A Love Story Renewed: Russell Branyan Returns to the Mariners.

The Brawny Paper Towel Man is hoping to bring some power to an anemic lineup.

Casey Kotchman is bad, real bad. Michael Jackson.  

Now Mariners’ fans are mad, real mad. Joe Jackson.  

Seattle’s 2010 first basemen (Casey Kotchman, Mike “Magic” Carp–who will be dead weight until he learns an attack other than splash, Mike Sweeney, Matt Tuisiasopo, Ryan Langerhans, David Segui, etc.) have combined to be worse than Birdemic at the plate on a team that can ill afford to sacrifice any offense.  

So the Mariners admitted the error of their ways and gave their ex-first baseman a call. That must have been awkward:  

“Oh hey Russell, this is the Mariners. You know how we told you we didn’t want you back and that we had found someone better? Well, it turns out we were wrong, and when you left, we realized how much we needed you. So if you can ever forgive us, we need you back in our lives, and more importantly, back in the middle of our order. Whataya say?”  

Of course all of Branyan’s friends told him it was a mistake to get back with the Mariners (they don’t treat you well, they never buy you nice things, there’s no protection in the lineup, etc.) but he didn’t have much of a choice other than retiring or faking a back injury (no one’s accusing you of that Mike Sweeney). 

The move doesn’t make much sense because the Mariners are so far out of contention that ESPN doesn’t even list them in the AL West standings, but they didn’t give up anyone noteworthy (two prospects who I am too lazy to look up), and it never hurts to have someone in your lineup who can hit a ball over the wall…in fair territory. There’s not much rhyme or reason to it, but then again, this whole season hasn’t had much rhyme or reason.

Welcome back Russell. I never stopped loving you. Now go hit some home runs.

Jim Joyce’s Apology Too Little, Too Late to Preserve History.

In the span of 24 hours, Jim Joyce went from public enemy number one in Detroit, to a tragic figure whose only fault was being human. The whole situation showed the power of one player’s grace and convinced the country that goodwill still exists in the heart of man and that world peace is still within our grasp. Armando Galarraga may have forgiven Jim Joyce, but did America let the now infamous umpire get off too easy?

There are few words (abominable, appalling, atrocious?) to describe how inexplicably bad Jim Joyce’s call was on Jason Donald’s now infamous “single”. It wasn’t a judgment call and it wasn’t a bang-bang play–it was as clear as Pam’s face after her Proactive regimen. For an umpire who was recently voted by players as the game’s best, Joyce’s decision to call Donald safe and cost Galarraga a shot at history is inexcusable. The fact that he was too proud or too ignorant to consult with the rest of the umpiring crew to discuss whether the correct call was made is ever more damning.

But, but, Joyce apologized didn’t he? Shouldn’t we forgive someone who was so broken up about making a mistake that they teared up and didn’t even have the strength to take a post-game shower?

Maybe.

We can forgive Jim Joyce the human, but not Jim Joyce the umpire. Did he really have any choice but to apologize after watching a replay of his blunder? I’m not saying that Joyce wasn’t genuinely sorry, but his mea culpa was as much to save face as it was to convey his regret to Galarraga. While sorry may occasionally resolve a problem or right a wrong, Joyce’s empty apology didn’t give Galarraga the perfect game he had worked so hard to earn.

In the entire history of baseball  there have only been 20 perfect games–and Armando Galarraga was one out away from joining one of the sport’s most exclusive fraternities (though not quite as exclusive as The Skulls). Galarraga is an average major league pitcher (4.49 career ERA) who on one special day had everything going his way, including a spectacular catch from center fielder Austin Jackson in the 9th that seemingly was the Indians’ last shot.

But, instead of the players deciding the game’s final outcome, it was umpire Jim Joyce who ended Galarraga’s bid for perfection.

And for that, I can never forgive him…

Baseball’s Top Five Breakout Stars for ’10

Gutierrez won't be able to hide out in the fog of Seattle much longer.

Besides “free Krispy Kremes” and “Ken Griffey Junior”, no three words in the English language are more exciting to me than “pitchers and catchers”. When I hear that magical combination of words I know that Spring Training has arrived and another season of baseball is on the horizon. With each new year a fresh crop of stars emerge and make their mark on the game, elevating themselves from good players to great players. Just like Jessica Simpson on the last stages of her “In This Skin” tour, the following players are poised for a major breakout.  

