The Weekly Comebacker: The baseball week in review
The Week That Was in Baseball: December 13-19, 2010
Baseball's Most Productive Pitching Quartets Goodbye, Bob Feller
Who Owns the AL East Now? The Union Blows the Save, But Gets the Win

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Leeward Towards Philly
The upset of baseball’s free agent season occurred this past week when pitcher Cliff Lee turned his back on the two most publicized bidders—the New York Yankees and incumbent Texas Rangers—and decided to return to Philadelphia, where he spent the last half of 2009, for a total package less than what the Yankees and Rangers offered. Lee’s signing instantly bolts the Phillies to NL favorites in 2011, as he joins a star-studded rotation that now boasts four ace-quality starters: Lee, reigning NL Cy Young Award recipient Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

Lee’s deal with the Phillies also reinforces the power of the players’ wives in deciding where to play. Mark Teixeira was ready to sign with Boston a few years ago when his wife stepped in and confessed her preference to live in New York, so he became the Yankees’ property. New Yorkers instantly wondered if the Lees’ decision was based on the rough treatment of his wife Kristen by Yankee fans in October when the Rangers came to town for the ALCS, something downplayed by both Lees. Reports say that after the Phillies’ offer was delivered, the Lees sat down and went through the pros and cons of living in each city. It almost sounds like an episode of the popular HGTV program “House Hunters”; we can almost hear the Suzanne Wang clone and the mindless background music in our heads right now:

 “Cliff and Kristen are looking for a place to pitch where they can settle in after constantly being on the move for two years. They’ve looked at three options and are ready to choose. Option One is in Arlington, Texas, a place they know well. Cliff likes the fact that he got to a World Series and the people are friendly, but Kristen dislikes the traffic and heat. Option Two is a spot at the legendary Yankee Stadium, and while it’s the most lavish option for Cliff, with money and All-Stars galore and a chance to reunite with his old buddy CC Sabathia, he’s not thrilled that the clubhouse could become an old folks’ home—and while not a dealbreaker for Kristen, the taunting and abuse she received from Yankee fans was not a plus. Finally, they were shown a late entry in Philadelphia with Option Three, another former home where they share wonderful memories of the past—great food, die-hard fans and less traffic. So, which option did they choose?”

“We chose...” (The rest you know.)

The Quintessential Quartet?
The addition of Lee to the Phillies’ vaunted staff had many posing the question as to whether this is now the greatest four-man rotation in baseball history. From a collective standpoint, the foursome of Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels have won a combined 481 games (against just 275 losses); with only Hamels under the age of 32, these four will likely not challenge the all-time mark for career win totals among a quartet starting together at the same time unless they stick together for a good while to come and succeed on a complete, continuing basis. We took Casey Stengel’s advice and looked it up, revealing the five greatest four-man rotations in terms of total career wins:

The 2002-03 New York Yankees, consisting of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and David Wells; their combined win total is at 1,103—or, roughly an average of 275 per pitcher. The Yankees won 100 games in each season—with the foursome accounting for a 135-60 record—but failed to bring home a world title in either year.

The 1982 Houston Astros. The staff included two future 300-game winners (Nolan Ryan and Don Sutton), Joe Niekro (with 221 wins) and Bob Knepper (146), all adding up to 1,046 wins. How did the Astros do with these prolific guns? They finished fifth in the six-team NL West, at 77-85, thanks to an inefficient version of the Astros’ singles-and-speed offense of the time.

The 1998-99 Atlanta Braves. With Kevin Millwood in the mix joining the “big three” of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, the combined career total of this foursome is 1,032 wins and counting (Millwood is still active). The Braves won 209 games over these two years, and the four main aces combined for a 134-61 mark—but lost both times in the NLCS.

The 1970 Minnesota Twins featured four pitchers—Bert Blyleven, Jim Katt, Jim Perry and Luis Tiant—who combined for 1,014 career wins, but none of them are in the Hall of Fame. Perry shared the AL lead with 24 victories and the Twins took the AL West title, but lost to Baltimore in the ALCS in three straight.

The 1970 St. Louis Cardinals. The Redbirds were not as fortunate as the Twins in 1970 despite the presence of two future Hall of Famers (Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton) and two others (Jerry Reuss and Mike Torrez) ultimately given some consideration; together, they eventually won 985 career games. Gibson was his usual stunning self and posted a 23-7 record, but the other three added up a collective 25-37 mark, with Carlton losing a NL-worst 19 games; the Cardinals finished at 76-86.

Redistricting the East
The Yankees’ failure to grab Lee, combined with Boston’s signings of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford—and the breakup of Tampa Bay’s division-winning roster—have redefined the momentum of the high-powered AL East for 2011.

