014) – who is preceded to the mound by the likes of Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera and Luke Hochevar.  How good can the pen be?  In 2014, the Royals were 65-4 when going into the seventh inning with a lead.

Kansas City has enough going for it to stay in the chase, but Detroit and Chicago may be just a bit better.

Key Question: Will either corner infielder (1B Eric Hosmer/3B Mike Moustakas) have the breakout season the Royals have been waiting for?

Kansas City Fact:  The numbers show the Royals focus getting the ball in play and making something happen. In 2014, Kansas City recorded the AL’s fewest walks and the fewest batters’ strikeouts – as well as the league’s fewest HRs and most stolen bases.

Fourth – Cleveland Indians

The Indians notched 85 wins a year ago with a combination of strong pitching, acceptable (but not spectacular) offense and – unfortunately – a defense that led all of MLB in errors (118).  BBRT expects more of the same in 2015 and, even if the defense improves, the Tigers and White Sox will still outpace the Tribe – which had a quiet offseason.

The offense will again be led by LF Michael Brantley (.327-20-94), with support in the power department from 1B/DH Carlos Santana (27 home runs), C Yan Gomes (21 home runs) and free-agent signee Brandon Moss (25 HRs for Oakland). Cleveland could use a rebound season from 2B Jason Kipnis (who went from .284-17-94 in 2013 to .240-6-41 last season) and DH Nick Swisher (who had knee surgery in August).

The pitching staff looks to be in better shape than the offense, with Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (18-9, 2.44) leading the way.  The remainder of the rotation will be drawn from Carlos Carrasco (who had a strong second half), Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, T.J. House, Gavin Floyd, Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin.  The Indians’ rotation logged a second-half ERA under 3.00 in 2014 – and the Indians are counting on that to be a portent of things to come.  The bullpen should be a strength again in 2015, led by closer Cody Allen (24 saves and 91 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings). Last season Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchinson and Marc Rzepczynski (love that name on a uniform) all made at least 70 appearances – and manager Terry Francona can be expected to work the bullpen (effectively) again in 2015.

The Indians have the talent to be above .500 again, but – unless they can tighten the defense – will also find themselves once again out of the post season.

Key Question:  Is Brandon Moss fully recovered from off-season hip surgery, and where will he play (RF/1B/DH)? Note: In 2015, Moss hit .268, with 21 home runs and 66 RBI in 89 games before the All Star break, but just .173-4-15 in 58 games after the break.

Indians Fact: Despite an 85-77 season, just three games out of a Wild Card spot, the Indians drew 1,437,393 at home last season – the worst home attendance in all of MLB.

Fifth – Minnesota Twins

The Twins suffered their fourth consecutive season of 90 or more losses in 2014 – and starting pitching was the club’s most significant weakness.  The rotation rang up a 5.06 ERA, the worst in all of MLB, while the team’s 715 runs scored were seventh-best  in MLB and fifth in the AL.

The Twins worked to address their pitching needs by signing free agent Ervin Santana (a 14-game winner for the Braves in 2014).  He joins 16-game winner Phil Hughes at the top of the rotation. The remainder of the rotation will likely be drawn from Ricky Nolasco (who pitched with a sore elbow early in the season and then came back from the disabled list to record a 2.93 ERA in five September outings) and 13-game winner Kyle Gibson.  Candidates for the final spot include Tommy Milone, Mike Pelfrey and prospects Alex Meyer and Trevor May.  The bullpen will again be led by closer Glen Perkins (34 saves), with a supporting cast likely to include Casey Fien, Brian Duensing, and Caleb Thielbar.  The Twins could use some power arms there.

Offensively, the Twins show signs of life.  2B Brian Dozier hit 23 home runs and stole 21 bases. Danny Santana CF/SS hit .319 in 101 games, 3B Trevor Plouffe provided 14 home runs and 80 RBI, OF Oswaldo Arcia started to live up to his promise (20 homers) and Kenny Vargas looks poised to do some damage from the DH slot. In addition, the Twins added free agent RF Torii Hunter (returning to the Twins from the Tigers), who is a professional hitter (.286-17-83) and a leader on the field and in the clubhouse. Still, how well the Twins go may be determined by three-time batting champion 1B Joe Mauer, a career .319 hitter, who hit only .277 last year. The Twins need a rebound from the hometown favorite.

The Twins of 2015 will be improved, much more competitive, but not ready challenge for a playoff spot.  If all goes right – Nolasco and Mauer return to form, Arcia and Vargas continue to develop and Hunter provides the expected leadership, the Twins could push .500 and make things difficult for Central Division competitors – and the Twins have some big-time prospects in the pipeline, so it shouldn’t be long until fans see meaningful September baseball.

Key Question:  When will the Twins fans see OF Byron Buxton and 3B Miguel Sano, two of baseball’s top prospects?  The pair is sure to generate plenty of offense and excitement once they move to the big club.

Twins Fact: In 2014, Twins’ right-hander Phil Hughes walked just 16 batters, while fanning 186 (in 209 2/3 innings).  That 11.63 strikeout to walk ratio is a modern MLB record.

AL WEST

First – Los Angeles Angels

The Angels led all of MLB in regular-season wins a year ago and should contend again this year.  In fact, they may have enough to hold off the fast-charging Mariners in the AL West.

2014 MVP Mike Trout hopes to lead the Angels in a West Division repeat.

2014 MVP Mike Trout hopes to lead the Angels in a West Division repeat.

Offensively, the Angels will look to 2014 MVP CF Mike Trout to lead the way – he’ll be flanked in the outfield by lead-off hitter Kole Calhoun (who hit .272 and scored 90 runs in just 127 games) and (early in the season) Matt Joyce. LF Josh Hamilton may miss the first four to six weeks of the season following shoulder surgery. 1B Albert Pujols remains in the clean-up spot, but he is 34 and showing signs of wear (.272-28-105 in 2014). Pujols, however, is still one of the game’s most reliable run producers.  The Angels will have to replace 2B Howie Kendrick’s team-leading 181 hits, but the Angels did lead all of MLB in runs scored last season, and the line-up hasn’t changed that much, so they should be okay.

Starting pitching will again be an Angels’ strong point (and the key to holding off the Mariners). Jered Weaver, Matt Shoemaker, Garrett Richards and C.J. Wilson combined for 60 wins a year ago (although knee surgery will delay the start of Richards’ season).  Andrew Heaney (picked up in the Kendrick trade) is considered a top prospect.  Others in in the running for a rotation spot are Hector Santiago and Nick Tropeano. The bullpen is solid, led by closer Houston Street (41 saves, 1.37 ERA for the Dodgers and Angels in 2014), with support from free-agent signee and key set-up man Joe Smith, Fernando Salas and Kevin Jepsen.

The Angels may have just enough to retain the AL West title – but it will be a horse race.

Key Question:  How soon will OF Josh Hamilton and SP Garrett Richards return?  These are key cogs in the Angel machine.

Angels Fact: In three full MLB seasons, Mike Trout has never finished lower than second in the AL MVP voting.

Second – Seattle Mariners

It should be an exciting season in Seattle, with a well-balanced Mariners squad making it to the post season – and, perhaps, even knocking the Angels off the top spot in the AL West.

A stronger line-up may bring Seattle a division title and FelixHernandez a Cy Young Award.

A stronger line-up may bring Seattle a division title and Felix Hernandez a Cy Young Award.

The Mariners made one of the biggest free agent moves of the off season, signing AL home run champ Nelson Cruz (Orioles) – whose bat (.271-40-108) will slide nicely into the DH role and cleanup spot for the Mariners.  And, Cruz will be surrounded by power, with 2B Robinson Cano and 3B Kyle Seager likely to hit in the number-three and number-five spots, respectively.  The Mariners’ outfield will be revamped for 2015 – and we may see some notable platooning.  Candidates include: Dustin Ackley (14 HRs/8 steals), James Jones (27 steals in 108 games), Austin Jackson and newcomers Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano.

The rotation looks solid, starting with 2014 AL ERA champ and perennial Cy Young Award candidate Felix Hernandez.  Hisashi Iwakuma won 15 games last year and is a solid number-two. Then there are a host of talented young hurlers – James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Reonis Elias – not to mention off-season pickup (via trade) J.A. Happ, an 11-game winner for the Blue Jays last season.  In the pen, closer Fernando Rodney sometimes creates excitement via the base on balls, but he did save 48 games in 51 opportunities. The rest of the pen has shown the ability to get the big strikeout when needed.

The Mariners appear ready to make the post season and possibly move the Angels off the top of the AL West.

Key Question:  Can the Mariners improve young (24-years-old) C Mike Zunino’s plate patience? In 2014, he hit 22 home runs – but walked only 17 times, while striking out 158 and hitting .199.

Mariners Fact: The Mariners made the fewest errors in the AL last season (82) – one fewer than their main AL West competition – the Angels.

Third – Oakland A’s

Another WOW! (See the White Sox write up.)  Gone from the Oakland A’s are 2014 All Stars 3B Josh Donaldson, P Jon Lester, OF/1B Brandon Moss, C/DH Derek Norris and P Jeff Samardzija (voted to the NL 2014 All Star team before being traded to the A’s), as well as P Jason Hammel, SS Jed Lawrie, OF Jonny Gomes, IF Alberto Callaspo and C John Jaso.   In their place are 2014 All Star reliever Tyler Clippard, as well as 1B/DH Billy Butler, 2B/OF Ben Zobrist, 3B Brett Lawrie, 1B Ike Davis, IF Marcus Semien, and SP Jesse Hahn.

Ultimately, Billy Beane has dismantled 2014’s AL Wild Card team and put together a markedly different lineup for 2015 (the pitching remains more stable).  Still, there is potential here (as well as plenty of positional flexibility) – and Beane always seems to have a plan.  The A’s will look for offensive punch from Butler at DH (.271-9-66 for the Royals); Zobrist (.272-10-52 for Tampa Bay), Lawrie (.247-12-38 in 70 games for Toronto); and Davis (.233-11-51 for the Mets/Pirates) – and have hopes that Semien will blossom.

Ultimately, the A’s will go as far as their pitching takes them.  The rotation will be led by Sonny Gray (14-10, 3.07) and Scott Kazmir (15-9, 3.55). Jesse Hahn went 7-4, 3.07 with the Padres last year and looks like the real deal.  Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz and Chris Bassitt will compete for the final two spots, but their run likely will be temporary, as the A’s are hoping for mid-season returns (Tommy John surgery) by A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker, who went a combined 26-18 in 2013 (but did not pitch in 2014).  Sean Doolittle (22 saves) will close, supported by Clippard, Ryan Cook, Dan Otero and Eric O’Flaherty.

Overall, the starting rotation looks sound (especially if Parker and Griffin return as expected) and the bullpen has potential. However, the offense looks thin in the power department – and there is the question of how well (or how soon) all the new faces will gel.  Billy Beane, however, has proven the skeptics wrong in the past.  Still, BBRT thinks a third-place finish is giving the A’s the benefit of the doubt.

Key Question:  Will Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin return on schedule and in-form –  and will that free up Beane for even more moves mid-season?

A’s Fact:  In 2014, the A’s drew the most walks in the AL (586), while A’s hurlers gave up the second-fewest walks (406).

Fourth – Houston Astros

The Astros delivered a 19-win improvement in 2014, and should improve again – although not enough to contend – in 2015.  They have some exciting young players in place, and more on the horizon.  Key to the Houston offense are returnees 2B Jose Altuve (the 25-year-old captured the AL batting title, hitting .341 and collecting 225 hits, while also stealing an AL-best 56 bases), DH Chris Carter (37 home runs), RF George Springer (20 home runs in 78 games) and newcomers C/OF Evan Gattis (22 home runs in 108 games with the Braves) and Colby Rasmus (18 home runs in 104 games for the Blue Jays).  Newcomer Jed Lawrie is also expected to provide some pop from the shortstop position. The Astros will still strikeout a lot, but the offense should be improved.

The starting rotation will be led by the left-right combination of Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, who combined for 54 starts, 23 wins and a 2.84 ERA in 2014. The third spot in the rotation likely goes to Scott Feldman (8-12, 3.74). After that, the most likely candidates being Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock. Relief pitching should be improved with the addition of free agents Pat Neshek (7-2, 1.87, 6 saves for the Cardinals) and anticipated closer Luke Gregerson (5-5, 2.12 in 72 games for the A’s).  There is support available from among former closer Chad Qualls, Josh Fields, Tony Sipp and Will Harris.

