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Guts Enough Not To Fight Back: The Legacy of Jackie Robinson

This essay won the Society for American Baseball Research Negro Leagues Committee Scholarship contest in April 2010.

On April 14, 1947, Major League Baseball was a whites-only sport. Not since the expulsion of black players in 1888 had a non-Caucasian man swung a bat or thrown a pitch in the Big Show.

That changed on April 15, 1947—64 years ago today—when Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

Today it is our duty, both as baseball fans and as Americans, to appreciate Robinson as not just a courageous man and a skilled ballplayer, but as the hero who forged a path for racial integration in all aspects of American society.

An African-American boards a segregated bus in the heart of the segregated South and takes a seat in the “whites-only” section. “Hey, you,” the driver yells, “Get to the back of the bus.” The passenger refuses and is arrested a few minutes later.

At first glance, it is a familiar story, one that my generation learned as an epitomic tale of justice and courage in elementary school. But this event took place in 1944, not 1955; in Fort Hood, Texas, not Montgomery, Alabama; and on an Army bus, not public transportation.

The courageous passenger who refused to cede his seat was not Rosa Parks, but Second Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Three years before his storied major league debut, Robinson’s actions established a precedent of passive resistance in the face of racism—both for himself and the civil rights leaders who would follow him.

It requires little effort to show that Robinson was a fantastic baseball player. A quick glance at his Hall of Fame plaque reveals that he had a career average of .311, attended six All-Star Games and was named NL MVP in 1949.

But when Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey chose him to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1945, it was not just because of his skill; Robinson had played only one season in the Negro Leagues, and his résumé was not nearly as impressive as those of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson. Rickey was looking for something else—something much more important than a slick glove or a smooth swing.

According to Mohandas Gandhi’s doctrine of satyagraha, a man could truly be righteous only if he was both courageous and nonviolent; neither a refusal to take up arms out of cowardice nor a retaliation filled with bravado would ease the hatred in the oppressors’ hearts. This was the philosophy Rickey knew he had to instill in whoever he recruited.

Proving that African-Americans were good enough to compete with white players would not be a problem—anyone who followed the Negro Leagues knew that they had talent. What he needed most was someone who would refuse to show anger and avoid violence at all costs; someone who would deprive bigots of the symbolic enemy they craved. Rickey famously told Robinson, “I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”

Robinson fit the mold perfectly. When he reached the major leagues in 1947, he braved verbal harassment, opposing teams’ overly aggressive play and even death threats with unflinching stoicism. Fully committed to his philosophy of intrepid pacifism, Robinson even refused to argue with umpires as a rookie.

With his inoffensive demeanor and undeniable dexterity, those who had opposed Robinson’s breaking the color barrier out of paternalistic fear or skepticism were proven wrong. Thanks to his example, several other black players—including Larry Doby and Hank Thompson—had also reached the Big Show by season’s end.

Looking at some contemporary baseball stars, it is clear that not just anyone could have played Robinson’s role. He would have made a terrible impression had he been cursed with Manny Ramirez’ uncontrollable ego or apathetic approach to the game. Robinson would have (in their minds) proved the bigots right had he displayed Kenny Rogers’ short temper or Milton Bradley’s inability to tolerate criticism.

And you can count out anyone who has ever used steroids, androgens or human growth hormones—what would have happened if the first black player since 1888 had been caught cheating?

But Robinson’s legacy goes far beyond his contributions to the game of baseball; he was among the first well-known figures in the American Civil Rights movement to use passive resistance to combat racism.

Think of the most successful integration movements of the 1950’s: the Little Rock Nine, the SNCC’s sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott. While integrating professional sports might not have been as important as desegregating schools, restaurants and public transportation, Robinson’s actions must have provided at least a subconscious inspiration for the students, and Rosa Parks was undoubtedly following his example when she refused to give up her own seat 11 years later.

In retrospect, Robinson’s success through pacifism could be seen as foreshadowing for the later stages of the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King, Jr. was far from the only charismatic figure to display intelligence and passion in the fight for equality; in fact, his doctrine was quite moderate compared to those of his contemporaries, Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. Yet he is widely remembered as the most successful leader of the Civil Rights movement because of his commitment to nonviolence and his professed love even for those who hated him.

