Top 111 Free Agents: Nos. 70-51

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This is part three in a series of columns looking at this winter’s free agent class. I’m listing each player along with his age, as of next April 1, and his place in the previous edition of these rankings from May.
Nos. 111-91
Nos. 90-71
70. Jason Varitek* (37) – Prev. #66 – He’s struggled mightily as a part-timer, but before the Victor Martinez acquisition resulted in a reduced role, Varitek was hitting .236/.345/.453 through four months, making him one of the game’s top 10 catchers. The bigger issue than his offense is his poor arm. Still, there’s so much respect for his game-calling abilities that he’ll likely be pursued as a starter if he opts to depart. The Red Sox figure to decline their $5 million, leaving Varitek with a $3 million player option to return as a part-timer.
69. LaTroy Hawkins (37) – Prev. #67 – There doesn’t figure to be any demand from AL teams, but several NL teams will see about bringing in Hawkins as a setup man. He has a 2.31 ERA in 58 1/3 innings for Houston, and while he’s failed miserably as a closer before, he was surprisingly effective while filling in for Jose Valverde earlier this season.
68. Pedro Feliz* (34) – Prev. #68 – By month, Feliz has posted OPSs of 872, 745, 712, 663, 631 and now 549. His $5 million option looked rather reasonable at the All-Star break, but the Phillies may want to look elsewhere if he turns in another poor postseason.
67. Andruw Jones (32) – Prev. #84 – It’s anyone’s guess what kind of season Jones would have had if he found a team willing to play him regularly. He had a 1304 OPS in 32 at-bats during April and he slammed eight homers in 67 at-bats during July, but he was never an everyday player at any point and, possibly as a result, he’s been terribly inconsistent. Of course, with the way his body has let him down, he might not have managed more than one or two good months as a regular anyway. If Jones can still play an adequate center field or an above average left or right, then he might have another two or three years left as a solid regular. He figures to come rather cheap, so it should be worth finding out.
66. Justin Duchscherer (32) – Prev. #37 – Working as a starter for the first time, Duchscherer went 10-8 with a 2.54 ERA in two-thirds of a season in 2008. This year, he got shut down with elbow woes in spring training, underwent surgery and then halted his comeback in August because of depression. He’s likely in line for an incentive-laden one-year deal.
65. Orlando Cabrera (35) – Prev. #39 – Cabrera’s stock seemed to be on the way back up thanks to his performance in his last weeks with Oakland, but he’s hit just .244/.277/.369 in 45 games for the Twins, leaving him at .269/.306/.366 for the year. His defensive numbers are also well off this year. He’ll get a modest one-year deal and a starting job initially, but he can’t expect his new team to be as patient with him as a the A’s were this year.
64. John Smoltz (42) – Prev. #74 – Too many weren’t willing to overlook the numbers, but it should have been clear that Smoltz had something left even while stinking up the joint for the Red Sox. He’s posted a 3.21 ERA and a 32/4 K/BB ratio in five starts since joining the Cardinals, though it is worth noting that he did miss a turn because of his troublesome shoulder. The current guess is that Smoltz will return for another year in 2010, and if that happens, it will almost certainly be with an NL team. The Cards figure to invite him back.
63. Octavio Dotel (36) – Prev. #59 – Dotel hasn’t been a dominant setup man in Chicago, but he has been a healthy one while striking out 165 batters in 126 2/3 innings over the last two years. That will make him a candidate for another multiyear deal this winter.
62. Braden Looper* (35) – Prev. #57 – Looper has given the Brewers their money’s worth while going 13-6 this year, but he does have a 4.89 ERA that makes him quite a question mark at $6.5 million for 2010. Then again, he was never likely to play under the option anyway. If the Brewers exercise it, he’d sill be able to void the deal and become a free agent.
61. Jim Thome (39) – Prev. #46 – Thome hit .249/.372/.493 with 23 homers in 345 at-bats as a DH for the White Sox to match his 2008 production nearly exactly. Now he’s serving as a pinch-hitter for the Dodgers, but that’s strictly a short-term role. If Thome wants to play in 2010, he should be able to land another DH gig.