The Astros look to be better in 2015 (following up on a 19-victory improvement in 2014) – and could reach the .500 mark if the back end of the rotation can surprise and the relief staff delivers as expected.

Key Question: What will the Astros get from the corner infield positions?  In 2014, 1B Jon Singleton, a major power-hitting prospect, delivered 13 home runs in 95 games – but hit only .168 and struck out 134 times in 310 at bats.  On the opposite corner, 3B Matt Dominguez turned in a .215-16-57 line – after .214-21-77 in 2013.

Houston Fact:  In 2014, the free-swinging Astros finished fourth in the AL in home runs, but 14th in runs scored.  (That may be partially attributable to their league-leadership in batters’ strikeouts.)

Fifth – Texas Rangers

If they get healthy, the Rangers have a chance to make some noise – and prove this prediction w-a-a-y wrong –  in 2015.  Last season, they plummeted to last place in the AL West – and the fewest wins in the junior circuit – driven at least in part by injuries.  RF Sin Soo Choo (ankle/elbow), 1B Prince Fielder (neck), SP Yu Darvish (elbow), SP Derek Holland (knee surgery) and DH Mitch Moreland (ankle) – all missed time in 2014.  The Rangers need these players to return  healthy.

The offense should again be led by 3B Adrian Beltre, who not only delivered a .324-19-77 line in 2014, but is a four-time Gold Glover at the hot corner. 1B Prince Fielder is coming back from neck surgery that limited him to 42 games in 2014, but is only one year removed from a 162-game, 25-home run, 106-RBI season (Detroit, 2013). RF Sin Soo Choo delivered .242-13-48 in 123 games, but topped 20 home runs as recently as 2013. Also expected to contribute are speedy CF Leonys Martin (31 steals) in the lead off spot and C Robinson Chirinos (13 homers in 92 games). A rebound from SS Elvis Andrus would also help and likely LF Ryan Rau has hit wherever he has played and went .295-2-14 in a 28-game call up.  All in all, there is solid offense available.

The pitching will be led by Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, who both missed time in 2014. The remainder of the rotation looks to be Ross Detwiler, Colby Lewis and Nick Tepesch. Matt Harrison and Martin Perez – both coming back from surgery – should be available in the second half. The bullpen features closer Neftali Perez  (13 saves – after recovery from Tommy John surgery), Tanner Scheppers (elbow injury last spring), Kyuji Fujikawa (Tommy John surgery 2013), Shawn Tolleson (2.76 ERA in 64 games) and Martin Perez.

If the stars align – and return to the field healthy – the Rangers could climb as high as third place.  There seems, however, to be too many questions to expect that.

Key Question:  What does the future hold for once top prospect Jurickson Profar, who missed all of 2014 with a major shoulder injury and should start 2015 in the minors?

Rangers Fact: Texas had notched four consecutive seasons of at least 90 wins before dropping to 67 in 2014.

 

Coming soon – a look at the National League.

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

photos by: jbrownell & , , , , ,

Hall of Famers Who Went Out On Top – As World Series Champions

When Pedro Martinez is inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this coming July,  he will join a “club within a club” made up of the ten Hall of Famers who went out on top – pitching to their last major league hitter or taking their last major league at bat while playing on MLB’s biggest stage,  in the World SeriesWithin that group, there is an even more unique set of players – just three – who retired as World Champions, all three making their last trip to the plate for a World Series winner. 

BBRT will take a look at just how those players finished up their careers, but – for those in a hurry – here’s the list without the detail.

Hall of Fame players who made their final major league appearance for a World Series winner:

  • Joe DiMaggio – 1951 New York Yankees
  • Johnny Mize – 1953 New York Yankees
  • Eddie Mathews – 1968 Detroit Tigers

Then there are the seven additional Hall of Famers who came to the plate or went to the mound for their final major league appearance in the World Series, but whose teams did not come away champions:

  • Frank “Home Run” Baker – 1922 Yankees
  • Bill Terry – 1936 Giants
  • Travis Jackson – 1936 Giants
  • Jackie Robinson – 1956 Dodgers
  • Sandy Koufax – 1966 Dodgers
  • Willie Mays – 1973 Mets
  • Pedro Martinez – 2009 Phillies

The fact that seven of the ten players who finished their MLB playing careers in the World Series come from the Yankees, Giants or Dodgers should be  no surprise; those teams represent three of the top four franchises in terms of World Series appearances:

  1. Yankees … 40 World Series/27 Championships
  2. Cardinals … 19 World Series/11 Championships
  3. Giants … 19 World Series/7 Championships
  4. Dodgers … 18 World Series/6 Championships

Now let’s look at the list of players who went out on top.  First, the three whose final appearances earned them World Series Championship rings. 

Joe DiMaggio (The Yankee Clipper) – Hall of Fame 1955

xx JNoe DimAggioLast major league appearance: With the Yankees, October 10, 1951; Game Six of the World Series (versus the New York Giants)

What can you say about the Joe DiMaggio?  He was indeed a “champion.” He came in a champion as a Yankee rookie in 1936 – manning center field for every game of the all-New York World Series, as the Yankees topped the Giants in six games.  And, he retired as a champion – manning center field in every game as the Yankees (fittingly) again topped the Giants in six. In between those bookends, DiMaggio played in eight more World Series – with his Yankees winning seven of them.  In a total of 51 World Series games, DiMaggio hit .271, with eight home runs and 30 RBI.

How well was Joltin’ Joe seeing the ball during his record hitting streak?

In 1941, Joe DiMaggio ran off a still MLB-record 56-game hitting streak.  During the streak DiMaggio went 91-for-223 (.408) with 15 home runs and 55 RBI.  How well was he seeing the ball?  In the 56 games, DiMaggio struck out only five times.

DiMaggio was an All Star in each of his 13 MLB seasons (1936-42 & 1946-51, in a career interrupted by three years of military service).  He was a three-time AL Most Valuable Player (1939, 1941, 1947) and a two-time batting champ (1939, 1940).  He also led the AL in home runs (twice), triples (once), runs (one) and RBI (twice) – compiling a .325 lifetime batting average, with 361 home runs and 1,537 RBI.

DiMaggio’s final plate appearance in the major leagues produced an extra base hit – a stand-up double to tight center, with DiMaggio gliding gracefully into second base –  in Game Six (final game) of the 1951 World Series.  It came in the eighth inning off New York Giants’ right-hander Larry Jansen, who had led the NL with 23 victories during the season.  It was the sixth hit of the Series for the Yankee Clipper, who hit .261, with one home run and five RBI for the Series.

Johnny Mize (The Big Cat) – Hall of Fame 1982

zxx Johnny Mize54Last major league appearance: With the New York Yankees, October 5, 1953; Game Seven of the World Series (versus the Brooklyn Dodgers)

Johnny Mize hit 359 home runs in a 15-season big league career that was interrupted for three years of military service.  (Mize played in the majors from 1936-42 and 1946-53.)  He was a ten-time All Star who led his league at least once in most major categories:  doubles (once); triples (once); home runs (four times); batting average (once); runs scored (once); RBI (three times); total bases (three times). In 1947, while with the New York Giants (Mize played for the Cardinals, Giants and Yankees in his career), Mize hit .302, leading the league in home runs (51), runs scored (137) and RBI (138).

Injuries and age slowed Mize, who was traded by the Giants to the Yankees in 1949 (at age 36).  Mize proved valuable as a part-time player and pinch-hitter, helping the Yankees win five straight World Championships during his years with the team (1949-53). Mize, in fact, was the star of the 1955 Series, when he played in five of the seven games: hitting a pinch hit home run in the ninth inning of Game Three; going 2-for-3, with a home run and a double as the starting first baseman in Game Four; hitting a three-run homer in Game Five; and picking up a pair of hits and an RBI in Game Seven. Overall, Mize hit .400 for the Series, with three home runs and six RBI.

 How good was Johnny Mize when it came to bat control?

In 1947, Johnny Mize rapped 51 home runs, but struck out only 42 times.  He is still the only player to have a season of  50+ homers and less than 50 strikeouts.  The next season, Mize proved it 1947 was no fluke, hitting 40 home runs and fanning only 37 times.

So what about Mize’s final MLB appearance?  It came in the eighth inning of Game Seven of the 1953 Series.  With the Yankees up 2-1, the 40-year-old Mize was called upon to pinch hit for Yankee starting first baseman Joe Collins (with two on and two out). Mize, facing Dodgers’ reliever Clem Labine, grounded out to first. Mize went 0-for-3 as a pinch hitter in the Series, but he still retired a World Champion.

Eddie Mathews – Hall of Fame 1978

xx Eddie MathewsLast major league appearance: With the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1968; Game Four of the World Series (versus the Saint Louis Cardinals)

The left-handed hitting Eddie Mathews was an All Star at third base in nine of his seventeen seasons – during which he hit .271 with 512 home runs (twice leading the NL) and drove in 1,453 runs.  He also led the NL in walks four times and on-base-percentage once.  He hit 493 of his round trippers as a Brave – and Mathews and fellow HOFer Hank Aaron hit more home runs while teammates (863) than any other pair in MLB history. Mathews chose a Milwaukee Braves’ cap for his HOF induction.  No surprise there, Mathews played for the Braves during their last season in Boston (1952), for all 13 seasons they were in Milwaukee and for their first season in Atlanta (1966) – the only player to take the field for the Braves in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta.  Mathews last MLB at bat, however, did not come with the Braves, or even in the National League.  His final trip to the plate came in a Detroit Tigers uniform – during the 1968 World Series.

How sweet was Eddie Mathews swing?

None other than the great Ty Cobb once said, “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time. This lad has one of them.”

Before making it to Detroit, Mathews made a stop in Houston. Mathews was nearing the end of his career as the 1966 season closed. His output had dropped from 23 home runs and 95 RBI in 1965 to just 16 homers and 53 RBI in 1966.  In the off season, the Braves acquired third baseman Clete Boyer from the Yankees and sent Mathews to the Houston Astros – where he didn’t stay long (but long enough to hit his 500th homer run – this one off another future HOFer, Juan Marichal).  In mid-August of that year, the Detroit Tigers, in the middle of a pennant race and having lost starting third baseman Don Wert to injury, picked up Mathews in a trade with the Astros. Tiger manager Mayo Smith indicated they were looking at Mathews not only for his ability to fill in at third base, but also for his veteran leadership down the stretch.  Mathews played in 36 games for Detroit (3B/1B/PH), hitting .231 with six homers and 19 RBI, as the Tiger finished just one game behind the Red Sox.  Mathews was still with the Tigers as they won the AL title in 1968 – primarily playing first base in an injury-interrupted season.  In that final campaign, he hit .212, with 3 homers and 8 RBI in 31 games.

Now for that MLB final at bat. Mathews played in only two games in the 1968 World Series.  Leading off the eighth inning of Game One, he pinch hit for Don Wert and became strikeout victim number 14 in the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson’s World Series record-setting 17-strikeout performance.  (The Tigers lost 4-0.)  Mathews’ final major league plate appearance came at Tiger Stadium on October 6, with Gibson back on the mound for the Cardinals. Mathews, fittingly, started his final game at the position he manned for so long – third base. Gibson was again masterful, giving up just one run (five hits, two walks, ten strikeouts) in an 8-1 Cardinal victory. Mathews, however, held his own – going 1-for-2 (single and a popup) before drawing an eighth-inning walk in his last ever major league plate appearance. Detroit went on to win the Series four games to three – and Mathews ended his career a World Series Champion.

DiMaggio, Mize and Mathews, there are your three Hall of Famers who went out as World Series Champions.  Now, let’s look at the seven HOFers, who came so close – finishing their careers in the World Series, just not coming away with that championship ring.

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Frank “Home Run” Baker – Hall of Fame 1955

Last major league appearance: With the New York Yankees, October 6, 1922; Game Three of the World Series (versus the New York Giant).

Frank “Home Run” Baker’s reputation as a power hitter became so ingrained that he remains better known as Home Run Baker than Frank Baker. He earned his nickname in the 1911 World Series, when he hit a game-winning, two-run home run in Game Two (as Baker’s Philadelphia Athletics beat the New York Giants 3-1) and then rapped a game-tying home run in the ninth inning of Game Three (which the Athletic won 3-2 in eleven innings). BBRT note:  These home runs were especially meaningful, as only three home runs were hit in the entire Series – won by the Athletics in six games – and Baker’s 11 regular-season home runs led the American League in 1911.