Dr. King developed his philosophy from the scholarly works of Gandhi and Thoreau, yet his overarching goal was the same as the one Branch Rickey imbued in his young protégée: to have “guts enough to not fight back.”

For more of Lewie’s work, visit Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.

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Neftali Feliz Named Texas’ Rangers Closer: Generational Talent Wasted in Bullpen

A year ago, fantasy owners and Texas fans alike felt burned when the Rangers announced that then 21-year-old phenom Neftali Feliz would start the season in the bullpen. He wasn’t even supposed to be Texas’ closer—he was slated to play second fiddle to Ugueth Urbina.

We know how that story ended. By the second week of the 2010 season, Feliz, now 22, had wrested the ninth-inning job from Urbina. In 70 appearances, he threw 69.1 innings with a 2.73 ERA, striking out more than a batter per inning (9.2 K/9) and notching 40 saves (good for third in the American League) en route to upsetting Austin Jackson for the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

Now that ace Cliff Lee has returned to Philadelphia, questions have abounded about the 2010 AL pennant winners’ ability to defend their title with a weakened rotation. It was only logical that the idea of moving Feliz, who was predominantly a starting pitcher in the minors, back to the rotation would spark a lot of discussion.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen—at least, not in 2011. On Thursday, the Rangers announced that Feliz would return to his established role as the team’s closer.

It’s a terrible decision. 

A solid starting pitcher makes a bigger difference to a team than even the best high-leverage reliever, so keeping a young arm with even half of Feliz’ talent in the bullpen seems like a waste. 

Of course, not every pitcher has the stamina and pitch repertoire necessary to handle the increased workload and to face batters who have already seen his stuff. The Cleveland Indians’ Justin Masterson was dominant as a late-inning reliever but has struggled as a starter. The Detroit Tigers are likely to regret moving Phil Coke, a lefty reliever who can’t get right-handed hitters out, to the rotation. For every C.J. Wilson, there’s a Kyle Farnsworth.

But Feliz fits the profile of a successful starter to a T. His fastball would lose some speed if he moved to the rotation, but even if he’d lose three mph and we assume his velocity has already peaked (not likely for a 22-year-old), he’d still average over 93 mph. That’s some serious heat. 

More importantly, while Feliz goes to his heat most of the time (78.7 percent of his career pitches—that would drop if he moved to the rotation), he doesn’t need to rely solely on his fastball; he has a solid three-pitch repertoire to keep batters guessing. His curveball is fantastic: On a per-pitch basis (FanGraphs’ Pitch Valuation has it at 2.77 wCB/C), it would have been the best curve in the league if he’d had enough innings to qualify. His changeup is less impressive (-0.65 career wCH/C), but it’s pretty good for a 22-year-old’s third pitch. 

Of course, it’s understandable that Texas would want to keep Feliz in the ‘pen. With Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter and Matt Harrison ready to line up behind C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis in the rotation, Texas has no need for another starter. Meanwhile, the bullpen situation looks bleak; the organization has questions about Alexi Ogando’s ability to close, and Darren O’Day and Mark Lowe have combined for a 12.21 ERA in 14 innings. 

With that in mind, keeping Feliz as a reliever makes sense for Texas—under two conditions. First, the Rangers can’t plan on keeping him in the bullpen forever and should at least start transitioning him to a starting role by 2012. Second, manager Ron Washington must use Feliz not as a closer but as a true “relief ace.” 

At this point, it’s pretty much accepted that permanently assigning your best reliever to the ninth inning is a terribly misguided strategy. If a team is ahead by one run with the bases loaded in the sixth or seventh inning, the need for shut-down pitching is far greater than when they’re up by three with no one on in the ninth. 

Unfortunately, Washington hasn’t gotten the memo. In 16 games last postseason (with plenty of days off in between), Wash had his best bullpen guy throw just 7.1 innings, and only once did Feliz appear in a game he didn’t finish. It’s safe to say Washington’s stubbornness with respect to the closer’s role was the reason the Rangers lost the first game of the ALCS. 

Using Feliz whenever he’s most needed instead of reserving him for arbitrarily determined save situations would help the Rangers win, but it would also help Feliz’ development. In addition to giving him experience with getting out of jams—an essential skill for a starter to have—it could allow him to throw more innings.

