Redemption Song: A-Rod Slugs His Way Out of Purgatory

Vanity may be a sin, but it's not a crime.

Vanity may be a sin but it’s not a crime.

Despite what you may have been told by Bud Selig and Major League Baseball, Alex Rodriguez is not the devil.

In a sports world filled with murderers, wife-beaters and drunk drivers, the vilified Yankees’ slugger worst sin was trying to gain an advantage on the field of play.

Think about that for a second.

If the NFL put the same amount of effort towards curbing domestic violence as baseball did building a case against A-Rod, would the headlines still be smattered with stories of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy?

Yet, in spite of the relatively benign nature of his transgressions, Rodriguez was forced to spend all of last season in baseball purgatory. MLB and Selig seemed to think it could solve its steroid problem by casting all the blame on one player (it’s not the first time) and then publicly flogging their artificially enhanced pariah. It, uh, didn’t work.

The 2015 season rolled around after what must have felt like an eternity, and A-Rod, healthy and freed from the tyrannical reign of Selig came out swinging, reminding fans that he’s still one of the most talented players in baseball — with or without performance enhancing drugs.

After the first 19 games of the year, A-Rod leads the AL in walks and is 4th in HR, 9th in slugging and 10th in OPS. His fast start to the season is even more impressive when you consider that he missed all of 2014 and plays for a team that really doesn’t want him around.

Rodriguez’s superlative skill set was on full display at Tampa Bay on April 18 as he drilled two home run including the longest shot of 2015. That moon shot not only gave New York a 1-0 lead, but also served as metaphorical giant middle finger to Selig, who likely thought he had hammered the final nail into A-Rod’s career with a 162-game suspension.

The Yankees weren’t expected to compete in a deep AL East this year but thanks to A-Rod’s potent presence in the lineup they find themselves atop the division with an 11-8 record. New York may not want Rodriguez, but it needs him.

Rodriguez is a cheater and a liar. But he’s also a helluva baseball player who’s overcome Titanic sized hurdles to find himself on the brink of history. The national pastime’s prodigal son has returned and he’s not leaving anytime soon.

So go ahead and cheer for A-Rod, because unlike the real criminals of sport, he deserves a second third chance.

arodhomerunswing

Ryan Howard Makes More Money Than You: Is He Worth $125 Million Dollars?

Ryan Howard won't have to settle for $5 dollar footlongs with his massive new contract.

No, he doesn’t work for Goldman-Sachs, but Ryan Howard is still making a killing in the down economy. The Phillies star slugger signed a 5 year/$125 million dollar contract yesterday to stay in Philadelphia through 2016. The contract also includes a $23 million dollar club option for 2017 which would push the total value of the deal to nearly $150 million–making him the second highest paid player in baseball per season behind only Alex Rodriguez.  

Though Howard got a late start to his career (he didn’t reach the majors until age 25 with Jim Thome at first in Philadelphia), the burly lefty has done nothing but hit since, averaging 49.5 home runs and 143 RBI’s over the past four seasons. Howard captured the NL MVP in 2006 on the strength of a .313-58 HR-149 campaign, and while his average has dipped since that year, he has proven to be one of the most consistent power producers in all of baseball.  

The Phillies were eager to keep the face of their franchise in red pinstripes even though he wasn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2011 season, perhaps fueled by an offseason rumor that the team had considered trading Howard to the Cardinals for Albert Pujols. Both Philadelphia and St. Louis denied that any trade talks had occurred, but the Phillies needed to prove they were committed to Howard, and did so by making him a very rich man. Is the big first baseman worth $25 million a year?  

Yes and no.  

There’s no denying that Howard is one of the best run producers in the game, and the signing is a good PR move because he’s a fan favorite, but Howard is certainly not without his flaws in the field and at the plate. The 6-4, 255 lbs. Howard has worked hard to become a passable first baseman, but is still below average at the position and would be better suited as a designated hitter in the American League. There are also concerns that his weight will become an issue in the latter stage of the contract as Howard will be 36 when the deal runs out. He has worked hard to stay in game shape, including losing 25 pounds during the offseason, but historically players of his size and skill set don’t age well. 