Notably, Baker went on to prove himself worthy of the “Home Run” nickname – leading the AL in home runs not only in 1911, but also 1912, 1913 and 1914.  He also led the league in RBI in 1912 and 1913.  Regarded as one of the top power hitters of his era, Baker not only led the league in home runs four times, but hit over .300 six times, three times topped 100 RBI and twice scored more than 100 runs.  Baker finished his 13-season MLB career with a .307 average, 96 home runs and 987 RBI.  He played with the Philadelphia Athletics from 1908-1914 and with the New York Yankees (1916-1919 and 1921-22.)  BBRT note:  Baker was out of major league baseball in 1915 due to a contract dispute with Connie Mack, who then sold Baker’s contract to the Yankees.  Baker also sat out the 1920 season due to a family tragedy.

Ironically, in his final two seasons, “Home Run” Baker was a teammate of the game’s newest premier power hitter, one who would change the game and the record books (and also be better known by his nickname) – Babe Ruth.

How did Frank Home Run Baker respond to pressure?

In six World Series (25 games), Baker hit .363 with three home runs and 18 RBI.

Baker got only one at bat in that 1922 Series (in which the Giants Swept the Yankees in four games), grounding out to first as a pinch hitter (for pitcher Waite Hoyt) leading off the eighth inning of Game Three.

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Travis Jackson (Stonewall) – Hall of Fame 1982

Bill Terry (Memphis Bill) – Hall of Fame 1954

Last major league appearance(s): For the New York Giants, October 6, 1936; Game Six (final game) of the World Series (versus the New York Yankees)

BBRT put these two Hall of Famers together because they took their last major league swings in the final game of a World Series – for the same team on the same day.

Giants’ first baseman Bill Terry’s last at bat came in the eighth inning of the final game of the 1936 World Series, against Yankee right-hander Johnny Murphy (9-3, with five saves and a 3.38 ERA in the regular season).  There were two outs and the Giants were down three games to two and by a score of 6-5 in Game Six. Terry, who had a single in his first three at bats that day (driving in a run in the seventh inning) grounded out to second to end the inning.  (The Yankees went on to score seven runs in the top of the ninth to put the game and the Series away.)  Terry hit .240 for the Series with no home runs and five RBI.)

When did Bill Terry tell his manager about hit retirement?

Bill Terry the player retired after the 1936 World Series, but he didn’t have to tell his manager.  Terry was not only the Giants’ first baseman, he was also the team’s manager.  Terry served as player-manager of the Giants from 1932 to 1936, bringing home two pennants (1933, 1936) and one World Championship (1933). He continued to manage until 1941, capturing one additional NL title (1937).

Travis Jackson, who made it to the Hall of Fame primarily on his skills at shortstop, started all six games of the 1936 World Series at third base – and ended his career just a bit earlier than Terry.  Jackson was lifted (by manager Terry) for a pinch hitter in the seventh. In his final major league plate appearance, Jackson popped out to second to lead off the sixth inning against Yankees’ starter Lefty Gomez.  Jackson ended the game one-for-three and hit just .190 (4-for-21) for the Series.

A little bit about these two Hall of Famers, who retired as players in the same World Series contest:

Like Jackson, Terry was an accomplished fielder (he led the league’s first basemen in putouts and assists five times each), but he earned his way into the Hall of Fame primarily with his bat.  The big left-hander hit .341 over a 14-year career with the Giants. He ended with 154 home runs and 1,078 RBI.  He was on the first NL All Star team (the Al;l Star game was inaugurated in 1933), and was also an All Star in 1934 and 1935.  Terry hit .295 in three World Series (16 games), including .429 in a losing cause in 1924.

What was Bill Terry’s greatest season?

In 1930, Terry led the NL with 254 hits and a .401 average – and also notched career-highs in home runs (23), RBI (129), and runs scored (139). Terry remains the last National Leaguer to hit over .400 for a season. 

Jackson was considered one of – if not the – best defensive shortstop of his time; with wide range and a powerful arm.  While Jackson never led the league in any offensive category, he still finished in the top ten in the MVP voting four times in his fifteen seasons.  Much like Terry was a solid defender, known for his skill with the bat, Jackson was a solid hitter, known for his glove.  Jackson hit over .300 six times (.339 in 1930), knocked 21 home runs in 1929 (10th best in the NL) and drove in 101 runs in 1934 (seventh in the NL). He finished his career (1922-36, all with the Giants) with a .291 average. 135 home runs and 929 RBI.

How good was Travis Jackson’s glove?

Travis Jackson was selected as MLB’s Most Outstanding Shortstop by The Sporting News in 1927, 1928 and 1929.

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Jackie Robinson – Hall of Fame 1962

Last major league appearance: With the Brooklyn Dodgers, October 10, 1956; Game Seven of the World Series (versus the New York Yankees)

Jackie Robinson, of course, is best known for breaking MLB’s color line (April 15, 1947), but he did much more than that in his ten seasons as a Brooklyn Dodger.  He was a six-time All Star, the first-ever winner of the Rookie of the Year (1947), National League MVP (1949), a batting champion (.342 in 1949), twice led the league in stolen bases and helped the Dodgers to six World Series appearances and one World Championship (1955) between 1947 and 1956.  Robinson came to the major leagues at age 28, after attending UCLA, playing professional football, serving in the military, spending a season with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs (where hit .387 in 47 games) and one with the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals minor league team (where he hit .349 and stole 40 bases in 124 games). For his MLB career, Robinson hit .311, with 137 home runs, 947 runs, 734 RBI and 197 steals.

How good an athlete was Jackie Robinson?

Jackie Robinson was UCLA’s first four-letter athlete – baseball, basketball, football, track.

In his final MLB plate appearance, Robinson made the final out of the 1956 World Series.  It was Game Seven and Robinson was facing the Yankees’ Johnny Kucks with the Dodgers trailing 9-0 in the bottom of the ninth, two out and Brooklyn CF Duke Snider on first base.  Robinson struck out, but Yankee catcher Yogi Berra dropped the ball and had to throw Robinson out at first – ending the Series. Robinson started at third base and hit clean-up in all seven games of the Series, going 6-for-24, with five walks, five runs and two RBI.

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Sandy Koufax – Hall of Fame 1972

Last major league appearance: With the Los Angeles Dodgers, October 6, 1966; Game Two of the World Series (versus the Baltimore Orioles)

If anyone ever deserved to top off their career – and final MLB appearance – with a World Series Championship, it was Dodgers’ southpaw Sandy Koufax.  Not only did he lead his Dodgers to the NL pennant in his final MLB season, he was also a unanimous Cy Young Award winner – leading the league in wins (27), ERA (1.73), games started (41), complete games (27), shutouts (5), innings pitched (323) and strikeouts (317). But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sandy Koufax spent his entire (too short) 12-year career with the Dodgers – in Brooklyn from 1955 to 1957 and in Los Angeles from 1958 to 1966. It did take this Hall of Famer awhile to find his groove. Let’s divide is career into two twelve-year segments.

  • In his first six seasons, Koufax won 36 and lost 40 – in his final six, he won 129 and lost 47.
  • In his first six seasons, his ERA was 4.10 – in his final six, 2.19.
  • In his first six campaigns, Koufax pitched 691 2/3 innings, walking 405 and fanning 683 – in his last six seasons, he threw 1,632 2/3 innings, walking 412 and fanning 1,713.
  • In his first six seasons, Koufax three five complete-game shutouts – in the final six, he tossed 35 shutouts.
  • In those final six seasons, he tossed four no-hitters, one a perfect game.

In that final six-year span, Koufax led the league in wins three times, winning percentage twice, ERA five times, complete games twice, shutouts three times and strikeouts four times. Over his final six seasons, Koufax also made the All Star team every year, won three Cy Young Awards (1963, 1965, 1966) and was the NL MVP (1963). In post season play, for his career, Koufax went 4-3, with a 0.95 ERA in eight games (seven starts). He was the MVP of the 1963 and 1965 Series.

So, why the early retirement? Koufax suffered from chronic arthritis in that potent left arm – and pitched most of his final two seasons in significant pain and at significant risk. Told by doctors that continuing to pitch could end up costing him full use of the arm, Koufax chose to retire after the 1966 Series – at the age of thirty.

What did the opposition think of Sandy Koufax?

After facing Sandy Koufax in the 1963 World Series, Yogi Berra, an astute judge of pitchers, said this:  “I can see how he won 25 games.  What I don’t understand is how he lost five.”  (Koufax finished 25-5, 1.88, with 20 complete games, 11 shutouts and 306 strikeouts in the 1963 season.)

Koufax’ final MLB appearance came on October 2, 1966 – in Game Two of the World Series against the AL Champion Baltimore Orioles.  The appropriate ending to the story would be for Koufax to have finished in a blaze of (fastball) glory, earning the victory and eventually leading the Dodgers to the World Championship.  It didn’t go that way.  In his final game on an MLB mound, Koufax gave up four runs on six hits and two walks (before Ron Perranoski took over in the seventh). Koufax, who struck out two in his six innings, took the loss, as the Dodger fell 6-0 (on their way to being swept by the Robinson – Frank and Brooks – led Orioles).  In his last inning, Koufax gave up one run on three hits (a triple by RF Frank Robinson, singles by 1B Boog Powell and 2B Dave Johnson) and an intentional walk (CF Paul Blair).  The last batter MLB hitter Koufax faced was Baltimore catcher Andy Etchebarren, who hit into a third-to home-to first double play to end the inning. Koufax did deserve a better line that day.  Only one of the runs was earned, as Dodgers’ CF Willie Davis made three errors (leading to three unearned runs) in the fifth inning.

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Willie Mays (The Say Hey Kid)Hall of Fame 1979

Last major league appearance: With the New York Mets, October 16, 1973; Game Three of World Series (versus the Oakland A’s)

Willie Mays was an All Star in 20 of his 22 seasons, as well as Rookie of the Year (1951), twice NL MVP (1954, 1965), four times the NL leader in home runs, four times the NL leader in stolen bases, a batting champion (1954) and a 12-time Gold Glove winner.  He did practically all of this damage for the New York/San Francisco Giants (for whom he hit 646 of his 660 home runs and stole 336 of his 338 bases). Mays chose a San Francisco Giants’ cap for his induction into the HOF.  Still, when Mays made his final major league appearance it was not as a Giant, but rather as a New York Met.

Mays was traded to the Mets – and back, of course, to the city where he started his MLB career –  early in the 1972 season. His very first game in a Mets’ uniform was, fittingly, against the Giants – May 14, 1972, at Shea Stadium.  Mays homered in the fifth inning to break a 4-4 tie in a game the Mets eventually won 5-4. In his two seasons with the Mets, Mays played in 135 games, hitting .238, with 14 home runs and 44 RBI. For his career, ”The Say Hey Kid” played in 2,992 games, hitting .304, with 660 homers, 1,903 RBI and 2,062 runs scored.

Now to the 1973 post season and Mays’ final MLB at bat.

Mays got into just one game in the 1973 NLCS, picking up a single in three at bats in Game Five, as the Mets advanced to the World Series by topping the Reds three games to two. Mays started Game One of the 1973 Series (in Oakland), playing centerfield and batting third. He had a single in four at bats in what would be his only start in the Series.  In Game Two, Mays came on in the ninth inning as a pinch runner for Rusty Staub  (with the Mets ahead 6-4) and stayed in the game in center field.  The A’s tied it up off Tug McGraw in the bottom of the inning. Mays popped out to first in the top of the eleventh (off Rollie Fingers), and then hit an RBI (go-ahead) single off  Fingers in the twelfth inning. The Mets scored three more times in the inning, and won the contest 10-7.  (That twelfth-inning tie-breaking hit would have been a fitting final appearance, but Mays would get home more at bat in the Series.)

How did Willie Mays fare in All Star games?

Willie Mays played in 24 All Star games, going 23-for-75 (.307) with three home runs, three triples, two doubles, 20 runs scored,  nine RBI and six stolen bases,  He holds the ASG career record for runs, hits, triples, stolen bases (tied with Brooks Robinson) and total bases (40). Ted Williams once said “They invented the All Star Game for Willie Mays.”

