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By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
In three years as a coach, Mark McGwire has achieved something he long wanted: he’s just a guy doing his best to help the team win. McGwire does his work — quite successfully the past two seasons — and stays out of the spotlight.
Even with a move from St. Louis to Los Angeles, the famously private McGwire is no longer a star attraction for reporters. He was a huge story when he was hired by the Cardinals prior to the 2010 season, but with each passing year his profile has lowered.
That McGwire made the move from the place where he is most beloved tells a lot about the former slugger. McGwire, now the Dodgers’ hitting coach, chose to be close to his family rather than remain in Cardinals country, where he remains an icon.
McGwire’s lower profile as a coach coincides with him no longer being the near lock for enshrinement in Cooperstown that he appeared to be 10 years ago. Then again, he’s also no longer the lightning rod that he was two years ago after admitting to steroid use.
These days, the iconic slugger is one of many names under consideration, so far receiving more than enough support to stay on the ballot but not enough to put himself in the picture for future induction. Entering his seventh year on the Hall of Fame ballot, the question is whether McGwire will start the kind of climb that could get him into the Hall by the time his allotted 15 years on the ballot are up.
McGwire, who retired as the No. 5 home run hitter of all time (he’s now 10th), looked like he could be headed for Cooperstown immortality when he called it a career following the 2001 season. Since then, the subject of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball became a front-burner issue, and McGwire was the first casualty in Hall of Fame voting.
When McGwire returned to the game to be the Cardinals’ hitting coach in 2010, he repeatedly apologized for his use of steroids. Although some argued that he didn’t go far enough, McGwire came forward in a way that few of his contemporaries have. And yet he stepped backward, rather than forward, in the voting.
The 2011 results — the first after his public admission — saw McGwire receive a lower vote total and vote percentage than in any of his previous years on the ballot. McGwire received 115 votes, 19.8 of the electorate, after holding steady at 21 percent or more in his first four years. He dropped slightly again in 2012, to 112 votes, good for 19.5 percent. That was the 10th-highest total among last year’s candidates.
His first time around, “Big Mac” was named on 23.5 percent of ballots, ranking ninth among all candidates. McGwire’s second year on the ballot, 2008, saw virtually the same result. Once again he finished ninth in the balloting. He received 128 votes, or 23.6 percent.
In McGwire’s third year as a candidate, his vote total and percentage both dropped, but he bounced back. In the 2010 balloting, McGwire once again returned to exactly 128 votes, which this time was good for 23.7 percent of the vote. Then he dropped off in ’11, and a little more in 2012.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from eligible Baseball Writers’ Association of America members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Barry Larkin was the only BBWAA inductee in 2012, receiving 86.4 percent of the vote. Jack Morris (66.7 percent in 2012), Jeff Bagwell (56.0 percent) and Lee Smith (50.6 percent) are the top returning vote-getters from last year’s ballot.
The odds for McGwire grow longer in 2013 because of an influx of prominent names on the ballot. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza all are on the ballot for the first time. Voters are permitted to support no more than 10 players, so the addition of qualified candidates affects the vote totals of holdover players.
During his playing career, McGwire admitted taking androstenedione, a steroid precursor, but nothing stiffer than that. In January 2010, he stepped forward, admitting to steroid use and apologizing for it. McGwire staunchly maintained that his statistics were not inflated by his use of the drugs, but his contrition was hard to miss.
“I wanted to talk about this five years ago, but I wasn’t in position to do it,” McGwire said after his nationally televised admission. “I think everybody that’s a human being has held something in that they wanted to release for quite some time. … I’m ready to turn the page and move on with my life. It’s something that I totally regret. I can’t say that I’m sorry enough to everybody in baseball and across America, whoever watches this great game.”
As a player, McGwire was a true offensive force and, perhaps, an under-appreciated fielder. He was a 12-time All-Star, a Gold Glove winner in 1990 and he finished in the top 10 in Most Valuable Player balloting five times.
He ranks eighth all-time in slugging percentage, 10th in home runs and first in at-bats per home run. McGwire played on six playoff teams, three pennant winners and the 1989 World Series-champion A’s. His .263 career batting average argues against induction, but by most other numbers, his was indisputably a Hall of Fame career.
“For me, there isn’t anything that’s changed about, No. 1, how much I believe in him, and No. 2, what that means as far as his career and his production and some of the historic things he did,” said Tony La Russa, who managed McGwire in both Oakland and St. Louis. “I’m hoping that he gets that honor sooner rather than later.”
