MLB Franchise Four: New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox

yankees-vs-red-sox-rivalryMajor League Baseball recently unveiled a pretty cool initiative, “The Franchise Four”, a fan vote to determine each franchise’s four most important players. Along with the most important Negro Leaguers, Pioneers, and Greatest Living Players, MLB will unveil each team’s “Franchise Four” at the All-Star Game this summer in Cincinnati.

I think this is a great idea. Not only do baseball fans love a good argument (see the Pete Rose debate and each year’s Hall of Fame ballots), this is a great way to celebrate the game’s history at the Midsummer Classic.

As something of a baseball geek, I’m going to take some time in the weeks to come to give you my vote for each franchise’s best players. I’m beginning with two of the league’s most storied teams, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox.

New York Yankees Franchise Four

This is really not a tough call. The Yankee ballot, as you might imagine, is loaded with great players. I’m pretty sure that recency bias will put Derek Jeter in the Yankee four, but that means one of these all-time greats is going to be left out. Jeter is a winner and one of the game’s best role models of gamesmanship and hustle, but take a look at the ballot and tell me who you’d leave out to put him in.

  • Babe Ruth
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Whitey Ford
  • Mariano Rivera
  • Joe DiMaggio
  • Yogi Berra
  • Derek Jeter

Here are my four Yankee greats.

  1. Babe Ruth. This is the definition of a no-brainer. Even if he never picked up a bat, he probably would be in the Hall for his pitching prowess. But that bat: .342avg, 714HR, 2213RBI. The game’s greatest.
  2. Lou Gehrig. The best first baseman to ever play the game. Personified toughness. .340 lifetime average, 493HR.
  3. Joe DiMaggio. 15 years ago, I had lunch with a friend and his father, a man that played in the majors in the 1940s. I asked him the best player he ever played against. Without hesitation, he said, “DiMaggio.” Smooth. Graceful. Effortless. Made excellence look easy. My friend’s dad said he still had marks on his chest from a DiMaggio line drive. 60 years after the fact, he told the story with a smile. It’s amazing the pipeline of Yankee greats from Ruth through the Mantle-era.
  4. Mickey Mantle. This sort of exercise is tailor-made for Mantle enthusiasts to extol the Mick’s greatness. I’d be shocked if he’s not on the list.

My gut is that the final fan-vote will favor Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and Jeter. That’s a shame, because DiMaggio belongs on this Mt. Rushmore.

Boston Red Sox Franchise Four

Another incredible collection of players. I was a little surprised to see Rice’s inclusion on the list over Wade Boggs, given Rice’s long, circuitous route to Hall enshrinement. But that’s really splitting hairs. There are really three no-brainers here, but the final spot will be interesting. You have a couple of players (Fisk and Pedro) whose career numbers were compiled with other clubs, so I’m not sure how the final vote will net out.

Here are the nominees:

  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Carlton Fisk
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Ted Williams
  • Dwight Evans
  • Cy Young
  • Jim Rice
  • David Ortiz

At any rate, here are my four greatest BoSox players:

  1. Ted Williams. Universally recognized as one of the two or three greatest hitters to ever play the game. We can all imagine what his final numbers would be had he not sacrificed five prime years to serve in the U.S. military. An iconic figure and a shoo-in as the greatest Boston player ever.
  2. Cy Young. When the award for excellence in your field is named after you, I think your inclusion on a list like this is self-explanatory. The record that figures to stand longer than any other is Cy’s 511 career wins. Sure, he pitched in the deadball era, but that doesn’t matter. He’s here.
  3. Carl Yastrzemski. The phrase “professional hitter” might’ve been coined with Yaz in mind. The final no-brainer among Boston players.
  4. David Ortiz. I really wrestled with this. You could easily make a case for someone else here (like Fisk or Pedro), but I’m going with Ortiz in spite of my feelings about his “position” as a career designated hitter. For 40+ years, that’s the way the game has been played, so there’s no sense in penalizing Big Papi by excluding him from the Red Sox Franchise Four. In addition to his regular season body of work, Ortiz defies the sabermatrician objection to the use of the term “clutch” in the postseason. The bottom line is that he’s been the constant in Boston’s decade-long stretch of (mostly) success. Plus, he’s the current face of the franchise.

I have a pretty good feeling that these four will get the call in July as well. Maybe Fisk edges Papi, but I doubt it.

I’d love to know your thoughts on my vote. I’ll be posting more Franchise Four posts throughout the spring and summer.

