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Yankees' bullpen could be best of all time

MLB.com @mike_petriello

The 2017 Yankees relievers were elite, by any metric you care to use. They had the third-lowest ERA (3.34); the lowest average against (.204); the highest strikeout rate (29.1 percent); the most Wins Above Replacement (9.2). They were good. They were so, so good.

Now realize they could possibly be better in 2018. Then, think about the fact that if they were, it might put them in the conversation for "the best bullpen of all time," an extremely unofficial title that's nonetheless fun to think about.

The 2017 Yankees relievers were elite, by any metric you care to use. They had the third-lowest ERA (3.34); the lowest average against (.204); the highest strikeout rate (29.1 percent); the most Wins Above Replacement (9.2). They were good. They were so, so good.

Now realize they could possibly be better in 2018. Then, think about the fact that if they were, it might put them in the conversation for "the best bullpen of all time," an extremely unofficial title that's nonetheless fun to think about.

How could those things happen? And what does "best bullpen" even mean? Let's dig in.

How to make a great bullpen even better

Part of the difficulty in evaluating a bullpen is that the members of that bullpen cycle through on a seemingly endless basis, with promotions, demotions and trips to the disabled list creating a different group nearly daily. There's not a constant group all year long; even the Yankees had 18 pitchers enter in relief at some point.

A good way to illustrate how much turnover can happen is to remind you who was actually in New York's bullpen on Opening Day 2017.

LHP -- Aroldis Chapman, Chasen Shreve, Tommy Layne
RHP -- Dellin Betances, Adam Warren, Tyler Clippard, Bryan Mitchell, Jonathan Holder

Who don't you see there? You don't see Chad Green, who didn't join the bullpen full-time until May and ended up becoming one of baseball's breakout stars. You don't see David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, acquired from the White Sox along with Todd Frazier in July. Those three pitchers combined for 130 2/3 dominant innings with the Yanks, pitching to a 1.79 ERA along with 190 strikeouts.

Looking at Expected wOBA, the Statcast™ metric that combines quality of contact (in terms of exit velocity and launch angle) along with amount of contact (in terms of strikeouts and walks), Green (8th), Kahnle (9th) and Robertson (11th) were three of the top dozen relievers in baseball in 2017, among those who faced 200 hitters. None of these guys were in the Opening Day bullpen.

What that means is that even with only partial seasons from three of the game's most dominant relievers, the Yankees' bullpen still reached those lofty statistical heights. For example, in April, New York's relievers who pitched the most innings were Warren and Mitchell. In May, it was Holder, Warren and Clippard. By September, the four relievers to pitch 10 or more innings were Robertson, Chapman, Green and Kahnle. The decent gave way to the elite.

The new trio took innings that had otherwise gone to Mitchell (5.79 ERA, now with San Diego) or Clippard (4.95 ERA, now a free agent) or Layne (7.62 ERA, now a free agent), and that's the point. The Yanks enter 2018 with far more talent atop the depth chart. If they started the season today, the bullpen could look something like this:

LHP -- Chapman, Shreve
RHP -- Betances, Robertson, Kahnle, Green, Warren, Giovanny Gallegos

That group, combined, put up a .258 Expected wOBA, a 2.63 ERA, and a 34.2 percent strikeout rate, in over 430 innings. Put another way, that's the same performance as Clayton Kershaw (.253 Expected wOBA), Stephen Strasburg (2.52 ERA) or Corey Kluber (34.1 percent strikeout rate), just in far more innings.

Video: ALCS Gm5: Kahnle tosses two shutout innings in relief

Five of those eight Yankees arms were in the top 16 in strikeout rate, while Shreve "only" struck out 58 in 45 1/3 innings, limiting lefties to a mere .161/.235/.262 line. Warren, serving as a multi-inning man, pitched to a 2.35 ERA and a 3.02 FIP. He may be this team's seventh-best reliever.

The little-known Gallegos, for what it's worth, just led the entire Triple-A International League with 40.8 percent strikeout rate. Don't like him? Ben Heller, who allowed one earned run in 11 innings for the Yanks in 2017, was third, at 36.8 percent. Or what about Holder, who struck out 40 against just eight walks in 39 1/3 Major League innings?

That's not to suggest that the Yankees' arms are without risk; every team has risk. Chapman missed a few weeks with an arm injury, then slumped in August before returning to dominate in September (17 whiffs across 12 scoreless innings). Betances' late-season command issues essentially sidelined him in the postseason, and make him something of a question into 2018 -- as much as anyone who struck out 100 in 59 2/3 innings can be "a question." There's no guarantees here. Just tons of elite strikeout talent.

Video: Kahnle, Robertson, Chapman dazzle in relief

How do you rank a historic bullpen?

We might have undersold, at the top, how good the 2017 bullpen already was. The well-known stat FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) takes the three things a pitcher has the most control over (strikeouts, walks and home runs) and puts it on an ERA scale. So the Yanks' relievers, for example, tied for No. 1 in FIP in 2017 with a 3.12 mark.

By itself, 3.12 doesn't rank highly in history, but you have to compare how that ranks against the league average for that season. In the same way that hitting 20 homers in 1968 was far more impressive than having done so in 2017, we have to add context for the way the game was played at the time. If we do that, to see how far above league average for that season their score was, we can see that what the Yankees just did stands out among history.

Best relief FIP compared to MLB average, 1920-2017

32 points above average -- 2003 Dodgers
32 points above average -- 1964 Reds
27 points above average -- 2017 Indians
26 points above average -- 2017 Yankees

(Yes, this could be an article about the 2017 Indians, too. But it's not -- and while the Yanks have full seasons of pitchers they added last year, Cleveland lost reliable Bryan Shaw to Colorado.)

Our group of eight in the assumed Opening Day bullpen, for what it's worth, would have been 40 points better than average in 2017 if you combine their 2017 MLB stats. If we add in Heller and Holder to get to a group that's 10 deep, it's still 38 points better than average. Even this ranking is missing an important factor, which is innings. Those 1964 Reds threw just 322 1/3 relief innings, while the 2017 Yankees threw 538 1/3. Being tied is hardly as impressive when you're throwing less than 60 percent of the number of innings. (And if you've forgotten about the 2003 Dodgers, that was the team that featured National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne closing games with a 337 ERA+.)

Ultimately, with the changing way that relievers are used, there's not an ideal way to compare present-day bullpens to those of years past. The sheer number and usage of relievers barely resembles the game of decades ago. That's to say there's no "right answer" as to what the best bullpen of all time could even be, which is fine: It's more fun to argue than to know.

What we do know for sure, however, is that the Yanks' bullpen was great last year. We know that they look even better in 2018, projected to be the best group in baseball. And if everything goes right, they might just be the best group we've ever seen. As far as we know, anyway.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.

 

New York Yankees, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Giovanny Gallegos, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Chasen Shreve, Adam Warren

'Respect the ranks': Yadi responds to Contreras

Cardinals' veteran catcher posts photo of All-Star trio from 2016
MLB.com @LangoschMLB

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina appears to be taking exception to recent comments from Cubs catcher Willson Contreras about how he plans to be a better backstop than perennial All-Stars Molina and Buster Posey.

