Teams tend to play one of two types of baseball, long ball or small ball. The rise of of analytics has shown sacrificing an out to advance a runner is not in a team’s best interest. Teams are shying away from small ball because, as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine so eloquently put it, “Chicks dig the long ball.” The roar of the crowd is much different for a Home Run than a Sacrifice Hit, Sacrifice Bunt. Instant offense versus a building block towards a potential Run.
Baseball has changed since the small ball era of the early 20th Century. The small ball era helped produce Eddie Collins and his 512 career Sacrifice, 120 ahead of second place. Clayton Kershaw is the active leader with 108, 334th all time. Small ball produced Ray Chapman’s 1917 single season record of 67 Sacrifices. Bert Campaneris’ 40 Sacrifices in 1977 are the most since 1929. Home Runs have replaced the Sacrifice. Teams swing for the fences. They no longer get them on, get them over, get them in.
A slugger’s value comes from hitting a baseball over the fence, not tapping it in the infield. The top ten Home Run hitters of all time have hit 6,680 Home Runs. Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Alex Rodriguez, Willie Mays, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Jim Thome, Sammy Sosa, and Frank Robinson have played a combined 213 Major League seasons. Only Pujols is active, with two seasons left before Free Agency or retirement. Occasionally these long ball titans sacrifice themselves for the team.
In 22 seasons, Barry Bonds hit 762 Home Runs and laid down 4 Sacrifices. Hank Aaron played 23 seasons, hit 755 Home Runs with 21 Sacrifices. Babe Ruth hit 714 Home Runs in 22 seasons and laid down 113 Sacrifices, more than the rest of this elite group combined. Alex Rodriguez Sacrificed 16 times in 22 seasons, while hitting 696 Home Runs. Willie Mays played 22 seasons, hit 660 Home Runs, and dropped 13 Sacrifices. Albert Pujols has played 19 seasons, hit 656 Home Runs with 1 Sacrifice. Ken Griffey Jr. hit 630 Home Runs over 22 seasons and Sacrificed 8 times. Jim Thome and his 612 Home Runs laid down 1 Sacrifice in 22 seasons. Sammy Sosa had 17 Sacrifices in 18 seasons while blasting 609 Home Runs. Frank Robinson dropped 17 Sacrifices in 21 seasons, with 586 Home Runs. Even the greatest sluggers of all time Sacrifice.
Babe Ruth revolutionized baseball with his power, yet he still played in an era where players were expected to bunt to help their team win. (www.captainsblog.info)
In 213 combined seasons, the greatest Home Run hitters laid down 211 Sacrifices. In an average season they hit 31.36 Home Runs with 0.99 Sacrifices. Their average career was 668 Home Runs and 21.1 Sacrifices, 30.2 Home Runs per Sacrifice. Even ardent believers in small ball know these players should swing the bat.
Jim Thome and Albert Pujols each have just 1 career Sacrifice. Thome and Pujols are not Rickey Henderson. They have hit a 32 triples, 16 each, and stolen 133 bases, combined. Only Pujol’s 114 steals break to top 1,000. Both sluggers were designed to trot around the bases, not sprint.
On July 3, 1994, Indians Manager Mike Hargrove looked to extend Cleveland’s 2.5 game over the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central. In the Bottom of the 7th, in a 7-7 tie against the Minnesota Twins, Eddie Murray laced the third pitch to Right for a lead off single. Hargrove signaled his young Third Baseman to Sacrifice. After taking a strike from Mark Guthrie, the 23 year old Jim Thome bunted, moving Murray to Second. Thome reached on an error by Third Baseman Chip Hale. Twins Manager Tom Kelly then replaced Guthrie with Carl Willis. Sandy Alomar Jr. greeted Willis with a swinging bunt down, loading the bases. Paul Sorrento followed with an RBI Single to Right, driving in Murray. Wayne Kirby fouled out to Third. One out. Kenny Lofton hit a Sacrifice Fly to Center, scoring Thome with Alomar advancing to Third. Two outs. Omar Vizquel flied out to Center. Three outs. 9-7 Cleveland. Thome and the Indians won 10-9 in 11 Innings, sending the Jacobs Field crowd home happy.
Jim Thome hit baseballs a long way, his talents were not best used bunting. (www.cooperstowncred.com)
The importance of the game, and Thome’s Sacrifice, were lost as the 1994 season stopped on August 12th. Cleveland was 1 game behind Chicago when the Strike began. The Strike claimed the rest of the 1994.