If Texas moves Feliz to the rotation next spring after he throws a typical closer’s regimen of around 70 innings in 2011, he’s bound to experience some growing pains when his workload suddenly more than doubles.

If, on the other hand, Washington changes his tune and maximizes what he gets from his relief ace by using Feliz when he’s needed and for as long as he’s needed, the Rangers could have him throw closer to 100 frames, maybe more. That way, they could stretch him out slowly and have him make a smoother transition to a starting role in the near future. 

Of course, that’s not going to happen—the team said Feliz will be a closer, and to my knowledge they’ve never used the term “relief ace” in a public statement. Wash is an old school guy, and if he can’t be bothered to maximize his bullpen properly in October, why would he be willing to change his ways in April? 

If I were a Rangers fan watching as my team’s best pitcher is condemned to wallow away in the ninth inning, I would not be happy—yo no sería Feliz

For more of Lewie’s work, visit Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.

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2011 MLB Preview: Minnesota Twins’ Francisco Liriano Poised for Historic Season

In 2006, a flame-throwing rookie took the baseball world by storm. Ranked the sixth-best prospect in the game on Baseball America‘s preseason list, he surpassed even the wildest expectations people had for him, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA (2.55 FIP, 2.35 xFIP) and earned 4.1 WAR in 121 innings.

His name was Francisco Liriano, and he quickly emerged as the Twins‘ best starter—no easy feat considering his teammate, Johan Santana, went on to win the AL Cy Young.

Then disaster struck. Elbow pain limited Liriano to just two starts after July 28, and he underwent Tommy John surgery in November.

He missed the entire 2007 season, and wasn’t quite himself for two years afterwards. He went 11-17 with a 5.12 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP in 212 2/3 innings from 2008-9. His breakout rookie season seemed like a fluke, and Liriano had gained a reputation as inconsistent and injury-prone.

Butast winter, something changed, and Liriano rediscovered his lost talent. In 37 innings of work in the Dominican League, he posted a 0.49 ERA. More importantly, he showed the overpowering stuff (10.9 K/9) he had lost since his debut season while bringing his walks under control (1.7 BB/9).

The stage was set for a monster year, and Liriano did not disappoint.

In 31 starts—2010 was the first time he’d managed more than 25—he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA. In 191 2/3 innings, he racked up 201 strikeouts while allowing only 58 walks.

He earned 6.0 WAR for a Twins team that won its division by six games. In other words, Minnesota probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs without Liriano.

Liriano simply dominated opposing hitters. His 9.4 K/9 rate was second in the league, behind only Jon Lester. Batters chased his out-of-zone pitches at a 34.4 percent clip—good for fourth in baseball—and his 12.4 percent swinging-strike rate was the best in the game. PitchFx had his fastball averaging 94.2 mph, and no pitcher did more damage with his slider than Liriano (FanGraphs’ pitch weights had him at 19.0 wSL).

And yet, Liriano was actually extremely unlucky. His .331 BABIP was the second-highest in baseball. Yes, groundball pitchers like Liriano tend to have higher hit rates than their fly ball-inducing counterparts, but his xBABIP was exactly .300.

What might Liriano’s season have looked like with neutral luck? His 2.66 FIP put him second in the league, behind only rightful Cy Young winner Cliff Lee. The 96-point difference between his FIP and ERA marks him as the unluckiest pitcher in the AL.

Liriano’s 2.93 tERA puts him fourth in the Junior Circuit, way ahead of Cy Young candidates David Price (3.27), CC Sabathia (3.44) and Clay Buchholz (3.92).

XFIP was the least generous of the ERA estimators, putting Liriano at 3.06. And yet, that was good enough to beat every other qualified pitcher in baseball not named Roy Halladay.

What does this mean for Liriano’s 2011 season? Assuming his peripherals hold up, we could very well be looking at the best pitcher in baseball.

As his BABIP falls, his WHIP will follow. Fewer hits means a higher strand rate (Liriano’s 73.1 LOB% last year looks fine, but one would expect a pitcher of his caliber post an above-average mark), and fewer base-runners scoring at a lower rate will do wonders for his ERA.

