/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
font-family:”Times New Roman”;
Photography on baseball cards sometimes shows players in
delightfully awkward poses or clumsy moments. Card No. 616 of the 1979 Topps
set provides an example of that; it features journeyman infielder Billy Almon,
the No. 1 choice in the 1974 draft who never reached expectations of stardom in
the major leagues. The card’s photo, which was snapped during a game at Shea
Stadium, shows Almon dressed in the Padres’ highly unattractive uniforms of the
day. As baseball researcher Maxwell Kates points out, those yellow-and-brown
beauties are believed to be the last uniforms featuring both the team name and
the city name on the front of the jersey.
Beyond the ghastly colors of the Padres’ uniforms, there is
something intriguing in the odd way that Almon is holding the bat, which he is
gripping by the wrong end Perhaps after being called out on strikes yet again?
Or perhaps he is getting ready to crack the bat over his thigh, ala new Hall of
Famer Jim Rice? And then, as Kates suggests, there’s the dazed expression on
Almon’s face, as if to say, “What should I be doing with this piece of wood? I
am after all in the major leagues.” In 1979, Almon would bat only .227 with an
on-base percentage of .301 and a total of one home run. For his career, the
shortstop-third baseman performed only a bit better, batting .254 with 36 home
runs in 15 seasons with the Padres, Expos, Mets, White Sox, A’s, Pirates, and
Phillies. He was, however, an excellent bunter, leading the National League
with 20 sacrifices in 1977.
The Padres expected far more than good bunting from Mr.
Almon. Just how highly was Almon regarded as an amateur? When Almon graduated
high school in 1971, several teams wanted to draft the lanky shortstop in the
first round, but he wrote to each club informing them of his decision to attend
an Ivy League school (Brown University). The Padres drafted him anyway, taking
him with a 10th round selection in the ’71 draft. Three years later,
the Padres once again targeted Almon, selecting him with the first overall pick
in the draft after he set a school record by hitting ten home runs in a short
season. The Padres even gave Almon a $90,000 bonus–a huge amount at the
time–but he struggled to hit in both the minors and the majors, making him just
one of many No. 1 picks to turn into big league disappointments.
Unlike the NBA, there’s little certainty that comes with being
the first man taken in the major league draft.
There has never been a time in baseball history when players have been less willing to switch positions. This past week, Michael Young put up an enormous fuss when the Rangers told him they wanted to move him to third base to make room for top prospect Elvis Andrus. Young became so upset that he asked the Rangers to trade him.
A few days ago, Young did an about-face. He said he would willingly move to third base. What’s that saying about “better late than never?” Well, good for Young that he finally came to his senses, even if his initial reaction was that of a spoiled child.
Perhaps it’s my imagination, but doesn’t it seem like no player today is willing to switch positions without making a federal production about it? Just consider the Alfonso Soriano debacle a few years back with the Nationals, when Frank Robinson practically had to plant Soriano in left field. Players have become more rigid, more territorial about the positions they play, to the point that they throw logic and team considerations to the wolves. Young’s defenders will point to the Gold Glove he won this year for playing shortstop; scouts, talent evaluators, and Sabermetricians alike will tell you that Young’s Gold Glove was undeserving, that he won it more on his offensive reputation, along with the lack of high-grade defensive shortstops in the American League. They will also tell you that the Rangers’ poor infield defense was one of the team’s many problems in 2008.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think that it’s wise for teams to first approach a player about the possibility of playing a new position rather than merely issue an edict from above. But if the move makes logical sense–and there’s nothing inherently illogical about sliding a shortstop over to third base, given the similarities of the two positions–and gives the chance the team to better itself defensively, then the club has every right to make the move. It’s not as if the Rangers asked Young to make some kind of radical switch, like becoming a catcher or a pitcher. That would be both illogical and unreasonable.
Due to this inflexible attitude toward playing different positions, players have become less versatile today. That’s unfortunate because the athletes of today are better and more highly trained then previous generations of major leaguers and therefore more capable of making the switch from one position to another. And with teams carrying more and more pitchers on their rosters these days, position players are required to be more versatile to cover all eight defensive slots in the field.
