Vote For Change: My 2018 Year End Awards

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The World Series is in the rear-view mirror and free agency has officially begun. That also means we are engulfed in award season, as the BBWAA has unveiled their winners throughout the last week. Meanwhile, my fellow writers in the IBWAA have also chosen their triumphant few and to the victor go the spoils. For the fifth year, I was able to vote as part of this illustrious group and decide on who was truly worthy. If you want to check out my voting record over the years, you just have a few clicks to adhere to: 201420152016 and 2017. As always, it is a true honor to have this opportunity to vote and I always vote with the utmost respect. With that being said, here are my picks to win awards in 2018:

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American League MVP: Mookie Betts

Every year, I plan to pencil in Mike Trout for this award and most years that is how the vote ends up happening. Even last year, despite missing noticeable time due to an injury (or an upgrade, for those that believe Trout is a cyborg) he was my choice for MVP because of the sheer level of production he was putting up. But this year, Trout’s banner year just wasn’t quite enough to topple the year Mookie Betts had. 

Bett’s numbers speak of a new level for him: .346/.438/.640, 32 home runs, 80 RBI’s, an OPS+ of 186, 10.9 bWAR and 10.4 fWAR. Betts lead the American League in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and WAR all while helping lead the charge for the Red Sox to procure another world championship. 

But it wasn’t just the core numbers that won Betts this award. Mookie posted the highest extra base hit % of his career (13.7%), a great AB/HR ratio (16.3%), all while raising his walk rate to 13.2%, the highest of his career.

But what truly sealed the deal for me was his Win Probability Added, which lead the American League. Betts posted a 6.0 WPA according to Baseball-reference and a 5.77 for Fangraphs. The other candidates, most notably Trout and teammate JD Martinez are far enough away that this is a no-contest for me. Betts not only tore up the rest of the league, but was the most vital cog of the Red Sox’s arsenal.  

With Betts posting another great year offensively and defensively (and the third consecutive above six wins a season) it will be interesting to see if the conversation starts of his place on the hierarchy of baseball’s elite. Trout has held the mantle for years, but if Betts keeps up at this pace, we could have to start inserting him into the conversation of ‘Best Player in Baseball’ sooner rather than later.

My Top 3: 1-Betts, 2-Martinez, 3-Trout

IBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

BBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

When the season began for the Milwaukee Brewers, their big offseason acquisition was former Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain. But the other pick-up turned out to be even more notable, as the team went and acquired Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins. While Cain had a great season, Yelich performed out of this world and garnered himself an MVP trophy.

Yelich has always had the talent to make himself an elite producer and in 2018 he elevated his game to a new stratosphere. By the time the season had wrapped up, Yelich led the NL in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases and WAR (both bWAR and fWAR) among position players in the league.

What really pushed Yelich over the edge was the second half of the season:

Down the stretch, Yelich was a monster as he hit a robust .370/.508/.804 in the final month of the season, not only cementing this award but also wrapping up a playoff spot for the Brewers.

The biggest change in his game was the elevation of the ball. The funny thing is, Yelich actually saw his fly ball rate go down (23.5%) from last year (25.2%), but he also saw his ground ball rate drop as well (down to 51.8% from last year’s 55.4%). But the increase happened in his line drive rate, which soared to 24.7%, up from 19.4% in 2017. Yelich was making better contact on the ball and it showed in his final numbers.

The cherry on top of the sundae for Yelich is his WPA, which lead in the NL for position players at 6.02. In fact, next on the list is Paul Goldschmidt, who posted a 4.66 WPA. That huge gap (as well as stellar defense) not only helped the Brewers but showed that Christian Yelich is far and away the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award.

My Top 3: 1-Yelich, 2-Cain, 3-Carpenter

IBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

BBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

Credit: 
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

 American League Cy Young Award: Blake Snell

This was easily the hardest vote for me and one that took me awhile to be comfortable with. Snell and Justin Verlander both put up stellar performances in 2018 but only one man can win, and my vote went to Snell despite a few issues that in years past would probably cost him an opportunity to win this award.

Let’s start with the “dark print”, or where Snell lead the league. Snell was first in ERA (1.89), ERA+ (219) and hits per 9 (5.6). There were two more categories that Snell lead in, which I want to focus on a bit deeper. First is RE24 (Run Expectancy, or for pitchers Runs Saved), where Snell lead with 48.4. To give you an idea of just how impressive that number is, the only pitcher better than Snell this past year was Jacob deGrom, who had an absolutely amazing year for the Mets. Also, Snell’s previous high in this category was 1.6…seriously.

The other stat Snell lead in was wins at 21, and I found this a bit amusing. Over the last few years, there has been a progressive movement to “Kill the Win”, with MLB analyst Brian Kenny leading the charge. The reasoning being that there are so many factors involved in a pitcher getting a “W” that doesn’t even involve the pitcher that it feels like an empty statistic. If we are being honest, I never look at a pitcher’s win total anymore. The only time I am even aware of it is if it is mentioned in a broadcast or in an article. The win to me doesn’t factor into how I vote, so I don’t even give it a second thought.