When McGwire made his full-season debut in 1987 for a young and emerging Oakland team, he was a phenomenon, hitting 49 homers, most of them mammoth and majestic. He drew 71 walks, showing the strike-zone judgment that would be nearly as much a part of his profile as his power. And he did while playing his home games in a brutal hitter’s ballpark several years before the offensive explosion of the 1990s.
McGwire followed that up with 32, 33 and 39 homers for the pennant-winners from 1988-90, then struggled badly in ’91. A rebound brought 42 homers in ’92, but McGwire battled injuries throughout ’93 and ’94.
When McGwire returned healthy in 1995, though, he was a force like never before. He hit for a higher average than he had in the past. He drew even more walks. And he hit homers at a rate even he hadn’t previously managed. From 1995-2000 — his last really effective season — McGwire went deep 316 times, an average of once every 8.06 at-bats.
McGwire was a dominating force in the lineup until injuries finally took him down. He struggled through 2001 before hanging it up at age 38.
Lee Smith hasn’t yet made it into the Hall of Fame. But if Cooperstown has a “green room,” a stand-by parlor until your formal entrance cue, Large Lee made it through those doors last year, his 10th on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot.
A year ago, Smith finally became a Hall of Famer-elect. Either that, or he became Gil Hodges — the late first-base great who, through the first 75 years of balloting, remains the only one to ever get more than 50 percent of the votes and never reach the 75 percent required for induction.
Smith crossed that promising threshold for the first time last year, at 50.6 percent. Rather than become the next Hodges — who was repeatedly stonewalled in the 50-63.4 percent range between 1971-83 — Smith hopes to become the next Goose Gossage or the next Bruce Sutter, fellow trailblazing closers whose plaques already adorn the Hall of Fame’s walls.
The long wait used to puzzle Smith; to an extent, probably still does. But it has also made him appreciate more the privilege of possibly joining baseball’s Valhalla, having given him time to reflect on the company of peers waiting for him.
“Just to be mentioned for the Hall, alongside guys like Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and so many others. … Man, that’s incredible,” Smith said.
In 2003, in his first year of eligibility, the onetime and longtime holder of the career saves record drew 42.3 percent of the votes, and he remained in that respectable zone until cracking the 50-percent ceiling.
So, unless voters choose to dismiss one of the modern game’s trendsetters, Smith’s likeness will eventually find its way into Cooperstown’s Plaque Room.
Since 1964, only five men have held the career saves record longer than for one fleeting year.
Two of them — Hoyt Wilhelm and Rollie Fingers — are already in the Hall of Fame. Two others — Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera — are certain to join them as soon as they become ballot-eligible.
Then there is Smith, who held that record from 1993 until being passed by Hoffman in 2006 — three years after he had first landed on the ballot. During Smith’s fruitless candidacy, the perceived cold shoulder to relief pitchers has warmed up with the elections of Dennis Eckersley (in 2004), Sutter (’06) and Gossage (’08).
And the man who once seemed destined to be the one to throw open Cooperstown’s doors for closers would be more than thrilled to follow his peers across the door sill.
“To see Goose and Rollie and Sutter going in now, that’s going to help us relievers out a whole lot,” Smith has noted.
A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote from BBWAA members to gain election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Shortstop Barry Larkin (86.4 percent) was the lone 2012 inductee, while pitcher Jack Morris (66.7 in his 13th year of eligibility) and infielder Jeff Bagwell (56) were the only near-misses to score higher than Smith.
Even in the fickle world of Hall of Fame certification, the rejection of Smith, who turns 55 in the first week of December, has been interesting. He was so dominant for so long that, in 1995, he was singled out by the respected columnist Jim Murray as the active player most likely to make it to Cooperstown.
As it turned out, 14 others active at that time have beaten Smith through baseball’s pearly gates.
If a new trail has indeed been blazed, few belong in the footsteps of Sutter and Gossage more than the 6-foot-6, 240-pound jovial giant whose 478 saves survived as the career record until September 2006. His loss of the all-time mark has been viewed as the leading plank of Smith’s heretofore unsuccessful Hall campaigns.
So it would be ironic for him to gain entry without that distinction. Yet, there is no denying the encouraging precedent set in the recent elections of Sutter and Gossage who, incidentally, between them combined for only 132 more saves than Smith alone logged during his 18 seasons.
Both Sutter — elected in his 13th year on the ballot — and Gossage — affirmed in his ninth year — began their candidacies with lower support than had Smith.
Smith and other closers have been dealt a unique hand by the modern proliferation of their specialty. While perspective tends to raise appreciation for past players’ performances, in the case of closers, each season appears to dilute their accomplishments.