"In my mind, I want to be the best catcher in the game for a long time -- like it was with Yadier Molina, like it is with Buster Posey," Contreras told the Chicago Sun-Times at the Cubs Convention over the weekend. "I used to watch a lot of those guys, but now I'm watching myself because I know that I'm going to be better than them. That's my plan. That's my [mindset]."

ST. LOUIS -- Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina appears to be taking exception to recent comments from Cubs catcher Willson Contreras about how he plans to be a better backstop than perennial All-Stars Molina and Buster Posey.

"In my mind, I want to be the best catcher in the game for a long time -- like it was with Yadier Molina, like it is with Buster Posey," Contreras told the Chicago Sun-Times at the Cubs Convention over the weekend. "I used to watch a lot of those guys, but now I'm watching myself because I know that I'm going to be better than them. That's my plan. That's my [mindset]."

That sentiment made it back to Molina, who reacted on Instagram by posting a photo of himself alongside Posey and Salvador Perez from the 2016 All-Star Game. Below it, he wrote: "Respeten los rangos NOVATOS!! aqui con los q si han probao que son los duros!!"

That loosely translates to "respect the ranks" of those who have already proven themselves.

A few hours later, Contreras sent out a series of three tweets in which to clarify what he believed to be a misinterpretation of his original comments.

"Many people have misinterpreted what was said during a recent interview," Contreras said. "I see no wrong in taking the best players as personal goals and exceedance [sic]. What player doesn't want to be the best at their position? I know I am lacking in many years of experience and only time will tell.

"In my mind I aim to be the best and like I mentioned during the interview, I have enormous respect for these players," he said. "I honor and learn so much very [sic] time I play against Molina and Posey. I simply used them as examples of achievement in my professional career.

"To use the best players as a model or standard and want to exceed them, I don't believe is any disrespect simply motivation and inspiration. Have a great night. God bless you all."

Tweet from @WContreras40: Many people have misinterpreted what was said during a recent interview, I see no wrong in taking the best players as personal goals and exceedance. What player doesn���t want to be the best at their position? I know I am lacking many years of experience and only time will tell.

This is not the first time that Molina has used Instagram to express his displeasure. Last summer, he took to the social media site to correct manager Mike Matheny's assertion that Molina was tired.

Contreras, who made his Major League debut in 2016, should have at least three more years to go head-to-head in the National League Central against Molina -- who plans to retire after the 2020 season. Contreras has yet to make an All-Star roster, while Molina has been on eight in his 14-year career.

The Cubs and Cardinals will meet for the first time this season on April 16 at Wrigley Field.

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

 

St. Louis Cardinals, Yadier Molina

MLB Buzz: Yelich to ATL? Marlins want Acuna

MLB.com

The Hot Stove is open for business. As the top free agents begin to ink new deals and clubs begin to make the moves they think will vault them into contention or put them over the top, MLB.com will have you covered with all the latest buzz right here.

Hot Stove Tracker

The Hot Stove is open for business. As the top free agents begin to ink new deals and clubs begin to make the moves they think will vault them into contention or put them over the top, MLB.com will have you covered with all the latest buzz right here.

Hot Stove Tracker

Marlins want Acuna in a Yelich deal with Braves
Christian Yelich's name has been in the trade rumor mill for much of the offseason, and the buzz has picked up again after the center fielder's agent said Tuesday that Yelich hopes to be traded before Spring Training starts. According to MLB Network insider Peter Gammons, any deal would have to bring a "huge return" for Miami.

Citing conversations with teams that have called the Marlins about Yelich, Gammons said Wednesday on MLB Tonight that the Marlins won't move the 26-year-old unless they get back "star-level talent." As one example, Gammons said Miami has told the Braves that uber-prospect Ronald Acuna would have to be included in any trade for Yelich.

"The Marlins told the Braves, 'Look, we'll do a three- or four- or five-for-one, but Ronald Acuna has to be in it or we don't go even to the second player,'" Gammons said on MLB Network.

Acuna is one of baseball's very top prospects. He currently ranks as MLB's No. 6 overall prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, and could move up even further on that list in the upcoming 2018 rankings. The 20-year-old outfielder seems likely to be promoted to the big league club early next season.

Gammons said Acuna is a player the Braves won't trade, and the fact that the Marlins would tell the Braves that he would have to be the minimum headliner of any Yelich deal indicates that they're "shooting very high."

Following Miami's trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon to the Yankees, Cardinals and Mariners, respectively, Yelich and catcher J.T. Realmuto have been floated as the next players the team could potentially move as part of its rebuilding effort.

Gammons also mentioned Realmuto in the segment, saying that other teams' general managers think the Marlins might wait to trade Realmuto closer to the 2018 Trade Deadline.

Red Sox offer to Martinez reportedly $100 million
Negotiations between the Red Sox and free-agent slugger J.D. Martinez haven't yet culminated in a contract agreement, and his agent, Scott Boras, has refuted recent reports that Boston extended an offer of five years in the $100 million range.

Boras told MLB Network insider Jon Heyman the reports of the offer, which was said to be less than what Martinez was seeking, were "not accurate." Heyman reported last week that Martinez is looking for a six-year deal valued at $30 million per year.

Video: MLB Tonight: Red Sox offer Martinez five-year deal

The Red Sox have long been linked to Martinez since before he hit free agency, first as a speculative fit following his monster season and then after multiple reports this offseason indicated the two sides were talking. Boston has been seen as the favorite to land Martinez, though a snails-pace free agent market this winter has stalled potential agreements with nearly every high-profile free agent.

Heyman reported last week that Martinez is willing to hold out into Spring Training for a contract that he believes meets his market value, which indicates other clubs are also involved. Martinez was a remarkable catalyst for the D-backs last year in helping them reach their first postseason since 2011, and Arizona is reportedly still interested in bringing him back, per Heyman.

Video: J.D. willing to wait for contract of his liking

After he was acquired on July 18, Martinez hit 29 homers and 65 RBIs in just 62 games, trailing only National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton in each category in that span. On the season, Martinez hit 45 homers despite playing in just 119 games, becoming the first player in MLB history to do so.

Martinez, who will be 31 in August, would reportedly prefer to play outfield, and Boston already has established Gold Glove Award winner Mookie Betts to go with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. Martinez's fit would likely be at designated hitter, which may give Arizona an edge, in addition to the fact that the club recently hired Martinez's personal hitting coach.

Castellanos on the trade block?
While the Tigers were ultimately able to avoid an arbitration hearing with Nicholas Castellanos, Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press reports that Detroit remains open to trading the rising slugger, citing multiple clubs that have engaged in discussions with the Tigers this offseason.

Video: Castrovince, Justice on Tigers, Castellanos' options

Castellanos, 25, agreed to a one-year, $6.05 million contract with the Tigers on Friday. Detroit's first-round Draft choice from 2010 is about to embark on his first full season in right field, but Fenech reports that the Tigers' uncertainty about his defensive ability could still lead to a trade before Opening Day. Castellanos has primarily manned third base during his first four full seasons in the Motor City, but he has rated below average in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in each of those campaigns. He played 21 games in right last season.

