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My Least Valuable Players and other 2009 'anti-award' winners

It's baseball awards time, which means it's also time for my own 2009 awards, starting with the Least Valuable Player (and American League fans, it's not who you think it is.) Following those are the Anti Cy Young Award (the Les Sweetland) and the not-so-great Manager of the Year Award (the John McCloskey). Enjoy.

AMERICAN LEAGUE LVP: Vernon Wells, Toronto

ALSO CONSIDERED:Yuniesky Betancourt, Kansas City; Jhonny Peralta, Cleveland; Alex Rios, Toronto/Chicago; Jose Guillen, Kansas City

Yes, I know -- it has to be Yuni. I mean it HAS to be Yuni. And, of course, I do believe that Yuniesky Betancourt is the worst player in the American League. To me, you have a hitter with a 65 OPS+, a shortstop with a -20.5 Ultimate Zone Rating and a player with a reputation as a slacker* ... bang, you have a winner. Royals GM Dayton Moore has made numerous moves that I thought were baffling -- signing Jose Guillen, signing Kyle Farnsworth, trading for Mike Jacobs just as a starting point -- but the Betancourt trade was the most infuriating because: (A) It made absolutely no sense, but more importantly (B)** Dayton blatantly refused to see it, even using Betancourt as an opportunity to disparage defensive stats and talk about how to appreciate a player like Betancourt you need to use your eyes and your heart.

*To this day, Keith Law insists the worst time he ever got on a player running to first was Yuniesky Betancourt on a double play ground ball.

**I don't know if you have noticed this, but if you do this (A), (B), (C) thing on your instant message or on your phone, the (B) comes out looking like a smiley face. I don't like this at all. I am not opposed to the whole smiley face revolution -- hey, people like smiley faces. But the computer should give me smiley face control. It's sort of the way I feel about Microsoft Word always trying to turn my numbers into lists and my iPhone always trying to change my spellings. Let ME decide if I feel like transmitting a smiley face.

Still, I think Vernon Wells wins the 2009 LVP Award. You know, Wells was a good player in 2008 and he was a good player in 2006 so perhaps he's going to have the even-odd thing that Bret Saberhagen had going for a while. But in 2009, he was brutal. He posted an 88 OPS+ which is bad enough, but it was only that good because he had a good last three weeks. He was hitting .247/.300/.389 on Sept. 5. And he was entirely unplayable in center field the whole year. He was a remarkable minus-30 defender on the John Dewanplus/minus and an equally horrific minus-18.2 UZR. I don't think it was quite as bad a year as Betancourt's, but I do think it's more or less a toss-up. I like Cocoa Pebbles more than Cocoa Krispies, but they are close enough.

But, if the MVP involves intangibles, well, the LVP must have them too. And what puts Wells over the top is that he is due to make $12.5 million next year, $23 million the next year, $21 million the next year, $21 million the year after that AND $21 million more the year after that. I mean you want to talk about looking into the abyss, well, here it is.

Sure, you might argue that the LVP should be a pure, "Worst player" award, but I don't think so. The Royals could release Betancourt tomorrow or during spring training or mid-season or whenever and it would not kill them financially. They won't release him because they think he's good. But they could. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are BURIED under mounds and mounds of Wellsian Debt. You would have to think that he's done as a center fielder, but he certainly could become a viable hitter again (though he turns 31 in December and that's older than most baseball people want to accept). But with about $100 million due in the next five years, whew...

NATIONAL LEAGUE LVP: Milton Bradley, Cubs

ALSO CONSIDERED:Emilio Bonifacio, Florida, Jeff Francoeur, Braves/Mets; Jason Kendall, Milwaukee; Russell Martin, Dodgers; Edgar Renteria, San Francisco; Alfonso Soriano, Cubs

It is entirely unfair to put Francoeur in the also considered department ... I know this. Francoeur was good for the Mets after he was traded. But I unfairly include him because:

1. He was so legendarily bad with the Braves -- .250/.282/.352 -- that he was well on his way to winning the award before getting traded to the Mets.

2. He was so good with the Mets -- .311/.338/.498 -- that the Mets undoubtedly believe that he is back to being the guy who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They will now be inspired to spend considerable money and effort to keep him in New York. And, hey, they could be right. He could be the player he was in the second half... and from everything I know about Francoeur, I hope that is what happens. He seems to be a great guy.

