Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: A Year in Review

As the year of 2008 draws quickly to a close, the opportunity presents itself to look back on the past events that made the year what it was. The past couple of months, particularly this last month of December, provide a glimpse into the year that 2009 is likely to become. Before I get ahead of myself with the 2009 Preview of Major League Baseball, I want to turn back the clock and do a Year in Review segment to highlight what made MLB in 2008.

The 2008 season started with a number of new faces in new places. It wasn't a notable year for free agent movement, for sure ... but it was notable for teams trading pieces to other places during the season as well as the emergence of new blood (rookies and other newcomers) . My own hometown squad, the Cincinnati Reds, certainly got most of my attention, and I wouldn't reference myself as a Reds Fan if they weren't the typical theme of my writing. They made a notable offseason move prior to the 2008 campaign that set the tone for the season in more ways than one.

Back in the early part of the year (actually at the tail end of 2007), the Reds and Texas Rangers orchestrated a swap that seemed pretty innocuous on the surface: Josh Hamilton, OF, to the Rangers for Edinson Volquez, SP, and Danny Herrera, RP, to the Reds. Hamilton was coming off of a 2007 campaign that showed why he was a former #1 draft pick (for the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays in 1999) but was also "under the radar" to a degree because his season was cut short by injuries on the field. His stat line of 90 games played with 19 HR, 47 RBI, .292 BA, and a great .922 OPS showed that he had tremendous upside potential if he could play anywhere near a full 162-game schedule. Volquez, conversely, was an unheralded prospect who lost his control so badly during the 2007 season for Texas that the team demoted him all the way to their Single A affiliate to "shock" him back into form. Nobody denied Volquez's "electricity" with a blazing fastball and high strikeout ability, but his propensity to lose focus was his biggest detraction. Herrera, who, like Volquez, was also unheralded, made his big league debut with the Reds during the 2008 season, but, since little was known to the general public on him prior to the season, he was a steady relief pitcher with above-average strikeout ability (playing at no higher than the AA level through the 2007 season). Outsiders reviewing this trade would have probably called it pretty equal, with the possible edge given to the Rangers because of Hamilton's proven ML ability versus potential for Volquez and Herrera.

As the 2008 season unfolded, it was very clear early on that Josh Hamilton did exactly what everyone expected him to do ... except for the mainstream media who really ignored his 2007 season and didn't treat him as the "special" commodity that he really is. The more surprising thing, however, might have been that Edinson Volquez jumped from near obscurity into the national spotlight, providing the Reds with their most electrifying young pitcher since the days of Mario Soto in the 1980's. Actually, the Volquez-Soto comparisons were quite evident for their style of pitching, ethnic origin (both are from the Dominican Republic), and ability to strike out opposing batters. For a very quick history lesson on Soto, check out this link (if you would like to know more about one of the potential greats whose career ended too soon). Since I don't intend for this entire entry to be a Hamilton-Volquez "love session", let's cut to the final numbers on these two gems (stats courtesy of
Josh Hamilton:
2008 27 TEX AL 156 624 98 190 35 5 32 130 9 1 64 126 .304 .371 .530 136 331 0 9 9 7 8
Edinson Volquez:
2008 24 CIN NL 17 6 33 32 0 0 1 0 196.0 167 82 70 14 93 206 14 10 838 5 1 3.21 4.51 140 1.327

The jury is still out for Herrera, but, at this point, if both Hamilton and Volquez continue to produce like 2008 in future seasons, historians will probably call this trade one of the best win-win trades of all time. Amazing what a change of scenery can do for a player in a "funk" like Volquez was.

Moving on to some of the rookie class, the Reds also produced two of the best in the business with 1B Joey Votto and OF Jay Bruce. Votto seriously contended for NL ROY, losing the battle to higher-profile C Geovany Soto of the Chicago Cubs, but, in terms of overall value provided to a team, Votto's presence in the Cincinnati lineup will likely produce greater long-term dividends than Soto will for the Cubs (given the typical high turnover rate for catchers). I say this in no way to diminish Soto's ability, but I am a big believer that Joey Votto is flying way under the radar for most of the national pundits to take him seriously enough (except for Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News). Jay Bruce might as well have been labeled the "best thing since sliced bread" since we've been hearing about him for multiple years now. This year marked his much-anticipated arrival into the Big Show, and he did not disappoint right out of the gate. After putting up some unworldly numbers with HR and BA in his first few weeks back in June, he cooled considerably but still put up a very respectable season in his less-than-fulltime status. Thankfully, the Reds realized that Corey Patterson wasn't the future by June ... and clearing the way for Bruce with some additional trades (notably of the two biggest names on the team in Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn) made the most sense financially and directionally as Chris Dickerson, a later-season call-up (and far more unheralded), filled an OF spot extremely well along with genius pick-up Jerry Hairston Jr. (who achieved far beyond expectations).