That being said, the other numbers did enough to help his case. But he did receive some stiff competition from Verlander, who lead in strike outs, WHIP, strike out to walk ratio and pitchers WAR. The most notable difference between the two pitchers was innings pitched. Verlander threw an impressive 214 innings over his 34 starts this season, while Snell threw only 180.2 innings over 31 starts.

For some, that would be a deal-breaker. There is a case that can be made that the extra 33 innings thrown by Verlander should count for a bit more and I can see that argument. There aren’t many pitchers that toss 200+ innings in today’s game and having that kind of stallion to ride can be a difference maker.

But for me, the numbers just leaned too far to Snell’s side to get me to throw my vote to Verlander. It was a tough choice and I honestly believe either pitcher is worthy of the award, but at the end of the day I picked Snell, as did both the BBWAA and the IBWAA.

My Top 3: 1-Snell, 2-Verlander, 3-Kluber

IBWAA winner: Blake Snell

BBWAA winner: Blake Snell

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

I don’t get to do this very often but…I predicted this at the beginning of the year. Yep, I took a big swing and actually connected for a change. Honestly, this felt like a natural progression for deGrom and it felt like at some point he would put everything all together. That year was 2018.

In fact deGrom absolutely dominated this year and pretty much ran away with this award. deGrom lead the NL in ERA, ERA+, FIP, HR/9, WPA, RE24 and WAR. Dominance isn’t always a given when it comes to pitchers but this year was truly the year of deGrom. 

To give you a deeper view of his dominance, let’s break down a few of the numbers. Batters hit .196/.244/.277 against deGrom, only taking him deep ten times this year. In fact, deGrom only gave up 40 total extra base hits this year over 217 innings. To give you a better view of how big a deal that is, the Anderson twins (Chase and Tyler, and yes, I am aware they aren’t actually twins) both gave up 30 home runs this year, or almost deGrom’s entire extra base total.

Want to go deeper? deGrom gave up 215 total bases. That number is actually pretty close to his 2016 number of 213 total bases. Oh, that was in 69 less innings then he accumulated this year. In other words, deGrom was a machine this year that no one could shut down.

There were even some analysts that felt deGrom was worthy of the NL MVP award this year, and it’s not too far of a reach.  deGrom posted an insane 9.6 bWAR and 8.8 fWAR this year, both fairly large numbers for a starting pitcher. Throw in the 5.85 WPA and you have an argument that determines the value of deGrom is possibly on par with any hitter in the league.

I’ve always viewed the MVP as a hitter’s award, unless there is a pitcher that blows away the rest of the competition. By that, I mean there are players who play every day who are having really, really good seasons but not quite great. If that happens and there is a pitcher who has being insanely dominate, I would vote for the pitcher. In this case, Yelich had an amazing season and because he is out on the field every day, 162 games a year, my vote went to him. 

I know that probably feels like I am slighting pitchers, but I am a firm believer in the mental aspect of the game and the wear and tear it has on position players. To say it is a grind would probably be an understatement. So while deGrom was out of this world this year, so was Yelich. 

Luckily for the Cy Young award, there is no argument. deGrom wins this hands down and can put his season up there with such greats as Gooden, Gibson and Kershaw. Jacob deGrom was the best pitcher in the National League this year, period.

My Top 3: 1-deGrom, 2-Scherzer, 3-Freeland

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

   

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

American League Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani

This felt like a slam-dunk for me and I was a bit surprised to hear some backlash from Yankees fans, but the best rookie in the American League this year was Shohei Ohtani. Sure, there were some great performances from Gleyber Torres, Brad Keller and Miguel Andujar, but none of them did what Ohtani did.

Let’s start there: Shohei Ohtani did things this year that hadn’t been done in a century. In. A. Century. Over the last 100+ years of baseball no one has achieved the feats that Ohtani did this year:   


Ohtani is also the first player since Ruth in 1919 to throw 50 innings and hit 15 doubles, or to throw 50 innings and draw 25 walks, or to throw 50 innings and drive in (or score) more than 35 runs, or to throw 50 innings and make 200 plate appearances. He’s also the first player since George Sisler in 1915 to throw 50 innings and steal more than eight bases. You get where I’m going with this. Even Ohtani’s abbreviated rookie run was something no one had seen since before the Black Sox scandal, and it happened in a league that’s vastly more talented and specialized than the one Ruth revolutionized.

You get where we are going with this. Ohtani broke down the norms of what is expected of a major league ballplayer. He was a successful pitcher and hitter in 2018 but that isn’t even all of it. He did all of this while playing in a different league than he was used to. He did all of this while playing in a completely different country than he was used to. If that wasn’t enough, he pretty much made it look easy.

.285/.361/.564 batting line. 22 home runs, 61 RBI’s. OPS+ of 152. 126 ERA+. 1.6 WPA. 29% K rate. All while shuffling in between being a hitter and a pitcher. In a new league. In a new country. If he would have just put up average stats and been an average performer it still would have been impressive. But the fact he made it look easy shows what a true talent he is.