Castellanos' prowess at the plate is much less in doubt. He broke out for a career-high 26 home runs and 101 RBIs for the Tigers in 2017 while recording a league-adjusted 110 OPS+ (where 100 is average) and pacing the American League with 10 triples. He was even more productive in some respects in '16, finishing with a 120 OPS+ over 110 games. While Castellanos will be eligible for arbitration again next winter, he will not test the free-agent market until 2020. That means Castellanos, for the moment, represents a controllable, relatively cheap hitter coming into his own -- regardless of his defensive ability.

Tigers general manager Al Avila revealed at the Winter Meetings that the team approached Castellanos about a contract extension toward the end of last season, but that no progress has been made.

If Pirates aren't contending, J-Hay wants to be dealt
A day after Andrew McCutchen was traded to San Francisco, Josh Harrison effectively asked to be traded "if indeed the team does not expect to contend this year or next" in a statement released Tuesday to MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal. Harrison, 30, is under contract for $10.25 million this year, with club options for 2019 ($10.5 million) and '20 ($11.5 million). More >

Giants still looking for OF upgrades
Fresh off acquiring Andrew McCutchen from the Pirates on Monday, the Giants are trying to add even more talent to their outfield, with the former National League Most Valuable Player being told that he'll play a corner spot with the team this season, according to ESPN's Buster Olney.

San Francisco's main desire is to upgrade defensively in center field, and sources tell ESPN's Jerry Crasnick that the Giants rank Jarrod Dyson as their most coveted option behind Lorenzo Cain. The club is also interested in Jon Jay and Cameron Maybin, according to Crasnick, but values Dyson's "speed, defensive metrics and stolen-base ability."

The Giants, after bringing in McCutchen via a trade with the Pirates, do not have the space under the luxury-tax threshold to sign Cain at his projected salary, according to MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi. Morosi reported that the club is looking to add a "defense-first player" in center field "who will be less expensive than Cain."

Dyson, Jay and Maybin will certainly all be less expensive than the former Royals center fielder, and Dyson led that group with seven Outs Above Average last season, according to Statcast™. Maybin was at plus-2 two while Jay was minus-3.

Dyson, 33, has stolen at least 25 bases in each of the past six seasons and would be a big boost to a Giants club that ranked 20th in the Majors with 76 steals last year. Jay has 51 steals in eight Major League seasons, but his .738 career on-base-plus-slugging percentage bests Dyson's .677 total.

Maybin owns a career .693 OPS and stole 33 bases during his time split between the Astros and Angels last season.

Brewers remain interested in Arrieta, Moustakas
The Brewers "continue to be in" on free-agent right-hander Jake Arrieta and third baseman Mike Moustakas, according to Jim Bowden of SiriusXM.

The Brewers have been known to be seeking starting pitching in free agency, and Arrieta would certainly be a boost to Milwaukee's rotation, especially with Jimmy Nelson's 2018 status unclear. Nelson, who underwent surgery on his right shoulder in September, went 12-6 with a team-best 3.49 ERA and 199 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings last season.

It was reported earlier in January that the Cubs and Cardinals were the two clubs most interested in Arrieta's services, but the Brewers' desire to sign the 2015 National League Cy Young Award winner could create a potential bidding war between the NL Central rivals.

Arrieta, 31, went 64-29 with a 2.67 ERA in 119 starts for the Cubs over the past four seasons.

According to Bowden, the Brewers' interest in Moustakas comes with the idea that the club "could trade Travis Shaw" to the Yankees, Braves or Mets.

Milwaukee does not necessarily have a need at third base with the incumbent Shaw being younger and cheaper than Moustakas. The 27-year-old Shaw, under team control through 2022, also excelled for the Brewers last season, batting .273/.349/.513 with 31 home runs and 101 RBIs in 144 games.

 

Worst to first? It happens more than you think

2017 last-place teams will look to join 13 previous bounce-back division champs
MLB.com @philgrogers

Need a warm thought on a cold day?

One of the great things about baseball is history almost never repeats itself. You can finish last one season and win a division title the next.

Need a warm thought on a cold day?

One of the great things about baseball is history almost never repeats itself. You can finish last one season and win a division title the next.

That's happened 13 times since 1969, when Major League Baseball went to divisional play. The Red Sox did it in the American League East only two seasons ago, so it's clearly still part of the landscape. Maybe we can make it 14 next season.

And while we're dreaming, why not dream big? After the Red Sox went from last to first in 2013, they went on to finish the job, beating the Cardinals in the World Series. Five other last-to-first teams have reached the Series since 1969, most notably when Jack Morris and Kirby Puckett carried the '91 Twins to an out-of-nowhere championship.

You don't have to win a division title to celebrate, either. Coming close immediately after a dreadful season can bring its own delights.

Video: Must C Clinch: Twins clinch second AL Wild Card spot

The Twins went 59-103 and finished last in the AL Central in 2016, then jumped directly into the postseason as an AL Wild Card team last year. They were the fifth team to win a Wild Card after a last-place finish the season before.

As easy as it can be to pencil in teams like the Dodgers and Nationals to defend their titles, there could be magic to be made this year. The Giants are certainly thinking they can do something special, as they showed by adding Andrew McCutchen in his walk year.

It would be awfully fun to see Bruce Bochy back in the postseason with Madison Bumgarner healthy and dealing like he did in 2014. There's a long way between here and there, sure, but that distance can be covered in a hurry once the standings start changing daily.

In case you're wondering, here are the biggest year-over-year improvements in win totals:
1. 1903 N.Y. Giants: +36 (48 to 84 wins)
2. 1999 D-backs: +35 (65 to 100)
3. 1962 Phillies: +34 (47 to 81)
4. (tie) 1936 Boston Braves/Bees: +33 (38 to 71)
4. (tie) '46 Red Sox: +33 (71 to 104)
4. (tie) '89 Orioles: +33 (54 to 87)

Here's a look at the last-place teams in MLB's six divisions from a year ago:

NL West: Giants (64-98 in 2017)
If it could go wrong last season, it did. The Giants won 23 fewer games than in 2016, when they fell in a dramatic NL Division Series against the Cubs after winning the NL Wild Card Game. Look for an almost automatic trampoline effect if Bumgarner and Buster Posey avoid injury.

Video: McCutchen, Longoria will help defense and lineup

Brian Sabean and Bobby Evans filled gaping holes by trading for third baseman Evan Longoria and McCutchen, who will move from center field to right field. That switch allows Hunter Pence to move to left, where he joins Christian Yelich, Ryan Braun, Marcell Ozuna and Yoenis Cespedes among the NL elite.

San Francisco is still shopping for a center fielder who excels at chasing down fly balls. Free agents Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay (probably not Lorenzo Cain) are among the options, as is a possible trade. It makes sense that the Giants would pursue Jackie Bradley Jr. if the Red Sox sign J.D. Martinez, but it's not clear if they have the pieces to add Bradley or someone like Billy Hamilton.

