Craig Calcaterra

Francisco Lindor

Who should win the Rookie of the Year Awards? Who will?

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Note: This post originally ran on October 2. With tonight’s announcement of the Rookie of the Year Award, it’s a good time to revisit and review.

Who should win the AL Rookie of the Year Award?

This race is super close, with two candidates with nearly identical credentials. In this case it’s even harder as the top two candidates are at the same position: Shortstop (apologies to Miguel Sano who, while hitting the daylights out of the ball hasn’t played nearly as much as the top two candidates and has no defensive value).

Carlos Correa burst onto the scene in Houston in early June at the tender age of 20 and proceeded to beat the living hell out of baseballs. His line: .277/.343/.504 with 21 homers and 63 driven in in a mere 96 games and an OPS+ of 130. That’s crazy power for a 20 (now 21) year-old and crazy power for a shortstop of any age.

Francisco Lindor burst onto the scene in Cleveland in mid June at the tender age of 21 and proceeded to beat the living hell out of baseballs. His line: .319/.357/.491 with 21 doubles, 12 homers and 51 RBI in a mere 96 games and an OPS+ of 125. That’s not quite Correa power but it’s better contact and on-base stuff and amazing production for a shortstop of any age.

Quite even to be sure, but the separator here is defense. Correa is no liability, but he’s pretty ordinary with the glove so far. Lindor, however, has been a superior shortstop both according to the numbers and to the naked eye. His arrival in Cleveland totally changed the game for the Tribe this year, transforming them from underachievers to a team that made a serious run for a playoff spot. If Lindor had been there all year it’s not crazy to think that they’d be in the wild card game next week.

Lindor’s offense is a bit of a surprise this year. He really wasn’t expected to hit like this right out of the gate. And he may not hit like this forever, in which case Correa may prove to be the better player going forward, be it as a shortstop or a third baseman, which is where I think he’ll ultimately end up. But the Rookie of the Year award is not about projections and potential. It’s about what the rookies did. And given there more or less even offensive contributions and Lindor’s superior leather, he’s the guy who should take the hardware home.

Who will win the AL Rookie of the year Award?

Historically there has been less narrative nonsense infecting Rookie of the Year award voting than other award voting. Prospect politics haven’t played into it too much. Very often Rookies of the Year come from losing teams — how else would they have gotten the opportunity for so much PT? — and thus the winning team narrative isn’t as prominent. This year, however, I feel like that stuff will be a bigger factor than in the past, mostly because so many rookies have played such a big part in pennant races.

The Indians entry into the wild card race came late and it came quite a bit after early season Astros Mania took hold. Sure, Correa joined the Astros after much of that mania took hold and even after the Astros themselves began to play a bit worse, but he’s been largely associated with the big surprise season in particular and the Astros’ bright future in general. Between that and Cleveland being one of the lowest profile teams in all of baseball year-in, year-out, it would not surprise me at all if some voters overlook Lindor a bit. For this reason I feel like Correa will win it, even if Lindor would be my guy.

 

Who should win the NL Rookie of the Year Award?

This was a much closer race earlier in the year but Kris Bryant and his .279/.369/.475 line, 26 homers and, by the end of this weekend, most likely, 100+ RBI have separated themselves from the pack. It seems like ages ago that everyone was all in a tizzy about the Cubs leaving him in Iowa at the start of the season for service time manipulation purposes. Now all he is is a huge part of the Cubs’ big year and, by far, the highest profile and highest achieving rookie in the NL.

Not that he’s alone “in the conversation.” But that term is in quotes because it’s not truly a big conversation. Matt Duffy of the Giants has had a fine year and, before he went down with that ugly injury, Jung Ho Kang was having an equally fine year. Duffy, also a third baseman, is the better fielder than Bryant, but Bryant hasn’t embarrassed himself there, allowing his offensive advantages to give him the inside track to the award.

Who will win the NL Rookie of the Year Award?

Bryant. And I don’t think it’ll be a particularly close vote.

What do you do when your team is a depressing stew of suck?

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In light of this morning’s piece, some people have asked me if I don’t understand what Braves President John Hart and GM John Coppolella are doing or if I don’t appreciate the way the Braves’ rebuild is being handled. Some others have asked me why, given how long I’ve written about the process of team building, how I’ve said watching young prospects develop interests and excites me and how I have been (roughly) on the side of sabermetrics for so many years I seem so dismissive of the Braves who, on the surface anyway, appear to be rebuilding in a smart way even if the fact of their having to rebuild is depressing.

Fair questions. And I will acknowledge once again that, setting aside the reasons for the rebuild, I tend to think the Braves’ baseball operations folks have handled it well. I like most of the young talent they’ve gotten back and I’m happy that they’ve unloaded some bad contracts. I even understand — and in my unguarded moments accept — the reasons some of the players I hated to see go had to go. It was unlikely that the Braves would sign Jason Heyward to a long term deal and Shelby Miller was a good return. A team that sucks does not need an elite closer like Craig Kimbrel. While part of me still thinks Andrelton Simmons will have a year, eventually, where he puts up some good offensive numbers, he has regressed and I wouldn’t bet serious money on a some fluke great year at the plate ever happening. Simply put: I get it, in baseball terms, and at times even allow myself to appreciate it.