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The Power of Words

powerof-wordsA few months ago, we witnessed NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ precipitous fall from grace. Williams lost credibility after exaggerating his experience covering the war in Iraq back in 2003, prompting NBC to remove him from the NBC Nightly News desk. NBC execs remain tight-lipped as to when, or even if, Williams will return.

This week, on the heels of a 1-7 slide, Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price unleashed an expletive-laced tirade against a Reds beat reporter. The reporter’s crime? Divulging that the Reds All-Star catcher, Devin Mesoraco, was unavailable in Sunday’s prime time game against the St. Louis Cardinals. For simply doing his job, this poor guy received the brunt of Price’s venomous rant, a six-minute tongue lashing in which Price used a certain choice term a whopping 77 times. Price has since issued an apology and according to many baseball insiders, he’s a genuinely nice guy. But I suspect those six minutes will follow him for a long time.

News anchors and sports figures are in the public eye, I understand that. But what are the implications for the rest of us? Are there lessons to be learned here about the power of our words? Here are four that come to my mind:

Truth-telling should be our native language. Nobody likes a liar, a manipulator of the truth, an exaggerator. Truth-telling is a matter of dignity. If I tell you the truth, that means you matter to me. Likewise, you honor me when you speak truth to me. We should be striving to tell the truth, even in circumstances that make us uncomfortable.

Our words have the power to define us. What we say and how we say it will likely be remembered for a long time. In the words of Proverbs 18:21, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” The words you use today will go a long way toward determining the words that are spoken about you long after you’re gone.

Our words have the power to define others. Do you still remember that criticism you received in junior high? The kid that made fun of you in high school? That embarrassing story someone told about you? Of course you do. But just as our words have the power to cut and wound, they also possess incredible power to heal and reorient. Children are especially hungry for this type of affirmation. I seek out opportunities to tell my children who they are as a counter to the deluge of false identities the world has for them. Use your words to help define others in ways that are affirming and encouraging.

You’ll never regret using your words to build up someone else. I’m sure Williams and Price deeply regret the things they’ve said. I know this because of how much I regret things I’ve said in the past. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who regretted encouraging someone else. Proverbs 25:11, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.”

Think about the power of your words.

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Top Ten: Johnny Cash

americaniv_2A friend of mine has recently been posting his “top ten” lists of favorite songs by some of his favorite artists. He’s inspired me to do the same thing and, after a draining couple of days, I thought I’d have a little fun tonight and post my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

Some of my earliest memories include listening to Johnny Cash songs with my Dad. He was a huge Cash fan and I think it made him happy to share that love with me. I’d have to say Cash is my favorite recording artist of all time (as evidenced by this post).

Trying to select my ten favorite Cash songs is pretty tough. Of course, I grew up with the “classic” Cash sound: Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line, and Ring of Fire. But with a career that spans 50+ years, Cash’s sound inevitably evolved and adapted, sometimes to commercial success (see the Highwaymen recordings), sometimes not (“Chicken In Black”, anybody?). As much as I love the classic Cash, I’m drawn more to his American Recordings period, a late career renaissance sparked by Cash’s partnership with producer / genius Rick Rubin.

So here are my favorite Cash songs:

  1. “Folsom Prison Blues.” The classic. That poor guy in Reno…
  2. “I See A Darkness” from American III.
  3. “Mercy Seat” from American III. “I See A Darkness” and “Mercy Seat” are covers that appear back to back on Cash’s fantastic American Recordings III. Cash completely makes these songs his own. I view them as companion pieces since I’ve listened to them back-to-back for so many years.
  4. “Tennessee Flat Top Box.” More than any other Cash song, this one reminds me of my Dad.
  5. “Spiritual” from Unchained (also called American II).
  6. “When the Man Comes Around” from American IV. This is the book of Revelation set to music. Just awesome.
  7. “Ring of Fire.”
  8. “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” My Dad had this record when I was a kid; this song used to scare the mess out of me.
  9. “On the Evening Train” from American V.
  10. “Hurt” from American IV. The video to this song is fantastic.

That’s my list. Ask me on another day and I’d probably have 5 or 6 others that I’d want to put in there.

