Peter Gammons: Five players with potential to approach the ‘near-historic’ level in 2014

bryce harper

So one year’s dark loses to the next year’s first light, and we think of the hopes and ifs and maybes. How could anyone not wish to again see Grady Sizemore healthy, and Ryan Kalish and Matt Harvey and Joe Mauer and CC Sabathia and so many others whom injuries have robbed and this morning look at where John Lackey had been and where he finished the season, starting and winning a World Series clincher for the second time in his career.

We thirst for ZIPS when the snow blows across Buzzard’s Bay, we’d love predictability, but in this off-season when so many general managers, players, sports medicine minds and conditioning gurus weigh the question of the relationship between the increasing lines for the disabled list and fears of over-training, we see, year after year, that one of the necessities for a max season is relatively good health. Or what happens to pitching staffs like the ’85 Cubs and ’87 Mets, or the position players on the 2013 Yankees. We wonder if there is an underlying physical reason for Shin-Soo Choo’s precipitous decline against lefthanded pitchers, fears that balance the joy of the potential Rangers lineup with the risk of a seven year contract.

We all get the risk the Angels took with Albert Pujols. He’d played through physical issues. He’s going to be 34 in two weeks, the age at which the road usually goes to four lanes. But before 2013 and being limited to 99 games, the only previous time he played fewer than 143 games was 1999. We see this man we presumed a first ballot HOF hitter have his WAR go from 9.4 to 7.3 to 5.1 to 4.6 to 1.5, and today, starting anew, think about how many times he can drive in Mike Trout and what Josh Hamilton and David Freese—especially with his rightcenterfield power—can do around him…if healthy.

If Pujols just does what Bill James projects—152 games, a .378/.529/.908 line—the Angels will be a far different team if Hamilton and Freese play 275 games between them. One Tiger official recently scoffed at Prince Fielder’s supposed physical decline (“He’s actually in tremendous shape”) and thinks last year’s drop-off was more personal than anything else, and with the front end of the Rangers lineup and the ballpark, at least could do the James .396/.516/.912 slash line, which certainly would help the lineup that was seventh in the league in runs and OPS in 2013. What is Ryan Howard, healthy again? Or Dustin Pedroia not playing an entire season with a torn thumb ligament?

This is Bud Selig’s farewell season, and for all his leadership has reaped since Judge Sonia Sotomayor ended The Strike in 1995 in terms of preventing another work stoppage and making the game awash in capital, perhaps last October we viewed his greatest achievement—parity. Three of the megapayroll teams—Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles—made the post-season, while the Yankees, Phillies and Angels did not.

Meanwhile Tampa Bay, Oakland, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, all small to lower middle class payrolls, made the post-season. Some of that is related to revenue-sharing, some to national and local television revenues and MLB’s creative branches, but in every one of those franchises that did make it to the post-season with payrolls that were fractions of the $100M norm there is proof that very smart, innovative leadership can beat traditional spending habits.

That the Rays have won 90 games five of the last six years is one of the sport’s greatest achievements, and as we look forward to 2014 we have little reason to think that, given reasonable health, that the Pirates, Indians, Rays, Athletics, Braves and Reds won’t again compete, and see other small markets like the Royals, Padres and Diamondbacks rise into their ranks. Today isn’t really the day, but one cannot help but be glad not to be the person succeeding Selig, Mariano Rivera or Tom Menino.

We have five new managers, four of whom came from outside the traditional box. Seattle’s Lloyd McClendon would be the one “traditional” candidate, a good, solid, tough man groomed by Jim Leyland. Managerial success often depends not on he who lives on the north side of percentage baseball, but being the right person for his cast of players and the lot that is his ownership and upstairs management; perhaps the embarrassment of the revelatory charges against the Mariners front office and ownership will give McClendon a far more level workplace because of lessons learned because internal issues became public.

There are many of us who know why Dave Dombrowski knew he had his manager “a few minutes into the interview” of Brad Ausmus. Yes, Ausmus is extremely bright, he’s seen virtually every situation in his 18 year player career, during which time he won three gold gloves, was an allstar and caught the seventh most games in history. One very good, smart scout says he looks for players who are “anxiety free, calm,” and Ausmus is just that—calm, free of anxiety, comfortable with who he is, exceptionally humorous.

Yet Ausmus believes the Cubs made “a great hire” in Rick Renteria. “There isn’t anyone who doesn’t like and respect Rick,” says Ausmus. “He’s a very special person, and will be a really good manager.” In other words, the right man for the 2014-16 reconstruction of the Cubs.

We all realize the baseball managerial graveyards are lined with pitchers who tried managing; when Marcel Lachemann, who many thought would be a tremendous manager, stepped down from the Angels he said, “never underestimate how different it is dealing with ten or eleven pitchers and all 25 players.” Fred Hutchinson was not a good, he was a great manager. Bob Lemon won a World Series. John Farrell took the Red Sox from last place to a world championship, testament to his authenticity, organizational managerial and people skills and ability to work with his front office.

