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Wednesday, December 13
Updated: April 2, 5:47 PM ET
December Archives

By Rob Neyer

Near the end of Wednesday's column, I happened to mention that if I were lucky enough to be entrusted with a Hall of Fame ballot, my four choices this year would be Dave Winfield, Gary Carter, Bert Blyleven and Rich Gossage.

This off-handed comment did not go unnoticed ...


    Thank you for acknowledging Bert Blyleven as one the players you'd pick for the Hall right now. 287 wins, a 3.31 ERA over 22 seasons and No. 3 all-time in strikeouts should warrant a little consideration. His 250 losses doesn't look good, and the fact that he only had one 20-win season doesn't help, but that's not too far off Nolan Ryan's stats. A player who is good enough to win 287 victories in the major leagues deserves to be considered for the Hall.

    Dan W.

On the other hand ...

    Bert Blyleven?

    A poor man's Don Sutton.

    I think the All-Star Game count is helpful, much like MVP voting shares. I would bet Blyleven's numbers in both categories are terrible.

    His case, I assume, rests on career numbers. But I'm very skeptical.

    Thanks as always for your enjoyable column.

    David Blount

David, I'm not going to try to convince you that Bert Blyleven belongs in the Hall of Fame. At this point, that august body has lost much of its ability to honor anyone anyway, thanks to the ongoing profligacy of the Veterans Committee.

But I will try to convince you that Blyleven was a great pitcher, a pitcher every bit as good as Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton, if not as famous.

          Ryan   Sutton   Blyleven
Wins       324     324       287
Losses     292     256       250
Win%      .526    .559      .534 
ERA       3.19    3.26      3.31 
ERA+       111     108       118

The top four rows are no secret to anyone. Ryan and Sutton both won 324 games, Blyleven "only" 287. Blyleven actually finished with a better winning percentage than Ryan. The three pitchers finished with comparable ERAs.

It's the bottom row to which I'd like to draw your particular attention. "ERA+" is a measure of a pitcher's ERA relative to the league average, after adjusting for his home ballparks.

Ryan's 111 ERA+ means, for example, that his 3.19 career ERA was, after adjusting for his home ballparks, 11 percent better than league average. Similarly, Sutton, who spent the great majority of his career in a pitcher's league (the National) and a pitcher's ballpark (Dodger Stadium), was about eight percent better than league average.

And the best of the group? Bert Blyleven. It's not even close. He spent most of his career in the American League, and never benefited from a great pitcher's park, as both Sutton (Dodger Stadium) and Ryan (Astrodome) did.

Ah, but Blyleven didn't win 300 games. He pitched for 22 seasons, and fell 13 victories short. He won 37 fewer games than both Ryan and Sutton. And as we all know, the measure of a starter's effectiveness is not how many runs he allows, but how many games he wins. Some pitchers "know how to win," and some don't, right? And maybe Blyleven just didn't know how to win.

Don't you believe it. Blyleven failed to win 300 games because he was unlucky, and because, for most of his career, he didn't pitch for good teams. You don't think that Blyleven would have won 13 more games if he'd been with the Dodgers for 16 years, as Sutton was?

Don Sutton was a good pitcher for a long time, and a deserving Hall of Famer. But was he really a better pitcher than Bert Blyleven?

Blyleven won 20 games once; Don Sutton won 20 games once.

Blyleven finished in the top 10 in his league in ERA 10 times; Sutton did it eight times.

Blyleven finished in the top five in strikeouts 13 times; Sutton did it three times.

Blyleven finished in the top 10 in innings pitched 11 times; Sutton did it 10 times.

Blyleven finished in the top five in shutouts nine times; Sutton did it eight times.

Sutton's one advantage over Blyleven is the wins and losses, and this can be almost entirely attributed to one thing: Sutton spent most of his career in a pitcher-friendly ballpark in a pitcher-friendly league.

Frankly, this ain't rocket science. Any half-wit baseball writer (i.e. Hall of Fame voter) should be able to understand the difference between the National League and the American League, and the difference between Dodger Stadium and any of the five AL ballparks that Blyleven called home. That Sutton's in the Hall of Fame, while Blyleven has received little support, is a testament to the stupidity of old baseball writers who think that sabermetrics is a dirty word.

All things considered, I would have to say that Don Sutton is a poor man's Bert Blyleven.

With regard to last Friday's column about Kirby Puckett and Don Mattingly, Craig Wright sent me the following:

    We have a lot of general rule of thumb notations for Hall of Famers, such as 3,000 hits, 500 homers (might have to raise that one), 300 wins, etc. But I wonder why we don't give much attention to something that is a surprisingly good litmus test and applies to Kirby Puckett's case.

    If you were a double-digit All-Star during your career, than the odds are overwhelming that you will end up in the Hall of Fame unless you do something stupid like bet on baseball games. By "double digit All-Star, I mean the player was elected or selected to the All-Star team in ten seasons or more. I believe the following list of 46 double-digit All-Stars is complete, but I welcome any corrections. They are listed in alphabetical order and I've capitalized the players not yet in the Hall.

    Hank Aaron, ROBERTO ALOMAR, Luis Aparicio, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, WADE BOGGS, George Brett, Steve Carlton, Rod Carew, GARY CARTER, Roberto Clemente, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Carlton Fisk, Nellie Fox, STEVE GARVEY, TONY GWYNN, RICKEY HENDERSON, Billy Herman, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize, Joe Morgan, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, KIRBY PUCKETT, Pee Wee Reese, Cal Ripken Jr, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, PETE ROSE, RYNE SANDBERG, Tom Seaver, MIke Schmidt, Warren Spahn, Enos Slaughter, Ozzie Smith, Ted Williams, DAVE WINFIELD, and Carl Yastrzemski.

    Let's look at the ones who have not yet made it. I don't think there will be much argument that Roberto Alomar, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, and Dave Winfield will go into the Hall. And so will Pete Rose if he is ever eligible. I know one writer who is on the fence when Sandberg comes up for election, but I tell him he is nuts. It's a no-brainer and an easier call than Roberto Alomar. Nine Gold Gloves, seven Sliver Slugger Awards, an MVP and 10 All-Star selections adds up to an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame. That Gary Carter is not yet in the Hall of Fame is just a silly mistake that will be rectified in the near future. There is only one player among the 46 where I question both whether he deserves it and whether he will ever make it, and that's Steve Garvey.

    But with all the things I hold against Garvey -- the lousy arm and low OBPs -- he also had that seven-year period from age 24 to 31 where he was a rock of dependability and producing well offensively in the context of the era and his home park, which sharply favored the pitcher. I don't think I could ever bring myself to personally support him for the Hall of Fame, but I also didn't support Tony Perez. Tony was a bit of a favorite of mine, but I'd sooner vote for Garvey than Tony. Add up an MVP award, 10 All-Star teams, the NL record for consecutive games played, four Gold Gloves, and being the RBI man on a steady contender that captured five pennants, and you have a lot of ammo regardless of my personal misgivings.

    And do we have anyone on the horizon to be a double-digit All Star who is not a likely Hall of Famer? No. Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens are the closest, and those are sure Hall of Famers. If you think Garvey might eventually be elected to the Hall, then this marker suggests a 100 percent chance that Puckett will make the Hall at some point. And even if Garvey is the rare exception, the odds are still probably better than 25 to 1 that Kirby will be a Hall of Famer.

    And what about Tony Oliva and Don Mattingly, who you referred to in your "Puckett" column? Well, Oliva was an eight-time All-Star. Mattingly was a six-time All-Star.

    On another subject, in regard to the argument that if Puckett is a HOF, then why not Dale Murphy? I would answer:

    1) 10 All-Star teams to 7 for Murphy
    2) Six silver slugger awards to 4 for Murphy
    3) Six Gold Glove awards to 5 for Murphy, and darn if I know why Murphy won any. I never thought he was a good CF.
    4) Puckett played and performed well in pennant races and postseason play

    And something has to be said for the times a player has been hurting his team. Murphy had no less than FIVE seasons where he was playing nearly every game and his OPS's were .678, .715, .734, .667, and .724. A lot of players with long careers will have a couple bum seasons like that, but five of them is way too many to simply ignore.