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2015 MLB Preview: National League West

The Dodgers have to be considered heavy favorites to win the NL West crown, possibly the pennant. Under this current ownership group, the Dodgers have reasserted themselves as a relevant championship-caliber ballclub. But after a second straight playoff dismantling at the hands of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Dodgers made some fairly significant changes during the offseason. The overhaul began in the front office with the additions of Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, and Josh Byrnes. The Dodgers allowed moody malcontent Hanley Ramirez to leave via free agency and traded away 2B Dee Gordon, SP Dan Haren, and CF Matt Kemp. In return, the Dodgers added lefty-hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal, 2B Howie Kendrick, and former NL MVP Jimmy Rollins to play shortstop. The flurry of moves also opens up a spot for top prospect Joc Pederson to play in center. Up the middle, the Dodgers defense should be much improved after ranking in the bottom third in fielding percentage in 2014.

But fear not: the Dodgers still have plenty of star wattage. Clayton Kershaw will look to press on as the best pitcher on the planet. And co-ace Zack Greinke continues to roll along as well. With these two at the front of the rotation, don’t expect many long losing streaks. A spring injury to Hyun-Jin Ryu has created an opening in the rotation, putting more pressure on offseason additions Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. If healthy, Anderson could put up fantastic numbers. The offense will be spear-headed by the effervescent Yasiel Puig, a truly remarkable talent. As he continues to refine his game, expect Puig to be a part of the MVP discussion for years to come.

The main competition for the Dodgers will likely come from a newly revamped Padres ballclub, helmed by flashy new GM AJ Preller. In a matter of weeks after being named to his post, Preller dealt away Grandal and a bevy of prospects in order to land catcher Derek Norris, third baseman Will Middlebrooks, and outfielders Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers. And a few weeks later, Preller struck again to fortify the rotation through the signing of free agent SP James Shields, whose presence rounds out an impressive starting five including 2014 All-Star Tyson Ross, flame throwing Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy (200Ks in ’14), and former Blue Jay Brandon Morrow. All of these moves leave the Padres with too many outfielders; perhaps Preller can continue to work the phones and find a trade partner interested in Will Venable, Cameron Maybin, or Carlos Quentin. But these new look Padres should be wild-card relevant for 2015. And as the Giants proved last year, all you need is a shot.

Speaking of the Giants, it’s an odd year, so expect them to fall back to mediocrity in ’15. Sure, they still have Madison Bumgarner, but the rest of the rotation is riddled with question marks. Can Matt Cain return to his pre-injury form? How much do Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy have left in the tank? And can Tim Lincecum be relied on at this stage of his career? Losing OF Hunter Pence for a significant period of time in the early going really hurts this offense that will also have to deal with the offseason departures of Pablo Sandoval and Mike Morse. Replacing them are Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki, solid but unspectacular veterans. I think the Giants will struggle to score runs and I just don’t see them having enough pitching to contend this year.

This we know: the bottom two teams in this division are among the worst in the majors. The Rockies and Diamondbacks will have the luxury of beating up on each other, so that might pad the win total for one club. But these teams are bad. You’d be hard pressed to fill out a major league rotation if you combined both teams.

But that sounds like a fun exercise. Here’s what a Rock-backs lineup could look like:

CF A.J. Pollock

SS Troy Tulowitzki

1B Paul Goldschmidt

3B Nolan Arenado

LF Carlos Gonzalez

RF Mark Trumbo

2B Christopher Owings

C Wilin Rosario

They’d still lose every game 10-8, but this would be a fun team to watch…during batting practice at least.

Seriously, these teams are pretty awful with very little shot at contending. I expect the Diamondbacks to finish in last since the Rockies pitching staff is better by the slightest of hairs.

In all, I think the Dodgers roll to a third straight division crown with San Diego being a part of the wild-card conversation. Otherwise, nothing much to see here.

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2015 MLB Preview: National League Central

If you know ANYTHING about me, you know that I’m an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I’m saying that up front here, acknowledging that when it comes to the Cardinals and handicapping the division they play in, I might not necessarily be the most objective dude in the world.

That being said, I truly cannot understand the love the Cubs are getting this preseason.

Take the esteemed publication, The Sporting News, long known as “The Bible of Baseball.” In their grading of the two clubs, the Cards best the Cubs in every facet of the game: defense (B+ to C), rotation (A- to B), bullpen (B- to C+), and batting order (B to C). Yet these same geniuses pick the Cubs to win the division. I guess there are some other “intangibles” that factor in to the popular wishful thinking that the Cubs are serious contenders to the division crown.

What a bunch of malarkey.

The Cardinals are not without question marks. Adam Wainwright is 33 years old and coming off elbow surgery and an abdominal strain. Can he be counted on for ace-level innings in 2015? 2013 NLCS MVP Michael Wacha will also be coming off an injury-marred campaign last season. In addition, the last time Wacha was on a mound in a big league game, he gave up Travis Ishakawa’s pennant-winning home run. Can he assert himself as a 200-inning #2 starter. Carlos Martinez is unproven as a big league starter. Yadier Molina was hurt last summer. Matt Adams still struggles against lefties.

