Ten overlooked baseball success stories
Some players, coaches, organizations deserve more acclaim
These days, information seemingly comes in blizzards, slapping us in the face with minute flakes that, some days, lower our visibility down to a 10th of an hour.
There is a writer named Leigh Montville who, in his era as a Boston Globe columnist, was considered by many to be a genius because he had the uncanny ability to view life not from ground level, sports not from the locker room. Montville sees everything from a hot-air balloon, everyone in his place and in his alignment.
That said, the following is my list of the 10 baseball people and organizations that I think were underappreciated in 2010:
1. Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy
They have their World Series rings, which is great. Bochy had long been considered by his peers as a kind of West Coast Bobby Cox -- tough, a fair handler of players and one of the best over the past 20 years at cobbling together bullpens. Hail, hail, Javy Lopez.
Sabean has labored long and hard for the Giants, patching around Barry Bonds to maintain teams that were always in the National League West race and filled the park. Granted, Bonds, as the most dominant player in the game, was a huge part of the franchise's success, but because Peter Magowan built the stadium privately, the debt structure forced Sabean to make a lot of difficult decisions, one of which was to spend for the present and ignore the future as much as possible, which forced Sabean, a development man by trade, to sign free agents like Michael Tucker to avoid the cost of a first-round pick.
Sabean and his circle, which includes Dick Tidrow and his uncanny understanding of pitching, drafted good pitching and resisted the temptation to trade Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Jonathan Sanchez, et al. They knew what they had when Tim Lincecum dropped to 10th in the First-Year Player Draft, they patiently awaited the full health of Brian Wilson, and they got the right guy in Buster Posey in the 2008 Draft.
Be happy for Sabean, Bochy, Bobby Evans and everyone in the Giants organization. Their story was captivating, they put together the pitching that could roll for two months in a division where pitching is king, and the Giants are world champions for the first time since Dusty Rhodes.
2. Albert Pujols
Yes, yes, Albert is the best player in the game right now. But is he appreciated for his place in history, or is he a victim of the offensive exhaustion caused by the 10-year period leading up to the Cardinals' 2006 world championship?
Joe Posnansky recently tweeted that in Pujols' 10 seasons, his average year reads as .331, 44 doubles, 42 homers, 123 runs, 128 RBIs, and that just nine players have matched those season numbers even once. Pujols' WARP is third all-time among first basemen, behind Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. His OPS ranks fifth among all-time players, and he's sixth in OPS+. What's more, Pujols has won three MVP awards and two Gold Gloves.
We are looking at one of the greatest players who ever donned a uniform, and even in a season in which Joey Votto gave us a wonderful story, Albert batted .312 and led the league in runs, homers, RBIs and, of course, intentional walks.
3. Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera is on the outskirts of history. Whatever mistake he made in September 2009, he addressed, and he has now placed in the top five in the MVP race four of the past six seasons. In his eight seasons playing for the Marlins and Tigers, in ballparks that were not exactly built for hitters, he has averaged just under 31 homers and 110 RBIs. His .388 on-base percentage speaks volumes about his growth, and his OPS+ through age 27 is 145. Pujols' was 167 at that age, Henry Aaron's 153, Ken Griffey's 150, Frank Robinson's 148. That is the air Miguel Cabrera breathes. In his seven full seasons in the Majors, he's averaged more than 157 games played. He turns 28 on April 18. The next day, Joe Mauer turns 28.
4. The Tampa Bay Rays
Jonah Keri's book "The Extra 2%," which comes out in March, is a must-read. In the division against the big, bad and very rich Yankees and Red Sox, what the Rays pulled off in finishing first two of three years is nothing short of astounding. Keri details how Matt Silverman, Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon and company built what they did and took advantage of that three-year window. He also explains why the economics of the market have forced the Rays to rebuild around what in 2011 should be one of the best starting pitching staffs in the American League. The Rays' 2008-2010 run is a testament to the notion that it's all right to think outside the box.