Simply put, players need to be more willing to do what the team needs in switching up positions. Sometimes that involves admitting that advancing age has changed their ability to play a certain position, just as it did with Ernie Banks, Robin Yount, and Cal Ripken in past years. Heck, if Hall of Fame shortstops like Banks, Yount, and Ripken could switch positions (to first base, center field, and third base respectively) then anybody should be willing to try doing so for the betterment of the team. The team–and the entire game–would be better off…
Continuing a recent infatuation with young Cubs center fielders, the Orioles acquired Felix Pie from Chicago over the weekend, sending major league lefty Garrett Olson and Class-A right-hander Henry Williamson to the Windy City. Will Pie end up like Corey Patterson, another disappointing Cubs outfield prospect who failed to develop in Baltimore? Possibly, but Pie is faster, potentially the better defender, and won’t turn 24 until next month. If Pie ends up left field, the Orioles will have one of the better defensive outfields in the American League, with the athletic Adam Jones manning center and the strong-armed Nick Markakis in right field. The Orioles will then have to find a spot for sweet-swinging Luke Scott, who played left field last year, but could see time as both a DH and first baseman.
I suppose this deal is further worth the risk for the O’s given how badly Olson pitched last year. Olson, 25, needed to get away from Camden Yards and the power-packed American League East; he’ll also have a chance to work with an accomplished pitching coach in Larry Rothschild. Both of those factors should help him lower his 6.65 ERA from last summer. The acquisition of Olson might also put the Cubs in a better position to reopen trade talks with the Padres about Jake Peavy. The Padres like Olson a lot and consider him a major piece to a potential package for their Cy Young-caliber right-hander…
Last week’s election of Rickey Henderson and Big Jim Rice to the Hall of Fame figures to give the village of Cooperstown a boost in tourism this summer, especially when compared with the meager turnout for the 2008 induction. Fewer than 10,000 fans visited Cooperstown for the induction of Goose Gossage and Dick Williams, despite Gossage’s obvious connection to the Yankees. This year’s induction attendance could double last year’s total–and not because of Henderson’s superstar presence. Given the distance between Cooperstown and Oakland, the team with which Rickey is most associated, it’s likely that few A’s fans will make the trek to Cooperstown. There will be a much larger contingent of Red Sox faithful in town for the long-awaited induction of Rice, who played his entire career in Beantown. Boston is a mere four hours away from Cooperstown; the Hall of Fame is already a convenient destination for members of Red Sox Nation, and that will only intensify during the Summer of Rice.
Monday’s Hall of Fame election will surely bring glee to the city of Boston while stirring outrage from many of the Sabermetric types who write and post on the Internet. The candidacy of Jim Rice, which has been hotly debated for years by Sabermetricians and mainstream writers, finally concluded on Monday afternoon with the announcement that Rice will join Rickey Henderson on the Cooperstown dais this July.
Stepping aside from the controversy for a moment, my predictions about a Hall of Fame election–for once–actually came true. (Perhaps that makes up for my hunch that Ron Santo and Gil Hodges were going to win election last month.) I felt Rice would barely squeeze by, and that’s exactly what he did, gaining 76.4 per cent of the vote. I’ll have to do some checking, but that may be the smallest margin by which anybody has won election to the Hall through the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The election of Rice not only means a victory for Rice, the city of Boston, and Red Sox Nation, but a victory for those mainstream writers who have supported his candidacy for years, based on the belief that his high RBI totals, high batting average, and peak period of performance meant more than his lack of walks, his tendency to ground into double plays, and his lack of longevity. It’s an argument I support; I’ve felt that it’s fair to regard Rice as a borderline candidate, but I’ve also considered him worthy because of his sheer dominance as a professional power hitter during the late seventies and early eighties.
In regards to Henderson, there was never any doubt that he would win election in his first year of elegibility. The only question involved the final percentage of the vote that he would receive. Henderson checked in at 94.8 per cent, about where I thought he’d be, and just a bit short of the Tom Seaver-Cal Ripken stratospere of voting percentage. Somewhat remarkably, 32 writers felt Henderson, the greatest leadoff man the game has ever seen and arguably one of the top five left fielders of all time, was not worthy of the Hall of Fame. I’m guessing that some of those no-votes decided to penalize Henderson for his occasional lack of hustle, his repeated late entries to spring training, and some of the general nuisance he caused most of his managers (at least not those named Billy Martin, who absolutely loved Rickey). If there are any other reasons for leaving Henderson off the ballot, I’d love to hear them. Hopefully, it’s not the inane first-ballot nonsense that we sometimes hear, or some contrived argument that Henderson somehow was not a Hall of Fame performer. Anybody offering those lame arguments will have some serious explaining to do.