Putting up 30 saves just isn’t as big of a deal as it was in 1984, when Smith broke that barrier for the first of 10 times. In ’84, six other big league closers notched 30-plus saves; in a typical season in the current era, that number triples (an average of 17 have accomplished the feat over the past five seasons).
“They claim it’s an easy job,” Smith once remarked, “talking about how guys now are only pitching one inning. I wish you could get all the guys that vote one opportunity to pitch the ninth inning and let ’em see how tough a job it was.”
And few have done that job as consistently as did the soft-speaking Louisiana native, who went 12 seasons between his first 30-save season and his last (1995).
That extended success is also part of Smith’s handicap. He isn’t recalled as an impact reliever. Thus, contemporaries Sutter and Gossage, whose heydays were more concentrated, were widely regarded as more deserving of enshrinement. Smith’s have-hammer-will-travel career keeps him from being identified with any particular team, creating another image problem. He logged saves for eight teams.
Yet, until recently, Smith held the career saves record for two of those teams, both among the most storied franchises in the game. He still holds the Cubs’ record of 180, and also had the Cardinals’ mark until Jason Isringhausen notched his 161st save for St. Louis on June 13, 2006. This is noteworthy, also, because those were Sutter’s primary teams as well.
For someone who supposedly lacked impact, Smith certainly had his dominant years. During one six-year stretch (1985-90), he averaged more than one strikeout per inning each season, with 580 total punchouts in 509 frames during that span. Gossage, reputed to be the fire-breathing flamethrower of his era, did that in only four of his 23 seasons.
Smith supporters love to point out that when he notched his first save, in 1981, the career record was 272, a number he would surpass by more than 200. And that old lifetime mark was held by Fingers, who was recognized for it by being inducted into the Hall of Fame on his second time on the ballot (after a near-miss as a rookie candidate).
But Smith presented a compelling argument that lasted 18 seasons, during which he appeared in 1,022 games — most of which ended with him throwing the last pitch. He held another Major League record for most games finished — 802 — until it was surpassed late in the 2009 season by Hoffman, who in ’11 was himself overtaken by Rivera.
Considering that Smith either saved or won more than half of the games in which he appeared (549, to be exact), the good comfortably outweighed the bad. Does he have one more good finish in him?
“You always wonder if you don’t make it in the first five or six years,” Smith said. “Hopefully, people remember you and you don’t fall out of favor.”
That hope was realized by Sutter and Gossage, so one of these years, Lee could be living large, too.
By Bernie Pleskoff
There’s much to like about St. Louis Cardinals second-base prospect Kolten Wong.
I saw Wong play in the Futures Game last July in Kansas City as well as during the recently concluded Arizona Fall League.
Wong had an outstanding career at Kamehameha Hawaii High School in Kea’au Hawaii.
As well as being a top scholar, Wong played baseball and football and was named the 2008 state co-baseball player of the year. He hit an amazing .660 as a senior. In fact, he never hit below .500 in any of his four years playing high school baseball.
Following high school, Wong’s play earned him a selection in the 16th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft by the Minnesota Twins.
Deciding instead to attend the University of Hawaii, Wong had an outstanding collegiate career. He earned countless awards and recognition playing in the infield, the outfield and even as a catcher.
The Cardinals made Wong the 22nd overall player selected in the 2011 Draft. He was chosen as a second baseman, the position he played most frequently at the University of Hawaii. He is currently ranked by MLB.com as the No. 4 prospect in the Cardinals’ organization.
For me, Wong is currently an offense-first second baseman. That is not to say he can’t play solid defense. Rather, it is to say that the offensive part of his game is currently more advanced.
Wong is 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. He bats left-handed while throwing right-handed.
The recently turned 22-year-old Wong is strong and agile. He makes the most of every inch and pound of his frame. However, his physical development may be complete, offering very little opportunity to add much additional weight in the form of muscle and strength.
Physically, Wong reminds me of Chicago Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney. Barney is an inch taller and five pounds lighter. Their games are similar as well.
Wong has a very short, quiet, compact swing. He has very little movement prior to the pitch. Rather, he concentrates on recognizing pitches early and swinging at those pitches he feels he can handle.
Wong sees the ball very well out of the pitcher’s hand. His concentration and patience help allow him to take pitchers deep into favorable hitter counts. That skill has resulted in a very good contact rate.
Having the ability to consistently put the bat on the ball as well as being able to accept walks help profile Wong as a top of the batting order hitter. He should be able to get on base and score runs.