1) Franklin Gutierrez: In the eyes of most Mariners fans Gutierrez already had his breakout season—though no one outside of Seattle or the sabermetric community seemed to notice that in 2009. With a retooled roster that doesn’t include Carlos Silva (that’s one of my last shots at El Guapo, I promise) the M’s are a serious contender in the AL West and, if the team can stay in the playoff hunt late into the season, the best defensive centerfielder in baseball will finally receive the credit he deserves (or at least a Gold Glove). The affectionately named “Guti” made significant improvements at the plate last season, and if he continues to mature as a hitter, has the chance to become a legitimate 5-tool star. Don’t be surprised if Gutierrez goes for a line similar to .300-25 HR-90 RBI’s-20 SB’s in 2010…it is the Mariners year after all.  

2) Madison Bumgarner: You can laugh at his last name all you want (and his first name while you’re at it), but it won’t change the fact that Madison Bumgarner is one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. In two ridiculous minor league seasons, Bumgarner has posted a combined 27-5 record with a 1.65 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and a nearly five-to-one strike-to-walk ratio. I don’t care if you’re playing in the Soda Pop Valley League…those numbers are hard to ignore. If Bumgarner can replicate his success in the minors for a Giants’ pitching staff that already includes Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, San Francisco would become a very dangerous team in the wide open NL West.  

Will McCutchen become the best pirate since Captain Cook in 2010?

3) Andrew McCutchen: Hidden in the baseball wasteland that is Pittsburgh, McCutchen enjoyed a terrific rookie season, proving once and for all that the Pirates can occasionally do something right (although let’s be honest, A-Mac will be traded in two years). The former first-round draft pick finished fourth in the rookie of the year voting and put together a solid season at the plate (.286-12-54) and on the basepaths (22/27 in stolen bases). The young right-hander exhibited good patience at the dish and has the potential to become a 30-30 player for the next decade in Pittsburgh (or New York). It might seem like baby steps, but players like McCutchen are a step in the right direction for the Pirates…give ’em another 10 years and they’ll be right back in the thick of it (the middle of the NL Central that is). 

4) Matt Weiters: Sure “Orange Jesus” didn’t quite save the Orioles as they walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (aka the AL East) last year, but that just means he’s in no danger of a sophomore slump in 2010. One of the most hyped prospects in recent memory, Weiters got off to a slow start in 2009 (.259 pre-All Star batting average) but finished the year with a flourish (.301) and he will be counted on to lead a group of young talented Baltimore hurlers that includes Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and David Hernandez (each of whom could have made this list themselves). Weiters should be one of the top three catchers in the AL in 2010, and it won’t be long before he’s challenging Joe Mauer for batting titles and MVP’s.  

Bailey and the Reds are looking to make some noise in the NL Central this season.

5) Homer Bailey: The number seven overall pick in the 2004 draft, Bailey has been anything but a homerun in his short major league career, though his finish to last season showed why the Reds thought so highly of him. The hard-throwing Bailey went 4-1 in September, with a 2.08 ERA and 42 strikeouts in 43 innings (numbers eerily similar to Zack Grienke’s last five starts of 2008–and we all know what he did the next year). Bailey will combine with Johnny Cueto, Edison Volquez and eventually Aroldis Chapman to form one of the best young rotations in baseball, and should turn quite a few heads in 2010. The Cincinnati Reds will be one of the biggest surprise teams in baseball next season due in no small part to the emergence of Bailey. Expect Homer to win 13-15 games with a sub-4.00 ERA and about 150 K’s.

Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas’ Retirement Leaves a Big Hole In Baseball’s Heart.

At 6’5″ and 260 pounds, Frank Thomas was one of the most intimidating hitters in the history of baseball.

Perhaps no athlete in sports better embodied his nickname than Frank Thomas. Dubbed “the Big Hurt” by his teammates and the media, the gargantuan Thomas (a former tight-end at Auburn) towered over the baseball landscape as the best right-handed hitter for nearly a decade. The two-time MVP possessed a rare combination of prodigious power and plate discipline that made him one of the most feared sluggers of the 1990’s.

Along with Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez, Thomas was part of a group of young stars that led a revival of the home run during the early 90’s, peaking in the strike-shortened 1994 season in which he hit 39 longballs in only 399 at bats. Thomas finished his career with 521 home runs, good enough for 18th all-time, though the Big Hurt’s game was much more than just big flys.

A disciplined hitter who led the American League in walks four times, Thomas’ knowledge of the strike zone was nearly unparalleled among his peers. His 1,667 walks rank 9th all-time, and combined with his .301 batting average, result in a robust .419 career OBP (21st all-time, just behind Mickey Mantle and ahead of Stan Musial and Edgar Martinez).