The St. Louis Cardinals hosted the Chicago White Sox on June 16, 2001. The Chicago Cubs led the Cardinals by 6 games in the National League Central. In the Bottom of the 7th, White Sox pitcher Sean Lowe walked Placido Polanco on four pitches. J. D. Drew then Singled to Right. Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa looked to stretch the 6-3 lead. He signaled his Cleanup Hitter to bunt. In his 67th career game, Albert Pujols bunted the first pitch foul. On the second pitch, Pujols bunted the ball back to Lowe who threw to Second Baseman Ray Durham covering First. Polanco moved to Third and Drew to second. One out. Pujols has not Sacrificed again. Bobby Bonilla was Intentionally Walked to load the bases and replaced by Pinch Runner Jim Edmonds. Craig Paquette Singled to Right, scoring Polanco. Drew scored on an error by the Shortstop, Tony Graffanino. Edmonds stopped at Second. Edgar Renteria struck out looking as Edmonds stole Third and Paquette stole Second. Two outs. Mike Matheny grounded out to First. Three outs. St. Louis won 8-3.
Albert Pujols is one of the greatest right hand power hitters of all time, bunting is not his most dangerous weapon. (Dilip Vishwanat/ Getty Images)
The Cardinals lost to the Houston Astros on the final day of the Regular Season. Both teams finished 93-69. Houston was crowned Division champions by winning the season series 9 games to 7. St. Louis was the Wild Card. The Cardinals lost to the eventual World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks in a decisive Game 5 in the Divisional Series.
Baseball is a team game played by individuals. Players field ground balls, pitch, and bat alone. No one can help you succeed, but you can help others succeed. Backing up throws, turning Double Plays, executing a relay all help a team win. And yes, occasionally even the greatest Home Run hitters Sacrifice for the team.
As baseball changes, Sacrifices by players capable of putting a baseball into orbit inches towards extinction. The Sacrifice is becoming a lost art as light hitting pitchers in the National League dominate and the Designated Hitter in the American League decimates the Sacrifice. A slugger bunting is now more rare than a Perfect Game. This generation’s greatest sluggers have Sacrificed just twice. If Mike Trout ever lays down a Sacrifice, soak in the moment. It will be the first of his career, and possibly the last time an all time great Home Run hitter Sacrifices himself.
Walking off the mound CC Sabathia knew he was finished. He had announced his retirement, but now the left arm that took him to the top of the baseball world could take no more. Sabathia had nothing left in his dislocated shoulder. This was the end.
CC Sabathia’s Major League career began on April 8, 2001 in Cleveland against the Orioles. He pitched 5 ⅔ innings of 3 run baseball for a no decision in a 4-3 Cleveland victory. Sabathia made 559 more Regular Season starts across 19 seasons. He compiled a 251-161 record, with a 3.74 ERA, 1.259 WHIP, 38 Complete Games, and 12 Shutouts. He played in six All Star games, won the 2007 American League Cy Young Award, and won the 2009 World Series with the Yankees. Along the way he battled addiction, fighting it when it meant stepping away from baseball in the 2015 Postseason.
Perhaps the greatest pitching run in recent baseball history belongs to CC Sabathia. In July 2008, less than a year after winning the Cy Young, Cleveland traded Sabathia to Milwaukee. The Brewers were chasing the Wild Card. After pitching six innings in his first start, Sabathia threw three consecutive Complete Games. The Brewers won his first four starts, and 12 of his first 13. In 17 starts for the Brewers, Sabathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 1.003 WHIP. He threw 130 ⅔ innings, including seven Complete Games and three Shutouts. He was masterful on the mound, posting a 255 ERA+ with Milwaukee.
CC Sabathia was unstoppable in a Brewers uniform. The greatest pitching run in modern baseball history. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Despite his incredible pitching, the Brewers needed more to reach October. Between September 20th and 28th Sabathia started three games on three days rest. He delivered, pitching 21 ⅔ innings, winning twice, including a Game 162 Complete Game allowing the Brewers to squeak into the Postseason. Milwaukee would lose to the eventual World Series Champion Phillies in the Divisional Series. Sabathia put his team above himself, he could have refused to pitch at such an insane pace, by modern standards, as he headed into free agency. Sabathia’s selflessness and brilliance was rewarded by the Yankees with $161 million over seven years.
Sabathia received the financial rewards from his incredible abilities on the mound. He earned the respect of Yankee fans, which was obvious by the ovation the Bronx faithful gave Sabathia after dislocating his shoulder. Despite his success in pinstripes, Sabathia’s incredible run in Milwaukee will remain the defining moment of his career. While Madison Bumgarner would not allow the Giants to lose the 2014 World Series, Sabathia’s run in Milwaukee was a three month grind we are unlikely to see again.
