Sometimes the best rosters don’t ensure the best results. Sometimes the less impressive ones win it all. The San Francisco Giants roster doesn’t knock your socks off, but it works better than any other roster in baseball.
A look at the most impressive major league rosters as we approach 2013:
1. Washington Nationals — Obtaining a leadoff man and center fielder in Denard Span just made this roster even more impressive. Hard to beat the young core of Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and Drew Storen. They added righty Dan Haren. If they don’t re-sign Adam LaRoche, Michael Morse starts at first base. They’re likely to add another arm to the bullpen.
2. Cincinnati Reds — There are five solid starting pitchers, and Aroldis Chapman has the potential to be as lights-out as a starter as he was a closer. The bullpen remains solid, though Jonathan Broxton takes over as the closer and must show consistency. With the addition of Shin-Soo Choo as leadoff hitter, the lineup is even better, with Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Ryan Hanigan, and Zack Cozart.
3. Detroit Tigers — You have to be feeling really good if you’re a Tiger. This is a lineup that doesn’t quit, with Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, the returning Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Omar Infante, and Andy Dirks. There is a solid bench with an excellent backup catcher in Brayan Pena, infielder Ramon Santiago, and outfielders Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch. The rotation is a strength, led by Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello. Peralta and Porcello could be dealt to improve shortstop defense and/or the bullpen. Right now, rookie Bruce Rondon is the closer, but Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, and Octavio Dotel are right behind him.
4. Los Angeles Angels — Yes, there are still questions about the bullpen, but at least Ryan Madson (after missing a year with Tommy John surgery) will be the closer, and that makes Ernesto Frieri a set-up man, which is what he should be. Sean Burnett and Scott Downs are solid lefties, and righthander Kevin Jepsen has a great arm. The lineup is sick, from Mike Trout to Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mark Trumbo, and the pure-hitting Howie Kendrick. There’s the defense of Erick Aybar and Peter Bourjos. The Angels came away with a decent rotation of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, and Joe Blanton, but that will have its challenges.
5. Toronto Blue Jays — This lineup is filled with power and speed, and the pitching staff is much-improved. The dynamic Jose Reyes is at the top of the order. The signing of Melky Cabrera was risky but potentially outstanding. Then you have the power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion and an emerging third baseman in Brett Lawrie. We’re not so sure where Colby Rasmus’s career is going, but he is talented. R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Brandon Morrow, and Ricky Romero form a diverse rotation capable of big things, especially if Romero rebounds. We’ve learned from experience that injuries almost always derail this team. But if they can avoid them, watch out.
6. Los Angeles Dodgers — They will have the highest payroll in baseball, with talented players such as Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier, and a comebacking Carl Crawford leading the way. Their pitching got appreciably better with the addition of Zack Greinke to go along with Clayton Kershaw. We’ll have to see where Josh Beckett fits, and how good Hyun-Jin Ryu will be. Good arms in the bullpen with Brandon League, Kenley Jansen, Ronald Belisario, and Javy Guerra.
7. Atlanta Braves — For a team that has to watch the bottom line, there’s a nice combination of younger veterans and older veterans. Can’t beat the bullpen, where Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters are about as good a right-lefty combination as there is at the end of the game. The lineup has more righthanded pop with B.J. Upton, to go along with Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Dan Uggla (who needs to stop his disappearing act). The sky is the limit for shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Strong catching with Brian McCann. A good player in Martin Prado. The Braves always have good starting pitching. Even with the deal that sent Tommy Hanson to the Angels, they have Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, and Paul Maholm.
8. St. Louis Cardinals — Rock-solid pitching staff 1 through 12, with the only question mark being Jaime Garcia, who is coming off surgery. The Cardinals had the fewest needs this offseason. They were able to lose Lance Berkman and remain solid everywhere in the lineup.
9. San Francisco Giants — The names have never jumped off the page, except for the obvious one in Buster Posey, but it’s a lineup that produces enough to allow a fine pitching staff to do its thing. The key this season is to get Tim Lincecum back to being effective.
10. Kansas City Royals — A talented, athletic group of young, core players is coming together. They finally have a bona fide No. 1 starter in James Shields. You can’t be completely sold on the rotation, but on paper it’s better than it has been in years. The bullpen has some outstanding arms. The Royals may make the leap over .500 and into contention.
