Now some less poetic analysis in light of Miguel Cabrera’s 500th dinger. Who’ll be the next to get there?

Miguel Cabrera was the first person to join the 500 home run club since 2015. (Wikipedia).

Miguel Cabrera might be the last man to join the 500 home run club for a while.

Nelson Cruz is, as of this writing, just 57 away, so two Cruzian seasons should, on paper, get him there. However, he’s also 41 with no real skills outside of hitting at this point, so if he struggles, then that will be all she wrote for his chances.

It’s unlikely teams would keep signing him just so he could try to claw his way to the magic number. Should he stumble at, say, 497, someone might give him the opportunity, but outside of that—once he’s done, he’s done.

The demise and departure of another great designated hitter happened within the past year, in fact. Edwin Encarnacion was chugging toward 500 when his bat died last season to the tune of a .157 average. No team signed him and he is stuck at 424 dingers.

He’s still just 38, which for an effective hitter is about 34 in DH years, so a comeback isn’t out of the question. But for a player with a skillset that includes one severely eroded primary skill—hitting—the market is thin.

Nelson Cruz is less than 60 home runs away from 500. (Wikipedia).

Had Encarnacion maintained his pace, he would’ve reached 500 homers in late 2022 or early 2023, meaning he could have gotten there before he was even 40.

So who reaches 500 home runs next if it’s not Cruz? Who knows. No one else has over 340 and no members of the active 300 homer club are under 30 years old.

Giancarlo Stanton, despite his weak past few seasons, has the ability to get there. It’s a matter of whether his body holds up. With 332 home runs to this point, he could reasonably trudge his way to 500, since he did so much when he was young. He helped beat time by getting the bulk of the work out of the way before time could beat him.

Though he’s known as a slugger because of his 59-home run 2017 campaign, the honest reality about Stanton is that his power is very inconsistent. For every year he’s led the league in slugging, he’s posted a mark below .500. Since 2018, he’s slugged .492 and his number has been at or below .500 four of the past six seasons.

Giancarlo Stanton’s power and health have declined in recent years. (Wikipedia).

If he is in the midst of a slow-but-accelerating power decline, and in a cycle of injuries that he, because of age, will likely never fully recover from (save for a rebound season here and there), then 500 dingers might just be a dream.

But if he can find balance and average 20 per season through his early 40s, then he can get there. A move to DH will probably be necessary to facilitate his run to 500. At the earliest, Stanton would join the club in 2026 or 2027.

Robinson Cano is the next-closest batter after Cruz, but he’s 38, has just 334 homers, is out the rest of this year due to a steroid suspension and—if his past six or so seasons are any indication—is in the midst of a steady decline. He’s not reaching the mark.

Neither is Justin Upton, who, though he’s only 33, can’t hit anymore, can’t field and can’t stay healthy. Even if he maintained his pace from his earlier years, 500 home runs would still have been a challenge because, though he had good pop, he was never really a slugger.

Joey Votto, who has never hit 40 dingers in a season, is 37 and more than 170 away. He’s declining, he’s had injury issues. He’s a no.

Evan Longoria—see what I just said about Votto.

Ryan Zimmerman—see what I just said about Longoria.

Then there’s Mike Trout. I’ll be the pessimist and say he’s going to have a hard time getting to 500. If anyone has a chance, it’s him, but after averaging 158 games per year from 2013 to 2016, he hasn’t appeared in more than 140 in a season since. He averaged just 110 per year from 2017 to 2020 and is on the 60-day injured list at we speak.

Mike Trout’s path to 500 could be difficult. (Wikipedia)

He started falling apart when he was 25 and still hasn’t fully put himself back together—tick tock, tick tock, Mike, you’re 30 years old now, the end of your peak is approaching fast.

From this point forward, he could go in one of two directions. The Frank Robinson route is more optimistic. Robinson was traded from the Reds to the Orioles in December 1965 because he was considered past his prime. Reds general manager Bill DeWitt called him an “old 30.”

He went on to hit 262 home runs the rest of the way and finish with 586 dingers.

Or, he could go the Ken Griffey Jr. route. Over the final ten seasons of his career, in his 30s, Griffey averaged just 19 home runs and 57 RBI per year. Albert Pujols also fell off dramatically in his 30s. So did Frank Thomas.

But they all reached 500 home runs, didn’t they? Yes. Griffey and Pujols reached 600, in fact. Pujols, with a little luck, could get to 700.

But neither Griffey nor Pujols nor Thomas had any major issues until they were in their 30s. From age 20 to age 30, Griffey averaged 141 games per year; he averaged 99 after that. From age 23 to age 32, Thomas averaged 147 games per year; he, too, averaged 99 after that. From age 21 to age 32, Pujols averaged 155 games per year; he averaged 121 after that.

Trout, just a couple weeks past his 30th birthday, is already in the after that phase of his career. Though his production hasn’t suffered when he’s been on the field—he still owns a superhuman OPS+ of 185 since the beginning of 2017—the ravages of time will soon, inevitably, take advantage of his injuries.

Eventually the aches and pains will start to affect his play. A peak only lasts so long. The body always wears down, and injuries push that along.

With sluggers, reaching age 30, rampant health issues and a swift decline in performance often correlate. Trout has two of those three already locked in. It’s just a matter of time before they catalyze the other.

Do I think he won’t reach 500 home runs? Well, I didn’t say that. I just don’t think it will be easy. Don’t be surprised if he takes a long, discouraging, Cabrera-esque path to that number. At the earliest, I think he’ll get there in 2030 or 2031.

Moving on.

Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt are on pace for Hall of Fame careers, but they’re both likely to fall short of 500. They’re good home run hitters, but like Upton, not your prototypical sluggers. Save for Eddie Murray, each member of the 500 home run club slugged at least 40 in a season. Neither Freeman nor Goldschmidt have accomplished the feat.

Anthony Rizzo could be clumped in with those two, but it’s still too soon to say whether he’ll have a Hall of Fame career. But 400 to 450 dingers for him isn’t out of the question.