If he can keep his HR/FB rate down—and a pitcher of his caliber shouldn’t have too much trouble controlling the long ball at Target Field—there’s no reason his ERA wouldn’t regress towards his 2.66 FIP.

Plus, fewer base-runners means fewer hitters. That will make his innings go by faster, allowing him to pitch deeper into games. He averaged less than 6.1 innings a start in 2010 and didn’t throw a single complete game. Fewer runs and more innings mean more wins.

The scary part? It seems like Liriano has been around forever, but in fact he is only 27 years old. Given his age, he could conceivably get even better this year. Twenty wins, an ERA around 2.00 and more than 200 innings are well within the realm of possibility for Liriano.

Of course, it would be ridiculous to expect a season that incredible from anyone outside a video game console. Moreover, while Liriano seems perfectly healthy now, there’s always a shadow of doubt for pitchers with his kind of injury history.

And while regression to his luck-neutral statistics is the most likely outcome, it’s no guarantee. If you roll two dice you’re always most likely to get a seven, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never roll snake eyes.

Earlier this winter, I projected Liriano to go 16-8 with a 2.92 ERA, backed up by 211 strikeouts and 63 walks in 204 IP, which would clearly make him one of the best pitchers in baseball.

Could he beat my prediction? Absolutely. He may have the highest upside of any starter in the game, and he could go on to have a truly historic season.

Don’t count on Liriano’s stats matching up with his luck-neutral numbers from last season, but the sky is the limit when he takes the mound in 2011.

For more of Lewie’s work, visit Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.

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MLB Power Rankings: B/R Columnists Rank All 30 Teams for the 2011 Season

Most baseball predictions are relatively straightforward. Sure, you can argue over whether Joey Votto will be better than Albert Pujols or who will win the AL East, but as long as the focus is on just one outcome, it’s at least easy to understand the train of thought.

That’s why, when one person decides to power rank all 30 MLB teams, things inevitably go awry.

There’s a general consensus about how the top and the bottom should look, but in between the two extremes, things can get pretty screwy. One man’s top-three team is in another man’s bottom five.

Luckily, Bleacher Report’s Featured Columnists have found a solution. Twenty-six of the site’s most knowledgeable writers, representing 18 teams, all wrote in with their lists, which we combined into this—our composite power rankings, in which the group consensus outweighs our individual biases.

For each team, you can see our average ranking, as well as the extreme highs and lows they reached on our ballots. The numbers are accompanied by commentary from 18 different writers, so you can read a whole range of different perspectives on how the 2011 season will shake out.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this survey—now let’s see how we do!

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MLB Power Rankings: The Greatest Homegrown Pitcher in Each Team’s History

There once was a time when players spent their entire careers with the same team.

In most cases, the team a player was on was the one that originally scouted and drafted him. Unless a guy was traded or he wore out his welcome with his employers, he wasn’t likely to ever don another uniform.

Now, that’s all changed.

Teams have played the service clock game with their young players, manipulating the timing of their arbitration seasons to delay their walk years as long as possible. Once they hit the open market, all that matters is cash.

In honor of the way things used to be, here is my list of the best homegrown starting pitcher in the history of each MLB team.


Black-and-white headshots are public domain images, courtesy of

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John Thorn Rebuttal: In Defense of Stats…Sabermetrics Aren’t Bad for Baseball

Last week, John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, stopped by Bleacher Report to post three eloquent essays in which he aptly demonstrated his knowledge of and passion for our national pastime.

Unfortunately, much of what he wrote was based on a false premise that permeates much of the discussion about baseball today. In “Farewell to Stats,” Mr. Thorn wrote:

“Amid today’s…sabermetric analysis, I miss the fun.” 

This is not a malevolent attack or an angry outburst, but it is emblematic of a misguided opinion popular among analysts across the country, most of whom are far less thoughtful and diplomatic than Mr. Thorn.

The prejudice we number-lovers face comes from all directions, from Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman calling us “VORPies” (apparently that was supposed to be an insult) to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Patrick Reusse’s politically incorrect comparison of statistically inclined bloggers to homeless people.