However, I would be remiss if I did not point out: They also could be wrong -- after all, over his last 2,500 at-bats Francoeur has an 89 OPS+ and the defensive numbers seem to indicate that he has regressed into a below average outfielder. Francoeur could be a Riddler-like trap, and the Mets could be just about ready to fall in.

But he was not LVP. The worst hitter in the league was Bonifacio, who punched up a 61 OPS+ because he could not get on base (.303 OBP) but made up for this with his lack of power (.308 slugging, though he did hit his first big league homer). The worst fielder in the league was probably Ryan Braun, who managed a minus-31 Dewan as a left fielder, which is admittedly better than the minus-41 he had at third base in 2007. But, man, can Ryan Braun swat.

Anyway, put it all together, and including those all-important intangibles, the 2009 LVP is Bradley. He was lousy on defense (minus-12 Dewan in right; minus-4.7 UZR) and not much on offense (99 OPS+ and missed 38 games with injuries). Plus, he was his usual pleasant self... leaving Cubs GM Jim Hendry publicly babbling about how the team doesn't HAVE to trade Bradley, they might WANT to keep Bradley, hey some of the best trades are the ones you DON'T make --- while privately Hendry's working the phones like Judy the Time Life Operator to get rid of this guy.*

*For a while, the hot talk was Bradley for Wells, which would have been the first trade of LVPs in baseball history. Now, that's a fascinating trade. On the one hand, the Cubs would be getting an enormously expensive player who just had a dismal season. On the other hand, the Blue Jays would be getting a less-expensive player coming off a dismal season who also has a knack for making people despise him. Break it down for us, Mel Kiper.

Bradley did lead the American League in OPS+ in 2008. And to be fair, he was not the worst player in the National League, not really all that close. After a horrendous start in 2009, he hit pretty well for a good chunk of last season. From May 25 through Aug. 29 he hit .300/.431/.454. I suspect he's got something left in the bat.

But he turns 32 in April. And he's Milton Bradley. A scout once told me that Bradley is the only high school player he ever scouted who hit a home run and did not have a single teammate come out to congratulate him. He's only signed for two more years -- he's due $9 million and $12 million. Think about all you get for the money.

Several brilliant readers on my blog pointed out I initially shortchanged Soriano for LVP. That contract is brutal. And I did not realize just how much Soriano's offense AND defense regressed in 2009 -- I thought he was pretty good defensively in 2007 and 2008. He makes a compelling case. I think Bradley, because of his whole game, was the LVP though. Willy Taveras was also a very viable LVP candidate. But he's actually pretty good defensively in center and he only played 102 games.

Les Sweetland was a Depression Era lefty who pitched for the better part of five seasons and went 33-58 with a 6.10 career ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 159-357. Some of Sweetland's lack of success was context driven -- he pitched for terrible teams and played most of his home games in the Baker Bowl, one of the worst pitching parks in baseball history. And then, a lot of it was that baseball people continuously seemed to believe he would pitch better the next time out. We name our Anti-Cy Young Award after Les Sweetland.

AL LES SWEETLAND AWARD:Jason Berken, Baltimore

Sure, as you probably predicted, I originally had Kansas City's Luke Hochevar as the Sweetland Award winner. And he probably deserves it -- what a weird year he had. What a weird career. You probably know all this: Hochevar was picked by the Dodgers with the 40th overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft -- he dropped that low, apparently, because everyone knew that he and his agent Scott Boras wanted big-time money. Then, unsurprisingly, he refused to sign with the Dodgers because, yes, he and his agent wanted big-time money. The twist came when he briefly appeared to fire Boras and he apparently signed with the Dodgers. Only then he went back to Boras and he did not sign with the Dodgers.

Then he went to pitch some independent ball, and he went back in the draft, and then in a total shocker the Royals (who did not officially have a GM in charge at the time) made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft. Weird stuff. It didn't help that the draft turned out to be talent rich: Others to go in the first round that year include: Tim Lincecum, Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Chris Coghlan and Joba Chamberlain.

The Royals sent Hochevar to Class AA, where he was utterly mediocre. This prompted a promotion to Class AAA, where he was no good. He was called to the big leagues in 2008 and he went 6-12 with a 5.51 ERA. The Royals saw progress.