Under the original playoff system the best team in each league met in the World Series. If that system were still in place the pennant race in both leagues would be nearly over. The Houston Astros lead the American League by 6 games and the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the National League by 12.5 games. It is early August. The rest of the season would be rather boring unless at least one of these teams takes a nosedive. Barring the unthinkable, it would almost seem like a waste to wait until October to play the World Series. Houston and Los Angeles have demonstrated their dominance over their respective leagues during the first two-thirds of the season.
Thankfully baseball no longer goes straight from the regular season to the World Series. Instead a potential snooze fest of a season is shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. The Red Sox and Indians lead their respective divisions, with the Yankees, Twins, Royals, Rays, Mariners, Angels, Orioles, Rangers, and Blue Jays within five games of either their divisional lead or a Wild Card spot in the American League. In the National League, the Cubs and Nationals lead their divisions with the Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates, Rockies, and Diamondbacks within five games of their division lead or a Wild Card spot.
The Dodgers hope to celebrate a World Series victory in October. (Noel M. Vasquez/ Getty Images)
Baseball is better when 18 teams are in the running for the playoffs, not just two- exciting playoff races are one way to grow the game.
One of the critics of each playoff expansion, from Championship Series to Divisional Series to Wild Card, has been that the best team in baseball does not always win the World Series. No doubt this is true. The Braves of the 1990’s should have won more than just one World Series. The Indians of that era should have at least one World Series title to their credit. Meanwhile, the Miami (Florida) Marlins won two World Series, both times as the National League Wild Card.
Sandy Alomar and the Indians were the better team during the regular season, but came up short in the World Series. (www.si.com)
In many ways this unpredictability in the World Series is good for baseball. Think of the billions of dollars the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, and Red Sox have spent over the last decade to win four world Series between them. Large payrolls don’t guarantee World Series victories, nor does a World Series title guarantee success the next season as the Red Sox can attest. In basketball, it’s an easy bet that any team with LeBron James will play in the NBA Finals. In football, the Patriots are usually a solid choice as long as Tom Brady is healthy. It does not work that way in baseball. If it did every World Series would be Mike Trout and the Angels and/or Bryce Harper and the Nationals. How many World Series appearances do they have combined? Zero.
18 of the 30 Major League teams still have at least an outside shot at the playoffs. Are some teams delusional about their chances and were buyers instead of sellers at the trade deadline? Absolutely. However, baseball as a whole benefits when the majority of teams are still playing hard with two months to go instead of rolling over and waiting for next year. The Astros and Dodgers should play each other in the World Series, but like most things in life and baseball this is not guaranteed.
Before predicting what will happen during the 2017 Major League season, let’s take a look back at The Winning Run’s predictions for the 2016 season. Once again we did a terrible job of guessing the final standings and playoffs. We are terrible at predictions, but we are consistent at our terribleness. So without further ado, a look back at our sad attempt at predicting the 2016 Major League season.
National League East
|1||New York Mets||Washington Nationals|
|2||Washington Nationals||New York Mets|
|3||Miami Marlins||Miami Marlins|
|4||Atlanta Braves||Philadelphia Phillies|
|5||Philadelphia Phillies||Atlanta Braves|
The death of Jose Fernandez was a shocking reminder that baseball is just a game. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
National League Central
|1||Chicago Cubs||Chicago Cubs|
|2||Pittsburgh Pirates||St. Louis Cardinals|
|3||St. Louis Cardinals||Pittsburgh Pirates|
|4||Cincinnati Reds||Milwaukee Brewers|
|5||Milwaukee Brewers||Cincinnati Reds|
National League West
|1||Los Angeles Dodgers||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|2||San Francisco Giants||San Francisco Giants|
|3||Arizona Diamondbacks||Colorado Rockies|
|4||San Diego Padres||Arizona Diamondbacks|
|5||Colorado Rockies||San Diego Padres|
American League East
|1||Toronto Blue Jays||Boston Red Sox|
|2||New York Yankees||Baltimore Orioles|
|3||Boston Red Sox||Toronto Blue Jays|
|4||Baltimore Orioles||New York Yankees|
|5||Tampa Bay Rays||Tampa Bay Rays|
American League Central
|1||Kansas City Royals||Cleveland Indians|
|2||Cleveland Indians||Detroit Tigers|
|3||Detroit Tigers||Kansas City Royals|
|4||Minnesota Twins||Chicago White Sox|
|5||Chicago White Sox||Minnesota Twins|
In 2016, not every team could take a punch from the competition. (AP Photo/CSM/Albert Pena)
American League West
|1||Houston Astros||Texas Rangers|
|2||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||Seattle Mariners|
|3||Texas Rangers||Houston Astros|
|4||Seattle Mariners||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim|
|5||Oakland Athletics||Oakland Athletics|
|Predicted Winner||Predicted Loser||Actual Winner||Actual Loser|