Yet I remain sour about it all. Not because I think Hart and Coppolella are doing a bad job. I’m sour on it because, as a fan, I have come to a place in my life where I simply want to be entertained, and the Braves are not at all entertaining.

For most fans this isn’t some kind of epiphany. Of course fans want to be entertained. For the past 15-20 years or so, however, there has been a strong, albeit narrow subculture of baseball fans who want . . . something else out of baseball as well. It’s a group of people — myself very much included in this — who, due to the Internet, usenet groups, Bill James annuals and such began to think of their fandom somewhat differently than other people. Rather than merely cheer for the players (and head-in-the-spreadsheet stereotypes notwithstanding, we still cheered for the players) the idea of being something of a shadow general manager became an essential part of fandom as well. We think about the team but think about team building even more at times. The forest, on occasion, is missed for the trees.

This phenomenon is completely understandable. With more information — statistical information, salary information, access to advanced thinking by experts and the direct words of baseball decision makers — at one’s disposal, one can think more deeply about the game. Rather than saying “we need to trade Shlabotnik, the guy is a bum,” we argue about what we can expect to get for Shlabotnik, whether his contract is favorable, whether the club is developing a good replacement for Shlabotnik and whether, given where the club is on the success cycle and how it’s doing on the revenue side, trading him now even makes sense. Even if he is a bum.

I don’t discount these topics at all. They’re highly interesting and, of course, form the basis of a great deal of the content of this blog. And even if you don’t write a baseball blog, a side benefit of looking at and caring about these aspects of the game is that when your team is a depressing stew of suck you still have things to talk about like prospects and the draft and rebuilding plans. That stuff can be really exciting!

I will and still do talk about all of those things when I’m writing about other teams, but in the past couple of years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to do so — or at least to do so intelligently — about the team I root for, the Atlanta Braves. At first I feared this was creeping burnout. That it was manifesting itself first with the team I love and that, eventually, I wouldn’t give a rip about such things for any team. That being a shadow GM or, at the very least, a quasi-informed fan cum analyst, was losing its appeal. That’s a pretty scary thought when it’s your job to write about baseball on a level that is, in theory anyway, supposed to be deeper than “Shlabotnik’s a bum!”

Upon reflection, though, I think it’s something less serious than that. In fact, it’s something rather encouraging: I’m enjoying baseball purely as a fan more now than I used to and I’m able, in ways I was unable to for a long time, to separate baseball I watch for enjoyment and baseball I think about for work or intelligent online chatter with likeminded baseball geeks. I can turn my Bill James-and-sabermetrics-informed brain off and just watch a game now in ways I couldn’t five or ten years ago. I can enjoy a bunt even if I know it’s tactically dumb. I can enjoy an expensive veteran even if I know his presence on the roster is handicapping the baseball ops folks. I can consume the game without wondering or worrying that I’m consuming it in ways that people at rec.sport.baseball would make fun of me for back in 1999 or something. In some ways my writing is just starting to reflect this — I’ve done more longer, less analytical pieces about the milieu of the game in the past year or two than I used to — but my temperament is feeling this pretty strongly.

This is wonderful if your team isn’t a depressing stew of suck, as it allows you to enjoy the subject of your work as leisure as well without feeling that you’ve shut off real life to too great a degree. I have my baseball work and then, hey! There’s a game on and I can just root and not analyze! And where’s that beer? If your team is a depressing stew of suck, however, and you’re no longer enthused at looking past the current entertainment value they provide in order to appreciate the team-building and business aspects of it, you really have no place to go. And that’s where I am with the Braves now.

Shlabotnik wasn’t a bum, but they traded him. Don’t bother me with talk about these kids they got in return. I’m off the clock.

Braves CEO: “Baseball is not a widely profitable business”

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In the past year the Braves have dealt a lot of talent, trading away Justin Upton, Jason Heyward and Craig Kimbrel, among others. Late last week the Braves traded shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Angels. Yesterday Ken Rosenthal reported that Atlanta was now shopping Freddie Freeman.

While most of the trades the Braves have made have resulted in nice returns in terms of either young talent coming back or big salaries going out, the process of tearing down and rebuilding has been a painful and, at times, confusing one for Braves fans. Partially because some of the players — particularly Kimbrel, Heyward and Simmons — were fan favorites who, arguably, had better futures in front of them than years behind them. The same would go for Freeman, in spades, if he were dealt.

It’s also been painful because the Braves won 190 games between 2012 and 2013 and were in first place midway through 2014. The team cratered after that, of course, and had some clear holes on the roster, but many Braves fans wondered why fixing those holes required tearing off the whole dang roof, knocking down the support beams and bulldozing dirt into the foundation. Especially given the fact that the Braves (a) had what had been advertised by management as a good young core which had largely been locked up in reasonable long term deals; and (b) the Braves played in the NL East which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the toughest division in baseball.