NL East: Phillies (66-96 in 2017)
The Phillies haven't had a winning season since their five-year run of NL East titles ended in 2011, but ownership and the front office have signaled its time to kick it into gear. They changed managers, moving Pete Mackanin upstairs and rolling the dice on the out-of-the-box choice, Gabe Kapler -- a risky move, sort of like the Astros giving A.J. Hinch a second chance.

Video: Santana on being a part of a young Phillies team

Only the Padres were younger than the Phils last season, and the experience gained by Aaron Nola and the other young starters could be a key for a step up. But the biggest addition is free-agent Carlos Santana. He'll play first base, shifting small-sample-size phenom Rhys Hoskins to left field. It's fair to say he'll be an All-Star there if he homers once every 9.4 at-bats, as he did in his 50-game debut (pretty sure Philadelphia would take a 1/15 ratio, though).

Pat Neshek returns on a two-year deal as the primary setup man for Hector Neris, and Tommy Hunter adds bullpen depth. Something to watch closely is how J.P. Crawford handles shortstop with Freddy Galvis being traded to the Padres. Galvis played all 162 games last season.

NL Central: Reds (68-94 in 2017)
Jared Hughes, the owner of one of the most dependable bullpen arms, is making the rounds of the NL Central. He signed a two-year deal with Cincinnati after stints with the Pirates and Brewers. He's a good addition to a bullpen that has power arms at the end (Raisel Iglesias , Wandy Peralta and Michael Lorenzen. The Reds are turning shortstop over to Jose Peraza and expect third baseman Nick Senzel, the second overall pick in 2016, to come fast, giving them redundancy alongside Eugenio Suarez.

AL Central: Tigers (64-98 in 2017)
Still in the subtraction phase of the rebuilding project that started with the trades of Justin Verlander and Justin Upton, the Tigers dealt Ian Kinsler to the Angels. They signed Leonys Martin to chase down balls in center field for priority arms Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd. Al Avila added some pitching depth by signing Mike Fiers and Ryan Carpenter, a 27-year-old lefty who could move to the bullpen if he doesn't win the fifth starter's job.

AL West: A's (75-87 in 2017)
There are so many good young hitters in this system that Ryon Healy was declared expendable. He was traded to the Mariners to make it clear that Matt Chapman is the third baseman and Matt Olson the first baseman. The rotation has major upside with Jharel Cotton, Sean Manaea and Kendall Graveman ready to break out.

Video: Manaea becoming a stable presence in the A's rotation

Oakland is looking for a bounce-back season from Stanford product Stephen Piscotty, whom the Cardinals dealt after adding Ozuna. Yusmeiro Petit, who is signed to a two-year deal, and Emilio Pagan, who was acquired in the Healy trade, add depth to a bullpen that needed help.

AL East: Orioles (75-87 in 2017)
It's looking like there was no fire to go along with the Manny Machado smoke, and otherwise it's been a very quiet offseason in Baltimore. Dan Duquette hasn't addressed the rotation void behind Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. One thing he has done is accumulate intriguing arms to be sorted out in Spring Training: Michael Kelly, Nestor Cortes, Jose Mesa, Pedro Araujo and Konner Wade. Outfielder Jaycob Brugman, who made his debut with the A's last year, was added as a depth option in the outfield.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com.

 

Mejia leads list of Top 10 catching prospects

MLB.com @JimCallisMLB

MLB Pipeline's 2018 Top 10 Catching Prospects list looks a lot like our 2017 edition. Francisco Mejia (Indians) and Carson Kelly (Cardinals) once again occupy the top two spots, though they've flip-flopped from a year ago, and the top five catchers entering 2017 repeat on this year's Top 10.

Mejia is one of six catchers on the list who stand out most with their offensive prowess, while Kelly is the highest ranked of the three backstops who are future Gold Glove candidates. The best all-around catcher might be Keibert Ruiz (Dodgers), who's also the youngest at age 19.

MLB Pipeline's 2018 Top 10 Catching Prospects list looks a lot like our 2017 edition. Francisco Mejia (Indians) and Carson Kelly (Cardinals) once again occupy the top two spots, though they've flip-flopped from a year ago, and the top five catchers entering 2017 repeat on this year's Top 10.

Mejia is one of six catchers on the list who stand out most with their offensive prowess, while Kelly is the highest ranked of the three backstops who are future Gold Glove candidates. The best all-around catcher might be Keibert Ruiz (Dodgers), who's also the youngest at age 19.

:: Top 10 Prospects by Position ::

We'll continue to present positional Top 10 Prospects every weekday through Jan. 25, leading up to the reveal of our overall Top 100 Prospects list on Saturday, Jan. 27. We'll unveil the Top 100 on an MLB Network special (simulcast on MLB.com) at 8 p.m. ET.

The Top 10
1. Francisco Mejia, Indians More »
2. Carson Kelly, Cardinals More »
3. Keibert Ruiz, Dodgers More »
4. Sean Murphy, Athletics More »
5. Jake Rogers, Tigers More »
6. Jorge Alfaro, Phillies More »
7. Chance Sisco, Orioles More »
8. Danny Jansen, Blue Jays More »
9. Zack Collins, White Sox More »
10. Victor Caratini, Cubs More »

Top tools

Best hitter: Mejia (60)
After setting a modern Minor League record with a 50-game hitting streak in 2016, he finished seventh in the Double-A Eastern League batting race (.297) at age 21 last year. A switch-hitter adept from both sides of the plate, Mejia rarely swings and misses and has improved his power output for three straight seasons.

Video: Top Prospects: Francisco Mejia, C, Indians

Best power: Alfaro, Collins (55)
Alfaro has more raw power, though Collins' more patient approach may give him more usable pop in the long run. Collins smashed 19 homers in his first full year as a pro in 2017, more than Alfaro has hit in any of his eight seasons. The latter did slug .514 with five homers after Philadelphia called him up in August.

Video: Top Prospects: Zack Collins, C, White Sox

Fastest runner: Alfaro (45)
Though he's 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Alfaro moves well for his size. He's not as aggressive on the bases as he was early in his career, but he's also not a liability like a lot of catchers are.

Video: Top Prospects: Jorge Alfaro, C, Phillies

Best arm: Alfaro, Mejia, Murphy (70)
Alfaro, Mejia and Murphy all have plus-plus arm strength, with Murphy possessing the most consistent footwork and release. He led the trio by throwing out 33 percent of basestealers last season, with Alfaro and Mejia each erasing 30 percent.

Best defender: Rogers (70)
While Kelly and Murphy are two of the better defenders at any position in the Minors, Rogers is truly special. Part of the trade that sent Justin Verlander from the Tigers to the Astros in August, he's extremely athletic and agile and has exceptionally soft hands. His quick transfer and impressive accuracy help him play above his solid arm strength, as he eliminated 46 percent of basestealers in 2017.

