Many people (including 49 of 50 states according to a Sportscenter poll) are calling Atlanta’s new outfield the best in baseball. That assertion is laughably premature, if not flat out wrong.
With two MVP candidates in Josh Hamilton and Mike Trout, the Angels should hold that distinction; according to WAR, Trout was more valuable in 2012 than both Uptons and Jason Heyward combined. The Dodgers’ outfield, with Matt Kemp and Andre Eithier, is more reliably potent, and if Carl Crawford comes back from Tommy John surgery to even a shell of his former self it’ll be even better. The Cardinals’ outfield, with sluggers Matt Holiday and Carlos Beltran in left and right, respectively, and defensive wiz John Jay, who can also swing it, in center, is scarier than the Braves’. Same could be said of that of the Nationals, who have Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper for a full season and recently acquired center fielder Denard Span. Hell, even the Blue Jays can have a stronger outfield if Jose Bautista recovers from an injured wrist and Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus put up average numbers.
The Braves are banking on a scary little noun that’s been haunting the Upton brothers for years: potential. The word is all fine and good when talking about prospects, who by definition have nothing but it. But Atlanta’s basing their entire outfield and presumably No. 2, 3, and 6 spots in the lineup on it in 2013. There’s no doubt in anyone’s minds that Jason Heyward and Justin and B.J. Upton all have fantastic tools. But they have never consistently put them in action for a period of time prolonged enough for them to make the Braves World Series favorites.
Yesterday the Diamondbacks finally did what they’ve been hinting they’d do for about 18 months – trade away outfielder Justin Upton, former No.1 overall pick and their best player who, still just at age 25, has been showing flashes of superhuman baseball playing ability since his call up as a teenager six years ago.
Response has been lukewarm at best around the baseball world for Arizona’s haul in the deal, in which they received infielder/outfielder Martin Prado, right-hander Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers. But the lack of star power in the DBack’s return hasn’t nearly been criticized as much as what has seemed to be the mission of GM Kevin Towers, which was to trade away, for no good reason, a star.
It has been less than two weeks since Marco Scutaro lofted that Phil Coke fastball into shallow center field in the 10th inning at Comerica Park in Detroit to score Ryan Theriot with the World Series winning run. Less than two weeks since the Giants, a ragtag team of anonymous names like Buster and Hunter and Pablo, completed their legendary assault on the World Series title, fighting off elimination six times in one playoff to bring a second championship to the Bay Area in three years. Less than two weeks, and now it’s getting cold.
The baseball season morphs in the winter months. Contrary to popular belief, it’s still active, robustly even, when it comes to the free agent market. From November through March teams scrap, fight and claw to sign players and improve their team. This year’s market isn’t particularly star-powered, but there are still a number of big names available. Here are the top ten, where they should go, and where they really will.
- Josh Hamilton, OF
Where he should go: San Francisco Giants
Where he will go: Cincinnati Reds
Projected contract: 5YR/$115M
Hamilton’s is one of the most interesting market cases in free agent history. There is no doubt the former MVP and batting champion can still play – his .285/.354/.577 slash line, 43 homers and 128 RBI in 2012 are a testament to that – and the questions of his past addictions to drugs and alcohol even seem to be subsiding. But there is something about the package of talent and controversy that Texas doesn’t seem to want to bring back, and that may be troubling for other potential suitors. Hamilton also has a history of injury problems, and on top of that, a reputation as someone who can’t play through even minor bang-ups.
If he were anyone else, Hamtilon’s tools would demand an Alex Rodriguez-like contract. But nobody is going to give a 32-year-old outfielder with the habit of crashing into walls and ending up on the front page more than a five year deal, and given Hamilton’s production warrants a contract in the $20M+ per year range, the amount of teams vying for his services is already limited. The Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Angels all have either no room or no interest. The Giants, on the other hand, fresh off a World Series title and swimming in revenue, seem like a perfect fit. San Francisco’s highest paid position player last season was center fielder Angel Pagan. He made $4.8M. The Giants could let Pagan walk in free agency and replace him with Hamilton. Spacious AT&T Park offers less walls for Hamilton to run into, and throwing him into a lineup that already features Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Series MVP Pablo Sandoval would guarantee the Giants a legitimate shot for contending for the title not just in 2013, but in years to come.