Bryce Harper is the most likely slugger to reach 500 home runs next. (Wikipedia).

The only other players one can comfortably discuss here are Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado.

Harper has the best shot at getting there. He already has a 40-home run season under his belt, has yet to have serious injury issues, isn’t yet 30 and, with 255 dingers to his name, is already halfway to the milestone. Assuming an average decline, he’ll probably make it.

Same with Arenado. He already has three 40-homer seasons, 260 dingers for his career and is just a few months past his 30th birthday—without any major injury issues yet. Even with a somewhat alarming decline in power these past couple seasons, he’s still trending toward 500, but if his power continues to decrease, he might settle somewhere in the 450 range.

Machado’s not yet had a 40-home run season, but his recent health history is top notch and his power consistency is among the best. Not even 30, he could reasonably compile his way to 500 dingers without ever having a truly standout campaign, like Eddie Murray.

More than likely, however, he’ll mirror Fred McGriff, who hit 493 home runs, and finish within sniffing distance of the mark. In fact, per Baseball Reference, one of Machado’s most similar players through age 28 is Adrian Beltre, who fell just 23 home runs shy of 500.

After nine players joined the 500 home run club in the 2000s, including three in 2007 alone, many fans lamented the elite group was no longer so elite, that it was quickly becoming watered down.

Since 2010, however, things have stabilized and just three men—Cabrera, Pujols and David Ortiz—have powered their way into the ranks. Two more players joined in the 1960s than in the 2010s and 2020s, combined.

And a strong potential exists that no new members will join for another decade, at least.

If everything goes right for him, Nelson Cruz should get there in a couple seasons. But he’s 41—one misstep, and he’s done. If his power of old returns and his health doesn’t collapse, Giancarlo Stanton could get there in less than a decade, but his present career swoon puts that into question. If he recovers from his health woes, Mike Trout could get there in five years or he could slog his way there in a decade, or he could completely fall apart. His injury history at so young an age is concerning.

The only player I can comfortably say will reach 500 home runs is Bryce Harper. He has age and health on his side, he’s a true slugger, and he’s yet to show any major decline.

But even that will is tentative. More or less, it’s shorthand for will, barring … As in, he will reach 500 home runs, barring injury (or decline, et cetera).

A few years ago, I would’ve said Stanton will get there; I would’ve said, without considering any X factors, that Mike Trout will, invariably, reach 500 homers. Because, at the time, there were no X factors to consider.

But eventually, that will became well.

Well, he’ll get there if he regains his health, if he recovers his power stroke, if he plays to 40, if he ups his batting average.

If, if, if.

Harper doesn’t have any X factors yet. Once they start cropping up, the projection becomes a little muddier. But, at its core, that’s really all this is right now. Pure projection.

He’s still 245 homers away; between now and 500, anything could happen. One freak injury might end it all. Albert Belle looked like a sure thing for 500 home runs. By 2000, he’d averaged 37 per season for a decade, and he was just 33 that year. But his hip became debilitatingly arthritic and he was forced to retire—with just 381 dingers—after that season.

With milestones, nothing is a given. With 500 home runs, that’s especially so.

So welcome to the club, Miguel Cabrera, enjoy your stay. Looks like you might be the new guy for a while.

Miguel Cabrera smashes his 500th home run.

Cabrera is the 28th member of the 500 home club. (Wikipedia).

He kept us waiting a little bit. In quick succession, a matter of a few games, he hit home runs 495, 496, 497 and 498. About a week later, 499 left the yard.

 500 was one swing away. One swing and Miguel Cabrera would join an elite club, whose membership numbers less than thirty, whose ranks include names like Aaron and Mays.

A game passed, then another, then another. It was August 11 that his last dinger soared over the fence. By August 18, his bat had gone cold. In the past week, he’d had just two hits.

Each day that passed without another homer intensified the anticipation tenfold. Each day without another homer was a letdown, adding to the crush of disappointment.

His bat woke up on August 19. Cabrera went 2-for-5 against the Angels that day, driving four runs in. But just as quickly as it had been jolted to alertness, it fell back asleep.

0-for 5 on the 20th. 0-for-3 on the 21st.

Then 1-for-5—with a home run—on the 22nd.

Steven Matz has allowed just two hits against Cabrera—both home runs. (Wikipedia).

After a ten-day span that felt like ten years, Cabrera finally clobbered number 500, a sixth inning solo shot off Blue Jays hurler Steven Matz, his first hit in 13 at-bats.

Twenty-seven sluggers had done it before him, and none since David Ortiz in 2015.

But the trek to 500 wasn’t easy. Not just the jump from 499 to 500, either—it took a while for Cabrera to get to the magic number at all.

One of the game’s premier stars early in his career, he debuted with the Marlins in 2003 and lit up the stage in 2004, earning his first of 11 All-Star selections. From that point through 2014, he averaged 34 home runs and 119 RBI per season. He won the Triple Crown in 2012. He took home two MVPs and five Silver Sluggers. Only twice he drove in less than 110 runs, and never less than 100; only twice he had less than 30 homers, and never less than 25.

By the end of his age-25 season, he had 175 home runs. Just triple that and he’d be at 500 by his mid-30s, with a few years to add to his total. At the end of his career’s first decade—he wasn’t even 30 yet—he already had more than 300 dingers. 321, to be exact. Just double that and he’d be up there with Griffey and Thome, and not even 40 years old.

Cabrera spent five years with the Marlins. (Wikipedia).

One of the game’s most reliable players during that 11-year stretch, Cabrera played no less than 148 games in any given season, averaging 157. But in 2015, he hurt his calf, played just 111 games, and slugged 18 home runs.

Sure, he was still an All-Star and he led the league in batting average, but it was a portent of worries to come.

A confluence of two distressing issues, one involving health and the other a sudden decline in power, contributed to Cabrera’s downfall. The latter started in 2014, when his slugging percentage dropped more than 100 points from the year before. The prior season, he had led the loop with a .636 mark; the next, it was .524.

But the problem went from inconvenient to concerning in 2017, when the number fell to .399. It hasn’t reached .450 since.