Whether a complete and total rebuild was necessary continues to be a point of debate among Braves fans. Distracting from and complicating all of this is the fact that the Braves are leaving Atlanta after next season and heading for a new ballpark in the suburbs. A ballpark which many, including your dear author, likewise believes was unnecessary. Indeed, seemingly incomprehensible decisions, many of which appear unnecessary, is the general gestalt of Braves Country these days.

Into that fog walks Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk who, last week, gave an interview to the Atlanta Business Chronicle about the state of the Braves. He had a lot to say, and for context one should read it all, but this answer, in response to a question about whether Braves’ profits are reinvested in the club or, rather, sent back up to corporate parent Liberty Media, was quite a head-turner:

Basically, all of the money at the Braves. We’ve never really lost money with the Braves. Baseball is not a widely profitable business. If you took all of the free-cash flow of all of the 30 teams, it’s pretty much zero. That’s sort of a fairly well known fact. If you actually, do have free cash flow, you’re among a minority. We have always managed the team to at least break even on free cash flow or make a little. Sometimes we’ve made more than a little. But, that puts in a minority in this business.

There are a lot of ways to measure the financial health of a baseball team and cash profit is only one of them. Indeed, it may be the least significant part of the financial picture for a team. The real game is the appreciation of franchise value, and the Braves have certainly appreciated for Liberty media. When they purchased the team in 2007 the franchise was worth $450 million. This year Forbes valued the club at $1.15 billion. And that’s despite the fact that the Braves have one of the worst local TV deals of any club. Of course, based on what McGuirk is saying, the Braves are pursuing both tracks: watching the franchise value appreciate and doing its best to break even on cash flow “or make a little.” The best of both worlds if you’re an executive in charge of a division of a large corporation.

I am highly dubious of what McGuirk says about profitability but, in reality, I don’t think there’s any way for outsiders to assess whether or not what he’s saying is true. Baseball teams are notoriously opaque when it comes to financial matters and have, for almost all of baseball history, claimed to be money-losing operations. Usually for tactical purposes having to do with convincing cities to build them new ballparks, fending off scrutiny and regulation from governments and, most of all, negotiating with the players over salaries and benefits. Add in the fact that many owners engage in self-dealing, siphoning off revenues in the name of “management fees” and casting those as hits against profitability as opposed to money in their pocket, and it’s virtually impossible to know what’s really going on with a team’s cash flow.

I have no way of knowing what the true state of the Braves’ finances is. Indeed, absent better information I have to take Terry McGuirk’s word for it. But even if he is telling the truth — i.e. baseball is not very profitable for owners but the Braves are, against the odds, one of the few teams which turn a profit — it’s hard to feel anything but deflated by it.

Deflated because early-21st century sports owners and early 21st century sport fans have fallen into something of a rough bargain. It’s not a consciously-negotiated bargain, but it’s one that, through practice and example, fans and owners have realized is the sweet spot for our relationship. That bargain is this: we, as fans, will endure you fleecing taxpayers for stadiums, taking your games off of over-the-air television in favor of big money cable deals which raise our rates, pocketing money in “management fees,” and selling anything and everything that isn’t nailed down with a team logo slapped on it. In exchange, you will at least pretend to be interested in delivering a winning team and, in your utterances and actions, demonstrate that you understand that fans want to see an entertaining and, occasionally, championship-caliber product a million times more than we want to hear about the financial health of ownership and the business vision of the franchise. Obviously not all teams do this. But the teams with the happiest, most engaged fans and with the owners who are less-loathed than their brethren generally fit this description.

To the extent the Braves have made news in the past few years it’s been because they’ve (a) decided to abandon their relatively new ballpark in the city they call, for marketing and territorial purposes, home in favor of a taxpayer funded ballpark no one but wealthy white suburban people can get to (and even they can’t without difficulty); and (b) sent off all of the players which have excited fans in the past several years. Against that backdrop, the largely faceless CEO of a division of a largely faceless corporation which owns the team is claiming implausible but, I suppose, unfalsifiable things about the business of baseball which read like a pat on the back for financial performance more than any sort of argument for the competitive prospects of the team (Q: “When can we expect to see the Braves in the top 10 in terms of payroll?” A: “I won’t give you a timetable, but you will start seeing major jumps 1/1/17”).

Given his job, it’s understandable that he does this. Given the ownership structure of the Braves, it’s understandable that he does this. Given that, as we so often have to remind ourselves, baseball is a business, it’s understandable that he does this. But given how thoroughly he and his bosses have sapped any semblance of baseball enjoyment from the Atlanta Braves and how thoroughly they have thrust the concerns of the team’s owners and their pocketbooks into the news and public discussion of the team, that rough bargain between ownership and the fans has been breached. Ownership hasn’t thrown the fans who care about anything other than five-year plans and prospect-fetishizing a bone in over two years and seems unwilling to do so any time soon.

In light of that, no matter how understandable Terry McGuirk’s position is, it’s far more understandable why Braves fans shouldn’t give a tinker’s damn about this club for the foreseeable future.