Second Best: American League Edition
Alex Rodriguez has locked up the American League MVP, with Magglio Ordonez and the Tigers falling a bit short. Surveying baseball, it's easy to spot the best players on each team. As fast as you say the words Boston-Seattle-Anaheim a baseball fan will respond Ortiz-Ichiro-Vlad.
Today, I'm not interested in the best. I'd like to explore the batters who are second best. It's not quite the same as looking for stars & scrubs teams, but it's a great way to see who has depth at the top, and what great performances are hiding in the shadows.
Baltimore: Miguel Tejada
When Billy Beane let go of Miguel Tejada at the end of 2003, it was taken as more evidence that mid-market teams couldn't compete with the big spenders. But would Tejada's deal have been worth it, even if the A's had the money? Unlikely. Tejada's the highest paid Oriole this year ($12 M), and is slated to make $13 million in 2008 and 2009. That's more money in one season than he made in his 5 1/2 seasons with Oakland. Tejada's production took a big jump in his first year with the Orioles, up to a WARP of 13.0, and he delivered 21 wins above replacement over the next two years. This year, he's down to 5.6, and it doesn't look to get much better from here. Will Tejada be the Orioles' #2 next year? Unlikely. Nick Markakis (salary: $400 K) is on his tail with a VORP of 31.7.
Boston: Mike Lowell
I didn't want to bring Mike Lowell's name up again, but I have no choice. Boston fans are wishing that Manny was being Manny this year. He hasn't been. Instead, trusty Mike Lowell has filled the gap with, dare I say it, the best year of his career. Note that I didn't say 'career year.' That usually implies some kind of outlier performance, and Lowell's 9.4 VORP currently stands just a hair above his previous bests (a 9.3 WARP in 2004, and a 9.2 WARP in 2002). Will Lowell do this again? Despite his great glovework, I've guessed 'no', and already suggested that Boston consider selling high in the off-season.
Chicago: Paul Konerko
Shudder. It's no wonder the White Sox are 20-games under .500 - they're a pure stars-and-scrubs team, with one star (Thome), one side-kick (Konerko) and then a cast who look like they'd fit in well on a Bill Wirtz hockey team. So Konerko's not really to blame. He's one of four first basemen in the AL who are decidedly mid-rank (Garko, Kotchman, and Teixera are the others). Youkilis and Morneau stand a shade above them, while this year's freakish performance by Carlos Pena (a whopping 60.5 VORP) is in the stratosphere. It's a respectable showing by Konerko, but nothing more.
Cleveland: Grady Sizemore
There are two stars on the division winning Cleveland Indians -- Victor Martinez and Grady Sizemore -- but only one has a porn star name. Sizemore is actually slightly behind his production from last year, but it's still exceptional. By the end of his age-24 season he'll have delivered 28.6 wins above replacement using a combination of power and speed. It's why hall-of-famer Duke Snider is ranked as the top comparable player to this point in his career. Missing in action for Cleveland is Travis Hafner, whose production has fallen off after three very good seasons.
Detroit: Curtis Granderson
Granderson may not be as young as you think. Like Sizemore, he's in his fourth year of major league play, and he combines speed and power, but this is already his age-26 season. It's been a good one -- one of the best on this list, and miles above even his 90th percentile projection from the Baseball Prospectus folks (he's delivered 12.2 wins above replacement, verus a 90th percentile projection of 8.7). He's also been surrounded by a remarkably talented lineup -- Ordonez rivalled A-Rod for much of the season, and Polanco, Guillen and Sheffield all have VORPs north of 30. Were it not for the injury to Sheffield, and too many at-bats going to Sean Casey, they might have made the playoffs.
Kansas City: David Dejesus
What a juxtaposition. We go from talking about one of the deepest lineups -- Detroit's -- to one of the worst. Forget this talk of number two's, let's first discuss the 'star' of this team. It's Mark Grudzielanek, with a VORP of 16.2. There are other teams led by star second basemen, but he's no Chase Utley. I'm actually quite fond of Dejesus (disclosure: I drafted him on both my fantasy teams this year), and think he's under-rated. Unfortunately, this is not the year to be arguing his case. There is an interesting split going on behind the line, though. Dejesus hit .285/.365/.418 before the break, but dropped to .232/.339/.321 afterwards (he did the same thing in 2005, but not to this extent). He's still scored 100 runs (66 before the break), but had to chew through 11.5% of the team's plate appearances to do it. Beware the counting stats.