Craig Wright spends his days thinking about baseball, and he's one of the brightest men in the world who does so. I only wish I could share with you all of his e-mail messages to me. Anyway, his points here are good ones. Regarding Mattingly, we certainly have to ask ourselves, is a six-time All-Star really somebody we want to see in the Hall of Fame? If we presume that two or three American League first basemen make the squad every year, can't we also assume that Mattingly was only one of the two or three best first basemen six times?

As for Murphy, I believe that Craig's last point is the most salient. Dale Murphy was an average or poor everyday player for seven seasons. He played regularly for 14 seasons. I'm sure you can do the math, but it seems to me that a Hall of Famer should be at least good more than half the time. Now, I know some will argue, "Hey, it's not Dale's fault that his teams kept playing him even though he wasn't contributing." True enough. You can't blame Murphy for playing six seasons after 1987, six seasons in which he generally played poorly. But ask yourself this: if Murphy hadn't played after '87, would he have career totals that would come close to meriting Hall of Fame consideration?

At the conclusion of the '87 season, Murphy had totaled 1,555 hits, 928 runs, 310 home runs and 927 RBI. Do those strike you as Hall of Fame numbers? It was only by playing into the 1993 season that Murphy passed 2,000 hits (2111), 1,200 RBI (1266) nearly reached 400 homers (398). Dale Murphy needs those six extra years. But with those six extra years comes a bunch of crummy at-bats, dragging his on-base percentage from .364 to .348 and, more dramatically, his slugging percentage from .500 to .469. Unless you give Murphy an immense amount of credit for his glove -- and I agree with Craig, Murphy was not an outstanding center fielder -- then it's very, very tough to make a Hall of Fame argument for him.

Getting back to Puckett for a moment, while I noted last week that Total Baseball rates Mattingly as just an adequate defensive player, I neglected to mention that TB rates Puckett as an outstanding center fielder. In fact, a fairly large chunk of Puckett's TPR (Total Player Rating) comes from his alleged defensive value. I would agree that he was a good center fielder, but 30 runs better than average in 1984? And 21 runs better than average in 1985, and 20 runs better than average in 1984? Also, John Williams wishes to point out that Puckett's home batting stats were far superior to his road stats, and that causes me some concern, too. Enough concern, in fact, that if I were filling out a Hall of Fame ballot today, I could not, in good conscience, vote for Kirby Puckett. Now, it might be that the Metrodome was not a great hitter's park -- and I'm fairly sure that it wasn't, despite its reputation -- but rather, Puckett simply learned to take full advantage of his home. And there's nothing wrong with that.

But as a friend of mine reminds me every year, if you don't know whether or not a guy belongs in the Hall of Fame, then you shouldn't vote for him. And I don't know about Puckett. There are four guys I do know about, though. If I had a ballot, I would definitely vote for Dave Winfield, Gary Carter, Rich Gossage, and Bert Blyleven.

Puckett, Jim Rice, and Bruce Sutter must await further, careful consideration.

Dale Murphy and Jack Morris? Sorry, but close doesn't count in Cooperstown. Or at least, it shouldn't.

I've been avoiding writing about the Hall of Fame -- in fact, every year I promise myself I'll never do it again -- but writing about insane general managers does get old, so here we go again ...


    Jim Caple's view that Kirby Puckett is a lock for the Hall of Fame makes me wonder how you see the situation. I hate to sound insensitive by suggesting that anyone's playing the "sympathy card," but I'm not sure how else one could suggest that Puckett is more deserving than, say, Jim Rice.

    Kirby was great, but (unfortunately) for an all-too-short period of time. He should be judged by the same career standards that have kept other players with shortened careers out of the Hall.

    -- Andrew

Jim Caple's one of my favorite writers, Andrew. But Jim did spend a fair number of years in Minnesota, so I'm not quite sure how objective he is about Puckett.

For the sake of argument, here's Puckett along with another old Twins outfielder ...

        Games  Hits  Runs   RBI   OBP  Slug         
Oliva    1676  1917   870   947  .356  .476
Puckett  1783  2304  1071  1085  .363  .477

Tony Oliva falls short in the "counting stats" like hits, runs and RBI, but that's almost entirely due to two factors. One, Oliva played in about 100 fewer games. And two, he played in a time, the early '60s through the mid-'70s, less conducive to hitting than Puckett's era.

From 1964 through 1971, Oliva played at a high level, a Hall of Fame level. Unfortunately, Oliva missed most of the 1972 season, and didn't play well in his remaining four seasons.

Was Puckett as good? Well, he was outstanding in six seasons: 1986 through '89, 1992, and 1994. He was very good in four more, and just so-so in two others (his first two). I would say that yes, Puckett was not only as good as Oliva, but somewhat better.

But how about this one?

          Games  Hits  Runs   RBI   OBP  Slug         
Mattingly  1785  2153  1007  1099  .363  .471
Puckett    1783  2304  1071  1085  .363  .477

Before we go any further, let me be very, very clear about this: if Kirby Puckett isn't a Hall of Famer, then Don Mattingly certainly isn't a Hall of Famer. Puckett finished with more hits, more runs, and very nearly as many RBI as Mattingly. Their OBPs were practically identical, and Puckett actually posted a higher career slugging percentage (due to an 11-point edge in batting average). And Puckett played center field, a tougher defensive position.

But let's turn that argument on its side ... If Kirby Puckett is a Hall of Famer, then is Don Mattingly one, too? Let's look at this from another perspective, as in, how many games did these guys win for their teams? As you might know, Total Baseball employs an omnibus number called Total Player Rating, that attempts to sum a player's hitting, fielding and basestealing contributions. The resulting figure estimates how many wins a player contributed, above a league-average player at his position. Well, here's how the aforementioned three players fare on this scale:

Puckett    29.1
Oliva      24.9
Mattingly  11.2

Obviously, Hall of Fame voters don't consult the TPR rankings when filling out their ballot. But if you look at the players in that 28-to-30 range, only about half are in the Hall. Interestingly enough, the same is true for Oliva's range (24 to 26). And if Oliva had been lucky enough to play in the 1930s, he'd already be in.

But Mattingly's TPR is nowhere near Hall level. The players around Mattingly include Terry Pendleton (11.0), Toby Harrah (11.2), Andy Seminick (11.3) and Lonnie Smith (11.5). True, Total Baseball actually rates Mattingly as a below-average defensive player, and frankly, I don't know whether that's right or wrong. But even if we double Mattinly's TPR based solely on his defense, that still only gets him to 22.4 -- significantly lower than Puckett, and about the same as George Foster and Fred Lynn (two other players who performed brilliantly for a few years, then were average-at-best for the rest of their careers).

In conclusion, I would say that Kirby Puckett probably should be in the Hall of Fame. His numbers are excellent, and the bit of extra credit for his postseason heroics probably should push him over the top. He's marginal, though. That is, there are better players than Puckett who aren't in the Hall of Fame -- Gary Carter, for example -- but there are plenty worse, too.

But Mattingly? There simply aren't enough good arguments for him. He was great for a few years, though not as great as people think. He was adequate for a few more years, and didn't enjoy a particularly long career. Mattingly didn't make a name for himself on the national stage; no postseason heroics, no memorable All-Star moment. He's billed as a great leader, but if leadership is so important, and if Mattingly was a great leader, then why didn't the Yankees win anything until his 14th and final season?

Here's what it boils down to. Don Mattingly played first base, the single position from which the most offensive production is expected. He drove in more than 90 runs only five times. He posted a slugging percentage higher than .500 only four times, and he posted a slugging percentage higher than .450 only six times. His career .358 on-base percentage is good, but by no means outstanding. Career-wise, the most-similar players to Mattingly, in terms of offensive production, are Cecil Cooper, Wally Joyner and Hal McRae.