Then there’s health. Cabrera has had problems with his calf, his groin, his hamstring. In 2018, he missed most of the year after undergoing surgery to repair a bad biceps.

And as his power was failing and his body was falling apart, time kept marching forward. He kept getting older. More than anything else, it seems, age drags a player down hardest.  On April 18, 2021, he turned 38.

Cabrera’s ascension to the 500 home run club went from a no-brainer to a maybe.

In 2017, he hit 16 home runs to put him at 462—a good 2018, a Cabrera-esque 2018, would get him there. He hit 38 home runs as recently as 2016, a one-off rebound campaign.

He hit three home runs in 2018. 465 for his career; 35 away. A good 2019 would get him there. He’d hit 35 home runs five times in his career. It could be done.

He hit 12 home runs in 2019. 477 for his career. 23 away. Did he even have 23 left in the tank? Was he finished?

He hit 10 home runs in 2020. 487 for his career. 13 away. His contract was up after 2023; would the Tigers keep him that long?

His batting average declined each year from 2018 to 2020, from .299 to .250. As late as July 27 this year, it was in the .230s. Cabrera hadn’t just lost the ability to hit home runs, he couldn’t hit anymore, period.

It wasn’t only his power that suffered. About halfway through his career, he had over 1,800 base hits. At this point, he might be looking at 3,500 had he not faltered; he just recently passed 2,950.

But one swing made us forget all that.

When that 500th moonshot finally thundered off Cabrera’s bat on August 22, 2021, those struggles to get there, the questions and concerns and worries all went away.

Miguel Cabrera, the Detroit Tigers legend, the best player in Marlins history, now stands among the elite.

History won’t care how long it took him to join the club. The ghosts of Babe Ruth and Mel Ott don’t tut-tut because Cabrera took a winding path to their fraternity.

All that matters is he’s in the fraternity, today, now, in this moment—and forever.

Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 22, 2021.

Max Scherzer is making his case for the Hall of Fame with each start. (Wikipedia).

Scherzer K watch: Dodgers starter Max Scherzer struck out 8 Mets yesterday, bringing his career total to 2,962. He’s just 38 Ks away from 3,000.

More on White: Dodgers hurler Mitch White earns another mention today. Talk about being oblivious—I knew he tossed 7 1/3 solid innings a few days ago, but I didn’t realize it was a relief appearance. He became the first pitcher to throw that many frames in relief since Ed Roebuck in 1960. Check out this article for more on the feat.

Ibanez is mashing: Andy Ibanez, the Rangers Cuban infielder, has 10 hits in his past 21 at-bats, after batting just .091 in his prior 10 games. He’s been a bright spot of late on that middling 43-80 team, but perhaps it should come as no surprise. He hit 20 home runs at Triple A in 2019 and batted .352 in 27 games there this year.

Jeffers’ power is there, but not his speed. He’s never stolen a base in pro ball. (Wikipedia).

Better than Stanton: Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers has 11 home runs in 184 at-bats this season, a rate of one every 16.7 at-bats—that’s a better clip than Giancarlo Stanton. The former second rounder won’t scare any pitchers with his batting average, but his slugging is a different story. He has 5 home runs, 3 doubles and 13 RBI in just 50 at-bats this past month.

Making up for that debut: Reliever Phil Bickford is doing his part to keep the injury-ravaged Dodgers in the playoff chase. In the past month, he has a 0.71 ERA in 14 appearances, striking out 16 batters in 12 2/3 innings. On the year, his mark with L.A. is 1.96. But his success wasn’t a forgone conclusion. He arrived on the big league scene in 2020, making a single relief appearance for the Brewers. In one inning, he allowed 4 earned runs on 4 hits, 2 hit batsmen and a wild pitch. And it looked like more of the same for 2021—he surrendered 2 runs in his single-inning initial appearance—but a move to the Dodgers in early May changed his fortunes.

Rays recall Mazza: Chris Mazza was summoned by the Rays again; he has a 5.57 ERA in 11 games for the club this year. The hurler didn’t make his major league debut until 2019, when he was 29, but has pitched each year since. Ever wonder what makes someone not big league worthy for years and years and years, just to suddenly be good enough to appear at the level every season? It’s like Erik Kratz—he didn’t debut until he was 30, then he rattled off an 11-year career.

Not #1: In 2019, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. were two of the three youngest players in the major leagues. But neither was number one. Can you name who was? It was the Blue Jays’ 19-year-old pitcher Elvis Luciano, who jumped straight from rookie ball—having never played above that level—to the majors. For one seven-game stretch in April and May he had a 0.84 ERA, but he had a 5.35 ERA in 25 appearances overall … and now he’s back in the minors, at Double A.

That’s wild: Facing the Red Sox in the 9th inning of his most recent appearance on July 22, Yankees reliever Brooks Kriske tied the post-1800s major league record with four wild pitches in a single frame. It’s an embarrassing, but not unheard of, feat: The Twins’ RA Dickey did it against the Mariners on August 17, 2008, the Phillies Ryan Madson did it against Arizona on July 25, 2006 and the Mariners Kevin Gregg did it against the Angels on July 25, 2004. In the previous century, it happened only twice—Hall of Famers Phil Niekro and Walter Johnson did it in 1979 and 1914, respectively.

Three-in-a-row: What’s worse—four wild pitches in the same inning, or three to the same batter in the same inning? The Padres’ Trevor Cahill managed the latter against Avisail Garcia of the White Sox in the bottom of the 4th on May 13, 2017.  

The catcher’s mitt is right there: On June 25, 2017, Rockies reliever Adam Ottavino tossed four wild pitches in a span of three outs against the Dodgers. Earlier in the game, Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy threw three wild pitches in one inning and in the 3rd, Rockies starter Tyler Anderson added one of his own.

Dan Haren finished his career 153-131 with a 3.75 ERA. (Wikipedia).

Mr. Consistent: From 2005 to 2015, that’s 11 years, Dan Haren won no less than 10 games, made no fewer than 30 starts, tossed no less than 169 2/3 innings and had no fewer than 132 strikeouts in a season. He averaged 33 starts, 13 wins, 209 innings and 176 strikeouts per year.