Rookies beyond the Reds contributed in immeasurable ways, notably the aforementioned Geovanny Soto (as NL ROY) for the Chicago Cubs as well as AL Rookie of the Year (the near-runaway choice) Evan Longoria (not to be confused for the gorgeous EVA Longoria (now Parker), who is in no way related to the third baseman. The Tampa Bay Rays, sans their "Devil" for the first time in franchise history during the 2008 season, were baseball's ultimate "feel-good" story. Longoria certainly contributed to the offensive success of that team, not to mention a solid pitching rotation (anchored by young studs like Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza) that carried the dramatic turnaround into a World Series berth. While the story didn't end in the ultimate "happy ending" that many (including yours truly) would have liked to see, it wasn't hard to root for such a team of underdogs, particularly in their excellent ALCS defeat of the heavily-favored (by national media, primarily) Boston Red Sox (defending World Series Champions from 2007).

Ultimately, the season was defined by teams with somewhat lower expectations to really win it all, most notably the team that actually did: the Philadelphia Phillies. Philly is, and almost always has been, most known in the professional baseball world as the losingest team of all-time. No team (in their long and storied franchise history) has lost more ballgames than the Phillies team in Philadelphia. While those Cubs in Chicago may have become known as "lovable losers" for their long suffering as non-contenders and lack of World Series appearances, the Phillies never fared much better. In fact, their season records and lack of playoff appearances would indicate they fared far worse. Up until the 2008 season, the franchise notched only ONE (1) World Series title, the 1980 club featuring Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton along with veteran (should be HOF'er) Peter Edward Rose (why the Reds let him go I'll never know) and a cast of characters that surprised baseball with an unexpected championship. The Phillies would appear again in the World Series in 1993, a great series against the defending champion (1992) Toronto Blue Jays, but, as usual, they fell a little bit short as those Jay notched back-to-back titles. As luck and timing would have it, the 2008 version of the Phillies was perhaps an unremarkable one with a mix of components as good as any other team in baseball.

What defined the 2008 Philly squad as MLB's best? The answer is not as simple as one player, but there were a handful that certainly made it possible. Start on the offensive side, and you need look no further than superstar 1B Ryan Howard, baseball's most prolific homerun hitter. Howard may not have a glitzy batting average, but he gets on base, drives in runs, and hits the longball with such relative ease (as a big man should) that he is as good as it gets for a "matinee idol" in MLB. The even better stories, in this author's opinion, come from the pitching staff, where starter Cole Hamels and closer Brad Lidge made for a lights-out combination throughout the playoffs. Hamels has been labeled a "star in waiting" for his uncanny ability to strike out batters despite not having particularly overpowering stuff. Lidge, on the other hand, was the fallen star, a multi-time All Star for the Houston Astros who was cast aside after his own playoff meltdown and eventual demotion from the closer role only a few short seasons ago. Lidge's dominance, and absolute perfection in converting EVERY save opportunity, made him the undeniable Comeback Player of the Year in all of baseball. Most had written him off, but the change in venue that Philadelphia provided (surprisingly, given its typical fan dissatisfaction with poor-performing teams / players) was just what the doctor ordered. Having the reigning NL MVP as well (Jimmy Rollins, who actually had a lackluster season and a fallout with the local media and fanbase) along with outfield slugger Pat Burrell (who appears to be headed out of town in 2009 as a free agent) certainly helped make Philly the champion in 2008.