Apropos of something
Hideki Matsui announced his retirement last week, ending a wonderful career that spanned from Japan to the US. He was a winner, pure and simple. Even before his heroics in the 2009 World Series, Matsui fulfilled his dreams by playing for two countries’ most storied franchises in the Yomiuri Giants and the New York Yankees.
He was a guy who wanted to play every day, who never wanted to come out of the lineup. He played every game for three straight seasons for the Yankees (2003-05).
Matsui, who finished his career with Tampa Bay, was a lovable character affectionately known as Godzilla, a favorite of the Japanese and American media. He was always courteous to everyone, and at his last press conference (where he choked up), he said so humbly that the reason he retired was that he didn’t think he could hit cleanup anymore.
“I wanted to bat cleanup again, but the results weren’t there,” he said. “I thought it was time to stop.”
He always wanted to be the star, to get the hit that won the game. That was mentality in the 20 years he played professional baseball.
When he left Japan to join the Yankees, Japanese children cried. And he felt really bad about that. His Yankees career certainly didn’t match his Yomiuri career, but New York got its money’s worth. His best season was 2004, when he hit 31 homers and drove in 108 runs. He hit .298 that season and had a .390 on-base percentage.
“I’ve had a lot of teammates over the years with the Yankees, but I will always consider Hideki one of my favorites,” said Derek Jeter. “The way he went about his business day in and day out was impressive. He was someone we counted on a great deal and he’s a big reason why we became world champions in 2009.”
Oh yes, he caused pain to the Red Sox as well. After doubling off Pedro Martinez, he scored the tying run on a Jorge Posada double in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.
Matsui will likely manage the Yomiuri Giants someday, though for now it appears he will live with his family in the US.
Apropos of nothing
1. After my note championing Dwight Evans for the Hall of Fame last Sunday, Bill Chuck came up with this: Alfonso Soriano is a career .273 hitter with 372 homers; Evans hit .272, with 385 homers. Granted, Evans had 1,384 RBIs compared with Soriano’s 1,035, but Evans played in 2,606 games compared with Alfonso’s 1,757.
2. He’s not a Hall of Famer in my book, but Larry Walker, who is on the ballot, was a superb player, offensively and defensively.
3. A major job for Red Sox pitching coach Juan Nieves and manager John Farrell is to maximize the talents of Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. Buchholz’s hits per nine innings the last three years have gone from 7.4 to 8.3 to 8.9, while Lester’s have risen from 7.2 to 7.8 to 9.5. Not a good trend.
4. Tony La Russa and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf have advocated coaches being considered for the Hall of Fame. Think about how Charlie Lau revolutionized hitting. How about Dave Duncan with pitching? These were hands-on coaches who made a difference in performance. There are owners who write out checks and get in.
5. Is there a guy who does more for the lifeblood of baseball than Dennis Gilbert? For years, his Scouts Foundation has honored and recognized scouts as well as helping those with health or financial issues. It’s a shame Gilbert’s attempts to purchase the Rangers, Dodgers, and Padres fell short. He’s the type of owner baseball needs.
6. One of my favorite people in the Sox organization over the years was treasurer John Reilly. Wonderful man. He died last Saturday at 88.
7. Mark Melancon was a good pickup for the Pirates, who believe he will regain his 2011 form in a more stable role in the bullpen. Melancon was a man lost most of last season with the Sox, but he has a good arm and excellent curveball.
8. The guy the Sox might regret losing in the Pirates deal is righty Stolmy Pimentel.
9. One kid you don’t hear about too often is righty Rubby De La Rosa, who was acquired by Boston in the Dodgers deal. Interesting to watch his path with the Sox.
Updates on nine
1. Mike Napoli, 1B/C, free agent — Unless he wants to accept a one-year contract somewhere or take a two-year deal from Texas, he’s going to try to work out the language in the three-year, $39 million deal the Red Sox offered. Agents and players tend to resist these things at first. Napoli is probably saying, “There’s nothing wrong with my hip,” but the tests show otherwise. Jason Bay had the same reaction when the Red Sox told him they wanted language on his knees. Both the Mariners and Red Sox had concerns about Napoli’s hip. Word is definitely out that there’s an issue. The Red Sox seem to hold the cards, and while they’re keeping Adam LaRoche in their sights, they really don’t want to give up a draft pick to sign him.