Hall of Fame birthday: Three Hall of Famers were born on this day. Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski came into this world in 1939, while 3,000 hit club-member Paul Molitor joined us in 1956. Nineteenth-century manager Ned Hanlon, who won five pennants, was born in 1857.

Time to reanalyze Franco? With Lee Smith’s election to the Hall of Fame in 2019, it might be time to reanalyze the case for John Franco. At the time of his retirement, he was third all-time in saves—behind only Smith and Trevor Hoffman—and his 424 still rank fifth on the list. Only Craig Kimbrel, himself potentially headed to Cooperstown, currently threatens his position.

That’s all he’ll be remembered for: Hey Mets fans, remember when Luis Castillo dropped the ball?

That’s an improvement: Bryan Evans, a minor league pitcher from 2008 to 2019, was pretty lackluster during the first few years of his career. From 2008 to 2010, he was just 13-22 and his ERA never dropped below 4.00. Then he exploded in 2011, going 8-2 with a 1.99 ERA. Talk about an improvement! According to the experts at Baseball-Fever.com, the only major league pitcher to start his career with three straight seasons with ERAs above 4 (min. 40 IP each season), and then have an ERA below 2 in his fourth campaign, is Hall of Fame closer Rich “Goose” Gossage.

Hainline dies: Former Gonzaga star outfielder Jeff Hainline, who hit .370 with 21 home runs in 1984, died August 12 at 56. He was later drafted by the Rangers and spent a year in their system, but batted just .103 in 29 at-bats. His brother, Bill Hainline, also played for Gonzaga.

Studs and duds: August 15 – August 21

A few stellar performances propelled some fresh names into this list. Let’s take a look at the Studs and Duds for the week of August 15 to August 21.

Luke Voit has averaged 34 home runs per 162 games for his career. (Wikipedia).

Offensive stud: Luke Voit (1B, Yankees). With 3 home runs, 3 doubles, 13 RBI and a killer slash line of .500/.536/.962 these past seven games, Voit looks like he’s back on track after struggling with injuries and underperformance for most of the season. Following his breakout campaign in 2020—as much of a breakout as it could be, since it was only 60 games—Voit was set to become one of baseball’s best sluggers. He led the American League with 22 home runs after mashing 36 in 572 at-bats between 2018 and 2019. He took a step back this year, unfortunately, and didn’t hit his first home run until May 17.

Honorable mention: Jose Ramirez (IF, Indians; .357/.400/.929, 4 HR, 4 2B, 10 RBI).

Offensive dud: Rodolfo Castro (2B, Pirates). Gavin Lux breathes a sigh of relief; He’s finally off this list. Castro, a 22-year-old rookie, has struggled to a .198 batting average this year, and his past few days only brought it down. He went 2-for-16 with 9 strikeouts and 2 errors, with his hits being measly singles. He didn’t score a run or drive one in, but he got his on-base percentage over .200 by drawing a couple walks. Castro jumped from Double A to the majors and its fairly apparent—he is overmatched in the big leagues and needs some Triple A seasoning.

Tristan McKenzie was the 42nd overall pick in 2015. (Wikipedia).

Dishonorable mention: Gavin Lux (IF, Dodgers; 0-for-6, 1 K, 2 E). I couldn’t let him escape that easy.

Pitching stud: Triston McKenzie (SP, Indians). After nearly tossing a perfect game two starts ago, allowing only one hit in the 8th inning, McKenzie twirled another masterpiece yesterday, surrendering just 1 run in 7 innings. Over his past 15 frames, McKenzie struck out 19 batters; he’s given up just 3 hits, 1 walk and 1 earned run, and he didn’t sully his line with a wild pitch or a hit batsmen. He won both his starts. The hurler is perpetually ranked among the games top prospects, with Baseball America putting him at #26 on their list going into 2021. After an impressive debut last year (3-2 W-L, 3.24 ERA, 11.3 K/9 IP), he struggled out of the gate his sophomore season, with an ERA of 6.89 through late May. He’s dropped that number over 2 points since.

Honorable mention: Gerrit Cole (SP, Yankees; 2-0 W-L, 0.77 ERA, 11 2/3 IP, 15 K, 2 BB).

On a scale of one-to-ten, Ottavino was as good as the number he wore here. (Wikipedia).

Pitching dud: Adam Ottavino (RP, Red Sox). It’s a glorious day for Duds Emeritus, as Jorge Lopez loses his title, held for more than half-a-week, and bestows it upon Ottavino. Ottavino’s line isn’t all bad—he tossed 2 1/3 innings, allowing 3 hits and a run—but wildness, which has been his bane through his career, caught up to him. He surrendered 4 walks and 2 wild pitches. Chucking the ball past the catcher is his forte—in fact, on June 25, 2017 against the Rockies, he did it 4 times in 1 inning (clarification: He threw one inning’s worth of outs, they were spread over two frames), including two in a row. Despite averaging 4.1 BB/9 IP for his career, he was one of the best relievers of the 2010s, posting a 159 ERA+ from 2013 to 2019. He averaged 12 K/9 IP from 2015 to 2020.

Dishonorable mention: Nick Mears (RP, Pirates; 2 G, 1 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 18.00 ERA, 1 BSV).

493.

Fred McGriff. (Wikipedia).

He was just seven home runs away from immortality.

Fred McGriff, the Braves, Blue Jays and Devil Rays star first baseman who plied his trade mostly in the 1990s, stopped at the doorstop of greatness.

Or, de jure greatness, at least. Greatness made official. Greatness as decided by a handful of scribes.

Just seven home runs. That’s all he needed to get there, to be let in, to be included among heroes and legends, names that transcend sport and roll off the tongue as readily as Michael Jackson and Jack Nicholson.

Just seven home runs.

Over the course of 19 seasons, from 1986 to 2004, McGriff hit .284. He had nearly 2,500 hits and 1,550 RBI—an average of over 80 per year.