So sure, Andujar, Torres and Keller had great seasons. Any other year it is a different conversation and even possibly a battle for the winner. But this is a no-contest. Ohtani is the Rookie of the Year and no one came close to what he did.

My Top 3: 1-Ohtani, 2-Torres, 3-Keller

IBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

BBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

National League Rookie of the Year: Juan Soto

I mentioned earlier that the AL Cy Young was the toughest one to pick a winner, but a close second was this race. Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna were not only two rookies that shined in 2018, but they were pretty close to equals as well.

The two rookies tied for fWAR (3.7), were separated by four homers, 6 RBI’s, and .001 in batting average. Soto had a slightly higher OBP, while Acuna’s slugging was a bit higher. wRC+? Soto 146, Acuna 143. In other words, either player was worthy of being the best of 2018, but only one could win. 

In matters like this, where two competitors are so close that you would have to break a tie, I normally lean toward value. Looking at WPA, Soto had the sizable lead, 3.46 to Acuna’s 1.96. RE24 is a bit closer, but still a runaway for Soto (30.45 to 26.69). Finally, with the Clutch stat on Fangraphs, Soto wins again, 0.22 to -0.12. When it came down to helping their team and making sure they are put in winning situations, Soto came away with a lengthy lead.

So while you can see why I picked Soto, it’s not like Acuna wasn’t deserving. In fact, these two were so good this year that you almost forget all the other great rookies in the National League. Guys like Harrison Bader and Walker Buehler are rarely talked about despite putting up numbers that are very good for a first year player. With a NL class like this, you wonder who will break out and shrug off the ‘Sophomore Slump’ in 2019. If this year was any kind of barometer,  Soto and Acuna will soon be the cream of the crop of not just the NL, but the entire baseball world.

My Top 3: 1-Soto, 2-Acuna, 3-Buehler

IBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

BBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

    

Credit: AP Photo/Steve Nesius

American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash

This was another close race and one that could easily be a three-way tie. Bob Melvin of Oakland led his team of vagabonds and youngsters to a playoff spot despite starting the year with the lowest payroll in the game and 34-36 on June 15.  Alex Cora led the Red Sox to 108 wins (and eventually a world championship) in his rookie year as a manager and was able to turn away the playoff bound New York Yankees.

But what Kevin Cash did with the Tampa Bay Rays is some other level managing job. Cash propelled a team that was supposed to hang out in the basement of the American League East and led them to a 90 win season. Despite the team trading off some of their best players before the trade deadline, they went out and turned themselves into contenders. The funniest part of the whole deal is he did this almost from a survival standpoint.

The Rays lost a couple of their top pitching prospects (Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell) before the season to injuries. Anthony Banda joined that list a few months into the season. After trading Chris Archer at the trade deadline, they were left with one actual starting pitcher. The lack of starters led Cash to use “The Opener”, where he would have a reliever start the game, pitch an inning or two and then hand the ball off to someone who could go deeper into the game.

This wasn’t done to be cute or try something new out as much as just a lack of starting pitching…and it worked. ‘The Opener’ became a regular part of their rotation and helped bridge the gap for a number of their younger pitchers.

The team focused on good pitching and defense and that helped get them to third place in the East, ten games behind the second place Yankees. Cash pushed the right buttons and his calm demeanor helped keep his team focused through a number of rough patches.

So while Melvin and Cora deserve a ton of praise, Kevin Cash deserves this award. If anything, Cash earned his managerial stripes in 2018 and has come out with a contract extension. It’s too bad he didn’t get some hardware to go with it. 

My Top 3: 1-Cash, 2-Melvin, 3-Cora

IBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

BBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

         

Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker

The story of Brian Snitker is one that easily could be made into a ‘feel good’ movie for Disney. Snitker is a guy who has been the loyal soldier, a guy who has been in the Atlanta organization since 1977, when he was a minor league player. He has managed for almost every one of their minor league teams and even spent a stint as the major league team’s third base coach from 2007 to 2013. Snitker has been there and done that when it comes to the Braves organization.

But in May of 2016, Snitker was promoted to manager for the Braves on an interim basis and he would get the job full-time in October of that year. So the path Brian took to this role was a long and lengthy one, but he didn’t really reach his stride until this past season.

What Snitker did in 2018 is something no one, not even the Atlanta front office, expected. He led the Braves to a 90 win season, a National League East title and their first playoff appearance since 2013. This from a team that wasn’t really supposed to contend until 2019.

But it shouldn’t be too surprising it came early. With a nice mix of veterans (Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis) and top-shelf prospects (Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna), the Braves took advantage of the Washington Nationals’ pratfall and dominated the NL East for most of the season. While the talent will get most of the credit, Snitker deserves some heavy praise for the culture he has fostered in Atlanta. Former Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur told a great story of Snitker that goes back years before:


One of Jeff Francoeur’s favorite stories occurred after he homered a few times for Double-A Mississippi and then got drilled in the ribs against Montgomery. Snitker instructed a reliever to retaliate. When the pitcher simply buzzed a batter, Snitker blasted the pitcher in the dugout and told him to get out of his sight.
When one of Mississippi’s pitchers retaliated the next inning, the benches cleared and the umpires halted the game.
“After we got back in the clubhouse, [Snitker] grabbed a beer and told us he had never been more proud of the way we came together as a team that day,” Francoeur said. “If you play for him, you know he’s always going to protect you and have your back.”