The Red Sox, almost an afterthought in 2010 after failing to make the playoffs, currently look to be the team to beat after locking up Gonzalez and Crawford, two All-Star-caliber talents at the top of their game. The everyday lineup and starting rotation are front-loaded; only the bullpen is a question mark, even as former Chicago closer Bobby Jenks joins on as a set-up man for Jonathan Papelbon.

In New York, finding that elusive second ace to plug up a questionable rotation (after CC Sabathia) is one problem, but so is the advancing age of long-time stars Alex Rodriguez (36 next season), Derek Jeter (37), Jorge Posada (40) and closer Mariano Rivera (41). There are still prime-time components in Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Sabathia, but their only major move to date is the signing of catcher Russell Martin, who’s seen much better days. Standing pat is a dangerous game in this division.

Tampa Bay retains a solid rotation for 2011 (assuming Matt Garza isn’t moved, as has been rumored), but the bullpen and the everyday lineup has been pilfered; as of right now, your starting Rays infield besides third baseman Evan Longoria consists of Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and Dan Johnson. That alone will not win you the East. (Nor will the possible addition of 42-year old Gary Sheffield, the subject of chatter among hot stove league experts.)

What's Roger Clemens' Availability?
More bad news for the Yankees: Former AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke, considered the Yankees’ next big target, opted instead for a trade to Milwaukee that will net the Kansas City Royals young shortstop Alcides Escobar and several other players and prospects. Greinke, who has battled with social anxiety disorder, apparently didn’t want to make the same mistake as Roger Maris: Leave the relative calm of playing in the Midwest for the bright lights, big city and brutal press corps of Gotham. Thus, Milwaukee becomes the perfect resetting for Greinke, who will be paid a total of $27 million over the next two seasons before becoming a free agent.

Why Buy When You Can Renteria
The San Francisco Giants paid shortstop Edgar Renteria $18 million over the past two years and Renteria gave back nothing—until he sprang to life during the 2010 postseason and was named the World Series MVP. The Giants said no thanks to exercising an optional third year valued at $10.5 million for Renteria, released him—but now wouldn’t mind having him back for $1 million. Renteria publicly fumed at the offer, calling it “total disrespect” and suggesting he might just retire. Given how fat Renetria’s bank account has become from the Giants’ generous overpayments of the last two years, perhaps a little perspective might be in order.

The Comebacker’s Greatest Hits
Click here to look at the TGG Comebacker archive going back to the start of the 2007 season.

Missing Rapid Robert
A legend passed away this past week when Cleveland pitching great Bob Feller died of acute leukemia at the age of 92; the news was sad but not shocking, as reports of his deteriorating health had increased on an almost daily basis in the weeks up to his death.

Feller was, quite simply, a phenomenon when he signed with the Indians in 1936 at the age of 17. In his first appearance against major league hitters at an exhibition game that July, he struck out eight St. Louis Cardinals in three innings of work with a supersonic fastball. Quickly added to the roster for keeps—with, still, one year of high school to complete—Feller tied an AL record on September 13 when he struck out 17 Philadelphia A’s; he broke the mark in his final start of 1938 when he collected 18 K’s against Detroit. He threw a no-hitter to start the 1940 season, came to within one strikeout of matching Rube Waddell’s then-AL record of 348 in one season in 1946, and won 266 career games—a figure which would have likely topped 300 had he not missed three-plus years due to military service at the height of his abilities.

The Indians were lucky to sign—and keep—Feller; he had inked illegally with Cleveland, but commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis—usually a stickler to the rules, especially in regards to questionable player signings—let it go, fearing an expensive bidding war between the haves in the AL. (Landis also took into consideration that it was Feller’s deep desire to play for the Indians all along.)

Hitters often took their chances against Feller simply by not swinging, as he walked almost as many hitters as he struck out; six times in his career, he walked ten or more batters in a game, and he set the all-time modern mark (which still stands) by giving up 208 passes in 1938. More controversially, he was a critic of Jackie Robinson upon his signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers—not because he was black, but because Feller believed his talent level wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. (Robinson would most certainly prove him wrong, and Feller, after a good deal of time, admitted as such.)

Feller experienced one world title with the 1954 Indians, but in virtual absentia; although on the roster, he didn't make a single appearance during the Tribe's World Series sweep of the Giants.

In retirement, Feller remained an active fixture with the Indians’ organization, frequently appearing at games and becoming part of a spring training tradition in which he would throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Indians’ first exhibition game.