But the Cardinals still loom as one of the most talented teams in the National League, certainly in the Central division. Offensively, there’s no more important Cardinal than Jason Heyward this season. Heyward has always possessed elite potential; staying healthy and productive has always been the issue. If he is finally able to put together an MVP-caliber season for the Redbirds, he could be in line for the richest contract in club history. With Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, Molina, and Adams, Heyward will form a strong core in the middle of the lineup. The key pitchers are all right-handed (Wainwright, Wacha, Jon Lackey, Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Jordan Walden) but if they produce, it shouldn’t matter. The Cardinals look to be in line for another 90-win campaign. A fifth straight NLCS wouldn’t surprise me.

If there’s a team in this division that could push the Cardinals, it’s not the Cubs; it’s Pittsburgh. The Pirates were very balanced last year, ranking 3rd in the majors in OBP, 5th in batting average, 8th in ERA, and 6th in saves. Losing Russell Martin will hurt, but the rest of the team remains intact. Andrew McCutchen looks like the best player in the National League. Starling Marte could be the NL’s breakout player this year. Gerrit Cole will receive Cy Young votes. And the bullpen, anchored by Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, and Jared Hughes, will continue to be a strength. This is a fundamentally sound club that, with a few breaks, could contend for the division.

At best, the Cubs are a third-place team. Jon Lester will help the rotation, but there are still some holes here. And the bullpen…ugh. I’ll be rooting for Jason Motte, except when he pitches in high leverage situations against the Cardinals! The boatload of young prospects is on the way and I expect the Cubs to be formidable in the next few years…just not yet. Kris Bryant and Javier Baez have already been sent down for more seasoning; Addison Russell likely won’t get much big league playing time this year either. But Jorge Soler looks like the real deal already.

The Cubs will have to beat out Milwaukee for third place in the Central. When healthy, the Brewer lineup looks really solid. Carlos Gomez is electric from the leadoff spot. Jonathan Lucroy was incredible last year, leading the majors in doubles and looking like an MVP candidate for much of the summer before fading late. Ryan Braun looks to be healthy again. While it’d be a stretch to expect the same numbers he put up prior to his PED bust, he should still be a solid .290-20HR-80RBI bat. The quickest bat on the team belongs to OF Kris Davis. You could see a Chris Carter-like HR breakout this season. But the pitching looks pedestrian, which is about right for a mediocre team.

There’s not much to be excited about in Cincinnati these days. It wasn’t that long ago that the Reds were one of the league’s best teams: 97 wins in 2012, 90 in 2013. But after a lackluster 2014, GM Walt Jocketty looks to be in rebuild mode, dealing starters Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon. The offense ranked near the bottom of every significant offensive category last year. If the Reds are going to have success, they’ll need renaissance seasons from Joey Votto (.255avg, 6 HR, 23 RBI), Brandon Phillips (8 HR, 51 RBI) and Jay Bruce (.217avg, 18 HR). But even if the offense produces more in 2015, the pitching won’t be nearly as good, at least on days that Johnny Cueto isn’t pitching. Long season in Cincy.

Expect the Cards to win, with a wild card push by Pittsburgh.

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2015 MLB Preview: National League East

The Washington Nationals look like the best team in baseball.

Fresh off a 96-win campaign — a season in which Nats hurlers led the majors in ERA — Washington added former Cy Young winner Max Scherzer to front the rotation. Can you imagine facing Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann in a short series? Gio Gonzalez and Doug Fister would be #2s on most rotations; in Washington, they’re #4 and #5. Health could be a factor early: star outfielder Jayson Werth continues to recover from offseason surgery; leadoff hitter and center fielder Denard Span is going to miss time in April as he heals from surgery on an abdominal muscle; last season’s MVP, infielder Anthony Rendon, is nicked up, too; and Bryce Harper is always one headfirst slide away from a stint on the disabled list.

But this is a team built for a title run. After two playoff appearances the past three seasons, anything short of a deep October run will be a disappointment for this club.

One of the reasons to be so bullish about the Nationals is the fact that they get to play many of their games against the rest of the scrubs in this lackluster division.

