Wednesday May 27th, 2009

Out of those guys you named for your dream team, I wonder how many will be playing for the Yankees in three years? -- Joe, New York

Last week, I made my choices for players at each position that I would build a team around, and with a few exceptions, the picks were fairly simple: Joe Mauer at catcher, Albert Pujols at first base, Dustin Pedroia at second base, Hanley Ramirez at shortstop, Evan Longoria at third base, Ryan Braun in left field, Grady Sizemore in center, Justin Upton in right, Zack Greinke as the starter and Jonathan Papelbon as the closer. By far, the top priority in my thinking was youth, since it doesn't make sense to start a team with someone who won't be around very long.

My list was pure fantasy, but even in reality, more and more teams are emphasizing youth as never before by trying to lock up their young stars to contracts that will buy out not only their arbitration-eligible years but also some years of free agency, as well. The result has been that homegrown stars are spending more of their prime years with the team that drafted them, which should make those teams more competitive while at the same time shrinking the available pool of free-agent talent. For instance, next winter's free agent class will still have some big names in it -- Victor Martinez, Jason Bay, Manny Ramirez (if he opts out) and Cliff Lee -- but it's several names that won't be there that are even more telling: Grady Sizemore, David Wright and Justin Morneau, three players who are exactly the kind of young superstars that can normally be counted on to set the market price each winter who will not do so this time around.

In fact, of the 10 players I chose for my team, eight of them have already been signed to long-term contracts and none of them have tested the free agent market. (Only Upton and Papelbon lack long-term deals.) What's more, only one player has a contract that runs out anytime soon: Mauer's four-year contract expires in 2010. Pujols has a club option for the 2011 season at a very reasonable $16 million that, barring any unforeseen developments, would almost certainly be exercised. The rest of these young stars will not be heading to the open market before the end of the 2012 season at the earliest, and Ramirez (2014), Braun (2015), Pedroia (2015) and Longoria (2016) will take even longer to become free agents. So to answer your question, Joe, unless the Yankees are willing to make some trades, the only player they could realistically make a play for is Mauer, but since he's a beloved figure in Minnesota and a Twin Cities native, it's likely the Twins will do everything in their power to keep him in his hometown.

Ted, you built a great dream team of youth, but you forgot to turn in your batting order. -- Ryan Paulsen, Oshkosh, Wis.

This team was certainly not built with any practical purposes in mind, which is why choosing a lineup would be so difficult. For instance, the only pure leadoff hitter in the group is Sizemore, who has struggled so significantly this season that he was dropped from the top spot in the order. With that in mind, my lineup would probably look some thing like this:

1. Ramirez 2. Pedroia 3. Pujols 4. Longoria 5. Braun 6. Mauer 7. Upton 8. Sizemore 9. Greinke (I guess this dream team's playing in an NL park ...)

Not a lot of lefties in there to balance out the right-handed threat, but I'd still like my chances at winning a few ballgames with that group.

What do you think the Red Sox should do with Jonathan Papelbon when he hits free agency, especially with 102 mph Daniel Bard waiting in the wings? -- Max, Boston

As noted above, Papelbon is one of the few young stars in the game who has not signed a long-term contract. He'll be eligible for free agency after the 2011 season. While it would be neat to see Bard (a fellow Tar Heel) thrive at the major league level, it's more than a little premature to be suggest that he's ready to replace an All-Star like Papelbon. My hunch is that the Red Sox will see where both players are physically and in their development as pitchers before making a decision one way or the other. Bard was a fantastic starting pitcher during his collegiate career at North Carolina, so with Papelbon locked into the closers role for at least a few more years, he could still be used in that capacity if the need arises. And although the Red Sox have embraced some of the tenets of the Moneyball philosophy, a willingness to just hand the closers role to almost anyone doesn't seem like one of the ways they've followed that model. Nor should they. In Papelbon, they have a closer who has good enough stuff to last a very long time in that role. The Yankees have shown with Mariano Rivera that being able to count on a shut-down closer year after year is invaluable and teams that are fortunate enough to get pitchers of that caliber should be in no hurry to let them go.

I've noticed the stock on Marlins 2B Dan Uggla keeps dropping, and it seems to have all started with his three-error night in New York at the All-Star Game last year. Could a performance like that really get in his head and affect his game this badly, or is it something else? -- Drew Parsons, Okeechobee, Fla.

It's certainly possible that a bad game can rattle a player's confidence, but that was an exhibition game, hardly the sort of thing that should destroy a player's ability to perform. What's more, it was a defensive nightmare, and if Uggla's stock is dropping, it's not because of his glovework, which has never been particularly stellar, but rather because of his bat. Uggla has cooled off remarkably since a torrid start to last year that had him being talked about as a possible MVP candidate. Since the All-Star Game, Uggla has played in 109 games, batting .216/.336/.402 with 17 home runs and 63 RBIs (he had 23 homers and 59 RBIs in 81 games last year before the All-Star break). Uggla claims to be a victim of bad luck as much as bad play, saying recently that several hard-hit balls were not falling for him. If that's true, it would only seem to be a matter of time before he turns it around, but the Marlins may not be able to wait that long for him if a team is willing to make them a decent trade offer.

All this talk about Ortiz's slump, but how come no one is mentioning the real reason for it. He doesn't have Manny Ramirez hitting behind him anymore. Yeah, Jason Bay and Kevin Youkilis are nice hitters, but Manny is one of the top five best hitters of his generation. Look at Papi's numbers prior to Manny leaving, and his numbers after Manny leaving. You can also look at his numbers before arriving in Boston and teaming up with Manny. -- Adam, Philly

As I wrote about last week, Ortiz's problems run much deeper than any single problem. Among other contributing factors are the mental drain of his slump, his inability at recognizing strikes and a mechanical flaw in his swing. Ramirez's departure may play a role, but it's not going to be the dominant factor, especially when Youkilis is batting .378/.489/.667 in the cleanup spot. Ortiz won't have that protection in front of him anymore, either, now that he's been dropped to the No. 6 spot by manager Terry Francona.