Though the later part of his career was marred by injuries (joining Griffey Jr. in the “what if” club), the Big Hurt still finished 15th all-time in OPS, 25th in slugging, 22nd in RBI’s and 26th in extra-base hits. Sure he made David Ortiz look like John Olerud at first base, and yeah he ran with all the grace of a bewildered water buffalo, but Thomas owned home plate with a modern-day Thor’s hammer. Frank Thomas didn’t just hit baseballs…he destroyed them.

Even more impressive than all the numbers Thomas accumulated is the fact that he played baseball the right way, refusing to substitute shortcuts or supplements for hard work. Despite being a home run hitter in the scandal-filled steroids era, the Big Hurt has never been linked to PED’s and was one of baseball’s most outspoken players about steroids, calling for strict punishments of convicted cheaters.

Frank Thomas retired from baseball as one of the 15-20 greatest hitters of all-time. His numbers alone make him a Hall-of-Fame candidate, but it’s his integrity that ensures he will go in on the first ballot. Happy trails Big Hurt; baseball was a better sport because of you.

Winter Meetings Heating Up: Three-Way Trade Sends Granderson to New York Yankees, Jackson to Diamondbacks.

Granderson will be bringing his multi-talented game to New York next season.

Fresh off a victory in the 2009 World Series the New York Yankees have apparently set their sights on capturing the 2010 Fall Classic…and maybe a few more. In the biggest deal of the offseason thus far the Yankees are set to acquire All-Star outfielder Curtis Granderson from the Detroit Tigers in a three team trade that also includes the Arizona Diamondbacks. Though the deal is yet to be finalized, it appears that the Diamondbacks will receive Ian Kennedy from New York and Edwin Jackson from the Tigers, while Detroit will pick up Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from Arizona and Phil Coke and outfield prospect Austin Jackson from the Yankees.

The deal addresses an immediate need in the outfield for the Bronx Bombers, who are set to lose Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui in free agency. Granderson is one of the game’s premier defensive centerfielders and despite a down year at the plate, still hit 30 homeruns and stole 20 bases. At only 28-years-old, the Yankees are hoping that Granderson will be able to rebound to his 2007 season form, a year in which he become only one of four players in history to post 20 HR’s, 20 triples, 20 doubles and 20 stolen bases in the same season. Granderson has a proclivity for strikeouts (141 K’s in 2009) and hit only .249 last year so this deal is anything but a sure thing for the Yankees.

Top prospect Austin Jackson was the key piece in the trade for Detroit.

The Detroit Tigers forfeit two of their franchise’s most popular players in Granderson and Edwin Jackson after a year in which they missed out on the playoffs despite holding a seven-game lead going into the season’s final month. Jackson finally lived up to his enormous potential in 2009, winning 13 games and posting a 3.62 ERA, although he struggled mightily after the All-Star break (5.07 ERA). Jackson was eligible for arbitration going into 2010, and the Tigers traded him to avoid paying the substantial increase in salary he was due to receive. Granderson was controlled by the Tigers through the 2012 season but the team was looking to shed payroll and the centerfielder was due almost $24 million over the next three years. In return for Jackson and Granderson, Detroit receives one of the best young power arms in the game, two solid left-handed relievers and a top outfield prospect. In just his second year in the big leauges, the hard throwing Scherzer struggled with consistency while going 9-11, but he did strikeout more than a batter an inning and shows considerable room for growth. Coke was the Yankees primary left-handed bullpen arm, going 4-3 with a 4.50 ERA, while Schlereth went 1-4 with a 5.89 ERA in just 18 1/3 innings. The key to the deal for the Tigers was the inclusion of Jackson, who hit .300 with four HR’s, 65 RBI’s and 24 stolen bases in Triple-A last season, and projects as a top-flight centerfielder.

The Arizona Diamondbacks seem like the odd team out in this deal, giving up a promising starter in Scherzer and a potential closer in Schlereth in return for the inconsistent Edwin Jackson and the unproven Ian Kennedy. Jackson certainly has quality stuff but is prone to bouts of wildness, and before last year never posted an ERA below 4.40 in a full season. Kennedy has struggled in his brief trials with the Yankees (1-4, 6.03 ERA) and doesn’t appear to be anything more than a fourth of fifth starter. Both pitchers will benefit from the move to the National League but the Diamondbacks may regret this trade if Scherzer continues to develop.

Just two days into baseball’s winter meetings and already a blockbuster deal is close to being completed that will have a substantial impact on how the rest of the offseason plays out. New York has made it clear that they won’t take a backseat to any team and the Red Sox and Devil Rays will have to act quickly in order to keep pace in the AL East. Baseball may be a methodical game but the offseason moves at the speed of light…at least when the Yankees are involved.