What the Phillies are really paying Howard for are his charismatic personality, moonshot home runs and clutch RBI’s—all of which mask some glaring weaknesses at the plate. Howard has averaged 191 strikeouts in his four full seasons and hasn’t posted an OPS over 1.000 since his MVP season of 2006. He is a .225 career hitter against left-handed pitchers and hasn’t shown the ability to improve in that area (only .200 so far in 2010). When the home runs stop flying off the bat, and they will, Howard’s contract will look like an albatross for Philadelphia. 

Were the Phillies smart to sign Howard to a new contract? Yes. Were the Phillies smart to sign Howard to a five-year/$125 million dollar contract? No. 

In other news, the St. Louis Cardinals are holding a combination bake and yard sale this weekend to help raise money for the ever-growing Albert Pujols free agent contract…

Ken Griffey Jr. is the Most Important Player in Baseball. Here’s Why.

At 40-years-old, Ken Griffey Jr. is primed for the most important season of his career.

Ken Griffey Jr. is no longer “the Kid”. He won’t be climbing walls and stealing would-be home runs or depositing 40+ souvenirs into the outfield stands in 2010. Junior will huff and puff trying to score from second on a single, struggle to catch up with above-average fastballs and will likely spend more time on the bench than he does on the field. Yet, despite all the shortcomings of his 40-year-old body, Ken Griffey Jr. has never meant more to the Seattle Mariners or the sport of baseball than he will in 2010.

The Mariners enter the season as a threat to win the AL West and a dark horse (though that term is forever soiled by the latest Nickleback album) to make a deep postseason run. The roster has been completely overhauled by new GM Jack Zduriencik and the additions of Cliff Lee, Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley give Seattle an even more talented roster than the one that went 85-77 last year. However, no offseason move was more important to the Mariners and their fans than bringing back Griffey for the 2010 season.

Junior completely transformed the Mariners last year, turning a dugout that looked like a crypt into somewhere more fun than an episode of MXC. For the first time in years Seattle players looked like they were having fun in 2009 (heck even Ichiro smiled, and he was diagnosed with a rare condition that makes it extremely painful to show any emotion) and it’s impossible to overstate how important chemistry was to the Mariners’ success last season.

Ken Griffey Jr. makes me want to be a better man.

Griffey will once again be counted on as the unquestioned leader of the Mariners in 2010, and will have his work cut out for him with the addition of the mercurial Bradley, a talented but troubled player who needs to perform at a high level if Seattle is to succeed in a competitive AL West. If the Mariners do manage to win their division (because the Wild Card will come out of the AL East), Junior is one of just a handful of players on the team with any prior postseason experience and the only remaining link to the Mariners’ magical 1995 season.

Griffey is part player, part coach and part class clown—and Seattle needs him to fulfill all three roles if the team hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Junior is integral to the success or failure of the Mariners in 2010, but he is even more important as a symbol of hope for the still tarnished sport of baseball.

Though Major League Baseball would like to continue to sweep the issue of steroids under the carpet, Mark McGwire’s return to the game has once again brought the taboo topic to the forefront of fans’ minds. Nearly every prolific home run hitter from the last two decades (Barry Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, etc.) has been linked in some way to steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs…but not Ken Griffey Jr.

He stands above the fray as a man who played the game of baseball the right way, and by not aging gracefully, Griffey in fact aged gracefully. Junior’s head didn’t grow while he was in his 30’s and he peaked when he was 28 or 29, not 38 or 39 (cough Barry Bonds cough). Ken Griffey Jr. is the lone source of light in the darkness that envelops the steroids era and has shown other players and the young kids that look up to him that success can be found without the help of a needle. Griffey took the responsibility of being a role model seriously, and if there is anything that baseball can salvage from the past twenty years, it’s thanks to Junior.

Hopefully baseball fans give Griffey the farewell he deserves this season. He’s done more for the game than we may ever know.

Bud’s Top Ten Players of 2010 (Part II)

It will be a break or make season in 2010 for Jake Peavy and the White Sox.