Even here at Bleacher Report, any article involving BABIP or xFIP is sure to get a few angry comments. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had my playing experience questioned (I earned a .533 OBP in fourth-grade kid pitch, thank you very much), been accused of bias towards the team I most despise and even had someone threaten to call Brown to tell them to revoke my admission.

These kinds of ad hominem attacks aren’t worth worrying about—no one takes them seriously. But there is another accusation that is much more damaging because even people as respectable as Mr. Thorn have bought into it: the idea that sabermetric analysis is irrelevant to—or worse, the antithesis of—enjoying the game.

This idea is baseless, condescending and, most of all, completely wrong.

Perhaps there are some masochistic statisticians who study baseball even though they don’t care for it, but I’ve never encountered any of them. In my experience, people who appreciate sabermetrics are actually some of the most passionate fans—objective analysis does not interfere with subjective enjoyment.

Consider my firsthand anecdotal evidence. I was ecstatic the first time I heard Tom Hamilton’s voice on the radio this spring a couple weeks ago. This weekend, I was completely enraptured the first time I got to watch a game on TV.

I even planned my trip to see my girlfriend over spring break around the Indians’ schedule so I could go to a game while I was home. Yes, I’ll probably be calculating Justin Masterson’s FIP in my head while he’s on the mound, but if Shin-Soo Choo makes a diving catch to save a double, I will appreciate the play for more than just its effect on Masterson’s BABIP.

Moreover, Mr. Thorn’s comparison of sabermetrics to Thoreau’s “count[ing] the cats in Zanzibar” is incredibly misleading. We who study these things do not do so for the sake of memorizing numbers, we do it so we can better understand the game.

As someone who has spent a significant amount of time typing numbers into spreadsheets, I can tell you it’s not fun. It’s boring and tedious. There’s no thrill in it for anyone.

The fun part comes when you hit “enter” for the last time and the results tell you something you didn’t know about the game; that relief pitchers are impervious to DIPS theory, or that Power Factor is a better measure of a hitter’s raw slugging ability than is ISO.

The specific stat that led Mr. Thorn to quote Walden was “a list of the all-time leaders in receiving intentional bases on balls with no one on base.” Now, that sounds like a terrible ordeal, and I would never have the patience to take on such a project. But even if it wouldn’t be worth my while, I would definitely interested in seeing which batters opposing pitchers feared so much that they preferred giving them free bases than letting them hit with no one on.

More importantly, though, apparently someone decided it was worth his or her time to do it. Why is that wrong?

Mr. Thorn began his third piece by saying, “Statistics are something of a fetish.” I disagree. The real problem with the way people talk about baseball today—and, to be clear, I don’t count Mr. Thorn in this—is the fetishism of ignorance.

These are the militant traditionalists who dismiss sabermetrics without a rational explanation and think Billy Beane wrote Moneyball to brag about how smart he is. They are the Heymans and the Reusses, who lash out at those who use advanced statistics with childish ad hominem attacks while giving no indication that they actually understand what it is that they are rejecting.

This is a world in which Joe Morgan, the former lead color commentator for the number one sports media network in the country, wears the fact that he has not read the most influential baseball book of our generation as a badge of honor. And we blame sabermetrics for being misleading?

What’s worse, people reject advanced stats while simultaneously observing the effects they explain. Many fans dismissed the discrepancy between Ubaldo Jimenez’ ERA and his xFIP early on in 2010 while simultaneously saying he couldn’t keep up his torrid pace forever. I had one commenter dismiss an analysis of an overachieving rookie’s unsustainable BABIP, then say he was scared that the player would fall victim to the “sophomore jinx.” It’s like condemning the theory of gravity while at the same time wondering why things keep falling down.

If you aren’t interested in sabermetrics, that’s fine. But know that by ignoring them you are deliberately stopping yourself from understanding the game as best you can.

I won’t make Mr. Thorn’s condescending implication that those who enjoy baseball differently than I do are wrong, but willful ignorance will make you a poor analyst. In the words of John Locke: “He who judges without informing himself to the utmost that is possible, cannot acquit himself of judging amiss.”

But you shouldn’t take my word that UZR and xFIP work any more than you should take Reusse’s. Read up on what they mean, where they come from and how they’re derived, and see for yourself. Keep an open mind and surely the logic will make sense to you. They’re not perfect, but they’re the best we’ve got.