In parts of two seasons of Minor League Baseball, Wong has a composite batting average of .300. He has played for Class A Quad Cities and Double-A Springfield. Wong’s composite on-base percentage is a very strong .363.
While Wong does not possess game-breaking power, he does have enough pop in his bat to hit his share of home runs or drive the ball to the gaps. He will hit enough long drives to require defenses to play deeply enough to avoid giving up the easy extra-base hit.
Wong’s good bat control allows him to take pitches deep and see the pitch long enough to drive the ball exactly where it is pitched. He is rarely out front on pitches, thereby avoiding hitting countless foul balls to right field, his pull side. His eye-hand coordination is another one of his outstanding hitting qualities.
More often than not, I have seen Wong’s base hits come from spraying the ball on a line to all fields or just over the head of the second baseman.
In the Arizona Fall League this past season, Wong hit a very respectable .324 with one home run and 12 RBIs. He stole five bases, but he was caught stealing three times. Like he has done in his Minor League career to date, he had an outstanding on-base percentage of .342.
While hitting for average is probably Wong’s most advanced tool, he also has the ability to run well and potentially steal bases.
Smart and solid running the bases, Wong has good instincts and realizes risks he can take and risks to avoid. This past season he stole 21 bases, but he was caught 11 times. He has the speed and athletic ability, but he needs better base-stealing technique. He has to refine his ability to “read” pitchers.
Defensively, Wong is probably Major League average at second base. That’s the only position I’ve seen him play.
In the Arizona Fall League, Wong had 94 chances at second base and made three errors.
Wong may “think” too much on defense as opposed to acting on his instincts and reacting naturally.
His first step is rather slow to both sides, impacting his overall range. In addition, he has a bit of a delay coming in on short-hop grounders in front of him.
I have seen a strong and accurate arm as well as good footwork on the turn of the double play.
Some scouts I have spoken with think he may be best suited as a center fielder or catcher. To the contrary, while I don’t think he’ll become Robbie Alomar, I do think he will continue to improve as a second baseman. I would not change his position at this time.
Of the players I saw this past fall in Arizona, Wong was among a handful I felt were closest to finishing their baseball skill development. He may, indeed, find himself in St. Louis before the 2013 season concludes.
Wong could prove to be a good table-setter at the top of the order for the Cardinals’ power hitters.
Players like Kolten Wong, with the ability to make contact, hit for high average, bunt, accept walks and execute the hit-and-run provide the impetus for the main objective of the game — scoring runs.
By Jenifer Langosch and Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
Ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, the Cardinals added four players to their 40-man roster to protect them from being selected in next month’s Rule 5 Draft.
St. Louis purchased the contracts of right-handed pitchers Michael Blazek, Keith Butler and Eric Fornataro and left-hander Kevin Siegrist. All four players ended the 2012 season at Double-A Springfield.
Major League Baseball’s deadline to protect players was Tuesday at 10:59 p.m. CT. Players first signed at age 18 must be added to 40-man rosters within five years or they become eligible to be drafted by other organizations through the Rule 5 process. Players signed at 19 years old are to be protected within four years.
Clubs pay $50,000 to select a player in the Rule 5 Draft, to be held on Dec. 6 at the conclusion of the Winter Meetings in Nashville. If that player doesn’t stay on the 25-man roster for the full season, he must be offered back to his former team for $25,000.
With the additions, the Cardinals’ 40-man roster is at 39 players.
Blazek, ranked by MLB.com as the Cardinals’ No. 13 prospect, spent the majority of the 2012 season at Springfield, where he posted a 4.16 ERA in 40 appearances (seven starts). He also made two appearances with Triple-A Memphis, including one start.
A 35th-round selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, Blazek transitioned into a relief role this season after pitching primarily as a starter in previous years.
Fornataro, ranked No. 17, moved into a bullpen role in 2012. That helped boost his velocity into the upper-90s.
Fornataro, 24, made 57 appearances and posted a 2.39 ERA with Springfield. In addition to recording five saves, Fornataro collected 41 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings. He was particularly tough against right-handed batters.
Butler, 23, led Springfield with 25 saves, finishing second in the Texas League, and he was 5-1 with a 2.76 ERA in 53 appearances — all in relief. He was the Cardinals’ 24th-round selection in the 2009 Draft.
Siegrist just wrapped up a stint in the Arizona Fall League, where he went 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA in six games (five starts) for the Surprise Saguaros. The lefty struck out 27 and walked just six in 19 innings. The time in Arizona helped Siegrist make up innings that he missed during the regular season due to time on the disabled list with a shoulder strain.