Video: Top Prospects: Jake Rogers, C, Tigers

Superlatives

Highest ceiling: Mejia
If his power continues to develop and his receiving continues to improve, Mejia could be a .300-hitting, 20-homer catcher. He's gifted enough offensively that Cleveland is exploring different ways to get his bat into the lineup, including trying him at third base in the Arizona Fall League.

Highest floor: Kelly
There's no question that he can do everything needed behind the plate, and Kelly also has the ability to hit for at least decent average and power. Now he just needs Yadier Molina to slow down in St. Louis so he can get some playing time.

Video: Top Prospects: Carson Kelly, C, Cardinals

Rookie of the Year candidate: Alfaro
Alfaro is the lone player on our Top 10 who looks like he'll be his club's starter, though Sisco has a shot with the Orioles and Caratini figures to be the backup with the Cubs. Given his power and the hospitability of Citizens Bank Park, 20 homers aren't out of the question for Alfaro.

Highest riser: Ruiz
He had yet to make his full-season debut coming into 2017, but Ruiz handled that challenge by batting .316/.361/.452 between two Class A stops while playing at age 18 for most of the year. He's a switch-hitter with a precocious feel for hitting and solid defensive potential.

Video: Top Prospects: Keibert Ruiz, C, Dodgers

Humblest beginning: Jansen
A 16th-round pick as a Wisconsin high schooler in 2013, he passed on a commitment to Jacksonville to sign for $100,000. Jansen's career got off to slow start, as he spent two years in Rookie ball and then batted .213 in two years of Class A ball before breaking out n 2017.

Most to prove: Collins
Collins went 10th overall in the 2016 Draft because the White Sox loved his power and patience, and he hasn't disappointed with his 25 homers and 120 walks in 152 pro games. But he has to improve on his .229 batting average and 28 percent strikeout rate while getting better behind the plate.

Keep an eye on: Daulton Varsho, D-backs
The son of former big leaguer Gary Varsho and the highest pick ever out of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (second round last June), Daulton is a very athletic catcher with plus speed and offensive upside. He batted .311/.368/.534 in his pro debut, leading the Class A Short-Season Northwest League in slugging, OPS (.902) and extra-base hits (26).

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

 

Mets sign A-Gon to one-year deal

Veteran first baseman (back injury) played in just 71 games in '17
MLB.com @MannyOnMLB

The Mets have added another veteran bat to their lineup after finalizing a one-year deal with free-agent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez on Thursday.

Gonzalez, 35, was traded from the Dodgers to the Braves in December as part of a five-player deal, and then released. As a result, the Mets would only need to pay him the league minimum salary of $545,000 in 2018, with the Braves responsible for the rest of the $21.5 million owed to Gonzalez under his previous contract.

The Mets have added another veteran bat to their lineup after finalizing a one-year deal with free-agent first baseman Adrian Gonzalez on Thursday.

Gonzalez, 35, was traded from the Dodgers to the Braves in December as part of a five-player deal, and then released. As a result, the Mets would only need to pay him the league minimum salary of $545,000 in 2018, with the Braves responsible for the rest of the $21.5 million owed to Gonzalez under his previous contract.

Hot Stove Tracker

Gonzalez missed most of the 2017 season due to a back injury, posting a .242/.287/.355 slash line with three home runs in 71 games. Though the five-time All-Star has seen his power decline steadily over the past several seasons, Gonzalez did post a 111 OPS+ in 2016, and was an All-Star the season prior to that.

The Mets also have 22-year-old Dominic Smith as an option at first base. Though he hit .198 in 49 games for New York last season, Smith also had nine home runs. In 114 games for Triple-A Las Vegas, he posted a .330/.386/.519 slash line with 16 homers.

Should Gonzalez be better suited as a platoon player, signing him still provides depth at the position in case Smith is unable to handle an everyday role at the Major League level in 2018.

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.

 

New York Mets, Adrian Gonzalez

Moreno: Pujols ready to make room for Ohtani

Angels owner says veteran slugger is working at 1B to open up DH slot
MLB.com @boomskie

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Spring Training is less than a month away, and it's safe to say that a healthy share of the baseball world will descend upon Tempe Diablo Stadium on Feb. 14 for the unveiling of Shohei Ohtani, a two-way player from Japan who is preparing for his highly anticipated Major League debut in 2018.

That's the day Angels pitchers and catchers are slated to have their first workout, and the Angels are gearing up for the first high-profile two-way player since Babe Ruth and for the daily media crush.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Spring Training is less than a month away, and it's safe to say that a healthy share of the baseball world will descend upon Tempe Diablo Stadium on Feb. 14 for the unveiling of Shohei Ohtani, a two-way player from Japan who is preparing for his highly anticipated Major League debut in 2018.

That's the day Angels pitchers and catchers are slated to have their first workout, and the Angels are gearing up for the first high-profile two-way player since Babe Ruth and for the daily media crush.

In five seasons with the Nippon-Ham Fighters, the right-hander, whose fastball can reach 100 mph, was 42-15 with a 2.52 ERA and 624 strikeouts in 543 innings. As a left-handed hitter, Ohtani had 48 homers and hit .286.

In Japan, Ohtani was the designated hitter for three games between starts. He pitched every six days, but didn't hit on the days he pitched. His use in the Major Leagues is still to be determined by the Angels' baseball-operations staff headed by general manager Billy Eppler and veteran manager Mike Scioscia.

"He's 23, and we have six years to work him into it," Angels owner Arte Moreno told MLB.com. "It's not like he needs to go right in there and pull the wagon. We have a lot of flexibility."

Ohtani chose the Angels among seven finalists this offseason because of several factors: his relationship with Eppler, his status as the club's first high-profile Japanese player and the fact that the Angels are an American League club replete with the DH.

There are moving parts, however, and the most interesting is how Albert Pujols will adjust to playing a little more first base to make room for Ohtani as the DH. The 38-year-old Pujols has been limited in a defensive role by foot injuries in recent years.

Video: Ohtani's skill set broken down ahead of arrival

Last season, he started 149 games, 143 as the DH and only six at first base. He hit 23 homers and knocked in 101 runs.

The last time Pujols played with any sort of regularity at first base was in 2015, when he started 95 games there. He had surgery on his right foot after both the 2015 and '16 seasons.

GM: Angels' use of Ohtani will be 'pretty unique'

The latter surgery, to correct plantar fascia, caused him to miss the start of Spring Training in 2017. He returned in time to play in the season opener but got off to a slow start, with three homers and 22 RBIs in April.

Pujols heads into this season 32 hits short of 3,000, and with 614 home runs, he trails Ken Griffey Jr. by 16 for sixth on the all-time list.

The Angels have Pujols under guaranteed contract through 2021 and owe him $114 million. They had $2.32 million in international slot money to sign Ohtani.

What are the Angels to do? Pujols has been working out all winter in southern California.

"Albert's taking batting practice right now and has taken infield," Moreno said. "[Coach Dino Ebel] has been giving him infield [work] and said he looks strong. We won't know exactly what we're going to do until we see Albert play. But if we can get him into the field for 40-50 games, then Ohtani's going to have a lot of opportunity to bat."

