Forget the ‘one great player’ structure for this World Series

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BOSTON — There seems to be quite a bit of talk about continuity going into this year’s World Series. Well, hey, it’s the Cardinals and the Red Sox again. Fourth time. That was the matchup in ’46, with Stan Musial and Ted Williams, Enos Slaughter and Johnny Pesky, Red Schoendienst and Bobby Doerr and that whole cast of characters.

That was the matchup again in ’67, the Impossible Dream Red Sox and the awesome Cardinals. Nobody could get out Lou Brock. Nobody could get out Carl Yastrzemski. Jim Lonborg proved almost unhittable. It was a last hurrah for Roger Maris. In the end, an indomitable Bob Gibson decided who was better.

And then, one more time, 2004, the Cardinals won 105 games, most for the franchise since the end of World War II. They were a dominant team. But the Red Sox had 86 years to make up for, and they had just vanquished the Yankees in the greatest postseason comeback in baseball history, and they rolled to a four-game World Series sweep.

Yes, there’s a lot of talk about the history — Red Sox and Cardinals all over again.

Except, if you think about it in a different way, this series is more about how much baseball changes than how much it stays the same. Think about the last time we saw these two teams in the World Series. For the Red Sox, that was 2007 when they swept the Rockies. For the Cardinals, that was 2011 when they beat the Rangers in a stirring and disjointed series.

If you asked at the time, who would have been the key player on each team?

For the Cardinals, clearly, it was first baseman Albert Pujols. He was still widely regarded as the best player in baseball.

For the Red Sox I think, it was general manager Theo Epstein, who had found a way to marry Moneyball tactics with big market resources to build what many thought would be the baseball superpower of the 21st Century.

If you had told fans at the time that, soon after, Pujols and Epstein would leave — people could see it coming with Pujols — they would have panicked. They would have expected a great fall. After all, both men seemed utterly irreplaceable. Who could do what Pujols did? They called him The Machine because year after year after year he hit .330, and he walked 90 or 100 times, and he scored 120 runs and he hit 40 doubles and he hit 40 home runs and he played great defense. He was the heart of the team, he was the soul of the team, he was the engine of the team.

And two years after he left, the Cardinals are back in the World Series.

Theo’s excellence was more subtle, but nobody missed it. Epstein built an organization around advanced thinking (with one of baseball’s great revolutionaries, Bill James, working for the team) AND around their advantages as one of baseball’s richest teams. One of the 2007 team’s best players was a little second baseman, Dustin Pedroia, who the Red Sox had taken in the second round of the 2004 amateur draft because they didn’t fall for the conventional wisdom that he was too small. Their best hitter, David Ortiz, had been discarded by the Minnesota Twins — they had not seen him clearly. Meanwhile, they were also spending a fortune on established superstars like Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling. All together, it seemed like Epstein and the Red Sox had beaten the system — they were smarter AND they were richer.

And two years after he left, the Red Sox are in the World Series.

In baseball, more than any other sport, teams win championships. Not individuals, I don’t mean that baseball is more about teamwork than football or basketball or hockey or soccer— that isn’t true. Those sports rely more on teamwork than baseball does. Football in many ways is the ultimate team sport because everybody plays a different role.

No, I’m saying that in football one player — especially if he’s a quarterback — can define a team. A team with a great quarterback will win more games than a team with a lousy quarterback no matter how good the rest of the team might be. Obviously that’s true in other sports. LeBron James or Sidney Crosby or Messi, almost single-handedly, can turn a a bad team into a good one and a good team into a great one.

But in baseball, it really doesn’t work that way. The game’s structure prevents any one person from being too important. The world’s best hitter will still only come up one out of nine times. The world’s best starting pitcher will only pitch one out of every five days. The world’s best closer will (likely) pitch in the ninth inning. The manager cannot really design plays. The general manager cannot just go out and sign a couple of big free agents and win championships the way the Miami Heat did. The Angels tried that when they signed Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in back-to-back years. They went from 86 wins in 2011 to 78 wins in 2013.

The Cardinals are in the World Series because they combined some good veterans (Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday) with some excellent homegrown hitters (Allen Craig, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, Matt Adams) and built the best offense in the National League. Their rehab program with starter Adam Wainwright obviously worked wonders; he missed all of 2011 and two years later was again one of the two or three best starters in the National League. Their spectacular minor league system helped them build a spectacular bullpen with pitcher after pitcher throwing 100 mph darts. And the emergence of 21-year-old pitcher Michael Wacha, the Cardinals first round pick in last year’s draft, certainly has helped this postseason.