5. Billy Wagner
In the 1992 Cape Cod League All-Star Game, the little 5-foot-9 kid from Ferrum College came in and struck out the side without so much as a foul ball. The conventional wisdom among the scouts was that Wagner was too short, that Brian Anderson and Wayne Gomes were the better prospects, a notion that carried through until the Draft the following June, when Anderson and Gomes were the third and fourth players taken. Fortunately for the Astros, scout Tom Mooney didn't see it that way.
Wagner is reportedly retiring, and he does so as one of the best left-handed relievers of all time. He has 422 saves, seven All-Star appearances, a 2.31 career ERA, 601 hits allowed in 903 innings pitched, an 11.9-3 strikeout-walk ratio.
6. Terry Francona
It's not just that Francona's averaged more than 93 wins a season and has earned two World Series rings in his seven years. It's how he's done it. Alex Cora once pointed out that Francona never says the wrong thing in public about a player, which, in a media market that scours and dissects every sentence, isn't easy. He's dealt with some inflated egos and some stars that were in decline. He had uneasy situations this past season when some veterans privately questioned his loyalty. This past season, he had three-quarters of the front four in his lineup, which many thought would be the best in the league, together for a grand total of eight games all season. The pitcher most respected by his peers, Josh Beckett, has averaged just over 171 innings with a 4.39 ERA the past three years.
Being the manager of the Boston Red Sox is an exhausting job, and the stakes and pressures that go into life in the shadow of the Yankees adds a dimension that "Tito" never would have experienced, had he spent the past seven years in Milwaukee or St. Louis. Francona is a prepared, detailed manager who, through it all, has never lost his dignity or trust.
7. Adam Wainwright
When Walt Jocketty was fired in St. Louis, Jim Hendry said, "No one's made more good trades than Walt." The deal for Mark McGwire built a ballpark, but the deal for Adam Wainwright ranks as one of the best of the past decade. Wainwright cares about team first. He is a horse; he is very good. He hit the spotlight with four saves in the Cardinals' 2006 postseason run to a World Series championship, and in the four years since then, Wainwright leads National League starters in wins (64) and ERA (2.93).
Roy Halladay, in that time, has eight more wins than Wainwright, mostly in Toronto. No one is debating Halladay's Cy Young Award in 2010, but compare Halladay's campaign to Wainwright's 2010 season:
A Pair of Aces
8. Jered Weaver
Lost in the glare of East Coast bias and the spectacular seasons turned in by Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, David Price and Jon Lester was the clear statement that Jered Weaver is on that level, too. He led the Majors in strikeouts, was tied for third in starts, was second in quality starts and fourth in WHIP. The fact is, 2010 was an aberration of a season for the Angels, but not Weaver.
9. Jack Morris
This is not a plea for Morris' Hall of Fame credentials. When Morris was first on the ballot, Joe Sheehan kindly printed out a start-by-start breakdown of his career, which proved to me that, indeed, Morris did not always "pitch to the score." But there are folks who are obsessed with Morris, to the point that you'd think he wasn't as good as Larry Pashnick, who, in 1982, struck out 19 batters and allowed 17 home runs for the Tigers.
Morris pitched most of his career in a left-handed hitter's dream park. He was respected by his managers so much that three who have World Series rings -- Sparky Anderson, Tom Kelly, and Cito Gaston -- picked him to start the ALCS and World Series openers (incidentally, all three of those teams went on to win the Series). His Game 7 performance against John Smoltz in the 1991 Series was one of the great battles of wills we will ever see.
Bert Blyleven will, thankfully, make it into the Hall of Fame next month. Morris may never make it, though his peers on the Veterans' Committee might revisit his candidacy when his Hall of Fame fortunes are in their hands. Morris, a crusty, edgy guy who loved the big stage, quit before he turned 40, and, while he may not have HOF next to his name, he has three rings, earned with three different teams.
10. Bronson Arroyo
As we watch the Reds' young players develop and wait to see how their bright young pitchers progress in 2011, Arroyo has provided stability in Cincinnati's rotation. Since he was acquired for Wily Mo Pena in Spring Training 2006, Arroyo is eighth in the Majors in wins, fourth in innings pitched and tied for first in games started. He also won a Gold Glove and leads all Major League pitchers in CDs sold.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.