Obits Continued
Sadly, this was one of those weeks where it was not a good idea to be an aging ex-major leaguer. Phil Caverretta, who like Feller began his big-league career as a teenager—debuting at age 18—died at the age of 94. A long-time, popular but not terribly prolific member of the Chicago Cubs (in only six of his 20 years with the Cubs did he play in at least 130 games), Caverretta was at his best in the 1940s, leading the NL in 1944 with 197 hits and being named the league’s MVP a year later when he batted a major league-best .355. Unlike most major league veterans, Caverretta played right through World War II as a hearing problem made him ineligible for military service, so while that enhanced his numbers against inferior competition in 1943-45, he did prove that he could play with the big boys upon their return from the war, hitting around .300 over the next few years playing everyday.

Caverretta was a player-manager for the Cubs from 1951-53, and the last surviving ex-ballplayer to say he played against Babe Ruth (when Ruth was with the Boston Braves in 1935); in fact, no living ex-major leaguer can claim an earlier big league debut than Caverretta, who first appeared in September 16, 1934. (Feller was third on that list.)

Also passing on this week was Walt Dropo, a versatile athlete pursued by both pro football and pro basketball before becoming part of the potent Boston Red Sox’ wrecking crew of 1950 that also featured Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Vern Stephens and Johnny Pesky. In that year, Dropo as a rookie hit .322 with 34 home runs and an AL-leading 144 RBIs for the Red Sox, the last team to date to collectively hit .300. Dropo would never come close to matching his first-year success; he broke his wrist a year later, hit only .239 in 99 games, and was traded in 1952 to Detroit, the first of four teams he’d play for over the remaining ten years of his career. Dropo did have a revival of sorts with the Tigers, averaging just under 30 homers and 100 RBIs in three years there; he was best remembered in Detroit, however, for matching a major league record in 1952 by collecting hits in 12 consecutive at-bats. Dropo finished his career in 1961 with a .270 average, 1,113 hits and 152 home runs. He was 87.

Spin Never Felt So Victorious
The players’ union was proclaiming victory this past week when the Federal Government failed to appeal a September ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals ordering it to destroy “The List,” the roll call of 103 major leaguers who tested positive for steroids in 2003. How exactly, though, does the union call this a win when it inexplicably failed to destroy the list when it had the chance itself years ago? The Feds instead managed to seize the list as part of their investigation into BALCO and, as a result, numerous leaks from The List produced big-time names such as Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez.

Moore's Law, Baseball-Style
Twenty-One years ago, Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins became the first major leaguer to sign a contract that would earn $3 million a year. This past week, it was revealed that the average player in 2010 made the same amount of money for the first time. The increase over the 2009 season was only a marginal 0.6%, nudging past the barrier from $2.99 million per player the year before.

There's a Faith Healer in All of Us
Someone on eBay wants to auction off the 2011 World Series. Your reaction is probably the same as ours: Say what? Here’s the deal. Because this guy lived in Philadelphia when the Phillies won it all in 2008, and in San Francisco in 2010 when the Giants conquered, he claims to be 2-for-3—“That’s probably better than your team!”—and is offering to move to the city where the winning bidder resides to somehow enhance the odds of the local team’s World Series chances. The starting bid is at $750,000—but the man insists on a minimum high bid of $1 million if it comes from Ohio. As of Sunday—two days after posting the offer—no one had yet to make a bid, though we imagine there will be at least a few fans of the Chicago Cubs (last World Series title: 1908) desperate enough to give it a shot.

The Herd Heard It...Somewhere
When the Yankees showed up for a September game in Baltimore, reporters saw high-priced, slump-ridden pitcher A.J. Burnett sporting a black eye that he refused to discuss (as did his manager, Joe Girardi). This past week, ESPN radio host Colin Cowherd apparently attempted to connect the dots by saying, flat out, that Burnett has gone through a “terrible” divorce with a “vindictive and spiteful” wife. Burnett’s agent, Derek Braunecker, furiously denied Cowherd’s claim as “shock jockery” and said that Burnett was not divorcing. Cowherd later took a step back and admitted he might have been wrong on the divorce part, but still refused to believe anything other than marital problems were behind Burnett’s woeful season—and maybe the black eye.

One Trans-Pacific Deal Not Lost in Translation
The Twins took care of overseas business this past week by signing 26-year old second baseman Tsuyoshi Nishioka to replace the departed Orlando Hudson (signed with San Diego) for three years and a total of $9 million. Nishioka was terrific this past year for Chiba Lotte Marines, batting .346 with 22 steals. The ease of this deal makes you wonder what’s really inside the head of fellow Japanese star Hisashi Iwakuma, a pitcher who wanted Jayson Werth money—seven years, $125 million—from the Oakland A’s, who offered $15 million over four years. (The two sides quickly agreed to disagree, and Iwakuma is back in Japan.)

Coming Soon to TGG
Next week’s Comebacker will feature our annual year-end review of some of the nuttiest nuggets we uncovered during 2010. Also look for updates to the Teams pages and, of course, our addition to the Yearly Reader section reviewing the 2010 season.

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