Probably one of the best ways to describe Snitker is hard but fair. It appears that his mentality is exactly what this Braves team needed. Craig Counsell and Bud Black did some great things for Milwaukee and Colorado, respectively, but Snitker’s accomplishment this year has earned my vote for NL Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Snitker, 2-Black, 3-Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

 

Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American League Reliever of the Year: Blake Treinen

Blake Treinen of Oakland had a year for the ages in 2018. Before this year, Treinen was almost a stereotype for a reliever: Great stuff,  but not consistent enough with his location. Treinen could miss bats, but didn’t miss them as much as he needed them to.

That all changed this past year, as Treinen’s late break on his pitches helped increase his numbers across the board. He bumped up his strike out rate to 31.8% (previous high was 24%) and saw his walk rate take a dip. Hitters also went from hitting .271 against him in 2017 to .157 this year. 

Treinen posted an ERA of 0. 78 and a FIP of 1.82. An interesting look into his numbers show a guy who’s luck appeared to switch around in 2018. In 2017, batters posted a BABIP of .344 against him. Luck was not on his side. But in 2018, his BABIP was .230, .114 points lower. Whatever he changed this year made a huge difference in his results.

What’s interesting is there is a huge difference when it comes to pitch usage this past season. Treinen did use his slider a bit less (21% compared to 25.5% in 2017) but  his cutter was used 11.8%, up from 0.5%. His velocity also saw a slight uptick this year, but nothing that will blow the doors off. More than anything it appears he used his cutter slightly more and the extra movement made it harder to put the ball in play. 

Whatever he did, it appears to have elevated him to the top of the relief game in the American League. His dominance not only helped lift Oakland to a playoff spot, but also my nod for American League Reliever of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Treinen, 2-Diaz, 3-Leclerc

IBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

BBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

National League Reliever of the Year: Josh Hader

There was no reliever in the NL this last year that dominated quite like Josh Hader. Hader steamrolled through the league in his second season and left a litany of whiffs in his path. My comparison has been ‘Mitch Williams with control’ and in 2018 he proved to be a force to be reckoned with. 

Let’s begin with the numbers:  2.43 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 2.7 fWAR over 81 innings. Hader struck out batters at a 46.7% clip while posting a K-BB% of 36.9%. The best part is that he did this basically using two pitches: a fastball and a slider.

What Hader did was basically tell the hitter “here it is, now hit it” and most of the time the batter failed. Hader did allow nine homers this year, which equates to allowing one every nine innings. Hitters did make contact on Hader at almost a 70% clip when he put the ball in the strike zone. But this one blemish wasn’t enough to take away from his great year.

With Jeremy Jeffress still in the fold, it will be interesting to see if he continues to close or if Hader will get more opportunities in 2019. Hader did save 12 games and blow 5 (if you keep track of that stuff) and that number could see an increase in the next season. What Hader has done is put the rest of baseball on alert that he is one of the best relievers in all of the game, no matter what inning he is throwing in.

My Top 3: 1-Hader, 2-Jeffress, 3-Erlin

IBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

 

Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2019 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

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Locking Up Duffman

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On Monday night, Danny Duffy went out and pitched the game of his life against Tampa Bay, an 8 inning, 1 hit(7 innings of no-hit ball), 16 strike out affair that gave Duffy the new team strikeout record for a single game. It gave many a national baseball analyst to finally discuss the great season that Duffy has had this year, a year that has seen a massive amount of growth. While his superb performance made the baseball world take notice, most in Royal Nation have been discussing a bigger issue when it comes to Duffy-should the Royals lock him up long-term, keeping him a Royal for the immediate future?

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Back in April this seemed not quite comical but definitely would give you some funny looks if the idea was thrown out there. Duffy had been relegated to the bullpen to start the year and didn’t become a part of the Royals rotation until almost the middle of May. Since that time he has easily been Kansas City’s best starter; 96 innings, 105 strike outs, 2.98 ERA, 67% strikes thrown and a WPA(Win Probability Added by pitcher) of 1.336. Duffy has been averaging 6 innings a start, but you have to remember that he was on a limited pitch count during those first few starts, as he was transitioning to the rotation. He didn’t actually go 6 innings in a start until his fourth start and has now thrown quality starts in 10 of his 16 starts. One of the knocks on Duffy for years was  that he wasn’t an efficient pitcher; it was a big deal if he was still in the game come the 7th inning. Danny has been working deeper into games and has also put up career high numbers; he has the highest K/9 of his career, lowest BB/9 and lowest FIP of his major league career. A man who once pitched purely on emotion has not only changed his approach, he has also changed the mentality he goes into each and every game:

It’s been pretty gratifying to not be a guy who’s gone five-and-dive, like I did for so long in my career,” Duffy said. “I’m not saying that’s not something that will ever happen again. But I have confidence when I take the ball that I’m going to do everything I can to hand the ball off to the bullpen late in the game.