The performance just wasn't enough. And when you throw in the short career -- 14 seasons, and only 10 seasons of more than 120 games -- Don Mattingly just doesn't equal Hall of Famer.

And finally, you'll note that I've avoided even a single mention of Tony Oliva's knees, Kirby Puckett's eyes, or Don Mattingly's back. These are, of course, often used in arguments for each player. If only Oliva's knees hadn't been gimpy ... If only Puckett hadn't developed glaucoma ... If only Mattingly hadn't suffered back problems ... what would they have done?

But you know, nobody uses the injury argument for pitchers. How great would Bret Saberhagen have been, if his managers had taken care of him? What about Andy Messersmith? Given a few hours, I suspect I could come up with a few hundred pitchers who looked like Hall of Famers until they tore something in their arms. Are hitters really any different?

One's worth as a player should be determined not by what might have been, but by what was. There's a tendency, I suspect, to cut Puckett some slack because what got him was a freak thing. But what happened to Puckett is exactly what happened to Oliva, and to Mattingly. In all three cases, their bodies let them down before they'd reached their "natural" -- i.e. about 40 years old -- limits. As for Puckett deserving some extra measure of sympathy, I'll bet that if you asked him, he'd tell you he's one of the luckiest men on the face of the earth.

I was wondering about Jeff Bagwell's contract. Not the amount -- $85 million for five years is close to the going rate these days -- but rather the way it's structured. Included among those 85 millions of dollars are $15 million in the form of a signing bonus. What's weird, though, is that the signing bonus isn't paid upon signing the contract. Rather, Bagwell will receive five payments of $3 million, once per year from 2002 through 2006.

When I learned about Bagwell's bonus payments, I wondered "What"s the point? Why not just tack those $3 million payments to his salary for those years?"

Well, there are at least two reasons, one beneficial to Bagwell and the other beneficial to the club.

One, it's likely that the bonus is guaranteed. Thus, even in the event of a strike or lockout, Bagwell is assured of a tidy little income.

And two, the bonus allows the Astros to play silly reindeer games when they're talking about Bagwell's salary. In 2003, for example, the Astros can tell people, "Gosh, why should we pay Joe Slugger $13 million when we're only paying Jeff Bagwell, The Greatest Astro Ever, $10 million?" In reality, the Astros will pay Bagwell $13 million in 2003 -- $10 million in salary, plus the $3 million signing bonus.

As you know, Bagwell's future has been in question for some time. Is it a coincidence that he finally signed his extension shortly after the Astros traded for ex-Astros Brad Ausmus and Doug Brocail? I doubt it. Ausmus is generally revered by his teammates, and the word is that he and Bagwell were fairly close.

Here's Bagwell: "I talked about them showing me some things that could make us a better club. They might not be blockbuster deals; writers and people may say we really didn't do anything. I think we improved our club a lot."

I've always been one of Jeff Bagwell's biggest fans. I like the way he hits, I like the way he runs, I like the way he fields, I like the way he puts black gunk under his eyes. But when Jeff Bagwell is running your team, you got problems. I suspect that Bagwell looks at the Astros' 2000 season and thinks, "Gee, if only we would have gotten along better, we'd have won another division title."

Bagwell's wrong. I don't blame him for thinking this, but he's wrong. The Astros didn't lose 90 games last year because Mitch Meluskey got into a fistfight with Matt Mieske. The Astros lost 90 games last year because they had horrible luck (15-31 in one-run games), because Billy Wagner and Jose Lima fell apart, and because management built a ballpark that's built for Little Leaguers.

Meluskey's supposed to be a "cancer in the clubhouse," but it seems that nobody would have noticed if the Astros had won 90 games rather than losing 90. Perhaps if Bagwell and Biggio were the leaders they're supposed to be, they'd have straightened out Meluskey rather than getting him traded. After all, a catcher with an 863 career OPS is a guy you'd want on your side.

Look, if dumping Meluskey meant keeping Bagwell, then it's probably a good trade. But this is dangerous, dangerous ground upon which the Astros trod. General managers do a lot of crazy things -- can you say "Jose Mesa"? -- but when the lunatics start running the asylums, we're really in trouble.

Speaking of asylums, who's in charge of Loony Park at Camden Yards these days? After signing free agents David Segui and Pat Hentgen on Tuesday, Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said, "Just when everyone thought we were sleeping, we woke up."

You ever have one of those dreams where you "wake up," but you're actually still dreaming? I think this is what happened to Syd Thrift. Because somebody who's fully awake doesn't commit $37.6 million to Segui and Hentgen.

Hentgen will give the Orioles plenty of innings, but I can predict, with some degree of certainty, that he'll finish the 2001 season with an ERA upwards of 5.

Segui, who signed for four years at $7 million per, will be 35 next July, and is about as good a hitter as Kevin Young. And no, that's not a compliment. Segui's the type of player that might make sense for a pennant contender that's short a first baseman. But a crummy team like the Orioles? Hardly.

And you haven't heard the punchline yet ... Thrift just signed Mike Bordick.

Catching up on a couple of good-sized trades from last week ...

    Hey, Rob. I'm looking at the six-player trade between Detroit and Houston that just happened, and I'm absolutely puzzled. I think the Tigers made off like bandits. Looking at our past 10 seasons, I find it hard to believe what I am seeing. Did the Tigers actually get a good deal here? John Rauchman

I think they did, John. It's funny, about 13 months ago, everyone was aghast at the horrible deal Tigers GM Randy Smith made with the other Texas team. As you might remember, Smith sent six players -- pitchers Justin Thompson, Francisco Cordero and Alan Webb, plus outfielder Gabe Kapler, second baseman Frank Catalanotto and catcher Bill Haselman -- to the Rangers. Thompson, though he'd spent the last six weeks of the 1999 season on the DL, was nonetheless regarded as a decent bet to come back and establish himself as one of the league's best young left-handers. Cordero threw (and still throws) an upper-90s fastball, and had just saved 27 games and posted a 1.38 ERA in the Southern League. Kapler and Catalanotto both showed potential as hitters.

In return, the Tigers received two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez and back-up catcher Gregg Zaun. Oh, and along with Gonzalez, the Tigers got his contract, which compelled the club to pay him $7.5 million. A relative bargain compared to some contracts, but still significantly more than the combined salaries drawn by all six players sent to Texas in the deal.

I'll never forget the reaction to that trade. I was down in Phoenix for Ron Shandler's annual Arizona Fall League festivities, and David Rawnsley told me, "Rob, I talked to 20 scouts yesterday, and all 20 of them think it's a horrible trade for the Tigers."

Hey, I'm all for questioning conventional wisdom, but this time, 20 out of 20 got it right. Because Gabe Kapler, all my himself, nearly gave the Rangers as much as Juan Gonzalez gave the Tigers.

      Games  AB  Runs RBI   OPS
Juan   115  461   69   67   842
Gabe   116  444   59   66   833

In fairness to Gonzalez, the stats are misleading because Comerica Park is tough on hitters, and The Ballpark in Arlington most assuredly is not. But when you throw in the huge difference between their salaries, I think you have to say the Rangers got the better of this one. Oh, and there's one more thing: Gonzalez is now a free agent, while the Rangers can still pay relative peanuts to both Kapler and Catalanotto (who's one of the game's most potent utility players).

Fast-forward a year.

The Tigers are coming off a season in which, after a horrible start, they finished in third place with a 79-83 record. Detroit pitchers posted a 4.71 ERA, sixth-best in the American League. Detroit hitters scored 823 runs, ninth-best in the American League.

One might conclude, from those numbers, that Detroit's pitching/defense is ahead of its offense, but that ignores the Comerica Park factor. Take the ballpark into account, and we might conclude that both the Tiger hitters and pitchers were seventh- or eighth-best in the American League, right in the middle of the pack. So if the Tigers are going to improve, they need to work on both areas.