Mays’ final major league appearance came in Game Three of the 1973 World Series (October 16 at Shea Stadium). Mays was called upon to pinch hit for pitcher Tug McGraw with two-out and a runner (Bud Harrelson) on second in the bottom of the tenth inning of a 2-2 game.  He ended the inning by grounding to short (with Harrelson forced at second).  The Mets lost the game in 11 innings – and lost the Series in seven games.

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Pedro Martinez (Petey) – Hall of Fame 2015

Last major league appearance: With the Philadelphia Phillies, November 4, 2009; Game Six of the World Series (versus the Yankees)

Pedro Martinez, an eight-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, five-time ERA leader and three-time strikeout leader finished with a 219-100 record, a 2.93 career ERA and 3,154 strikeouts. The right-hander started his 18-year MLB career with the Dodgers, won his first Cy Young Award as an Expo, had his best years (and 117 of his wins) with the Red Sox (whose cap he will wear for his Hall of Fame induction), spent four seasons with the Mets and pitched his final MLB inning (during the 2009 World Series) for the Phillies – a team he spent only a half season with.

How electric was Pedro Martinez’ stuff?

Pedro Martinez, with 760 career bases on balls, is one of only four pitchers to log 3,000+ strikeouts with fewer than 1,000 walks (Curt Schilling – 3,116 Ks/ 711 BBs; Fergie Jenkins – 3,192/997; Greg Maddux – 3,371/999).

How did Pedro Martinez get to Philadelphia and the World Series mound?  In 2008, Martinez career was on the wane, as he ran up a 5-6 record with 5.61 ERA (in an injury-marred year) for a Mets team that missed the playoffs by a single game.  A free agent in 2009, no one expressed much interest in the 37-year-old hurler.  That is, not until July 15, when the Phillies – facing a pennant race (they were the 2008 WS Champions) and  a  shortage of starting pitching – signed Martinez to a one-million-dollar contract.

Martinez joined the Phillies on August 12, after three minor-league appearances. He finished the season with five wins (one loss) and 3.63 ERA; and started one game in the NLCS (against the Dodgers), going seven innings and giving up just three hits and no runs. He started Games Two and Seven (losing both) in the World Series, won by the Yankees four games to two.  Martinez’ last MLB appearance came as the Game Six starter.  He lasted just four innings, giving up four runs on three hits, two walks and one hit batsman, while striking out five.   In his final major-league inning (the fourth), he retied the bottom of the Yankee lineup in order, getting second baseman Robinson Cano to fly out to left; striking out right fielder Nick Swisher looking; and retiring center fielder Brett Gardner on a liner to second.

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So, they are your ten Hall of Famer who played their final games on MLH’s biggest stage – The World Series playing field.

* The photos of Mize and Mathews first appearance in Baseball Digest.

 

I tweet baseball at DavidBBRT

Still MLB’s Strikeout King – 129 Years Later

When you think of strikeout artists, a lot of names come to mind –  Ryan, Koufax, Johnson, Feller.  The major league single season strikeout leader, however, is seldom on that list – despite the fact that he whiffed so many hitters, baseball actually experimented with a four-strike rule the season after he set the record.

Matt Kilroy - 513 strikeouts in a single season.

Matt Kilroy – 513 strikeouts in a single season.

The player was Matt Kilroy, the year was 1886, the team was the Baltimore Orioles and the southpaw’s record of 513 whiffs in a single season has stood for more than 125 years. Even more surprising, Kilroy set the record in his rookie season (which began two months shy of his twentieth birthday.).    

Kilroy – a 5-foot 9-inch, 175-pound southpaw – broke into the American Association (considered a major league) on April 17, 1886 (Opening Day) – pitching for the Baltimore Orioles and picking up a 4-1 victory.   Victories, however, would prove hard to come by for the rookie hurler, as the Orioles would end up finishing dead last, with a 48-83 record.   For the season, Kilroy would win 29 games, while leading the league with 34 losses. Overall, he started 68 of the Orioles’ 131 games, tossing 66 complete games, posting a 3.37 ERA and striking out a STILL major league record of 513 hitters in 583 innings.

The rules were a bit different back then. There was no mound and no pitching rubber, but rather a flat, pitcher’s box (rectangle) the front line of which was 50-feet from home plate. (The current pitching distance, from the mound and pitching rubber to home plate, is 60-feet, six inches.)  It also took six balls to walk, but hitters could call for a high or low pitch.

BBRT note:  The modern record for strikeouts in a seasons is 383 by the Angels’ Nolan Ryan in 1973 (21-16, 2.87 with 383 whiffs in 326 innings); while the rookie record is 276 by the Mets’ Dwight Gooden in 1984 (17-9, 2.60, 276 strikeouts in 218 innings). In his MLB career, by the way, Ryan led the league in strikeouts 11 times, walks eight times and wild pitches six times – three times leading the league in all three categories in the same season.

After Kilroy’s remarkable 1866 strikeout totals, which earned him the moniker “The Phenomenal Kid,”  the American Association experimented (for the 1887 season) with a four-strike strikeout rule.  Kilroy’s strikeout total dropped to 217, but he was still effective, leading the American Association in wins (46 versus 19 losses), games started (69), complete games (66), shutouts (6) and innings pitched (589 1/3).  Kilroy’s 46 wins remains the single-season MLB record for a left-handed pitcher.

Here’s a little background on this MLB record holder.

Matthew Aloysius (Matt) Kilroy was born on June 21, 1866, in Philadelphia. He was the seventh of 13 siblings.  He dropped out of school is in his teen years to help support the family, yet still found time to build a reputation as an outstanding amateur pitcher.

Kilroy got his first taste of professional baseball in 1885, with the Augusta Browns of the Southern League, where he went 29-22, with a 0.97 ERA, 49 complete games in 52 starts and 363 strikeouts in 447 innings pitched.  His performance did not go unnoticed, and made his major league debut – and major league history – with the Orioles the next season

Despite winning 75 games in his first two seasons, you will not find Kilroy’s name among the top MLB winners.  Late in the 1887 season, he suffered a shoulder injury in an on-field collision.  The effects of that injury carried over into the following season (1888), when Kilroy went 17-21, 4.04 and dropped to 40 starts (35 complete games – not bad for a sore-armed pitcher and a reflection of how the game has changed). In 1889, he rebounded to a 29-25, 2.85 stat line – matching his 217 strikeout total of his 46-win season of 1887.  Whether it was overwork or the earlier shoulder injury, Kilroy’s arm problems grew progressively worse and in six more major league campaigns, he went 20-34 – ending with a career mark of 141-133, 3.47 – and, as was the expectation of the times, 264 complete games in 292 starts.

Still, 117 years after he threw his last MLB pitch (1898), Matt Kilroy holds the single-season strikeout record for all of MLB – as well as the single-season victory record for southpaws.

Phenomenal Kid, indeed.

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT.

A Reader Chimes In – Guest Post From A Fan of the National Pastime

Why I Love Baseball

We Have Passed the Baseball EquinoxBaseball engenders a child-like attachment through all stages of one’s existence. Most of us have loved baseball for as long as we have had any memories at all, and it will remain accessible to all five of our senses until our final breath. How many things can we say that about?  Not even a sunset or a beautiful wine can reveal as many new characteristics each and every day.

                                                                                                                                                                                       Tom Cuggino

 

Baseball Roundtable loves to hear from readers, especially when it’s clear their passion for the national pastime reflects BBRT’s tag line of Baseball is like life – only better.

Tom Cuggino, who provided the quote above for BBRT’s “Why I Love Baseball” page, is one of those individuals. In this post, BBRT would like to share Tom’s comments on his love for the game – and some of his favorite ballpark memories.  But first, a little background on this Tom .  Tom is in his mid-forties, a life-long baseball fan, a family man and a Financial Controller for Cisco Systems. He’s been to games at twenty of the current MLB ballparks, as well as a several of the now “lost” ballparks, including Old Comiskey, Shea Stadium, Candlestick Park, County Stadium and Jack Murphy Stadium.  Here, slightly edited (and with a BBRT comment here and there) are the comments from this welcome guest poster.

 

Baseball memories from Tom Cuggino

I’m originally from the NYC area (Yonkers/Westchester County) and my family, like many in that part of the region, saw several generations residing in the Bronx after arriving from Italy around the turn of the 20th Century.  So, my first love is the Yankees.

My family moved to Chicago when I was in grade school, and I adopted the Cubs as my National League team.  That leaves me with a most unique and blessed perspective as a fan, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

BBRT note: A perspective shaped by the Yankees, with their 40 World Series appearances and 27 World Championships on one hand – and the Cubs with just ten World Series appearances (none since 1945) and two World Championships (none since 1908) on the other.  That seems to cover all the ground between delight and disappointment.

The only book I ever read until about junior high was the Baseball Encyclopedia. I spent countless days of backyard Wiffle (R) Ball with my friends, leveraging full MLB lineups (all results were null and void without a legitimate attempt at the players’ batting stances).  I also fondly recall simulated baseball dice games that we invented – in which each roll produced a different pitch outcome – occupying us for hours on rainy days.

Some of my favorite stadium memories include:

  • Tom Seaver - who went into the Hall of Fame wearing a Mets' cap - won his 300th game with the White Sox.

    Tom Seaver – who went into the Hall of Fame wearing a Mets’ cap – won his 300th game with the White Sox.

    Tom Seaver’s 300th win at Yankee Stadium. Seaver was pitching for the visiting White Sox, and it came on Phil Rizzuto Day (8/4/85). Phil was presented with a “Holy Cow” during the pre-game ceremony, and promptly tripped over it and fell down.  I’ll also never forget how many Mets fans were on hand to cheer on Tom Terrific.  My grandfather and I sat in the upper deck by the left field foul pole and Don Baylor flied out to Ron Kittle right in front of us for the final out. Seaver pitched a complete game as a 40-year old that day.

BBRT note: The 40-year-old Seaver tossed a complete game that day, holding a tough Yankee lineup (Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey St., Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Willie Randolph) to one run on six-hits (all singles) and one walk – while fanning seven. For trivia buffs, Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992 – being named on 98.8 percent of the ballots, the highest percentage in HOF balloting history.

 

  • Fred Lynn’s grand slam at the 50th All-Star game at the old Comiskey Park (7/6/83). It came in the third inning off a lefty, Atlee Hammaker, and remains the only grand slam in All-Star game history.

BBRT note: The AL pummeled the NL 13-3 in that contest, the league’s first ASG victory since 1971. Lynn started in CF and went one-for-three in the contest. Lynn’s third –inning grand slam (with Manny Trillo, Rod Carew and Robin Yount on base) earned him ASG MVP honors. Trivia note: Lynn is one of only two (and the first) players to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards in the same season (Lynn with the Red Sox in 1975, Ichiro Suzuki with the Mariners in 2001).

 

  • GoodenThe Cubs’ throttling of Dwight Gooden in their 1984 home opener, 11-2 (4/13/84). It was Gooden’s second major league start (his MLB debut had come a few days earlier in Houston), and he wore #61 (later reversed to his familiar #16). Both teams had been awful for many years, so no one could imagine the exciting summer they would both bring us that year as they rose from the ashes. While the Cubs fended off a repeat of their ’69 divisional collapse at the hands of the Mets, they famously blew the NLCS to the Padres after gaining a commanding 2-0 series lead.

BBRT note: Gooden finished the year at 17-9, 2.60 with a NL-leading 276 strikeouts (still the modern-era rookie record); winning the Rookie of the Year Award.  In that April 13th game, Gooden lasted just 3 1/3 innings, giving up six runs on seven hits and three walks. By the way, Tom’s prose led BBRT to look deeper into rookie records – to find that the all-time rookie strikeout record belongs to Matt Kilroy (513 for the 1996 Baltimore Orioles). Kilroy will be the subject for BBRT’s next post.  Thanks, Tom, for spurring that research.

 

  • Game Four of the 1980 World Series in Kansas City. Willie Mays Aikens hit two towering home runs in a losing effort.

BBRT note:  Aikens had a strong series, hitting .400, with four home runs and a triple (among eight this), eight RBI and five runs scored as the Royals lost to the Phillies in six games.