I hadn’t planned on releasing the identities of my top five players for 2010 until later in the week, but after an overwhelming number of emails begging me to pick up my dusty keyboard and write again, I really had no choice. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s letting my reader(s) down. So without further ado, here are the top five players I’ll be watching this coming season:  

5.) Jake Peavy/Alex Rios: Both of these players will feel intense pressure to perform in 2010 after failing to live up to expectations last season due to injuries (Peavy) or inconsistency (Rios). Chicago GM Kenny Williams has so much invested in these two players that if the White Sox struggle to compete in the AL Central this year, both his job and that of manager Ozzie Guillen could be in serious jeopardy. Peavy never really got a shot to prove himself last season after being acquired in an unexpected deal with the San Diego Padres, but since he will be receiving around $11 million in 2010, the 28-year-old right hander will be under the microscope as he tries to transition from the NL to the AL, and from a spacious ballpark to a bandbox in Chicago (Career Home ERA: 2.82 vs Career Road ERA: 3.79). Rios played much more like Alexis than Alex after being claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays, hitting only .199 for the White Sox in 146 ABs. He’s also due a sizable chunk of change over the next few seasons and Chicago needs him to improve drastically in 2010 or the team will be out of contention and cash for years to come. Besides, what would the baseball world be like without… Ozzie Guillen?    

Nearly invisible to the naked eye, Josh Johnson might have to switch leagues before anyone notices him.

4.) Josh Johnson: Who is Josh Johnson you say? Well, he’s not one of four quarterbacks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose first name is Josh, although he does make his living in the same state. He’s also not one of 20 people in your hometown with the name Josh Johnson, unless you happen to live in Jenks, Oklahoma. No, the real Josh Johnson is an emerging star pitcher for the Florida Marlins who has gone 22-6 over the past two seasons, including a 15-5 record, 3.23 ERA and 191 K’s in 2009. While Johnson has managed to fly under the radar his first five seasons in baseball, the 25-year-old flamethrower (who owned the third fastest average fastball in baseball last year) is ready to take America by storm, especially after the Marlins trade him to the Red Sox or Yankees. That’s right, just like every talented Marlin before him, Johnson is quickly becoming too expensive for Florida and is on his way to greener pastures (or at least more greenbacks). If the Marlins don’t sign him to a long-term deal before the season starts, expect Johnson to be making headlines for someone in the AL, and to finally receive the attention he deserves. 

 3.) Cliff Lee: Cliff Lee did everything he could to guide the Phillies to another World Series title in 2009, pitching like a true ace down the stretch run and throughout the playoffs. But as suddenly as he appeared in Philadelphia, he was gone. In the biggest deal of the offseason, the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner was shipped to Seattle in a three-team trade that saw Roy Halladay (more on him later) head to Philadelphia. Understandably, Lee was both shocked and upset by the blockbuster deal, but he lands in an ideal situation with the Mariners, a team on the rise in the AL West. The 31-year-old lefty will be a free agent after the season, and between feeling slighted by the Phillies and pitching for a new contract, Lee should have all the motivation he needs to be on top of his game in 2010. If Seattle can reach the playoffs (a distinct possibility in a weak division), the one-two combination of Felix Hernandez and Lee could prove lethal in a short series. Look for Lee to challenge for the 2010 AL Cy Young award, collect a $100 million dollar contract after the season and change his middle name to something other than “Phifer”.    

You see, he's not a machine! At least, not fully.

2.) Albert Pujols: Albert Pujols is so good he’s boring. Heck, the guy makes Tim Duncan look like Bill Murray, but that hasn’t stopped him from etching his name in history has one of the greatest right-handed hitters to ever play the game of baseball. Pujols made a serious run at the Triple Crown last year and after off-season elbow surgery and with the strong possibility of Matt Holliday returning to St. Louis, he should be even better in 2010.  With the current home run king (Barry Bonds) and the heir apparent (Alex Rodriguez) both bigger juicers than Jack LaLane, baseball is counting on Pujols to led the sport out of the steroid era and into a golden age of prosperity, or something like that.  