|Cleveland Indians||Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||Toronto Blue Jays||Baltimore Orioles|
|Predicted Winner||Predicted Loser||Actual Winner||Actual Loser|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||San Francisco Giants||San Francisco Giants||New York Mets|
Francisco Lindor and the Indians came so close to a World Series Championship, but Cleveland will have to wait at least one more season. (Jason Miller/ Getty Images)
|Predicted Winner||Predicted Loser||Actual Winner||Actual Loser|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Cleveland Indians||Toronto Blue Jays||Texas Rangers|
|Houston Astros||Kansas City Royals||Cleveland Indians||Boston Red Sox|
|Predicted Winner||Predicted Loser||Actual Winner||Actual Loser|
|Chicago Cubs||Pittsburgh Pirates||Chicago Cubs||San Francisco Giants|
|New York Mets||Los Angeles Dodgers||Los Angeles Dodgers||Washington Nationals|
|Predicted Winner||Predicted Loser||Actual Winner||Actual Loser|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Houston Astros||Cleveland Indians||Toronto Blue Jays|
|Predicted Winner||Predicted Loser||Actual Winner||Actual Loser|
|Chicago Cubs||New York Mets||Chicago Cubs||Los Angeles Dodgers|
|Games Won||Prediction||Games Won||Actual|
|4 Games||Houston Astros||4 Games||Chicago Cubs|
|2 Games||Chicago Cubs||3 Games||Cleveland Indians|
We did not get much right, but we did correctly predict six teams in their final standings, five playoff teams, and two Divisional Series Winners, and the National League Championship winner. Our predictions were not as accurate as in the 2015 final standings, but we found greater success in the playoffs. The playoffs are where it really matters, right?
The Cubs are World Series Champions. (Ezra Shaw/ Getty Images)
Predicting the final standings for the regular season is not an easy task. Our predictions in 2015 (11 of 30 correct) were much higher than our average, so it came as no surprise that in 2016 our predictions fell back to earth. We were correct that the Miami Marlins would finish third in the National League East, ahead of the rebuilding Braves and Phillies but well behind the Nationals and Mets. The Cubs were the easy pick to win the National League Central, far outpacing the rest of the division.The National League West was a two team race from the beginning, but we were correct that the Dodgers would out last the Giants over the course of the season. Finally we were correct in predicting the American League East would leave the Rays behind and the American League West would leave the Athletics behind as both teams finished last in their division.
Our predictions in the playoffs were much better in 2016. There are ten playoff spots, we selected half the teams before the season began. The Chicago Cubs, Toronto Blue Jays, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants all made the playoffs, but despite having half the teams in the playoffs correct, we did not do a great job of predicting what they would do once they made it to October. We were correct in predicting the Toronto Blue Jays would win the American League Divisional Series. We correctly predicted the Chicago Cubs would win the National League pennant, although we felt they were not yet ready to break the Curse of the Billy Goat. Opps.
The 2016 Major League season was not what we predicted it would be; it was better. No matter how careful we are in making our predictions, we will be wrong more often than we are right; such is baseball. Every season has its memories, for the Cubs it was finally winning the World Series after waiting more than a century. The Reds, Braves, Twins, Athletics, and other continued to rebuild. Every team is trying to get better, but not matter what baseball is unpredictable. We hope we are better at predicting the 2017 season than we were the 2016 season. However, there are only three guarantees that we can make: 1) baseball is unpredictable, 2) our predictions will turn out to be horribly wrong, 3) baseball makes everything better.
DJ, JJ, JB, and BL
Every time a major free agent signs with a new team the fans celebrate and begin dreaming about the future possibilities of the team. If you read the newspapers or internet after every blockbuster free agency signing, it would be difficult to believe anything other than that team is now destined to at least reach the World Series, if not win it all. This is especially true when starting pitchers sign major deals. While the debate over what the future holds for the player and their new team should ignite the passions of the fans and media, this offseason feels as though there is an additional layer to the hype and excitement.
The fans buying tickets, jerseys, hats, television packages, etc. are the driving force for the business of baseball. If fans were not willing to spend $10 for the cheap seats or hundreds of dollars for premium seats, not to mention food, clothing, and media, the players and owners would not see the financial benefits they do. Every free agent dreams of cashing in on their years of hard work for a contract like the one David Price has with the Red Sox. Price signed for seven years, $217 million contract. He does not have to worry about working another day in his life. The same is true for Jason Heyward with the Cubs (eight years, $184 million), Johnny Cueto with the Giants (six years, $130 million), and Justin Upton with the Tigers (six years, $132.75 million). Their talent on the diamond has more than secured each of their financial future.