 

  •  Game Two of the 1989 World Series in Oakland. The game immediately preceded the famous Loma Prieta earthquake that delayed Game Three, and oddly (given the natural disaster) featured both of the local Bay Area (Oakland and San Francisco) teams.

BBRT note:  The 1989 World Series may hold the record for nicknames: The Bay Bridge Series; The BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Series’ and the Earthquake Series. The A’s won the Series four games to none, outscoring the Giants 32-14.  Pitcher Dave Stewart, who won two games – giving up just three earned runs in 16 innings of work – was the MVP.  Ricky Henderson had nine hits (five singles, one double, two triples and one home run) and three stolen bases in the four games.

 

  • MunsonOn a sadder note, two of my earliest baseball memories were a pair of Yankee games that I attended … sandwiched within two weeks of Thurman Munson’s tragic death in 1979. Thurman was a first favorite player of mine, and was much of the reason I became a catcher for most of my baseball playing life. The first of the two games was actually his final game (8/1/79), against the White Sox in Chicago. Oddly, he played 1B that game. The second (8/13/79) was against the Rangers at Yankee Stadium, and I’ll never forget how surreal it felt to see Brad Gulden behind the plate that night.  It was of little consolation that the Yanks won both contests.

BBRT note:  In that final game, Munson came to the plate twice – he was replaced at first base by Jim Spencer in the third inning with the Yankees up 3-0 – and did not put the ball in play (walk in the first, strikeout in the third).  The following day (August 2, 1979), Munson was killed in a plane crash while practicing take offs and landings in his private jet.  Munson, just 32-years-old when he died, played eleven MLB seasons, was a seven-time All Star, AL Rookie of the Year (1970), AL MVP (1967) and a three-time Gold Glove winner (1973-74-75). A .292 career hitter, he averaged .357 in 30 post season games.  A trivia note – Munson is the only player to win both the Rookie of the Year Award and an MVP Award in a Yankee uniform. The following

BBRT says thanks to Tom – and looks forward to seeing his prose on this page again in the future.

For look at BBRT’s take on “Why I love baseball” – click here. 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

 

 

photo by:

Clark Griffith – Tracing Minnesota’s Major League Baseball Heritage

With the annual TwinsFest in full swing and Spring Training just around the corner, BBRT would like to take a look at the rich family heritage that is the foundation of the Minnesota Twins MLB franchise.

 

THE FOUNDATION OF THE TWINS – It all goes back to Hall of Famer Clark Griffith (center).

 

When Calvin Griffith moved the Washington Senators to Minnesota in 1961, he brought with him more than a ball club.  He brought a family history with deep roots in our national pastime.  Those roots go back to Baseball Hall of Famer Clark Griffith – the only person ever to serve at least twenty years as a player, as a manager and as an owner. Griffith is also the only Hall of Famer ever to have saddled Jesse James’ horse (more on that later). 

Baseball is rich in statistics, so before getting into the life and times of Clark Calvin Griffith, here are a few meaningful statistics and facts:

  • In twenty major seasons (between 1891 and 1914) as a right-handed pitcher, Griffith went 237-146, with a 3.31 ERA.
  • Griffith was a twenty-game winner seven times, with a high of 26 wins (14 losses) for the 1895 Chicago Colts/Orphans (the franchise that eventually became the Cubs). He was a 20-game winner for Chicago in six consecutive seasons (1894-99).
  • Griffith led the NL in ERA once, complete games once and shutouts once. He also led the AL in winning percentage once and shutouts once.
  • Griffith’s major league playing career included stints with the St. Louis Browns, Boston Reds, Chicago Colts/Orphans, New York Highlanders, Cincinnati Reds, and Washington Senators
  • As a manager, Griffith ran up a 1,491-1,367 record over 20 seasons.
  • In 1901, Griffith managed the Chicago White Stockings to the first-ever American League Pennant. Serving as player-manager, he also went 24-7 on the mound.
  • In 1903, Baltimore’s AL franchise moved to New York – to become the Highlanders and, eventually, the Yankees. Griffith was the Yankee franchise’s first manager in New York.
  • Griffith’s managerial career included stints with the Chicago White Stockings (Sox), New York Highlanders (Yankees), Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators.
  • Ban Johnson, Charles Comiskey and Griffith are credited with being the driving forces behind the successful establishment of the American League – with Griffith playing a key role in getting a significant number of National League players to make the “jump” to the new league.
  • As an owner, Griffith brought the World Series to Washington D.C. in 1924, 1925 and 1933 (World Series Champions in 1925=4).

So, how did this baseball journey begin – and how did the Senators’ franchise end up in Minnesota?  It’s a story of perseverance in the face of difficult times and tough odds, passion for the national pastime and a deep sense of family.  It is – for the most part – the Clark Griffith story.  And, despite taking place primarily in Missouri, Illinois and Washington D.C., it’s a story that  helped shape the future of baseball in Minnesota.

Clark Griffith was born November 20, 1869 on a farm in Clear Creek, Missouri.  The family – his father, mother and four siblings – who had moved to Missouri from Illinois were as close to “dirt poor” as you could get.  Things only got worse when Clark was two-years-old and his father was mistakenly shot and killed by a deer hunter. Clark’s mother Sarah Anne Griffith was left alone with five children and one on the way.  The family struggled to keep the farm going – and worried about the ongoing health of frail young Clark.  As he grew older, Clark – suffering what was later diagnosed as malarial fever – developed an interest for baseball, as a spectator and water boy for a local team.

Jesse James and Clark Griffith

After his father’s death, Clark Griffith’s mother would pick up a little extra – and much–needed money – by putting travelers up overnight in their large farm house. One of those traveling groups was made up of Jesse and Frank James and two of the Younger brothers.  On the morning of their departure, Jesse asked young Clark to saddle up the horses and bring them from the barn to the house. It was meeting Clark never forgot, and a story he liked to tell.

As Griffith reached his teen years, his mother – looking for a better life – moved the family to Normal, Illinois and opened a boarding house.  Clark maintained his passion for baseball, but being small for his age, did not play organized ball (not even for his high school team). He did, however, manage to work his way into a variety of pickup games, where the 5-foot six-inch, 156-pound right-hander began building a reputation as a pitcher.

In 1887, the now 18-year-old Griffith made it into organized ball, pitching for the Bloomington (IL) Reds of the Central Inter-State League.  It was there that he got his first big break. During Bloomington’s 1988 season, Griffith was called upon to pitch an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Brewers team from the much more prestigious Western Association. Griffith performed well and came away with a $225 per month Milwaukee contract.  What followed were stops in: Milwaukee of the Western Association (1988-89); St. Louis and Boston of the American Association (1891); Tacoma of the Pacific Northwestern League (1892); and Oakland of the California League (1893).  Griffith’s season with the Oakland Colonels –  when he won 30 games (17 losses), with a, 2.30 ERA and  47 complete games in 48 starts – earned him a late season move to the National League Chicago Colts (Cubs) and, in 1894, he began his National League streak of six consecutive 20-plus win seasons.

Not an overpowering pitcher, Griffith earned the nickname “The Old Fox” for his ability to get hitters out with a combination of sharp breaking pitches, changes of speed and even psychological warfare.

The Old Fox Outfoxes the Competition

“Griff wasn’t very big or very strong and he didn’t have enough of a fastball to knock your hat off, but he knew how to pitch – and he had the nerve of a burglar … The hitters in the national league called him The Old Fox, because they couldn’t figure out how such a slow-balling pitcher could beat them without resorting to tricks.  While the batters fumed, Griff, at all times the picture of poise and confidence, struck them out by stalling until they were nervous wrecks, quick-pitching them when they weren’t ready, by scraping the ball against his spikes and taking advantage of the odd twists that could be achieved with a lacerated cover, and by needling the batters with as glib and caustic a tongue as the game has ever known.

               Ed Fitzgerald, May 1954 Sport (magazine) …  “Clark Griffith – the Old Fox”

The Old Fox was a twenty-game winner seven times.

The Old Fox was a twenty-game winner seven times.

While building a Hall of Fame career as a player, Griffith had also developed a keen interest in – and did all he could to learn about – the business side of the game. He saw baseball as his long-term future – wanting to be a manager, and someday even a team owner. Things took a step in that direction as the new century came around and Ban Johnson and Charley Comiskey consulted with Griffith on plans for the establishment of a second major league – with Griffith assuring Johnson and Comiskey that, if team owners and finances could be recruited, he could bring a significant number of current National League players into the fold.   In a move involving demands from  the Ballplayers Protective Association (of which Griffith was vice-president) and the National League’s apparent unwillingness to negotiate (the players wanted, among other things, to increase the salary limit from $2,400 a season to $3.000), Griffith paved the way for players to move to the new American League. Later, as he looked back on his baseball career, Griffith always listed getting the American League off the ground as one of his proudest accomplishments.  And, eventually, the Twins would play in the American League.

At least partially in recognition of Griffith’s role in that making the American League  a reality, Comiskey gave Griffith his chance to manage – as player-manager of the Comiskey-owned Chicago White Stockings.  And, as noted earlier, Griffith delivered 24 wins from the pitching rubber and the AL’s first pennant from the manager’s seat. Griffith went on to manage the White Sox, New York Highlanders and Cincinnati Reds between 1901-1911.

In 1912, the managerial post with the Washington Senators opened and Griffith, who had managed the Cincinnati Reds for the previous three seasons, saw a two-edged opportunity – to get back to the American League and to pursue the ownership position he had long desired.  He took the job – on the condition that he be allowed to purchase 10 percent ownership in the franchise.  He financed the purchase with $7,500 in savings and $20,000 loan secured by his ranch (bought with his earnings as a player) in Helena, Montana.

Griffith would maintain an ownership position in the franchise (that, in 1961 became the Twins) until his death in 1955 – but I’m getting ahead of myself.  To condense the ownership part of the Clark Griffith story, he was both an owner and manager through the 1920 season.  However, in 1919, he partnered with grain broker William M. Richardson to acquire approximately 80 percent ownership of the team and, after the 1920 season, he devoted himself solely to his executive/ownership duties.  As an owner. Griffith became known for his dedication to the game, recognition of baseball talent, business sense and frugality, commitment to family and (this possibility related to frugality) pioneering role in signing Cuban ballplayers.  Remember these traits; we’ll see them again (in Minnesota).

Coincidentally, just as Clark Calvin Griffith was pursuing an ownership position in the American League’s Washington club, his sister-in-law (Jane Robertson) gave birth to the second of her seven children – Calvin Robertson, born December 1, 1911 in Montreal, Quebec.  Times were hard for the Robertson’s. Money was tight and Calvin’s father James Robertson had issues with alcohol.  As more children arrived – there were a total of seven youngsters in the family by 1921 – life became more difficult.  It reached a point where Clark Griffith and his wife Addie (who were childless) agreed to take in two of the youngsters – 11-year-old Calvin and his nine-year-old sister Thelma. Although not officially adopted, the pair did legally change their names to Griffith.  In 1923, Calvin’s father died (at age 42) and the rest of the family was taken under Clark Griffith’s wing in Washington D.C. Being the first to join the Griffiths in the nation’s Capital would prove a stroke of luck for Calvin and Thelma – and perhaps Minnesota (more on that later).

Calvin Griffith shared (perhaps was influenced by)his uncle  Clark Griffith’s love of the game and and served as bat boy for the Washington team from 1922 to 1925.  Calvin later attended Staunton Military Academy and George Washington University, where he studied and played baseball (pitcher and catcher).

In 1935, he took his first official position in the Senators’ organization – working as secretary-treasurer for the Chattanooga Lookouts, a Washington farm club.  He eventually headed the operations at Chattanooga and then at Charlotte (Hornets) before joining his uncle Clark in the Washington front office in 1941. Over the years, under Clark’s tutelage, Calvin took on more and more responsibility for the team’s operations.

When Clark Griffith passed away in 1955 Calvin and his Sister Thelma Griffith inherited 52 percent ownership of the club and Calvin was elected its president. At that time, the family nature of the baseball business was clearly established – not only were Calvin and Thelma and integral part of the team’s front office (with Thelma playing a key role in the teams finances), their brothers Sherry, Billy and Jimmy also were part of the leadership team.