If Hamilton wanted to return to a small market, though, there is no better place for him than Cincinnati. Remember, it was the Reds who traded Hamilton to Texas for Edison Volquez in 2007, before he completed his comeback and became a superstar for the Rangers. Cincinnati could finally give up on the horrendous Drew Stubbs in centerfield, sign Hamilton and reap some of the benefits they lost in that lopsided trade. It would seem like they have the cash too, after signing Joey Votto to a 10-year/$225M deal last offseason.
2. Zack Grienke, SP
Where he should go: Texas Rangers
Where he will go: Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected contract: 5 YR/$96M
People said Grienke’s personality wouldn’t play in a big market, but he was 6-2 in 13 starts for the Angels down the stretch last year in Los Angeles. Look for the power righty and 2009 American League Cy Young winner to land a massive payday this offseason. Despite his mildly underwhelming ERA numbers (career 3.77), he packs four plus pitches and has averaged almost a strikeout per inning in eight years in the majors. Slotting him just ahead of Yu Darvish in the Texas rotation would make the Rangers wildly dangerous, but they will have to outbid the Dodgers, whose new owners have showed a willingness to write the big check and have expressed interest already in Grienke.
3. Hiroki Kuroda, SP
Where he should go: New York Yankees
Where he will go: New York Yankees
Projected contract: 2 YR/26M
Kuroda was fantastic in pinstripes in 2012, winning 16 games and posting just a 3.32 ERA. The Yankees would be smart to reward him with a two year deal, solidifying their rotation, which crumbled with injuries last season.
4. Michael Bourn, CF
Where he should go: Milwaukee Brewers
Where he will go: Washington Nationals
Projected contract:5 YR/75M
Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has been eying a long-term solution in centerfield for years, but he’s going to have to make a tough decision here. If he signs Bourn, it would bump slugger Michael Morse out of the outfield and to first base, leaving no room for free agent Adam LaRoche, who led Washinton with 33 home runs in 2012. Rizzo will have to decide whether he wants a speedy leadoff man or his lefty-swinging first baseman for years to come, because he can’t have both.
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B
Where he should go: Washington Nationals
Where he will go: Miami Marlins
Projected contract: 3YR/30M
Somebody will pay LaRoche, and that’s who he’ll play for, given he’s been underrated and underpaid his entire career. After his monster 2012, LaRoche has now hit over 30 homers and driven in 100 runs twice. The Marlins and Blue Jays need a bat at first base, as do the Pirates, Indians, As and others. But keep an eye on Miami. Out of all those teams, they’ve been the ones more willing to pull out the checkbook recently.
6. Nick Swisher, RF
Where he should go: Philadelphia Phillies
Where he will go: Philadelphia Phillies
Projected contract: 3 YR/$40M
Swisher’s personality belongs in a big market, and no big market team needs someone like Swisher like the Phillies. For all their struggles last season, Philadelphia still finished at .500. They still have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon. With a few bats, the Phillies will be dangerous once again. They have the money, the need and fans that will adore Nick Swisher.
7. B.J. Upton, CF
Where he should go: Texas Rangers
Where he will go: Washington Nationals, Texas Rangers
Projected contract: 5 YR/$80M
Upton will be overpaid no matter what. Teams view his combination of power and speed as a potential asset, but it’s just smoke and mirrors. Sure, he will hit a few long balls and swipe a few bases, but those flashes of brilliance overshadow Upton’s long spouts of inadequacy, when he fails to make contact like it’s his job. Upton has struck out more than 160 times in each of the last three years, and hasn’t hit over .246 since 2008. Texas may make a play after they give up on signing Hamilton. Same goes for the Nationals if they can’t get Bourn.
8. Kyle Lohse, SP
Where he should go: St. Louis Cardinals
Where he will go: St. Louis Cardinals
Projected contract: 3YR/36M
The reliable sinkerballer has blossomed into a star late in his career, riding three plus pitches and impeccable control to 30 wins in the past two seasons. St. Louis would be smart to bring him back on a multi-year deal.
9. Mike Napoli, C
Where he should go: New York Yankees
Where he will go: Texas Rangers
Projected contract: 2 YR/22M
Napoli’s stock took a major hit in 2012, when he followed his breakout 2011 with a .227/.343/.469 slash line. He still hit 24 home runs, and will get paid if teams remember his playoff tear from two years ago and the fact that he can play both first base and behind the plate. The Yankees should let Russell Martin walk and hope Napoli returns to 2011 form. The Rangers are candidates to re-sign him as well.