The change in his mental approach is a big part of his success this year, but that is also a key to why the Royals should extend his contract for the long-term.

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2016 isn’t the first time we have believed that Duffy had things figured out. Back in 2014, it seemed that he was able to unlock his potential, as he had put together what was a career year at that point. It really appeared as if Duffy had turned a corner, although there is a very noticeable difference between his success two years ago and today. What was very apparent back then was that Duffy wasn’t striking people out, as he was averaging 6.81 K’s per 9, the lowest average of his career. Thankfully the Royals superb defense was able to handle Duffy pitching to contact, as hitters were making the most contact against him(84.4%) in his career. That contact rate stayed fairly close in 2015(82.3%) but hitters were also getting a bit luckier off him last year on balls in play(.298 batting average on balls in play against Danny in 2015). Both stats have taken a decline so far this year, as the contact rate against Duffy sits at 72.3%(the lowest of his career) and hitters have a .286 BAbip.  Throw in all the other career highs he is racking up this year and you can see why he is having a turnaround year in 2016.

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So the numbers play the largest part in why the Royals should sign Duffy to a long-term deal, but there are a few more reasons an extension makes sense. For one, Duffy is still only 27 years old, as he won’t turn 28 until December. He hasn’t even reached 30 years old and these late 20’s are when a lot of pitchers learn to really pitch, not just throw. Maybe the biggest reason to lock him up now is the state of the Kansas City Rotation. The starting staff has struggled so far this year and there isn’t much help in the minors. If the Royals want to still be contenders, they are going to need more reliable starting pitching and keeping Duffy is a must. At some point the Royals are going to have to get younger in their rotation and with no arms on the immediate horizon, Duffy could be in that caliber of a Chris Archer or Sonny Gray, younger arms who lead their respective team’s staffs. Unless Kansas City goes out and swings a deal for a young talented starter, they will have to look older with either the lackluster free agent market or a trade. Locking up Duffy might be a cheaper way to go for the Royals rebuilding of the rotation.

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So what kind of deal could the Royals off Duffy? Good question and in some ways it is hard to guess with the way the market is constantly being elevated. Let’s start first with years; I would go with either a 3-4 year deal with at least one option year(come on, you know Dayton can’t sign someone without a mutual option!). If the Royals go 3 years, give Duffy two option years. If you go 4 years, give him a mutual option for the 5th year. So what about money? Once again, I’m just throwing numbers out here, but let’s start with what he is making this year, $4.2 million. As a comparison, Chris Sale of Chicago is the same age as Duffy, although Sale has a better track record. Sale is making $9.2 million this year, which is higher than what Duffy will get, for sure. Let’s say Duffy gets $6 million in 2017, $9.5 in 2018, 12.5 in 2019 and $16.75 in 2020. That would be a 4 year, $44.75 million contract, which I might even be lowballing a bit, considering how the market has seen such a big increase these last few years. Still, the Royals are going to have to keep the contract manageable, and after Ian Kennedy’s contract I wouldn’t be surprised if they are gun-shy to dole out a contract of that magnitude again for a pitcher. Still, that is not a bad contract for a guy who hasn’t really been a top starter before this year.

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Kansas City has a plethora of decisions to make this upcoming offseason, everything from figuring out what they want to do with free agents Edinson Volquez and Kendrys Morales, to rebuilding the starting rotation, there will be some shuffling going on throughout the winter months. While those decisions won’t be easy, procuring Duffy’s services for the immediate future should be a slam dunk. The last thing the Royals want to do is not have Duffy taken care of before he can become a free agent after 2017, especially with all the decisions that have to be made after next year. One of the top priorities for General Manager Dayton Moore this winter should be to make Duffy a Royal for the long-term. It’s going to cost Kansas City some dollars, but I would rather pay now than have him knock off another fantastic season in 2017 and raise his value even more. Signing Danny Duffy should be a must this offseason; it’s time to keep things ‘gnar’ in Kansas City moving forward.

 

Guesstimate: My 2016 MLB Predictions

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Here we are: we are in the section of Spring Training where you can see the upcoming regular season on the horizon, but it is still far enough away that you just wish you could fast forward to games that actually count. Luckily, this also means we are close enough to camps heading north that we have a decent idea of how most team’s rosters will look. Every year I take my stab at how I think the season unfold, mostly with comical results. Here is my 2014 and 2015 predictions if you are looking for a good laugh(although I did guess fairly well on the playoff teams in 2014). I do want to reiterate one nugget of information that I’ve been preaching about the last few years: predictions are just guesses. This is just simply a fun little exercise I do before the season starts for me to look back on in October and see how far off I was. It is purely fun and that is how it should be taken. So here we go; my guesstimation of the 2016 season!