This brings us to last week, when Randy Smith pulled off yet another big trade. He sent catcher Brad Ausmus, and relievers Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz to Houston. In return, Smith and the Tigers get catcher Mitch Meluskey, outfielder Roger Cedeno and starter Chris Holt.

And just as a year ago, it seemed obvious that Smith was getting fleeced, this time it seems obvious that Smith is doing the fleecing.

Of the catchers in the deal, The Detroit News' Tom Gage commented, "Meluskey's potential on offense appeals to the Tigers, but he's nowhere close to being Ausmus' equal on defense."

Gage writes as if these two are somehow equivalent. Well, here's what Stats, Inc. has projected for these two players in 2001:

           OBP  Slug
Meluskey  .424  .529
Ausmus    .346  .360

Of course, these projections -- which I cadged from the absolutely essential Major League Handbook 2001 -- were published before Meluskey and Ausmus traded places. It's unlikely that they'll finish 2001 this far apart, because of their new home ballparks. Still, there is an immense difference between them, and it's going to show up in their teams' run production.

I like Roger Cedeno, too. Last year, the Tigers were so desperate for a leadoff hitter that they employed Rich Becker, who's not a good defensive player, or fast, or popular in the clubhouse, but does know how to get on base. Cedeno's the same general type of player, but something of an upgrade. Here are their career stats:

         Games   OBP  Slug   SB
Becker    789   .358  .372   66
Cedeno    540   .362  .375  114   

Cedeno runs better and he's two-and-a-half years younger. At 26, Cedeno's still got some upside, while Becker's just playing out the string.

And Chris Holt, the man who posted a 5.35 ERA last season? Well, I'd say that if you're going to acquire a pitcher with a 21-42 career record, Holt's the guy. He's been taking his lumps, to be sure, but over the last two seasons he's recorded 251 strikeouts and only 132 walks in 371 innings. Holt might well continue to struggle with the Tigers, but his strikeout ratio gives one cause for hope.

And what did the Tigers have to give up for three useful major league players? Brad Ausmus, who everybody loves but barely hits his weight. Doug Brocail, a 33-year-old set-up man. A real good set-up man, but a set-up man nonetheless. And Nelson Cruz, a 28-year-old reliever with a 5.02 career ERA.

I did enjoy Astros manager Larry Dierker's comment: "We're probably giving up more talent than we're getting," he said, "but we had to fill some needs."

I appreciate Dierker's honesty (assuming, of course, that he really believes what he's saying). And it's probably true that the Astros had some surplus talent (certainly, they had too many quality outfielders). But I'll be shocked if, five years down the line, this one doesn't look like a steal for Randy Smith.

Speaking of steals, the general consensus, at least among people who read this column, is that the Expos made out like bandits in their deal last week with the Cardinals. In case you missed it, Montreal sent Dustin Hermanson and Steve Kline to St. Louis for Fernando Tatis and Britt Reames.

Tatis, before he got hurt last summer, certainly ranked among the game's best young third baseman, right up there with Troy Glaus and Eric Chavez. Reames is 27, but he started seven games for the Cardinals at the tail end of the 2000 season and posted a 2.88 ERA. If he can stay healthy -- and that's been a problem -- he might be as good as Hermanson, who's supposedly the big prize in this deal. Last year, Hermanson went 12-14 with a 4.77 ERA, and what's really worrisome are his strikeouts and walks: 75 walks and only 94 strikeouts in 198 innings.

The only way this deal makes sense, to me at least, is if Tatis is carrying some serious baggage. And maybe he does. After all, we're talking about a young, immensely talented hitter who's now been traded twice in three years. There's talk that he doesn't spent a lot of time staying in shape -- Tony La Russa was reportedly especially unhappy with the way Tatis returned from his midseason groin injury.

This one looks like a bad deal for the Cards, but even more so than with most deals, I think we should reserve judgment. There are enough variables that it might be a year or two before we know who really "won" this trade.

About last Monday's column, I have to admit that I was too harsh in my appraisal of Mark Grace. If you crunch the numbers, and if you believe that Wrigley Field really was a great pitcher's park last year (rather than simply producing numbers that made it look that way), then you can quite reasonably argue that Grace was the 11th- or 12th-best everyday first baseman in the majors (among 24 such beasts).

While it's true that Grace's .429 slugging percentage was lousy for a first (or third) baseman, he did post an excellent .394 on-base percentage. Also, he grounded into only seven double plays. And it's a small thing, but Grace struck out only 28 times (Gerry Myerson points out that Grace is the first player to total more than 90 walks and fewer than 30 strikeouts in a season since Jim Gilliam in 1960). To tell you the truth, I still don't quite understand how a first baseman who slugged .429 could possibly have helped his team much, but I'm not prepared to argue with the analysts. Mark Grace was a damn-good ballplayer last season.

However, I still think the Diamondbacks were stupid to sign him. True, it's only $6 million (over two years), but that's $6 million that could have been spent elsewhere, because the organization was already loaded with quality first basemen. Remember, this is a franchise that's been losing money like Al Gore loses court cases, a franchise that recently laid off a bunch of employees. Grace does, indeed, deserve a regular job in 2001. Hell, he might even be a huge bargain at $3 million per season. He's just with the wrong team.

Next, I'd like to discuss a recent column written by The Washington Post's Thomas Boswell, because a number of readers have forwarded it to me, along with various measures of amusement, bewilderment, and disgust. As reader Scott Anderson says, "I've got a lot of respect for Boswell, but the tone of this article is that Mike Sweeney is as good a player as A-Rod (just look at the Average and RBI!!!). While we may argue over what A-Rod is "worth," it seems close to incontrovertible that he should be offered the best contract in baseball."

I've got a lot of respect for Boswell, too. He was, in the 1970s and '80s, probably one of the two best baseball writers around (the other being Roger Angell). Now, though, I'm afraid he might have gone around the bend.

Here's how Boswell opened the column in question:

The Texas Rangers just made what may be the most stupid decision in the history of American professional sport. They just gave a 10-year contract for $252 million to Brian Giles. Or Richard Hidalgo. Or Mike Sweeney.

Actually, they gave it to Alex Rodriguez -- who last season had offensive numbers that were virtually identical to this trio of obscure players.

Okay, that's not quite fair. Rodriguez definitely wasn't as good as Hidalgo, who slugged .636 with 44 homers. But then who watches the Astros? If Giles had played in a decent lineup, not Pittsburgh's, he'd probably have edged Rodriguez in the major stat categories, too. Actually, Sweeney's 144 RBI and .333 batting average also left Rodriguez in the dust. But if you're a Royal, you're not royalty.

Boswell's a lot smarter than this, or at least he used to be. Rodriguez definitely not as good as Hidalgo? Ridiculous. Sweeney "left Rodriguez in the dust"? Preposterous.

I don't suppose that Boswell reads my column, but just in case ... Look, Tom. You have been championing, for many years, a statistic called Total Average. It's not perfect, but TA does a pretty good job of measuring a player's offensive contributions. As you know, essentially it adds up all the bases a player gains (in the form of hits, walks, HBP and steals), and divides them by the number of outs he makes.

Here are the 2000 Total Averages for the aforementioned four players:

Rodriguez  1.155
Giles      1.153 
Hidalgo    1.092
Sweeney     .963

Tom, I believe that you've just been hoisted upon your own petard. Rodriguez tops all three of his supposed superiors ... and we haven't even begun to discuss park effects. After a season-and-a-half, it's fairly safe to say that Safeco Field is the best pitcher's park in the American League. Meanwhile, Hidalgo and Sweeney both play in excellent hitter's parks (Giles' home park has been essentially neutral). If you make the ballpark adjustments, Alex was clearly one of the top five hitters in the American League last year, per plate appearance.

Like I said, Tom, you're smart enough to understand all of this. You're also smart enough to understand that Rodriguez is particularly valuable because he plays shortstop. Remember when I said that Alex was one of the AL's five best hitters? The other four were Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez. Four 1B/DH types. Yet you wrote, "A-Rod isn't exactly light years ahead of Miguel Tejada, a magician at shortstop who hit 30 homers with 115 RBI last season in Oakland."