Then there is the case of Andre Dawson. I felt he’d come in at about 70 per cent, but I overestimated his total, as “The Hawk” finished at 67 per cent. That doesn’t bode well for Dawson next year, even in a year when there are overwhelming first-year candidates and no holdovers that appear close to Hall of Fame inspection. It’s probably too much to expect an eight per cent jump for Dawson in 2010, which could result in a very empty Hall of Fame class for the Baseball Writers one year from now.
Finally, the injustice of Bert Blyleven needs to be addressed. Blyleven has been the subject of some wonderful Sabermetric articles on the Internet, pieces that make a compelling case for “The Dutchman.” Given the number of shutouts and complete games that he posted, given the lack of run support he received in all those 1-0 and 2-1 losses, and given his superior performance in World Series play (for both the Pirates and the Twins), Blyleven deserves the call to the Hall. Yet, his vote total actually remained virtually the same, going from 61.8 to 62 per cent of the vote. Unfortunately, too many of the mainstream writers just don’t get it when it comes to Blyleven’s dominance in both the regular season and the postseason. Even with average luck and average run support, Blyleven would have won more than 300 games, a total that becomes even more impressive considering how mediocre-to-bad the Twins were during his early major league career.
So, with the good news comes some bad news. Rice makes it, which brings the added bonus of larger crowds that will travel from Boston to Cooperstown this summer. Blyleven doesn’t, with his candidacy seemingly hitting a plateau and perhaps even taking steps backward.
I guess it’s one battle at a time when it comes to the Hall of Fame election–and how the writers evaluate what is truly greatness.
Barry Bloom of MLB.com asks the question that many baseball fans will be contemplating over the weekend: “Who will be joining Rickey Henderson in the Hall of Fame?” The answer will come on Monday afternoon, supplied by Hall president Jeff Idelson on the newly formed MLB Network.
My answer is simple: Jim Rice. According to two Hall of Fame sources, the vote will be very close. One thinks that Rice will barely reach the 75 per cent needed for election; the other thinks that Rice will just miss in what is his final year on the Baseball Writers’ ballot. My hunch is to go with the former prediction, based partly on the precedents of history. Anyone who has ever received at least 72 per cent of the vote has eventually made it to the Hall of Fame. Rice will continue that trend of momentum, though it will be perilously close, with Big Jim getting somewhere in the 76 to 77 per cent range. By a whisker.
Here’s another factor that I believe will help Rice. There will be a backlash among members of the BBWAA in response to all the criticism that Rice has received from Sabermetric analysts on the Internet. Many of those analysts have been so shrill in their critiques of Rice (he didn’t walk enough, he hit into too many double plays, his career lacked longevity) that some of the mainstream writers will want to flex their muscle in response. During his career, Rice was generally regarded as a Hall of Fame player by many of those same BBWAA writers, who will want to see that judgment carried through on election day.
Will anyone else join Henderson and Rice on the Cooperstown dais? Andre Dawson, who earned 65 per cent of the vote last year, has been gaining support among the electorate and will jump over the 70 per cent barrier, but will ultimately fall short in this year’s election. Dawson’s poor career on-base percentage (under .330) and lack of sustained excellence, caused mostly by knee injuries, will keep him out of the Hall–at least for one more year.
So the Hall’s class of 2009 will grow by two, with Henderson and Jim Rice joining the late Joe Gordon, the sole electee from this year’s Veterans Committee. And that will be it.