The Red Sox are in the World Series because a few of their mainstays — Pedroia, Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz — all had fantastic seasons. They made some very shrewd free-agent signings, picking up outfielder Shane Victorino and first baseman Mike Napoli and reliever Koji Uehara. All three of them had huge seasons. A big-money free agent who had looked like an all-time bust, John Lackey, finally got healthy and pitched well. A guy they plucked out of the Independent League a few years ago, Daniel Nava, had a superb year as did the well-traveled Jonny Gomes.

Which team will win? It’s so close. And it’s only seven games. It could come down to the Cardinals amazing bullpen, especially with the colder weather likely to dampen offense. It could come down to Fenway Park, where the Red had a .654 winning percentage during the season and have won three out of four in the postseason. It could come down to how well the Cardinals starters deal with a Red Sox lineup that, all the way through, works and frustrates and spoils pitches.

And it could come down to something entirely unforseen. That’s actually a pretty good bet. Both the Red Sox and Cardinals just dispatched teams with higher profile stars. The Red Sox beat the Tigers who will probably have this year’s American League MVP (Miguel Cabrera) and Cy Young winner (Max Scherzer) not to mention superstars Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder. The Cardinals sent home the absurdly-talented Dodgers with baseball’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and a cavalcade of stars like Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Yasiel Puig and so on.

People will say that this is a great feat, beating the team that is “more talented,” but I think the return of the Cardinals and Red Sox to the World Series tells a larger story: A talented baseball team is not a team that has a few talented players. It is the team that has talent everywhere, even in places you do not see. It’s the team with talented scouts, talented coaches, talented medical people, talented analysts, talented management, talented players top to bottom.

You will often hear that the Miguel Cabrera has to be the league MVP because the Tigers would not have made the playoffs without him. But I wonder if that’s true. Miguel Cabrera is to Detroit what Albert Pujols was to St. Louis. One player, no matter how great, can only do so much. That, to me, is what this World Series is about.

2017 Preview: Philadelphia Phillies

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Philadelphia Phillies.

Phillies fans, get ready for another losing season. As bad as that sounds, 2017 is simply the next step in the Phillies’ rebuilding process. As a result, the club stocked up on veterans who are not signed beyond this season. GM Matt Klentak acquired Clay Buchholz from the Red Sox and utilityman Howie Kendrick from the Dodgers. He also signed outfielder Michael Saunders, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek, and re-signed Jeremy Hellickson.

The biggest move of the offseason, however, was signing All-Star outfielder Odubel Herrera to a five-year, $30.5 million contract extension which will keep him in town through at least 2021. The deal also includes options for the 2022-23 seasons. Herrera, 25, transitioned from second base to center field in 2015 when the Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 draft from the Rangers. He broke out last season, batting .286/.361/.420 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI, 87 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases in 656 plate appearances while playing great defense. Herrera is not necessarily the cornerstone of the Phillies’ future, but he’s the best player on the team at the moment.

Kendrick will handle left field. The former second baseman became a utilityman for the Dodgers last year, finishing with a .255/.326/.366 batting line along with eight home runs and 40 RBI in 543 PA. The 33-year-old veteran has lost a few steps, but the Phillies don’t particularly care. As long as Kendrick stays healthy, the Phillies will have felt like they got their money’s worth.

Saunders takes over in right field. The oft-injured outfielder was able to log a career-high 140 games last year with the Blue Jays, hitting .253/.338/.478 with 24 home runs and 57 RBI in 558 PA. Again, the Phillies don’t particularly care if he’s able to match that production; the team is just looking for him to avoid injury. Citizens Bank Park does turn Saunders into a 30-homer threat, though.

Maikel Franco will reprise his role at third base. He’s been a frustrating player for the Phillies over parts of three seasons. He did hit 25 homers and knock in 88 runs last year, but his triple-slash line was a pedestrian .255/.306/.427 in 630 PA. New hitting coach Matt Stairs certainly will make Franco one of his top priorities this season as Franco can sometimes be chaotic at the plate, swinging so hard his helmet flies off. Franco’s defense at third base also leaves a lot to be desired. Some talk of Franco eventually moving across the diamond to first base, but he could also play his way out of the Phillies’ future plans if he doesn’t show any improvement in 2017.

Freddy Galvis returns to shortstop. Though baseball is currently in a state where only a few players reaching the 40-homer club, it seems like more players than ever are at least getting to 20 homers. Galvis was among them, nearly tripling his previous career-high with 20 long balls last year. He also knocked in 67 runs but hit an otherwise poor .241/.274/.399. He still managed to turn in a solid year despite the lackluster offense by playing some of the best defense at shortstop this side of Andrelton Simmons. Galvis, now 27, will soon be unseated by prospect J.P. Crawford. The Phillies may choose to simply move Galvis to the bench or, if he has a good first half, the club may try to trade him.