He slugged over .500 and scored more than 1,300 runs—more than Barry Larkin and Vladimir Guerrero and Harmon Killebrew. He drew over 1,300 walks, t00, and a full 171 of them were intentional, because he was so feared a batsmen. In 1991, he led the league in such free passes, with 26.

Tim Raines, Ted Simmons and Harold Baines never finished fourth in Most Valuable Player voting. Fred McGriff did.

Neither Robin Yount nor Jeff Bagwell made five All-Star Games. Fred McGriff did.

Jim Thome, who clobbered over 600 career home runs, won one, single, solitary Silver Slugger. Fred McGriff won three.

Among all players, ever, he ranks near the top in slugging percentage and extra base hits and, heck, even putouts.

And all those RBI. He had more than Mantle and DiMaggio and Stargell, not quite as many as McCovey, but more than Berra and Piazza and Bench.

From 1991 to 2001, a span of 11 seasons, he averaged exactly 100 per year; he reached the triple digit mark eight times, including 2002, one of his final campaigns, as he was winding down his career.

Just seven home runs.

McGriff hit .435 in the 1993 American League Championship Series, his second postseason appearance, and .333 in the 1997 NLCS, his last.

In between, he reached the playoffs three more times, and played 33 more games, posting a career slash line of .303/.385/.532. He slugged 10 dingers. He drove 37 runs home.

A World Series ring would’ve been a dream for Atlanta in 1995, instead of a reality, without McGriff leading them. In that year’s NLDS, he hit .333; in the ALCS, his on-base percentage was .526; in the Fall Classic, he slugged .609.

In 2010, McGriff became eligible for the Hall of Fame; Andre Dawson was elected that year, and Bert Blyleven was just a few votes short. McGriff—Crime Dog—appeared on 116 ballots. 423 writers didn’t vote for him. Barely a fifth of them did.

And so it went for the next decade. In 2014, with Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine debuting on the ticket, he hit his nadir, with less than 70 voters choosing his name. Jeff Kent earned more votes. If it’s any consolation, Larry Walker earned less.

Come their final try on the ballot, players usually see a boost in support. Often, it’s substantial—Walker jumped over 20 points in his last year to earn election. Tim Raines’ support popped more than 16 points; Edgar Martinez’s, 15 points exactly.

McGriff, too, spiked in his ultimate chance. As much as Raines, in fact.

He earned less than 40 percent of the vote and fell off the ballot.

Just seven home runs.

During his career, McGriff was one of the game’s premier sluggers—no, actually, that’s an understatement. He was one of the best sluggers of all time.

He averaged one home run every 17.6 at-bats—better than Mel Ott and Johnny Mize!—and led the league in that statistic twice. From 1987 to 2002, a span of 16 seasons, he averaged 30 homers per year and never had less than 19 in a season.

Consistency was his trademark. Knock 1987 off that stretch and for 15 years he had no less than 81 RBI or 135 hits in any given year—and his hits fell that low only because it was a strike-shortened season, 1994, and he played just 113 games.

He slugged 30 or more home runs 10 times, or for more than half of his career and though he never reached 40, well, neither did Eddie Murray or Stan Musial. And Ted Williams, Mel Ott and Frank Robinson did it just once, each.

Just seven home runs.

The 500 home run club has 27 members. Barry Bonds sits at the top with 762 and it tails off with Murray at 504. In between, there’s Jimmie Foxx and Ernie Banks and, of course, Babe Ruth.

Each player who reached 500 home runs before 1997 is in the Hall of Fame, elected resoundingly, with little hesitation. Eleven of those 15 men joined on the first ballot; six earned 90 percent of the vote, three earned 95 percent.

Since then, Ken Griffey, Jr. was chosen, just a couple votes shy of a unanimous selection. Frank Thomas got in, and so did Jim Thome.

Of those not yet there, Albert Pujols is still active and might join Henry Aaron and Willie Mays with more than 95 percent of the vote when his chance arrives. Two, David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez, are not yet eligible, having been retired too short a time to appear on the ballot.

Everyone else was swept up in the anti-steroid witch hunt, having been caught or accused of juicing, and the baseball moralists who predominate the voting class refuse to grant them election.

Rightly or wrongly, Bonds and Sheffield and Ramirez still wait their turns. But even they’ve had better luck with the writers than McGriff ever did. Bonds appeared on nearly 62 percent of the ballots last year, his second-to-last chance and—if recent history is any indication—he might yet see a spike of 15 points and walk into Cooperstown. Sheffield passed 40 percent for the first time in the most recent election, his seventh, and he, too, is trending toward eventual induction. Even Ramirez, who was suspended twice for steroid use, earned more than 28 percent of the vote in his fifth try.

McGriff took home 11.7 percent of the vote his fifth go-around.

And he was never even accused of or associated with steroid use. He never tested positive. He appeared in no reports. He can’t be grouped with Sheffield or McGwire, Bonds or Palmeiro.

He’d fit more alongside Griffey and Murray, Mays and Aaron.

Just seven home runs.

But McGriff hit only 493 home runs in his 19 seasons. With a few more, he’d be mentioned in the same breath as Foxx and McCovey, his baseball cards would be set aside and not tossed in a shoebox. You have more fingers than McGriff needed home runs to join a club of elites, a pantheon that would bestow on him legendary status, that would forever transform him from a consistent slugger to one of the best home run hitters of all time.

Each eligible man with 500 or more home runs not associated with performance enhancing drugs is in the Hall of Fame. To maintain that uniformity, McGriff would have been elected, first round, no doubt, if he reached the mark. Because that’s what the voters do. They select members of that club for Cooperstown. Seven home runs, that’s all McGriff needed to get there.

Just seven home runs.

Worst trades in Mets history, #4: Heath Bell and Royce Ring for Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson

Heath Bell received Cy Young Award votes in 2010, his fourth year with San Diego. (Wikipedia).

During his five years in San Diego, Heath Bell was one of the best relief pitchers in baseball—and for the final three seasons, he ranked among the best closers.