And the family’s baseball ties went even deeper.  Before joining the franchise’s front office (and eventually heading up the farm system), Sherry Robertson played ten seasons in the major leagues (between 1940 and 1952) as a utility player (OF, 2B, 3B. SS) – primarily with Clark Griffith’s Washington club. His best year was 1949, when he hit .251 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI in 110 games.  In addition, Thelma’s husband Joe Haynes (a veteran of 14 major league seasons as a player) was appointed a roving minor league pitching instructor.  Sister Mildred Robertson served for a time as Clark Griffith’s personal secretary and married future Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Cronin.  Cronin was clearly a good fit for the Griffith/Robertson baseball family.  Consider his ultimate MLB resume: seven-time All Star in a 20-year playing career with the Pirates, Senators and Red Sox; managed the Senators (1933-34) and Red Sox (1935-45); served as treasurer, general manager and president of the Red Sox; and was president of American League from 1959 to 1973.)

Once he took control of the team, Calvin contused his late uncle’s commitment to baseball, business and family – and when the league approved the Senators move to Minnesota for the 1961 season, Calvin brought his team, his executive (family) team and all that he had learned from is uncle Clark Griffith to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.  Given the family’s established dedication to the business of baseball, the move to Minnesota made perfect sense.  The Washington club had finished below the league average for seventeen consecutive seasons (topping one million in attendance only once) prior to the move.  The Twins finished above the league attendance average and topped one million fans in each of their first Minnesota seasons. 

So, following in Clark Griffith’s footsteps – and maybe stretching the stride even a bit longer – Calvin Griffith brought major league baseball to Minnesota in 1961.

In his time at the helm in Minnesota – until he sold the team to Carl Pohlad in 1984 – Calvin was known for his dedication to the game, recognition of baseball talent, business sense and frugality, commitment to family and success in discovering and signing Cuban ballplayers. Sound familiar – the influence of Uncle Clark was clearly long-lasting.   What has all this meant for Minnesota fans?   Over the years, we have seen:

  • big league baseball in three stadiums (Metropolitan Stadium, The HHH Metrodome, Target Field);
  • three World Series – with one World Championship;
  • ten division titles;
  • six American League championships;
  • three All Star games;
  • Five Hall of Famers in Twins’ uniforms – Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Kirby Puckett, Bert Blyleven, Dave Winfield, Paul Molitor, and even Steve Carlton;
  • five MVP seasons – Zoilo Versalles, Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer;
  • three Cy Young Award winners – Johan Santana (twice), Frank Viola, Jim Perry;
  • 14 batting titles – Rod Carew (7), Tony Oliva (3), Joe Mauer (3), Kirby Puckett;
  • five home run titles – all by Harmon Killebrew;
  • 16 20-game winning seasons – Camilo Pascual (twice), Jim Perry (twice), Jim Kaat, Mudcat Grant, Dean Chance, Bert Blyleven, Dave Boswell, Dave Goltz, Jerry Koosman, Frank Viola, Scott Erickson, Brad Radke, Johan Santana;
  • Homer Hankies, bobble heads, Bat Day, Hat Day, Stocking Cap Day (even Fishing Lure Day), Dollar Dog Day (I do love a bargain), Nickel Beer Night (won’t see that again), walleye fingers (this is Minnesota, after all), Harmon Killebrew Day (1974), the Thunderdome decibel readings;
  • and much, much more

In short, it’s been a great – and continuing ride.  And, it all started with the Hall of Famer to which this post is dedicated:  Clark Griffith -baseball man, businessman, family man.

Note:  Throughout this post, the Washington franchise is referred to as the Senators.  However, the franchise that became the Twins, was known as both the Nationals and the Senators in its history – sometimes as both at the same time. And, it was reported that Clark Griffith actually preferred the Nationals moniker. Sportecyclopedia.com reports that, in 1956, “After more than 50 years of insisting the team was officially called the Nationals, the team finally changes its name to the more commonly called  Senators.  We’ll save that controversey for another post. 

 

Calvin Griffith and My Family

July 4, 1976 - Me, Calvin Griffith and my dad outside Metrpolitan Staidum

July 4, 1976 – Me, Calvin Griffith and my dad outside Metrpolitan Staidum

I always enjoyed Calvin – and found him to be a fan-friendly owner, with little pretense, lots of passion for the national pastime and a genuine affection for the fans of the upper Midwest.

On July 4, 1976, for example, I celebrated the birthday of my father George Karpinski and my softball team’s shortstop Bill Morlock (yes, they were both Independence Day babies, just about 30 years apart) by tailgating beyond the left centerfield fence at the old Metropolitan Stadium (followed by the game, of course).

Who should show up to join our gathering?  Twins owner Calvin Griffith and former player, manager and then broadcaster Frank Quilici.  We spent considerable time discussing baseball, the Twins and the importance of hot dogs, over a cold brew or two (at least on my part).  The Twins, by the way, won 9-4 on a grand slam by Rod Carew.

Just over a year later, I celebrated my 30th birthday (with my friends and family) in a private box at the old Met.  Back then, a private box was an enclosed area above the second deck, with a formica table top and plastic chairs –  and you could bring in your own food and beverage if you wanted.  Calvin sent an employee – in a bow tie and gold vest – with a special birthday note.  And, during the game, the Twins-O-Gram displayed “Happy Birthday Super Fan Dave Karpinski.” – at no charge.  (Note:  Actually, at first it read “Happy Birthday Super Fan Dave Krapinski” – but that was corrected, after I got my picture.

 

I tweet baseball @#DavidBBRT

Chuck Connors – He Lived The Dream(s)

When Kevin Joseph Connors was growing up in Brooklyn he dreamed of someday taking the field for his hometown Dodgers. If he was like most boys at the time, he also probably dreamed of being a cowboy.  Little did Kevin know that he would live both dreams – and then some.

In his lifetime, Connors would take to:

  • the court under the tutelage of Basketball Hall of Famer John Russell;
  • the diamond alongside Baseball Hall of Famer Tommy Lasorda; and
  • the movie set across from Academy Award winner Spencer Tracy.

If you are old enough to be aware of Kevin Connors, you may know him better by his nickname “Chuck” – or as star of the successful TV western series The Rifleman.  You may also recall him in such classic movies as Old Yeller or for his appearances in television presentations like Roots (which earned Connors an Emmy nomination).

connersBut this is a baseball blog, so why all this attention to an actor?  To answer that, we need to go back to Connors’ boyhood dream of playing for his beloved Dodgers. Connors made that dream come true – if only for a single pinch-hitting appearance. (And, what would most baseball fans give for even just one at bat with our favorite team – and one line in the Baseball Encyclopedia?)

Connors also went on to play first base for the Chicago Cubs, forward and center for the Boston Celtics, be drafted by the Chicago Bears and earn his way into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame – now the Western Performers Hall of Fame of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

The most compelling reason BBRT is taking a look at Chuck Connors, however,  is that (as NBA Hoops Online notes) Connors is one of only twelve players to play in both the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball – and BBRT has a significant interest in multi-sport athletes.

For a look at BBRT’s favorite multi-sport athletes click here.  You’ll read about:

- Deion Sanders – the only player to hit a major league home run and score an NFL touchdown in the same week;

- Gene Conley – the only player to play on a World Series winner and an NBA champion;

- Bo Jackson – selected as an MLB All Star and NFL Pro Bowler in the same year;

- Carroll Hardy – who pinch hit for Ted Williams, Roger Maris and Carl Yastrzemski and scored four NFL touchdowns as a receiver; and 

- 17 more multi-sport achievers.

Connors signed with his beloved Dodgers in 1940, right out of high school. After a one-for-eleven start for the Class D Newport Dodgers, Connors decided accepting a baseball scholarship to Seton Hall University might be a wiser course of action.  At Seton Hall, the six-foot five-inch Connors played baseball and basketball and, in what would later prove extremely important to his future, got hooked on the performing arts.

Connors went back to the professional ranks in 1942, signing with the Yankees and playing one season for the Class B Norfolk Tars. Later that same year, he enlisted in the Army and served stateside until early 1946 (playing semi-pro basketball in his free time). After his discharge from the Army, Connors joined the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League, playing in 14 games before returning to the Yankees, who put him on waivers during 1946 Spring Training.  To Connors’delight, his hometown Dodgers picked up his waivers and sent him to Newport News, where he emerged as a power-hitting first-base prospect – leading the Class B Piedmont League with 17 home runs.  In the fall of that year, Connors added to his athletic resume by signing with the Boston Celtics of the Basketball Association of America (soon to merge with the NBL to form the today’s National Basketball Association). He played just two seasons with the Celtics – averaging 4.5 points per game.

Between 1946 and 1949, Connors moved up the minor league baseball ladder – from the B level Newport News Dodgers (1946) to the AA Mobile Bears (1947) to the AAA Montreal Royals (1948-1949). Notably, Connors proved a decent player – and somewhat of a good luck charm. Each of the teams he played on from 1946 to 1949 ended up as league playoff champions. Over those four minor seasons, Connors played in 544 games, compiling a .293 average with 69 home runs.

Connors’ dream of playing for the Dodgers came true at Ebbets Field on May 1, 1949 – when he was called off the bench to pinch hit for Brooklyn right fielder Carl Furillo (who would go on to hit .322 with 18 homers and 106 RBI that season). With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Gil Hodges on first and the Dodgers trailing the Phillies 4-2, Connors hit into a pitcher-to short-to-first double play to end the game.

It wasn’t long afterwards, that Connors found himself back in Montreal, where he finished the season hitting .290, with six home runs, 68 RBI and a surprising 14 stolen bases.  Despite his love for the Dodgers, Connors realized Gil Hodges was firmly entrenched at first base and requested a trade. The Dodgers complied and dispatched him to the Cubs.  The Cubs sent Connors to their Pacific Coast League farm club, the Los Angeles Angels, where a strong start to the 1951 season (.321 with 22 home runs, 77 RBI and eight steals) made him a fan favorite – and earned him a mid-season call-up to Chicago, where he hit just .239 with two home runs and 18 RBI in 66 games.

Through all of his athletic endeavors, Connors was a showman (or in some people’s eyes a showboat).  In a May 1951 Sport Life magazine article, Connors was described as “part-comedian, part-time first baseman and all character.”  He was also known as a hotel lobby magician and a great banquet speaker  renowned for his dramatic recital of “Casey at the Bat”).

Connors’ flair for the dramatic – on and off the field – did not go unnoticed by the show business crowd that often attended Angels games.  In fact, in the fall of 1951, one of Connors’ Los Angeles fans tapped the good-looking first baseman for another kind of performance.  Bill Grady, an executive with Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, asked Connors to do a screen test for a small part in the film Pat and Mike (starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy). Connors got the part and a new career was born.  In an acting career that stretched into the 1990s, Connors – probably most remembered for his role as Lucas McCain in the popular Rifleman television series – appeared in more than 40 movies and a host of television series and specials.

Connors made his preference for the Pacific Coast League known in a July 1952 Sport magazine article,

Connors made his preference for the Pacific Coast League known in a July 1952 Sport magazine article,

Connors recognized his good fortune and always maintained his greatest break as a ballplayer came in 1951, when the Cubs sent him to Los Angeles – putting him “right out in the middle of the movie business.”  He saw significant enough potential in acting that when he agreed to his 1952 baseball contract, he signed a then available clause that allowed minor leaguers to waive the opportunity to be drafted by a major league club.  In an article for Sport Magazine, he extolled the west coast earnings opportunities, the weather, and the Pacific Coast League’s salaries, playing conditions and travel accommodations. In the closing paragraphs of that article, Connors said, “I live in my own home in the San Fernando Valley the year round.  I can play golf and go fishing everyday if I want to. I’m two hours from ski country, 20 minutes from good swimming, two-and-a-half hours from a bull fight. I’m near many lucrative income sources.  Do I want to be drafted away from all this … Not me.”

As anyone reading or watching might have predicted, Connors left baseball in 1953 to pursue his acting career – and the rest is history.

The Rifleman - 1958-63 - was one of televisions most popular westerns.

The Rifleman – 1958-63 – was one of televisions most popular westerns.

A few Connors’ tidbits:

– In 1959, Connors won a Golden Globe Award (Best Television Performers) for his work in The Rifleman.

– Connors starred in four television series: The Rifleman; Arrest and Trial; Branded; and Cowboy in Africa.

– In 1984, Connors was honored with a “star” on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.

– In a four-season span at AAA (1948-51), Connors’ batting averages were: .307; .319; .290 and .321.