But 2009 was weirder than all of that. It was a year when Hochevar shut down the Cincinnati Reds on 80 pitches, had a 13 strikeout-zero walk game against Texas, threw a nine-inning, three-hit gem against the White Sox and tossed seven scoreless innings against the Twins. Beyond that he had six quality starts. So that's 10 good-to-great pitching performances. His other 15, however, were ATROCIOUS. He was 2-11 with two no-decisions, if you care about such things. His ERA was 10.82. He gave up 16 home runs in those 15 games. The league hit .376 against him in those games.

So, I had that all planned out... you can tell because I had all those paragraphs written (and, dammit, I wasn't about to let them go to waste). But then I decided that I really could not give the award to Hochevar. These things are becoming way too Royals-centric. The Royals were not even the worst team in the league.

So, I gave the league another look. And finally I took one look at Jason Berken's season -- it was remarkable. Berken was only a rookie, and there is reason to believe he still has a bright future ahead of him, maybe in the bullpen. So I'm not writing off his future by any means.

But this one year -- wow. He made 24 starts in his rookie season. And I will now give you the best baseball stat you will see today.

The league -- the whole league -- hit .327/.384/.522 against him.

Basically, the whole league was an MVP candidate when Jason Berken was on the hill.

More: With runners in scoring position, the league hit .354/.415/.514. With the bases loaded, the league hit .529 against Berken. So the league was also clutch against him.

Now, we all know that much of what happens to a pitcher is luck-related and defense-related. The league had a very high .344 batting average on balls hit in play. And despite Adam Jones' Gold Glove -- or perhaps because of it -- many stats suggest that the Orioles were a below-average defensive team. Then again -- like with the McCloskey -- no one wins a Sweetland Award alone.

NL LES SWEETLAND AWARD:Manny Parra, Milwaukee

That poor Brewers pitching staff. Whatever bug hit one hit all of them. Jeff Suppan went 7-12 with a 5.29 ERA. Braden Looper won 14 games with a 5.22 ERA. David Bush had a 6.38 ERA. Tough times.

Manny Parra, though, had the toughest year of the bunch. Parra was probably best known coming into this year as the guy who got into that shoving match with Prince Fielder in 2008. He pitched pretty well that year -- but struggled mightily in 2009, though he did become the first pitcher since 1938 to win more than 10 games with an ERA higher than 6.25. He went 11-11 with a 6.36 ERA.

One thing I found interesting -- and this is obviously just a small sample size thing, but still I like it -- is that Parra was 7-6 with a 5.97 ERA on four days' rest but 2-3 with a 10.52 on five days' rest. Maybe he's the kind of guy who pitches better with less rest. Maybe if you pitched him on three days' rest he'd go 8-5 with a 4.74 ERA and go 7-1 with a 2.23 ERA on two days' rest. I just wish teams would try stuff.

And for you Phillies fans... yes, Brad Lidge was considered for the Sweetland. I have calculated my Closer+ stats, where I score pitchers by the kinds of saves they make (easy saves, regular saves, tough saves) and it shows what every other stat shows -- Lidge had a dismal year. He blew two easy saves, which isn't good (easy saves, basically, are like extra points -- you have to make them) but more to the point he blew a baseball-leading NINE regular saves, which is epic. And he (thankfully) was not given a tough save all year.

Lidge absolutely fascinates me -- he's like the Frank Sinatra of closers. You know how Sinatra said that he had an "over acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." Lidge has been either unreasonably great like he was in 2004, 2005 and 2008, or virtually unpitchable like he was last year and in 2006. The wild-swing makes him mysterious. I think he might be my favorite pitcher in baseball, non-Brian Bannister Division.

Honest John McCloskey had quite a baseball career. He barnstormed with numerous baseball teams in Old Hoss Radbourn's wild 1880s, and it is said that he played literally every position, including pitcher and catcher. He founded the Texas League (for this, he's in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame) and he managed countless teams around the Southwest and managed Army teams during World War I. He was, by the accounts I could find, a successful manager on the minor league level and a Solomon-like sage who, for instance, when faced with the drunken talents of pitcher Bugs Raymond, proclaimed wisely that Bugs had to stop drinking... on days he pitched. Bugs did not always follow this wise proclamation -- and he lost 25 games in 1908 -- but, hey, Honest John gave it his best shot.