Miguel Tejada, Tom? Miguel Tejada? Last season, Miguel Tejada posted the best numbers, by far, of his career. An .807 Total Average. Thirty percent lower than Rodriguez's.

Like I said, Tom, you're smarter than this. At least, I hope you are. Frankly, I think that perhaps you've been blinded by your love for the game. You grew up in the 1950s and '60s, and you're offended by all the zeroes on A-Rod's and M-Ram's contracts. You might even be a little depressed right now, because you think this game that you've loved so much, for so long, has taken yet another big step in the wrong direction.

And you know what, Tom? I feel your pain, brother. For a few years now, I've assumed that my occasional blue periods during the winter months are due to the dearth of sunlight in Seattle, and the dearth of box scores in the newspapers. But now I think maybe there's something else going on, too. My favorite baseball team cannot, or does not want, to compete with the big boys. So the winter contains no good news for this Royals fan, none at all. And not only is there no good news, there's loads and loads of bad news. Because every time the ante gets raised with huge new contracts, it becomes that much less likely that the Royals will be able to keep Johnny Damon, or Mike Sweeney, or Jermaine Dye, or anyone else worth a bucket of warm spit.

Does that mean that "baseball" is going to hell in a handbasket? No, it just means that my team is going to hell in a handbasket. In the summertime, I can forget about baseball's economics, because watching a particular game is about as enjoyable as ever. The Royals can beat the Yankees on a given night. They don't beat them very often -- just twice last year -- but they can beat them. In the winter, though, there are no games. Just numbers. Big numbers on big contracts for big players.

So Tom, I can understand why you're a little cranky, maybe even a little depressed. But frankly, that's no excuse for taking complete leave of your senses.

In the wake of The Big Story, an interested (and somewhat biased) party e-mailed me, "I can't think of any team in baseball history that had three guys like A-Rod, Junior, and Johnson (not to mention Edgar in his prime), yet failed to win anything substantial. Who/what is to blame?"

As soon as I read this, one team came to mind: the late-1960s Chicago Cubs. For the sake of argument, let us assume that both Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson will someday be elected to the Hall of Fame, but Edgar Martinez will fall short. So looking at the two teams, we see that both feature a Hall of Fame shortstop (Rodriguez and Ernie Banks), a Hall of Fame outfielder (Griffey and Billy Williams), a Hall of Fame pitcher (Johnson and Fergie Jenkins), and one more great player who perhaps lacked the career length to merit enshrinement (Martinez and Ron Santo).

The Mariner quartet was together for the better part of three years, the Cubs for about three.

Alex Rodriguez first joined Martinez, Griffey and Johnson in 1994, but he didn't become a regular until 1996. Johnson left Seattle four months into the 1998 campaign.

Ferguson Jenkins joined Banks, Santo and Williams in 1966, but he didn't become a full-time starter until 1967. Banks' last season as a regular was 1969.

Here's how the two teams fared in the periods in question:

                  W-L     Pct   Postseason
Cubs, 1967-69   263-222  .542       0-0
M's, 1996-98    223-208  .517       1-3

(Seattle's three-year record includes only games through July 31, 1998, the date on which Johnson was traded to Houston.)

As you can see, the records are not dissimilar. The Cubs didn't manage a single postseason appearance -- I have a book about this team, and it's subtitled "The Best Team That Didn't Win" -- while the M's reached the postseason once, bowing in the 1997 Division Series to the Orioles.

There's one big problem with this comparison, though: the players in question are not truly comparable. Johnson was more dominating than Jenkins, at least in 1997 and '98. More to the point, by 1967, Ernie Banks wasn't playing shortstop any more. He was a first baseman, and had some power but rarely reached base and couldn't run. Hardly Alex Rodriguez. What's more, Billy Williams wasn't as good as Ken Griffey, and Santo wasn't the hitter that Martinez was.

We can look at this a bit more systematically, by using a pair of metrics called Total Player Rating (TPR) and Total Pitcher Index (TPI), as featured in Total Baseball, the No. 1 baseball encyclopedia. Both TPR and TPI attempt to measure a player's contribution to his team, in terms of victories contributed above a league-average player at his position. The numbers below represent the combined TPR and TPI of the four superstars on each team.

         Cubs   M's
Year 1   11.5  15.6  
Year 2    7.0  19.3
Year 3    4.5  14.8
Totals   23.0  49.7

You might not completely believe in the method, but the huge difference here cannot be chalked up to method alone. Seattle's Big Four was simply more effective, much more effective, than the Cubs quartet.

And the M's played just four postseason games. Except ... except that's not nearly so bad as it sounds. For one thing, we've been counting 1996 as a year when Johnson, Rodriguez, Griffey and Martinez were together. But Johnson started only eight games that season, due to a herniated disk. Seattle won 85 games in '96, and finished 4½ behind the first-place Rangers. If Johnson had started 30 games rather than eight, would the M's have won five more, and the AL West title? We'll never know, but considering how bad Johnson's replacements were that year, it's quite likely.

In 1998, Johnson didn't want to be in Seattle, and went just 9-10 before finally getting traded. So it's really just one season, and not three, that the Mariners had their four best players together. And in that one season, 1997, they won 90 games. Not a lot, but enough for the third-best record in the league and a division title.

The point being, sometimes bad things happen to good teams. The Mariners did reach the postseason in 1997, but were eliminated in the first round ... as were the New York Yankees that same October. The M's next reached the postseason in 2000 ... but without Johnson or Griffey. Would they have reached the playoffs with Johnson and Griffey?

Of course, it's impossible to know, but they probably would have. In exchange for Johnson, the Mariners received pitchers Freddy Garcia and John Halama, and infielder Carlos Guillen. In exchange for Griffey, the Mariners received center fielder Mike Cameron and pitcher Brett Tomko (and a minor leaguer).

Last season, Garcia and Halama combined for 23 wins, 14 losses and a 4.63 ERA (in a great pitcher's park). Johnson went 19-7 with a 2.64 ERA. I'm guessing that most general managers would prefer Johnson over Garcia and Halama.

As for Guillen, he spent part of the season in the minors, and posted poor hitting statistics while playing mostly third base. Cameron played well in center field, but not nearly as well as Griffey did. You can talk about chemistry all you like, but if the Mariners still had Junior and The Big Unit last season, they might well have won 95 games rather than 91 ... and maybe, just maybe, they'd have beaten the Yankees, too.

That's all pie in the sky, of course. They didn't beat the Orioles in 1997 (Johnson lost twice), and who knows? Maybe if they still had all their stars in 2000, they wouldn't have reached the postseason at all. My point here is that Fate is a fickle mistress, and but for a few inches here or there, the Mariners might well have advanced to the ALCS, and possibly the World Series. In which case we wouldn't even be having this conversation.

And there's another way of framing the question, too. While the Mariners might represent the best three-year collection of talent that didn't make a name for itself, what about collections of greater duration? Anchored by Warren Spahn, Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews -- top-tier Hall of Famers all -- the Milwaukee Braves won National League pennants in 1957 and '58. But then came a five-year drought, five years during which all three were at or near the top of their games. Bill James has written of that era's National League, "Between 1956 and 1961, they had the Braves, and that's it. The Braves should have been winning 100 games a year."

Instead, from 1959 through '61 the Braves averaged 86 wins per year, and didn't reach the postseason in any of those three seasons. Then they won 86 games in 1962, and 84 games in 1963. It's an amazingly consistent record, actually. Beginning in 1959, the Braves' victory totals were: 86, 88, 83, 86, 84.

Or what about the New York Yankees, 1929-1931? Five Hall of Famers in the lineup -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Tony Lazzeri, Earle Combs -- plus a pitching staff that always featured at least two Hall of Famers. And how many pennants did they win?