And the Reds are betting on Bryan Price. He has been an exceptional pitching coach, and a person of such integrity that when Bob Melvin was fired in Arizona, Price quit. He is smart, clearly authentic, and while seeking ideas from current and former managers, understands that he is not reinventing the Hutchinson Wheel.

Then there is Matt Williams. He was not only an exceptional player, he worked hard to be what he was, using a video system—like Curt Schilling—that was ahead of its time. He studied, he prepared, and Mike Rizzo believes he has the people skills for a very talented team with rising stars such as Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond.

The thought of Harper moves to another subject. The last two seasons we have been treated to not only a fierce debate popularly subbed as “old school vs. new school” as Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera have performed on near-historic levels (Outside Pitch suggests a Baseball Reference call to Jimmie Foxx). Who could approach that level in 2014? Beginning with Harper, who is still but 21 years old, five possibilities:

Bryce Harper

The first thing is that Bryce has to stop running into walls and other immovable objects like Sizemore and Darin Erstad; the Nationals need him playing 160 games, not 118. He needs to settle on one outfield position. His OPS still rose from .817 to .854 despite the injuries, we have seen his prodigious power, his hitting skills, his edgy fire and his wont to be great. At 21, he may begin to come to grips with what it means to be the kid on the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, a tabloid cult hero, a face so familiar that no matter how much he respects his game, there are those who wish him ill.

Giancarlo Stanton

With Stanton, there are two questions that go far deeper than his “decline” from 37 homers to 24, .608 to .480 slugging percentage and 5.5 to 2.4 WAR. He has to be healthy and, like Harper, play 150 games, not 116. Changes in diet and workout regimentation may help with the hamstring and other pulls, and because he also plays so hard, he’s going to suffer the odd freak injury. The skills, the ethic and the character of a 50 home run, 10 WAR player is there, but there is a second level of question here—is Giancarlo ever going to trust and be at peace with Marlins ownership? Maybe Dan Jennings and Mike Hill will have the freedom Larry Beinfest did not his last five years, and perhaps that freedom will build a better team and allow them to bring on a veteran presence that will lessen the clubhouse anxiety, get that young, talented outfield rolling with the young pitching and begin to attract actual fans. Which begs the question of whether baseball will ever succeed in Florida—be it Miami, St. Pete, Yeehaw Junction or Fort Lonesome.

Jason Heyward

If I owned the Yankees or Red Sox, I would have piggy banks at every turnstile for the Heyward ’16 Fund and prepare to try to sign Heyward when he becomes a free agent after 2015…at the age of 26. Heyward, too, has been cursed by injury. Serious shoulder problems in 2011. Last year, he had an appendectomy in April and was hit in the face by a pitch in August. All of that has quieted his numbers except for one 27 homer season, even with three gold gloves. He may have been fast-tracked to stardom, but with his size, athleticism and character coming from an exceptional family, he could well be at his best from ages 27 to 35, a best being 35-40 homer, 1.000 OPS, gold glove, MVP talent. This could well be the jump year, at 24.

Manny Machado

Coming off surgery for his freak September knee injury might not allow him to get to elite levels this season, even if, before the injury, he was arguably the best defensive player in the American League. He has already tied Ty Cobb for the most multi-hit games before turning 21. He’s already ranked fifth in the league in WAR for position players. The plate discipline that has produced a .309 on base percentage in 207 major league games and last season led the AL in outs will improve, but we’re looking at a place in history. Next New Year’s Day, we may be discussing Xander Bogaerts the same way.

Matt Kemp

Yes, he is 29, not sub-25. Yes, he’s been the equivalent of an MVP in 2011, when he had a 10 WAR and 39 homers. He had 10 homers on April 25, 2012 when the injuries began. He had the front shoulder operation that November, but was never right that year. Or 2013. His swing remained restricted, then he wrecked his ankles in September. But two weeks ago he said “I feel really good, my shoulder is back to normal, I’m out of the boot and running and my head’s in a really good place.” In other words, he is back in the MVP thought again, and if the Dodgers two best position players—Kemp, Hanley Ramirez—are healthy and so is their premium starting pitching, they can be a 100 win team, that is as long as Yasiel Puig doesn’t drive the team bus to spring training exhibitions.

It’s a New Year, and think about the fact that the two leagues’ most dominant defenders, Machado and Andrelton Simmons, are under 25. Think about Stanton, Heyward, Harper at their ages, and the fact that the most dominant pitcher in the game the last three years, Clayton Kershaw, is 25. Or that the best reliever on the planet, Craig Kimbrel, is 25. Then dream on Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey and Bogaerts, and make it a better 2014.

  • James Doakes

    No Mike Trout?