Baseball Gets It Right: Zack Greinke Named A.L. Cy Young Award Winner

Felix was phenomenal in '09, but Greinke was clearly the game's most dominant pitcher all year long.

As a Mariners’ fan I wanted Felix Hernandez to win this year’s AL Cy Young Award, because as a rule of thumb Seattle sports don’t win much (and no, I’m not forgetting about you Storm). After all, Hernandez came up through the farm system and matured before our eyes from a 19-year-old prodigy into a certified staff ace. He was dominant in 2009, leading a pedestrian Mariners team to an 85-win season, and looking better and better as the year progressed. The King finally lived up to his nickname, winning 19 games with a 2.49 ERA and 217 K’s, but even as a Mariners fan, I knew Felix didn’t deserve the award. C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay didn’t even deserve to be in the discussion; it was truly a two-horse race, and unfortunately, sweet Barbaro wasn’t one of them. No, Hernandez picked a bad season for his coming out party because, despite being stuck in the baseball wasteland that is Kansas City, Royals right-hander Zach Greinke was the best pitcher in 2009, not just in the American League…but in the entire sport.

Despite pitching for one of baseball's worst teams, Greinke was able to convince voters he was the AL's best.

Although his finish to the 2008 season should have raised a few eyebrows (4-1 with a 2.18 ERA in September), Greinke came into the year with virtually no fanfare—but it didn’t take long for that to change. By the end of the season’s first month, Sports Illustrated was heralding Greinke as the game’s best pitcher and it was easy to see why. In five April starts, the Royals’ ace went 5-0, had a dead-ball era 0.50 ERA and struck out 44 batters in only 36 innings. Kansas City was riding high and looking like a favorite in the AL Central but as often happens to a team that relies on Mike Jacobs as the big bat in their lineup, the Royals quickly faded from contention and Greinke was once again left to toil in obscurity. That didn’t stop him from mowing down hitters though, and despite some sub par run support (is Mark Teahan really hitting cleanup?) Zach-Attack cruised into the All-Star break with a 10-5 record, 2.12 ERA and amazingly, only four HR’s allowed in 127 innings. Although somehow not chosen to start the All-Star game, he made the most of his opportunity, striking out two NL batters in one inning and showing a national audience that he was a true star in the making.

The second half of the season was a struggle for Greinke, as he won only six games in 15 starts, though the blame clearly fell on the woeful Kansas City offense. The Royals only managed to score 13 runs in Greinke’s eight losses (1.6 runs/game) on the season, while scoring just 21 runs in his nine no-decisions (2.33 runs/game). Playing for a team with an average offense, Greinke would likely have finished with 22-23 wins, instead of the 16 he collected with Kansas City, and the Cy Young race wouldn’t have been a race at all, rather a runaway. Despite his team’s numerous shortcomings (no offense Sidney Ponson), Greinke never let up and capped off his historic season with a 3-0 record and 0.55 ERA in September.

If you take away wins (unfair, I know, but so is playing for K.C.), the choice of Zach Greinke as the Cy Young was really a no brainer (a good thing for voters):

–>Greinke: 2.16 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 242 K’s/51 walks, 6 complete games

–>Hernandez: 2.49 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 217 K’s/71 walks, 2 complete games

Sorry C.C., not even playing for the Yankees was enough to get you this year's Cy Young award.

If that’s not enough, digging even deeper shows that Greinke was at his best when it mattered most (which technically is never when pitching for the Royals, but bear with me). He held hitters to a .253 average with the bases empty, and incredibly was tougher with runners on, allowing opposing batters a miniscule .197 average and .235 OBP. Even when batters got ahead in the count Greinke was unhittable. He faced 111 batters with a three ball count, which typically favors hitters not named Yuniesky Betancourt, yet he held those batters to 19 hits, or a Richie Sexson-esque .171 average. The 26-year-old righty showed his true grit by improving each time through the lineup (.264 average on first plate appearance vs .189 average on third plate appearance), and holding hitters to a .199 BA with runners in scoring position. By any statistical measure you choose to look at Zack Grienke, was the best pitcher in the AL, and it wasn’t even close.