1.) Roy Halladay: After 2010, there will be no debate as to who is the best pitcher in all of baseball; Roy Halladay will be number one with a bullet. Halladay has consistently shown himself to be a top-tier starter despite pitching in the most difficult division in baseball, the AL East, and now finds himself in the National League where he won’t even have to face the NL East’s best offense (it’s his own team, the Phillies). In 2009, the four teams that Halladay faced in the AL East combined to score 3,331 runs in 2009—the four teams in the NL East that he will face in 2010 scored only 2,888 runs last year. The talent gap between the two leagues is wider than Christina Ricci’s forehead the Suez Canal, and Halladay has an opportunity to be historically great in 2010. “Doc” will challenge for career highs across the board, lead the Phillies to another World Series and post the majors first sub-2.00 ERA since Roger Clemens in 2005. Shamwow!

Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 (Part 1)

Aroldis Chapman is set to become a household name in 2010.

As a dual member of baseball’s brain trust and the sportswriting community, I am often approached by strangers on sidewalks or in stores who ask questions like: Why do you use so many commas in your writing? What are your thoughts on Cliff Floyd’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy? Did you ever take any courses on grammar or the English language? Why do people think Dane Cook is funny? And of course, which ten players are you most looking forward to watching in 2010? Well, I can provide little insight on most of their queries (Floyd did hit 34 HR’s 2005 for what it’s worth), so here is a look at Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 in some particular order:  

10.) Aroldis Chapman: Genetically engineered by Cuban scientists (think Ivan Drago or Yao Ming) to become the greatest left-handed pitcher of the 21st century and beyond, the 21-year-old Chapman might not throw a pitch in the majors next season, but the hype surrounding him is reaching New Moon levels. As a lefty who consistently throws in the high-90’s, Chapman could be a long-term impact arm for whatever team (Blue Jays, A’s, Angels, Red Sox or Yankees) ponies up the cash for him. How Chapman fairs in the minors in 2010 will go a long way in determining whether he’s worth the $20-25 million he’s likely to get (which he will of course mail back to Castro to support the resistance) or if he’s just another overpriced bust.  

9.) Alex Rodriguez: With Kate Hudson by his side in 2009, A-Rod captured his first World Series title and performed like a king in the postseason despite a nagging hip injury–but now she’s gone. While his body might be fully healthy in time for 2010 his heart will likely still be on the mend, and many baseball pundits wonder if he will be able to perform at last year’s high level without the flaxen-haired feline by his side. He’s on pace to reach 600 HR’s next season and could make a legitimate push for his fourth MVP with an absolutely stacked Yankees lineup, but can Alex do it with a heavy heart? I just don’t know. 

You've Gotta Love This Guy!

8.) Ken Griffey Jr:  My Seattle Mariners bias aside, Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest all around players in the history of baseball and should receive a fond farewell everywhere the M’s play this year, ala Cal Ripken Jr. in 2001. This is the last time fans will be able to see the sweetest swing in baseball and the smile so big and bright that it brought joy to millions around the world. Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Not if you are from the Pacific Northwest it isn’t, the “Kid” will always have a special place in our hearts. Hopefully the Mariners can send Junior out on a high note…perhaps with a trip to their first World Series ever?  

7.) Joe Mauer: Coming off the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher last year, Joe Mauer is poised for even bigger things in 2010 (like dating Scarlett Johansson, curing polio and signing a billion dollar contract—seriously, pay him whatever he wants Minnesota). Mauer captured the AL MVP award last year despite missing a month of the season and the sky is the limit for Minnesota’s 26-year-old savior as the Twins move into their brand spankin’ new stadium. With Justin Morneau protecting him in the lineup and having all of this offseason to recover from nagging injuries, will Mauer make another run at hitting .400 in 2010? If he can stay healthy and continue to hit home runs in bunches, Mauer needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Albert Pujols and Adam Everett as one of the best hitters in baseball. Yeah, he’s that good.  

Will 2010 be Felix's last season in Seattle?