60. Kevin Gregg (31) – Prev. #53 – Gregg’s WHIP is right at his career norm and his strikeout rate is a bit better than usual this year, but yielding 13 homers has pushed his ERA up to 4.72 and cost him his job as the Cubs’ closer. He always made more sense as a setup man anyway, and since he’s proven quite durable, he might be a nice investment after the off year.
59. Xavier Nady (31) – Prev. #41 – Could the elbow injury have been best for both the team and the player? If Nady didn’t get hurt, it might have taken a couple of months for Joe Girardi to see that Nick Swisher was clearly the Yankees’ best option in right field. And because Nady did get hurt, he’ll head into free agency still largely being judged on his career-best 2008 season, rather than as a player who almost surely would have lost his job to Swisher. Nady should be ready to go in 2010 after Tommy John surgery. He’s in line for a one-year deal, but he’ll be looked at as a starter.
58. Akinori Iwamura* (31) – Prev. NR – Iwamura wasn’t included in this list the first time around because his $4.25 million option seemed like a lock to be picked up. Of course, that was before he blew out his knee and watched as Ben Zobrist excelled in his place. Iwamura went on to pull off a surprisingly quick return, and he’s back playing frequently now with Zobrist patrolling the outfield. He’s hitting .295/.358/.391, putting him right at his career line. The Rays, though, are pinching pennies, so they still might trade or release him this winter.
57. John Grabow (32) – Prev. #62 – Besides Billy Wagner and Mike Gonzalez — both of whom could be pursued as closers — Grabow will be the top lefty reliever available. He’s gone most of his career without much of a platoon split, but he’s limited left-handed hitters to a .216 average and one homer this season. His ERA stands at 2.29 since the Cubs picked him up and 3.09 overall. The Cubs figure to make a strong bid to retain him.
56. Aubrey Huff (33) – Prev. #18 – Huff’s usual pattern is to start slow and heat up — April and May are easily his worst months — but the opposite has happened this year. He hit .189 in July and .191 in August, collecting just three homers between the two months, and he’s currently sitting at .245/.309/.393 for the year. Another three-year contract worth in excess of $20 million seemed reasonable when these rankings were originally compiled in May. Now he seems like a lock for a one-year deal.
55. Randy Winn (35) – Prev. #33 – Winn is going to regret not working out a contract extension with the Giants last winter. He’s an elite defender in an outfield corner and an excellent baserunner, but he’s hitting just .263/.320/.358 line in 509 at-bats and now that he’s squarely in his mid-30s, he can’t be counted on to bounce back. Ideally, he’d settle into a role as one of the game’s best fourth outfielders for a couple of years. However, it’s likely that someone out there will see him as a starter.
54. Pedro Martinez (38) – Prev. NR – There are a lot of teams looking foolish for not giving Martinez the $5 million or so that he demanded last winter. If he wants to come back in 2010, there should be much greater demand for his services. He could always choose to exit on a high note if the Phillies win another World Series.
53. Russell Branyan (34) – Prev. #86 – Branyan finally found a team that believed him, and he rewarded the Mariners in a big way by hitting .303/.400/.606 for three months. Unfortunately, he’s come in at .193/.274/.414 since the All-Star break and back problems forced him to the DL at the end of August. In a way, he might have done the Mariners another favor. Now, he should be re-signable for something like $5 million-$6 million for a year. If he had carried on, Seattle still would have finished out of contention and probably would have had to offer up a multiyear deal to bring him back.
52. Freddy Sanchez* (32) – Prev. #40 – When the Giants picked him up from the Pirates at the trade deadline, expectations were that Sanchez’s $8.5 million option for 2010 would vest based on plate appearances. However, he’ll come up well short now after missing three weeks. The Giants figure to use the opportunity to negotiate to bring him back at a lesser price. Sanchez is a fine second baseman when healthy, but given his injury history and skill set, he probably doesn’t have many quality years left.
51. Vicente Padilla (32) – Prev. #55 – Padilla’s $12 million option is no longer in play since the Rangers released him. Now back in the NL, he’s gone 3-0 with a 2.96 ERA in five starts for the Dodgers. Given his performance and age, Padilla deserves to be ranked at least 10 spots higher here. However, teams will be wary of offering him a multiyear deal because of his attitude and his, well, let’s just call them conditioning issues.