Things are looking better for the Mets and the Marlins, both longtime doormats in this division. The Marlins have a great young outfield led by the $300 million man, Giancarlo Stanton. But the supporting cast is the best in Stanton’s brief career. Scouts love Christian Yelich, say he’s a future batting champion. Marcell Ozuna had a breakout 25 HR season last year. Veteran imports Martin Prado and Mike Morse lengthen the lineup a bit. The Marlins are banking on Dee Gordon’s electric first half and choosing to ignore his so-so final three months. The pitching staff is capable and if they stay afloat the midseason addition of ace Jose Fernandez could vault the Marlins into the wild card discussion.

The Mets entered the season with wild card aspirations as well, although that kind of talk sounded a lot more realistic prior to Zack Wheeler’s season-ending surgery. As it stands, the Mets will rely on the return of young ace Matt Harvey, who has looked great this spring. In Jacob DeGrom, Bartolo Colon, Jon Niese, and Dillon Gee, the Metropolitans have a decent (if unspectacular) rotation. And there’s more help down on the farm in Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Rafael Montero. I don’t know what to think of the lineup. David Wright looks like he’s lost a step. Same for Curtis Granderson. Michael Cuddyer is 85 years old. I could see the Mets piddling around at .500 this season.

How the mighty have fallen. Time was the Phillies and Braves were the class of the NL East. Both clubs are in the midst of rebuilding efforts, so don’t look for much from them in 2015. At this point, it’s hard to remember that the Braves were a first place club last July. They spent the offseason dealing away Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis, which would seem to signal a complete dismantling. But the decision to sign Nick Markakis to a four-year, $40 million deal makes little sense for a club in transition. Freddie Freeman will hold the fort down as the Braves prepare for a move to the suburbs in a few years. Maybe by then they’ll be ready to be a factor once again. But for now, this might be the worst Atlanta team in 25 years.

At least the Braves get to play the Phillies a lot. It’s only a matter of time before they deal Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. Cliff Lee is looking like he might be done. And Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are shells of their former selves. It’s been a long slow fade for a club that won 102 games in 2011. Time to give the youngsters a look and build toward the next run of division crowns.

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2015 MLB Preview: American League West

This is another really interesting division. It’s top heavy with two good teams in the Angels and the Mariners. Thanks to Mike Trout’s MVP numbers, a resurgent Albert Pujols, and a lights out bullpen, the Angels cruised to an MLB-best 98 regular season wins last year. If Garret Richards returns healthy, the Halos could continue to be a force in this division. Losing Josh Hamilton and Howie Kendrick makes for a different dynamic in the lineup, but Mike Scioscia has to hope that Matt Joyce and C.J. Cron can provide protection for Trout and Pujols. Rookie Andrew Heaney came over in the Kendrick deal; he may be the X factor for this year’s squad. If he asserts himself as a #3 starter in the rotation, the Angels will be formidable once again.

But I’m picking Seattle to win the division. By addressing their glaring need for right handed power in signing Nelson Cruz, the Mariners will trot out their best starting nine in over a decade. Robinson Cano, Cruz, and Kyle Seager form a dynamic left-right-left trio in the heart of the lineup. No one was hotter down the stretch than 1B Logan Morrison. And the RF platoon of Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano will be fantastic. King Felix is at the top of his game and he fronts a deep rotation mixed with veterans (Hisashi Iwakuma and J.A. Happ) and young flamethrowers (James Paxton and Taijuan Walker). I think this is one of the most complete teams in the game and I could see them running away with the pennant.

The A’s had a weird offseason. I’m normally a big Billy Beane fan, but I just don’t get these moves. I’m not sure I would’ve given up Josh Donaldson and Brandon Moss so easily. But the rebuild plan was seemingly stymied by the signing of Royals castoff Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million contract. The Ben Zobrist pickup was nice, but with so many pieces being dealt off, you have to wonder if this team will score enough runs to matter. The pitching should be okay, although Sean Doolittle’s injury has to be concerning. Unless something crazy happens, I don’t see the A’s finishing higher than third in this division.

The Rangers are snakebitten. After suffering more serious injuries to key players than any other club in 2014, this spring began on a similarly ominous note as ace Yu Darvish went down with injury. Word is Prince Fielder is in killer shape, so it’ll be nice to see how he bounces back. And Adrian Beltre continues to quietly put together a HoF-worthy legacy. But the Rangers wont’ be a factor past the All-Star break.

Same thing for Houston, although this is the year Astros fans should begin to see some signs of life. Things are trending the right direction for some of the club’s prospects and the additions of Evan Gattis, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, and Pat Neshek should help the parent club. The Astros are still a couple of years away from a realistic wild card run, but I’m rooting for GM Jeff Luhnow (former member of the Cards front office).

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