I would be remiss not the highlight the big names that changed teams via trades during the 2008 season (particularly since I dangled that carrot for all of you when this article began). Most notably, the aforementioned Cincinnati pair of Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn were let go by the Reds for seemingly peanuts (mostly in the effort to dump salary heading into 2009) with a small set of prospects (including a possible change-of-venue candidate in Micah Owings, pitcher extraordinaire more known for his excellent hitting ability) to help offset the talent / starpower void that both Griffey and Dunn possessed. Fans certainly had mixed feelings watching hometown kid Junior head to the Chicago White Sox for realistically next to nothing in return, but, unfortunately, watching Griffey flounder offensively and defensively in Chicago was a clear reminder that "The Kid" has seen better days. Retirement seems most certainly imminent for one of baseball's all-time greats, when his once-great franchise (Seattle Mariners) hasn't even offered to bring him back in free agency so far. Dunn provides the most polarizing character the city of Cincinnati has seen in some time. He was far from beloved, like the "Mayor" Sean Casey was (and to some extent still is). Dunn was appreciated, much like Philly's Ryan Howard, for driving the ball to all fields (usually right field) with prolific ability. His propensity to strike out combined with atrocious defense, however, labeled Dunn as "good but not great", lazy, and a wannabe talent whose potential would probably never be reached. Without question, Dunn's ability to hit homers is second to almost nobody (except Howard and probably Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez), but very few people outside of Cincinnati respect, or even seem to want, Adam Dunn. The Arizona Diamondbacks got a good rental player down the stretch for their own playoff bid, but even they ultimately fell short to the division champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who made the much, much bigger splash in landing Manny Ramirez in what may have been baseball's biggest pre-non-waiver-trading deadline in July. Man-Ram was everything LA could have wanted (minus the "Manny being Manny" nonsense we've all come to know), but the pieces the other two teams involved (notably those Boston Red Sox and the also-ran Pittsburgh Pirates) received might have been more valuable long-term than what the Dodgers got for only the last couple of months of the season. The Red Sox picked up arguably one of baseball's best "undiscovered" talents in OF Jason Bay. Bay's regular All Star Game appearances from typically poor-performing Pirate teams should have been a clue that he was special, and the Red Sox (with savvy GM Theo Epstein) knew exactly what they lost (Manny) for what they gained (Bay). The Pirates' moves were clearly what the 'Burgh has come to expect in recent years, but, as a very similar small-market city, I feel their fans' pain. I would love to see MLB return to the era when both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were competitive teams, an era last seen prominently during the 1970s for the Big Red Machine and the 'We Are Family' clubs that produced some of the best talent baseball has ever seen. However, that is a different subject for a different day. The two most prominent names that floated on the "trade bait" list were clearly reigning AL Cy Young C.C. Sabathia and rising star Mark Teixeira. CC and Tex were valuable cogs for the teams that received them (the Brewers and Angels, respectively) in making runs into the playoffs, but even the Sabathia workhorse wasn't enough for the Brew Crew to overcome the Phillies in the NLDS and Teixeira's role on the Angels mattered little when the Red Sox shot right past them in the ALDS.

What does 2009 hold for baseball's best and brightest? We are all pretty certain of only ONE THING: the New York Yankees will have the largest payroll by a country mile over ANY other team, period. When you already have two of the biggest salaries for superstars A Rod and Derek Jeter on the payroll, you think that maybe, just maybe, you might reign in spending just a little. However, the month of December 2008 showed that not only was the Steinbrenner family willing to spend money, they were willing to spend MORE money. Signing free agents Sabathia and Teixeira was a clear and indelible sign that the Yankees WANT to win again in 2009. However, as the Rays and Phillies, among others, showed in 2008, money alone doesn't BUY or WIN a championship. The Rays had the lowest payroll and per player spending of any team in all of baseball ... one of the brightest indicators that "moneyball" (made famous by GM Billy Beane in Oakland) does actually work.

I like to close a year with a positive outlook that my team can actually win it all next year, something I haven't been able to say since the 1990 season. Winning the NL Central is probably going to be an uphill battle, however, with the Chicago Cubs probably still the biggest obstacle to that goal. Making the NL Wild Card as a "backup" option isn't completely far-fetched, though, given that Milwaukee won't be the same without Sabathia and the other league teams (Houston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis) don't look nearly as dangerous as they have in some prior seasons. A lot can change before Opening Day 2009 ... and it probably will. I look forward to writing that 2009 Preview by the time Spring Training rolls around and doing (hopefully) a team-by-team review of who's where to start the season. I might even roll out my "Fearless Predictions" on divisional champs as well, but, for now, Happy New Year one and all. Baseball season cannot come soon enough.

No comments:

Post a Comment