Don’t fall for buzzwords like “you can’t measure everything a hitter does in one stat” or “you can’t put an objective value on a player.” That’s exactly what wOBA and WAR do. The sabermetric revolution has allowed us strip away luck and context to quantify the unquantifiable.

Yes, Kevin Youkilis’ plate matters more to me than David Eckstein’s scrappiness, and I care about Francisco Liriano’s strikeout rate much more than Derek Jeter’s “calm eyes.” Why does that make me a bad fan?

If you don’t care about statistics, that’s fine, but know that you’re missing out on something big. If Ozzie Guillen wants to play small ball and Dusty Baker fears “clogging the bases,” go ahead—let them whittle away valuable outs.

But please don’t tell me that I’m not enjoying the game just because I own a calculator.

For more of Lewie’s work, visit Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.

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2011 MLB Preview: Albert Pujols, Roy Halladay and B/R’s NL Award Predictions

Opening Day is less than two weeks away, which means everyone and his mother is spouting predictions for the coming MLB season.

With so many talking heads out there, where can you go to find a variety of opinions together in one place? 

Yesterday, 25 of Bleacher Report’s MLB Featured Columnists—representing 17 teams—pooled our collective wisdom (or ignorance, if you disagree with us) with our picks for who will win the major American League awards in 2011: Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie, Manager and Comeback Player of the Year.

Today, we tackle the National League.

For each award, I’ve included the full vote totals so you can see how we were divided. In addition, writers who voted for the winner and an “interesting pick” for each honor wrote in to explain their choices.

Thank you to everyone who voted and submitted commentary!

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2011 MLB Preview: Adrian Gonzalez, Robinson Cano and B/R’s AL Award Predictions

The lead-up to Opening Day is a time for excitement. It’s a time for optimism and hope. And it’s a time for predictions.

Yes indeed, there are predictions.

Everyone and his mother has an opinion about which teams will make the playoffs and which will collapse, which players will rise to stardom and which will fade into obscurity. With so many people putting in their two cents, how can we keep it all straight?

Luckily, Bleacher Report’s Featured Columnists are here to help with the first installment in our season-long series of FC Polls.

Twenty-five of B/R’s top MLB writers, representing 17 teams, offered their predictions for the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie, Manager and Comeback Player of the Year awards for each league.

Today, we look at the American League awards (NL to come tomorrow). For each honor, I’ve included our vote totals, as well as explanations by the writers who named the winners on their ballots.

Thanks so much to everyone who voted and submitted commentary!

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2011 MLB Preview: 10 Young Pitchers Who Could Be Better Off in the Bullpen

Ah, spring training—a time for managers to see what they’ve got to work with; for players to show their employers that they deserve chances to play in the Big Show and for teams do some experimenting in games that don’t count.

Some of the most interesting situations involve clubs trying to convert relief pitchers into starters. Sometimes it works, like with C.J. Wilson last year. Sometimes it doesn’t, like with Kyle Farnsworth.

In this slideshow are 10 young arms who have been at least rumored to be in the hunt for rotation spots this year, but might be better off spending the season in the bullpen.

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2011 MLB Preview: Are Philadelphia Phillies a Playoff Team Without Chase Utley?

For the last few years, the Philadelphia Phillies have made their name as an offense-heavy team that occasionally pitched well.

That’s not to say they had no good pitching—they just didn’t have very much of it. Cole Hamels carried the team in both 2007 and 2008, and Cliff Lee was lights-out down the stretch in 2009, but beyond that, Philadelphia’s rotation didn’t scare anyone.

Even in 2010, manager Charlie Manuel sent Roy Halladay to the mound every fifth day (not “every fifth game”) because he didn’t trust anyone else to take the ball.

But by the end of last season, something had changed. The Phillies were the near-unanimous favorites to win the National League pennant not for their bats, but for their arms.

While assertions that the Phillies’ tremendous trio would be unbeatable in a playoff series were quickly proven false, this was a clear shift in the composition of their roster.

Philadelphia still had the offensive prowess to win in a slugfest, but opposing teams were more worried about scoring enough runs than allowing too many.