2. Justin Upton, OF, Diamondbacks — Asked if he thought there was any match on a deal with the Red Sox, Arizona general manager Kevin Towers responded, “Probably not.” Upton would be a fit for the Red Sox, but as ESPN’s Jim Bowden proposed, it probably would take the Sox giving up prospects Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. Upton is an underachieving player who has frustrated his bosses in Arizona. If the Red Sox were going to deal those prospects, it would have to be for something more impressive.
3. Cody Ross, OF, Diamondbacks — It was interesting that Ross, at his introductory press conference, listed right field as his least-favorite outfield spot. Ross told Towers that he preferred center first and left second. Ross played well in right field in Boston, but for now he’s penciled in as the D-Backs’ starting center fielder. This may have been part of the reason the Red Sox would not go more than two years with Ross.
4. Kyle Lohse, RHP, free agent — He will be part of a January market, a wise maneuver by agent Scott Boras. By then, it’s a last gasp for teams to pursue a starting pitcher of note. It appears Lohse will be in this category. Who could get him? With the Tigers listening on Rick Porcello, they could be a candidate. The Dodgers may jump in, even with Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang slated for the back end of the rotation. The Brewers couldn’t get Ryan Dempster done and could be a potential suitor, though GM Doug Melvin says he’s going with his young pitchers. The Rangers could jump in.
5. Jerry Sands, 1B/OF, Pirates — It’s a mixed bag of reactions on Sands. There are those who love his potential as a righthanded slugger and others who don’t think it’ll happen for him. The Dodgers, who sent him to Boston, and the Red Sox, who sent him to Pittsburgh, didn’t mind giving him up. But both teams did so with their fingers crossed, because unlike some sluggers, Sands can hit the breaking pitch. “He’s one of those guys who could all of a sudden put up a big year if he gets the chance to play every day,” said an American League GM. “Don’t think he’ll be that effective off someone’s bench. He’s got to get into a rhythm at the plate and when he does, he can hit.”
6. Brett Myers, RHP, free agent — There are so many positive views of Myers and what he can bring either as a starter (a former 200-inning guy) or reliever, yet he remains unsigned. “The feeling is he’s been asking for too much money,” said a National League GM. “I think teams are waiting for the price to come down. He can certainly help a team. I think a lot of teams have him on a wish list.”
7. Roberto Hernandez, RHP, Rays — A few people I’ve talked to think the Rays might have gotten the sleeper pitcher of the offseason in Hernandez (the former Fausto Carmona, who was caught using that fraudulent name). “The Rays did what a lot of teams were thinking of doing,” said an AL GM. “It’s really a no-risk signing considering the money [$3.75 million]. If he can get back to what he was and he can put his past behind — and I know that’s a lot of ifs — this guy has great stuff.”
8. Daisuke Matsuzaka, RHP, free agent — He prefers to stay in the US, but Japan may not be out of the question, depending on what type of deal he gets. He prefers San Diego, but so far there’s no indication that the feeling is mutual.
9. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Miami — Even though the Marlins have put out the word that Stanton is going nowhere, that hasn’t stopped some teams from calling, trying to put together a package to obtain him. And that’s expected to continue, according to a major league source. Teams have also called on righty Ricky Nolasco; the right package for him could net a team a decent starter.
From the Bill Chuck files: “The record for a team having pitchers throw at least 200 innings in a season is five, done 20 times, but you have to be impressed with the 2012 Reds, who had four pitchers do it (Bronson Arroyo, Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos) — the most since the 2006 White Sox.” Also, “Since 2005, the Dodgers have had 27 shortstops, the Pirates 25, and the Red Sox and Nationals 24 each. The Angels have had just eight.” And, “Over the last three seasons, Shane Victorino and Kevin Youkilis have each hit .264.” . . . Happy birthday, Tom Murphy (67) and Keith MacWhorter (57).Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.