Justin Upton looks to turn the Tigers around quickly. (www.rollingstone.com)
Financial security also exists for those players not in the upper echelon of free agents. Non-ace starting pitchers can often dictate whether a team contends for a World Series, or even for the playoffs, as much as an ace like Felix Hernandez can. Excellent pitchers like Scott Kazmir can dictate how a team plays throughout the season. This reality has resulted in Scott Kazmir signing with the Dodgers (three years, $48 million). Fans in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, and the north side of Chicago should all rejoice in the talent their teams’ have signed during this offseason.
Before those dreams of World Series championships and parades permanently ingrain themselves into their minds, it would be best to temper those dreams. This offseason has shown that both the teams and the players want to win and win now. Owners are using deferred money to soften the burden of paying large contracts. Consider Chris Davis’ contract with the Orioles. He signed a seven-year, $161 million contract, with $42 million of the contract deferred. The Orioles will continue paying Davis until 2037. The financial deferment will enable the Orioles to spend money elsewhere in the hopes of winning more games and hopefully a World Series.
Scott Kazmir proves the opt-out clause is not reserved strictly for top free agents. (Colin E. Braley/ AP)
Ownership is not alone in this win now mentality. Players understand they only have a small window to win at least one World Series during their career and they prefer not to waste valuable years playing for teams that have no chance of making the playoffs, much less winning a World Series. The no trade clause has long been the means by which players protected themselves against a trade to a terrible team. However, what if the team they are playing is that terrible team?
Not every player will want to opt out of their contract. Even some elite players may decide it is best to remain with a team despite not consistently contending for the playoffs. If Todd Helton had an opt-out clause in the nine year, $141.5 million contract that he signed in 2001, few would have blamed him if he had left the Rockies before the end of the contract. During Helton’s 17-year career, Colorado had five winning season, made the playoffs twice, getting swept by the Red Sox in the 2007 World Series and losing to the Phillies in the 2009 NLDS. Helton remained an elite player throughout his career, but he rarely played for a team that had a hope of making the playoffs. While Helton is a Rockies legend, having spent his entire career playing in Colorado, he could have moved on from the Rockies later in his career if he felt a better situation for winning was available. Given the option to leave the Rockies does not mean Helton would have left, but it could have pushed management to field a more competitive team in the short term instead of waiting for the team to rebuild through homegrown talent.
Would Todd Helton’s career be remembered differently if he could have opted out of Colorado? (www.beforeitwasnews.com)
Opt-out clauses seems to have gained enormous steam this offseason. Players will nearly always accept the large contracts from teams for their services, as they should. There does come a point for every player, when their financial future is secure, that enables them to prioritize winning and extending their careers. The opt-out clause empowers players to have more control regarding their career arc. They are no longer stuck with a team if the team’s plan for winning does not materialize. Players also gain time as they do not have to spend prime playing years waiting to become a free agent and lose interest from contending teams.
We may not see Johnny Cueto, Jason Heyward, Scott Kazmir, David Price, or Justin Upton fulfill the full length of their new contracts from free agency. Each player has an opt-out clause, enabling them to return to free agency in pursuit of a larger payday or joining another team they see as a better fit. All the big free agent signings of this offseason could be back on the market following the 2018 season.
|Team||Years||Contract Amount (Millions)||Opt Out After||Pre Opt-Out Seasons||
Pre Opt-Out Salary (Millions)
|David Price||Red Sox||
The excitement from these free agent signings may only last a few seasons. The opt-out clause in these contracts could act as a player friendly way to rent their services to a new team, much like teams trading away soon-to-be free agents to contenders. Players are in a win-win situation with these contracts, as they can now maximize their potential to earn money, play for winning teams, and have longer careers. The focus has long been on the downside for the team when they sign players like Albert Pujols or Robinson Cano to long and expensive contracts. The final years of these contracts result in players receiving higher annual salaries than their abilities would garner them if they were up for a new contract. Such long contracts also handcuff most teams in their efforts to field a contending team. The Texas Rangers would have remained irrelevant had they not traded Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees. The Rodriguez contract (10 years, $252 million) was too large for the team to handle financially. Beyond the financial aspects, the rise in opt-out clauses means players have the opportunity to leave a team if they believe a better contract and situation exists for them elsewhere.