10. Rafael Soriano, RP
Where he should go: Detroit Tigers
Where he will go: Detroit Tigers
Projected contract: 3 YR/$45M
Soriano rebounded in a big way last season from a dissapointing 2011, filing in for Mariano Rivera in the Yankee bullpen a very Rivera-like way. Soriano piled up 42 saves and struck out over a batter per inning, using a devestating slider as an viable out pitch. He has already opted out of a guaranteed 14-million dollar deal with New York, probably because Rivera is expected to return and Soriano prefers to close. Look for the Tigers, who have said they have no interest in bringing back closer Jose Valverde, to be in play here. They’ve showed the willingness to spend on relievers in the past, and have a need at the back end of the bullpen.
Other notable free agents: 2B Marco Scutaro, RF Torii Hunter, SP Anibal Sanchez, SP Edwin Jackson, SP Ryan Dempster
Tyler McSparran will be playing baseball at Missouri after all.
Just not in the way everybody thought.
He won’t be spiking up for Tim Jamieson’s Tigers, despite what many believed for fifteen minutes last November when an innocent, sarcastic tweet ballooned into a mini recruiting scandal, but he’ll be playing nonetheless.
“They thought that I faked a national letter of intent,” McSparran says now, disbelieving. “At the time I was pissed because they totally blew it out of proportion.”
The date was November 9, a Wednesday. On a typical Wednesday during this particular time in McSparran’s life, he would take classes at Miramar College – a quaint two-year school in his hometown of San Diego – and normally not moonlight as the center of the latest intercollegiate athletic controversy.
He had been attending Miramar for three months, his home during a semester-long hiatus between transfers from Xavier University and whatever school he would attend in the spring. McSparran had attended Xavier out of high school, and almost immediately regretted his decision. It was too small. Their sport management program wasn’t what he thought it’d be. Ohio was not California. He applied to several schools including Missouri, then went home to Miramar to make his decision.
This particular Wednesday was the day McSparran made it. He would transfer to Missouri to study sports journalism. Columbia had everything he wanted – a world-class program, big-time college sports, and a roaring social scene. He mailed in his initial deposit, and tweeted “officially a missouri tiger” to inform his friends and family he’d be moving across the country again.
Then his world blew up.
This particular Wednesday also happened to be National Signing Day for intercollegiate sports. Announcements were popping up all across the country of five-star recruits in baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis and at least seven other sports committing to their schools.
Hunter Mense, a former player and volunteer assistant for Missouri baseball, saw McSparran’s tweet and asked him if he would be playing a sport at his new school.
“I wrote back, ‘yeah, baseball.’, half jokingly and half because I was planning on playing club,” said McSparran.
The next morning he awoke to multiple mentions on Twitter from Columbia-based media and blogs. Posts appeared on SimmonsField.com, a popular Missouri baseball website run by blogger T.R. Robertson. McSparran’s high school coach and family received emails. Reporters pried Sarah Miester, Tiger volleyball player who went to high school with McSparran. Who was this mystery man Missouri had landed?
In reality, McSparran hadn’t played a game since high school.
He tweeted back to Blumberg, apologizing even though he had made no mistake. After all, what had he done wrong? Been ignorant to the seriousness lazy reporters place in random tweets? He had officially become a Missouri tiger, and was planning on playing club baseball. He wasn’t inaccurate. They were.
The media didn’t see it that way. Instead they villianized McSparran, posting apologetic pieces implying their had been mislead. The Columbia Tribune ran a story blasting the 20-year-old, mocking his twitter feed in an article that inappropriately defames a regular kid who was just excited about changing schools.
“I wasn’t in any way trying to fake anything,” McSparran said. “I was just joking around. Faking my national letter of intent was never my intent whatsoever.”
Flash forward a few months, and the Missouri baseball team is hosting Oklahoma State in late March. McSparran is watching from behind home plate, donning a Cincinnati Reds cap to match his black-and-red San Diego State hooded sweatshirt. In between innings, an older man with glasses comes over and sits down next to him. It’s Robertson. He’s recognized the sweatshirt and connected the dots. Now he finally gets to meet his mystery man.
“He came up and said ‘Are you Tyler McSparran? I’m the guy who wrote the blog and blew everything out of proportion,” McSparran said. “He said he wanted to let me know that that post got more hits than any other post he’d had on the site. So that was pretty funny. We laughed it off.”
Robertson could not be reached for comment, but he did comment on his blog, mentioning their chance encounter in an end-of-year themed post.
He calls McSparran “the Mizzou student from San Diego who I catapulted into his 15 minutes of fame as a new MU Baseball recruit last November,” and goes on to say “we laughed, we talked about how crazy it all was, we went back to watching the game.”