Second base is Cesar Hernandez’s. He struggled in the first half, putting up a meager .706 OPS, but broke out in the second half with an .824 OPS. It was like he had become a completely new player. Overall, he hit .294/.371/.393 with an MLB-best 11 triples while also scoring 67 runs. He stole 17 bases but also got caught 13 times, illustrating his most frustrating feature. He’s quick, but he’s not a smart baserunner. Hernandez, like Galvis, likely is not a part of the team’s future plans and he may end up in a new uniform by the summer of 2018.

First base is now Tommy Joseph’s to start the year now that the Phillies have finally closed the book on the Ryan Howard era. Joseph showed tremendous power, hitting .257/.308/.505 with 21 home runs and 47 RBI in 347 PA after taking over at first base in mid-May. Joseph is the prototypical first baseman: a player with great power potential but doesn’t get on base much otherwise, has a weak glove, and struggles against same-handed pitching. As mentioned, Franco is a potential threat to Joseph’s playing time at first base, and Rhys Hoskins – who hit 38 home runs at Double-A Reading last year — may be as well.

Cameron Rupp will serve as the starting catcher for the second year. Like Joseph, Rupp has lots of power, but is otherwise pedestrian offensively. Last season, he hit .252./.303/.447 with 16 home runs and 54 RBI in 419 plate appearances. Veterans Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday are hoping to be Rupp’s back-up, but 25-year-old Andrew Knapp is competing for that right as well after a solid year with Triple-A Lehigh Valley.

Hellickson will anchor the rotation in his second year with the Phillies. He was believed to be headed to free agency, but he shockingly accepted the Phillies’ $17.2 million qualifying offer. The veteran scuffled over the previous three seasons, but had a bounce-back effort in 2016, finishing 12-10 with a 3.71 ERA and a 154/45 K/BB ratio in 189 innings. For a rebuilding team, of course, the innings are all that really matter. Hellickson may find himself traded by the end of July if he performs well in the first half.

Buchholz is hoping for a career rebirth after some inconsistent years in the latter half of his 10 years with the Red Sox. The oft-injured right-hander compiled a mediocre 4.16 ERA and averaged only 22 starts per season since 2012. The Red Sox even used him out of the bullpen quite a bit last season, during which he compiled a 4.78 ERA. Buchholz, however, cost the Phillies virtually nothing and he’ll provide valuable rotation depth in an attempt to reestablish his value.

Jerad Eickhoff slots into the middle of the rotation after a sterling effort in 2016. Acquired from the Rangers in the 2015 Cole Hamels trade, the right-hander finished with a 3.65 ERA and a 167/42 K/BB ratio in 197 1/3 innings. The 26-year-old is very polished and is the type of pitcher that will help fill out the team’s future rotations quite nicely.

Aaron Nola is hoping for better luck in 2017. The 23-year-old right-hander got off to a slow start last season before missing the final two months with a sprained UCL and flexor. Nola, the Phillies’ first-round selection in the 2014 draft, is more polished than Eickhoff and will hope to replicate what he did in his rookie year in 2015, when he posted a 3.59 ERA with 68 strikeouts and 19 walks in 77 2/3 innings.

Vince Velasquez, 24, rounds out the rotation. He made one of the best starts of 2016 when he struck out 16 Padres in a shutout on April 14. Unfortunately, the rest of his season was marred by inconsistency and inefficiency. He failed to reach the sixth inning in 11 of his 24 starts and was ultimately shut down in September. Velasquez has the potential to become an ace, but some think the more likely scenario for the Phillies is that he eventually transitions into the bullpen.

Jeanmar Gomez will have the privilege of closing out ballgames for the Phillies once again, despite an ugly second half during which he blew four saves and compiled an 8.33 ERA in 31 appearances. He simply appeared to have run out of gas. Gomez does not miss bats nearly as often as typical closers do, which can be a problem in a hitter-friendly ballpark.

Joaquin Benoit is solid insurance for Gomez in the event he falters again. Benoit, 39, struggled with the Mariners but flourished with the Blue Jays after a trade, finishing out the season with a 0.38 ERA and a 24/9 K/BB ratio in 23 2/3 innings. He does have some closing experience, but he’ll be the setup man ahead of Gomez to start the season.