There is no need to lament the loss of “The Great Hollywood Baseball Movie”

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Today in the New York Times Jay Caspian Kang writes about what he calls the loss of “The Great Hollywood Baseball Movie.” About how there are few if any big baseball movies anymore. Movies which traffic in baseball-as-metaphor-for-America with Jimmy Stewart (or Kevin Costner)-types playing characters which seem to transcend time, elevate our emotions and rack up the dollars at the box office.

It’s a bit of meandering column, with just as much time spent on Kang’s seeming dissatisfaction with modern baseball and baseball telecasts as his dissatisfaction with baseball cinema, but he winds it up with this, which sums his argument up well enough:

Baseball’s cinematic vision of Middle America no longer means what it once did. The failing family enterprise and the old, forbearing white — or Negro Leagues — ballplayer now remind us of an extinct vision of the country and the growing distance between Middle America and the coasts. The attempts to update the archival, sun-kissed, Midwestern vision — whether on last year’s “Pitch,” the Fox TV show about a woman pitching in the majors, or “Million Dollar Arm,” the 2014 Disney movie in which Jon Hamm goes to India to convert cricket bowlers into pitchers — are canceled or bomb at the box office.

You won’t be surprised that I take a great deal of issue with all of this.

Mostly because it only talks about one specific kind of baseball movie being AWOL from cinemas: the broad works which appeal to the masses and which speak to both the past, present and future, often with a hazy nostalgia in which love of baseball and love of America are portrayed as one and the same.

It’s worth noting, though, that such films are extraordinarily rare. There was a brief time when such things existed and did well at the box office — the 1980s had “The Natural,” “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “Major League” in a relatively short period of time — but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Baseball movies are almost always niche flicks. Biopics made of recently deceased stars like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Weird slices of life like “The Bad News Bears” or “The Sandlot.” Quirky comedies that are baseball offshoots of larger cinematic trends like “Little Big League,” which was just the latest in a series of “kids doing adult things” movies popular at the time. Or “Rookie of the Year” which is essentially baseball’s version of one of those body-switch movies that come and go. Or “Mr. Baseball” which was just a fish-out-of-water comedy like any other.

We still get those kinds of smaller baseball movies fairly often. They’re still pretty decent and still do pretty decently at the box office, even if they’re no one’s idea of a blockbuster.

“Moneyball” was done well and did well, not as a mass appeal movie, but as one of many business/Silicon Valley flicks that have popped over the past few years. “Sugar” was a great movie, but a small movie, exploring a culture about which most people aren’t aware and basically serving as a character study. “42” is just an updated (and much better) version of those old biopics of baseball stars. “Everybody Wants Some” may be the quintessential niche baseball movie in that it’s a story about characters which just happen to have a lot of baseball in their lives. “Bull Durham” was like that too, but it just came along at the right time to become a massive hit. As many have noted, baseball was more background than plot in that movie, even if the background was amazingly well done. I’d argue that most good baseball movies use baseball like that rather than put it squarely in the foreground.

There will likely always be baseball movies, but they will almost always be smaller ones, not large blockbusters or Oscar bait with an epic sweep. Most baseball movies are like baseball itself in that they lack a grand consensus. Baseball is not The National Pastime anymore — it’s just one of many forms of sports and entertainment available to the masses — so it follows that the movies which deal with it will likewise not have that massive cross-market appeal.

I think that’s a good thing. Smaller baseball movies more accurately reflect the sport’s place in the culture. To portray baseball as something larger than what it actually is opens the door to a lot of artistic and cultural dishonesty and runs the risk of creating some really bad art.

I mean, have you seen “Field of Dreams?” Bleech.

The Yankees set up “The Judge’s Chambers” cheering section for Aaron Judge

New York Yankees
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The Yankees aren’t well-known for going all-in on goofy, fan-friendly fun. While some organizations are happy to jump on new and even silly or ephemeral trends for the yuks of it, the Yankees have tended to keep things rather businesslike when it comes to promotions and things. They’ve always played the long game, assuming — not always unreasonably — that their brand is best defined by the club’s history and greatness and quiet dignity and stuff.

Aaron Judge and his breakout rookie season is changing things. His fast start has caused fans to dress up in judge’s robes and stuff, so the team is having fun with it. They’ve set up a special section called “The Judge’s Chambers,” complete with a jury box vibe:

 

Fans will be selected to sit in the special section, which is in section 104 in right field, right behind where Judge plays, and will be handed foam gavels with “All Rise” written on them. To be selected at the moment it’d help if you wear one of those judicial robes with Judge’s number 99 on the back or his jersey or an English judge-style powdered wig. Going forward, the Yankees will also use the section for groups and charity events and stuff.

Judge is on a 58-homer pace right now. It’s unlikely he’ll keep that up, but he certainly looks like the real deal. And, for the Yankees and their fans, he’s giving them the chance for some real fun.