Now with Lee back in the fold, Philadelphia’s 2011 rotation is undoubtedly the best in the game, and may end up among the greatest of all time. In the minds of baseball’s talking heads, the Phillies have already wrapped up the NL pennant.

But it’s too soon to crown them the champions. The Phillies have a problem that could end up costing them a playoff berth: the lineup.

The Phillies managed just 772 runs in 2010, down from 820 in 2009 and 890 in 2007. Part of that can be blamed on the league-wide drop in offense last season, but the team’s 99 wRC+ shows Philadelphia’s bats to have been slightly below average.

Surprised? Check the stat sheets. Jimmy Rollins battled injuries and continued his descent into mediocrity, tying or setting career lows in nearly every offensive category as his OPS dropped to .694.

Thirty-eight-year-old Raul Ibanez slumped through his worst offensive season in a decade, finishing with an OPS below .800 for the first time since 2005 and missing the 20-homer mark he had cleared the previous five years.

Even Shane Victorino’s game took a turn for the worse; he hit just .259 and posted the worst full-season OPS (.756) of his career.

Even the mighty Ryan Howard looks like he may be past his prime. After averaging 50 homers and 143 RBI from 2006-09 (never dropping below 45 and 136, respectively), he managed just 31 homers and plated only 108 runs last season. His .859 OPS was the worst he’s ever posted.

Throw in his abysmal defense and his premium offensive position, and he finished the 2010 campaign with 2.0 WAR. That’s right, folks—Ryan Howard was a league-average player.

The outlook is even worse for 2011. The Phillies already lost their second-best position player, Jayson Werth, to free agency, and his replacement, young right fielder Domonic Brown, is out for at least a month with a broken wrist.

But now, Philadelphia faces an even bigger problem. Face of the franchise Chase Utley’s knee problems are turning out to be worse than we’d thought.

They are understandably hesitant to let Utley undergo surgery for his tendinitis, but with the non-surgical treatments failing this far, things don’t look good for the five-time All-Star.

Utley is almost assuredly going to miss Opening Day, and while the front office doesn’t expect him to miss the whole season, there is no timetable for his return. If he ends up needing surgery, it could take him months to recover fully.

The salient question is: are they still the favorites without their keystone man? Thanks to some sabermetric projection systems, we can get a good idea of the answer.

The easiest system to use for measuring players’ projected impacts on their teams is’s FAN Projections.

Here, the Phillies hold a five-game lead in the NL East over the second-place Florida Marlins; a six-win drop would put them in a four-way tie for the Wild Card.

The fans project 7.9 WAR per 162 games for Utley and -0.2 WAR/162 for his chief replacement last year, Wilson Valdez. In other words, for every 20 games Utley misses, the Phillies lose a win.

By that standard, if Utley misses a month or two, the Phillies are still the favorites in the NL East, but it’ll be closer than they’d like.

If he’s back at 100 percent capacity after the All-Star Break, the Phillies will be in the thick of it, but a playoff berth is far from guaranteed.

And if he misses the whole season or comes back before he’s fully recovered and plays poorly, the Phillies will be lucky to win a Wild Card spot.

What of the more advanced projection systems? CAIRO’s latest projections have the Phillies 6.5 games ahead of the second-place Braves, while PECOTA has them ahead by four.

Using a 5-4-3 weighting system for the last three years, we get a projection of 7.9 WAR/162 games for Utley; making the generous assumption that whoever replaces him will be worth 1.0 WAR/162, the Phillies here lose a little more than a win each month Utley is out.

By CAIRO’s standards, the Phillies still win the division as long Utley comes back by September, Meanwhile, PECOTA says the Phillies will fall to second unless he’s back by the trade deadline.

And that’s assuming the rotation stays healthy, Rollins and Howard don’t slip any further, and Utley is feeling comfortable upon his return—far from a given with this kind of problem.

There’s no way to know how Philadelphia will fare in 2011 until we know more about how serious Utley’s injury is, how it can be fixed, and how long he’ll be out.

Barring a complete disaster elsewhere on the roster, the Phillies should be serious contenders, but in spite of their amazing starting pitching, a less threatening offense and the loss of their best player mean they are far from clear favorites for the pennant.


For more of Lewie’s work, visit Follow him on Twitter @LewsOnFirst or @WahooBlues.

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