Which brings us to now. McSparran transferred to Missouri last spring, when club baseball was in full swing and tryouts closed. In September, he began his attempt to stay true to his promise, attending multiple meetings and workouts. He made it past the first round of cuts, the fall season.
For the fall, coaches take the best 80 or so kids and divide them into five or six teams. They play a full fall schedule against each other, and when that’s over another tryout is held. Coaches take into account performance in the tryout and fall season to narrow that number down from 80 to 25 to eventually 13.
McSparran didn’t miss a game, played centerfield and gradually made his way up in the lineup. On game days, he hit for average, showed some speed and played solid defense. On off days, he hired a hitting coach – former MU player and Cleveland Indians farmhand Greg Folgia – to help him sharpen his skills.
Eventually last Saturday morning came, the final tryout. McSparran stayed in Friday night, got a good night sleep and woke up early. He fixed himself breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and put on his baseball pants.
The workout ended around 1 p.m. By 3, he had received the call. He made it. Tyler McSparran would play baseball at Missouri.
“I was good on my word,” he said. “I said I was going to be playing baseball at Mizzou, and I’m playing baseball at Mizzou.”
I hope you were watching Saturday.
If you had forgotten why baseball, more than any other spot, defines the word “unexpected” and hits the heart as hard as it does, I hope you were watching Saturday.
If you weren’t sure if there was anything left to see and your interest was waning, I hope you were watching Saturday.
If you had forgotten what makes this game, our game, the greatest there is, I hope you were watching Saturday.
Ours is a game without a shot clock or penalty box. It is the only one without a time limit and that can still be played almost exclusively outdoors (dammit, Tampa). We have songs and saviors, curses and chin music, peanuts and cracker jacks.
Ours in the only sport with traditionalists, people who want things the way they were a hundred years ago, when the parks were bigger, the players were smaller, and you could throw tomatoes on the field. We’re a sport that wants our players to be clean, their numbers to go down, and their records to never be broken. We love sluggers and big flies, but don’t hit too many and don’t be too good.
Baseball is so entrenched in tradition that chewing tobacco persists even today, in an age of warning labels and social stigma, linking the players to those of yesteryear amid constant backlash. Even louder than the criticism of the chewers are the complaints of the chewers themselves, who fight harder to prevent a tobacco ban than they do for the expansion of instant replay, which plays an enormous role in all the other major sports. Allowing umpires to review what have for years been human judgement calls would catapult baseball out of the darkness of the past and into the contemporary age of sporting, where technology feeds commercialism.
But we can’t allow this to happen. There are too many scenarios, too many stories, too much that is human about the game that prevents this. Unlike in football and basketball, baseball players are relatable. Much like their fans, they are usually unable to graze ten-foot rims with their foreheads or push a boxcar. They have all their teeth, too.
A day at the ballpark is so unlike a day at the arena or the rink that the two can’t even be compared. Save for the few essentials, there is no set model for how a baseball stadium should look. Ranging from ancient to post-modern, each park has nooks, crannies and hidden gems alien to the venues of other sports. You don’t go to a Heat game and feel the need to buy a hotdog.
And so we go. And we watch. And in a way, we play.
I hope you were watching Saturday.
Saturday we saw perfection sprout from the most unlikely of right arms, proving that baseball is a game of inches and second chances. While the late bloomer bloomed in Seattle, the most steady flower in the garden withered in the sun of San Diego, to the anger of fantasy owners everywhere. We saw pitchers succeed throwing both fire and meatballs. In Boston we cheered as the Yankees fell down 9-0, then cheered louder as they fought back with Tex messages and beat the Red Sox by a football score. We played two in Detroit.
We watched as a Dodger outfielder continued hitting at such a torrid pace that he now has as many or more home runs than six other teams. While his equally dominate and more heavily lauded teammate has continued to excel on the mound but not in the tabloids, Kemp’s star shines so much brighter and brighter with each dinger that it won’t be long before you can step on it. In Pittsburgh we watched a Pirate remove his eyepatch and dominate the C’s. On the far coast, we watched King Albert continue to shit his royal bed.
And that was just Saturday.
This week on the diamond produced inside-the-park home runs (yes, plural) and triple plays (yes, plural again). It showed how the term “rebuilding” can lead to actual success and not just prolong fan agony. It gave Boston fans 100 years worth of reasons why they should be furious right now. Oh yeah, and a guy pushing 50 won a baseball game.
Is this a great game or what? Like it or not, we still have six more months of it. So keep watching.