The contract signed by Giancarlo Stanton last offseason quietly signaled the shift away from gigantic contracts to shorter contracts that are more player friendly. The Marlins, aside from needing to regain some credibility with baseball fans in south Florida, solidified Stanton as the foundation they would use to build a contender. Stanton’s contract blended the old and new approaches to signing big free agent talent. Miami wanted to prevent Stanton from ever reaching free agency and signed him to a 13 year, $325 million contract. This means Stanton should be playing in South Florida until he is 37, maybe 38 if the Marlins exercise a team option for the 2028 season. The years and the money are comparable to the contracts for Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano, and Alex Rodriguez. These 10+ year contracts lock down a player well beyond their productive seasons. While this contract may not seem like a move away from those other massive contracts, the inclusion of an opt-out clause was striking. However, Stanton received an opt-out clause following year six, the 2020 season. At the age of 30, Stanton could still command an enormous contract on the free agent market. The opt-out also prevents Stanton from playing the vast majority of his career for the Marlins, if ownership is not willing or able to put a winning product on the field. The Giancarlo Stanton contract gave the Marlins, and their fans, the stability of having their player signed long term yet it gave the player the ability to hold the team accountable.
Giancarlo Stanton’s contract ushered in a new era of mega contracts but with an opt-out clause. (www.grantland.com)
The ability to opt out of a contract may transform the way free agency operates. Players now have the ability to hold their team accountable. Opting out means a team cannot place all of its faith in building a winning team in a single player, or simply building for the future. Baseball is a team sport and players expect and demand that management works to build a winning team. This new approach to signing players to contracts allows successful teams to sign premium players for the long-term, while giving players the ability to leave a team for a better situation or payday if they desire. No player wants to make less than they are worth or languish with a team going nowhere for their entire career. Fans must understand until a player decides not to opt out of the contract the new free agent has in reality signed for only a few years. Opt-out clauses create two contracts out of one. The player holds all the cards in deciding if the second contract comes into effect. Fans can dream, but their dreams need to focus more on short-term results instead of building a dynasty with their newly signed free agent.
The Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants have both thrown their best punches in the first two games of the World Series. Each one has landed cleanly and flush. In Game 1, Madison Bumgarner kept the Royals batters off balance and in check. Kansas City had no answer for him. In Game 2, the Royals bats came alive and the bullpen shut the door. The Giants kept battling but it was to no avail. The first two game of this World Series have shown what each team is capable of when locked in. This World Series has the potential to be a brawl. I do not mean benches clearing and fights breaking out. I mean where every player is pushed to their limit, where both managers are locked in a chess match where they are one move away from both triumph and defeat.
There should not be any real brawls on the field, even if Hunter Strickland gets back on the mound. I fully believe his frustrations simply boiled over and he let his emotions get the better of him. His actions show the stress and pressure these players are under. This is the biggest stage in their profession and they may only get one shot at winning a championship. Every pitch, every swing, every movement means something and their importance continues to ratchet up to greater and greater levels over the last two months. The Royals and Giants both raced into the playoffs, they did not just waltz into them. They both had to fight through the one game Wild Card playoff game, and then went through the best team in their leagues to advance through the Divisional and Championship rounds just to reach the World Series. Eventually all the stress and pressure is too much.
Every player and every team prepare all winter and spring, and fights throughout the summer for the chance to find success in October. Simply making the World Series is not enough. The hunger only builds as the leaves begin to change and the cool, crisp autumn breeze replaces the sweltering summer heat. The Giants are not content with their season, neither are the Royals. The Giants have won the World Series twice in the last four seasons; they are trying to make it three Championships in five seasons. Not all the players have been on the team for this stretch. Tim Hudson is much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and he will make his World Series debut in Game 3. Joe Panik is at the beginning of his career and he has only played in two World Series games. Buster Posey has been there through it all. The Giants remain hungry, all for individual reasons, which collectively make the team hungry.
The Royals are not just happy to be a part of the World Series; they are there to win it. 29 years have passed since 1985 and their last World Series title. None of the players from the 1985 team remains; this is a new group. They wear the same team name on their chest and play for the same fans, though many of them have never seen a winning Royals team. Lorenzo Cain, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, and on and on are the Royals now. These players do not care that it has been 29 years since the Royals last won the World Series. They do not care for one simple reason. If they cared how long it had been since the franchise had won, they would never be successful. They care about winning now. Not making up for lost time, but for giving this opportunity everything they have.
Baseball is a funny sport. The best players are not always the one left standing holding the championship trophy. Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout do not always get to take the last at bat. Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez do not always get to pitch with the game on the line. Baseball is a team sport, where the team can only be as good as the last guy on the bench. Super stars can propel a team towards success, but team success only happens when it is made up of players who can and are willing to put it all on the line.