6.) Felix Hernandez: Though it seems like he’s been around longer than Methuselah, Felix Hernandez won’t turn 24 until April and has already established himself as one of the top right-handed pitchers in baseball. Hernandez narrowly missed out on capturing the Cy Young award last year (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 217 K’s) and will have even more incentive to perform in 2010 with free agency looming. If the Mariners aren’t able to sign King Felix to a long-term contract sometime soon the team may be forced to move him at the trade deadline in order to recoup their losses. Can you imagine the bidding war for Felix between the Yankees and Red Sox? I think New York would throw in the Statue of Liberty if it brought Hernandez to the Big Apple. Please don’t go Felix, please! 

Coming Soon: Players 5 through 1!

Changing of the Guard: Do the Red Sox Recent Acquisitions Make Them the Team to Beat in the AL East for 2010?

John Lackey has the heart of a warrior. Will it be enough to propel Boston past New York?

The Boston Red Sox came into this offseason in a foul mood. Not only were they swept from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Angels, but their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees, returned to baseball’s limelight by capturing the World Series on the strength of stars Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia—players that Boston had at one time targeted through free agency or trades. To make matters worse, the Yankees had already pulled off one of the biggest moves of the offseason, acquiring talented center fielder Curtis Granderson in a trade with the Tigers. Clearly Boston was feeling the heat in a never-ending arms race with New York, and it didn’t take long for the Red Sox to respond in turn. In the span of two days they acquired John Lackey, the best free-agent pitcher on the market, and Mike Cameron, a defensive virtuoso, to fill the void in left field. Both players will play important roles for Boston in 2009, but will they make the Red Sox the best team in the AL East?   

The addition of Lackey gives Boston one of the deepest pitching rotations in all of baseball, with a talented trio at the top and a number of serviceable arms at the back of the rotation. Lackey received staff ace money from the Red Sox (5 years/$82.5 million) but will probably be the third starting pitcher in the rotation behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester (Killer J’s? J-Cubed?). Though hampered by injuries in 2009, Lackey still went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA and 139 strikeouts against only 47 walks. He is mainly a groundball pitcher but can be susceptible to the longball (he allowed 26 home runs in 2008), which may prove to be an issue with the Green Monster out in left field. Despite the fact that Lackey might not be in the same class as pitchers like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, he has a strong postseason track record (3.12 career playoff ERA) and past success against AL East foes (25-15, 3.62 ERA vs. New York, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay). After getting burned last year by the John Smoltz experiment the Red Sox were eager to acquire a dependable arm (Lackey has a .590 career winning percentage) and now have one of the most formidable starting fives with Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Clay Bucholz (though be may be traded for an additional bat) and either Dice-K or Tim Wakefield. In terms of pitching, Boston certainly has the talent to compete with the Yankees; do they on offense?  

Mike Cameron has some big shoes to fill in left field.

While Mike Cameron will be an upgrade defensively over Jason Bay in left field (or centerfield, depending on where Terry Francona decides to play Jacoby Ellsbury), he will be hard pressed to match Bay’s 36 home runs and 119 RBI’s. The 36-year-old Cameron hit .250 with 24 HR’s and 70 RBI’s last season, but also chipped in 32 doubles and 75 walks which led to a .342 OBP (vs. Bay’s .384 OBP). With the perpetually disappointing J.D. Drew in right, Boston won’t exactly have a murderer’s row in the outfield, and may lose even more ground to the Yankees’ big bats (New York outscored Boston by 43 runs in 2009). As questions continue to swirl around the health of Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz continues to age at the speed of light, the Red Sox are still at least another bat away from usurping the Bronx Bombers, and that’s assuming that New York doesn’t make any more moves (they did).

So, while the signings of Lackey and Cameron have improved the Red Sox’s pitching and defense, New York is still clearly the team to beat in the AL East. The Yankees have done nothing but improve this offseason after winning 102 games in 2009, and with a healthy A-Rod and the newly acquired Granderson the team could be a juggernaut in 2010. Boston is moving in the right direction, but unless they want to spend another postseason watching the Yankees raise a World Series trophy, general manager Theo Epstein had better continue to work the phones…New York isn’t going anywhere soon.

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.