On the heels of their amazing 2008 championship run, the Rays made a terrific signing on Monday when they reeled in a World Series opponent with a bargain of a contract. By signing former Phillie Pat Burrell to a two-year deal worth $16 million, the Rays have upgraded their offense without breaking the bank and without doing major damage to their defense. With Carl Crawford entrenched in left field, Burrell will be doing what he should be doing–and that’s DHing on a regular basis. Burrell’s 30-plus home run power and .350 to .360 on-base percentage will be welcome additions to an offense that sometimes struggled to score runs last summer, even in winning the AL pennant. With Tampa Bay’s young pitching and dynamic defense already in place, the Rays could be an even more well-rounded team in 2009, a scary thought for both the Red Sox and Yankees…
The signing of Burrell has apparently directed another free agent, Jason Giambi, toward the Bay Area. The A’s have reportedly signed Giambi to a one-year contract, with the possibility of an option year. Either way, it’s a far cry from the ridiculous three-year demand that Giambi had made earlier in the off season. This figures to be a good news/bad news signing for the A’s. Giambi can still hit with power and draw walks, making him a potentially capable left-handed complement to Matt Holliday. But Oakland fans will also have to suffer while watching Giambi stumble his way around first base, since there’s no room at DH, where Jack Cust is already stationed. Having watched Giambi play first base for the better part of the last seven years, I can say this with little hesitation: “The Giambino” is the worst defensive first baseman I’ve ever seen, worse than Mo Vaughn, Dave Kingman, Don Baylor, and a host of other lead gloves. Brutal. Awful. Pick your adjective in assessing Giambi, they all fit in describing the second coming of Dr. Strangeglove…
We’re now one week away from the Hall of Fame election, which will likely feature two electees, with an outside shot at a third. Rickey Henderson remains a lock for Cooperstown immortality; the only question is whether he will break the 95 per cent barrier. Now in his final year on the ballot, Jim Rice will join him, but the vote will be close, with the former Red Sox star coming in just above the 75 per cent mark needed for election. And based on what I’m hearing, support for Andre Dawson is building among the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Dawson, who received 65 per cent support last year, may threaten the 75 per cent mark. It’s an outside shot–but that’s a better shot than what I would have predicted for “The Hawk” 12 months ago.
At a time when the hot stove remains arctic-like frigid, we can thank the Hall of Fame for providing us with a spot of baseball warmth on a damp winter night in Cooperstown. On Monday, the Hall of Fame released its 2009 ballot, which will be mulled over by the 700-plus members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. It’s a strong ballot, but one that will probably only produce two new Hall of Famers by the time that results are announced in early January. Here are a few observations on the ballot:
*A record-low 23 players are featured on this year’s ballot. Why so few? I believe that the Hall of Fame’s screening committee has become much tougher in recent seasons, making it more difficult for the Mel Halls and the Dion Jameses of the world to make it to the final printed ballot. That’s probably a good thing, since so many of the first-time eligible candidates (like Jay Bell, Greg Vaughn, and Dan Plesac, on this year’s ballot) already have zero chance of being elected.
*Of the first-time eligibles, only Rickey Henderson has a legitimate chance at election this year–and he will be a slam dunk selection receiving at least 90 per cent of the vote. Henderson has a decent shot at reaching 95 per cent, though some members of the BBWAA may attempt to penalize him for some of the controversial moments in his career, including his chronic lateness for spring training, his Manny Ramirez-like dogging for the Yankees in 1989, and his infamous card-playing episodes with the Mets. But those are relatively minor quibbles on what is clearly an overwhelming Hall of Fame resume.
*If I had a ballot, I’d certainly vote for Henderson; he’s both the greatest leadoff man and the most phenomenal base stealer I’ve ever watched. My ballot would also have check marks next to the names of the following holdover candidates: Alan Trammell (a very good defender at shortstop and an even better hitter), Tim Raines (a poor man’s Henderson, but that’s still plenty good), Jim Rice (a professional hitter who adapted well to his home park at Fenway), Dale Murphy (at his peak, the game’s best player, circa the mid-1980s), and Bert Blyleven (an underrated workhorse and a terrific World Series performer). That’s six players in total, more than the two who will be elected (Henderson and Rice), but less than the ten names that can be placed on any single ballot.
*Finally, we all know we’re getting old when we see Jesse Orosco’s name on the ballot for the first time. It’s hard to believe that the ageless Orosco, whose career spanned seemingly centuries, has now been out of baseball for five years. Wasn’t he just in someone’s spring camp trying to make it as a non-roster reliever? And why would I not be surprised if someone invited him to spring training next year?