Yes, they won the World Series in 1928, and again in 1932. But for three straight seasons, the Yankees didn't win anything, and in fact they didn't come close to winning anything. They finished 18 games out of first place in 1929, 16 games out in 1930, and 13½ games out in 1931.

Getting back to the Mariners, and the questions posed at the top of this column, we might ask, "Why didn't the Mariners win?" Well, as I've said, they didn't win in 1996, in large part, because Randy Johnson spent most of the season on the DL. But the lack of a Big Unit wasn't the only problem. The M's scored 993 runs, but racked up a 5.21 ERA, with four of their five starters posting ERAs of 5.30 or higher. In 1997, the M's won a division title. And in 1998, they lost because Johnson wasn't himself, and the relief pitching was, with the exception of Mike Timlin, generally execrable.

But again -- and I'm sorry to keep stressing this, but it's important -- we're only talking about three seasons. And in only one of those were the best players available for the entire season.

What does the future hold for the Mariners? It's far, far too early to count them out in 2001. The Rangers are anything but assured of winning anything next season. They lost 91 games last season, and adding Alex Rodriguez and a couple of old, broken-down sluggers doesn't make the Rangers automatic contenders. Once again, the West should be a fight between Seattle and Oakland. At this moment, the A's have to be favored. But if the M's add an outfielder/leadoff man and a slugging third baseman, as Pat Gillick still hopes to do, then there's no reason they can't win 90 or more games again.

And remember, the Seattle-area media market is the 12th-biggest in the country and growing fast, plus they've got a sweetheart deal in a sweetheart stadium.

In other words, don't cry for the Mariners. Given competent management, they'll be just fine without the $252 Million Man.

Let's open today's effort with a missive from a reader ...


    Many of the articles on the Rockies' signings of Denny Neagle and Mike Hampton suggest that pitching in Colorado is some sort of professional suicide on the part of the two pitchers. But isn't it equally difficult to pitch in Coors Field for the visiting pitchers, and therefore there should be no difference in these pitchers' chances to win at Coors? Of course, their ERAs will rise, but most baseball writers like to focus on the win column anyway. What do you think the prospects are for these two pitchers in Colorado?

    Bryan Wilk

I nominate the Rockies as baseball's most interesting team, and I'm going to have plenty more to write about them this winter. But today, let's focus on the narrow issues raised in Bryan's letter. He's right about one thing: it's equally difficult for the pitchers on both teams, or nearly enough for this discussion. However, I do believe that it's still more difficult for starters to win in Colorado. The math is fairly simple. You're going to give up more hits, more walks, and more runs at Coors Field. You're also going to throw more pitches, which means that even if your manager is tolerant when you've allowed six runs in five innings, your pitch count might mean leaving the game an inning earlier than you'd like.

What happens when a starter leaves a game in, say, the sixth inning? The bullpen takes over. And every time a reliever comes in, that's one more chance for a blown lead/save. This is an empirical question, of course, but in lieu of empiricism, I would guess that the hazards of pitching in Coors Field might cost a starting pitcher somewhere on the order of one victory per season. This does not, I hasten to add, consider any "intangible" factors. Could a pitcher's confidence be so shaken that he can't pitch anywhere? Sure, it's possible. Darryl Kile, who's a pretty good pitcher, went 21-30 in his two seasons with the Rockies, and he compiled that sterling record on merit.

So are Neagle and Hampton committing "professional suicide?" I'm not exactly sure what that means. Neither of them will ever have to worry about being able to afford the latest in bass-fishing technology. But will they enjoy their lives at Coors Field? It's easy for them to say that all they care about is winning, but I suspect a run of five-plus ERAs might become tiresome, unless those ERAs are accompanied by plenty of postseason action. I worry about Neagle, especially. He gives up a lot of fly balls, and while nobody's come up with the ideal mile-high pitcher, I'm guessing that fly balls aren't part of the equation.

  • Now, I could spend the rest of this week ripping various teams for silly free-agent signings, but I'm hoping to restrain myself, and get all that out of my system today.

    Let's start with the Diamondbacks, who have spent the last few months crying poor, then went out and wasted -- wasted, I tell you! -- $6 million on Mark Grace.

    In 2000, Grace was very close to being the worst everyday first baseman in the majors. In his defense, Grace said, "I'm not going to use injuries as an excuse. The .280 and 80-something RBIs, that's unacceptable to me. But Wrigley Field is a tough place to hit and I won't have to wear batting gloves in April and May here."

    You know what? I don't blame Grace for that self-serving statement. For one thing, Wrigley did play as an extreme pitcher's park last season (I'm guessing the weather was particularly bad). And for another, I don't expect a baseball player to be objective about such things.

    However, I do blame Diamondbacks GM Joe Garagiola Jr. for the following foolishness: "Wrigley Field is perceived as a small ballpark. But when you get on the field, it's really not. I think Mark is going to like our friendly confines."

    Fine. But the fact remains that Grace's OPS over the last five seasons is 75 points higher at home (896 vs. 821), and Wrigley will, over a number of years, favor the hitters (though perhaps not quite as much as Bank One Ballpark does). The point being, Grace is one the game's least-productive everyday first basemen, and all the monkeying around with faux facts isn't going to change that.

    The Diamondbacks could, with players already under contract, have put together a productive platoon at first base. Erubiel Durazo (.510 career slugging percentage) against right-handers, Greg Colbrunn (.522 slugging percentage over the last two seasons) against left-handers. It's quite likely that either of those two could hit better than Grace, but the combination would almost certainly be more productive than Grace.

    Instead, Durazo and Colbrunn will help give the Diamondbacks one of the game's best benches, unless some other club is smart enough to trade for one of them.

    Ah, but perhaps it's not production that the Diamondbacks are after, anyway. As Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo said of Grace, "He's one of the best clutch hitters in baseball, a perennial .300 hitter. He's a pro's pro."

    Ah, so it's veteran leadership they're after? Funny, I would have figured that Matt Williams, Jay Bell, Steve Finley and Curt Schilling already had that pretty well covered.

    The Diamondbacks are not going to drop off the face of the earth. Their pitching is too good for that. But this could be a truly horrible team in two or three years. And if you think attendance slumps when they're winning, just wait and see how empty the BOB gets when they're losing.

    Lest you think I'm capable only of negativity ... kudos to the Cubs! They've got two young first basemen who can play, and letting Grace go is a great move. Right now, Julio Zuleta is better than Grace. And within a year, super-prospect Hee Seop Choi will be ready to take over. In fact, even with Grace gone, by next September the Cubs will probably have a surplus of quality first basemen, and can turn one of them into a young pitcher. The Cubs aren't ready to win yet, but they're actually making some positive moves in that direction.

  • And then you have your Pittsburgh Pirates. Actually, if they're really your Pirates, I feel sorry for you. Because this weekend, Pittsburgh GM Cam Bonifay threw away nearly $10 million on Derek Bell, who shouldn't play more than a couple of times a week. It's as if Bonifay is competing with Phillies GM Ed Wade for the title of Dumbest Man in Pennsylvania (Bonifay's in the lead, but Wade hopes to go back ahead by signing Ricky Blowttalico).

    Approximately a year ago, the New York Metropolitans traded for Bell, who had been a millstone around the Astros' collective neck in 1999. Why, I asked, would the Mets -- who had a lousy outfield -- want to add a lousy outfielder? In fact, I boldly predicted that the Mets' now-lousier outfield would keep them from making the playoffs. About that, of course, I was mistaken. But I wasn't wrong about Bell. After an amazing April -- and you should have seen all the e-mail I received from wild-eyed Mets/Bell fans that month -- Bell did what he always does. He finished the season with a 773 OPS, and anything below 800 is simply unacceptable for a major-league right fielder who's paid to play every day.

    To their credit, the Mets didn't attempt to re-sign Bell after the season. Fortunately for him, there are plenty of suckers out there. The Pirates -- who previously have consummated disturbing love affairs with Proven Veterans the likes of Pat Meares, Mike Benjamin, Kevin Young, Luis Sojo and Wil Cordero -- decided that Derek Bell was just what they needed as they move into their new ballpark.