Baseball is a fight, it is a brawl. The opponent knows the Pirates are going to throw Andrew McCutchen at them, or the Cardinals will throw Yadier Molina at them. These power punches take their toll on the opposition. The opposition throws counter punches back. The Tigers throw Victor Martinez or the Dodgers throw Zack Greinke. Teams throw crazy combinations and land blow after blow. They knock each other down and then get back up. The Giants and the Royals have knocked each other down with hooks to the body. Both have gone down and gotten back up to a standing eight count. These teams are in for a fight and are not afraid to leave themselves vulnerable if they think they can land the knockout blow. This October is going to be a brawl. So far it is shaping up to be a fight of the year contender. Let us hope it continues to live up to the great start it has given up.
The Playoffs began yesterday for ten teams, but for the other 20 teams today is the first day of the off-season. It is time for some teams to make changes, while others stay the course. The Astros, Rangers, Twins, and Diamondbacks have said good-bye to their managers. The Diamondbacks and Braves have fired their General Managers. Firing season has begun. One firing in particular stands out; the firing of Braves General Manager Frank Wren.
Wren’s dismissal did not come as a surprise to anyone considering his track record. Wren took over as GM with John Schuerholz promoted to Team President in October 2007. Following in the steps of a legendary figure is never easy, but this was Wren’s task. During Wren’s tenure as GM for the Braves the team compiled a 604-523 record, a .535 winning percentage. The Braves won the National League East in 2013 and were Wild Card teams twice, in 2010 and 2012. The team never advanced beyond the Divisional Series in the play offs. The lack of post season success however was not Wren’s undoing. Rather his track record with signing or trading for free agents. The four major moves during Wren’s reign were, all individually to say the least, disappointing. Collectively they were disastrous, and eventually cost him his job.
On the mound, Wren signed Japanese pitcher Kenshin Kawakami to a three year, $23 million contract before the 2009 season. During Kawakami’s two seasons in Atlanta he posted the following line:
Kawakami spent his final season of his contract in the minors pitching in Rookie ball, for the Gulf Coast League Braves, and in AA, for the Mississippi Braves. Kawakami never lived up the expectations Wren set after signing him from the Chunichi Dragons of the Nippon Professional Baseball league. After his contract ended, Kawakami returned to Japan and to the Chunichi Dragons.
After the third year of the contract, Lowe was traded to the Cleveland Indians with cash for minor leaguer Chris Jones, who is currently pitching at AAA Norfolk Tides in the Baltimore Orioles system. While a serviceable starter in Atlanta, Lowe was unable to sustain the success he had had with the Red Sox and the Dodgers. Lowe had become an overpriced luxury the Braves could not afford. The Braves were willing to pay for Lowe to leave and took Jones to get something as a return on their investment in Lowe.
Starting in the 2010 offseason Wren attempted to bolster the Braves offense through trade and signings. Wren pulled off a trade with the Florida Marlins which sent Mike Dunn and Omar Infante to Florida in exchange for Second Baseman Dan Uggla. Uggla and the Braves then agreed to a five year, $62 million contract. The trade and contract were a disaster. Uggla spent three and a half seasons with the Braves, seeing his production and playing time dwindled to almost nothing before he was released. He was able to post a line of:
One of the few bright spots during his tenure with the Braves was his 33 game hitting streak in 2011. Despite the hitting streak Uggla hit .233, which would be his highest batting average as a Brave. His play at second was not much better; he posted a Defensive WAR of -2.1 with the Braves. In 2014, the Braves released Uggla and were willing to pay the remainder of the contract, which was at least $ 15 million. Uggla was reducing the Braves to a 24 man roster, and had to be moved if the Braves were to compete on any level, which ended one of the worst experiences in Braves history.
In November 2012, B.J. Upton landed in Atlanta as a free agent after eight seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays. Upton signed a five year, $75.25 million contract. The Braves made a major splash with the signing, but they had almost immediate buyer’s remorse. Upton is closing out the second year of his contract and has amassed this line:
Upton has been better on defense than Uggla, but it has not been enough to counteract his offensive struggles. Upton has a Definsive WAR of -0.4 with the Braves. As improbable as it might seem, Braves fans are already beginning to wish Dan Uggla would come back in place of Upton. The rumor mill has already begun about how Atlanta can get out of the contract without having to pay out all the remaining money of the contract. It does not look promising for Upton to finish the contract as a member of the Braves.
Frank Wren gave seven years and $83 million to Kawakami and Lowe. In return, during five seasons the Braves received:
Neither pitcher lasted the full length of their contract with the Atlanta Braves. Wren also gave ten years and $134.25 million to Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. In return, the Braves received:
In five and a half combined seasons, Uggla and Upton have not produced a single season worthy of an average Major League player. Kawakami and Lowe were serviceable on the mound but not respectable based upon their salary and expectations. Kawakami finished his Braves career in the minors, Lowe was traded away with cash for a minor leaguer who at the time was in High A ball, and Dan Uggla was released because the Braves could not find another team to take him nor were they willing to take away playing time from their minor leaguers. Three of the four major acquisitions made by Frank Wren did not finish their contracts as a member of the Atlanta Braves. The fourth, B.J Upton, seems destined to be the worst signing of the bunch, and at the present it does not seem too difficult to imagine a situation where the Braves get rid of him either through trade, demotion, or release.