The 23-year-old Siegrist split the season between Class A-Advanced and Double-A and finished with a combined 2.77 ERA.
The Atlanta Braves haven’t lost when Kris Medlen starts a game in more than two years.
The Braves hope that trend continues on Friday when they host the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in the first-ever one-game National League wild card game at Turner Field.
“It’s only one game,” Braves outfielder Martin Prado said. “It can go real good or (stink). The only thing we can control there is to play the same game we’ve been playing all year.”
Under the new format the two wild card teams will play one game with the winner advancing to the NLDS and hosting the NL East champion Washington Nationals in the first two games of the best-of-five set starting Sunday.
Atlanta’s epic collapse last September allowed the Cardinals to overcome a 9 1/2-game wild card deficit, paving the way for their 11th World Series title. This year, though, it’s been a different story for the Braves, who were 20-10 down the stretch and claimed the NL’s first wild card spot with a 94-68 record.
A big reason for that success has been the emergence of Medlen.
Since making the conversion from reliever to starter in late July, Medlen has pitched to a 0.97 ERA and the team has won each of the past 23 games he has started dating back to May 29, 2010.
“It’s your goal to win the game, no matter how,” Medlen said. “Like I said, this whole year it’s not me by myself. I’ve given up four or five runs in a start and guys just pull it out for me. My name is in the books or whatever, but it’s a team thing. I didn’t do it all by myself. That’s for sure.”
He was 10-1 overall this year with a 1.57 ERA.
Medlen, who missed most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, has faced the Cardinals five times out of the bullpen, but this will be his first- ever start. However, St. Louis did reach him for three runs in 5 2/3 innings this season.
“I don’t think we could have gone wrong with (Tim Hudson or Medlen),” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “They’re good makeup guys and good guys that I think can handle that situation.”
The Braves will also have David Ross behind the plate rather than Brian McCann, who is dealing with a hamstring issue.
“I think going forward, I think Mack will catch, obviously in a longer series, a five-game series or a seven-game series if we get that far,” Gonzalez added.
Medlen will be opposed by right-handed veteran Kyle Lohse, who was 16-3 this season with a 2.86 ERA in 33 starts this year. His .842 winning percentage was tops in the majors and he set a career high with 211 innings pitched and ranked eighth in the majors with a 2.86 ERA.
Only two NL pitchers finished the year with more quality starts than Lohse’s 24.
“It feels real good to know that they trust me enough to go out there and pitch in a one-game playoff,” Lohse said. “That’s something you dream about as a kid. Now I get to go do it. I’ve had a good year. I feel like I’ve done everything I could this year to help get us in this position. I’ll do everything I’ve been doing to help win on Friday.”
Lohse allowed a season-high five earned runs and nine hits in just five innings on May 29 at Turner Field in his only start against the Braves this year.
“That was kind of a turning point for me that month,” Lohse said. “I figured out some things that I did incorrectly that game. I’ll make the adjustments I need to make and go out there and have a good plan.”
From that point on, though, Lohse won nine of his next 10 decisions and made 10 straight quality starts and only the New York Mets’ R.A. Dickey posted a lower ERA in the NL.
It was a year of adjustments for the Cardinals, who went into this season with a new manager in Mike Matheny following the retirement of Tony La Russa, and without three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols, who bolted to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a free agent.
St. Louis for the most part did not skip a beat, winning just two games less than last season, and still finished 88-74. Although, it wasn’t quite the furious finish they needed last year, the Cardinals still won 12 of their final 16 games, but did not secure the second wild card spot until the second to last day of the season.
The Braves have won five of the six games played against the Cardinals this season.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with the game on Friday, because it’s a different environment,” Braves outfielder Michael Bourn said. “They’ll have the upper hand with the experience. But other than that, I think we’ll be just fine. I think everybody in here is looking forward to it.”
This will mark the fourth postseason meeting between the Cardinals and Braves. St. Louis swept Atlanta in the NL Championships Series in 1982 and the NLDS in 2000. In 1996, the Braves won an NLCS matchup, 4-3, to advance to the World Series.
The Braves have dropped six straight postseason series since winning a divisional playoff in 2001 and is 0-5 in elimination games at Turner Field.
Lost a bit in the hoopla of the wild card contest is the fact that this could be the final game in the great career of Braves’ third baseman Chipper Jones, who announced in spring training that this would be his final season.
Jones hit .287 this season – his highest mark since a league-leading .364 clip in 2008 – with 14 home runs and 62 RBI in 112 games.