It's Groundhog Day, and you know what that means ... it's time for 2004 pre-season nominations for the Annual Batter's Box Joaquin Andujar Award. The player who will eventually be awarded the 2005 Andujar will be the epitome, in retrospect, of a low-risk, high-reward transaction. (If those two sentences sound Bill Murray-esque Groundhog Day familiar, well they should.)
Batter's Box authors and readers are invited to cast their ballots for the top five pre-season candidates for the 2004 Andujar. Points will be tabulated on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis and balloting will conclude, after a second round of reminders, near the end of Spring Training, at which time the pre-season list will be published.
To win an Andujar ...
... a player must have signed as a free agent -- either a major or minor league contract or a Rule 5 acquisition is acceptable -- with a new team in the previous off-season. Players acquired via trade are not eligible. Players are also not eligible to win an Andujar if they have ever been named to a Major League All-Star Game roster or if they have never appeared in a major league game. Players signed as free agents from foreign professional leagues are also ineligible.
NOTE: once a player is released, traded or sold after the season starts, even if he was once eligible for the award, he is no longer eligible for that particular season's Andujar, under the 2004 Shane Spencer Rule.
In the 2003 contest, former Jay Esteban Loaiza edged out then-Brewer Scooter Podsednik, while last year Cleveland's Ronnie Belliard blew out Jeff Suppan and Glendon Rusch for the title. In retrospect, while neither Loaiza nor Belliard received much pre-season attention for the Andujar, both were the only eligible candidates to be named to that season's All-Star team -- something to keep an eye on for 2005.
The Andujar is named in honor of the legendary and quotable pitcher Joaquin Andujar, who won 127 games in 13 seasons with the Astros, Cardinals and Athletics -- and who once said, "There is one word in baseball that says it all, and that word is 'youneverknow.'"
That quote captures the spirit of the award, which honors the players who, looking back made fans shake their heads and say 'Wow, in baseball, you really never do know what's going to happen.'"
More than 100 players fitting the Andujar eligibility requirements have already switched teams this off-season, with more certainly to come. Let's see if we can't do a better job of pre-season projections than we did in '03 and '04, shall we?
There are certainly a number of familiar faces who may compete for this year's Andujar; third-time candidate John Halama travels to Boston to take another whack, while Royce Clayton, Chris Stynes, Henry Blanco, Chad Fox, Aaron Fultz, Mike Myers, Chris Hammond and Desi Relaford are among those who are making at least a second career appearance on the pre-season list of potential candidates.
Some of the questions that will need to be sorted out as we select this season's finalists and winner:
Can a Blue Jay finally win it, or at least make the list of finalists? Let's hear it for the bullpen, as Billy Koch, Scott Schoeneweis and Box favourite Spike Lundberg all have a shot.
Or maybe, like Loaiza, an ex-Jay, say Jason Kershner, Chris Gomez or even Terry Adams can step into the winner's circle?
Will the Red Sox put out a "Welcome Matt" for the 2005 Andujar? Two big free agent signings -- former closer Matt Mantei and brief Jay flirtation Matt Clement -- are eligible; neither has ever been an All-Star, for all the off-season fuss made. For that matter, neither has Pedro replacement Wade Miller, who might be as good a bet as any to string together 18 wins in 2005.
Before you object -- and in case you've forgotten -- the following players are among those switching teams this off-season who have, in fact, made an All-Star appearance at some point in their careers: Shawn Estes, Ricky Bottalico, Brian Jordan, B.J. Surhoff, Eric Milton, Rich Aurilia, Jermaine Dye, A.J. Pierzynski, Tony Womack, Russ Ortiz, Carl Pavano, Ben Grieve, Jon Lieber, Woody Williams, Aaron Sele, Tino Martinez, Mark Grudzielanek and Cristian Guzman. We want to avoid the ugliness of The Jose Lima Incident last fall, so if any other players listed here have made an All-Star team, please speak up!
While former Rookie of the Year Grieve is ineligible, there are a number of names you will recognize from the "Hey, wasn't he supposed to be a superduperstar?" files, including Ricky Ledee, Midre Cummings, Brandon Larson, Dee Brown, Jack Cust, Jaret Wright and Ryan Rupe. Can one of them fill unchecked promise at last?
Will another backstop "catch" everyone by surprise, like Texas' Rod Barajas, last season's mid-year Andujar leader, did in 2004? Be sure to speak up if you think it will be Kelly Stinnett, Sal Fasano, Einar Diaz, Bobby Estalella or Mike Matheny.
Is it fair that Adrian Beltre, who got that $500 billion dollar contract from Seattle, but has never made an All-Star team, is eligible for this award?
Will one of tje Andujar-eligible relief pitchers turn into this year's version of Danys Baez or Braden Looper? Not likely, but give a chance to Gabe White, Steve Kline, Tony Fiore, Jay Witasick, Steve Reed, Ben Weber, David Weathers, Danny Patterson and maybe the best of the lot, Dustin Hermanson and Antonio Alfonseca.
Or will some middle infielder, a la Belliard, run off with the Andujar for the second year in a row? Again, not likely, but don't put it past Lou Merloni, Craig Counsell, Enrique Wilson, Danny Klassen, Alfredo Amezaga, Jose Valentin, Wilson Delgado, Denny Hocking, Mark DeRosa or former nine-positions-in-one-game guy Shane Halter to give it their best shot. Not to mention Ricky Gutierrez, Pokey Reese, Alex Cora and David Eckstein, the latter now a member of the NL Champs.
There's a history with one-time 20-game winner Rick Helling (and former Rangers seem to thrive under Doug Melvin in Milwaukee), as well as "Mini-Pedro," Ramon Ortiz, off to Cincinnati; Dustan Mohr in Coors Field? Does this smell of Dante Bichette numbers? What about a guy who owns part of a no-hitter, Kent Mercker? Joe Randa hasn't been an All-Star? That's right. Orlando Hernandez has been a post-season wonder, but he has to get there first. Everybody loves a knuckleballer, and that means Steve Sparks.
If Tony Saunders does absolutely anything at all this year, does he win just because "YouNeverKnow" about coming back from two broken arms?
Seth Etherton in Oakland will never be Mark Mulder, and Jeff Liefer never quite fulfilled the power potential he had. Greg Colbrunn, another bat some Jay fans seemed to long for, will do his thing in Texas -- as will perhaps the off-season favorite, outfielder Richard Hidalgo, who moves across state from Houston after a brief fling in Flushing.
Looking for a darkhorse? It probably won't be Travis Driskill, but if the homer-prone righty can see the move from Coors Field to Minute Maid as a positive, he might just fill the spikes left empty by the aforementioned Wade Miller. But keep your eyes open for a guy who really is moving from a hitter's park to a pitcher's environs, wild but hard-throwing Colby Lewis, recovered from injury and on the move from Texas to Detroit. Reunited with Pudge Rodriguez, it's entirely possible that Lewis, just 12-13 in his career with a cumulative ERA+ of 72, could harness his command into an '03 Loaiza-like breakout season.
Who's YOUR darkhorse candidate?
Now, your challenge is simple: list your top five picks, in order, to win the Andujar this season. Your "votes" will be used to informally compile a pre-season watch list. Please feel free -- in fact, feel compelled, nay, required -- to add players to this list who are missing.
Mick Doherty's Ballot:
1. Richard Hidalgo
2. Dustan Mohr
3. John Halama (if only out of habit!)
4. Rick Helling
5. Colby Lewis