    Here's the thing: You can build your new ballpark, but all the luxury-suite revenue in the world won't make a damn bit of difference if the man running the team makes decisions like a 12-year-old managing his first Rotisserie team.

    Within a few hours of Mike Mussina signing with the New York Yankees, ESPN's Jeremy Schaap opined that the deal "makes the Yankees prohibitive favorites to win their fifth World Series in six years."

    Schaap's a good reporter, but methinks he overstated his case this time. According to my dictionary, "prohibitive" in this context means "So likely to win as to discourage competition."

    Well, consider:

  • Last season, eight teams won more regular-season games than the Yankees.

  • The Yankees finished two-and-a-half games ahead of the second-place Red Sox.

  • If, in the first inning of Game 5 of the Division Series, Oakland's Terrence Long hadn't lost a fly ball in the sun, the Yankees might well have been eliminated before even reaching the ALCS.

    That's not to say the Yankees were not a great team. They won when they had to, and of course that's one of the marks of the great team. But invincible? Hardly. Invincible teams don't leave as many things to chance as the Yankees did in 2000. Actually, the Yankees were merely a good team from April through September, but a great one in October.

    And does the simple addition of Mike Mussina make the Yankees invincible? No, he doesn't. He may well lift them from good to great; but from good to invincible? To "prohibitive favorites" to win yet another World Series? Nope.

    (Before we continue, let me address something before you Yankees fans start sending me nasty e-mail messages ... Some of you, I suspect, would like to argue that the Yankees would have won more games if they'd needed to. After all, that's the mark of a great team, it just does what's necessary. My answer to such silliness, at least this time around, is one simple question: If great teams only win as often as they need to, then why did the Yanks bother winning 114 games in 1998?)

    Yes, if everyone's healthy, the Yankee rotation will be the best in the game ... but then, the Braves featured baseball's best rotation for a few years, and how many World Series did they win? Just the one, in part because they have not, for the most part, been a high-scoring bunch. And I'm afraid the Yankees aren't going to score a lot of runs in 2001, not unless they pick up a serious hitter in the offseason.

    Last season, the Yankees finished sixth in the American League in runs scored. Adjust for the ballparks, and they move to fifth (ahead of Kansas City). Fifth is good, but hardly invincible. To this point, at least, the Yanks have done nothing to upgrade their offense. Yes, they'll have David Justice from the start of the season -- last year, he didn't join the club until late June -- but Justice turns 35 in April, and he's never been the most durable of players. Still, his presence might compensate for the continued aging of Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, and whoever's playing second base. Then again, it might not. If the Yankees slide to seventh or eighth in run production, they might have problems holding off the Red Sox and/or Blue Jays, let alone winning another World Series.

    All that said, I do think that the Yankees should probably be considered, if not prohibitive favorites, certainly most likely winners of the 2001 World Series. But not because of Mussina. Rather, because if July arrives and they're headed for second place, then they'll do whatever it takes to escape such a horrible fate. Look at the Yankees, as they're composed right now. Next, imagine that they've just added a hitter the caliber of David Justice, and a pitcher the caliber of Denny Neagle.

    How long do they stay in second place?

    Now, I'd like to tie up some loose ends from Monday's and Wednesday's columns.

  • Monday, I wrote: "You know who led Major League Baseball in road home runs last season? Sammy Sosa and ..., yep, Alex Rodriguez. Both of them hit 28 homers away from their friendly confines."

    I didn't have an easy way to look this up, so I just checked all the sluggers I could think of. Unfortunately, I didn't think of Houston's Richard Hidalgo, who also hit 28 home runs on the road. What makes this odd, of course, is that Houston's Enron Field seemed quite conducive to home runs last season. There were 266 homers in the Astros' home games (both teams), and 217 in their road games. If you remove Hidalgo's 16 home homers and 28 road homers, the rest of the Astros hitters accounted for 119 homers at Enron, and only 86 on the road.

    Speaking of weird home-road splits, it turns out that Alex Rodriguez was the only Mariner power hitter to suffer such indignities at home. As I noted Monday, Alex hit 28 homers on the road, but only 16 at home. From this, he has drawn the conclusion that the distance from Safeco Field's home plate to Safeco's outfield fences should be shortened, for the good of the game.

    Well, other than Rodriguez, five right-handed-hitting Mariners -- Edgar Martinez (37), Jay Buhner (26), Mike Cameron (19), David Bell (11) and Joe Oliver (10) -- hit at least 10 home runs last season. Those five combined for 54 homers on the road ... and 49 at home. That's not to say that Safeco's a good home run park. It's not. And that's not to say that Alex wasn't hurt by the ballpark. He most certainly was, and not just in the HR column. But he made a particularly poor showing at home last season (relative to his road stats), and if he does come back in 2001, his splits will likely even out a bit.

  • Wednesday, I ridiculed the Phillies for throwing millions of dollars at middle relievers Rheal Cormier and especially Jose Mesa (a.k.a. Joe Table). If I'd done a spot of research, though, I'd have learned that affairs in Philly are even worse than I thought. According to an article written by Philadelphia Daily News writer Paul Hagen, "With John Franco now crossed off his shopping list, general manager Ed Wade conceded yesterday that Mesa would most likely be the team's closer going into spring training."

    "I don't think that type of individual (closer) really exists in the market," Wade said. "We may be at that point. In the conversations we had at the general managers' meetings, there didn't seem to be any closers available. Whether that changes before Opening Day, I don't know."

    Let me see if I understand this, Ed. You don't see any legitimate closers on the market, so you sign a guy who clearly lacks the ability to fill that role, and figure that merely by calling him a closer, he'll become one? This is exactly what the Royals tried to do with former Phillie Ricky Bottalico (a.k.a. Blow-ttalico) last season, and I can tell you from first-hand experience, it doesn't work.

    Last spring, I predicted that the New York Mets would finish in third place.

    Behind the Philadelphia Phillies.

    Who finished last.

    With the worst record in baseball.

    Needless to say, I've made better predictions.

    But let's get into our time machine and return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, in an attempt to justify such a silly prediction. This was a team featuring a rotation that included Curt Schilling and Andy Ashby, and a lineup that included Bob Abreu, Mike Leiberthal, Scott Rolen and, presumably, Pat Burrell at some point in the near future. Also, I figured that the Phillies' shortstop and second baseman couldn't possibly be as bad in 2000 as they'd been in 1999.

    But Schilling opened the season on the DL, and ended it in Arizona. Ashby struggled badly (5.68 ERA) before being dealt to Atlanta. And while Abreu, Lieberthal and Rolen all played well, the rest of the lineup was a vast wasteland of automatic outs. And like I said, the Phillies finished with the worst record -- actually, tied for worst with the Cubs -- in the majors, at 65-97.

    How'd they do it? Here's how the Phillies ranked in three key statistical categories -- runs scored, starters' ERA, and relievers' ERA -- last season:

              NL Rank
    Runs         14
    Sta ERA       7
    Rel ERA      14

    Wow. Even though Ashby didn't pitch well, and Schilling started only 16 games for the Phillies, the club's starters actually didn't fare poorly at all. In fact, the Phillies' starters' 4.39 ERA was a lot closer to the No. 1 team on the list (Atlanta, 4.06) than the No. 12 team on the list (Cubs, 5.29).

    The bullpen, on the other hand, was absolutely horrible, posting the worst ERA in the National League. So last week, the Phillies signed a pair of free-agent relief pitchers, Rheal Cormier and Jose Mesa (or as we call him in Seattle, "Joe Table").

    Cormier's getting $8.75 million for three years.
    Joe Table's getting $6.8 million for two years.

    After signing Cormier and Mesa, Phillies GM Ed Wade had this to say: "We identified these two guys as people that could help us and we tried to be aggressive in signing them. When you lose 97 games, there has to be some sense of urgency."