Halos hope new pieces give lineup added punch

The last time any player regularly pitched and hit in the Major Leagues was 1919, when the left-handed Ruth made 17 starts for the Red Sox on the mound and 116 starts in the outfield and first base. He won nine games and led the Majors with 29 homers, 113 RBIs, 103 runs, a .456 on base percentage, .657 slugging percentage and 1.114 OPS.

Ruth was sold to the Yankees that offseason and was pretty much shut down as a pitcher thereafter. He made five more starts the rest of his career, winning all five and completing four.

The Yankees made the right move. He hit 714 home runs and is the all-time leader in slugging percentage (.690) and OPS (1.164). For those into newer metrics, Ruth is also the all-time leader with a 206 OPS+. One hundred is the mean in that statistic, and last season Pujols had an 81 OPS+.

Hitting and pitching in Nippon Professional Baseball is considered a similar level to Double- or Triple-A, so it will be interesting to see how Ohtani's skills translate to Major League Baseball. The prospect is exciting.

"We had a press conference at Angels Stadium about a month ago, and it was wild there," Moreno said. "You can only imagine how crazy it was. He was like a rock star."

But a regular DH? That remains to be seen.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter.

 

Los Angeles Angels, Albert Pujols

Cole eager to learn, contribute with Astros

Former Bucs ace adds another elite arm to formidable Houston rotation
MLB.com @brianmctaggart

HOUSTON -- The Astros have made a habit of pushing pitchers to the next level -- Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Charlie Morton, for example -- and are hoping to do the same with Gerrit Cole. Much of the credit goes to pitching coach Brent Strom, and the team's forward-thinking analytics department has also proven to provide the pitchers with useful information.

Cole, acquired by the Astros from the Pirates on Saturday in exchange for pitchers Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove, and prospects Colin Moran and Jason Martin, gives the Astros a hard-throwing 27-year-old who's looking to recapture the form of his 19-win season in 2015. He gives them top-of-the-rotation potential without having to carry that burden in a deep rotation.

HOUSTON -- The Astros have made a habit of pushing pitchers to the next level -- Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh and Charlie Morton, for example -- and are hoping to do the same with Gerrit Cole. Much of the credit goes to pitching coach Brent Strom, and the team's forward-thinking analytics department has also proven to provide the pitchers with useful information.

Cole, acquired by the Astros from the Pirates on Saturday in exchange for pitchers Michael Feliz and Joe Musgrove, and prospects Colin Moran and Jason Martin, gives the Astros a hard-throwing 27-year-old who's looking to recapture the form of his 19-win season in 2015. He gives them top-of-the-rotation potential without having to carry that burden in a deep rotation.

Video: Crane happy to acquire Cole from the Pirates

"I think it boils down to command, I think it boils down to executing pitches," Cole said Wednesday when introduced to the Houston media at Minute Maid Park. "There are a lot of contributing factors, but I'm just going to trust what I do and continue use the resources around me. I'm going to try to soak up as much as I can from the veterans on this team and some of the really good players."

Cole figures to benefit from working with veteran catcher Brian McCann, who has already reached out to him. He'll soak up as much as he can from veteran pitcher Justin Verlander, who is entering his first full season with the Astros after coming over in an Aug. 31 trade with the Tigers.

"His is somebody every right-handed power pitcher ever has looked up to," Cole said. "It's a really cool opportunity to be able to work with somebody that good."

Video: Cole greatly improves Astros' rotation

Expect the Astros to push Cole to use his breaking ball more, knowing his 96-mph fastball remains an important part of his arsenal. He threw 12.2 percent curveballs last year and 17.2 percent sliders, but the Astros love the weak contact and spin rates.

"I'm looking forward to a new approach," Cole said. "I know there are some things the Astros do that are different, and I'm looking forward to hearing those things and hopefully trying to get a lot better."

Astros manager A.J. Hinch loves the mindset that Cole wants to learn.

Video: Hinch knows addition of Cole improves Astros

"Gerrit's used to being a front-line pitcher in this league. He's used to even carrying a pitching staff," he said. "Coming over here, we want that mentality to stay the same, even though he's got some help in this rotation to be his best.

"Certainly, we'll talk a lot about how he's going to use his pitches, we're going to talk about command and the things he's talked about, maybe some mechanical things we feel can get the best out of him. He's open to any and all ideas. We've got a lot of people that are going to be working to maximize his potential and ways to get better."

Cole, the Pirates' first-round Draft pick in 2011 out of UCLA, went 19-22 with a 4.12 ERA during 54 starts in 2016-17 after winning 19 games in '15. He went 12-12 with a 4.26 ERA in 33 starts last year for the Pirates, allowing 55 walks and 31 homers while striking out 196 batters in 203 innings.

Video: Huntington on young players added via trades

He'll join an already-formidable rotation that includes Verlander, Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and Morton, who's a close friend of Cole from their Pittsburgh days. Brad Peacock, who had the best year of his career last year split between the rotation and bullpen, and steady veteran McHugh are also in the rotation conversation.

"I'm happy with the depth of this rotation," Hinch said. "It's hard to argue the quality we can throw out there every day if we're healthy and we continue to push forward."

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.

 

Houston Astros, Gerrit Cole

High heat helped Kimbrel rediscover his mojo

Red Sox closer embraced high fastballs with resounding success
MLB.com @mattkellyMLB

Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel threw the ball extremely hard last season, but that wasn't anything new. In seven full Major League seasons, Kimbrel has earned six trips to the All-Star Game by being a flamethrower, and by being one of the top closers in baseball.

Rather, it was where Kimbrel threw his fastball last year that helped both he and the Red Sox unlock a new pitcher; one who simply overwhelmed hitters and posted one of the most dominant relief seasons in recent memory.

Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel threw the ball extremely hard last season, but that wasn't anything new. In seven full Major League seasons, Kimbrel has earned six trips to the All-Star Game by being a flamethrower, and by being one of the top closers in baseball.

Rather, it was where Kimbrel threw his fastball last year that helped both he and the Red Sox unlock a new pitcher; one who simply overwhelmed hitters and posted one of the most dominant relief seasons in recent memory.

There were more than 320 Major League pitchers who threw at least 500 fastballs tracked by Statcast™ last season, and only four (Aroldis Chapman, Joe Kelly, Felipe Rivero and Trevor Rosenthal) threw harder than Kimbrel's 98.3 mph average. But Kimbrel threw almost exactly as hard in 2015, his lone season with the Padres, and in his '16 debut with the Red Sox. Boston paid more than its fair share for Kimbrel when it traded Manuel Margot, Carlos Asuaje, Logan Allen and Javier Guerra to San Diego, and the closer's '16 returns -- a career-high 3.40 ERA and 2.92 FIP to go with a career-low 31 saves -- were less than encouraging.

What a difference a year can make.

The Red Sox not only added Cy Young runner-up Chris Sale to head their rotation, they also got back the All-World version of Kimbrel from his days in Atlanta. The righty shaved nearly two runs off his ERA while recording a microscopic 0.681 WHIP that ranks as the eighth-lowest in any 50-plus inning season in modern history. Kimbrel's walk and strikeout rates improved dramatically, too. 