L.A. Anaheim: Chone Figgins
Figgins is the best of three good infielder batters -- Cabrera and Kotchman -- who pad out the offensive prowess of Vladimir Guerrero (he who must drive in all runs). It's universally agreed that Chone's leading attribute is 'position versatility,' but he also gets it done at the plate, averaging 8.4 wins above replacement over the past five years. That steady production has been important part of Anaheim's success, as has his value -- over those five years, the Angels have paid Figgins just $6.7 million (more than half of which was for this year). Don't think I'm too high on Bill Stoneman, though, because he needs a lot of value contracts to offset the albatross that is Garret Anderson, who's still owed a minimum $15 million next year assuming the Angels choose not to exercise their $14 million option for the 2009 season.
Minnesota: Justin Morneau
The more things change, the more they stay the same. This is the second year running that Morneau has been the Twins' number-two man. Just don't tell the Baseball Writers Association members, who elected Morneau last year's league MVP. That's old news. What's new this year is that Minnesota's top batter has been free-agent-to-be Torii Hunter. (Memo to GMs: Hunter's WARP of 8.0 is fully 17% higher than last year's performance, and 66% higher than his average performance from 2003 to 2005. Is he a late bloomer reaching a new level of performance, or a contract year fluke on the wrong side of 30? You decide!) I should really give Morneau his due: he's put up two good seasons in a row, and is heading into his age-27 year next year. He could easily be the Twins' number one next year.
New York: Jorge Posada
Give me a BWAA ballot, and I just might cast my MVP vote for 35-year-old Jorge Posada. Yes, Alex Rodriguez has put up an extraordinary season (earlier this week Jim Baker called it the third-best season by a Yankee in the expansion era), but Posada accomplished something even more extraordinary -- the fourth-best season for any catcher since 1959 (again, credit to Baker for this perspective). It's par for the course for Posada, whose production and knees have remained solid throughout his 30s.
Oakland: Nick Swisher
A perfectly respectable year for Swisher, who's batted in the middle of an Oakland lineup decimated by injuries (strictly speaking, I suppose Oakland's losses exceed decimation), and improved on his 2006 totals. Next year, he'll begin the move into peak production territory. This is another case, however, where the more interesting story is at the top. For who is Oakland's most productive batter? Jack Cust. Before heaping effusive praise on Billy Beane, let's remember that this is Cust's second stint in the Oakland organization, and that if they'd seen this coming they wouldn't have let him go as a free agent at the end of 2005.
Seattle: Adrian Beltre
Like Dejesus, I have to confess a fondness for Beltre, who was my mid-round value pick to fill third base in the fantasy baseball drafts. While that's been good news for me, it's the real-life implications that concern the Seattle organization -- and the Mariners have to be happy with this result. Rather than repeat his wobbly 2005 season, which saw his WARP production drop more than 50% from the previous (flukish) season, Beltre has repeated his good 2006 season and settled into a respectable place among American League third basemen. He actually ranks 4th among AL third baggers, and is a long way above players like Glaus, Blalock, Blake and Mora. One footnote: a blazing second-half from Raul Ibanez almost saw him catch Beltre for the Mariners' number-two slot.
Tampa Bay: BJ Upton
When is a player not as good as his line? When he plays in Tampa Bay. No, that's not true in any statistical sense, just when it comes to media attention. Here we have a 22-year-old who's delivered more than 8 wins above replacement in his first full season, been a league-average fielder in the toughest outfield role, and who's 20-20. Were it not for Carlos Pena's season, he'd be the Devil Rays #1, ahead of Carl Crawford.
Texas: Ian Kinsler
Texas is led by its infield, but this year they haven't been that remarkable. Michael Young (35.7), Ian Kinsler 939.8) and Mark Teixeira (26.3) create a lot of value, but absent a more functional outfield, or a rotation that can break through the 5.00 ERA line, they're not going to win many games. Kinsler is 25 this year, and still projects well. He's right around the mean PECOTA predicted for this year, and should deliver more than 5 wins better than replacement in each of the coming years, with a good chance to break through to a higher level of performance. For now, he's a respectable number two. But this team needs a better number one.
Toronto: Frank Thomas
Oakland took the big risk last year, and won the reward. The Blue Jays took the lesser risk, and wound up with the bill. Thomas has done well as a DH -- even though you suspect the fans had visions of 40 homeruns in their heads. But let's also be realistic. While the Jays paid him only $1 million this year, they owe him $8 million in 2008 and are now almost certain to pay him $10 million in 2009 (that option vests if Thomas has 1,000 plate appearances over '07-'08, and Thomas will top 600 this year alone). Will Thomas continue to be number-two? Despite the money, the Jays hope not. Their best batter this year has been Alex Rios. Next year, they'd rather see Vernon Wells and Rios at the top.