Honest John McCloskey also went 190-417 in his five seasons as a manager in the major leagues. That's a .313 winning percentage... the worst for any manager with at least 500 games. He lost 98, 101 and 105 in his three seasons (1906-08) managing the Cardinals, which is somewhat telling because the Cardinals have not lost 100 games in a season since.*

*This really is kind of incredible: The Cardinals have not lost 95 games in a seasons since 1913, and have not even lost 90 in a season since 1990. They don't always win in St. Louis, but they never really lose -- not much baseball suffering in St. Louis. The Kansas City Royals have had more 100-loss seasons this decade than the Cardinals have had since 1900.

So, it seems perfect to name our Struggling Manager of the Year Award after John McCloskey... because McCloskey was clearly a good baseball man. He was, in fact, a baseball pioneer. Heck, they called him "Honest John." But through a combination of bad luck, bad players, bad choices, drunken pitching performances and so on, Honest John's teams were dreadful. A manager cannot lose on his own. To win the McCloskey truly takes a team effort.

AL JOHN McCLOSKEY AWARD:Trey Hillman, Kansas City

I feel bad being so obvious with the first McCloskey Award -- I really wanted to give it to Dave Trembley because I have spent way too much time pondering the various quirks and whims of Trey Hillman. But, in the end, I could not justify giving it to anyone else. When you have the American League Cy Young Award winner, a fairly dominant closer, a young hitter who bangs 50 doubles and 20 homers, and a second baseman who stuns everyone by posting a 114 OPS+, you probably should not lose 97 games. I'm not saying that's enough to contend -- it's not, the Royals are a bad baseball team. But you probably should not lose 97 games.

The Royals did the little things terribly. They also did big things terribly. In the end, you can blame or excuse baseball managers for anything you like... this gets at the heart of what it means to be a manager. They don't play. They don't draw up plays. There are no chalkboards. There's no time management, really. There are no meaningful timeouts to be called -- baseball, after all, is a game with CONSTANT timeouts. There is no halftime speech. So in baseball, no matter WHAT happens, you can say "Nothing is the manager's fault." Or you can say, "Everything is the manager's fault." And nobody knows for sure.

What we do know for sure about the Royals is this: They were awful as a base running team. They were awful defensively. They manufactured the fewest runs in the American League (according to Bill James' sensible definition of manufactured runs -- where two of the bases are not attributable to hits or walks) and they gave up THE MOST manufactured runs in the American League. They gave Mike Jacobs 101 at-bats against left-handed pitching, which is like setting fire to them. They wildly mistreated the most expensive pitcher in Royals history, Gil Meche, and predictably he wound up on the DL. Their bullpen was tragic -- 5.02 ERA despite Joakim Soria -- and the Royals actually went into the year thinking that the bullpen was a team strength. No, it just wasn't a great year.

How much of that is the manager's fault... everyone decides that on their own. The Royals decided that Trey Hillman did the absolute best he could with what he was given and brought him and most of his staff back. Maybe they are right.

NL JOHN McCLOSKEY AWARD: Manny Acta, Washington

He didn't survive the season -- and he's so well thought of in baseball circles that he has already been hired by the Cleveland Indians to be manager. But for more than a half season, Acta had the Nationals playing more or less like the expansion Mets. I mean, they were 26-61 -- they were playing .299 baseball.

Now, we're back to the premise: How much of a difference can a manager make, anyway? Well, you know what? I'm looking over this roster and though this will sound ludicrous, I just don't think the Nationals are THAT bad. There is some actual talent on that Washington team. Ryan Zimmerman is a major stud, Adam Dunn can swat for my team anytime (though, I admit, yes, I'd like him as a DH), Nick Johnson* -- who got 400-plus at-bats with the Nationals -- was an on-base-machine monster, Josh Willingham had a good year, and there are some young pitchers there I like, including Jordan Zimmermann. John Lannan's not bad either. I'm probably insane, but I'm getting a kind of Tampa Bay vibe from the Nationals, especially if Stephen Strasburg comes in and lights things up. We'll see how it looks in the spring.

*You know how there are certain things in life that you feel like you should have known but somehow didn't? I don't think I knew that Nick Johnson is the nephew of Larry Bowa. How could I have missed that?

But to the point: Yes, the Nationals were a bad baseball team, but they should have been just that... a bad baseball team, not a team on pace to be legendarily bad. Jim Riggleman came in, and the team played a lot better, and that's not exactly a glowing endorsement. Like I say, I've heard nothing but great things about the kind of guy and the kind of baseball man that Manny Acta is... and there's no doubt that things were dysfunctional in Washington. Still. That was a bad year.

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