Hector Neris has the most potential of anyone in the Phillies’ bullpen. The 27-year-old posted an impressive 2.58 ERA with a 102/30 K/BB ratio in 80 1/3 innings. Everything about those stats looks good: he misses bats, doesn’t walk too many hitters, and is reliable on a day-in, day-out basis. He could be the Phillies’ closer of the future.

Veteran Pat Neshek will pitch in the middle innings. Youngsters Edubray Ramos, Joely Rodriguez, Luis Garcia, Adam Morgan, and others will join him in what will likely be a revolving door between the majors and Triple-A.

The bench will, for now, include Andres Blanco, Roman Quinn, Aaron Altherr, and others. Daniel Nava and Chris Coghlan, non-roster invitees, could merit inclusion. Joseph, Kendrick and Saunders may become bench players to some degree in the summer if Klentak deems any combination of Nick Williams, Brock Stassi, Dylan Cozens, and Rhys Hoskins worthy of some big league experience. Knapp, as mentioned, is competing with Hanigan and Holaday to back up Rupp.

The Phillies were the only team in the majors last year to average fewer than four runs per game, finishing at 3.77. Kendrick and Saunders are upgrades over the aggregate .615 and .634 OPS the Phillies got out of left and right field, respectively, last year. Benoit and Neshek add stability to what was a leaky bullpen. Those upgrades alone are likely to help manager Pete Mackanin’s squad make up some ground on their 62-100 record from the 2016 season.

Prediction: 71-91 record, 4th place in NL East

2017 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The good news: it can’t get any worse. And I don’t mean that flippantly or as a means of laughing at their 2016 performance. Really, most of the things that could’ve gone wrong for the Rays last year did, from injuries to down years from guys they needed to perform to simple bad luck. Meaning that last year was probably near the bottom of their expectations and that, with merely some better luck and better health, the Rays will be a better team.

Chris Archer had a fantastic, All-Star year in 2015. Last year he was one of the worst pitchers in all of baseball. The good news here is that a lot of that was a combination of bad luck and command issues, not a serious overall regression or any foreshadowing of injuries. He still struck out a ton of guys last season, but when he didn’t miss bats he missed the zone. There’s no reason to expect that Archer will repeat his 2016 performance. He’s too darn talented for that, and I would expect him to reassert his acelike status.

But it’s not all Archer. Indeed, beyond him the rotation is really solid with the potential to do some special things. It seems eons ago, but Alex Cobb posted two amazing seasons back-to-back in 2013 and 2014 before elbow injuries hit. He’s now back at full strength. Jake Odorizzi has been a solid presence in the rotation the past two seasons. Blake Snell is raw and wild, but has great stuff. It’s spring and we’re being optimistic, but if he makes at least a passing acquaintance with the zone in 2017 he could be a special pitcher.  Between injury stuff and the need for bouncebacks, a good story about the Rays rotation is all wishcasting to some degree, but there is a lot of talent in this group, and that’s a lot more than a lot of teams have to wish on.

The Rays lost a lot of close games and lost a lot of games late last year. See above about bad luck. That’s often a sign of bullpen trouble. And yes, the Rays’ 2016 pen had trouble. Closer Alex Colome was excellent, but everyone was else was pretty homer happy. Last year the former closer, Brad Boxberger suffered a bad abdominal injury in spring training and it basically derailed everything. He’s working his way back from a lat injury now, but the prognosis is a lot better for him to be at full power and effectiveness at least some point early in the season. Erasmo Ramirez has a hamstring issue, but he’ll likely be the long man. Danny Farquhar is solid. Xavier Cedeno falls into the “he’s better than he showed last year” pile. There’s hope here for better things and, of course, better luck, even if this is not a stellar group. Again, manager Kevin Cash has something to work with here, even if it’s not a lot.

On offense, Evan Longoria continued to be Evan Longoria last season and Brad Miller broke out with a big power year. That’s something else to build on. The issue for the Rays is getting on base. They were among the worst teams in baseball in this department last season and, looking up and down this roster, it’s hard to see where a bunch more walks and hits may come from. Having Kevin Kiermaier back for a full year will be key, and not just for his stellar defense, as he showed some offensive improvement when he did play last year.  If he builds on that he’s a borderline MVP candidate. Ultimately, though, there just aren’t enough weapons here.

I think the Rays are a lot more talented than last year’s 68-win team suggested. I don’t think, however, they underperformed that talent by, like, 20 games or anything, nor did they improve themselves in the offseason enough to make up that kind of gap. Heck, they hardly did much at all. As such, I think they’ll be better than they were in 2016, but I feel like they’re, at the very most, an 80-win team. And most teams don’t hit their best case projections like that.

Prediction: Fifth Place, American League East.