2016: 3.40 ERA, 53 IP, 37.7 strikeout percentage, 13.6 walk percentage

2017: 1.43 ERA, 69 IP, 49.6 strikeout percentage, 5.5 walk percentage

Video: MIN@BOS: Kimbrel fans Kepler to secure the save

Kimbrel threw as hard as he did the year before, and featured the same mix of pitches (69 percent fastballs, 31 percent curveballs) too. So, what changed? Statcast™ tracked 115 pitchers who threw at least 500 four-seam fastballs during both the 2016 and '17 campaigns. Only one reliever showed a bigger increase in his rate of four-seamers thrown up at the top of the strike zone.

Relievers with biggest increases in pct. of four-seam fastballs in "elevated" locations, 2016-17
Min. 500 four-seamers thrown in 2016 and '17

1. Tony Cingrani: +19.6 percent
2. Kimbrel: +15.9 percent
3. Archie Bradley: +15.0 percent
4. Addison Reed: +14.7 percent
5. Cody Allen: +14.2 percent

"Elevated" refers to the nine zones atop Statcast™'s detailed zone metric for pitch tracking, and that area turned out to be a sweet spot for Kimbrel. Boston's flamethrower went from boring his upper-90s heat in on the hands of right-handers to putting it up across the letters.

Tweet from @mattkellyMLB: Per #Statcast™, only 4 qualified pitchers posted a bigger increase in their usage of elevated 4-seam fastballs from 2016-17 than Craig Kimbrel. The #RedSox closer shaved nearly 100 points of SLG off his heater by climbing the ladder. pic.twitter.com/IFGvSCeb1o

If there's any pitcher best suited to throw the high four-seamer, it might be Kimbrel. The first three years of Statcast™ data show that four-seam fastballs with above-average spin tend to defy gravity longer on their way to home plate, thereby generating more whiffs and popups via the "ride" or "rise" effect that scouts have described for decades. Kimbrel's average spin rate of 2,428 rpm on his four-seamer last year was above the league average of 2,255 rpm and ranked 30th out of those nearly 200 pitchers who threw the pitch 500 times. But anecdotally, Kimbrel's heat has long been described differently than every other pitcher.

It started in high school when a piece of sheetrock fell on Kimbrel's left foot and broke it, forcing him to keep his arm fresh during the recovery period by throwing from his knees. Doing so helped Kimbrel, in his estimation, add velocity and torque, and it may have also lent him the now-mythical action on his fastball. Slugger Matt Holliday told Sports Illustrated last spring that the pitch "looks like it's coming out of his shirt and going up," while bullpen mate Joe Kelly has said he needs to re-lace his glove after playing catch with Kimbrel. Collectively, the stories from Kimbrel's teammates and opponents paint the truest picture of a "riseball" straight out of a video game.

"There's something about the way he throws it that makes it so difficult to track," said Holliday. "You swing at one place, and very rarely does the ball end up at that place."

The numbers suggest batters had a terrible time tracking Kimbrel's four-seamer last season. Kimbrel shaved 101 points off the weighted on-base average (wOBA) (a statistic that acts like OBP, except it awards increasingly more credit for doubles, triples and home runs) he allowed on his four-seamer, from .303 in 2016 to .202, for the fourth-biggest drop of any qualified pitcher. Kimbrel's four-seam wOBA ranked second-best among pitchers who ended at least 100 at-bats with that pitch, as did Kimbrel's 39.1 percent rate of whiffs generated per swing. When just isolating Kimbrel's 2017 performance on four-seamers in those nine elevated zones, his heat became even more stifling.

Kimbrel's results on "elevated" four-seam fastballs (MLB ranks), 2017

wOBA: .156 (second, min. 50 at-bats)
SLG: .204 (seventh, min. 50 AB)
Whiffs-per-swing: 47.9 percent (first, min. 100 swings induced)

Getting hitters to miss on nearly half their swings is fairly ridiculous, but the video evidence lends ample sympathy for Kimbrel's opponents. This 99-mph fastball pierced the top border of Mitch Haniger's strike zone:

Video: BOS@SEA: Kimbrel strikes out Haniger, side in 10th

Meanwhile, this 98-mph heater to Aaron Hicks might still be climbing somewhere above the city of Boston:

Video: NYY@BOS: Kimbrel fans Hicks to end the game

And then there was Kimbrel's final pitch of the regular season, a strikeout of George Springer that emphatically sealed the Red Sox's AL East title:

Video: HOU@BOS: Kimbrel whiffs Springer to clinch AL East

The only pitcher who allowed a lower overall wOBA and racked up a higher whiff rate than Kimbrel on the four-seamer was Yankees reliever Chad Green, whose fastball averaged roughly 2 1/2 less mph but actually featured higher spin. Whether Green pitches out of New York's rotation or from the bullpen, the Red Sox-Yankees matchups that feature both he and Kimbrel are something to look forward to. And, now that Kimbrel seems to have found his fastball sweet spot, his follow-up is definitely something to look forward to for fans in New England.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.

 

Boston Red Sox, Craig Kimbrel

At plate, Sheffield struck fear in foes

Slugger compiled great career numbers with offensive prowess
MLB.com @JPosnanski

The other day, we talked about how, by some defensive metrics, Andruw Jones was the greatest defensive center fielder in history, ahead of Willie Mays and Paul Blair and the rest. This is an extraordinary claim. The legend of Mays, Blair, Garry Maddox, Curt Flood and so many others is such that more people are likely to say that those defensive metrics are nonsensical than agree with the conclusion.

Well, by defensive wins above replacement (WAR), Gary Sheffield is the worst defensive outfielder in history.

The other day, we talked about how, by some defensive metrics, Andruw Jones was the greatest defensive center fielder in history, ahead of Willie Mays and Paul Blair and the rest. This is an extraordinary claim. The legend of Mays, Blair, Garry Maddox, Curt Flood and so many others is such that more people are likely to say that those defensive metrics are nonsensical than agree with the conclusion.

Well, by defensive wins above replacement (WAR), Gary Sheffield is the worst defensive outfielder in history.

Are people more or less likely to believe that one?

Sheffield was a crazy good hitter. You can talk about his connection to steroids -- he admitted using "the cream" in 2002 to help his right leg recover from injury -- but beyond that, there hasn't ever been a hitter quite like Sheff. Before the pitch, he waved the bat like he was an out-of-control madman about to go on a rampage. And then the pitch would come, and he was surgical in the way that he smashed the ball in whatever direction seemed appropriate.

Hall of Fame coverage

It was ridiculous how precise a hitter Sheffield was. The only members of the 500-homer club with fewer strikeouts than Sheff are Ted Williams, Mel Ott and, for the time being, Albert Pujols (Pujols will likely pass Sheffield in strikeouts early in the 2018 season). Sheffield only struck out 80 times in a season once, and he played in a time of many strikeouts. He walked 300 more times than he struck out for his career. Sheffield might be the last player to finish a career that much in the black.