Averaging 71 appearances per year, he posted a 2.53 ERA, while striking out more than a batter per inning, on average. From 2009 to 2011, he averaged 44 saves per year and was an All-Star each season. Over his final six campaigns, he compiled 166 saves in 354 appearances.

Reliever Royce Ring, for his part, had a decent 2007, which included a 2 hit, 0.00 ERA showing in 11 games for the Braves. In 26 appearances overall—he began the year in San Diego before being traded—his mark was 2.70. Though he lasted just two more seasons, posting a 9.12 ERA in 47 games, he showed flashes of brilliance throughout. During one 27 game stretch in 2008, he had a 1.32 ERA and walked just one batter.

The Mets look like fools, then, for trading them to the Padres on November 15, 2006 for outfielder Ben Johnson and relief pitcher Jon Adkins.

Johnson arrived with a decent power-speed pedigree, hitting 20-plus home runs twice in the minor leagues, and stealing 15 or more bases twice, as well.

Ben Johnson spent just 9 games with the Mets. (Wikipedia).

A fourth round draft pick in 1999, he was never ranked among the game’s best prospects, but he did have his moments in San Diego. In August and September 2006, he rattled of an 18 game stretch in which he slashed .353/.436/.618.

And Adkins, too, was a useful tool for a couple years. In ’06, he was one of the Padres’ primary relievers, appearing in 55 games. A couple seasons before, in 2004, he made 50 appearances for the White Sox.

But that was the past.

In total, they combined for 10 games played in New York, with Johnson hitting .185 in 27 at-bats and Adkins pitching a single inning—but hey, at least his ERA was 0.00.*

*Trivia break: A career Mets ERA of 0.00 has been accomplished 17 other times, first by Bob Johnson in 1969 and most recently by Todd Frazier in 2020. Dan Schatzeder had the longest Mets career with a 0.00 ERA (6 games); CJ Nitkowski ties him if you go by innings pitched (5 2/3).

New York cast them away following the 2007 campaign.

Granted, Bell underwhelmed in his three years with the Mets. In 81 games, he had a 4.92 ERA and allowed nearly 11 hits per nine innings on average. Heck, he was a former 69th-round pick and a 26-year-old rookie. Who could have predicted his future success?

Well, those who tracked him through the minors could have. Excluding his clunker seasons of 2001 and 2003, his minor league ERAs from 1998 to 2006 were, respectively: 2.54, 2.60, 2.55, 2.58, 3.12, 1.69 and 1.29. He averaged no less than 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings those years, and as many as 14.4.

And Ring was a former first round pick. He made the Futures Game in 2003. He had a 2.13 ERA for the Mets in 2006. 

In surrendering Bell and Ring, the Mets gave up a former top prospect and a future All Star.

They received almost nothing in return.

They traded gold for garbage.

He’s a future star! Just look at his first season! (Or, maybe not.)—pt. 2.

In a continuation of a piece I wrote a few days ago, let’s look at some more 21st century ballplayers who burst onto the stage in their first full seasons, only to flame out not long after.

It’s a plight that often affects relief pitchers.

Brayan Villarreal was the Tigers best reliever in 2012. (Wikipedia).

Former Tigers reliever Brayan Villarreal began his professional career as a starting pitcher and, in the early going, had some success. At Single A in 2009, he had 118 strikeouts in 103 1/3 innings to complement a 2.87 ERA; the next year, he Ked 136 batters in 129 1/3 frames.

But the wheels fell off when he reached Triple A in 2011, as his ERA rocketed to 5.05 and his K/9 ratio fell to 5.5. When he earned a big league promotion—and, despite his poor showing, he did get the call that year—Detroit placed him in the bullpen and he struggled again, posting a 6.75 ERA in 16 games.

The script flipped in 2012, however, and Villarreal became the Tigers’ most lights-out reliever. In 50 appearances, he posted a 2.63 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 54 2/3 innings and he allowed just 38 hits; his ERA+ was 162, even better than that of Justin Verlander. No other relief pitcher on the club with at least 20 appearances had an ERA under 3.50. Only one, Joaquin Benoit, had more strikeouts.

But control issues hampered him. He averaged 4.6 walks per nine innings in 2012. And the scourge followed him into the next season—not even a midseason trade to the Red Sox, an enormous deal that involved the likes of Jake Peavy, Avisail Garcia, Jose Iglesias and Frankie Montas, could save him. Between the two clubs, he made just 8 appearances and lasted only 4 1/3 innings. He surrendered 10 earned runs on 9 walks and 8 hits, for an ERA of 20.77. And that was it for Villarreal.

*In an improbable twist, the only other Brayan in big league history, catcher Brayan Pena, played at the same time as Villarreal. Even more unlikely—they were teammates in 2013, and fate so aligned it that Brayan the catcher caught Brayan the pitcher just once, on April 17.

Despite a great rookie season, Zach Braddock lasted just two years in the majors. (Wikipedia).

Two seasons earlier, the Brewers’ Zach Braddock came out of nowhere to help anchor that struggling team’s bullpen. Like Villarreal, he was a strikeout ace in the minors and that skill followed him to the big league stage.

Debuting at 22 years old, he appeared in 46 games in 2010 and posted a 2.94 ERA, while striking out 41 batters in 33 2/3 innings. Overshadowed by star closer John Axford and fellow reliever Kameron Loe, Braddock’s performance was largely unsung.

But he, too, walked too many batters, averaging 5.1 free passes per nine innings. They haunted him into 2011, as he surrendered 11 in 17 1/3 innings, helping elevate his ERA to 7.25. Though he was signed by a couple big league clubs and bounced around indy ball for a few years, he never pitched in the majors again.

After an underwhelming, hitless cup of coffee in 2003, Athletics shortstop Bobby Crosby burst onto the scene the next season, slugging 22 home runs with 64 RBI, 34 doubles and 130 hits. Beating out names like Zack Greinke and Alex Rios, he won the American Rookie of the Year.

Poised for a repeat performance in 2004, Crosby slashed .276/.346/.456—all better numbers than the prior year—but played only 84 games.