– In 1966, Connors brought his baseball past and his Hollywood present together, serving as an intermediary credited with ending the much-publicized holdout of Dodgers’ star pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

– Connors was known to turn cartwheels while circling the bases after a home run.

– Connors made guest appearances on television shows ranging from Gunsmoke to Spenser for Hire to the Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

– Connors’ movie credits include such films as Pat and Mike; Old Yeller; Geronimo, Flipper; The Big Country; Solyent Green; and Airplane II.

– Connors is credited with shattering the first glass backboard ever, during a November 1946 Celtics’ pregame warm-up.

One final Connors story, this one shared on the “Our Chuck Connors” website … ourchuckconnors.com  

After a 1946 appearance – reciting Casey at the Bat – representing the Celtics at the Boston Baseball Writers Dinner, Connors was approached by Ted Williams who told him: “Kid, I don’t know what kind of basketball player you are, but you ought to give it up and be an actor.”

Teddy Ballgame always did have a good eye.

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT

Baseball Hall of Fame “95 Percent” Club

Randy Johnson - Big Unit scored on 97 percent of HOF ballots.

Randy Johnson – Big Unit scored on 97 percent of HOF ballots.

The Baseball Writers Association of America’s (BBWAA) Hall of Fame Ballots are in – and so are Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio.  Johnson, named on 97.27 percent of the ballots, joined some elite company.  His percentage was the eighth-highest ever in the official BBWAA balloting – and he became one of only 14 players to receive at least 95 percent support since the first election back in 1936. No playernot even the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron or Christy Mathewson – has ever received unanimous support. (Cy Young, with his record 511 mound wins, was elected in 1937 with 76.12 percent of the vote.) The all-high in balloting is 98.84 percent, achieved by Tom Seaver. (We’ll take a quick look at “resumes” of the fourteen members of the 95 percent club later in this post.)

Over the years, 118 players have been elected to the HOF through the regular balloting; with just 11.86 percent of those reaching the 95 percent support threshold.  Ten of those fourteen have come since 1989, three (Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner) were in the first-ever HOF class, and just one honoree achieved 95 percent support between 1936 and 1989 (Hank Aaron, 1982).

Here’s a breakdown of  “95-percenters” in ten-year increments:

1936-45           3

1946-55           0

1956-65           0

1966-75           0

1976-85           1

1986-95           3

1996-2005       3

2006-15           4

 

Now, a look at the Hall of Fame’s all-time top vote getters.

 1. Tom Seaver (RHP) – 98.84% – 1992       Nickname – Tom Terrific

Tom Seaver won 311 games (205 losses) in a 20-year MLB career (1967-86). He won 20 or more games in five seasons; leading his league in victories three times, ERA three times and strikeouts five times. Seaver finished his career with a 2.86 ERA and 3,640 strikeouts. He was the National League Rookie of the Year with the Mets in 1967, a 12-time All Star, and won the Cy Young Award three times (1969, 1973, 1975).  He threw one no-hitter.  Seaver pitched for the Mets (1967-77, 1983); Reds (1977-82); White Sox (1984-86); and Red Sox (1986).

Tom Seaver fact: On April 22, 1970, in beating the Padres 2-1 at Shea Stadium, Seaver set the MLB record for consecutive strikeouts in a game – fanning the last ten hitters of the contest (five looking/five swinging). In the complete game win, Seaver allowed one run on two hits, walked two and fanned 19.

2. Nolan Ryan (RHP) – 98.79% – 1999         Nickname – The Ryan Express

Nolan Ryan won 324 games in 27 MLB seasons (292 losses, a 3.19 ERA) and holds the All Time MLB strikeout record (5,714). Ryan was an eight-time All Star and a two-time twenty-game winner.  He led his league in strikeouts eleven times (topping 300 whiffs in a season six times) and recorded a league-low ERA twice. He also threw an MLB-record seven no-hitters. Ryan pitched for the Mets (1966, 1968-71); Angels (1972-79); Astros (1980-88); and Rangers (1989-93).

Nolan Ryan fact: Despite his Hall of Fame career, Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young Award.

3. Cal Ripken Jr. (SS/3B) – 98.53% – 2007            Nickname – Iron Man

Cal Ripken will likely be most remembered for his all-time MLB record of 2,632 consecutive games played.  He will also be remembered for playing them well.  In a 21-season MLB career, Ripken was an All Star 19 times. He was also the AL Rookie of the Year in 1982 and twice was the league’s Most Valuable Player (1983, 1991). He collected 3,184 hits (.276 lifetime average), 431 home runs, 1,695 RBI and 1,647 runs scored. He won eight Silver Slugger Awards (as the best offensive player at his position) and two Gold Gloves (as the best defensive player at his position). Ripken played his entire career (1981-2001) with the Orioles.

Cal Ripken fact:  In 1991, Cal Ripken Jr. won the All Star Game Home Run Derby (and was the AS Game MVP).

4. Ty Cobb (OF) – 98.23% – 1936                     Nickname – The Georgia Peach

A member of the HOF’s inaugural class, Ty Cobb holds MLB’s highest career batting average (among qualified players) at .366, is second all-time in hits (4,189) and runs scored (2,246). Cobb won an MLB-record 12 batting titles (including nine in a row from 1907 to 1915). He hit over .400 three times (1911, 1912, 1922). In addition to his batting titles, Cobb led the league in hits eight times, runs five times, doubles three times, triples four times, home runs once, RBI four times and stolen bases six times.  Cobb played for the Tigers (1905-26) and the Athletics (1927-28).

Ty Cobb fact: Ty Cobb stole home an MLB-record 54 times.

5.  George Brett (3B) – 98.18% – 1999                   Nickname – Mullet

A .305 lifetime hitter (21 seasons), George Brett collected 3,105 hits and three batting crowns – including a high of .390 in 1980.  Brett was a thirteen-time All Star and the 1980 AL Most Valuable Player.  In addition to his three batting titles, Brett led the league in hits three times, doubles twice, triples three times.  He finished with 317 home runs, 1,596 RBI and 1,583 runs scored.  Brett played his entire MLB career (1973-93) for the Royals.

George Brett fact:  George Brett is the only MLBer to win a batting title in three different decades (1976, 1980, 1990).

6. Hank Aaron (OF) – 97.83% – 1982        Nickname(s) – The Hammer, Hamerin’ Hank

Hank Aaron stands number-two on the all-time home run list with 755 round trippers, and number-one in RBI (2,297), extra base hits (1,477) and total bases (6,856).  He was an All Star in 21 of his 23 seasons and the 1957 NL Most Valuable Player.  Aaron led his league in batting average twice, home runs four times, RBI four times, doubles four times, hits twice, runs scored three times and total bases eight times.  He also earned three Gold Glove Awards.  Aaron is one of only two players with 500 home runs (755), 3,000 hits (3,771) and a .300 batting average (.305). (The other is Willie Mays.) Aaron played for the Braves (1954-74) and Brewers (1975-76).

Hank Aaron fact:  Hank Aaron and fellow Brave and HOFer Eddie Mathews hit more home runs while teammates (863) than any other duo – edging out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (859).

7. Tony Gwynn (OF) – 97.61% – 2007                  Nickname(s) – Mr. Padre, Captain Video

Tony Gwynn was fifteen-time All Star in his 20-season career.  A lifetime .338 hitter, Gwynn was an eight-time batting champion, as well as a five-time Gold Glover. He led the NL in hits seven times (topping 200 in five seasons) and runs once.  He hit 135 home runs, scored 1,383 runs and drove in 1,138. He collected 3,141 hits – all for the Padres (1982-2001).

Tony Gwynn fact:  Tony Gwynn put the bat on the ball, striking out only 434 times in 20 seasons (10,232 plate appearances). In his career, he only struck out more than once in a game 34 times.

8.  Randy Johnson (LHP) – 97.26% – 2015                     Nickname – The Big Unit

The 6’ 10”  Randy Johnson won 303 games (166 losses), with a 3.29 ERA, over 22 seasons.  He finished his career second all-time in strikeouts (4,875) and led his league in whiffs nine times (topping 300 in a season six times). He was a 20-game winner twice, leading the NL with 24 wins in 2002. Johnson won the Cy Young Award five times, including four consecutive seasons (1999-2002). He also led his league in winning percentage four times, ERA four times, complete games five times and shutouts twice.   The ten-time All Star threw two no-hitters (one a perfect game).  Johnson pitched for the Expos (1988-99); Mariners (1989-98); Astros (1998); Diamondbacks (1999-2004, 2007-08); Yankees (2005-06); and Giants (2009).

Randy Johnson fact:   Randy Johnson is one of only three pitchers to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National League (Pedro Martinez and Gaylord Perry are the others).

9.  Greg Maddux (RHP) – 97.20% – 2014           Nickname(s) – Mad Dog, The Professor

Greg Maddux won 355 games (227) losses, with a 3.16 ERA over 23 MLB seasons.  He was an eight-time All Star and won four consecutive Cy Young Awards (1992-95). He also won more Gold Glove Awards than any other player in MLB history (18). He led his league in wins three times, winning percentage twice, ERA four times, games started seven times, complete games three times and shutouts five times. Maddux pitched for the Cubs (1986-92, 2004-2006); Braves (1993-2003); Dodgers 2006, 2008); and Padres (2008).

Greg Maddux fact:   While Maddux finished with 3,371 regular season strikeouts, he only reached 200 whiffs in a season once.

10.  Mike Schmidt (3B) – 96.52% – 1995              Nickname – Schmitty

Mike Schmidt pounded out 548 home runs in 18 big league seasons – and also earned ten Gold Gloves at third base. The twelve-time All Star was the NL Most Valuable Player three times (1980, 1981, 1986).  He led the NL in home runs eight times and RBI four times. A career .267 hitter, Schmidt finished with 548 home runs, 1,595 RBI and 1,506 runs scored. Schmidt played his entire MLB career (1972-89) for the Phillies.

Mike Schmidt fact:   On April 17, 1976, Schmidt tied an MLB record by hitting four home runs in a single game – driving in eight runs as the Phillies topped the Cubs 18-16 in ten innings at Wrigley Field.

11.  Johnny Bench (C) – 96.42% – 1989               Nickname – Little General

In his 17-season MLB career, Johnny Bench was an All Star 14 times, was twice the NL MVP (1970, 1972) and was the World Series MVP in 1976.  He was also the NL rookie of the Year in 1968, when (as a 20-year old), he hit .275, with 15 home runs and 82 RBI – while also earning a Gold Glove at catcher.  Bench went on to hit 389 home runs (leading the NL twice) and earn a total of ten Gold Gloves.  He finished his career with a .267 average, 1,091 runs scored and 1,376 RBI (leading the league in that category three times). Bench played his entire career (1967-83) with the Reds.

Johnny Bench fact:  Johnny Bench was the first catcher to win a Rookie of the Year Award and the first rookie catcher to win a Gold Glove.

12.  Steve Carlton (LHP) – 95.82% – 1994                         Nickname – Lefty

Steve Carlton won 329 games (244 losses), with a 3.22 ERA over a 24-year MLB career.  He was a ten-time All Star and won a total of four Cy Young Awards (1972, 1977, 1980, 1982). Carlton led the NL in wins four times, winning percentage once, ERA once, complete games three times and strikeouts five times (a high of 310 in 1972). He is one of only four pitchers to surpass 4,000 strike outs (4,136). Carlton pitched for the Cardinals (1965-71); Phillies (1972-86); Giants (1986); White Sox (1986); Indians (1987); and Twins (1987-88).

Steve Carlton fact:  In 1972, Steve Carlton won an MLB-record 46 percent of his team’s games – going 27-10, 1.97 for a last-place Phillies’ team that finished at 59-97.  That season, Carlton led the NL in wins, ERA, games started (41), complete games (30), innings pitched (346 1/3), and strikeouts (310).

13.  Babe Ruth (OF/P) – 95.13% – 1936                 Nickname(s) – Babe, The Bambino, The sultan of Swat

Babe Ruth made his mark first as a pitcher and then as the game’s first true power hitter.  As a pitcher, Ruth went 94-46, with a 2.28 ERA in 163 games (147 starts) – including two twenty-plus victory seasons (23-12 in 1916 and 24-13 in 1917 for the Red Sox).  In 1916, he led the AL in ERA (1.75), games started (40) and shutouts (9) – with 23 complete games and 323 2/3 innings pitched.  He threw 300+ innings again the following season (326 1/3) and led the league in complete games (35).  He also ran up a 3-0 post season (World Series) record, giving up just three runs in 31 post-seasons innings (1.06 ERA.)