    Aggressive? After consulting my thesaurus, I'd like to suggest a few other words. Foolish. Asinine. Moronic. Dim-witted. Imbecilic. Silly.

    When you lose 97 games, even more necessary than a "sense of urgency" is some sense. And spending approximately $6.5 million in 2001 on Rheal Cormier and Jose Mesa suggests a serious lack of sense.

    Here are their combined stats from the 1999 and 2000 seasons, which gives us a decent sample size for both:

              IP  Hit  Walk  ERA
    Mesa     149  173   81  5.18
    Cormier  132  135   35  4.17

    Those numbers represent the combined stats for each pitcher, which fairly represents the abilities of each pitcher (notwithstanding the fact that both Mesa and Cormier are getting older rather than younger). Cormier's a pretty good pitcher, Mesa stinks.

    Now I'll cut those numbers in half, so we can get something of an idea of what each might contribute to the Phillies in the 2001 season ...

              IP  Hit  Walk  ERA
    Mesa      74   86   40  5.18
    Cormier   66   67   17  4.17

    Six-point-five-million dollars next year for this? Fifteen-point-five million over the next three years for them?

    In 2000, the Philadelphia Phillies got close to nothing from their center fielder, next to nothing from their first basemen, nothing from their shortstops, and less than nothing from their second basemen.

    At four positions, the Phillies were either the worst, or very close to the worst, in the National League. Now it's early December, and what has Ed Wade done to improve his club? He's spent many millions of dollars on two middle relievers, one of whom can't really pitch.

    This is fairly typical. Losing games because of poor relief pitching is traumatic; astronomically more traumatic than losing because the guys at the bottom of the order went down one-two-three in the bottom of the fifth. But you know, those one-two-three innings are killers, too.

    (The Royals are exhibiting similar symptoms of imbecility. But where the Phillies are ignoring a lousy lineup, the Royals are ignoring a lousy rotation. When Royals GM Allard Baird talks about trading Johnny Damon, he suggests that his club needs quality relievers in return, ignoring the cold truth that Kansas City's starters ranked 13th in the American League in ERA last season.)

    Hey, maybe Ed Wade is going to flit around the winter meetings this weekend, signing good hitters left and right. But whatever he does, he's going to have a lot less money to do it with.

    Just as Al Gore cherry picks counties, I'm going to cherry pick my subjects, since I can't cover everything that's happened in the two weeks since my last column ...

    As you might have read, Alex Rodriguez recently "wrote" of the fences at Safeco Field, "With or without me, they have to bring them in substantially -- to make the game better at Safeco. I couldn't care less either way, but it's not good for baseball. Our numbers don't lie. We were under 100 home runs at home and our home run production was terrible at home."

    That's a news story, of course, because it's not hard to leap to the conclusion that Alex did not re-sign with the Mariners because the M's would not cozy up the ballpark a bit. To that conclusion, I say, "So what?" It's his career, and if he'd rather play in a building that helps his stats, who are we to judge? You know who led Major League Baseball in road home runs last season? Sammy Sosa and ... yep, Alex Rodriguez. Both of them hit 28 homers away from their friendly confines.

    But at home, Rodriguez hit just 13 home runs. It's easy for you and I, sitting in our cushy office chairs or on our overstuffed couches, to say that Alex shouldn't care about his personal statistics, especially when he's making a ton of dough and his team is winning. Once you get on the field, though, you want to have fun, and it's a hell of a lot more fun to see a ball fly over the fence than into the left fielder's glove.

    No, what's interesting about Alex's web writings is that it points out, yet again, just how little baseball players actually understand the game, once you get beyond the actual things they do on the field. Or at least, that's my theory. Ask yourself, why would playing in a pitcher's park be detrimental to the Mariners' chances? In fact, while it's true that they scored fewer runs at home, it's also true that they allowed fewer runs at home. The Mariners won 47 home games last year; only one American League team (the Indians) won more (48).

    So when Alex talks about things being "good for baseball," what does he mean? I have no idea. But might he be suggesting that playing in a hitter's park would be good for the Mariners? Is such a thing even possible?

    I do have an affirmative answer to that question, but here's a hypothesis for why playing in a pitcher's park might be good for a team. Quite simply, I believe that pitcher's parks are good for pitchers. Perhaps that's self-evident, but I'm not just talking about lower ERAs.

    That's part of it, though. One can argue, and convincingly I think, that it's easier to develop pitchers in a pitcher-friendly environment, because it's generally easier to build on success than on failure. I think. That goes a fair piece toward explaining why the Rockies have not, in eight seasons, developed even one single quality starting pitcher.

    On a more concrete level (perhaps), there's the matter of one's bullpen. Hitter's parks result in baserunners. Baserunners result in runs. Runs result in managers trudging to the mound and removing pitchers. And removing pitchers results in relievers.

    Use a bunch of relievers, and two things can happen. One, you tire out your bullpen. Or two, you employ an extra reliever. Neither of these things are good. If your bullpen is tired, it will be less effective and/or less available for the next game, and you might even be inclined to leave your starter in the game longer than you'd like. If you employ another reliever -- some clubs have 12-man pitching staffs these days -- that's one less hitter available in the late innings of a close game.

    All in all, sounds like a pretty lousy bargain.

    Ah, but there must be an advantage to having a hitter's park, right? Off the top of my head, there are two possible advantages.

    Number One: Fans like offense better than defense.
    With the exception of Pedro Martinez and Fernando Valenzuela, I think this is true. But I think that fans like winning even more than offense.

    Number Two: Free-agent hitters like hitter's parks.
    This is what it's all about, right? It's real tough to win a pennant unless you can score (just ask the Red Sox). And it's real tough to score if you don't have quality hitters in your lineup. Quality hitters essentially can be acquired by one of two ways; you can develop them, or you can sign them.

    Wait, I know what some of you are thinking. ... "Hold on there, buddy. If it's easier for pitchers to develop in pitcher's parks, then isn't it also easier for hitters to develop in hitter's parks?"

    My answer is, "Maybe. But not to the same degree." And I offer that answer with absolutely no evidence (though I'm more than happy to accept any that you care to send my way).

    As for signing them, well, of course that's where young Mr. Rodriguez re-enters our story. Baseball players have a lot of choices these days; in fact, some might suggest that the players practically run the game. In some ways, they do. Just think: Alex Rodriguez is 25 years old, and he is free to choose any baseball team in the world as his next employer. And if he chooses with thoughts of his investment portfolio, he's going to be unbelievably wealthy, so wealthy that if he plays his cards right, he might purchase his own baseball team someday. Or his own space station.

    Unfortunately, if your ballpark is not a happy place for hitters like Alex Rodriguez, then hitters like Alex Rodriguez probably won't sign a contract with you. And indeed, this might leave the Mariners at a long-term disadvantage. No matter how much money they might have, if they don't develop their own hitters (which they haven't lately) and they can't sign free agents, then they're going to have problems scoring runs.

    So perhaps this whole pitcher's-park-versus-hitter's-park boils down to what the rest of baseball boils down to: money. If, like Seattle, you can afford to go after the big boppers, then maybe you should consider making sure your ballpark is friendly to them.

    On the other hand, if you're the Oakland Athletics, and you can't afford to sign the big-money hitters anyway, then there's absolutely no reason to cater to them. In fact, I think the Tigers are taking the correct tack, both in building a pitcher's park and resisting the temptation to bring the fences in for Juan Gonzalez.

    I've gone somewhat far afield, perhaps, from the original thread, so let me summarize, and add an extra thought or two.

    Are pitcher's parks bad for baseball? Perhaps, because eventually fans might tire of pitchers' duels. But only if the game is saturated with them, and we're not in much danger of that, not in our lifetimes.

    Is a pitcher's park bad for the Mariners? Gosh, I sure don't think so. In their first full season in Safeco Field, the M's set a franchise record with 91 victories.

    Does Alex Rodriguez, as talented and level-headed as he seems to be, have even the faintest idea what's best for either baseball or the Mariners? No, he does not.

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