Bobby Crosby spent eight years in the big leagues. (Wikipedia).

Though he spent five more seasons in the majors, Crosby never reclaimed his glory and hit just .229 with 31 home runs in 501 games the rest of the way. But, perhaps it’s not too surprising, after all. Even in his rookie campaign, he batted just .239.

To a degree, Crosby just followed in his father’s footsteps. The elder Crosby, Ed, was also a shortstop who arrived with a bang—well, relatively—and left with a whimper. In his first campaign, 1970, he hit .253 in 38 games as a 21-year-old for the Cardinals. Returning to the minors for 1971, he resurfaced with St. Louis in 1972 and spent five more seasons in the majors, hitting only .215. Ed Crosby was the consummate defense-first shortstop—in 677 career at-bats, he didn’t hit a single home run and stole only 1 base.

In Bobby’s defense, he—like his father—was primarily defense-minded. Though he committed his share of errors, as many as 19 in a season, his .971 fielding percentage at shortstop ranks among the best all-time.

But that doesn’t make fans forget his breakout 2004 campaign.

While most players fade away soon after their stars fall, others trudge along for years, trying to right themselves and regain respectability. Sometimes it works, but for many of them, they just become every day, painful reminders of what could have been.  

Random notes and musings from the world of baseball, August 21, 2021.

Jacob deGrom’s injury woes, I fear, are just beginning. (Wikipedia).

Told you so: I recently did a piece predicting the downfall of Mets ace Jacob deGrom. He has all the makings of a pitcher who will decline soon and fall fast. Well, guess who just got transferred to the 60-day injured list with right forearm tightness? You guessed it: Jacob deGrom.

Not making it easy: Cardinals pitcher Jon Lester started the season just 7 wins away from 200 for his career. It’s been a tough road to the milestone, as he’s gone just 4-6 with a 5.46 ERA in 20 starts this year, putting him still 3 wins away. When (if?) he gets there, he’ll join Justin Verlander (226) and Zack Greinke (219) as the only two active pitchers with 200 or more victories. Max Scherzer is 15 away.

Maybe it’s not so bad: Ervin Santana has been one win away from 150 … since 2017!

Power on hold: Brewers outfielder Tyrone Taylor doesn’t hit for a high average and he strikes out a lot, but he is a nice player to have around. In the past month, he’s slugged .523 and on the year, he has 10 home runs in just 212 at-bats. Before 2019, his debut season, he was more of a speedster than a slugger, having never hit more than 9 homers in a minor league campaign, while stealing as many as 23 bags. But the Taylor power surge is on hold, for the time being at least, as he’s heading to the injured list with an oblique injury. He might be out a month.

Vesia’s turning heads: Dodgers reliever Alex Vesia impressed no one in his 2020 cup of coffee with the Marlins, posting an 18.69 ERA in 4 1/3 innings. That’s all water under the bridge now. In 28 innings this season, he’s struck out 37 batters and allowed just 9 hits, to the tune of a 2.57 ERA. Over the past month, he has a 0.71 ERA in 12 games; the Dodgers won 8 of those in which he appeared.

Gardner’s got it: Outfielder Brett Gardner hasn’t been too effective this year and has largely been a disappointment since his resurgent 2019, but he’s managed a tidy 5-for-18 line with 4 walks and just 2 strikeouts in his past few games. Every little bit helps as the Yankees vie for the wild card and, perhaps, first place in the AL East.

Watching White: As reported yesterday, pitcher Mitch White was demoted to the minor leagues to make roster space for Victor Gonzalez. Let’s see how long it takes for the Dodgers to regret that decision—he owns a 2.25 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 24 Triple A innings this year. He might be back sooner than we think.

Despite his struggles, Aroldis Chapman is still one of the top closers in the game. (Wikipedia).

Milestone watch: Struggling Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman is just one save away from 300. Only two other active hurlers have that many: Craig Kimbrel (371) and Kenley Jansen (338).

A nifty feat: Relievers Jake McGee and Andrew Miller each recently passed 600 career relief appearances. It’s an especially positive achievement for Miller—after being one of the game’s top relief pitchers from 2013 to 2017, he hasn’t had much to celebrate since. His ERA during his peak: 1.82. Since: 4.26.

K kings: Kyle Gibson and Craig Kimbrel each recently passed 1,000 career strikeouts. Kimbrel averages nearly 15 strikeouts per nine innings pitched; Gibson … half that. If Kimbrel pitched as many innings as Nolan Ryan, he’d have nearly 9,000 for his career!

Other milestones: Carlos Carrasco recently started his 200th career game, while Kenley Jansen recorded his 500th game finished. And, yeah, they keep track of these things: Max Scherzer faced his 10,000th batter.

I remember: Remember when Astros reliever Ken Giles punched himself in the face? And remember when Indians closer Chris Perez vomited on the mound?

Heath Hembree hopes to regain his footing in New York. (Wikipedia).

Mets claim Hembree: Now they’re getting desperate. The Mets claimed relief pitcher Heath Hembree off waivers from the Reds. Five years ago, this would have been a decent move, but the pitcher has a 6.38 ERA in 45 appearances this season, and, worse still, his mark was 9.00 in 22 games in 2020. Hembree was once a solid hurler, posting a 3.25 ERA and 138 ERA+ for the Red Sox from 2015 to 2017, but the Mets have a knack for signing relievers once their best seasons are past—see Dellin Betances, Trevor Hildenberger and Jacob Barnes this year as examples. The silver lining: Hembree’s been a strikeout ace, K-ing 68 batters in 42 1/3 innings—that’s 14.5 per 9 frames—in 2021.

A weird claim to fame: In 1993, Seattle Mariners relief pitcher Erik Plantenberg made 20 appearances—and threw only 9 2/3 innings. In fact, he holds the record for most games in a season with less than 10 frames tossed. He also holds the dubious record of having the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio of any post World War II pitcher (min. 20 appearances). He walked 12 batters and struck out only 3, for a K/BB ratio of 0.25. Before him, the last hurler to have a mark that bad was Walt Masterson in 1939. If you go back to 1927, you’ll find Ted Wingfield, who had 27 walks … to just 1 strikeout … in 74 2/3 innings!