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American League East

  1. Toronto Blue Jays
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. New York Yankees
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

Last year I felt like no one AL East team stood out from the rest and any one of those teams could step up and win the division. There is still a feeling of an openness, but with a little more division in the way of talent. The Blue Jays look to be the team to beat, as they are returning a large portion of their division winning team and have a top-notch offense to carry their team. While Boston returns most of their roster that struggled in 2015, there is a belief that there is no way they are as bad this year…especially now that Hanley Ramirez is not in the outfield and they have David Price anchoring the rotation. The Yankees could make a run again, as they have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. My main issue with them is the aging stars(Beltran, Sabathia, A-Rod, etc.) holding back the rest of the team. Tampa has some great pitching but what will they be able to do offensively? Then there is Baltimore. I want to root for the Orioles to surprise everyone this year, but I’m not for sure it will happen. Sure, Chris Davis is back(which I think is good) but not much has been added to the roster. Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo might add some needed pop, but what will Baltimore lose if/when either plays on defense? Yovanni Gallardo will give the team innings, but how efficient will he be? As you can see, there seems to be more questions than answers with Baltimore, and that scares me.

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American League Central

  1. Kansas City Royals
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Cleveland Indians
  4. Detroit Tigers
  5. Chicago White Sox

This is always my hardest division to pick, as I am a lifelong Royals fan. Saying that, the last two years I have not picked the Royals to get to the playoffs and both years they made it to the World Series. So why pick them now? In all honesty, I really believe they have the most talent of any team in the division, thus my pick to sit on top of the AL Central. Behind them I see a cat fight for second between the Twins and Indians. I’ve gone back and forth on who should be where, but alas I went with Minny in second and Cleveland third, as I really like(fear?) the talent accumulated in the ‘Twin Cities’. Detroit and Chicago bring up the back of this division in my mind, as Detroit still feels really old to me(even with the acquisitions of  Upton and Zimmermann) and despite Chicago overhauling their offense, they still don’t feel like a playoff caliber team. The interesting part here is that I could easily see a scenario where this division could be a dog fight, with five teams within 5-8 games of each other. Right now though, until someone knocks off the Royals, they have to be the favorites.

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American League West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland A’s

The West should be a fun division this year, if for no other reason than to see if it is competitive or if the Astros and Rangers dominate the division. Houston has to be the favorite this year, as they not only will try to build off their playoff run in ’15, but also will have Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers(once he returns from injury) from day one of the season. I really like what the Rangers management has done with this team and tend to believe they will be a serious contender this year, especially if Yu Darvish is able to return to his old form. Jerry DiPoto has done an admirable job trying to fix the Mariners roster, but it feels like an uphill battle for the team this year, with success more likely in the future. What can you say about the Angels and A’s? I would probably have the Angels in last if not for Mike Trout and his ability to carry this team on his back. But Angel’s management is a mess  and only slightly worse than their farm system. The A’s seem to just be biding time until their next wave of prospects can start infiltrating the major league roster. Oakland might not be as bad as they were last year, but I can’t see them being serious contenders in 2016.

MLB: New York Mets at Cincinnati Reds
(Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY)

National League East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies

Last year was supposed to be the Nationals’ year, as many(myself included) figured they would end up in the World Series. Instead, a late season collapse left them on the outside looking in and costing Matt Williams his job. Now Washington has retooled their roster while adding known players’ manager Dusty Baker to the fold. While Baker is about as old school as they come, players love him and I tend to think he will make a big difference in that locker room this year while losing some of the team’s tension. The Mets will be right on their tail and look to repeat as National League Champions this year. The Mets pitching will take them far, but the offense will be the real deciding factor in New York. Miami has added a new manager(Don Mattingly) and a new hitting coach(Barry Bonds) to shake up a young and talented Miami team. One has to be curious as to how lethal the Marlins could be if they can get a full season out of Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. Atlanta stocked up on prospects this winter and are left with Freddie Freeman and a cast of other players for the Braves this year. They might not make much noise this season, but the Braves are looking good in the next couple of years. The Phillies? Well, they won’t be very good but a few steps were taken to improve on a dreadful 2015. So there is that.

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National League Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. St. Louis Cardinals
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Cincinnati Reds

2015 saw the NL Central send three teams to the playoffs. I have to believe that won’t happen two years in a row, which might leave the Cardinals missing the playoffs this year. The Cubs are the early on favorites not only to win the Central, but also to win the World Series. One has to think Chicago will grow on their stellar 2015 and are looking to win their first world championships since 1908. The Pirates will look to be hot on the Cubs heels and it’s hard to argue with the success this team has had the last couple of seasons. My guess is that Pittsburgh will join Chicago in the playoffs comes October. That would leave the Cardinals on the outside looking in, as they lost more than they gained this past offseason and are betting on a number of veterans like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina to bounce back this year and stay healthy for the Cardinals to be real contenders. That being said, I find it hard to count St. Louis out. The Brewers won’t be horrible but they won’t be great and the Reds from the outside look to have a few good pieces but are multiple players away from being contenders.