At the plate, converting to the outfield full-time, Ruth proved even more powerful than he was on the mound.  In a twenty-two season MLB career, Ruth hit .342, with 714 home runs, 2,214 RBI and 2,174 runs scored. Ruth led the AL in home runs twelve times, runs scored eight times, RBI six times and batting average once.  In 41 World Series games, he hit .326, with 15 home runs and 33 RBI.   Ruth played for the Red Sox (1914-19); Yankees (1920-34); and Braves (1935).

Babe Ruth fact:  Among pitchers with at least twenty decisions against the Yankees, Babe Ruth has the top winning percentage at .773 (17-5) – all while with the Red Sox.

14.  Honus Wagner (SS) – 95.13% – 1936                 Nickname – The Flying Dutchman

In his 21-season MLB career, Honus Wagner captured eight batting titles (tied for the most in the NL with Tony Gwynn).  He also led the NL in RBI five times, runs scored twice, hits twice, stolen bases five times, doubles seven times, triples three times and total bases six times. Overall, Wagner collected 3,320 hits (a .328 career average), 101 home runs, 1,733 RBI, 1,739 runs scored, 643 doubles, 252 triples and 722 (or 723 depending on the source) stolen bases. Wagner played for the Louisville Colonels (1897-99) and Pirates (1900-17).

Honus Wagner fact:  While primarily a shortstop, Honus Wagner – a gifted and versatile athlete – played every position except catcher during his career.

So, there’s a look at the Hall of Fames “95-percenters.”   Now, if you are into the rounding of percentages, there are three more players who would have made the cut – all outfielders and all elected in a year ending in “nine”:  Ricky Henderson (94.81 percent, 2009); Willie Mays (94.68%, 1979); and Carl Yastrzemski (94.67 percent 1989).

 

A side note: BBRT’s HOF predictions (made by in early December – see the BBRT Hall of Fame Post here.) were pretty close.  BBRT predicted Johnson, Martinez, Biggio and Smoltz would be elected by the writers – and that they would finish 1-2-3-4 as listed.  The quartet was elected, but they finished 1-2-4-3. BBRT also projected Mike Piazza would gain some traction, but finish fifth in the voting and fall short of election (with 66-68 percent of the votes.) Piazza finished fifth at 69.9 percent.

 

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Baseball Bloggers Alliance Announces Its HOF Recommendations

BaseballBloggersAlliance-thumb-200x155-12545As a member of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance (BBA), I am pleased to share the BBA’s announcement that seven players from this year’s Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) Hall of Fame ballot were recommended for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame by the BBA membership – with Randy Johnson the only unanimous recommendation. (The BBA is an organization of more than 200 baseball bloggers.)

In the official release regarding the BBA balloting, it is noted that –  given the backlog of quality players on the ballot – the BBA adopted the “binary ballot” process suggested by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Derrick Goold. Each player on the ballot was given a “yes” or “no” vote by BBA voters and those receiving over 75 percent were then recommended for induction. (There was no ten-vote maximum as in the official BBWAA balloting.) Using this method, only 13 percent of BBA members turned in a ballot with less than ten names selected, while 40 percent turned in a ballot with 15 or more names selected.  Note:  BBRT is highly supportive of the adoption of binary balloting by the BBWAA.)

Within this format, the following player received the necessary support from Baseball Bloggers Alliance members:

Randy Johnson (LHP, 1988-2009) – Unanimous BBA support

The Big Unit should be headed for the Hall of Fame.

The Big Unit – BBA’s unanimous HOF recommendation.

Randy Johnson notched 303 wins (166 losses) and 4,875 strikeouts (second all-time) in 4,135 innings pitched.  Johnson’s 10.61 strikeouts per nine innings ranks number-one among qualifying starting pitchers.  Johnson, who held hitters to a .221 average (eighth lowest all-time), was a ten-time All-Star and five-time Cy Young Award winner (second only to Roger Clemens). He led his league in strikeouts nine times, ERA four times, complete games four times, winning percentage four times and victories once.  He earned four straight NL Cy Young Awards (1999-2002) and threw two no-hitters (one a perfect game.) He was also the 2001 World Series MVP – going 3-0. 1.04 in three starts (striking out 19 in 17 1/3 innings).

Johnson itched for the Montreal Expos (1988-89); Seattle Mariners (1989-98); Houston Astros (1998); Arizona Diamondbacks (1999-2004, 2007-08); New York Yankees (2005-2006); and San Francisco Giants (2009).

Pedro Martinez (RHP, 1992-2009) – 95 percent

Pedro Martnez brought an arsenal of "plus" pitches and elite control to the mound.

Pedro Martnez brought an arsenal of “plus” pitches and elite control to the mound.

Martinez ran up a 219-100 record, a 2.93 ERA and 3,154 strikeouts in 18 seasons.  Among qualifying starting pitchers, only Randy Johnson recorded more strikeouts per nine innings than Martinez’ 10.04. He captured three Cy Young Awards (1997, 1999, 2000) and was an eight-time All Star.  He notched a league-low ERA in five seasons, and a league-high in strikeouts three times.  Martinez is one of only four pitchers to log 3,000+ strikeouts with fewer than 1,000 walks. His .687 winning percentage is the third-highest all-time; second-highest in the modern era (behind Whitey Ford’s .690; 238-106).

Martinez pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1992-93); Montreal Expos (1994-97); Boston Red Sox (1998-2004); New York Mets (2005-08); and Philadelphia Phillies (2009).

Craig Biggio (2B/C/OF, 1988-2007) – 90 percent

Craig Biggio getting his bat on the ball for 3,000+ hits should be his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Craig Biggio getting his bat on the ball for 3,000+ hits should be his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Biggio recorded 3,060 base hits (20th all time), 1,884 runs (154h all time), hit 291 home runs and stole 414 bases.  He was a seven-time All Star and a four-time Gold Glove winner. He led the NL in runs twice, doubles three times, stolen bases once and hit-by-pitch five times.  His 668 doubles are the most ever by a right-handed hitter (and fifth all time). He holds the NL record for home runs to lead off a game (53) and for hit-by-pitch (285).

Biggio played his entire 18-year MLB career with the Houston Astros.

 

John Smoltz (RHP, 1988-2009) – 89 percent

Smoltz delivered as a starter and reliever.

Smoltz delivered as a starter and reliever.

Smoltz is the only MLB hurler to notch 200+ wins (213) and 150+ saves (154) in his career – and one of only two pitchers to have a 20-win season and a 50-save season.  In 1996, he went 24-8 as a starter for the Braves, leading the NL in wins, winning percentage (24-6, .750), strikeouts( 276)  and innings pitched (253 2/3). Five seasons later, after Tommy John surgery, Smoltz led the NL in saves with 55. Smoltz was an eight-time All Star, who won the NL Cy Young Award in 1996 and was the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year in 2005. He led the NL in wins twice, winning percentage twice, strikeouts twice, innings pitched twice and saves once.  He finished his career at 213-155, 3.33, with 154 saves and 3,084 strikeouts in 3,473 innings pitched.

Smoltz pitched for the Atlanta Braves (19988-99, 2001-08); St. Louis Cardinals (2009); and Boston Red Sox (2009).

Mike Piazza (C, 1992-2007) – 85 percent

Mike Piazza - above the HOF bubble in BBA voting.

Mike Piazza – above the HOF bubble in BBA voting.

Mike Piazza’s achieved a .308 career average, 427 home runs (a MLB-record 396 as a catcher), a Rookie of the Year Award, 12 All Star Selections and ten Silver Slugger Awards as the best hitter at his position. He collected 2,127 hits, 1,335 RBI and scored 1,048 runs. Piazza played for the Los Angeles Dodgers (1992-98); Florida Marlins (1998); New York Mets (1998-2005); San Diego Padres (2006); and Oakland A’s 2007.

 

 

Jeff Bagwell (1B, 1991-2005) – 77 percent

Jeff Bagwell’s 15-year career MLB-career included 2,314 hits, 449 home runs, 202 stolen bases and a .297 average – along with a Rookie of the Year Award, a Most Valuable Player Award, one Gold Glove and four All Star selections.  He also twice recorded seasons of 40 or more homers and 30 or more steals. Bagwell played his entire MLB career with the Houston Astros,

Tim Raines (OF, 1979-2001) – 77 percent

Tim Raines hit .294 over his 23-season MLB career, collecting 2,605 hits, 1,571 runs scored, 170 home runs, 980 RBI and 808 stolen bases (#5 all time).  Raines was successful on 83.5 percent of his career steal attempts. He was a seven-time All Star, led the NL in stolen bases four consecutive years (1981-84), had a streak of six seasons with at least 70 steals, won the NL batting title in 1986 with a .334 average, led the league in runs scored twice and doubles once. Raines played for the Montreal Expos (1979-90, 2001)); Chicago White Sox (1991-95); New York Yankees (1996-98); Oakland A’s (1999); Baltimore Orioles (2001); and Florida Marlins (2002).

All seven of these players received BBRT’s HOF support – as did Lee Smith, Jeff Kent and Mike Mussina.  For more details on the BBA recommended candidates and BBRT’s ballot, click here to go to my December 3, 2014 Hall of Fame Post.

The rest of the BBA voting was as follows:

Edgar Martinez  71%

Curt Schilling 68%

Mike Mussina 67%

Barry Bonds 65%

Roger Clemens 63%

Alan Trammell 53%

Jeff Kent 44%

Gary Sheffield 38%

Larry Walker 37%

Fred McGriff 33%

Mark McGwire 33%

Don Mattingly 31%

Lee Smith 31%

Sammy Sosa 23%

Carlos Delgado 19%

Nomar Garciaparra 13%

Cliff Floyd 4%

Brian Giles 4%

Rich Aurilia 3%

Darin Erstad 3%

Troy Percival 3%

Aaron Boone 1%

Jason Schmidt 1%

Jermaine Dye 0%

Tom Gordon 0%

Eddie Guardado 0%

The official website of the BBA is located at baseballbloggersalliance.wordpress.com. The BBA can be found on Twitter by the handle @baseballblogs and by the hashmark #bbba. For more information, contact Niko Goutakolis at baseballbloggersalliance@gmail.com.

 

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Baseball Book Reviews – For the Baseball Fan on Your Holiday Gift List

Looking for a gift for the baseball fan on your holiday gift list – or some entertaining reading for yourself.  Here are links to several past Baseball Roundtable book reviews (Or baseball volumes old and new, non-fiction and fiction) that may help.  

Just click on the book’s image to find the review.  

 

Last BestThe Last Best League – One Summer, One Season One Dream (Tenth Anniversary Edition),

by Jim Collins

 

 

summer of beerThe Summer of Beer and Whiskey – How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game,

by Edward Achorn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

veeck 13Bill Veeck:  Baseball’s Greatest Maverick,

by Paul Dickson

 

 

 

stanSTAN MUSIAL – An American Life,

by George Vecsey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

summer of 68Summer of ’68: The Season that Changed Baseball, and America, Forever,

by Tim Wendel

 

 

down_to_last_pitchDown To The Last Pitch – How the 1991 Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves Gave Us the Best World Series of All Time,

by Tim Wendel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

19541954 – The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Baseball Forever,

by Bill Madden

 

yogiDriving Mr. Yogi:  Yogi Berra, Ron Guidry and Baseballs’ Greatest Gift,

by Harvey Araton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

59Fifty-nine in ’84,

by Edward Achorn

 

 

ganThe Great American Novel,

by Philip Roth

 

one sjhot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Shot At Forever … A Small Town, An Unlikely Coach, And A Magical Baseball Season,

by Chris Ballard

 

killerHarmon Killebrew – Ultimate Slugger,

by Steve Aschburner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cracker JackThe Cracker Jack® Collection … Baseball’s Prized Players,

by Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala

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BBRT presents a guest post from journalist/author Larry LaRue.

.

 

Major League Encounters,

by Larry LaRue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

calicopotoCalico Joe,

by John Grisham

 

 

Chin1Chin Music,

by Lee Edelstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I tweet baseball @DavidBBRT