Video: WS1997 Gm3: Sheffield homers in 1st for early lead

Yes, Sheffield's career hitting numbers are extraordinary, legendary. He's 23rd all time in Rbat (the hitting component for Baseball Reference WAR), ahead even of surefire first-ballot choice Chipper Jones (not to mention Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline and Ken Griffey Jr.).

Lists like these are always a bit deceptive, but they're fun anyway -- here's a list of the eight players in baseball history with 500 homers and 200 stolen bases:
1. Barry Bonds
2. Hank Aaron
3. Alex Rodriguez
4. Mays
5. Griffey Jr.
6. Frank Robinson
7. Jackson
8. Sheffield

Of these, Sheffield has the second-highest on-base percentage behind Bonds, and he struck out by far the least. Sheffield, Bonds and Aaron are the only ones to walk more than they struck out.

Sheffield's hitting is legendary, but if you buy into defensive stats at all, his defense is just about as legendary the other way. By Baseball Reference's figuring, Sheffield was 195 runs below average, an astonishing number that roughly means he cost his teams 20 or so games just with his defense.

Video: MLB Now responds to Kenny's essay on Sheffield

To dig into those numbers even more: Sheffield's 60.3 career WAR puts him a full 13 wins below the average Hall of Fame right fielder, which seems to suggest he has no Hall of Fame case. But his ERA is that low because of how much his defense drags him down. His 79.9 offensive WAR ranks him fifth among right fielders only behind four of the greatest players in baseball history, Babe Ruth, Aaron, Robinson and Ott. This guy was an all-time hitter.

Can someone be such a poor defensive player that it all but cancels out such legendary hitting?

In Sheffield's case, there's a more pertinent question: Why did he put up such poor defensive statistics? Sheffield was a fantastic athlete. It isn't hard to understand why, say, Adam Dunn or Frank Howard struggled in the outfield -- they were big men, not fast, not especially agile. But Sheffield came up to the big leagues as a shortstop. He was fast, nimble, had remarkable hand-eye coordination. He had a pretty good arm. In other words, Sheffield had everything necessary to at least be an average outfielder; he seemed to have everything necessary to be an outstanding one. Bill James, for one, believes he was a better outfielder than these numbers suggest.

Video: WS1997 Gm7: Sheffield robs Thome with sliding catch

But these rough defensive numbers are very real. Take something as simple as putouts. As a right fielder, Sheffield made 1.9 putouts per nine innings -- .2 less than the league average. The stats work out the same in left. That means 32 more baseballs a year dropped when hit in Sheffield's range than the average outfielder. That's a lot of singles and doubles where outs should be.

As for why, it's hard to say. Sheffield was an emotional player. He played for eight teams in his career -- never more than six seasons for any one team -- and no other player of his caliber had that disorienting of a career (with the possible exception of Rickey Henderson, who played for nine teams, but five of them in the last few years of his career when he was trying to hang on).

Sheffield, like Luke Skywalker, always looked away, to the future, to the horizon, never his mind on where he was. Hmm. He was a disappointment with Milwaukee, and he was traded to San Diego. He won a batting title with San Diego, and he was traded to Florida. He was probably the best hitter in the league in 1996, and the next year he won a World Series with Florida. And he was traded to Los Angeles. He averaged .312 with 38 homers and 103 RBIs for the Dodgers, and he was traded to Atlanta. He hit .330 with 39 homers and 132 RBIs with Atlanta, and he left for the Yankees.

Video: FLA@SF: Sheffield homers to tie game in 9th

Some of these moves were his doing, some of them weren't, but it leaves behind an impression of instability. Sheffield made nine All-Star teams and he finished top five in the MVP Award voting three times, but he never seemed to be viewed as one of the greatest players in the game. Since appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2015, Sheffield has not yet drawn 15 percent of the vote. Part of it, maybe even most of it, is the steroid connection. But the poor defensive numbers and the career of many teams have left their marks, too.

I have said before that if I was a pitcher, the two scariest hitters of my lifetime would have been Jeff Bagwell and Sheffield. Bagwell's intimidation came from the still way he would stand at the plate, that big wide stance, that bat just fluttering ever so slightly. This was a guy who meant to turn on a pitch and pull it all the way to Shaker Heights.

And Sheffield was the opposite, all that nervous energy, that bat waving wildly behind him, that glare he would give pitchers that showed this was all very personal. Sheff is almost certainly not going to get elected by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. But if there was a scary pitcher and hitter Hall of Fame, he'd be a first-ballot selection. I'd love to watch him face Bob Gibson, day after day after day.

Joe Posnanski is a national columnist for MLB.com.

 

Bellinger bulks up for sophomore season

NL Rookie of the Year gains 15 pounds as he hopes to avoid letdown
MLB.com @kengurnick

LOS ANGELES -- Opponents will see even more of Cody Bellinger in 2018.

The unanimous National League Rookie of the Year Award winner last season, Bellinger has added 15 pounds during the offseason with a stepped-up conditioning and nutrition program.

LOS ANGELES -- Opponents will see even more of Cody Bellinger in 2018.

The unanimous National League Rookie of the Year Award winner last season, Bellinger has added 15 pounds during the offseason with a stepped-up conditioning and nutrition program.

But not to worry, he hasn't given up his go-to food group.

"Ice cream? Oh, yeah," said the Dodgers first baseman and frozen-treat connoisseur.

The 22-year-old Bellinger's upper body shows the impressive results of his winter work.

"I know what a full season is like in the big leagues," he said. "It's not going to be a surprise anymore. I know what I need to do to keep my body in shape to last 162 games."

Video: Bellinger takes home NL ROY in historic season

Recalled from Triple-A in late April, Bellinger played a combined 150 games in 2017, with 39 of his 44 home runs coming as a Dodger, enough to set an NL rookie record. He seems determined to improve on that in 2018.

"I'm 100 percent taking it seriously," Bellinger said. "I think when you have some success, you're living the dream, and you want to have more success. For me, obviously the sophomore slump is going to be there, people will say it, and I just want to put my body and mind in the best position to succeed."

Bellinger said he's been able to look back on the 2017 season, both his accomplishments and those of the team.

"The World Series was a tough one to swallow," he said. "Two good teams get to the World Series. For us to go to Game 7, it is an accomplishment. Obviously, you want to win. But I've had an opportunity to go back and reflect on the kind of year it was.

"During the season you can enjoy it a little bit, but the next day you've got to go out and try to do the same thing. The year was full of ups and downs. I had a great time and look forward to this year."

A year ago, Adrian Gonzalez went into Spring Training as the Dodgers' starting first baseman. He's now a Met, his departure hastened by Bellinger's meteoric arrival. Despite missing most of April, Bellinger was an All-Star and finished sixth in the league with a .581 slugging percentage. He was ninth in NL MVP Award voting.

And as he mentioned, he's aware of those pesky sophomore slumps.

"If I were to start struggling, we have the right guys in the clubhouse to give me the right advice to get out of it," Bellinger said. "I'm not too worried about it. I'm going to go out and have fun like I did last year."

Ken Gurnick has covered the Dodgers for MLB.com since 2001.

 

Los Angeles Dodgers, Cody Bellinger