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National League West

  1. San Francisco Giants
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers
  3. Arizona Diamondbacks
  4. San Diego Padres
  5. Colorado Rockies

The West could be a lot of fun this summer and I could envision a scenario where the top three teams in the league could be shuffled in any order. My pick is for the Giants to come out on top, as they bolstered their starting pitching with the acquisitions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and adding Denard Span to help the defense. Throw in their main nucleus of Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner, and give them a future Hall of Fame manager(Bruce Bochy), and you have the makings of a division title. Oh, and the Giants win in even years; there is that too. The Dodgers look to be in the discussion as they have Kenta Maeda replace Zack Greinke in the rotation while their best pick up this winter being manager Dave Roberts. The Dodgers will be in the running but chemistry is a big part of their story yet again this year. Arizona went out this offseason and made some good transactions(Greinke) and some head-scratchers(Jean Segura??). How far the Diamondbacks go this year will be determined by how the younger talents like AJ Pollock and Patrick Corbin perform. At this point San Diego and Colorado are afterthoughts. Neither seem to have much direction nor a captain to steer them away from rocky weather. It could be a long season for fans of both.

Awards 

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
(Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY)

American League

MVP: Manny Machado

Cy Young: Chris Archer

Rookie of the Year: Byron Buxton

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National League

MVP: Giancarlo Stanton

Cy Young: Jacob deGrom

Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager

Playoff Teams

Luke Gregerson
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

American League

Toronto, Kansas City, Houston, Texas, Minnesota

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National League

Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York

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So there are my guesses on the upcoming 2016 campaign. I look forward to revisiting this come October and laughing about how far off I was. One of the great things about baseball is every spring we make our predictions on how we think things will evolve, yet we rarely guess correctly. I love the fact that they play six months of games to determine who plays in the final month and what happens in April doesn’t always dictate what occurs in October. The season is a grind and much like a good book it will have a ton of twists and turns to question just where your team ends up. There is a reason they play the games; what would be the fun of the season being decided by guesses? The drama of baseball is what keeps bringing us back and keeps us on our toes. I love this damn game and can’t wait to see how this season unfolds. I can promise you this; you won’t see it coming. Play ball!

Grade Two Sweep: Royals Pummel Rays, Lose Gordon

Kansas City Royals' Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando (16) celebrate after Orlando hit a walk-off grand slam during the ninth inning of the first game in a baseball doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won 9-5. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Sometimes there are series where it appears nothing much of importance happens and you are left wondering if you are even going to remember anything from those games a week later. Then there are series like this, which was packed full of excitement and concern. It was mentioned to me at one point this week that this would go down as possibly the most emotional series of the year, and when it is all said and done it very well could be a pivotal series that decides whether or not this team makes it to October or falls short of the prize. It’s surprising I have said all of that and yet the Royals swept the Rays, taking all four games and extending their lead in the American League Central. We have a lot of ground to cover so let’s get to it.

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Series MVP: Alcides Escobar

No disrespect for Lorenzo Cain, who packed quite a punch in the last two games of this series, but Alcides Escobar set the table for this offense to come alive this series and score a plethora of runs. Escobar was 9 for 18 this series, knocking in 3 runs on a bases clearing double and produced a .667 BAbip. Escobar pretty much owns Rays starter Chris Archer, as he went 4 for 4 against the All-Star on Wednesday night, 7 for 9 career. Escobar is not your typical leadoff hitter, as he hardly ever walks and tends to swing at the first pitch quite often. I am a big believer in working the count, taking walks and getting on base in whatever manner possible. When Alcides is on his game, he gets on base and that is all that matters. Sometimes he even bunts and ends up with a double:

I am a big Escobar supporter and this series showed a lot of reasons why he will be starting at the All-Star game next week. Escobar is one of those great acquisitions by Dayton Moore that is appreciated more when you watch him everyday. I guess we can thank Milwaukee for letting Kansas City take him off their hands:

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Pitching Performance of the Series: Edinson Volquez

In all honesty, there wasn’t one pitching performance that really stood out in this series, as the offense was really the hero for these four games. That being said, Volquez had the best game score out of the bunch, a solid 55 after his outing on Tuesday. Volquez went 5 innings, giving up 5 hits and 1 run while walking 3 and striking out 5. The only real blemish on there is the 3 walks, which are Volquez’s weakness. The good thing is the starters in this series all got through 5 innings and let the bullpen guide them the rest of the way. The Royals did see the return of Yordano Ventura on Thursday, as he coasted through the first 4 innings before struggling in the 5th, as he had a hard time finding the strike zone. I talked about this after the weekend, but getting Danny Duffy, Ventura, Jason Vargas and Kris Medlen will go a long way toward solidifying the rotation and might make it to where the Royals won’t need to go out and acquire another starter. That is the hope, since the Royals now have an All-Star sized hole in the outfield for the next two months…

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Gordon Out For Eight Weeks 

The most talked about subject from this series is the injury to All-Star left fielder Alex Gordon. Gordon went down during Wednesday night’s game and it did not look pretty:

The initial thought was a knee injury(if you watch the video, Gordon’s knee looks like it buckles right before he falls) but it turned out to be a groan strain:

The good news is Gordon won’t need surgery and should be able to start rehabbing in 2-3 weeks. Gordon is a work-out nut, which would make one think he could be back closer to 6-7 weeks than the expected 8. But groin strains are risky business:

No matter what, that leaves a hole in the Royals outfield. For now Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando will split time in left field, but neither should be starting too much, and with Alex Rios struggling as well, there is a need for another outfielder:

There is also a couple of other issues. For one, this doesn’t even factor in how important Gordon is to the fabric of this team:

The plus to that is it looks as if Gordon will still be around:

The other factor is Gordon’s contract situation. Gordon has an option on his contract at the end of this year that he can opt out of. I have no idea whether or not this injury will hamper his value on the open market. For the most part that will be determined on how he performs when he returns from the injury. If he plays fine, his value will remain as high as it was before Wednesday. If not, teams could be less likely to want to roll out a multi-year contract for “A1”. His time away will make one thing very obvious for this Kansas City Royals team:

 

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There was soooo much more this series that was notable. Now onto an emotionally charged news and notes:

  • There was a lot of roster shuffling to start off this series. Paulo Orlando was recalled from Omaha on Monday, which forced the Royals to DFA Jason Frasor. Frasor had been a solid arm in the pen for the Royals since his acquisition last year but he was low man on the totem pole and had an issue earlier this year with allowing base runners. Frasor was a total class act about being let go:

The Royals also put Mike Moustakas back on the bereavement list and recalled Cheslor Cuthbert from AAA. I’ve been following Cuthbert’s progress in the minors the last few years, even when the team had experimented with playing him at second and first base, and loved seeing him getting the call up to the big club:

By the way, Cuthbert went 5 for 15 in his first 4 games in the big leagues, including his first career triple on Thursday afternoon to drive in a couple of runs. Then there was the insane amount of moves on Thursday:

I expect some more moves before the Royals return from the All-Star break. It will be interesting to see how this team looks over the next couple of weeks.

  • Monday’s game was rained out. It was not safe in Kansas City:

https://twitter.com/staypuft/status/618189295342325760

There was also all the “mucho rain” in the Royals dugout:

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The game was rescheduled and played as part of a “day-night” doubleheader on Tuesday.

  • The reserves for the All-Star game were announced on Monday night, and Royals relievers Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera made it six Royals going to the All-Star game next week. Third baseman Mike Moustakas is part of the final vote, and as of this writing is leading the balloting. If he wins it, that will make it seven Royals going to Cincinnati next week.

  • Paulo Orlando might never have a greater experience than his walk-off grand slam in game one of the doubleheader on Tuesday:

The walk-off reminded me of the one Justin Maxwell hit a few years ago and was the third consecutive walk-off win for the Royals. Orlando’s slash line isn’t the most impressive in the world but he did a solid job of filling in for Alex Rios earlier this season and plays above average defense. With Gordon on the shelf, having Orlando around is a definite plus for this team.

  • Speaking of backup outfielders, Jarrod Dyson will start seeing some increased playing time, and so far he has excelled with it. First, there was this little inside the park home run on Wednesday night:

Then there was his impersonation of Willie Mays on Thursday:

He would also throw out a runner at home on Wednesday and 4 for 11 in the entire series. Right now Dyson is riding a hot streak and the Royals will need that going forward.

  • I mentioned earlier that Lorenzo Cain had a good series, despite only playing the last two games. Cain was 4 for 7, hitting 2 home runs while driving in 5 runs. I doubt anyone at this point is questioning whether or not he deserves to be in Cincinnati next week.
  • How deep is the Royals bullpen? Normally the Royals go Herrera-Davis-Holland late in the game. On Thursday, they went Madson-Hochevar-Herrera with the same results. This pen is insanely good:

 

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Tweets of Royalty

 

Kansas City Royals' Paulo Orlando, right, celebrates with teammates after hitting a walk-off grand slam during the ninth inning of the first game in a baseball doubleheader against the Tampa Bay Rays Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in Kansas City, Mo. The Royals won 9-5. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

So the offense has come back to life, and hopefully they can keep things going as the one more series before heading to the All-Star break. The Royals invite the Toronto Blue Jays into town for three games, and with only those games left it is assured the Royals will head into the break in first place in the American League Central, currently 5 games ahead of the Minnesota Twins. The Blue Jays are 3-7 in their last 10 games but they possibly have the most talent in the American League East and offensively can be a juggernaut. The Royals will throw Duffy, Young and Volquez over the next three games and then there is a chance Vargas and Medlen could be added to the team after the break. It’s a fun time to be a Kansas City Royals fan, but the injury to Alex Gordon looms over the entire team at this point and we will know soon enough if they can overcome this latest obstacle thrown in their way. I’m not going to enjoy two months of no Gordon, but I like the idea of knowing what this team’s mettle is truly made of and just how valuable Gordon is to their success. No success is truly great without some major obstacle to overcome. We are now going to see what this Royals team is truly made of.

 

 

 

 

 

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