Not a modern invention: From 1947 to 1952, there existed a minor league team in Enterprise, Ala. nicknamed the Boll Weevils. Actually, multiple clubs have shared that nickname: Kannapolis, N.C., Dothan, Ala., Temple, Texas and Graceville, Fla. each fielded a team so named. And you thought weird team nicknames were a product of the modern age (don’t get me started on the one from Canon City, Colorado).

They don’t sign like they used to: For the autograph collectors out there, let’s go back in time. In 2009, I received through-the-mail autographs from names like Billy Wagner, Adam Wainwright and Joey Votto. Granted, Votto might have been a secretarial signature, but the point remains the same: Nowadays, you can barely get anyone—let alone stars like that!

Studs and duds: August 14 – August 20

The week of August 14 to August 20 saw many hot performances from the likes of Freddie Freeman, Luke Voit, Max Fried and Nestor Cortes. Were any of them good enough to earn their man the title of Stud? Let’s see …

Freddie Freeman is leading the league with 90 runs and 235 total bases. (Wikipedia).

Offensive stud: Freddie Freeman (1B, Braves). Freeman narrowly edges Max Muncy, going 14-for-26 with 3 home runs, 7 RBI and 8 runs scored in the past week. His slash line of .538/.600/1.038 and OPS of 1.638 are a big reason the Braves are surging right now—they’re now 10 games over .500 and 4 games up in the National League East. For Freeman’s part, his run brings his season average to .300—not too shabby, considering it was in the .220s in June.

Honorable mention: Max Muncy (IF, Dodgers; .318/.423/1.045 BA/OBP/SLG, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 8 R).

Offensive dud: Gavin Lux (IF, Dodgers). Now we’re just piling on. He’s held this title for four straight days. It doesn’t help that Los Angeles isn’t playing him, but that’s part of the reason he’s still here. His performance (0-for-6, 2 E) was so anemic, the Dodgers are afraid to put him on the field.

Dishonorable mention: Anthony Santander (OF, Orioles; 1-for-20, 10 K).

Pitching stud: Max Fried (SP, Braves). All the Braves stars are cranking right now. Like Freeman above, Fried started out the season poorly, posting a 6.55 ERA through his first five starts and into July, his ERA was 4.71. But that’s all in the past now: Last night, Fried tossed a complete game shutout and has allowed just 1 run and no walks over his past 15 innings. When Fried pitches, the Braves win—since 2019, he’s 35-13, a .729 winning percentage. Last year, he didn’t lose a single start, going 7-0 and finishing 5th in Cy Young voting.

Jorge Lopez should get used to wearing that minor league uniform again. (Wikipedia).

Honorable mention: Walker Buehler (SP, Dodgers; 2-0 W-L, 14 2/3 IP, 18 K, 3 BB).

Pitching dud: Jorge Lopez (SP, Orioles). Lopez holds an 18.56 ERA over the past week, so it’ll be difficult for him to shed this title. In 5 2/3 innings, he surrendered 11 runs on 13 hits and 4 walks—but on the bright side (?) only two of those hits were home runs. Since late July, his ERA is 8.84.

Dishonorable mention: Adam Ottavino (RP, Red Sox; 1 1/3 IP, 3 BB, 2 WP, 1 HBP, 6.75 ERA).

Article from the archives—Former top prospect Chris Lubanski: Forgotten first rounder now toiling in indy ball

Chris Lubanski hasn’t played professionally since 2011. This piece is from that year.

***

Eight years ago, in 2003, the Kansas City Royals drafted a highly-touted outfielder out of Kennedy-Kenrick Catholic High School in Norristown, Pennsylvania named Chris Lubanski.

Nearly a decade later, that once top-prospect is still toiling in the minor leagues, though he is no longer on any affiliated team—rather, he is exhibiting his craft with the Chico Outlaws of the independent North American League.

It would be unfair to say that Lubanski fizzled in the minors like so many prospects do. In his first professional season, 2003, he hit .326 and in 2005, he slugged 28 home runs while driving 116 runners home. As recently as 2007, he was named the fourth-best prospect in the Royals farm system by Baseball America.

In 2007, he hit .259 with 15 home runs for two teams—not awful as a whole, but he hit just .208 in 49 games for the Royals Triple-A club in Omaha.

The following season, his struggles continued at the highest level of minor league baseball, as he hit only .242. In 2009, he hit .272 overall … but only .227 at Omaha.

But you said he didn’t fizzle, you’re thinking. Well, he really didn’t.

In fact, in 2010 he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and spent the entire season with their Triple-A team, the Las Vegas 51s. That year, he hit .293 with 17 home runs and 57 RBI in only 100 games. He finished third on the team in home runs, behind Brett Wallace’s 18 and J.P. Arencibia’s 32.

2010 was a career renaissance for Lubanski, who had, from 2007 to 2009, seemingly lost his way. But, unfortunately, bad news and bad luck followed Lubanski after his comeback year.

He became a free agent following the season, was signed to a minor league contract by the Florida Marlins and—despite his resurgent 2010—was released before the 2011 season began. And no new major league team came knocking.

Lubanski was never a bad player. He showed plus speed and plus power at all minor league levels and, as proven by his 2010 season, showed that he could bounce back well from extended struggles.

And yet, that call from the big league club never came. He fell victim to a curse that befalls too many minor leaguers: Though he performed well at the lower levels, he faded when it really, really counted. And when he got his career back on track, it was too little, too late.

So today, Lubanski no longer plays in any major league organization. Today, he plays for an independent team, the Chico Outlaws, with whom he is hitting .284 with two home runs in 24 games.

And that call to the majors that this former top prospect was sure to receive at some point, eventually, one year, becomes more and more distant, and more and more of just a dream.

***

Lubanski was signed by the Philadelphia Phillies in August 2011 and spent 19 games with their Double-A club. He hit .189 to end his professional career.