Although often criticized for questionable and uneducated decisions (cough–Derek Jeter Gold Glove–cough) baseball voters got the right man this time. Not only was Zach Grienke a great story in overcoming social anxiety disorder, but he was also baseball’s best pitcher all season long. It looks like the Royals have found their ace for the next decade, now if they only could find a catcher, first baseman, shortstop, second baseman, right fielder, third baseman and left fielder, they might be in business. Regardless of the talent (or lack thereof) that surrounded him, Zack Grienke pitched like a superstar all year and was more than worthy of the 2009 AL Cy Young award. Here’s hoping the humble young pitcher carries his success into next season…and brings some much needed hope to a hapless franchise.

Yankee Fans Continue To Insult Intelligence of General Populous: Derek Jeter Named Hank Aaron Award Winner

The AL's best offensive performer? Well, not really.

The American League’s best offensive player? Sure, in bizarro world.

In a postseason rife with egregious umpiring mistakes and base-running gaffes it was perhaps the fans who turned in the worst performance of all, selecting Derek Jeter as the American League’s Hank Aaron Award Winner. Now, if this award was given to the third or fourth best Yankees’ player every year that wouldn’t be an issue, but the Hank Aaron Award is supposed to be given to the best offensive player in each league.

The award is voted on by fans at MLB.com who narrow down a field of 90 players to the final two recipients, but judging by the shocking results, B.C.S. computers must have been involved somehow. How else could a player who had the worst OPS (on-base plus slugging) of any Yankee infielder win the award for best offensive player?

It’s not like Derek Jeter was bad in 2009 as he finished the season with a .334 average, 18 HR’s, 66 RBI’s and 30 SB’s. Jeter ranked 3rd in the AL in both batting average and OBP, while finishing 4th in runs and 7th in SB’s. Those are fine numbers for any player, but perhaps a bit magnified by the spotlight that always shines on the New York Yankees (it wouldn’t be the first time something Jeter did was blown wildly out of proportion).

To put Jeter’s stats in perspective his Hank Aaron Award counterpart in the NL, Albert Pujols, finished with the following stat line: .327-47 HR’s-135 RBI’s-16 SB’s. Sure it’s apples and oranges, but clearly Jeter’s numbers (which he posted while playing for the game’s best offense) weren’t that overwhelming.

In a perfect world Joe Mauer would have won the 2009 Hank Aaron Award. Of course in a perfect world, there wouldn't be Yankees fans.

In a perfect world Joe Mauer would have won the 2009 Hank Aaron Award. Of course in a perfect world, there wouldn’t be Yankees fans.

In fact, here is a list of the players who finished ahead of Derek Jeter in OPS: Joe Mauer, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeria, Ben Zobrist, Miguel Cabrera, Alex Rodriguez, Adam Lind, Kendry Morales, Jason Bay, J.D. Drew, Jason Kubel, Carlos Pena, Michael Young, Evan Longoria, Shin Soo-Choo, Jason Bartlett, Justin Morneau, Hideki Matsui, Torii Hunter and Robinson Cano.

That’s right, Jeter was fifth on his own team in OPS and couldn’t even crack the league’s top-20. Granted OPS isn’t the only way to tell how effective an offensive player was, but it is a good indicator of a batter’s combination of power and plate discipline. So, the league’s “best offensive player” finished behind J.D. Drew, Jason Bartlett and Shin Soo-Choo…well that just doesn’t quite add up.

But if Derek Jeter wasn’t the AL’s best hitter, then who was? It could have been his teammate, Mark Teixeria, who after a slow start, hit .292 with 39 HR’s and 122 RBI’s. Or, it could have been the upstart Ben Zobrist, who despite 130 less at-bats, finished with more HR’s, RBI’s, extra-base hits and an OPS 70 points higher than that of Jeter (not to mention his 17 SB’s, 91 walks and ability to play at multiple positions).

Any number of players could have laid claim to being the AL’s top offensive performer, but one man stood head and shoulders above the rest. A man revered for his sideburns, sweet swing and love of all things American. A man who breaks more hearts in day than Mola Ram does in a lifetime. A man named Joe Mauer. While that  kind of hyperbole is normally saved for Jeter, the season that Mauer had was nothing short of historic. The 26-year-old catcher hit .365 with 28 HRs and 96 RBI’s, even though he missed the first month of the season with back problems (suffered while. Joltin’ Joe led the AL by a wide margin in batting average, slugging, OBP and OPS, all while playing Gold Glove caliber at the game’s most physically taxing position.

Joe Mauer had one of the best offensive seasons of the past few decades, and arguably the greatest ever by a catcher, but failed to garner an award he rightly deserved because of the media’s (and dimwitted Yankees’ fans) never-ending love affair with Derek Jeter.

It’s not all that surprising, but let’s hope the same thing doesn’t happen when it comes time to hand out the MVP.