Ultimately Frank Wren sealed his own fate through his inability to successfully acquire players who could remotely live up to their large contracts. While not entirely his fault, Wren was highly involved in altering how the Braves play on the field. He sought out the pricey talent from other teams. The Braves have been highly successful in developing talent through the draft or through trades for minor leaguers or young players. The Braves continue to have excellent pitching; it is the offense which is lacking. While Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz were all Hall of Fame caliper players, the offense was balanced. Atlanta had the power from Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, and Brian McCann. The team also had the players who could get on base ahead of these power hitters, like Otis Nixon, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, and Marquis Grissom. The Braves forgot how to play same ball.
Times change, but in baseball generally the winning formula stays the same. Good pitching, which the Braves generally had during Wren’s tenure despite the signing of Kawakami and Lowe, and a balanced offense, which seemed to be forgotten. Atlanta has plenty of offense to be competitive; however with a lineup full of high strikeout batters who are swinging for the fences, the difference between success and failure becomes razor thin. Success in baseball is about scoring runs and preventing runs. Atlanta forgot what brought them success and appeared to value highlight reel worthy home runs more than fielding a balanced team which could compete on a yearly basis.
The Braves lost their way and fell in love with both the long ball and with making a splash with high profile free agent signings or big trades. The long term ramifications for these ill-advised signings by Frank Wren are still being felt. B.J. Upton needs to return to hitting .240 before fans can at least say the Uggla trade was worse than the Upton signing. The situation in Atlanta with Derek Lowe was not good. A mediocre to serviceable pitcher at best, being paid based upon past performance and hopes. The situation with Kawakami was sad. He seemingly never got the run support from the Braves offense, before he began to struggle, and eventually disappeared into the minors for his final season of baseball in America. The situation with Dan Uggla was ugly. A guy who worked hard but most likely should have never made it beyond AA except for the Marlins thrusting him to the Majors and then the Braves believing his power was worth the lack of hitting ability. Uggla eventually got into a standoff with Manager Fredi Gonzalez and the Front Office as he saw his playing time dwindle to nothing. The Uggla situation became so bad the Braves, who do not have a big market payroll, were willing to pay Uggla at least $15 million to leave.
The situation with B.J. Upton looks like it could be worse than it ever was with Uggla. Less than two years into his contract the Braves sought to trade him to the Chicago Cubs for Edwin Jackson at this year’s trading deadline. Jackson has a worse career ERA and WHIP than Kawakami and Lowe during their time with Atlanta, and is still owed $24 million through the 2016 season. The trade however was rejected by the Cubs. Try as they might Atlanta will have a tough time moving Upton through a combination of poor play and over $45 million due to him during the final three seasons of this contract. Do not be surprised if the Braves have to eat more money, this time from B.J. Upton to get out from under the last of Frank Wren’s disastrous major moves.
Frank Wren understands baseball. You do not become the General Manager of two teams by accident. Nor do you last seven years in a place which is used to winning and expect to win. What went wrong for Wren is not the day to day operations of the Braves, rather it was his attempt to go out and sign priced talented players. The signing of Kawakami, Lowe, Uggla (after trading for him), and Upton have not helped the Braves to continue winning. It is fair to argue these signings actually hurt the team both based on their on-field performance and the money they tied up, which could not be used to go out and sign other players. These four moves eventually caught up with Frank Wren and cost him his job. The Braves should return to the formula which led them to over a decade of success, while integrating advances in scouting and sabermetrics to get the best out of their players and to fully understand the capabilities of the players they are looking to add to their roster.
The Braves in some ways lost their way when they fell in love with the home run and over looked the high number of strikeouts they deemed acceptable by their lineup. The men who led the way to the Braves success, John Scherholtz and Bobby Cox, have been tasked with leading the Braves back to their winning ways and steady baseball. Along with John Hart, Scherholtz and Cox are not trying to rediscover “The Braves Way”; rather they should aim to return to playing sound baseball. The Frank Wren tenure is over. B.J. Upton has some major work to do if he wants to avoid being one of the worst, if not the worst, free agents signings by the Braves ever. Time with tell with B.J. Upton. It is time for the Braves to return to what they know and for a long time did so well, winning through great pitching and a balanced offense, while on a budget.