People are always arguing about who's "clutch" and who isn't. So why no stat to measure it? Surely the stats geeks of the baseball universe can agree upon some criteria that define a clutch hit. For example, a run scoring hit when the game is within 2 runs in the 7th inning or later. -- Joel Stoddard, New Minas, Nova Scotia, Canada

Joel, you may be a closeted stat geek yourself, since you almost perfectly described a stat that is already in existence. The stat you're looking for is Close & Late, defined as any at-bat from the seventh inning on in a tied or one-run game, or with the tying run either on base, at the plate or on deck. So far this year, Chris Burke of the Padres has the highest batting average in that scenario at .538, but the best hitter overall has probably been Justin Upton, who's hitting .500/.541/.853 in 34 at-bats in such situations with three home runs and seven RBIs (although he does have 11 strikeouts).

Is it possible to compute the number of walks issued per nine innings at the MLB level over the past several decades? Today's pitchers seem to have much more difficulty throwing strikes. -- Jay Massaro, Las Vegas

The numbers for each decade of the modern era (1901 forward) are below, and as you might guess, they follow the trends of the rest of the game. The Deadball Era, which ended in 1920, was the only time pitchers walked fewer than three hitters per game. The number, which had risen to peak levels in the 1940s (due partly to the fill-ins during the war, no doubt) and 1950s, dropped dramatically in the 1960s, as pitchers returned to prominence thanks in part to the expanded strike zone and raised mound. The walk rate increased again once the designated hitter came into being in 1973. This decade has not been especially wild, and even during the 1990s, arguably the height of the Steroids Era, pitchers were still not walking batters at historically high rates.

Walks per nine innings by decade:

1901-1909: 2.52 1910-1919: 2.95 1920-1929: 3.04 1930-1939: 3.28 1940-1949: 3.57 1950-1959: 3.59 1960-1969: 3.14 1970-1979: 3.31 1980-1989: 3.25 1990-1999: 3.45 2000-2009: 3.38

The Reds remain near the top of the NL Central standings despite at times missing their entire starting infield plus their best hitter (Joey Votto) for a lengthy stretch. How much of this success can be attributed to manager Dusty Baker? How good of a job would you say he's doing? -- Dave Pidgeon, Lancaster, PA

Perhaps no manager in baseball gets as much heat year after year as Dusty Baker. When he was in San Francisco, critics were quick to credit Barry Bonds, rather than Baker, for keeping the Giants perennial contenders. In Chicago, he was lambasted for overusing young starters Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. When he got to Cincinnati last season, Baker admitted he didn't know very much about his young team, and it showed as the Reds trudged to their eighth straight losing season. Baker certainly deserves some credit for keeping this team in contention despite their injuries this year. He's a manager a lot of guys love to play for, and after having guided the Reds to a 25-20 start, he's got to be considered a leading contender for NL Manager of the Year honors (with Joe Torre of the Dodgers and Ken Macha of the Brewers), which would be the fourth time Baker has won that award.

Your dream team -- franchise guys with the benefit of youth -- was interesting, given that you had no Dodgers on it. The Dodgers are tearing it up right now with a very young core -- James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, and Russell Martin in particular -- but none of these guys make your squad. Are you saying that none of young Dodgers are franchise guys? -- Phil, Chicago

No, I'm just saying that none of those players is the best young star at their position. Having won the NL West last year and already out to the best start in the game this year, that core is deserving of praise. But this may be a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. While none of them are yet superstars, each of them has the potential to play in multiple All-Star games, giving the Dodgers a nucleus that pretty much every team in the game is envious of.

Is there any way we can get a player from the 1984 Tigers into the Hall of Fame? Jack Morris is probably the most deserving, but voting-wise, he's probably a long shot (along with Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker). I find it odd that the franchise with the most wins in a single decade (the 1980s) only has its manager in the HOF (Sparky Anderson), and he's in more for what he did with Cincinnati in the 70s then what he did in Detroit in the 80s. -- Ryan, Lansing, Mich.

First of all, the Tigers didn't win the most games in that decade, the Yankees did. (Detroit won 839, the Yankees 854, although the Yanks were the only team in the top five in wins that did not win at least one World Series from 1980-89). Secondly, Whitaker has already fallen off the ballot and Trammell, who got just 17.4 percent this year, has almost no hope left of getting in since he's never broken 19 percent in his eight years on the ballot. If you want the case for Trammell to be in Cooperstown, you're better off asking my colleague Joe Posnanski, who has written at length about the subject.

Morris is one of the most intriguing holdovers on the ballot, since support for him seems to be growing (always a very odd phenomena to me; I mean, the guy's numbers don't change from year to year, so how should his vote total change so dramatically over time?). Here are Morris' vote totals, rounded to the nearest percentage, since he first appeared on the ballot in 2000: 22, 20, 21, 23, 26, 33, 41, 37, 43, 44. He's got the highest total yet, but he's still a long way from the 75 percent needed for enshrinement and he's only got five years left to get there. It doesn't look good for Morris to get the votes he needs. For instance, Jim Rice got in this year on his 15th and final try on the writers ballot, and he had already topped 50 percent of the vote five times in his first decade on the ballot. I think fans of the '84 Tigers will have to be content with a Cy Young and MVP season by Willie Hernandez, six All-Stars, a no-hitter by Jack Morris, Kirk Gibson's famous home run off Goose Gossage, a 104-win, wire-to-wire season that was one of the most dominant in baseball history and, of course, that World Series title.

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